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Sir Henry Hawkins - Judge of The Queen's Bench 1876-1898

  • Category(s): Death Penalty Essays
  • Created on : 25 May 2015
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


The guiding hand of the Honourable Mr Justice Henry Hawkins later Lord Brampton is still felt in his beloved English Criminal Justice to this day – follow precedent and mercy and the Lord Chief himself.

1. His Character

This Judge loved the Turf and the Sporting Life including Fox Hunting, prize fighting and cricket before the days of television and the abolitionists. He was ennobled Lord Brampton by Queen Victoria on 1 January 1899, and became a member of the Privy Council (the Final Court of Appeal) which he attended for two years: 1899-1901. He had his own Jack Russell (named Jack) who perched on the Judicial Desk when he was sitting as a Judge, and so Sir Henry said Jack would bark if the witness or defendant lied! He must have picked upon his master’s response to that false testimony.

He was an old fashioned High Court Judge who came of the old school and was fiercely independent. He knew immediately if the civil party was “pulling the wool over his eyes”. No one could get past Sir Henry “Orkins” and his brother Judges. In those days the High Court Bench was united as it is today.

2. His Career before his High Court Judgeship and his Judicial Story

He was called to the Bar on 3 May 1843 by the Middle Temple. Sir Henry was an advocate first and foremost in his Bar years rather than a pleader on paper, but he studied under the famous Special Pleader Frederick Thompson and later George Butt who became a Queens Counsel but never an advocate. There was no Bar School for Sir Henry in the early 1840’s. He did go to the well known Public School: Bedford. His father was a leading Hertfordshire Solicitor and his mother a daughter of the Clerk of the Peace (Magistrates) for Bedfordshire. He had a good legal pedigree. He had no interest in the dead languages taught at Bedford School (the Classical education). It was modern Criminal and Civil Justice which enthused Sir Henry as a young man. These were the days in the early 1840’s when an accused could be hung for setting fire to a stack of corn aged 17 years. Sir Henry saw the tragic coffin of that deceased.

In the course of Sir Henry’s long Judicial and Barristerial career, justice was humanised and the law’s cruel severity mitigated as he admitted in his own words toward the end of his active life. Sir Henry Hawkins abhorred pomposity all his long life. He desired to protect innocent persons and explode hypocrisy. His sense of fairness was legendary amongst the English people who knew his, and those who feared the power of the English & Welsh Judiciary. Moreover Sir Henry had a quiet and subtle sense of humour, and was capable of gentleness and kind-heartedness. This was learned from Judges such as Baron Thesiger of the Exchequer Court. In those days several Senior Judges cultivated austerity. Sir Henry was more down to earth and of the people.

3. Trial by Jury

In Sir Henry’s day all significant civil actions and criminal cases at first instance were tried by Jury unless they were before the Justices of the Peace or the Quarter Sessions. I do not believe there was any County Court jurisdiction in the mid-19th Century. Thus all Sir Henry’s work at the Bar was as a Jury trial Counsel. He excelled and knew the exclamation: Such are the chances of trial by Jury!

Sir Henry Hawkins gives the example in his reminiscences of a case where the Jury refused to convict a man who had plainly murdered his parents (a most terrible murder as Sir Henry put it). When asked by the trial Judge why they acquitted, knowing the culprit was guilty and ought to have been hanged – the foreman said;

“That’s just it my lord – I assure you we had no doubt about the prisoner’s guilt, but we thought there had been deaths enough in his family lately, so gave him the benefit of the doubt.”

Few modern day Judges would dare to ask that question of the foreman or forewoman of the Jury even if the verdict demanded that enquiry.

4. The Sentence of Death

Even in Sir Henry’s day there were those arguing for the abolition of the Death Sentence. I quote from the sentences at the end of his reminiscences:

“Lastly I am strongly averse from abolishing the sentence of death in cases of deliberate murder. Even when the crime is committed under the influence of jealousy. I should take little pains to save the life of one who had cruelly and deliberately murdered another for the gratification of revenge or the purpose of robbery.”

R.M. Lamb Esq. says Hear! Hear! What refreshing clarity and honesty of thought. Sir Henry was on the High Court Bench trying Capital cases as a puisne Judge for 22 long years – He knew his task and carried it out properly during the seminal Disraeli and Gladstonian Administrations. The inhumane laws he never administered as the brutal transportations and hanging for stealing the likes of sheep, were phased out in the penal and social reforms 1840-1875. e.g. Earl Shaftesbury and the Quaker prison reformers such as Elizabeth Fry. We will never go back to those awful days. Sir Henry comes out strongly in favour of commutation and very limited periods of imprisonment for those “poor creatures who make away with their illegitimate offspring in the agony of their trouble and shame.” (Infanticide)

5. Conclusion

For Sir Henry Hawkins, and this is fundamental, some things do not alter: murder is murder and always will be murder. Do we go soft on those who kill wantonly? Do we support our Judges to sentence these men and women to death properly and justly? It is a crisis of will power. We are being put to the test by the party for shilly shallying. I draw upon the strength of Sir Henry’s career at the Bar as Queens Counsel in Capital Cases and his mastery of the role of a Queens Bench trial Judge in the assizes to reinforce my moral and social case for the return of hanging in our murder trials. If the trial Judge so decides on the death penalty in his discretion the defendant will pay that final penalty have no doubt.

Sir Henry was no “hanging Judge” nor will our 21st Century Judges of murder cases ever deserve that epithet. A true Judge in the line and spirit of Sir Henry must have the Death Sentence in his armoury, or he will have no breast plate or shield: Then he will go into “battle” without protection or guard. Some 130 years on from 1885 we should recover the mantle of the late 19th Century regime of Capital Punishment for murder and related crimes, but subject to these improvements of our modern practice:

Trial by Judge alone for these offences.
Discretionary sentences of death for murders and associated crimes alone.
An automatic right of Appeal to the full Court of Appeal (Criminal Division), if sentence of death is passed on that sentence itself.
The executive may not interfere once sentence of death is passed, I argue and propose.

We should give back to our Judges the ultimate sentence removed from them in 1968. To neglect to do so over the next 5-10 years would be to leave our Criminal Judiciary gravely exposed to passing sentences of no real effect on murderers and their lackeys. Sir Henry and his fellow Judges never faced such judicial imprecision and lack of impact. If we do not empower our Judges of England & Wales our own peoples will be at the mercy of these murderers, lawbreakers and their henchmen.

I for one will not stand for such arrogant purveyors of disarray ruling the roost. Those who heed my rallying cry and follow my lead will not be dismayed. I say do not doubt the resolve of our English & Welsh people.