Buckmaster, Stanley Owen, first Viscount Buckmaster 1861-1934, lord chancellor and statesman, was born at Slapton, Cheddington, Buckinghamshire, 9 January 1861, the third of the four sons of John Charles Buckmaster, of Slapton, afterwards of Wandsworth, by his wife, Emily Anne, eldest daughter of George Goodliffe, of Trumpington, near Cambridge. John Buckmaster was a remarkable man who, beginning life as an agricultural labourer, became successively a joiner, a well-known platform speaker in the cause of free trade, and, under the patronage of the Prince Consort whom he had advised and helped in the matter of the Great Exhibition of 1851, an inspector in the Department of Science and Art at South Kensington, which has since developed into the Imperial College of Science and Technology.
Stanley Buckmaster was sent to Aldenham School where he remained until 1879, living a life so hard that he never forgot its hardships. He then went, with a junior studentship, to Christ Church, Oxford, where he obtained a second class in mathematical moderations (1881) and in the final mathematical school (1882).
Buckmaster was a devoted liberal and, as his father had been, an ardent free trader. In 1906 he was returned to parliament for the borough of Cambridge: in January 1910 he lost that seat, which, in the following December, he again unsuccessfully contested; but at a by-election in October 1911 he was returned for the Keighley division of the West Riding of Yorkshire. Under the leadership first of Campbell-Bannerman and afterwards of Asquith, Buckmaster was a supporter of the government. But often he would speak, albeit from the government benches, from the experience of a practising lawyer rather than as a party man, and such speeches as the defence of Sir William Grantham [qv.], a strong conservative, in connexion with a petition in respect of the election at Yarmouth in 1906, and his criticisms of the criminal appeal bill (1907) came from him as a lawyer's guidance of the House.
It was not, however, until he reached the House of Lords in 1915 that Buckmaster's powers as a parliamentary debater, and as a parliamentary orator, reached their height and that he became a leader of debate. While he was on the woolsack he took the ordinary part of a lord chancellor in debate and was sometimes the most prominent speaker for the government; and afterwards he often availed himself of the benefit of the custom by which an ex-lord chancellor, as distinct from the other law lords, is granted by the House full liberty to take part, and even a leading part, in general political debate. He spoke thus on many subjects, including finance, industrial unrest, disarmament, the treatment of Germans after the war of 1914-1918, the government's Irish policy, the reform of the House of Lords, many times on the reform of the divorce laws (a subject always much in his mind), birth control, and women's suffrage: what he said always compelled the respect of the House and the manner of his saying it its admiration. During the same years he made many important speeches outside parliament, a number of which, especially the speeches which he made in 1925 to lawyers in Canada and the United States of America, will be remembered. As a platform orator he was regarded by many as supreme in his time.
In 1884 Buckmaster was called to the bar by the Inner Temple and in 1902 became a member of Lincoln's Inn. He was made a bencher of Lincoln's Inn in 1910 and was treasurer in 1934. He practised first on the Common Law side, largely on the Oxford circuit and in county courts, and it was because he did there, as a young man, so much litigation work, unled, that he learnt to lean on his own judgement about a case as a whole, and so, when he went over into Chancery and as a junior was soon engaged in cases involving different questions and more important amounts, he was competent from experience, and bold from having known responsibility, to determine, and to advise without waiting for a leader, not only on the law and the form of the pleadings, but on the merits of the case and the strategy and tactics for the court. On the Chancery side he had a large practice as a junior and in 1902 he took silk. In those days the King's Counsel practising on the Chancery side were attached to the courts of particular judges of that division and he went to Sir H. B. Buckley (afterwards Lord Wrenbury) [qv.]. In 1907 he went special and so for a special fee could, and did, practise before any Chancery judge. Like every great success at the bar, Buckmaster's was gained by hard work and thoroughness: he was by nature and training a good lawyer; he learnt and understood what equity might be necessary; he was quick enough and industrious enough to scrutinize the facts put before him, and had skill and judgement in the selection and presentation of what among those facts was material. He never sought to evade a difficulty by pretending that it was not there; it was a precept of his that before you put together the stones of which a house is to be built you must look all round each stone to see whether there is a beetle underneath it.
