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The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times

Chapter VI. — Legal Education in England

page 43

Chapter VI.
Legal Education in England.

Cambridge—His legal studies—Sir John Holker, Q.C.Called to the Bar—Negotiations for partnership with Mr. Izard—He meets Disraeli—Offer from Conservative Party—Bell's reminiscences.


Soon after Bell's school-days were finished in 1869, he set out for England to go into residence at St. John's College, Cambridge. He sailed in the Lady Egidia from Port Chalmers to make the voyage round Cape Horn. In those days a passenger in a sailing-ship was provided with his bare cabin only, and all fittings and equipment had to be supplied by him at his own cost. Hence the efforts of the family were devoted to filling the cabin with everything that might be of use on the long and tedious voyage.

In due course he entered on the pleasant life of a Cambridge undergraduate. He was a College Prizeman in 1871, and in 1873 he took his B.A. with honours in Mathematics. St. John's College, Cambridge, has attracted many New Zealand boys of successive generations, and, if a roll were compiled of New Zealanders who have graduated in England, it is probable that it would show a heavy percentage as having attended that famous college. page 44The fact also that Bell took mathematical honours is interesting, because in later life he showed a gift for clearly expounding financial statements, and he followed with the keenest appreciation the latest scientific discoveries of Einstein and other mathematical geniuses.


After leaving Cambridge, Bell entered on his legal studies. He had the good fortune to be guided by practitioners of great eminence at the Bar in whose chambers he also gained valuable practical experience.

In March, 1873, acting on the advice of Mr. Holker, Q.C., M.P., and Mr. Gorst, he went into the office of Mr. Ellis, who was a solicitor in good practice*

"I remained in this office," he writes to his father, "seeing cases prepared, attending Judges' Chambers, bankruptcy meetings, and so on. I also did some work while in the office in drafting deeds and agreements, but of the simplest kind. I then went into Mr. Gorst's chambers and have since worked on his cases and those also of Mr. Holker, Q.C., M.P., the leader of the Northern Circuit, who being in the same chambers is kind enough to let me do so."

He adds that both Gorst and Holker had large common-law businesses and were also heavily engaged in parliamentary business.

But in addition to all this, acting on the advice of various barristers, he read under a tutor of the Inns of

* Sir John Holker (1828-1882) was Disraeli's Solicitor-General (1874), Attorney-General (1875). His income was enormous, and for some years was over £22,000 a year. After the fall of the Beaconsfield Administration in 1880 he returned to private practice, but was appointed by Gladstone a Lord Justice of Appeal in January, 1882. He died in May of that year. Lord Coleridge in a memorial speech said of him, "At the time of his death he stood by universal consent in the very front rank of his profession."

page 45Court, Mr. Houston, who was a first-class certificate holder and exhibitioner.

"Houston charges one hundred guineas a year. He devotes all his time to us, so that I am beginning to have a much clearer knowledge of law than I had when there was no one of whom to ask questions and I feel that I am really making progress fast. I shall have read common law till December and shall then know about six books each of about one thousand pages and shall begin equity immediately after. Besides this I shall have seen quite a lot of practical work in chambers."

Finally, in June 1874, Bell was called to the Bar of the Middle Temple and then arranged to go Northern Summer Circuit with Mr. Holker in order to see as much of Court business as possible before arriving back in New Zealand in October.


Dillon Bell in New Zealand followed his son's progress with paternal solicitude. What chiefly gratified him was to see that his son was beginning to feel more sure of himself. This is evident from a letter written by Dillon Bell to a friend in which he says:

"During all his University career my son used to speak so disparagingly of himself that I was quite glad to see him referring with some little confidence to his present work."

The reason why Bell pursued his legal studies with such zeal was that soon after he left Cambridge he received a letter from his father advising him that a splendid opportunity had arisen for him to enter into partnership with Mr. Izard, an English barrister prac-page 46tising in Wellington. Izard's partner, Mr. William Pharazyn, had died some time before, and Dillon Bell ascertained that Izard was eager to secure Francis Bell as a partner, and for this purpose was willing to wait until after his legal studies were completed in England. He generously offered Bell a third interest in the practice (which was the share held by Pharazyn), and said that he would not require any premium.

"He has offered to show me particulars of his business," writes Dillon Bell to his son, "but I was not desirous of appearing to wish that he should verify his statement, which was that the business was now clearing from £1,600 to £1,800 a year, so that your third share would be between £500 and £600. His business is one which I am sure could and would be extended considerably by the help of a young fellow with pluck and capacity for work, and as I have myself always had a fancy for you being at the seat of Government, I have a leaning towards the proposal, which is strengthened by Izard's high position here. He is a Cantab and Senior-op."

