GIBBS, Vicary (1751-1820), of Hayes, Kent.
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Family and Education
b. 2 Oct.1 1751, 1st surv. s. of George Abraham Gibbs, chief surgeon at Exeter hosp., Devon by Anne, da. and coh. of Anthony Vicary of Exeter. educ. Eton 1764; King’s, Camb. 1771; L. Inn 1769, called 1783. m. 8 July 1784, Frances Cerjat, da. of Maj. William Mackenzie, 1da. suc. fa. 1794; kntd. 20 Feb. 1805.
Recorder, Bristol Feb. 1794-Nov. 1817; KC 2 Mar. 1795; bencher, L. Inn 1805; solicitor-gen. to Prince of Wales Nov. 1795-1800, attorney-gen. July 1800-1805; c.j. Chester 1804-5; treasurer, L. Inn 1805; solicitor-gen. Feb. 1805-Jan. 1806, attorney-gen. Mar. 1807-May 1812; serjt.-at-law and judge, c.p. May 1812-13; PC 30 Nov. 1813; chief baron of Exchequer Nov. 1813-Feb. 1814; l.c.j.c.p. Feb. 1814-Nov. 1818; charity commr. 1818-20.
Gibbs became a special pleader and then practised on the western circuit. He first attracted general notice in 1794 when he and Thomas Erskine were counsel for the defence in the treason trials; the attorney-general, Sir John Scott, is reported as informing Gibbs that ‘no lawyer ever did himself more credit or his client more service’. His part in the trials, for which he received the thanks of the Friends of the People, and his friendship with James Mansfield† gave Gibbs’s appointment as solicitor-general to the Prince of Wales, soon after he had taken silk, ‘a strong colour of opposition’. He had in February 1795 declined, for professional reasons, a seat for the Duke of Marlborough’s borough of Woodstock.2 He subscribed £1,000 to the loyalty loan for 1797.
By 1804 Pitt was thinking of him as a possible solicitor-general and the Prince was scheming to get rid of him; in the same year, shortly after his appointment as chief justice of Chester, the King was quoted as saying that ‘he had forced Gibbs upon the indecision of the chancellor; that he was determined to bring him forward, because he was no party man, that he knew one or two factious men had been at him but they had not succeeded’. Gibbs’s return for Totnes on the Bolton interest was arranged by Pitt, to whom it was ‘a great object’, for he expected useful support from him. On becoming solicitor-general, he accordingly ‘made his bow at Carlton House’.3 Although his maiden speech was well heard, 11 Mar. 1805, his ‘style of eloquence’ was not successful in the Commons; with a ‘shrill, unmusical voice’ he was ‘very far from being an agreeable and persuasive speaker’ and spoke only in his official capacity. Brougham alleged that Gibbs ‘really had no place at all’ in the Commons, that he ‘could only obtain a hearing upon legal questions’.4
Gibbs opposed the Grenville ministry, as his votes on 30 Apr. and 17 June 1806 attested, so he was not re-elected for Totnes. Acting with Perceval as legal adviser to the Princess of Wales that year, he returned to his ‘private situation at the bar with perfect content, and never expected to be called from it again’. In 1807 he accepted an offer from the Portland administration and on 23 Apr. took his seat for Great Bedwyn on the courtier Lord Ailesbury’s interest. At the general election (apart from being proposed at Malmesbury, where he polled no votes) he successfully contested Cambridge University as the government candidate. As attorney-general, this ‘great wearer and tearer of himself and others’ was reported by May 1808 to be in ‘sad health and Perceval has manumitted him from long nights in the House’. He was alleged to have ‘incensed’ the university in February 1809 by his ‘very illiberal examination’ of Mary Anne Clarke and to have been baffled by her evasive and impertinent replies; but he later defended her when she was prosecuted by Col. Wardle. On 16 May 1809 he introduced a bill to amend the Seditious Meetings Act, representing it as merely removing a few useless words: a view accepted by the opposition, with the exception of Romilly, who forced its withdrawal.5
Much as he regretted Canning’s exit from the ministry, Gibbs supported government steadily on the Scheldt expedition January-March 1810, being classed as one of Perceval’s party. Nevertheless, his scruples about the legality of a forcible arrest of (Sir) Francis Burdett* in April 1810 embarrassed Perceval. He voted against parliamentary reform, 21 May 1810, though he had supported Curwen’s bill the year before, as amended by Perceval. He advised Perceval on the Regency bill, January 1811. On 28 Mar. he was attacked for the steep increase in ex officio informations for libel since he became attorney-general, many of which had not been brought to trial. He claimed that the number of prosecutions was not excessive considering that each week there were about 200 publications in London. But at one time more than half the newspapers were threatened with prosecution and not one of them was ever brought to trial.6 He set his face against Romilly’s efforts to secure legal reform, though no match for him in debate. In 1812 he opposed Bankes’s motion to reduce the salary of the paymaster of widows’ pensions, 22 Feb., and the sinecure offices bill, 4 May. On 22 Apr. he had presented an anti-Catholic petition.