In 1913 Buckmaster was appointed solicitor-general in succession to Sir John Simon. His work as a law officer earned much commendation from the bench, the bar, and the departments, but soon after the outbreak of war he was given additional duties as director of the Press Bureau. To a press accustomed to freedom and a public whose curiosity was insatiable, his methods appeared too drastic, nor did his explanations always command satisfaction in the House of Commons or in the country.
On the reconstruction of Asquith's government into a coalition ministry in May 1915, and the retirement of Haldane as lord chancellor, the great seal was given to Buckmaster, who the same day was sworn of the Privy Council. He took the title of Baron Buckmaster, of Cheddington, in Buckinghamshire. When the coalition ministry fell in December 1916, Buckmaster, who had been lord chancellor for only eighteen months, was succeeded by R.B., Lord Finlay [qv.]. With the exception of some time passed in the City, in 1925-1926, in a crusade against what he regarded as an injustice (for which time he relinquished his pension) he spent the rest of his life as an appellate judge in the House of Lords and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and often presided in those tribunals.
Buckmaster was probably best known as an orator, but the work which he did as a judge is the work that will be remembered longest. It was not the work which he most enjoyed, but it was done under the compulsion of a stern sense of duty and the recognition, when sitting as a judge in the highest tribunals of the Empire, that justice, which had always been the ruling motive of his life, was now best served by statement of the law as it was. Any temptation to find a construction of the law which would right a wrong in the particular case or would mitigate a hardship caused by the law itself was resolutely resisted. No one ever saw more clearly that hard cases make bad law, and that the cure in such cases was for parliament. Lord Birkenhead said of him that he was a consummately equipped judge; and when Lord Dunedin was asked: Whom do you regard as the greatest colleague you have had?, he answered: You will be surprised when I tell you—Buckmaster; I have not and I never have had any sympathy with Buckmaster's political ideas and performances and I think him to be a sentimentalist—unless he is sitting on his arse on the bench; there he is one of the most learned, one of the most acute, and the fairest judge I ever sat with; and he will leave much in the books.
Buckmaster was appointed G.C.V.O. in 1930 and advanced to a viscountcy in 1933: the step in the peerage was made, certainly in the opinion of the profession, particularly in order to enable him, after he had ceased to be lord chancellor, to preside in appeals in which some other law lord or member of the Judicial Committee, junior to him but a viscount, might be sitting: it was a legal, not a political, nor a social, advancement. He was counsel to Oxford University from 1910 to 1913; was elected an honorary student of Christ Church in 1917; and received honorary degrees from the universities of Toronto (1925) and Oxford and Edinburgh (1933). He held a very special position in regard to the boot and shoe trade as umpire for determining wages and disputes about conditions. He had held this position for three years before his appointment as a law officer, and in 1925 was re-appointed and held the office until his death. In 1923 he became chairman of the governing body of the Imperial College of Science and Technology, an appointment of which, for the sake of his father's memory, he was most proud.
Buckmaster was much beloved by his friends and particularly at the Garrick Club of which he was a member from 1909 until his death. He seldom said a witty thing and seldom told a good story, but his speeches at the famous Sunday dinners of the club were delightful in their always kindly humour. Perhaps the best of his talk was when, on a fishing holiday beside the Spey, he would be lying on the bank with a friend, often his faithful and much-loved gillie, waiting for the sun to go off the pool.
Buckmaster married in 1889 Edith Augusta (died 1935), fourth daughter of Spencer Robert Lewin, of Widford, Hertfordshire; they had one son and two daughters, the elder of whom predeceased her father. He died in London 5 December 1934, and was succeeded as second viscount by his son, Owen Stanley (born 1890).
A portrait of Buckmaster, by Thomas McKegger, is in the possession of Dr. Dorothy Tasker. Another (posthumous) portrait, in his lord chancellor's robes, by Reginald Eves, hangs in the hall of Christ Church, Oxford.
The Times, 6 and 7 December 1934
A Village Politician. The Life-Story of John Buckley (edited by J. C. Buckmaster whose autobiography it is), 1897
James Johnston, An Orator of Justice. A Speech Biography of Viscount Buckmaster, 1932
Contributor: Geoffrey Russell.