LEACH, John (1760-1834), of 10 New Square, Lincoln's Inn, Mdx. and Seaford, Suss.
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Family and Education
b. 28 Aug. 1760, 2nd s. of Richard Leach, ironmonger, of Bedford by w. Frances Green.1 educ. Bedford g.s.; M. Temple 1785, called 1790. unm. Kntd. 17 Jan. 1818.
KC and bencher, M. Temple 1807, reader 1810, treasurer 1818; chancellor of duchy of Cornwall Feb. 1816-Jan. 1820; c.j. Chester circuit Aug. 1817-Jan. 1818, PC 30 Dec. 1817, vice-chancellor Jan. 1818-May 1827, master of rolls May 1827-d.; member of judicial committee of Privy Council 1833.
Recorder, Seaford 1795-d.
After leaving school Leach studied architecture under Sir Robert Taylor, but on the advice of his fellow pupil Samuel Pepys Cockerell decided on a legal career. He went the home circuit and Sussex sessions in the 1790s and in 1800 gave up common law work to concentrate on the equity courts, where his able pleadings won him extensive business. In 1792, he was counsel for the ministerial sitting Members in the trial of the Seaford election petition. He subsequently acquired property there, was chosen recorder in 1795 and the following year unsuccessfully contested the borough with John Hodson Durand* against candidates on the joint interest of Thomas Pelham* and Charles Rose Ellis*. By late 1801 he had joined forces with them and early in 1802 made a bargain with Durand, who agreed to keep up the presence of being a candidate until the dissolution when he would stand down for Leach. In return Leach, apparently acting as broker for Pelham and Ellis, engaged to buy Durand’s Seaford houses for £3,500. Although Durand duly stood down, Leach did not come forward, but voted for the successful Pelham-Ellis candidates. Pelham and Ellis subsequently bought Durand’s property, but Leach evidently broke with them and built up an interest which proved strong enough to secure his own return over Pelham’s candidate at a by-election in July 1806. At the subsequent general election he came in unopposed with a fellow supporter of the ‘Talents’.2
In January 1807 Lord Grenville recommended him for a silk gown, which he duly obtained.3 He ‘remained firm’ in his attachment to the Whigs after their fall from power,4 voted for Brand’s motion condemning the ministerial pledge, 9 Apr. 1807, and at the general election encountered only token resistance when returning himself and his colleague of 1806. He attended the opposition gathering before the opening of Parliament and divided against government on the address, 26 June, the state of the nation, 6 July, and for inquiry into places and pensions, 7 July 1807. He was one of the minority of 58 who voted for Whitbread’s peace resolution, 29 Feb. 1808. He voted with the Whigs in most of the major divisions of the 1807 Parliament, was at the meeting to endorse Ponsonby’s leadership, 18 Jan. 1809, was listed among ‘present opposition’ in March 1810, but was never a dedicated attender. His only recorded votes in the campaign for economical reform were on Castlereagh’s alleged corruption, 25 Apr., and the Dutch commissioners, 1 May 1809, and he did not vote for parliamentary reform, 21 May 1810. He voted for Romilly’s criminal law reform bill, 1 May 1810. A voter on the pro-Catholic side in the divisions of 5, 25, and 30 May 1808, he voted for Grattan’s motion to consider relief, 24 Apr. 1812.
Leach’s speech of 10 Mar. 1809, in which he argued that the Duke of York was ‘innocent of all corruption and corrupt contrivance’ in the military patronage scandal, won him the personal friendship of the Prince of Wales. He was said to have been ‘the man who has distinguished himself the most’ in the Regency debates, when he spoke ‘most especially’ well against restrictions, 31 Dec. 1810, and he was tipped to become solicitor-general if the Whigs came to power.5 He voted for Whitbread’s motion of 25 Feb. 1811 for inquiry into Lord Chancellor Eldon’s conduct during the King’s illness in 1804.6 On 4 Mar. 1811 he secured leave to introduce a bill to ameliorate an Act of 1810 restricting the entitlement of senior diplomats to pensions. Though resisted by the reformers, it had ministerial support and became law on 6 May.
Ministerial attempts to prevent Leach’s return for Seaford in 1812 were ineffectual. He voted against the vice-chancellor bill, 11 Feb. 1813, and on the 15th led the opposition to it, arguing that it would make the office of lord chancellor more political than judicial. To remedy the admitted deficiencies of chancery jurisdiction, he suggested more flexible use of the master of the rolls and the barons of Exchequer. He opposed Taylor’s motion to remove bankruptcy jurisdiction from the chancellorship, 11 Mar. 1813, on the ground that the plan was impractical. He voted for Catholic relief, 2 Mar., 13 and 24 May 1813.
