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Sir Alexander Cockburn, 12th Baronet

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Title: Sir Alexander Cockburn, 12th Baronet  
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Sir Alexander Cockburn, 12th Baronet

The Right Honourable
Sir Alexander Cockburn
1st Lord Chief Justice of England
In office
1 November 1875 – 28 November 1880
Monarch Victoria
Preceded by None
Chief Justice, Queen's Bench
Succeeded by The Lord Coleridge
Chief Justice, Queen's Bench
In office
24 June 1859 – 1 November 1875
Monarch Victoria
Preceded by The Lord Campbell
Succeeded by None
Lord Chief Justice of England
Personal details
Born (1802-12-24)24 December 1802
Alcina, Transylvania
Kingdom of Hungary
Died 28 November 1880(1880-11-28) (aged 77)
40 Hertford Street, Mayfair, London
United Kingdom
Resting place Kensal Green Cemetery
Brent, Greater London
United Kingdom
Nationality British
Spouse(s) Louisa Ann Elizabeth Dalley Godfrey (not married)
Children Louisa C. Cockburn
Alexander E. Cockburn
Alma mater Trinity Hall, Cambridge
Occupation Barrister, judge

Sir Alexander James Edmund Cockburn, 12th Baronet, QC (24 September 1802 – 28 November 1880[1]) was a Scottish jurist and politician who served as the Lord Chief Justice for 21 years. A notorious womaniser and socialite, he heard some of the leading causes célèbres of the nineteenth century.

In 1847 he decided to stand for parliament, and was elected unopposed as Liberal Member of Parliament for Southampton. His speech in the House of Commons on behalf of the government in the Don Pacifico dispute with Greece commended him to Lord John Russell, who appointed him Solicitor-General in 1850 and Attorney General in 1851, a post which he held till the resignation of the ministry in February 1852.[2]


  • Life 1
  • Advocate (1832–1847) 2
  • As Law Officer of the Crown (1850–1856) 3
  • As Judge (1856–1880) 4
  • Personality 5
  • Family 6
  • References 7
  • Bibliography 8
  • External links 9


Cockburn was born in Alţâna, in what is now Romania and was then part of Habsburg Monarchy,[3][4] to Alexander Cockburn and his wife Yolande, daughter of the Vicomte de Vignier.[2][5] His father served as British envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Württemberg and the Colombia District (now Colombia) and was the fourth son of Sir James Cockburn, 8th Baronet (born c.1729, died July 1804), his three older uncles having died without heirs.

He was initially educated largely abroad and became fluent in French and familiar with German, Italian and Spanish. He was educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, gaining a first in Civil law in 1824–5 and graduating in 1829 with an LL.B. degree, and also being elected a fellow, and afterwards an honorary fellow.[6] He entered the Middle Temple in 1825, and was called to the bar in 1829. He joined the western circuit and built up a substantial practice though he was sufficiently diffident about his success in London to devote little of his energies there, not even keeping his Chambers open.[5]

Three years after his call, the Reform Bill was passed. Cockburn started to practise in election law, including acting for Henry Lytton Bulwer and Edward Ellice. In 1833, with William Rowe, he published a parliamentary brief on the decisions of election committees. In 1834, Ellice recommended Cockburn as member of the commission to enquire into the state of the corporations of England and Wales. Through his parliamentary work Cockburn met Joseph Parkes and himself became interested in politics as a profession in itself, not simply as a pretext for legal argument. Cockburn had become ambitious and in 1838 he turned down the offer of a judicial appointment in India with the sentiment "I am going in for something better than that". He became Recorder of Southampton and from that point started to reduce his election and parliamentary work in favour of more publicly notorious cases. In 1841 he was made a Q.C.[5]

In December 1852, under Lord Aberdeen's ministry, Cockburn again became Attorney General, and remained so until 1856, taking part in many celebrated trials.[2]

In 1854 Cockburn was made Recorder of Bristol. In 1856, he became Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. He inherited the baronetcy in 1858. In 1859, Lord Campbell became Lord Chancellor, and Cockburn became Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench.

Several Prime Ministers offered to nominate Cockburn for a peerage, and he finally accepted the offer in 1864. However, Queen Victoria refused, noting that "this peerage has been more than once previously refused upon the ground of the notoriously bad moral character of the Chief Justice".[7]

In 1875, the post of Chief Justice was replaced by Lord Chief Justice, a position he held until his death[2] on 28 November 1880. He died of angina pectoris at his house in 40 Hertford Street, Mayfair, London; he had continued working up until his death despite three heart attacks and warnings from his doctor.[5] As he never married, he produced no legitimate heirs despite having a surviving child. As a result, the baronetcy became dormant upon his death.[2] His remains were deposited in Catacomb A of Kensal Green Cemetery.

