When walking in Russell Square, I noticed a plaque between two windows on one of the houses on the north side of the square which reads ‘Here lived Sir Samuel Romilly law reformer born 1757 died 1818’. I took a photo of the plaque and of the nice boot scraper by the doorway, but several double-decker busses had parked in front of the house preventing me from taking a photo of the whole house. A leisurely walk around the square did not help; they were still there after 20 minutes, so the picture of the house has been borrowed from Google Street View.
But who was this Samuel Romilly who had lived in this house? Obviously a lawyer as the plaque already stated, but that was not much help. Some biographical information was, however easily found.(1) He was born on the 3rd of March, 1757 as the son of Peter Romilly and Margaret Garnault, both of Huguenot descent. Peter was a jeweller and Samuel was to work in his father’s shop after an initial job in a merchant’s firm came to nothing because of the death of the two owners. But Samuel was not really interested in jewellery and preferred reading. He read voraciously, reading all kinds of books to broaden his knowledge and writing skills. At one point he decided to become a poet, but later realised that prose suited him better. In 1773, a wealthy family relation died and Samuel was left £2,000 which enabled him to give up his jewellers’ job and to study for the post of officer of the Court of Chancery. He probably chose this profession because it would allow him plenty of time to pursue his literary interests. He studied under William Lally, one of the officers of the Court of Chancery. The officers did not really have to do much, most of the real work was done by the solicitors of the litigants. The working hours were short and attendance during the holidays was not necessary, so it was an ideal post for one aspiring to a literary career. But this literary career never really materialised and after completing his articles, Samuel went on to study for the Bar at Gray’s Inn under the tutelage of Jeffries Spranger. London Remembers shows the building where he occupied chambers and where there is another plaque commemorating him (see here).
After a bout of illness, Samuel went to Switzerland to take his young nephew Peter Mark Roget (he of later Thesaurus fame) back to his parents. Samuel’s sister Catherine had married the Swiss-born minister of a French Protestant church in London, Jean Roget, but when Jean was ordered by his doctor to return to his native country for his health – he had consumption – the young child was left in London in the care of his grandfather. But when Jean’s health seemed to improve, they wanted their son with them and Samuel provided the escort to Lausanne for the child and his nurse. While in France and Switzerland, Samuel had ample opportunity to learn more of the modern way of thinking as pronounced in Rousseau’s Social Contract. He met various leaders of the democratic movement in Geneva and later also of the literary and political circles in Paris. The discrepancy between the glamorous gaiety of the French court and the squalid conditions of the ordinary people struck a cord and he wrote “It is not more surprising that a people ignorant of liberty are contented with servitude, than that a man blind from his birth laments not the want of the most delightful of the senses”.(2)
On June 2nd, 1783, Romilly was called to the Bar, but before he could start his career, he had to go to Switzerland once again to fetch his sister, now a widow, and his nephew home. On his way there, he had the opportunity to visit Benjamin Franklin in Paris, at that time the ambassador of the US to France. Franklin read him parts of the Constitution that had just been published, much to the surprise of Franklin who had expected the French government to suppress them. Brother-in-law Roget had been a great friend of Romilly with whom he corresponded frequently and freely and he missed him dearly, but he soon became friends with a Swiss advocate, D’Ivernois, whom Romilly had met when taking his nephew to Switzerland and who was now living in England. D’Ivernois introduced him to the French Comte de Mirabeau who in turn was to introduce Romilly to William Wilberforce and Jeremy Bentham. These two men were campaigning for causes that were close to Romilly’s heart and in 1787 he joined the committee for the abolition of slavery.
Romilly was not really a dedicated lawyer in the sense that it absorbed all his energy, but he did use his profession to improve the condition of men as he saw it. This commitment made him slide into politics, but there again, he was not a political animal per se and frequently neglected opportunities that could have brought him further in the political hierarchy. He took his seat in the House of Commons on 24 March 1806. Although his name is now mostly forgotten and certainly not as well known as that of Wilberforce or Bentham, he did play his part against the slave trade in a speech of 10 June 1806 in which he called that trade ‘robbery, rapine, and murder’. He also did his best to reform criminal law, especially in the area of corporal and capital punishment. He supported a bill to abolish the pillory and one to stop flogging in the military and preferred prisons modelled on the principles of Bentham to penal colonies. In 1808 he obtained the repeal of the 8 Eliz. I c. 4 (1565), resulting in pick-pocketing no longer seen as a capital offence. Not all his efforts were successful; he did, for instance, not manage to get the capital punishment sentence on theft to the value of 40s lifted, but his bill to amend the Bankruptcy Laws was passed very quickly.(3)
Romilly married late in life. At the age of 40 he married Anne Garbette on 3 January 1798 at Knill, Herefordshire. The couple moved into 54 Gower Street, but relocated to 21 Russell Square where they spent the rest of their lives apart from the holidays when they moved to Tanhurst, Surrey, where they rented a property from 1812 onwards. The couple had seven children, six sons and one daughter, and appear to have had a very loving relationship. Unfortunately, the story does not end happily as Anne became ill and died on 29 October 1818. Romilly was distraught from grief and when left alone for a few minutes, killed himself a few days later by cutting his throat ‘while in a state of temporary mental derangement’. They were buried together in the parish church of Knill on 11 November. The details of the sad event were described in all the major papers of the day. On the left the report in The Morning Chronicle.
Joseph Cradock wrote this poem on hearing of Romilly’s death(4):
Yes, Romilly is dead! – an awful pause
Chilly has struck the generous patriot’s cause;
‘T is but a dream – the morn’s distempered thought,
With which the public mind is inly fraught;
I scarce can dare to think, yet think I must,
I feel I’m weak, but know that God is just;
Grant, heaven, like him I act the tenderest part;
But not like him, die stricken to the heart!
(1) A short biography appeared in Samuel Adams Drake, Our World’s Great Benefactors. Short biographies of the men and women most eminent in philanthropy, patriotism, art, literature, discovery, science, invention (1887), pp. 129-134. A book-length biography was written by Patrick Medd, Romilly. A Life of Sir Samuel Romilly, Lawyer and Reformer (1968). And he has also made it into the ODNB: R. A. Melikan, ‘Romilly, Sir Samuel (1757–1818)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008; and of course he is mentioned on the History of Parliament website here. Romilly’s Memoirs have also been published, see Google Books Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3.
(3) Memoirs, vol. 2, p. 177. Letter to Jean Roget, written from Ostend 10 Nov. 1781.
(3) For a more detailed list of his political achievements, see the History of Parliament website.
(4) Joseph Cradock, Literary and Miscellaneous Memoirs, vol. 4 (1828), p. 324.