Late in 1813, Leach declined an offer of the solicitor-generalship, as Tierney told Lord Grey, 9 Dec.:
He was assured that in the course of six or eight months there was every probability that a vacancy would be made for him on the bench ... I could not have advised him ... to forego the great object of his life out of compliment to a body which has nothing of party belonging to it but the name. It was, however, upon the idea that the party he had originally joined still existed in sufficient force to subject him to reproach if he took anything from ministers that he declined their offer, or more properly that of the Prince acting with the concurrence of the chancellor.7
Grey made no secret of his appreciation of Leach’s loyalty and sacrifice.8 He ‘had determined not to vote’ on the motion censuring Speaker Abbot for his anti-Catholic prorogation speech, 22 Apr. 1814, but was ‘controlled by the argument’ and voted for it.9 He became a member of Brooks’s in June 1814 and voted with the Whigs on the blockade of Norway, 12 May 1814; the civil list, 14 Apr., and the renewal of war, 28 Apr. and 25 May 1815, but his last recorded vote and speech in the House were with ministers against inquiry into the Regent’s expenditure, 31 May.
Tierney told Grey, 9 Dec. 1815, that he believed that in response to pressure to take the office of chancellor of the duchy of Cornwall (chief legal adviser to the Prince Regent), Leach had ‘behaved very well and got rid of the application handsomely’; but he was misinformed, for Leach decided to accept the post, though he was sufficiently embarrassed by the political implications to insist on giving up his seat in Parliament.10 He wrote a letter of explanation to Grey who ‘answered it with the feelings of kindness which I really have for him, but with some coldness as to his acceptance, which I cannot help regretting’. What the Whigs found hard to swallow was Leach’s decision to bring in for Seaford a ‘direct supporter of government’ in the person of Sir Charles Cockerell, brother of his old friend Samuel Pepys Cockerell.11 His fellow barrister Romilly spoke for many when he wrote:
The plain meaning of all this is, that he has gone over to government; but, to avoid the ridicule and reproach ... he wishes to interpose some decent interval between his past and his future politics. His loss is not very great. His attendance on Parliament was not very constant ... He aspires undoubtedly to the highest offices, and is flattered with the expectation of succeeding Lord Eldon as chancellor. His talents are certainly very considerable. He has great facility of apprehension, considerable powers of argumentation, and remarkably clear and perspicuous elocution: but ... he is, of all the persons almost that I have known in the profession, the worst qualified for any judicial situation. He is extremely deficient in knowledge as a lawyer ... In judgment he is more deficient than any man possessed of so clear an understanding that I ever met with. If ever he should be raised to any great situation, his want of judgment and his extraordinary confidence in himself will, I make no doubt, soon involve him in some serious difficulty.12
Two years later Leach was appointed to the office whose creation he had resisted in 1813. Romilly’s predictions that his speed of decision would make him very useful in the present state of chancery jurisdiction, but that his ‘extraordinary presumption’ would ‘involve him in some ridiculous difficulties’, were more or less furfilled.13 His despatch of business was strikingly swift and his decisions brief and lucid, but they were often overruled as unsound, and his irrascible manner and dictatorial demeanour brought him into repeated conflict with members of the bar. Leach, who in 1818 instigated the Milan commission to investigate the conduct of the Princess of Wales, became master of the rolls in 1827, but the woolsack eluded him. Raikes described him as a ‘kind, hospitable man’, whose manner, adopted for the fashionable high society in which he aspired to cut a figure, was ‘trifling and perhaps finical’. Eldon, who came to hate Leach (the Chancery court under Eldon was popularly known as that of ‘oyer sans terminer’, the vice-chancellor’s under Leach as that of ‘terminer sans oyer’) recorded:
It has long been the habit to give the chancellor, carrying his purse, the nickname of Baggs. When Sir John Leach was chancellor to the Prince, he also had a purse, and the Prince said as Sir John was not so rough in his manners as a King’s chancellor usually was, but a much more polite person, he should call him Reticule.14
He died 14 Sept. 1834.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: Brian Murphy / David R. Fisher
- 1. Bedford (St. Paul) par. reg.
- 2. See SEAFORD.
- 3. Geo. III Corresp. v. 3832.
- 4. Spencer mss, C. Williams Wynn to Spencer, 26 Apr. 1807.
- 5. Sydney Smith Letters ed. N. C. Smith, i. 199, 203; Malmesbury mss, FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 1 Jan. 1811; Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 419.
- 6. Romilly, Mems. ii. 375.
- 7. Ibid. iii. 124; Grey mss.
- 8. Grey mss, Grey to Lady Holland, 30 Nov., to Holland, 8 Dec. 1813.
- 9. Buckingham, Regency, ii. 64.
- 10. Grey mss; Geo. IV Letters, ii. 623.
- 11. Grey mss, Leach to Grey, 7 Feb., reply 12 Feb., Tierney to Grey, 10 Feb., Holland to same, 10 Feb., Grey to Lady Holland, 12, 17 Feb.; Dorset RO, Bond mss D367, Jekyll to Bond, 15 Feb. 1816.
- 12. Romilly, iii. 216-17.
- 13. Ibid. 325-6.
- 14. Raikes Jnl. i. 279; Lord Eldon’s Anecdote Bk. 85.