Other details of the proposed partnership were transmitted by Dillon Bell to his son, but these may be omitted.

Francis Bell was delighted to hear of this offer, more particularly in view of the fact that Izard was willing to wait till he had finished his training and gained some. experience in England.

Perhaps his scholastic career in Otago before he left for England had marked him as a coming man, for while the negotiations with Izard were still on foot Bell consulted his father about another attractive offer he page 47had received from Mr. George Cook, a distinguished English barrister practising in Dunedin.

However, on his father's advice, he decided to reject this and to accept Izard's proposal. During the remainder of the period of his son's studies in England Dillon Bell kept Mr. Izard posted as to the progress of his studies. But when the son had been admitted to the Bar and desired to gain more experience by going into Equity chambers, his father warned him that it would be unwise to keep Izard waiting any longer, and Izard himself expressed the opinion that it would only be throwing time and money away.

"There are," writes his father, "so many young men out here who would give their eyes to join such a business as Izard's that it is a compliment to you that he should be willing to wait."

Acting on this advice Bell left England in the latter half of 1874 in order to enter on the partnership which his father had so studiously nursed for him.


Before giving some of Bell's own recollections of his life in England, there are two or three incidents not directly connected with his legal studies worthy of record.

The first item of interest is that while at Cambridge, and later, he usually spent his vacations at the home of Lord Kitchener's father at Dinan, in France. Here the future Sirdar and Bell were thrown together as young men, but unfortunately there are no letters extant giving Bell's experiences and impressions of this interesting con-page 48tact. Many years later Bell referred to the incident when speaking in Parliament in 1916 on the death of Kitchener.

"His father" he said, "purchased a property in Otago and he was a very close neighbour of my own people there. His sister married here and was for a long time a resident settler, but is now in England. Perhaps I may be allowed to say that I myself knew Kitchener when I was often a guest in his father's house in France, and I have known him practically since we were almost boys in 1870, though, of course, he has since from his position gone far beyond the association of such acquaintances of his youth."

The next incident gives an interesting glimpse of his participation in a general election in England.

"I have been employing some of my time," writes Francis Bell, "helping the Carlton Committee in the General Election, and my law reading has consequently gone late into the nights. The elections are over and I am glad of it. But they had entailed for the fortnight it lasted very hard work. I have been more than repaid by meeting all the first men on the Tory side. I was formally introduced to Disraeli who asked me what I meant to do and with his suave flattery trusted, &c, &c. (I omit). Lords Cairns and Derby used to come and talk to me in the outer offices in Parliament Street, like ordinary mortals. Gorst is to have a good position in the Ministry, &c."

One would like to have known what Disraeli actually said to the young law student, but this, as will be seen, he has rather diffidently omitted. As Bell was in the chambers of Gorst,* it was probably he who invited

* Afterwards Sir John Gorst, Q.C., Solicitor-General and subsequently Under-Secretary for India.

page break page 49Bell to assist in the election. In an earlier chapter the story has been told of the joint adventures of Gorst and Sir Dillon Bell in their contact with the Maoris. In the biography of Disraeli, written by Gorst's son, is to be found the story of the brilliant work done by Sir John Gorst as Party Manager, enabling Disraeli to sweep the country. He was given a free hand by Disraeli, and brought into being a complete system of local political associations linked to a central office, which was the forerunner of the great party organization of to-day.

Probably this contact led to the third incident which is worth recording. Before Bell left for New Zealand he received a tempting offer from the Conservatives to stay in England. There is no record of the exact offer, but his father writing from Shag Valley, Otago, on May 31, 1874, says:

"We were all very much taken aback at the offer which the Conservatives made you, so wholly unexpected was any proposal for an English career. On all accounts I should have been glad for you to have taken it, except one—namely, that after five years of separation the prospect of a permanent one would have been the greater sorrow though a selfish one. If your letter had stated that the offer was still open to you, and that you would be allowed to wait until you could hear from me. I should certainly have communicated with Izard and tried to put matters right with him, so that you would be free to choose finally between staying in England and coming out. But you distinctly say that you refused the offer and that you had no doubts, and I am not to gather that you have any."

From this it appears that at one time Bell might page 50have settled in England, which gives rise to many speculations as to what his career there might have been in view of the powerful influences which were supporting him. Fortunately, however, for New Zealand, he decided to come back.


