WILLIAMS, John (1777-1846), of 3 Stone Buildings, Lincoln's Inn and 28 Grovsenor Square, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



23 Mar. 1822 - 1826
1826 - 22 Feb. 1827
15 Feb. 1830 - 1832

Family and Education

bap. 10 Feb. 1777, o.s. of Rev. William Williams, vic. of Bunbury, Cheshire, and Esther, da. of John Richardson of Beeston. educ. Manchester g.s. 1787-94; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1794, BA 1798, fellow 1800, MA 1801; I. Temple 1797, called 1804. m. 8 Sept. 1825, Harriet Catherine, da. of Davies Davenport*, s.p. suc. fa. 1813; kntd. 16 Apr. 1834. d. 14 Sept. 1846.1

Offices Held

KC 1827; solicitor-gen. to Queen Adelaide July-Nov. 1830, att.-gen. Nov. 1830-May 1832; sjt.-at-law 28 Feb. 1834; puisne bar. of exch. Feb.-Apr. 1834; puisne judge, k.b. Apr. 1834-d.


Williams’s family had its roots in Merioneth, and he was always fiercely proud of his Welsh ancestry. He was an outstanding Greek scholar and achieved his great early ambition of a Cambridge fellowship, which he prized above all his subsequent attainments. He defeated his friend Francis Howes, whose abilities he considered superior to his own; and, with characteristic generosity, he later provided Howes with an annuity of £100 and remembered his children in his will. In January 1820 Williams contributed an article to the Edinburgh Review (xxxiii. 226-46) on his hero and model Demosthenes, ‘the greatest orator whom the world has ever produced’.2 After his call to the bar he went the northern circuit, where he got ‘a very respectable amount of business’ and established a reputation for diligence and acuteness, especially in cross-examination. He became very friendly with his contemporaries Henry Brougham* and Thomas Denman*, whose liberal politics he shared, and he was admitted to Brooks’s Club, 1 Feb. 1818.3 At the general election later that year he was introduced by the Chester independents as a token partner for their candidate in a contest against the Grosvenor interest. Williams, who was billed as ‘a strenuous advocate for the freedom of election’, was in Cornwall on election business, possibly for Lord Darlington, and only appeared in Chester on the fifth day, when the cause was already lost. A subsequent petition was unsuccessful.4 At the general election of 1820 he offered on the Whig interest for Preston against the Derby-Horrocks coalition. He shared a large number of votes with the radical orator Henry Hunt* and finished in third place, only 124 behind the second Tory.5

Williams first came significantly to public notice later in 1820, when he acted as junior counsel to Brougham and Denman in defence of Queen Caroline. Brougham ranked his ‘most able and effectual’ cross-examination of Louise Demont as second in importance only to his own demolition of Majocchi’s evidence. On 4 Oct. he confronted the difficult task, from which he had been ‘most anxious to be excused’, of following Brougham’s brilliant closing speech. Inevitably his effort suffered by comparison and Lord Grey, for one, complained of the ‘tone and slang’ of ‘this tiresome little lawyer’. Yet he largely redeemed himself when he resumed the next day, and Denman reckoned that he ‘argued that part of the case closely, powerfully, and ingeniously’. Like Brougham and Denman he suffered professionally for his part in this affair, being ‘especially high in Eldon’s hatred’, and did not obtain his silk gown until the Liverpool ministry had collapsed.6 On 21 Dec. 1821 he was one of five Whigs who attended a public meeting to concert action in support of the Greek liberals.7 When a vacancy occurred for the open borough of Lincoln during the circuit early in 1822 Denman and Brougham, who had been pestering Darlington to bring Williams into Parliament, persuaded him to stand. Williams was prepared to give way to his ‘most intimate friend’ Edward Davies Davenport*, but Davenport stepped aside for him and Brougham thwarted a bid from Holland House to insinuate John Nicholas Fazakerley*. Williams walked over the course and resumed the circuit at Lancaster.8

