PEMBERTON, Thomas (1793-1867), of Lincoln's Inn and 3 Spring Garden Terrace, Mdx.

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



1831 - 1832
1835 - 13 Mar. 1843

Family and Education

b. 11 Feb. 1793, 1st surv. s. of Robert Pemberton (d. 1804), barrister, of Serle Street, Lincoln’s Inn and Margaret, da. and coh. of Edward Leigh of Bispham, Lancs. educ. Dr. Horne’s sch., Chiswick 1800-9; L. Inn 1811, called 1816. unm. suc. cos. Sir Robert Holt Leigh†, 1st bt., of Hindley Hall to life interest in his Lancs. estates and took additional name of Leigh by royal lic. 10 Mar. 1843; cr. Bar. Kingsdown 28 Aug. 1858. d. 7 Oct. 1867.

Offices Held

KC 1829; bencher, L. Inn 1829, treas. 1842; att.-gen. to prince of Wales 1841-3; PC 10 June 1843; chan. of duchy of Cornw. 1843-61; member, jud. cttee. of PC 1843.


Pemberton’s father, a descendant of Sir Francis Pemberton (1625-97), chief justice of the common pleas, was earning about £2,000 a year at the chancery bar at the time of his death in 1804, but he had been unable to save any substantial sum and left his widow with only £500 a year to support herself and five children. Thomas, the eldest son, had to give up all hope of progressing from his preparatory school to Westminster and Oxford, which might have led him reluctantly into the church via a living at the disposal of a family friend. He left school at the age of 16 and spent a year in a solicitor’s office before becoming a pupil in the chambers of his maternal uncle Edward Cooke, a chancery barrister. When he was called to the bar in 1816 he was earning a ‘pittance of £100 or £150’ by drawing equity pleadings for solicitors. Forty years later he wrote:

All my earliest years were gloomy and joyless, and I cannot remember one, hardly indeed a month in the course of them which I would willingly live again, whereas there is hardly one year (if indeed there be one) since my twenty-fourth which I would not gladly repeat ... No doubt, however, it is to this period, however little agreeable in itself, that I am indebted for much of my consequent success ... I learned to consider indefatigable labour as the indispensable condition of success; pecuniary independence as essential alike to virtue and to happiness; and no sacrifices too great to avoid the misery of debt.

He initially took work on the northern circuit and as a parliamentary counsel, but he concentrated on the chancery bar, where his rise was unusually rapid: before he was 30 he had a professional income of £3,000 a year. He travelled widely in Europe in the vacations. He obtained a silk gown in 1829 and thereafter divided the practice of the rolls court with his friend and rival Henry Bickersteth. In 1830 he successfully conducted a minor case on behalf of his mother’s cousin Sir Robert Holt Leigh, who in gratitude made him heir to his estates in the Wigan area.1

Pemberton had parliamentary ambitions and at the general election of 1831 became one of three king’s counsel who were ‘brought in to oppose the [Grey ministry’s reform] bill’.2 He was approached about standing for Rye by his former pupil Cecil Fane, brother-in-law of Charles Arbuthnot*, the former Tory election manager, who led him to expect a quiet return on the Lamb interest with the sitting Member Pusey, at a cost of £2,400. But the election was marked by serious disorder, as the patron’s opponents, frustrated by the recent reversal of a decision on the right of election in their favour, and provoked by intimidatory tactics, strove to prevent the return of two anti-reformers. Pemberton, having narrowly escaped physical assault, gave up the contest and returned to London, only to learn that as a result of a compromise he had been elected with one of his radical opponents, Pusey being unacceptable.3 In 1859 he wrote:

I shall never forget the night in which, after so much excitement, I found myself a Member of Parliament. I threw myself on my knees and earnestly prayed ... that I might be enabled to perform faithfully and successfully the duties which belong to that position.

He voted against the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July 1831, and divided steadily against its details. He presented a Rye petition for repeal of the duty on marine insurance, 1 July, but remained silent in debate for two months, as he later recalled:

Of one ordinary failing of my profession, an eagerness to speak more often than the audience is disposed to listen, I could not be accused. I think nobody ever felt more nervous or more unwilling to open his mouth than I did, although I believe I did not show it much in my manner after I had once begun ... I remained silent so long that some of the party rather reproached me, and said that it was expected of me to speak.

