KNIGHT, James Lewis (1791-1866), of 1 New Square, Lincoln's Inn and Highwood Hill, Hendon, Mdx.
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Family and Educationb. 15 Feb. 1791, 3rd s. of John Knight (d. 1799) of Fairlinch, Devon and Margaret, da. and event. h. of William Bruce of Dyffryn and Llanblethian, Glam. educ. Bath g.s.; Sherborne 1799-1805; L. Inn 1812, called 1817. m. 20 Aug. 1812, Eliza, da. of Thomas Newte of Duvale, Devon, 3s. (2 d.v.p.) 2da. Took additional name of Bruce by royal lic. 4 Sept. 1837.1 kntd. 15 Jan. 1842. d. 7 Nov. 1866.
KC 22 July 1829; bencher, L. Inn 1829, treas. 1842-3; vice-chanc. 1841-51; PC 15 Jan. 1842; member, jud. cttee. of PC 1842; ld. justice, ct. of appeal in chancery 1851-Oct. 1866.
Knight’s father, ‘a gentleman of independent property in Devonshire’, came from an old Shropshire family. His mother was descended from a branch of the Bruces of Kennet, Clackmannan. Her father William Bruce (1705-68), a navy agent and banker, bought property in Glamorgan, where he served as sheriff in 1756. Knight was educated initially at Bath, where his parents lived in the late 1790s and, after his father’s death intestate in 1799, at Sherborne. He did not follow his brothers John (1784-1872), heir to the Welsh estates, and William (1785-1845), who entered the church, to university, but spent two years with a mathematical tutor and in 1807 was articled to the solicitor Bigoe Charles Williams of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. His articles having expired, he entered Lincoln’s Inn in 1812 and was called to the bar five years later. He practiced in the Welsh courts of great sessions before concentrating on the English equity courts, where his rise was rapid. On taking silk in 1829 he chose the vice-chancellor’s court, where he vied unsuccessfully with Edward Sugden* for the lead. As a barrister he was noted for ‘his marvellous rapidity in making himself master of the facts of a case’ and ‘his equally surprising memory in retaining what he had once mastered’.2
Nothing came of Knight’s forays in Glamorgan as a Tory in 1830 and 1831,3 but he was one of three king’s counsel ‘brought in to oppose’ the reform bill in 1831. He reputedly sent ‘£500 to the boroughmongering committee’ in Charles Street, and was returned for Bishop’s Castle by its patrons the Clives, whom he had advised as counsel on the borough’s franchise in 1821 and who now looked to him to prevent its disfranchisement.4 He divided against the reintroduced reform bill at its second reading, 6 July, and for adjournment, 12 July 1831. In his maiden speech, 14 July, he challenged ministers to state unequivocally whether the guiding principle of the bill was ‘nomination or population’. He insisted that Bishop’s Castle was not a pocket borough and claimed to ‘feel myself as independent as if I had been returned by the largest constituency in the country’. According to the Whig Denis Le Marchant†, this ‘absurd tirade’ prompted Lord Clive* to remark that ‘the choice which the burgesses had made of Knight was not theirs but Lord C.’s and it was not the independence but the absence of it which ought to have been defended’.5 He voted to make the 1831 census the criterion for English borough disfranchisements, 19 July, and used the motion’s defeat as his excuse for failing to divide the House against the inclusion of Bishop’s Castle in Schedule A, 20 July, though he reserved his right to propose its retention of one Member at a future date. On 22 July he complained that the decision on the fate of Downton ‘sets at nought all the supposed rules that were to bind us in regard to disfranchisement’. He voted with the Clives against taking a seat from Chippenham, 27 July, and the following day lost his temper in a snarling exchange with Smith Stanley over the ‘absurd’ case of Clitheroe. He opposed the plan to group Cardiff, where the 2nd marquess of Bute was the principal patron, with Merthyr Tydfil, whose stipendiary magistrate, his brother John Bruce Bruce, aspired to represent the latter as a separate constituency, arguing that each was sufficiently important to warrant a Member, 5 Aug.; and he suggested creating a joint Merthyr and Aberdare constituency to provide representation for the iron industry, 10 Aug. His remarks, as he informed Bute, 17 Aug, created
a great outcry among some foolish people and a few who ought to have known better at Swansea in consequence of an erroneous report of something said by me in the ... Commons on the Merthyr question. You will be at once aware that I could not, being sane and sober, say anything so foolish as that Swansea or Neath desired to remain as at present in preference to the proposed change so plainly advantageous to them. What I said was that in my judgement Cardiff, Cowbridge and Llantrisant would prefer the existing state of things to the proposed alliance with Merthyr. Lord Althorp is the Enemy.6