His first recorded vote was for abolition of one of the joint-postmasterships, 2 May 1822. He delivered his maiden speech in favour of tax remissions to relieve agricultural distress, 8 May, when he also declared himself a supporter of parliamentary reform, for which he voted, 3 June. He voted against the naval and military pensions bill, 3, 24 May, 3 June, and in the minority against the revised corn duties, 9 May. He called for inquiry into the government of the Ionian Islands, 14 May, lamenting that ‘the freemen of England’ seemed ‘destined for the avocation of repressing the liberties of struggling nations’, and supported cuts in diplomatic expenditure, 15, 16 May. He voted for repeal of the salt duties, 3 June, and said a few words for it, 24 June, 8 July.9 He opposed the aliens bill, 14 June, 1 July, when he argued that ‘the proper course was, not to give ministers credit for what they would do, but to prevent them from doing what they by possibility might do’. The Whig Sir James Mackintosh* ‘watched him closely’ as ‘a man of talent whom I never heard before’:

His language is correct and terse but I think too much condensed for public speaking. Some part of his argument was very close and pressing, but he must open more and give himself more up to impulse before he can be a considerable speaker. His manner has neither warmth nor dignity, but it is firm and collected.10

He voted in condemnation of the influence of the crown, 24 June, and of the lord advocate’s dealings with the Scottish press, 25 June. Next day he spoke briefly for Michael Taylor’s motion for reform of chancery administration and was a teller for the minority. He voted for abolition of the lottery tax, 1 July, and was in two small minorities on the Irish insurrection bill, 8 July 1822.

Williams condemned the laws on debt, 10 Feb., and was named to the select committee on small debts, 18 Feb. 1823.11 He spoke and voted against the appointment of a lieutenant-general of the ordnance in peacetime, 19 Feb., voted for parliamentary reform, 20 Feb., and took leave to go the circuit, 27 Mar. On his return he voted for inquiry into the legal proceedings against the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr., and he later took a prominent role in the examination of witnesses before it. He divided for parliamentary reform, 24 Apr., 2 June, called for ‘complete revision’ of the game laws, 25 Apr., and spoke at length in protest at the government’s failure to remonstrate more vigorously against the French invasion of Spain, 29 Apr. On 2 May he got leave to introduce a bill to make Quakers’ affirmations admissible in criminal cases, but it failed to get a second reading. He voted against the Irish insurrection bill, 12 May, 24 June, and for inquiry into Catholic grievances over the administration of justice in Ireland, 26 June. He favoured abolition of the death penalty for larceny, 21 May, 25 June, deplored the nomination of special juries by the crown office, 28 May, supported the Scottish juries bill, 20 June, and voted for an end to prison flogging, 7 July. He divided with opposition on the malt and beer taxes, 28 May, the lord advocate’s conduct, 3 June, the silk bill, 9 June, the coronation expenses, 9, 19 June, and naval promotions, 19 June, and was not prepared to drop the proceedings against chief baron O’Grady, 9 July 1823.

In this session Williams took over from Taylor the parliamentary leadership of the campaign for chancery reform. On 4 June 1823 he moved for inquiry, combining a detailed attack on the notorious and ruinous delays and arrears with severe criticism of lord chancellor Eldon’s ‘learned doubtfulness’. His speech, George Tierney* thought, was ‘most powerful and able’, but the motion was beaten by 174-89.12 He welcomed the bill to facilitate inquiry into the forms of process in Scottish appeals, 10 July 1823, but announced that he would pursue the question of chancery reform early next session. After the summer circuit he accompanied Brougham and Denman to Scotland ‘to preach the word of rebellion among the faithful’.13 He voted for the production of information on Catholic burials, 6 Feb., and the criminal jurisdiction of the Isle of Man, 18 Feb., and on 24 Feb. 1824 renewed his call for inquiry into chancery delays. Williams, who seemed to Eldon ‘as savage as the Dey of Algiers’, was a far more formidable opponent than Taylor, and the home secretary Peel, anxious to shield Eldon from criticism, yet to institute some form of effective inquiry, had persuaded the chancellor to agree to the appointment of a commission nominated by government. He duly countered the motion with this proposal which Williams, on the advice of Brougham and others, reluctantly accepted, though he suspected that it was an attempt to screen abuses and would prove to be ‘nothing else than mockery and deception’.14 The Tory Henry Bankes* thought his speech was ‘long and tiresome’, but the Whig George Agar Ellis* reckoned that he ‘spoke clearly and well for two and a quarter hours, and made out a most frightful case of the injury accruing to individuals from the chancellor’s doubting and delay’.15 Williams failed to get satisfactory answers to his questions as to whether the commission would submit its evidence to the Commons, 4, 7 May 1824.16

