Daily Archives: May 7, 2013

Weeping Judges

My research interest is Mr Justice Willis and it is almost a reflex action now whenever I encounter a book about 19th century justice to flip to the index to see if ‘my’ judge gets a mention.  Again and again my heart has leaped at seeing   “Willes, J.” only to look more closely and see that it is Willes (with an ‘e’) instead of Willis (with an ‘i’).  The two judges were roughly contemporaneous and I wouldn’t be the first person to have confused them .   Of course, I’m fairly wedded to the human story in my own Judge Willis, but Judges Willes (with an ‘e’) has a damned good story as well.  Perhaps I should write it when I’ve finished with my man? (Only joking- mostly).

When reading 19th century press reports of trials, there are stock phrases that are used in describing the demeanour of the judges.  In the court reports, judges might be “twitchy”, they “stifle a groan”, they are “grave” and- rather strangely to our way of thinking today- are sometimes “overcome by weeping”.    Thomas Dixon from the Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotions has written an excellent article titled ‘The Tears of Mr Justice Willes’ in the Journal of Victorian Culture  2012, Vol 17 No. 1 p.1-23.  It is available on open access here.

James Shaw Willes was born in 1814 and died in 1872. He was born in Cork and was educated at Trinity College Dublin but was called to the English Bar and commenced practice on the Home Circuit.  At the age of forty one (which is young) he was knighted and appointed a puisne judge of the Common Pleas and he presided over a number of sensational and widely reported cases.  Most particularly he presided over the 1865 trial of Constance Kent for the murder of her young half-brother at Road Hill House Wiltshire, a case which was so ably explored in Kate Summerscale’s recent book The Suspicions of Mr Witcher (which I reviewed here). In this case, along with others he heard, Justice Willes was overcome by emotion, breaking down in tears.  According to press reports, in passing sentence on young Constance, Justice Willes ‘bent forward and wept for some few seconds’ and  ‘the learned Judge here again wept, and the solemn words of his sentence were almost inaudible’.  Dixon’s article gives several other examples of Justice Willes’ displays of emotion, before moving to talk about the meaning of tears across history and particularly in the 19th century.

I have come across several mentions of Justice Willes- in fact, ‘my’ Judge Willis cited him in a court case once.  Indeed, he was highly acclaimed for his judicial knowledge at the time and after, although apparently he had his detractors among some of the other judges (as did ‘my’ Judge Willis who in fact seemed to take pride in his unpopularity with his fellow judges).   Justice Willes seems to have been a deeply intelligent, cultured, literate man.  It would appear that his personal life was rather unhappy, and there are suggestions that he married only to avoid a breach of promise action.  He sat at the highest levels of the judicial establishment in England at the time, and was a member of the Privy Council.   He committed suicide in 1872.  Explanations for his suicide have included his over-sensitive and melancholic  nature, ‘repressed gout’,  the burden on his health of heavy court sittings, and the prospect of potential political scandal.  In his article Dixon looks at the diagnosis of ‘repressed gout’- a malady much in fashion at the time- and its relationship with the emotions.

Thomas Dixon has a 3-part posting on the History of Emotions blog.  It’s a good read, interspersed with video clips and comments on a BBC program (to which Dixon contributed) called  Ian Hislop’s History of the Stiff Upper Lip, which screened in England in November 2012.  I wonder if we’ll see it here in Australia, or whether it will be scooped up under the highly unpleasant Foxtel deal.

I’m fascinated by this whole area of history.  I can see a whole other area to explore in relation to ‘my’ Judge opening up in front of me!