It was reported of Gibbs that ‘his nerves ... suddenly and entirely failed him’ after Perceval’s murder, when he was blamed for rushing Bellingham’s trial. He opposed Stuart Wortley’s motion for a more efficient administration, 21 May 1812, and accepted a judgeship before the general election. He had been an unpopular attorney-general—witness the hostile reception of him at Bristol in 1810—and ‘screwed his power more tightly’ than any of his predecessors. Brougham suggested that he ‘descended from the station of attorney-general to that of a puisne judge in the common pleas’ because of his shock at Perceval’s murder. Thomas Grenville attributed it to political defeatism and the principle that ‘half a loaf’ was ‘better than no bread’. Farington ascribed it to his illness and age, and to his being unable to transmit honours, having no sons. According to Francis Horner*, his new situation suited him:
We are very much satisfied with Gibbs. In the civil business, he is prompt, decisive and clear; on the crown side, very patient and careful. His temper is perfectly as it ought to be, having no longer any of that personal conflict which at the bar kept him always nettled and sore.7
In March 1813 Gibbs commented favourably on Peel’s speech against Catholic relief. In 1814 he succeeded Mansfield as chief justice, but in November 1817 he was so ill that he proposed his resignation, which the chancellor ‘for reasons too flattering to me ... would not then hear of’. In December he hoped to resume his duties. Although in October 1818 he was recovering ‘to a certain degree ... from a very dangerous illness’, he retired, feeling he would ‘never again be able to encounter the common fatigues of the profession’. Liverpool in 1819 thought him ‘inferior as a lawyer to no man living or dead’ and ‘at the head of ... [his] profession’ in the common pleas, and Brougham conceded that, though a ‘bitter enemy’ of all reform, he was ‘certainly among the most eminent’ of the ‘inferior though able men’. It was said that
nothing but his sterling knowledge of the law and his acute reasoning would have raised him to any eminence. He was laborious and ambitious, and his success was at least equal to his merits. He was the best good man, with the worst natural face.8
Farington found Gibbs ‘very easy and natural in society’, but he was notorious for his conceit, sarcasm and lack of humour, becoming known as ‘Vinegar’ Gibbs. Dwarfish, he had a hooked nose which his friend Perceval said ‘would take out an iron mould’, parchment-coloured skin, thin lips and pinched nostrils. ‘Plain in his wig, he was ugly out of it’ and ‘there was an asperity in his countenance and manner that was very repulsive’. Yet it was due to his kindness to ‘many relations’ that his fortune was ‘not so great as might be expected’, about £80,000, when he died, 8 Feb. 1820.9
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: P. A. Symonds
- 1. N. and Q. (ser. 5), v. 275; though Burke LG (1871) says 27 Oct., and 8 Nov. is the date alleged by Joseph Jekyll (Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 8 Nov. 1813).
- 2. Courier, 9 Jan. 1795; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 59; Foss, Judges, viii. 287; Add. 34453, ff. 177, 184, 189.
- 3. Bond mss, Jekyll to Bond, 22 July; Sidmouth mss, Bond to Addington, 12 Sept.; Lonsdale mss, Rose to Lowther, 15, 26 Nov. 1804; HMC Lonsdale, 153; Add. 35725, f. 90; Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2004; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iii. 380.
- 4. Colchester, i. 542; Foss, viii. 290; W. C. Townsend, Lives of Twelve Eminent Judges, 279; P. C. Scarlett, Mem. of Lord Abinger, 87; Brougham, Hist. Sketches, i. 133.
- 5. Add. 34457, f. 276; Colchester, ii. 117; Bond mss, Jekyll to Bond, 22 Dec. 1800, 9 May 1808; Farington, v. 111, 122; Romilly, Mems. ii. 289.
- 6. Parl. Deb. xix. 569; Romilly, ii. 386; A. Aspinall, Politics and the Press 1780-1850, p. 41.
- 7. Whitbread mss W1/2548; Brougham, i. 133; Townsend, i. 288; ii. 401; Buckingham, Regency, i. 334-5; Farington, vii. 90; Horner mss 5, f. 321.
- 8. Farington, vii. 90; Add. 38277, f. 267; 38574, f. 74; 40225, f. 153; Brougham, i. 124, 134; Scarlett, 87.
- 9. Farington, vii. 90; viii. 104; Townsend, i. 295-6; Gent. Mag. (1820), i. 640.