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Charles Buller (1806-1848)

This article was written by William Prideaux Courtney and was published in 1886

Charles Buller, a liberal politician, was born at Calcutta on 6 August 1806. His father, Charles Buller, a younger son of the Bullers of Morval, Cornwall, was in the revenue department of the East India Company's service, and he married Barbara Isabella, daughter of General William Kirkpatrick. From his mother the younger Charles Buller inherited his ‘lively and graceful imagination,’ from the father he derived his generosity and his earnestness.

Having had a leg injured in childhood he ever afterwards suffered from ill-health. He was sent to Harrow, but his playful disposition ill accorded with the restraint of school life, and his future course might have been jeopardised had he not been removed at the close of 1821. By the advice of Edward Irving, he was placed with a tutor who recognised the peculiarities of his character. This was Thomas Carlyle, who took Charles Buller and his younger brother, Arthur, under his charge at Edinburgh in February 1822. From the first Carlyle found ‘Charles a most manageable, intelligent, cheery, and altogether welcome and intelligent phenomenon; quite a bit of sunshine in my dreary Edinburgh element.’ The mother is described as having been ‘once very beautiful, still very witty,’ and a ‘graceful, airy, and ingeniously intelligent woman of the gossamer kind,’ while the father is painted as ‘of perfect probity, politeness, truthfulness, and of a more solid type than his wife.’

The pupil was in advance of his tutor in both Greek and Latin, but especially in the former, and Carlyle had to push ahead of him. Buller was entered at Edinburgh University for part of the session 1821-2, and again for 1822-3, and Carlyle continued to be his tutor while the Buller family dwelt at Kinnaird House, Perthshire, and in London for a short time in 1824-5. Buller then went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and Carlyle parted with him rather abruptly, bidding adieu to ‘ancient dames of quality, flaunting, painting, &c. &c.’ While at Cambridge Buller spoke at the Union in friendly rivalry with such orators as Macaulay, Praed, and Cockburn, sharing in the debates described in Lord Lytton's ‘Life,’ i. 230-47. He took his degree of B.A. in 1828, and then prepared for a career of law and politics.

His family had the command of several Cornish boroughs, and his father sat for West Looe until February 1830, when he resigned in favour of his son, who continued to represent it for that parliament and the succeeding one, 1830-1, voting for the first Reform Bill, and for the extinction of his own constituency, a step which, it is recorded, did not destroy his friendly relations with his uncle, the borough's patron. On 10 June 1831 he was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn, but for some time he devoted little attention to his profession. On the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832 the electors of Liskeard elected Buller as their representative, and the connection only ceased with his death. He was a strong reformer, rejoicing in the friendship of kindred minds like Roebuck, Mill, Grote, and Molesworth, and often taking part with the leading liberals of the day in the debates of the London Debating Society. Not long after 1832 the forces of liberalism began to subside, and in 1836 Buller said to Grote, in an oft-repeated anecdote: ‘I see what we are coming to; in no very long time from this you and I shall be left to tell Molesworth.’

He originated the record commission, and acted as chairman to the select committee on the state of the records, his speech being described as ‘a luminous and brilliant effort.’ He presided over the committee which inquired into the election law of Ireland, which was then often the subject of conflicting decisions. In the summer of 1837 he introduced a bill on the subject, and a second in the new parliament, which was elected in the winter of that year; as it did not pass he reverted to the matter in 1840. In criticising Buller's speech on Lord Stanley's bill on this vexed question Macaulay said: ‘Charles Buller spoke with talent as he always does; and with earnestness, dignity, and propriety, which he scarcely ever does,’ an allusion to the fact that the effect of his speeches was sometimes weakened by too strong a propensity for jokes. This fault was considerably lessened in the closing decade of his life, partly through a taunt from Sir Robert Peel, and partly through the softening influences of official life. When Lord Durham went to Canada in 1838 as governor-general, he was accompanied by Buller as his chief secretary, and the celebrated report on Canada which bears Lord Durham's name was mainly written by Buller with the assistance of Gibbon Wakefield. The account of the administration of Canada at this period, in Harriet Martineau's ‘History of the Thirty Years' Peace,’ ii. 376-92, was based on Buller's journal of his residence there, and two elaborate reviews by J. S. Mill, to whose suggestions Buller was always open, appeared in the ‘London and Westminster Review’ in 1838.

On his return to England he commenced practice, and with considerable success, before the judicial committee of the privy council in colonial and Indian appeals. In 1841 he was appointed secretary to the board of control, but resigned his office on the accession of Sir Robert Peel to power in the autumn of the same year. When Lord John Russell formed a whig ministry in 1846, the post of judge-advocate-general was conferred on Buller. The honour of a privy councillorship is almost invariably bestowed on the holder of this office, but it was declined by him, according to the writer in ‘Tait's Magazine,’ on the ground that he had not deserved it, and, according to another statement, because with such an honour he could not have pleaded in the ordinary law courts. In the following year he became chief poor law commissioner, an unpopular position which he accepted in the hope that he might achieve therein the main object of his life, that of ‘doing good.’ He immediately took up the subject of the poor law with his accustomed energy, and in the session of 1848 carried through parliament some short bills reforming the existing enactments relating thereto.

Buller was depicted in 1831 as six feet three inches in height, and a yard in breadth, but though of great bodily strength he was often ailing. In the late autumn of 1848 he underwent an operation ‘which brought on erysipelas, and the erysipelas was followed by typhus.’ This is the statement of Sir G. C. Lewis, and Mr. Froude adds that it happened ‘through the blundering of an unskilful surgeon.’ He died at Chester Place, Chester Square, London, 29 November 1848. His bust, by Henry Weekes, with an inscription by his friend, Lord Houghton, was placed in the west aisle of the north transept of Westminster Abbey, near the memorial to Horner, the situation being selected by Dean Buckland ‘from the similarity of their early distinction and premature deaths.’ His portrait, by B. E. Duppa, was engraved by E. Scriven.

Buller's father died at Richmond on 17 May 1848. Thackeray, in ‘Dr. Birch and his Young Friends,’ exclaimed,

‘Why should your mother, Charles, not mine,
Be weeping at her darling's grave?’

but she was not left long to mourn the loss of him whom she worshipped. She died broken-hearted on 13 March 1849. Every one who came within Buller's presence was amused by the keenness of a wit which never wounded, and impressed by the sincerity of his purpose for good. Carlyle styled him ‘a fine honest fellow,’ and again, ‘the genialest radical I have ever met,’ pouring out in the columns of the ‘Examiner’ an elegy on his death. Macready, who improved him in elocution, Macaulay, Harriet Martineau, Grote, and Sir George Cornewall Lewis, have all united in their letters or autobiographies in expressions of heartfelt regret at the death of their friend. Bulwer Lytton, in his poem of ‘St. Stephen's,’ apostrophised Buller with the words

Farewell, fine humorist, finer reasoner still,
Lively as Luttrell, logical as Mill.

The titles of his pamphlets are printed in the ‘Bibliotheca Cornubiensis.’ At one time he wrote leading articles for the ‘Globe’ newspaper, and in 1837 he edited, in conjunction with Sir Henry Cole, a new weekly paper called ‘The Guide.’ He also contributed a few articles to the ‘Edinburgh’ and ‘Westminster’ reviews. The particulars, with extracts, of two elaborate ‘jeux d'esprit,’ one written by Charles Buller entirely, and the other by him and Lord Houghton, are given in the latter's ‘Monographs.’ The success of these productions was enormous; that which purported to describe a debate in the French chamber on the queen of England's fancy-dress ball imposed on several French and British papers.

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