He voiced misgivings at the proposal that the governor of the Isle of Wight, who might be a military man, should be the returning officer for that county, 16 Aug., 14 Sept., and thought the wording of clause 16 on the copyhold and leasehold franchise might open the way to the creation of fictitious votes, 19 Aug. He cavilled at the notion of £10 borough tenants being given the vote, 26 Aug., and asserted that the boundary commissioners would have ‘a very dangerous power’ to alter the whole constituency of the country, 1 Sept. He was in the small minority on clause 27, governing polling arrangements, 2 Sept., and unsuccessfully proposed that voters in Welsh contributory boroughs should be allowed to poll therein rather than at one central place, 6 Sept. He voted against the bill’s passage, 21 Sept., and the second reading of the Scottish measure, 23 Sept. While Powis’s other Members abstained, Knight voted against the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831. He joined in opposition protests at the provisions made for the boundary bill, arguing that it should not become operative until the reform bill was enacted, 23 Jan. 1832. Ministers accepted his amendment affecting the choice of returning officers for new constituencies, 24 Jan., and suggestions for changes to the clauses concerning votes derived from clerical livings, 1 Feb., and the appointment of revising barristers, 10 Feb. He thought the provisions for the punishment of misdemeanours under the bill were too severe, 16 Feb. He divided against enfranchising Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., and the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. Acting indirectly (‘I cannot of course communicate very freely on such a subject with a friend of government’) through Bute’s brother Lord James Crichton Stewart*, he supported the campaign which resulted in the late concession of a Member to Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare.7 He voted against the Irish reform bill at its second reading, 25 May, made a heavy joke about Snugborough, a constituent part of one of the revamped Irish boroughs, 13 June, and argued that the measure would encourage fictitious votes and that the extension of voting rights to £10 freeholders had destroyed the principle of the borough franchise, 25 June. He divided against government on the Dublin election controversy, 23 Aug., the sugar refining bill, 12 Sept. 1831, and the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12 July 1832.
On his concerns as a lawyer, Knight, who was reported to have found attending the Commons disruptive to his professional practice and health,8 took the side of the Irish master of the rolls McMahon in his dispute with the Irish chancellor Lord Plunket over his right to appoint his own secretary, 16 Sept. 1831. He introduced a bill to allow the master to try his case before a judge other than the chancellor, 5 Oct. He complained that the interpleader and arbitration bills, to which there were ‘many serious objections’, were rushed through the House, 7 Oct. On 11 Oct. 1831 he savaged lord chancellor Brougham’s bankruptcy bill, which was ‘considered by the profession to be wholly uncalled for and inadequate to the purposes for which it was framed’. Government opposed his Irish master of the rolls bill, introduced 19 Jan., and defeated it, by 88-84, 22 Feb. 1832. Knight was one of seven senior barrister Members who protested to Brougham against the unexpected passage through the Commons, 16 June, of four measures touching the laws of real property, which needed ‘much further consideration’.9 He clashed twice with Hume, 10 July: first on a dispute between certain creditors and the Bank; then on Hume’s attack on duchy of Lancaster wine duties, which Knight considered an infringement of royal prerogative. He opposed and divided the House on Harvey’s motion for inquiry into admissions to the inns of court, 17 July, and was a teller for the minority of two. In his last reported speech, 30 July 1832, he argued that ‘a great error’ had been perpetrated in the reorganization of the bankruptcy court, where one judge rather than four would have sufficed.
Bute and his agents considered sponsoring Knight as a Conservative candidate for the new two Member Glamorgan constituency at the 1832 general election, but rejected him for ‘not having an estate in the county and most particularly from being a non-resident’.10 He was beaten into third place by five votes at Cambridge in 1835 and defeated there again in 1837, when he denounced the Melbourne ministry as the tool of Daniel O’Connell*. At the same election his brother John Bruce Pryce (as he was now styled) lost to a Liberal at Merthyr, which returned his second son Henry Austin Bruce (1815-95), later Lord Aberdare, as a Conservative, 1852-68. Knight failed to secure church preferment from Peel for his brother William in 1842 but obtained a deanery for him the following year.11 He was one of the counsel heard at the bar of the Lords against the municipal corporations bill in 1835 and was reputed to be earning £18,000 a year at the peak of his chancery practice in the late 1830s. One of two additional vice-chancellors appointed in 1841, he was knighted on Peel’s recommendation the following year and became one of the two lord justices of the court of appeal in chancery established in 1851. He was remarkable as a judge ‘for his rapidity of apprehension, his accuracy of memory as regards both law and fact, and his determination to break down every barrier of form in order to arrive at the substance’, although it was said that ‘under the influence of a strong conviction, his judicial opinions sometimes went to the length of hardihood and temerity’.12 He retired from the bench because of failing eyesight in October 1866 and died within a fortnight at Roehampton Priory, Surrey, his home since the early 1840s, predeceased by his wife (d. 4 Apr. 1866). He was buried in Cheriton churchyard, near Folkes