GIFFORD, Sir Robert (1779-1826), of 10 Whitehall Place, Westminster, Mdx.

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



16 May 1817 - 30 Jan. 1824

Family and Education

b. 24 Feb. 1779, yst. s. of Robert Gifford, grocer and general dealer, of Exeter, Devon and 2nd w. Dorothy. educ. at Exeter by a Dissenting minister; Alphington g.s. nr. Exeter; articled to one Jones, an Exeter att.; M. Temple 1800, called 1808. m. 6 Apr. 1816, Harriet Maria, da. of Rev. Edward Drewe, rect. of Willand, 4s. 3da. kntd. 29 May 1817; cr. Bar. Gifford 30 Jan. 1824. d. 4 Sept. 1826.

Offices Held

Solicitor-gen. May 1817-July 1819; att.-gen. July 1819-Jan. 1824; l.c.j.c.p. Jan.-Apr. 1824; sjt.-at-law 6 Jan. 1824; PC 19 Jan. 1824; dep. Speaker of House of Lords Feb. 1824-d.; master of rolls Apr. 1824-d.


Gifford, in the words of Horace Twiss*, was ‘a lawyer of good abilities, and of still better fortune’, whose rapid rise to eminence from humble origins was the more remarkable because, as his obituarist noted, ‘his powers, though respectable, were not splendid, though solid, not profound’.1 On his appointment as solicitor-general at the age of 38, which surprised many, John Campbell II* had observed:

He has a slender share of political information, and will never make a great parliamentary orator, but he will be found useful as often as legal subjects are discussed in the House.2

At the general election of 1820 Gifford, ‘a very vulgar but liberal and enlightened personage’,3 who had been promoted to attorney-general the previous July, was again accommodated in the seat for Eye which Lord Cornwallis habitually placed at the disposal of government. Soon afterwards he conducted the prosecution of the Cato Street conspirators and in the House, 9 May 1820, he successfully resisted, in what Henry Bankes* thought ‘an extremely able and argumentative speech’, an opposition attempt to expose the informer George Edwards as the Liverpool ministry’s agent provocateur in the affair.4 He forced the withdrawal of a proposal to extend the scope of the insolvent debtors bill to crown debtors, 12 June. In response to Mackintosh’s motion to exclude from the provisions of the aliens bill any persons entering the country to give evidence in the trial of Queen Caroline, 10 July, he protested against ‘the doctrine of declaring the queen innocent and her accusers guilty’ in advance. He was ‘almost in tears’ when he defended himself against an implied charge of neglect of duty over a libel on the queen, 25 July; and his denunciation of those who, under the ‘hypocritical mask’ of befriending her, were ‘actively endeavouring to undermine the government, and to effect that which they had long had in view - a revolution’, was seen as a symptom of government’s unease.5 His opening address before the House of Lords in support of the bill of pains and penalties, 19 Aug., was reckoned ‘really wretched’ even by ministerialists.6 He spoke heatedly in the Commons against Hobhouse’s motion for a prorogation, 18 Sept. On 27 Oct. 1820 he began his reply before the Lords and completely redeemed his reputation with a ‘masterly’ speech of ‘acuteness, vigour and spirit’.7 During Wetherell’s attack on ministers’ conduct towards the queen, 26 Jan. 1821, Gifford was ‘rolling his eyes and mending his pen’. According to an opponent, his reply ‘made no impression’, but another observer thought he spoke ‘very well and with great acuteness’.8 He answered Burdett’s personal attack on his role in the prosecution of the queen, 6 Feb. 1821.

Gifford, who divided against Catholic relief, 28 Feb. 1821, 30 Apr. 1822, defended the conduct of chief justice Best in fining Thomas Davison several times during his trial for blasphemous libel, 23 Feb., 7 Mar. 1821.9 He moved a successful wrecking amendment against Curwen’s patents protection bill, 22 Feb.,10 and opposed Althorp’s county courts rate bill, 15 Mar. He was hostile to Martin’s bills to give prisoners charged with capital offences defence by counsel, 30 Mar., and to provide against cruelty to horses, 1 June. He justified the choice of Ilchester gaol for the incarceration of Henry Hunt*, 15 May, spoke against inquiry into the Peterloo massacre, 16 May, and deflected Whitbread’s attempt to put a stop to prosecutions for blasphemous libel by the Constitutional Association, 3 July. He defended the 1815 commission of inquiry into the judicial system against charges of slowness and extravagance, 9 May, and opposed investigation of alleged delays in chancery, 30 May. He opposed Mackintosh’s forgery punishment mitigation bill, 23 May, 4 June, arguing that the death penalty was an effective and necessary deterrent. He also spoke against Mackintosh’s dwelling house robbery bill, 4 June.11 A report in December 1821 that he was to become chancellor of Ireland proved to be ‘wholly without foundation’.12

