Abraham Brewster—from legal obscurity to lord chancellor

Published in Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2020), Volume 28

A man described as ‘one of the greatest advocates of the [nineteenth] century’ has become merely a footnote in history.

By Rob Christie

Above: Tory leader Sir Robert Peel—as a staunch supporter of his party, which came to power in 1841, Abraham Brewster was favoured by Peel for the position of law advisor to Dublin Castle.

Abraham Brewster was born at Ballinulta, Co. Wicklow, in April 1796. He was educated at Kilkenny College and Trinity College, where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1817. He was called to the bar in 1819 and practised on the Leinster circuit, taking on all manner of cases, acting for both plaintiffs and defendants. His talents as an advocate were recognised in 1831 when the lord chancellor appointed him king’s counsel (KC; QC from 1837).

At 48 years of age and with 25 years’ experience in practising law, he was involved in the State trial of Daniel O’Connell, one of the most important cases of the decade. O’Connell had been arrested following the cancellation of a ‘monster meeting’ to be held at Clontarf in October 1843. The meeting, in support of the movement to repeal the Act of Union, was banned by the government. Prime Minister Robert Peel said that the meeting ‘… was an attempt to overthrow the Constitution of the British Empire…’ and he had warships and 3,000 troops ready to quell any disturbance.

Fearing a violent outcome, O’Connell cancelled the meeting but was nevertheless arrested for conspiracy. His trial, set for early 1844, was to be prosecuted by Attorney General Thomas Smith, Solicitor General Richard Greene and law adviser to the Castle Abraham Brewster QC, to whom fell much of the preparatory work.

Law advisor

Appointments to senior law positions such as law advisor were determined by a mixture of legal and political reasoning. Brewster was favoured as a staunch supporter of Robert Peel’s Tory Party, which had come to power in 1841. The role involved resolving legal questions and giving advice to Dublin Castle. Daniel O’Connell denounced the decision to appoint Brewster, on the grounds of his ‘Orangeism’ and extreme party prejudice. So vociferous were O’Connell’s protests that Home Secretary Sir James Graham wrote to Attorney General Blackburne asking for the nomination to be suspended. Blackburne refused and said that he would not tolerate ‘so gross an insult to Mr Brewster’, who was appointed to the position on 10 October 1841.

O’Connell was not prepared to let the matter rest. He addressed members of the Loyal National Repeal Association on 18 October and railed against the appointment of ‘Barrister Brewster’ as ‘secret advisor at the Castle’. He commenced by acknowledging that

‘… Mr Brewster … is a man thoroughly competent, by his legal knowledge, and his station in his profession, to be the legal advisor at the Castle … Between him and me there is no enmity … but this I know, … the most formidable enemy of religious liberty is the conscientious bigot who thinks he is doing right when he inflicts … injuries on others in the name of the God of charity … I do believe that there is not so avowed an enemy of the rights of Catholic people of Ireland at the Bar as Mr Brewster.’

Evictions at Haroldstown

O’Connell accused Brewster of evicting 173 individuals from a property that he had inherited at Haroldstown townland, Co. Carlow, in 1831. On 21 October 1841 the Dublin Monitor printed a letter under the heading, ‘Is Brewster an Exterminator?’. The article stated that in 1831 seventeen families were put off the land, and that ‘all but two of the ejected widows have died’. In 1835 another 93 people were removed:

‘Most of the poor creatures have remained nearly houseless to the present day—some sheltering in temporary huts on the roadside … where they have passed the winter in deepest misery.’

The Dublin Evening Packet and Correspondent gave a different version of events, stating that Brewster had paid the tenants to leave, as the land was worked out. Instead of vacating, they moved to another portion of the townland in contravention of the agreement and Brewster was forced to take legal action to evict them.

O’Connell was to have the last word on 28 October 1841: ‘One of the greatest evils of Ireland was the extermination of Irish tenantry and it was a shame for a government … to appoint such a man as Abraham Brewster to a situation under the executive’. Regardless of the accusations, Brewster filled the position and became a major player in the preparation of the O’Connell trial.

Above: ‘TRIAL by JURY—or where are the SIXTY NAMES’. In this pro-O’Connell cartoon, while Brewster exits left, the attorney general and solicitor general confer with the devil on the exclusion of Catholic jurors at the State trial in 1844. (Bodleian Library)

O’Connell trial

Brewster only cross-examined one witness at the trial, but the Dublin Review vilified him as ‘coarse in mind and rude and unpolished in speech … If a party was to be abused or a witness brow beat Brewster was rough and ready for the service … and … earned the general dislike of respectable men among the bar and the attorneys.’ The trial concluded after 24 days; O’Connell was found guilty, sentenced to twelve months in jail and fined £2,000. The conduct of the trial was severely criticised; three months later the conviction was quashed by the House of Lords and O’Connell was released. Brewster was singled out for his role in impanelling an all-Protestant jury and was accused of jury-rigging. When Lord Heytesbury became lord lieutenant in June 1844, the Dublin Evening Packet urged him to work more independently of the Irish section of the Tory Party: ‘… If he acts judiciously, the first step he takes will be the dismissal of Mr Barrister Abraham Brewster who … is … totally despicable as a public man …’.