So far I have sought to give a brief account of Bell's early life in England while reading for the Bar. It seems appropriate to close this chapter by quoting some recollections of this period given by Bell himself in his old age. In 1934 the Wellington Bar gave a dinner in his honour to celebrate the notable fact that he had been in active practice for no less than sixty years, In the course of his speech, Bell said:

"I was in the last batch called to the Bar in England without examination. Of course, Sir Frederick Chapman was never examined (laughter), but I myself escaped by the skin of my teeth. If a man had a degree from one of the Universities, and for a year had read in the chambers of a practising barrister (a privilege for which I paid a hundred guineas) and ate a series of eighteen dinners at one of the Inns of Court, it was considered that he was qualified-for the profession of the law.

"To my mind, my days in the Temple were the happiest I ever spent. At one end of Pump Courts where I lived with a friend who resided there, was the Temple Church founded in the time of the Normans in the days of William Rufus; at the other end, opening into Temple Lane, was the Great Hall of many memories—there Queen Elizabeth danced with Lord Keeper Hatton. Although I lived for page 51three years at Cambridge, life in the Temple was a revelation in associations with the storied past. "In those days the Common Law Courts of West-minster comprised the Queen's Bench, the Common Pleas, and the Exchequer. Westminster Hall, from which the Courts opened, was then a place where witnesses and waiting jurors gathered. Now it has been restored to its former dignity—as it was when King Charles I was tried, and Warren Hastings absolved.

"For our call to the Bar we were gathered in a Court called the Bail Court off the Court of Common Pleas and there we were sworn.

"The Equity Courts were spread about Gray's Inn and Lincoln's Inn, but we regarded these places as of small importance, because in those Courts we would only have seen one Judge sitting, to hear argument, for in those days we did not appreciate the value of 'The Ghost of Banquo,'as the first Mr. Justice Chapman termed a Court in which one Judge is to be found sitting alone."

In the course of further reminiscences, Sir Francis proceeded:

"We went to Westminster by penny steamer to hear argument in two great trials of the day. The Tichborne case at Nisi Prius, and the criminal case which followed. In the civil case in which the claimant sought to be declared the heir to the Tichborne baronetcy, Bovill, C. J., committed him for trial on a charge of perjury. This form of committal has never since been used. The criminal case was a trial at bar, and, with the exception of the cases of the Dynamitards, of Dr. Jameson and his companions, page 52and of Casement tried on a charge of high treason during the War, has been the only one in modern times. Three Judges sitting with a jury to try a criminal is a remarkable sight. I knew well Mr. Spofforth of the firm of Baxter, Rose, and Norton, the solicitors who took up the claimant's case which broke up the firm before it had been concluded. It was a common saying of the day that 'Baxter knows his Orton'."

Sir Francis reminded his hearers that Mr. Hawkins, Q.C., afterwards Lord Brampton, was to have led for the defence in the civil action, but, before the trial, Mr. Coleridge was appointed Solicitor-General and claimed the lead. His twenty-seven days' cross-examination of the claimant, it was considered should have been done in shorter time, but before the criminal case began Coleridge was appointed Lord Chief justice. Hawkins said that the principal result of the civil case was to expose two impostors.

"It was arranged before my return that I should enter into partnership with my dear old friend C. B. Izard, and this was the beginning of my happy life among you, my comrades. At that time the practice under the Common Law Procedure Act in England obtained in New Zealand. As I practised in pleadings in England, I had no new procedure to learn here. But you of a later generation have no idea of its complexities. The pleadings began with a declaration which was followed by a plea, a replication, sometimes a rejoinder, a surrejoinder, a rebutter, and a surrebutter. The proceedings began with a parchment record of the pleadings, and then the issues which had been settled by the Judge ran to twenty or page 53thirty questions; and whatever answer was given by the jury to one was capable of being inconsistent with another. The record which contained the issues ended with the verdict and the judgment on the same parchment. If the judgment was not supported by the answers to the issues, error lay against the judgment "A Judge who had been recently appointed went to Dunedin, and there were numerous issues settled after elaborate pleadings in an action for trespass. At the trial it appeared that the right depended on whether a particular gorse hedge was planted on the true boundary. The Judge added an issue about the gorse hedge, and told the jury they need only answer that. Nothing had been said about a gorse hedge in the pleadings. Error was brought against the judgment, as there was no record to support it. The gorse-hedge answer of the jury was apparently as irrelevant as any answer in 'Alice in Wonderland'"