He voted for reform of Edinburgh’s representation, 26 Feb., and against the grant for Irish Protestant charter schools, 15 Mar. 1824. After the circuit he again raised the issue of Quakers’ affirmations, 6 May, when he voted for inquiry into the Irish church establishment. He favoured repeal of the assessed taxes, 10 May, and inquiry into the state of Ireland, 11 May. He presented a petition against the combination laws, 12 May, and on 3 June welcomed the repeal bill, which swept away ‘cruel and vexatious statutes’.17 He denounced Lord Althorp’s county courts bill as a threat to the independence of the bar, 24 May, and tried in vain to secure the exemption of the Lancaster court of requests.18 He was a teller for the majority in favour of the Scottish juries bill later that day. He presented petitions against slavery, 12 May, and, as Brougham recalled, made a distinguished contribution to the debate on the case of the Methodist missionary John Smith, 11 June, when he denounced slavery as ‘a bitter sarcasm upon the vaunted civilization of modern times’. Agar Ellis and Panton Corbett* wrote at the time that Williams performed well.19 He was in a minority of 14 against the Irish insurrection bill, 18 June 1824.

In January 1825 Williams replied in the Edinburgh Review (xli. 410-27) to a defence of Eldon in the Quarterly, and cast further doubt on the efficacy of the commission of inquiry.20 His questions in the House as to its progress, 10 Feb., 25 Apr., received evasive answers.21 He attacked the ‘vicious’ Irish unlawful societies bill, 10 Feb., voted against it, 15, 18 Feb., and after spells of circuit leave, 21 Feb. and 15 Apr., supported Catholic relief, 21 Apr., 10 May. He voted for relaxation of the corn laws, 28 Apr., and repeal of the window tax, 17 May. He argued against reinstatement of the Combination Acts, 4 May, and was in small minorities in favour of amendments to the repeal bill, 27 June. He criticized the government’s proposals to regulate and augment judicial salaries, 16 May, and on 2 June successfully proposed an increase in retirement pensions to encourage ‘a judge to retire from the bench before he retired to the grave’. He spoke and voted against the third reading of the enabling bill, 17 June. He steadily opposed the duke of Cumberland’s annuity in May and June. When presenting petitions complaining of chancery delays, 31 May, he attributed the dilatoriness of the commission to ‘the great degree of patience which some men were known to exercise with respect to the sufferings of others’ and restated the case for reform. He was a teller for the minority in favour of Burdett’s call for the production of the commission’s findings, 7 June. He regretted the failure of the writs of error bill to deal with sham pleas, 20 June 1825. Lord John Russell* told Lady Holland, 25 Aug. 1825, that Williams, ‘our Demosthenes’, was shortly to marry Edward Davenport’s sister, ‘a very clever, sensible girl, but mortal ugly’. They were well matched, for Williams was not a handsome man, being ‘about five feet high’ with ‘a red face and a hook nose’. The marriage involved a settlement worth £40,000 and added considerably to Williams’s already substantial wealth, derived from a steady professional income and a useful inheritance from his father.22

He opposed the referral of Members’ complaints of their being fined for non-attendance as jurymen to the committee of privileges, 20 Feb. 1826. He presented petitions against the importation of foreign silks, 23 Feb., and later that day seconded a motion for inquiry into the distress prevalent in the silk industry. He savaged Huskisson, president of the board of trade, for dogmatic application of free trade theory without reference to circumstances, and was not prepared to see 500,000 people ‘sacrificed to abstract principles, however pure those principles might be’. Huskisson’s cabinet colleague Canning replied in kind the following evening.23 Williams supported George Lamb’s attempts to allow counsel for defendants in cases of felony to address the jury on the evidence, 25 Feb., 25 Apr. He divided against government on the Jamaican slave trials, 2 Mar., the army establishment, 3 Mar., the president of the board of trade’s salary, 10 Apr., and the state of the nation, 4 May. He voted for parliamentary reform, 13, 27 Apr. He condemned the chancery commission’s report as facile, 18 Apr., and had no expectation of benefit from the government’s bill to effect its recommendations, which would amount to ‘legislating in the dark’, 18 May. He spoke and voted for inquiry into agricultural distress, 2 May 1826, being unwilling to let ministers ‘take the command of the corn laws’ through their proposed temporary measures.