Despite these attacks, Brewster was a firm favourite of the establishment. During the trial the Illustrated London News wrote that ‘His professional strategy in difficult ground … his resources and his admirable tact … are almost unrivalled’. He is a ‘… man of independent fortune which he spends liberally especially on objects of public charity and general benevolence and is very much respected in private life’. In 1846 Richard Greene was promoted to attorney general and Abraham Brewster filled his former role of solicitor general. The Post criticised the appointment: ‘We hold his appointment as about the grossest affront that could be offered to the Irish bar or the people of Ireland’.

Return to private life

Above: An autographed photograph of Abraham Brewster taken in 1861 prior to his portrait being painted by Frank Reynolds. (Dublin University Magazine (1874))

The failure of the Irish Coercion Bill (which Brewster had a hand in drafting), anti-Catholic sentiment following the controversial increase in the Maynooth grant in 1845 and Peel’s decision to join with Whigs and Radicals to repeal the Corn Laws led to the fall of the government in 1846. Brewster returned to his practice, managed his estates and completed a Master of Arts degree at Trinity.

The Limerick Reporter acknowledged that Brewster was an example of what could be achieved through perseverance, talent and industry, saying that he stood between the browbeating and blustering of the past and the present more erudite members of the bar. His courage and legal powers were displayed to advantage in the sustained lengthy prosecution in the O’Connell trial but were no match for the wit and sallies of O’Connell and Robert Holmes. Of his private life, it observed that ‘he has amassed a large fortune by the pursuit of his profession; and lives like a prince, possessing a town residence in Merrion Square, a suburban one at Roebuck’ and a hunting lodge in Scotland.

When the earl of Aberdeen’s Tory Party gained power in December 1852, Abraham Brewster was appointed attorney general. He seems to have had a less controversial career in this position and in 1853 was made a privy councillor. In 1855, when the Whigs were returned to government, he resigned his position and resumed private practice, dealing with some of the highest-profile cases of the day.

Lord chancellor

Eleven years were to pass before Brewster was considered for another government post. His vacillating support for the Tories saw him out of favour. In the general election of 1857 he abstained from voting, and in the following two elections he voted for the Liberals. When the Tory Lord Derby gained power in 1866, his chief advisor on Irish affairs recommended Brewster for the post of lord chancellor, but when this was made public some Tories refused to serve under him.

To appease them, Francis Blackburne—83 and suffering from ill health—was appointed lord chancellor instead. Brewster, however, had the support of Benjamin Disraeli (who had replaced Lord Derby); he was made lord justice of appeal in July 1866, and finally lord chancellor in March 1867. The resignation of the government meant that he sat in court for the last time on 17 December 1868. Attorney General Thomas Ball spoke after his last case:

‘I … acknowledge the courtesy and kindness which we have all experienced from your Lordship … We have to express our respect and admiration for the unwearied attention, the great learning and capacity that has ever characterised the discharge of the duties of your high office.’

In 1873, at a meeting of the privy council, Brewster was sworn in as one of the lord justices of the government of Ireland in the absence of a lord lieutenant. He was again considered for the position of lord chancellor in February 1874, when Disraeli became prime minister once more. The Belfast Telegraph commented: ‘As a Chancery lawyer Mr Brewster has taken one of the foremost of ranks, but Mr Brewster is far from being in the prime of life’. In fact, he was 78 years of age and, after considering the position, declined. He died at his residence on 26 July 1874 after a severe illness. The Freeman’s Journal wrote of him that ‘he addressed more juries than any other man of his standing in the profession. His career as Lord Chancellor was unmarked by any manifestations of power—but the decisions were recognized as sound’. His funeral at Tullow was attended by the lord lieutenant, many from the legal profession, his local community and tenants. The town of Tullow came to a standstill. His estate, left to his grandson, amounted to over £127,000 (c. €16m in today’s money).

Abraham Brewster has largely been forgotten in the pages of history. One of his biographers wrote that ‘his reputation will soon be but a tradition and his name but a memory … he should be remembered as one of the greatest advocates of the century’. Nearly 150 years on, he has become merely a footnote in history.

Rob Christie is a retired school principal who has written a number of books on the Gippsland goldfields of Victoria, Australia.

FURTHER READING

F. Ball, Judges of Ireland 1221–1921 (London, 2004).

T.K. Hopper, Ireland since 1800 (London, 1989).

A. Jackson, Ireland 1798–1998 (Chichester, 2010).

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