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Charles Christopher Pepys, first Earl of Cottenham (1781-1851)

This article was written by George Fisher Russell Barker and was published in 1895

Charles Christopher Pepys, first Earl of Cottenham 1781-1851, lord chancellor, born in Wimpole Street, Cavendish Square, London, on 29 April 1781, was the second son of Sir William Weller Pepys, bart., a master in chancery, by his wife Elizabeth, eldest daughter of the Right Hon. William Dowdeswell, sometime chancellor of the exchequer. Henry Pepys was his brother. He was educated at Harrow and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated LL.B. in 1803. He was admitted a member of Lincoln's Inn on 26 January 1801, and was called to the bar on 23 November 1804. He commenced practice at No. 16 Old Square, Lincoln's Inn; but, though esteemed a skilful equity draftsman, his progress at the chancery bar was exceedingly slow. On 24 August 1826 he was made a king's counsel, and on 6 November in the same year he was elected a bencher of Lincoln's Inn. In November 1830 he was appointed solicitor-general to Queen Adelaide, a post which he retained until May 1832.

At a by-election in July 1831 he was returned to parliament in the whig interest for Higham Ferrers, but shortly afterwards resigned his seat, and in September following was elected for Malton, which he continued to represent until his elevation to the peerage. Pepys spoke for the first time in the House of Commons on 13 October 1831, during the debate in committee on the bankruptcy bill . On 22 February 1834 he was appointed solicitor-general in Lord Grey's administration, and was knighted on the 26th of the same month. On 18 March following he obtained the appointment of a select committee to consider the state of the law of libel; and on 12 May moved the second reading of the bill for the establishment of the central criminal court, which became law during the session. He succeeded Sir John Leach as master of the rolls on 29 September 1834, and on 1 October following was sworn a member of the privy council.

On the formation of Lord Melbourne's second cabinet in April 1835 the great seal was put into commission, Pepys, Vice-chancellor Shadwell, and Mr. Justice Bosanquet being the lords commissioners. Resigning the mastership of the rolls with considerable reluctance, Pepys was appointed lord chancellor on 16 January 1836, and four days afterwards was created Baron Cottenham of Cottenham in the county of Cambridge. He took his seat in the House of Lords at the opening of parliament on 4 February 1836, and on 28 April following brought in a bill for the better administration of justice in the high court of chancery, and also an appellate jurisdiction bill. ‘His speech on this occasion,’ says Lord Campbell, ‘was tame, confused, and dissuasive’, and both bills were subsequently thrown out on the second reading. In the session of 1837-8 Cottenham carried a bill for amending the laws for the relief of insolvent debtors. Disapproving of an alteration made in his bill, Cottenham obtained the appointment of a commission in November 1839, which recommended the abolition of imprisonment on final process, and the union of bankruptcy and insolvency. On 27 August 1841 he reintroduced the bill, which had received the sanction of the house in the previous session, for facilitating the administration of justice by transferring the equity jurisdiction of the court of exchequer to the court of chancery, and by establishing two additional vice-chancellors. Before the bill became law the Melbourne ministry was defeated in the House of Commons, and Cottenham resigned office on 3 September 1841.

In 1844 Cottenham's bill for carrying out the report of the commission of inquiry into the bankruptcy and insolvency laws was finally rejected in favour of Brougham's alternative measure, which remedied some of the harshest features of the old system, though it was not sufficiently drastic to satisfy Cottenham. On the formation of Lord John Russell's first administration in July 1846 Cottenham was reappointed lord chancellor. On 28 July 1846 he moved the second reading of the small debts bill, by which the modern county courts were first established. In March 1847 he introduced a bill to facilitate the sale of encumbered estates in Ireland. Though it passed the House of Lords, the bill was dropped in the House of Commons; and on 24 February 1848 Cottenham moved the second reading of a more elaborate measure for enabling the embarrassed owners of life estates in Ireland to sell their property, which received the royal assent during the session. Cottenham's health had for some time past been giving way, and he was frequently incapacitated from his duties. He spoke for the last time in the House of Lords on 8 March 1850. On 22 April following he issued a series of orders providing a new method of claims in chancery. He was created Viscount Crowhurst and Earl of Cottenham on 11 June, and, having resigned the great seal on the 19th of the same month, he went abroad in search of health. He died at Pietra Santa in the duchy of Lucca on 29 April 1851, the seventieth anniversary of his birth, and was buried at Totteridge in Hertfordshire.

Cottenham was a steady and consistent whig, a sound lawyer, and an exceedingly able judge. His judgments, which were more remarkable for their sound sense than for any subtle reasoning, were clear, businesslike, and free from affectation or display. Brougham declared that his appointment of Pepys to the mastership of the rolls was his ‘own best title to the gratitude of the profession’. ‘His skill in deciding cases,’ says Campbell, ‘arises from a very vigorous understanding, unwearied industry in professional plodding, and a complete mastery over all the existing practice, and all the existing doctrines of the court of chancery. He considers the system which he has to administer as the perfection of human wisdom. Phlegmatic in everything else, here he shows a considerable degree of enthusiasm’. He was neither an eloquent orator nor a great advocate. As a law reformer he was not very successful, and as a politician he was a decided failure. Absorbed in his legal work, he had no tastes or interest outside his profession. He cared little for society, was cold and reserved in his manners, and extremely tenacious of his opinions. He rarely spoke in the House of Commons, but in the upper house he was compelled by reason of his position to take a more frequent part in the debates. In the cabinet he is said to have remained silent, unless some point of law was expressly put him. His judgments will be found in Clark and Finelly's ‘Reports of Cases heard and decided in the House of Lords,’ Cooper's ‘Reports of Cases in Chancery decided by Lord Cottenham,’ and in the reports of Mylne and Craig, Craig and Phillips, Phillips, Hall and Twells, and Macnaghten and Gordon. Among his most important decisions were those delivered by him in the Auchterarder case, O'Connell's case, and in the cases of Tullett v. Armstrong and Scarborough v. Borman. His scheme for the reform of chancery is printed in Hardy's ‘Memoirs of Henry, Lord Langdale,’ 1852, ii. 252-6.

He married, on 30 June 1821, Caroline Elizabeth, second daughter of William Wingfield (afterwards Wingfield-Baker), K.C., chief justice of the Brecon circuit, and subsequently a master in chancery, by whom he had fifteen children. He was succeeded in the earldom by his eldest son, Charles Edward, who died unmarried on 18 February 1863, when the family honours devolved upon his next brother, William John, whose eldest son became fourth earl in 1881. His widow survived him many years, and died at Sunninghill, Berkshire, on 7 April 1868, aged 65. Cottenham was descended from John Pepys of Cottenham, Cambridgeshire, a great-uncle of Samuel Pepys the diarist. By the death of his elder brother, Sir William Weller Pepys, on 5 October 1845, the baronetcy conferred upon his father (23 June 1801) devolved upon Cottenham, who also inherited, on 9 December 1849, the baronetcy which had been conferred upon his uncle, Sir Lucas Pepys. He was appointed a governor of the Charterhouse on 17 February 1836, and served as treasurer of Lincoln's Inn in 1837. The full-length portrait of Cottenham in his chancellor's robes, by H. P. Briggs, R.A., which was exhibited at the loan collection of national portraits at South Kensington in 1868, was engraved by Thomas Lunton in 1850. His portrait was also painted by Sir George Hayter and C. R. Leslie.


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