At the general election of 1826 Williams abandoned Lincoln and was returned on Darlington’s interest for Ilchester, after a contest. He was in a minority of 24 for Hume’s amendment to the address, 21 Nov. 1826. He seconded Harvey’s motion for information on conveyancing fees, 29 Nov., established that ministers intended to reintroduce their chancery reform bill, 6 Dec., and gave notice of a motion for returns on the subject, 12 Dec. 1826.24 He protested against the length of the adjournment the following day. He was in the minority on the Leominster election petition, 9 Feb., and presented an Oldham sawyers’ petition for a tax on machinery, 21 Feb. 1827.25 Next day he was unseated on his Ilchester opponents’ petition, and the ministerialist Lord Lowther* rejoiced that ‘we shall be relieved from some long speeches on the chancery business’.26 In the summer of 1827 Williams declined repeated invitations from the Carlisle Whigs to contest a vacancy for the borough.27 He re-entered the House early in 1830 when Lord Cleveland (as Darlington had become) returned him for Winchelsea in place of Brougham who, not wishing to be hampered by Cleveland’s recently declared adhesion to the Wellington ministry, accepted the offer of a seat on the duke of Devonshire’s interest. Brougham was reported to be ‘charmed at his protégé ... succeeding him’; but the Whigs James Abercromby* and Edward Ellice* thought Cleveland’s choice of Williams was a ‘strange’ one, which implied that he ‘expected that the government would be conducted on liberal principles’.28 The Whig duke of Bedford inferred that Williams was ‘satisfied’ with lord chancellor Lyndhurst’s plans for chancery reform.29 Williams took his seat on 17 Feb. and, before leaving for the circuit, voted for the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb. 1830. He spoke for the abolition of capital punishment for forgery, 4, 13 May. On 27 May he welcomed the ministry’s bill for the reorganization of the judiciary as ‘an abandonment of patronage by ministers to a greater extent than ever was resigned by any ministers, either by compulsion, or by voluntary act, since the Revolution’. Their suits in equity bill, which involved the appointment of an additional chancery judge, and was one of a group of measures intended to improve equity administration, also won his approval, 24 June:

This is the first time within my recollection that any attempt at a series of legal reforms has been made by a ministry, and it is not because everything is not done ... that we should reject this measure ... though it is not all I could wish ... I will not be found one of those who offer opposition to it.

Later in the debate Brougham, who objected to the extra judge, chided Williams for his eagerness to accept it for the sake of what were very modest reforms. Brougham’s pleasure at Williams’s return for Winchelsea had turned sour; and many years afterwards he reflected:

Williams ... very improperly (the only wrong thing, public or private, I have ever known him to do in a long and intimate acquaintance) left us when ... Cleveland seceded in 1830. This desertion of Williams was partly owing to a grudge on account of silk, political economy, Huskisson, and Canning; but it was very bad, for he took the worst form of desertion -viz., that of leaving us on his own chancery reform question.30

Williams was appointed solicitor-general to Queen Adelaide in July 1830 and became her attorney-general the following November. After the general election, when Cleveland again returned him for Winchelsea, ministers counted him among their ‘friends’, but he was absent from the division on the civil list which brought them down, 15 Nov. 1830. He was on the circuit when the Grey ministry introduced its reform bill and missed the division on its second reading, 22 Mar. 1831. Yet, as he wrote to Brougham, now lord chancellor, he was an unequivocal supporter of the measure (as was Cleveland, despite its disfranchisement of his pocket boroughs), and he attended to vote against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. On the subject of Brougham’s plans to reform local courts he said:

I, of course, will not attempt to oppose anything, but I am not very anxious. In truth, I feel myself like a horse in a mill, who does not probably care much whether he is whipped round a circle of larger or smaller diameter.31

Williams came in again for Winchelsea at the 1831 general election and voted for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July. He took leave for the summer circuit, 18 July, but arranged to pair for at least one division on the bill in committee, 26 July. He voted for clause 22, 30 Aug., supported the new legal apparatus for the revision of electoral registers, 3 Sept., and divided for the third reading, 19, and passage of the bill, 21 Sept., after declaring that he had ‘from first to last, been a steady, though a silent supporter of this measure’, which would effect ‘an equal representation of the people’. He voted for the second reading of the Scottish reform bill, 23 Sept., and Lord Ebrington’s motion of confidence in the ministry, 10 Oct. He spoke at length in ‘hearty’ support of Brougham’s bill to reform the bankruptcy jurisdiction, 5 Oct. 1831, when he was a teller for the majority in favour of the bill to abolish truck payments.

Williams voted for the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, and for a number of its details in committee, but he was on the circuit at the time of its third reading, for which he paired, 22 Mar. 1832. He was in the government majorities on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., and relations with Portugal, 9 Feb. He voted for the address asking the king to appoint only ministers who would carry undiluted reform, 10 May, and resigned as the queen’s attorney-general. When his friends resumed office he found that William Taddy had been appointed in his place, on the ground that it had been decided that the post should no longer be tenable with a seat in the House. He disapproved proceeding against the press for alleged libels on the royal family, 21 May, voted for the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May, and paired against a Conservative amendment to the Scottish measure, 1 June. He opposed Harvey’s motion to open the Inns of Court and the bar to merit, 14 June, and was a teller for the majority against it. His last known vote was with government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 16 July 1832.

With Winchelsea doomed, Williams had no obvious prospect of a seat in the first reformed Parliament, and a notion that he might stand for Rye came to nothing.32 His lack of a seat was partly responsible for his being passed over for John Campbell II* for the post of solicitor-general in November 1832 but, by Brougham’s later account, there was more to it than that. Brougham would personally have preferred Williams but, having got his own way over the appointment of Denman as lord chief justice, felt it would be ‘clearly wrong’ to force Williams’s elevation on reluctant colleagues, who had not forgotten his ‘desertion’ in 1830. Early in 1834 Brougham compensated him by making him a baron of exchequer, but after only a term he was transferred to king’s bench because, according to Greville, Brougham found that he ‘would not do in the exchequer’.33

As a judge Williams, who resembled ‘Punch in ermine’, was not of the highest calibre, but he was painstaking and fair-minded and very popular with the bar.34 One of its members, Frederick Pollock*, recalled:

John Williams went the northern circuit for the first time as a judge of assize in the summer of 1838, and ... previously entertained a large party of the bar of his old circuit at dinner at his house in London - a residence of which he used to say, ‘I live in Grosvenor Square; but I am d--d if I know where the other judges live’ - being one of the last of those in his position who occasionally garnished their conversation with somewhat profane expletives ... Lady Williams and himself had their separate sets of friends and acquaintances - his chiefly legal, hers chiefly fashionable; and they gave separate entertainments accordingly.35

Macaulay dined with Lady Williams in Rome, 1 Dec. 1838, but ‘liked neither the house nor the woman nor the dinner nor the company’.36 Williams remained a devotee of classical literature and in 1839 published some of his accomplished verses in Literary Trifles, Chiefly Greek.37 He died suddenly at his then residence at Livermere, near Bury St. Edmunds in September 1846.38 He had earlier invested in an estate at Dowsby, Lincolnshire, which brought in £1,200 per annum. The chief beneficiary of his will was his widow, who died abroad in 1861.39 Brougham paid tribute to Williams as a man

who ... passed through life without a single enemy ... No one had more clear and decided opinions ... or acted more on his own convictions; few were less cautious in expressing an unpopular opinion, or took less care to conceal his unfavourable impressions of others ... He was ... a good hater, but in the better sense of the phrase. For when he differed with you, he left no room to fancy he did so from the spirit of contradiction; and when he pronounced his condemnation of either a doctrine, or a person, or a class, there was no doubt that he did so conscientiously, for the sake of truth, and not vainly from the love of singularity, while in all he said, there prevailed a kindly nature, and appeared an honest purpose.40

