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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Today in History: Baron Alderson

Baron_alderson On this day 175 years ago, November 12, 1830, Edward Hall Alderson was named to the Court of King’s Bench.  A native of Norfolk, the 43-year-old Alderson had been one of the most brilliant students in the history of Cambridge, one of only two men ever to finish first in his class in both mathematics (Senior Wrangler) and classics, and winning the top prizes for both physics and Greek odes.  A friend and protégé of Lord Brougham, he went on to enjoy great success on the Northern Circuit, representing the great landowners and the Canal and Turnpike Trusts in their battles against the new railroads.

Alderson had frequently been mentioned as a likely future Lord Chancellor, but the death from overwork of his brother-in-law Lord Gifford (who had been Chief Judge, Attorney General, and Master of the Rolls) in 1826, following closely on the death of his eldest daughter and his own growing involvement in what would come to be called the Oxford Movement in the Church of England, led him to think seriously about the relative comforts and advantages of a simple puisne judgeship.

As it happened, the ascension of William IV in June 1830, led Parliament to create three new judgeships, one each on the Exchequer, the King’s Bench, and the Common Pleas.  The Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, was a Tory.  Alderson, though he had been raised in and around the radical Whig circles in Norwich and was particularly close to his radical cousin, the novelist Amelia Alderson Opie, had become a staunch High Church Tory while still in school.  And he now decided he wanted one of those slots.

Nothing could be done, though, until the Parliamentary elections of July and August were sorted out.  The House of Commons had become badly fractured.  Most people assumed that Wellington would continue his ministry.  On November 12, Alderson -- who had not yet taken the silk gown of a King’s Counsel -- was nevertheless named a Judge of the King’s Bench, the youngest judge in England.  As it turned out, he got through just in time.  Three days later, on November 15, the Wellington government unexpectedly lost a test vote on a minor civil list bill, and the King called on Earl Grey to form the first Whig cabinet in a quarter-century. Two days later Alderson received his knighthood.

Of course, Sir Edward Hall Alderson did not make his name on the King’s Bench. During the brief five-month stretch of Sir Robert Peel’s Tory government -- a rare window in a period of Whig rule -- he was translated to the Court of Exchequer in 1834, where his superior knowledge of equity was thought to make him of more value.  He remained on the bench, a happy judge surrounded by a large family, whose home was a prominent gathering place for Tory intellectuals, until his death in 1857.

And so it was from the Exchequer bench in 1854, the 67-year-old Baron Alderson would announce the decision in one of the most celebrated contracts cases of all time, Hadley v. Baxendale.

[Frank Snyder]

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