Gifford rejected Hunt’s allegations against the judges of king’s bench and supported the Irish insurrection bill, 8 Feb. 1822. He saw no case to answer by the Lancaster gaoler for tampering with a Member’s correspondence, 25 Feb.; advised against interference with the system of gaol deliveries, 27 Mar.; moved a successful amendment to throw out the Salford court extension bill, 13 May, but failed to defeat Martin’s bill concerning the ill-treatment of cattle, 24 May. He conceded that the present structure of the Welsh judicature was defective, but could not acquiesce in its abolition, 23 May. He opposed Mackintosh’s motion for criminal law reform, 4 June, because it would ‘pledge the House to a measure which would cast a censure on the whole of the criminal law’; he professed willingness to dispense with capital punishment where it was demonstrably safe to do so, but upheld the established principle of leaving mitigation of prescribed punishments to the executive and crown. He moved the previous question but lost the division by 117-101. Encouraged by lord chancellor Eldon, he opposed Phillimore’s Marriage Act amendment bill, 12 June, but failed to prevent the Lords’ amendments to it being read a second time.13 The following session (18 Mar. 1823) he introduced a modified measure in which Phillimore reluctantly acquiesced. He opposed abolition of the vice-chancellor’s court, 26 June 1822.

He dismissed Hume’s complaints on behalf of the Carliles over their prosecution and imprisonment for blasphemous libel, 26 Mar. 1823. He insisted on the legality of the Irish attorney-general’s proceeding by ex-officio informations against the Dublin theatre rioters, 15 Apr.; and during the Commons inquiry into the affair, 8 May, warned of the dangers inherent in questioning witnesses on their duties as members of a grand jury, in defiance of their oath of secrecy. He opposed the abolition of punishment by whipping, 30 Apr., Mackintosh’s resolutions for mitigation of the criminal code, 21 May, and his amendment to the larceny bill, 25 June. He thought the present system of nominating special juries could not be improved, 28 May; defended chief baron O’Grady against a charge of peculation, 17 June; objected to Lord Nugent’s Catholic tests regulation bill, 18 June, and rejected allegations of improper conduct by the treasury in the case of Butt v. Conant, 19 June, when he declared that he would ‘never be ashamed to stand up in Parliament to defend the decisions of any of the courts of law’.14 He opposed inquiry into the chancery and appellate jurisdictions, 4 June: there were no arrears in chancery, merely increased business, and measures were in hand to deal with the accumulation of Scottish appeals in the Lords. He voted against the Scottish juries bill, 20 June, and the usury laws repeal bill, 27 June. In his last reported speech in the Commons, on the bill appointing commissioners to investigate means of clearing arrears of appeals from Scottish courts, 10 July 1823, he replied to Brougham’s personal vilification of Eldon. Gifford was widely seen as Eldon’s subservient creature and his likely successor as chancellor. Many doubted his credentials, but Lord Tenterden thought him ‘the fittest person to succeed’: he was ‘a good lawyer and a sound-headed man; warm rather than vigorous, and without dignity of person or manner’.15

In August 1823 Gifford was faced with the loss of his seat when Cornwallis, in failing health and desperate to provide for his daughters, sold his property at Eye to the Kerrison family, who stipulated that the seat occupied by Gifford must be vacated as soon as possible to accommodate Sir Edward Kerrison.16 Ministers gave priority to finding Gifford another seat, but in November they were obliged to consider a reshuffle in the legal hierarchy by the retirement of Sir Robert Dallas as lord chief justice of the common pleas and the death of chief baron Richards. The obvious niche for Gifford, if he was to be moved, was the mastership of the rolls, but the incumbent, Sir Thomas Plumer†, refused to retire. As a compromise Gifford took the common pleas, on the understanding that he was next in line for the rolls. He also became the first deputy Speaker of the Lords, an inquiry earlier in the year having recommended the creation of such a post to allow the hearing of Scottish appeals on five days a week instead of three, which made it necessary to provide a substitute for the chancellor when he was absent in court. As some peers objected to the notion of a commoner presiding over their sittings Gifford was offered a peerage. It was thought that he ‘would rather have remained at the bar until he had amassed a larger fortune’, but he accepted it to oblige Lord Liverpool. Nor could he have been oblivious to the inference that it had ‘a great tendency’ to smooth his path to the chancellorship.17