Advocate (1832–1847)

  • Trial of Dr Cockburn: In 1841 a charge of simony, brought against his uncle, William, Dean of York, enabled Cockburn to appear conspicuously in a case which attracted considerable public attention, the proceedings taking the form of a motion for prohibition duly obtained against the ecclesiastical court, which had deprived Dr Cockburn of his office.[2]
  • Daniel McNaghten: Sir Robert Peel's secretary, Edward Drummond, was shot by Daniel McNaghten in 1843. Cockburn, briefed on behalf of the assassin, made a speech which helped to establish the insanity defence in Britain for the next century.[5] At the trial, Cockburn had made extensive and effective use of Isaac Ray's Treatise on the Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity. Cockburn quoted extensively from the book which rejected traditional views of the insanity defence based on the defendant's ability to distinguish "right from wrong" in favour of a broader approach based on causation.[8][9] Cockburn displayed a mastery of the scientific evidence and was an innovator in exploiting forensic science in court.[10]
  • The winner of the 1844 Derby: In 1844, he appeared in Wood v. Peel to determine the winner of a bet (the [12][11]
  • Lieutenant Henry Hawkey: In 1846 Hawkley, an officer of the Royal Marines, was tried for murder at Winchester assizes after shooting James Alexander Seton in a duel; Cockburn secured Hawkey's acquittal. James Seton was the last British person to be killed in a duel in the United Kingdom.
  • The Achilli trial: During the short administration of Lord Derby, Cockburn was engaged against Sir Frederic Thesiger Attorney General at the time, and for John Henry Newman, in the case of a friar named Giacinto Achilli who had accused Newman of libel. The jury who heard the case under Lord Campbell found that Newman's plea of justification was not proved except in one particular, a verdict which, together with the methods of the judge and the conduct of the audience, attracted considerable comment.[2]

As Law Officer of the Crown (1850–1856)

Lord John Russell appointed Cockburn as Solicitor-General in 1850, and as Attorney General in 1851, which latter post he held until the resignation of the ministry in February 1852. In December 1852, under Lord Aberdeen's ministry, Cockburn again became Attorney General, and remained so until 1856, taking part in many celebrated trials.

Cockburn shepherded through Parliament the Common Law Procedure Act 1852[13] and the Common Law Procedure Act 1854.[14]

  • William Palmer: In his tenure as Attorney General from 1852 to 1856, he led for the crown in the trial of William Palmer of Rugeley in Staffordshire, an ex-medical man who poisoned a friend named Cook with strychnine in order to steal from his estate. Cockburn made an exhaustive study of the medical aspects of the case and won a conviction after a twelve-day trial, again demonstrating his skill with forensic science.[2]

As Judge (1856–1880)

Cockburn always sought out the most sensational cases and was astute in rearranging his diary so that he could sit in any trial likely to attract the attention of the press.[16]

  • The Tichborne Case: Cockburn presided over the civil case in which Arthur Orton attempted to establish his identity as the missing baronet Sir Roger Tichborne. This trial collapsed after 103 days, the longest civil trial on record. Cockburn then presided over the subsequent trial of Orton for perjury, a famous trial that lasted 188 days, setting a record for criminal trials, of which Cockburn CJ's summing-up occupied eighteen.[2][18]
  • R v. Hicklin: He developed the Hicklin test for obscenity.[19]
  • The Alabama claims: He also played a role in the arbitration of the Alabama claims at Geneva in 1872, in which he represented the British government. He dissented from the majority view as to British liability for the actions of British-built privateer ships. He prepared the English translation of the arbitrators' award and published a controversial dissenting opinion in which he admitted British liability for the actions of the CSS Alabama, though not on the grounds given in the award, and discounted liability for the CSS Florida and CSS Shenandoah.[2]
  • The Overend-Gurney fraud trial: In the trial of the partners of Overend & Gurney, a bank that had collapsed in spectacular circumstances following precarious risks taken by the managers, in his summing up, Cockburn expressed the view that the defendants had been guilty of nothing more than "grave error".[20]
  • Woodley v. Metropolitan District Railway Co.:[21] Woodley was set to repair a wall in a darkened railway tunnel in which trains continued to run, without warning or dedicated lookout, and with barely sufficient clearance between train and wall for the workman to make himself safe when a train passed. Woodley was seriously injured when he reached across the rail for a tool and was struck by a passing train. Cockburn CJ held that the employer was not liable, invoking the principle of volenti non fit injuria.[22]
  • The trial of Boulton and Park for tranvestism and "conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence".[25]
  • The trial of Henry Wainwright for murder.[26] The crime, in which Wainwright was arrested in possession of the dismembered body of his victim, was given more publicity at the time than those of Jack the Ripper.[27]


