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Sir William Blackstone

Born: 10th July 1723 at Cheapside, London
Head of New Inn Hall, Oxford

Died: 14th February 1780 at Wallingford, Berkshire

Sir William was a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas from an old Wiltshire family. His father, Charles Blackstone, was a prosperous London tradesman, while his mother, Mary, was the eldest daughter of Lovelace Bigg Esq of Chilton House at Leverton in Hungerford. He was born in Cheapside, educated at Charterhouse and Pembroke College, Oxford, and elected a fellow of All Souls in 1744. He was a good classical scholar, something of a poet, well read in English literature, and was called to the Bar in 1746. He had not a great practice, but got the Recordership of Wallingford, and passed much of his life in the College of which he was an excellent Steward and Bursar. He also did much to reform the (then) inefficient administration of the Clarendon Press.

In his thirtieth year, being disappointed of the Chair of Civil Law, for which he had been recommended to the Crown, be began, at the suggestion of the Solicitor-General, afterwards Lord Mansfield, to deliver a course of lectures on English Law, and these were so successful that he became the first occupant of the newly founded Vinerian Professorship in 1758. His success also brought him practice, a seat in the House of Commons and the Headship of New Inn Hall, Oxford, in 1761. The first volume of his ’Commentaries on the Laws of England’ appeared in 1765, being the enlarged substance of his lectures, the fourth and final volume came in 1769, and edition after edition followed down to the middle of the nineteenth century. It was the first time that English Law had been made readable and intelligible to the lay mind. The book was quoted in the Courts and treated almost as an authority. The rising tide of the appeal to 'Natural Rights' as against precedent, which foreshadowed and accompanied the French Revolution, led the new school of jurists, headed by Bentham and Austen, to discredit the work as having in it no 'original philosophy of Law' - a property which its author might well have asked his critics to define. Blackstone was not, indeed, a great Civilian and did not pretend to be. He was only the most lucid and harmonious expositor of the English Systems that ever lived. It has been said in more recent times that the Commentaries “summed up and passed on the Common Law, as developed mainly by the work of the legal profession, before it was remodelled by direct legislation”.

Blackstone retired from his Professorship and Headship, in 1766, and was made a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in 1770. He was not by any means a great judge, being unfitted by temperament and habit for quick decisions. He spent the last twenty years of his life with his family in Castle Priory House which he built at Wallingford and which still stands as an hotel with its lawn sloping down to the river. His fine statue by Bacon in the Library of All Souls seems to dominate that magnificent room, to the enrichment of whose shelves he largely contributed. If it is true that in his later life he became both irritable and heavy, it is certain that, during the eighteen years spent in his beloved College, he was the most genial and delightful of companions.  

Edited from Emery Walker's "Historical Portraits" (1909).

    © Nash Ford Publishing 2001. All Rights Reserved.