Gifford duly went to the rolls on Plumer’s death later in 1824. According to Twiss, he was not entirely at ease there, although his diligence and acuteness would probably have enabled him to overcome his problems had he lived: ‘in almost everything he did, there was visible a constraint, which seemed to result from a fear of getting beyond his depth and unwillingness that this depth should be too accurately sounded’. He was more comfortable with the appellate jurisdiction, which he discharged to general satisfaction.18 It was still widely taken for granted that he was certain to succeed Eldon, but in 1826 Lady Grey reported that ‘all the bar declare him incompetent, and he himself feels it’; and the home secretary Peel thought he would be ‘a poor successor’:

He has no confidence in himself, no firmness of character. He was neither at a public school, nor at an university, which is a great misfortune to a man naturally of a timid character.19

Gifford, whose ‘dashing, flaunting’ wife, a clergyman’s daughter, was said to have ‘astonished’ Edinburgh society in the autumn of 1825 ‘by her gaiety and libre conversation’, did not live to claim the highest prize.20 He contracted cholera soon after arriving at his Dover residence for a holiday and died there, aged 47, in September 1826, ‘killed by his wife’, who had ‘insisted upon’ his travelling when unwell.21 Eldon remembered him for ‘an uncommon kindness of manner, an unusual sweetness of temper, a strong judgement, a vast store of professional learning’.22 An obituarist had this to say of him:

His leading characteristic was good sense ... In the Commons ... he never shone ... His want of popular energy was here most apparent ... As a judge, he is entitled to great praise. Cool and dispassionate, scrutinizing, patient and impartial, he gained universal confidence ... his carriage was easy, his aspect mild without any admixture of weakness. His eye was quick and intelligent; his personal manner and address calm, frank and engaging.23

By his will, dated 14 Dec. 1820, he directed that all his real and personal estate should be sold and the proceeds invested for the benefit of his wife and children. His personalty was sworn under £50,000.24 He was succeeded in the peerage by his eldest son Robert Francis (1817-72).

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Twiss, Eldon, ii. 506; Gent. Mag. (1826), ii. 367.
  • 2. Life of Campbell, i. 346-7.
  • 3. Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss SC12/12.
  • 4. Dorset RO D/BKL, Bankes jnl. 117 ( 9 May 1820).
  • 5. Buckingham, Mems. Geo. IV, i. 53-54.
  • 6. Life of Campbell, i. 381; Fox Jnl. 40-41; Grey mss, Grey to wife, 18 Aug.; Northants. RO, Agar Ellis diary, 19 Aug.; Bankes jnl. 119 (30 Oct. 1820).
  • 7. Life of Campbell, i. 387; Arbuthnot Jnl. i. 47; Grey mss, Grey to wife, 28 Oct. 1820; NLS mss 1036, f. 70; Foss, Judges of England, ix. 20,
  • 8. Geo. IV Letters, ii. 895; Add. 51574, Abercromby to Lady Holland [26 Jan.]; Castle Howard mss, G. Howard to Lady Morpeth, 28 [Jan.]; Bankes jnl. 122 (26 Jan. 1821); HLRO, Hist. Coll. 379, Grey Bennet diary, 5-6.
  • 9. The Times, 8 Mar. 1821.
  • 10. Ibid. 23 Feb. 1821.
  • 11. Ibid. 5 June 1821.
  • 12. BL, Fortescue mss, Williams Wynn to Grenville [5 Dec. 1821].
  • 13. Buckingham, i. 343.
  • 14. The Times, 20 June 1823.
  • 15. Buckingham, ii. 9; Lord Campbell, Lives of Lord Chancellors, viii. 32 and Lives of Chief Justices, iii. 296.
  • 16. Add. 38296, f. 68; 40357, f. 305.
  • 17. Add. 38298, f. 101; 38576, f. 33; 40359, f. 147; 51574, Abercromby to Holland [Nov.]; 51654, Mackintosh to Lady Holland, 8 Nov., 19 Dec.; Buckingham, ii. 16-17; Twiss, ii. 476, 479, 508-9; Hobhouse Diary, 107-8; Grey mss, Ellice to Grey, 8 Dec. [1823].
  • 18. Twiss, ii. 507-8.
  • 19. Buckingham, ii. 53, 90, 128; Creevey Pprs. ii. 95; Wellington mss WP1/848/24; 849/5.
  • 20. Add. 51669, Bedford to Lady Holland, 21 Sept. [1826].
  • 21. Monypenny and Buckle, Disraeli, i. 386.
  • 22. Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1251.
  • 23. Gent. Mag (1826), ii. 368-9.
  • 24. PROB 11/1716/487; IR26/1084/565.