In personal appearance Cockburn was of small stature with a large head, but possessed a very dignified manner. He enjoyed yachting and other sport, and writing. Something of an adventurer in his youth, he was fond of socialising and womanising, fathering two illegitimate children. He "was also throughout his life addicted to frivolities not altogether consistent with advancement in a learned profession, or with the positions of dignity which he successively occupied." In his later years, he reminisced "Whatever happens, I have had my whack". He once had to escape through the window of the robing room at Rougemont Castle, Exeter, Devon to evade bailiffs.[2][5] Shortly before he became Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, Cockburn was walking in London's Haymarket with fellow barrister William Ballantine when he saw a police constable roughly handling a woman. The pair stopped to protest but found themselves accused of obstructing a constable in the execution of his duty, arrested by the constable and conveyed to Vine Street Police Station. At the station they met an acquaintance who explained to the inspector who they were and they were released.[28]

He was a passionate champion of the proper role of the advocate and on the occasion of a reception for Antoine Pierre Berryer in Middle Temple Hall, said:[2]

As a judge he did not have the highest reputation, with a joke within the legal profession being that he became a first rate judge only because he sat with Lord Blackburn.[5] Charles Francis Adams, Sr., a fellow judge on the Geneva tribunal to resolve the Alabama claims issue, felt that Sir Alexander's temper was so short that he seemed mentally unbalanced.[29]


Although Cockburn never married, he had at least one daughter and probably a son, by the unmarried Elizabeth Ann Louisa Dalley Godfrey (baptised 26 April 1818 Old Church St Pancras), the daughter of William Daniel Leake Godfrey (1788–1868) and his wife Louisa Hannah (née Dalley, 1791–1852):[5][30]

  1. Louisa C. Cockburn (George Cavendish, 1st Earl of Burlington, with issue
    Louis Francis John Charles Raphael Cavendish (24 October 1864[35] – 31 December 1890[36]), who never married[37][38][39]
  2. Alexander Dalton (Alex) Cockburn (Sydenham 1846 – Westminster 16 July 1887[4] ) who never married[39][40][41][42] and to whom Cockburn left the majority of his fortune.[5] His son did not succeed him as Baronet of Langton which became dormant.


  1. ^ National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations) 1858-1966: The Right Honourable Sir Alexander James Edmund Cockburn Bart. GCB ... who died 28 November 1880 at 40 Hertford Street ... Probate 18 December 1880 ...
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n  
  3. ^ 1851 Census for England – Barrister, aged 47, of Wakehurst Place, Ardingly, Sussex, with the mother (Louisa Hannah Godfrey née Dalley) and sister (Caroline Louisa Matilda Godfrey) of his (ex-?)partner Louisa Ann Elizabeth Dalley Godfrey – HO107/1642 f.115. p.18
  4. ^ a b c 1861 Census for England – Lord Chief Justice, aged 58, visiting Chute Lodge, Wiltshire born Altana, with children: Louisa C. Cockburn aged 22 born Stratford, Essex; Alexander Cockburn aged 15 born Sydenham, Surrey – RG9/716 f.19 p.3
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Lobban, Michael. "Cockburn, Sir Alexander James Edmund, twelfth baronet (1802–1880)".   (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  6. ^ "Cockburn, Alexander James Edmund (CKBN822AJ)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  7. ^ "Letters of Queen Victoria" 1.257, ed. G. E. Buckle; cited in the Dictionary of National Biography
  8. ^ Cornish, W. & Clarke, G. (1989). Law and Society in England 1750–1950. London: Sweet & Maxwell. pp. 603–604.  
  9. ^ Diamond (1956)
  10. ^ Bucknill (1881)
  11. ^   (Google Books)
  12. ^ Foulkes (2010)
  13. ^ Common Law Procedure Act - 15&16 Vict c.76
  14. ^ "The Common Law Procedure Act 1854, 17&18 Vict c.125
  15. ^ Kingston (1923) pp169–170
  16. ^ Kingston (1923) p.172
  17. ^ Towle, E. A., ed. Russell, E. F. (1890). Alexander Heriot Mackonochie: A Memoir. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co.  Chapter IX
  18. ^ Diamond (2004) 60–61
  19. ^ [Anon.] (2001) "Cockburn, Sir Alexander James Edmund, 10th Baronet", Encyclopaedia Britannica Deluxe CD-ROM
  20. ^ Elliott, G. (2006). The Mystery of Overend & Gurney: A Financial Scandal in Victorian London. London: Methuen. pp. 212–221.  
  21. ^ (1877) 2 Ex D 384
  22. ^ Lunney, M. & Oliphant, K. (2003). Tort Law: Text and Materials (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 254–255.  
  23. ^ Kingston (1923) pp172–174
  24. ^ Kingston (1923) pp174–175
  25. ^ Diamond (2004) 121–122
  26. ^ Renton, A. Wood (1898). "The Judicial Work of Chief Justice Cockburn". 10 Jurid. Rev. 395. 
  27. ^ Wiener, Martin J. (2004). Men of blood: violence, manliness and criminal justice in Victorian England.  
  28. ^ Kingston (1923) p.171
  29. ^ Foreman, Amanda. "A World on Fire".Allen Lane, 2010, p. 811.
  30. ^ PDF (120 KB)
  31. ^ GRO Register of Deaths – JUN 1869 2b 332 I WIGHT Aged 30
  32. ^ – Person Page 1309
  33. ^ GRO Register of Marriages – JUN 1863 1a 417 CHELSEA. Cavendish = Cockburn
  34. ^ GRO Register of Deaths – DEC 1890 2b 409 I WIGHT Aged 68
  35. ^ GRO Register of Births – DEC 1864 1a 242 ST GEO HAN SQ
  36. ^ GRO Register of Deaths – MAR 1891 1a 445 WESTMINSTER Aged 26
  37. ^ 1871 Census for England: Aged 6 of Burlington Gardens, Westminster, London – RG10/137 f.31 p.25
  38. ^ 1881 Census for England: Aged 16 of Charlmont(?), Spencer Drive, Chiswick, London – RG11/1178 f.43 p.37
  39. ^ a b FreeBMD
  40. ^ 1871 Census for England: Cavalry Officer, unmarried aged 26, of Cavalry Barracks, Clewer, Berkshire – RG10/1302 f.89 p.1 – born Sydenham, Surrey
  41. ^ 1881 Census for England: Unmarried of no occupation, aged 35, of 24 James Street, Westminster, London – RG11/118 f.105 p.41 – born Sydenham
  42. ^ National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations): Alexander Dalton Cockburn, Esq. ... formerly Captain in the 2nd Regiment of Life Guards who died 16 July 1887 at 59 Jermyn Street, London ...Probate 2 September 1887