He eventually did so on 20 Aug. 1831, when he attacked the government’s proposal to allow certain borough freeholders a vote in county elections to counterbalance the effects of the Chandos amendment enfranchising tenants-at-will. He was ‘greatly delighted’ with his performance, but chagrined to find that it was ‘hardly noticed’ in the newspapers.4 He voted in condemnation of the Irish government’s alleged interference in the Dublin election, 23 Aug., criticized the arrangements for the registration of voters under the reform bill, 2 Sept., and divided against the issue of a new writ for Liverpool, 5 Sept. After voting against the third reading of the reform bill, 19 Sept., he opposed its passage:

I am not blind to the defects ... of the constitution, but I would rather keep it such as it is, with all its theoretical imperfections, and all its practical blessings, than cast it away, and gamble for a new one in the lottery of revolution.

Lord Lowther* and Charles Williams Wynn* numbered it among several ‘admirable and unanswerable’ and ‘good and effective’ speeches against the bill, and Pemberton himself recollected that it had gained him ‘a good deal of credit’.5 He was in the minority against the passage of the bill, 21 Sept., and voted against the second reading of the Scottish reform bill, 23 Sept. He sought to expose the deficiencies of the bankruptcy court bill, 13 Oct., ridiculing its portrayal as a testament to lord chancellor Brougham’s genius. Pemberton was not present for the division on the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, but he voted against going into committee on it, 20 Jan., and the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb. 1832. Speaking against the third reading, 19 Mar., he opted for the ‘danger of rejecting’ it in preference to the ‘certain evil of passing’ it and appealed to the Lords to throw it out. He was in the hostile minority, 22 Mar. He voted against government on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12 July, and the Irish reform bill, 25 May, 2 July. In June 1832 he was one of seven lawyers who sent a written protest to Brougham over the hasty passage of four real property law bills.6

Recalling his speech on the reform bill, Pemberton wrote that ‘there is nothing so intoxicating ... as the success of a speech in the House of Commons, and no effort of which the reward is so out of all proportion to the merit’. In his own case, its effects were felt not in rapid professional advancement, which he eschewed, but in

the alteration which it made in my social position, in the introduction into society to which I had not been accustomed, and for which, in truth, I was not very fit. I had neither the animal spirits nor the conversational talents which make men popular in company, nor the easy indifference which an early familiarity with it is, perhaps, necessary to produce. I was always, and still remain, shy and taciturn, and like no place so well as my own chimney-corner.

A founder member of the Carlton Club, he spent £800 on a two-day canvass of Taunton at the 1832 general election, but gave it up as a lost cause. He returned to Westminster in 1835 as Conservative Member for Ripon, but lacked the will to rise to the top in politics. He declined (through ‘moral cowardice’, as he later reflected) Peel’s offer of the solicitor-generalship in 1834, which would probably have set him on the road to the great seal; and, diffidently distrusting his judicial abilities, he preferred to remain master of the chancery bar than to take a seat on the bench. His inheritance from Leigh in 1843 was reduced to a life interest in the Wigan estates, the baronet having in the interim fathered an illegitimate son and remaindered the property to him. It nevertheless made Pemberton financially secure and prompted him to retire from Parliament and the bar. He subsequently became a member of the judicial committee of the privy council, which he dominated for some 20 years, and in that capacity exercised his considerable talents to accomplish much valuable work. His attention to duchy of Cornwall affairs made him a friend and admirer of Prince Albert.7 Greville, commenting on one of his judgments in 1857, wrote:

Its publication will give the world in general some idea of his great ability, with the extent of which few are acquainted. It is a very singular thing that in such times as these, and when there is such a dearth of able men and so great a demand for them, that he should voluntarily condemn himself to a state of comparative obscurity, and refuse to take the station in public life which it would be difficult to find any other man so well qualified to fill.8

In 1858 he accepted a peerage, which became extinct on his death as a bachelor in October 1867. According to an obituary, he combined a ‘remarkable clearness and precision of intellect’ with a ‘fastidious refinement, which removed him altogether from the common pursuits of fame and power’.9

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Oxford DNB.
  • 2. Life of Campbell, i. 517.
  • 3. Hastings Iris, 23, 30 Apr., 7 May 1831.
  • 4. The Times, 22 Aug. 1831 confirms this claim.
  • 5. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 22 Sept. 1831; NLW, Coedymaen mss 220.
  • 6. Brougham mss, memo. [June 1832].
  • 7. Oxford DNB.
  • 8. Greville Mems. vii. 279-80.
  • 9. Gent. Mag. (1867), ii. 674-6.