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The Career of the Rt. Hon. Mr Justice Travers Humphreys (1889-1951)

  • Category(s): Death Penalty Essays
  • Created on : 18 April 2015
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


A High Court Judge of the Old School who began to practise in the Victorian era and his Judicial term of office nearly saw out George VI. He epitomised sincerity with the unflinching Judicial character of the Judges who knew Capital Trials well at first hand.

1. Starting point:

I should immediately add that Sir Travers was raised to the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1940 having become a Judge of our then Kings Bench Division in 1928. He was called to the Bar in 1889 and therefore enjoyed a legal career lasting over sixty years with 23 years on our High Court Bench. He was born in 1867 and died in his 80’s. His son Christmas Humphreys QC was another Treasury Counsel, namely leading criminal prosecuting counsel like his father. Christmas espoused the Buddhist faith of Tibet unlike his father, a belief centred on the inner man and the pleasant interaction of the Buddhist theistic Being with men. Nevertheless his father groomed him like all good fathers do in the noble profession his father had chosen for him, and Christmas did not let his father down. Sir Travers was not a man to be trifled with.

2) The essence of Sir Travers Humphreys:

The old order springs to mind. The era of Capital Trials, puisne Judges presiding and of course Juries and the death sentence. This regime was in its hay day in Sir Travers Humphreys’ time. Was he suited to it? Yes by training, character, aptitude and inclination as with so many of his fellow practitioners and Judges. Who were they? Lord Chief Justice Goddard, the Rt. Hon. Mr. Justice Avory and the Rt. Hon. Mr. Justice Horridge and Lord Denning (Master of the Rolls) who was made a puisne Judge in the King’s Bench in the 1940’s whilst Sir Travers Humphreys was still in the Court of Criminal Appeal.

These Judges were bonded to each other and with the profession of Criminal lawyers when criminal justice stood for the paramountcy of innocent human life over all other considerations. They defended and they prosecuted like Sir Travers and his son, but the objective was the same to convince the twelve good men and true of the force of their case for their client: Crown Counsel or accused. Those twelve men would not shirk their duty, and those Counsel and the Defendant knew that to the point of fierceness in Capital trials. Sir Travers’ real work as Treasury Counsel and a puisne Judge was Death Sentence: murder cases. That was his metier to prosecute, as Counsel, the alleged murderer and later conduct Capital trials as Judge to the sentence of Death if called upon.

3. The Courtroom:

It is noteworthy that in the one photograph of sentence of death being passed in 1912 by the Rt. Hon. Mr. Justice Bucknill at the Old Bailey for murder (Frederick Seddon) there is no woman present. What a different picture nowadays. I do not seek to put the clock back - women have more than earned their place in our Criminal Justice and Civil and Family cases as solicitors, counsel, Judges and Jurors. What is the message? There are many men in the law who do not support the return of the Death Sentence and many likeminded women their colleagues. This cohort of men and women lawyers do not believe such a step forward (or back as they say) is right and proper. The problem lies in the general public: men and women many of whom will go with my policy on the death sentence and related enabling measures. We may not ignore this swell and surge or we will be deluded and swamped.

I argue let the men lead the way forward in what is a highly contentious field of action. May the women be kept secure within the circled wagons whilst the land is secured and claimed by the men in the traditional way. It would be highly irresponsible and foolhardy to expose our womenfolk to this exploration into virgin territory or “injun” country. Then when the job is done the women may of course take their rightful place, if they wish to be part of this new death sentence Criminal Justice regime.

Sir Travers was an exponent of this Court Room drama in Capital Trials time and again in the Old Bailey, and on circuit for murder cases. We would do well to remember his prowess in Court built on the Death Sentence from which there could be no change of mind or vacillation. For him it meant finality and firmness in Court, and that in turn was driven by the masculinity in him. Let us not forget he lived through two World Wars. The women performed invaluable work behind our lines and at home - but also to a lesser extent on active service in World War II behind enemy lines. Sir Travers’ own spouse Lady Humphreys did senior war service in the Second World War.

4. Sir Roger Casement Trial - Treason:

This case was prosecuted by both law officers in 1916 assisted by Sir Travers. Casement who had done good service as a Counsul-General in Africa (the Congo) and South America for the English Crown then reneged on his superiors and contrived in wartime (1914-1918) to smuggle German arms into the west of Ireland on a German U-Boat to support an anti-British insurrection in Ireland. He was rightly tried for High Treason, convicted and executed all in London in 1916. Casement was a philanderer but he could not expect any mercy with the Dublin Easter Rising inflaming a serious potential enemy from within also in 1916. He was properly tried at the Old Bailey in London and in 12 years Sir Travers was on the High Court Bench even though it was more truncated in those days. Sir Travers had earned his colours from an early stage and again in this trial.

5) Conclusion:

Yes I do put myself in the same Death Sentence regime for murder camp as Sir Travers. I do not belong to the Judiciary of any rank and never have done nor will I do so. I associate myself with the likes of Sir Travers as I have known Senior Counsel and the Judiciary to the High Court level in my legal career. I do not represent Judges past and present but I draw comfort from their determination even where I may have been given “a dressing down” by them, I considered that my “baptism of fire” and lesson of life. I learned from my mistakes and I will not put myself or others through unnecessary suffering. Sir Travers, I extol, for his utter Judicial power and quality of mercy like all good criminal Judges. I will always uphold his everlasting spirit of fairness. Mercy is founded on the fairness of truth speaking, not weakness and flattery. It is to the point in its directness so aimed. It is never insistent on false charity but always understanding. Sir Travers knew my peroration before I wrote it and upon hearing it without the slightest demur he would have sentenced my client to death. May the Lord’s Mercy rest on Sir Travers Humphreys’ soul.


The only photograph of sentence of death being passed. In 1912 on Frederick Seddon by Mr. Justice Bucknill at the Old Bailey.