  • Leigh Rayment's Historical List of MPs – Constituencies beginning with "S" (part 3)
  • Leigh Rayment's list of baronets – Baronetcies beginning with "C" (part 3)
  • Obituaries:
    • The Times, 22 Nov 1880; 26 Nov 1880
    • Law Times, 27 Nov 1880, 68–9
    • Solicitors' Journal, 25 (1880–81), 76–7
  • Bucknill, J. C. (1881). "The Late Lord Chief Justice of England on Lunacy". Brain 4: 1–26.  
  • Diamond, B. L. (1956). "Isaac Ray and the trial of Daniel M'Naghten". American Journal of Psychiatry 112 (8): 651–656.  
  • Diamond, Michael (2004). Victorian Sensation: Or, the Spectacular, the Shocking and the Scandalous in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Anthem Press.  
  • Foulkes, N. (2010). Gentlemen and Blackguards: Gambling Mania and Plot to Steal the Derby of 1844. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. Ch.17–19.  
  •  Hamilton, John Andrew (1887). "Cockburn, Alexander James Edmund". In  
  • Kingston, C. (1923). Famous Judges and Famous Trials. London: Stanley Paul & Co. p. Ch.9.  
  • Lobban, M. (2004) "Cockburn, Sir Alexander James Edmund, twelfth baronet (1802–1880)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, accessed 24 July 2007 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  • Russell, C. (1894). "Reminiscences of Lord Chief Justice Coleridge". North American Review: September. 
  • Veeder, Van Vechten (1900). "Sir Alexander Cockburn". Harvard Law Review (Harvard Law Review, Vol. 14, No. 2) 14 (2): 79–97.  

External links

  • Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Sir Alexander Cockburn
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Humphrey Mildmay
George William Hope
Member of Parliament for Southampton
1847 – 1857
With: Brodie Willcox
Succeeded by
Thomas Matthias Weguelin
Brodie Willcox
Legal offices
Preceded by
Sir John Romilly
Solicitor General
Succeeded by
Sir William Page Wood
Preceded by
Sir John Romilly
Attorney General
Succeeded by
Sir Frederic Thesiger
Preceded by
Sir Frederic Thesiger
Attorney General
Succeeded by
Sir Richard Bethell
Preceded by
Sir John Jervis
Chief Justice of the Common Pleas
Succeeded by
Sir William Erle
Preceded by
The Lord Campbell
Lord Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench
Succeeded by
as Lord Chief Justice of England
Preceded by
as Lord Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench
Lord Chief Justice of England
Succeeded by
The Lord Coleridge
Preceded by
The Lord Coleridge
as Chief Justice of the Common Pleas
Preceded by
Sir Fitzroy Kelly
as Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer
Baronetage of Nova Scotia
Preceded by
William Cockburn
(of Langton)
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