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. The Times, 17 Sept. 1846; IR26/1758/538. Oxford DNB erroneously gives 15 Sept.
  • 2. Gent. Mag. (1846), ii. 537-8; Law Mag. vi (1847), 60; Oxford DNB; PROB 11/2042/698.
  • 3. Law Mag. vi. 61-62; Law Rev. v (1846-7), 185; Smith Letters, i. 347.
  • 4. Late Elections (1818), 677-69; Hist. Chester Election, 1818, pp. 32, 35, 37, 39, 44, 53, 69, 73.
  • 5. Lancs. RO, Whittaker of Simonstone mss DDWh/4/99; The Times, 20 Mar. 1820.
  • 6. Law Rev. v. 186-7; Arnould, Denman, i. 144, 164, 170, 197; Brougham, Life and Times, ii. 386, 461; iii. 27; Geo. IV Letters, ii. 833, 847, 851; iii. 1334; Grey mss, Grey to wife, 4 Oct.; JRL, Bromley Davenport mss, Macdonald to Davenport, 4 Oct. 1820.
  • 7. Add. 36459, f. 183.
  • 8. Bessborough mss, Brougham to Duncannon [14 Mar.]; Add. 51562, Brougham to Holland [14, 21 Mar.]; The Times, 23, 29, 30 Mar. 1822.
  • 9. The Times, 25 June, 9 July 1822.
  • 10. Add. 52445, f. 90.
  • 11. The Times, 11 Feb. 1823.
  • 12. Add. 51586, Tierney to Lady Holland, 6 June 1823.
  • 13. Add. 51564, Brougham to Lady Holland, 31 July 1823.
  • 14. Twiss, Eldon, ii. 487-8; N. Gash, Secretary Peel, 321-6; Parker, Peel, i. 360-1.
  • 15. Dorset RO D/BKL, Bankes jnl. 148; Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary, 24 Feb. [1824].
  • 16. The Times, 5, 8 May 1824.
  • 17. Ibid. 13 May, 4 June 1824.
  • 18. Ibid. 25 May 1824.
  • 19. Law Rev. v. 188; Agar Ellis diary, 11 June; Salop RO, Plymley diary 1066/133 [20 June 1824].
  • 20. E.B. Sugden, Letter to John Williams (1825), 3-4.
  • 21. The Times, 11 Feb. 1825.
  • 22. Add. 51679; Hist. Chester Election, 1818, p. 69; Gent. Mag. (1846), ii. 539; Law Mag. vi. 64, 71.
  • 23. Agar Ellis diary, 24 Feb. [1826].
  • 24. The Times, 30 Nov., 7, 13 Dec. 1826.
  • 25. Ibid. 10, 22 Feb. 1827.
  • 26. Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1289.
  • 27. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 21 July, 3 Aug. 1827.
  • 28. Brougham, iii. 22-33; Grey mss, Ellice to Grey [Feb.]; Bessborough mss, Abercromby to Duncannon, 16 Feb. 1830.
  • 29. Add. 51670, Bedford to Lady Holland [9 Feb. 1830].
  • 30. Brougham, iii. 228.
  • 31. Brougham mss, Williams to Brougham [14 Mar.], Sunday [1831].
  • 32. E. Suss. RO, Rye corporation recs. 141/7.
  • 33. Life of Campbell, ii. 18; Brougham, iii. 227-8; Greville Mems. iii. 24.
  • 34. Arnould, ii. 17-18; Oxford DNB.
  • 35. Pollock, Personal Remembrances, i. 116-17.
  • 36. Macaulay Letters, iv. 69.
  • 37. Add. 37312, f. 321; 37313, f. 129.
  • 38. Gent. Mag. (1846), ii. 539.
  • 39. PROB 11/2042/698; IR26/1758/538.
  • 40. Law Rev. v. 183.