Sunday, 10 June 2012

Charles Rann Kennedy, Barrister


Charles Rann Kennedy,  born in 1808, was another prize-winning Kennedy Scholar, a Senior Classic.  He was described as a genius of the Classics,  as was William Rann Kennedy his nephew.  He carried out literary collaborations with his father Rann Kennedy towards the end of his life and produced a well-respected translation of the ‘The Olynthiacs And Phillippics of Demosthenes’.  He wrote a great deal of poetry,  only a little of which has survived (you can read some of it here).  He lived in rural Hertfordshire and was a barrister in the Home Circuit (covering the area around London) and practised for many years,  but he was spurned by his colleagues in the ‘Mess’ and was never accorded the rank of QC.  The reason was simple – he saw bureaucracy, corruption and self-service all around him, and instead of turning a blind eye he loudly criticised it.  He wrote a satirical poem entitled ‘The Reference’ in which every official in the court was portrayed as either self-seeking or a complete lackey.  The poem was thinly disguised as portraying a court case of the 18th century but Kennedy’s colleagues in the Mess would not have been fooled. 

What he saw in the legal system he also saw throughout the rigid class system of Victoria’s time.  Each caste protected itself from infiltration by lower orders.  The "low-born" man or woman was prevented by his caste from achieving social acceptability.  Small wonder that the English took to India so joyfully.  Middle class tradespeople were looked down upon by the nobility who bought their goods,  often without bothering to settle their debts, and letting them go out of business.  After starting out as a Tory like his father,  he took the high road to liberalism.  This can be be seen in a volume of poetry and translations that he published in the early 1850s.  The last few poems are deeply satirical in tone,  and sympathise with the worker (‘The Wednesbury Miner’) or liberalising establishment figures such as Robert Peel and the Judge Lord Denman who had defended Queen Caroline and even the Luddites.

Charles was no socialist.  He strongly criticised the Chartist leaders in his poem ‘The Chartists’ for stirring up unreasonable expectations and fomenting social conflict, but in his poem he made a point of sympathising with the downtrodden masses who took part in the movement.  What is more illuminating is the translations of European poets that he included in the volume.  The majority of the translated authors are famous European radicals of the day who had combined romanticism with active rebellion against the old regimes of their respective countries.  These included Lamartine,  Schiller, Uhland.

He believed that all people should have equality of opportunity and no person, man or woman, should be held back in life by their social background or their gender.  This is an uncontroversial view today but in that era it was dynamite.  He had a strong sense of his personal and professional honour - and a terrible Kennedy temper.

Mid-Victorian society had grown into a grotesque combination of the antique and the ultra-modern.  The political system of the time was barely reformed from the mid 1700s with endemic bribery,  corruption and naked self-interest on the part of the rich who owned the system.  The books of Trollope,  especially his “The Way We Live Now” describe plainly the cynical attitude of the participants and their antics  (though Trollope was essentially a supporter of the system he pilloried).  At that time there seemed no likelihood of any change.  Nepotism and corruption was spread throughout the main arenas of public life – the leaders of the British Army - where commissions were bought and sold and regiments selected for younger sons of rich families according to their social cachet - were so utterly inept that their conduct of The Crimean War was publically condemned in a Royal Commission.  Those who had actually made Britain commercially “Great” in the nineteenth century, the class of Industrialists and Shopkeepers, and especially the working classes who toiled in the factories, were generally excluded from promotion to the heights of these occupations on the basis of their base social origins or else Dissenter leanings.  The preposterous tripe about ‘the honour of an English Gentlemen’ was in reality a veil to restrict social mobility and cover up at best incompetence and at worst corruption and nepotism. 

The society had a rigid structure to it,  with each layer of society lording it over those they saw as below them.  There was a phrase “counter-jumping” which derisively described someone who had been a shopkeeper or tradesman who was attempting to socialise with his betters.  The upper classes celebrated their wealth by holding gross dinners with vast amounts of food on display.  These dinners often saw the men dressed in gaudy uniforms and feathered hats that appeared to be of genuine military origin but were often little more than ceremonial fancy dress.  This aspect of British society was roundly satirised and condemned in William Makepiece Thackeray’s ‘The Snobs’.

The legal system of the time was much like the rest of British society,  and like it had been since the Middle Ages – a closed shop for the benefit of law practitioners, in which the ordinary citizen suffered years of prevaricating and rarely received anything that could be described as ‘justice’.  Those practitioners were generally in their position by virtue of their wealthy background which gave them the required connections.  For an intelligent and principled man it was constant torment.  He yearned for change – for example a formal University course of solicitors and barristers instead of qualification based on apprenticeship to an established Practice and the eating of the requisite number of Legal Dinners.  Charles was of a generation of University educated men who had excelled in the classics at University and had been glorified by their peers.  These men often felt ill at ease with what they called the ‘Phenomenal’ world.  They naturally took the part of the liberal progressive tendency in British society,  nurturing their old University friendships and maintaining their love of academia and their fellows. For men like this the shallow and degrading world outside was often too much.  Some went insane.  Others teetered on the brink but were helped by their closest former college friends.

By the time of his forties,  Charles tired of trying to practise law whilst being impeded by his fellows of the Home Circuit in London.  His situation had not been helped by a long illness. He moved back to Birmingham,  where his father had taught and preached all of his adult life and was now an old man.  At this time he even seriously considered the position of master at Lichfield Grammar School.

He accepted a professorship in Law at Queens College,  what was to become Birmingham University – the existence of which was a revolution in itself.  Up to that time,  to rise in the ranks of barristers one attended a certain number of dinners.  To introduce qualifications for lawyers was to point to the lack of them in the senior members of the profession,  which was not calculated to fill the profession with enthusiasm.  He moved to St Paul’s Square,  an elegant Georgian square surrounding the eighteenth century church that his father Rann had presided over for so many years.  He began to practise in the Birmingham area.  The reactions of the rest of the Birmingham barristers to him were as negative as their London colleagues.  They ostracised him.  Why this should be is a mystery on the face of it.  Some people do not fit easily into society,  being too serious perhaps for frivolous dinners and parties.  It seems also that his wife was mentally unwell,  or perhaps had a drink problem. The Midland Circuit cited a bureaucratic precedent,  that he had peviously been at another Circuit which was not permitted.

A pamphlet published after Charles' death shed light on this ostracisation.  Charles was heavily involved in the setting up of a course of legal studies at what would later become the University of Birmingham.  He believed that the law was too important to leave to informal methods of study as it was back then.  The work he was doing in this regard led him to be closely involved with solicitor's organisations.  The course did not exclude solicitors which ruffled many barrister feathers.  Since the late 1700s barristers and solicitors had been divided with the latter involved in the heavy unglamourous side and the barristers getting to practise in court - and getting much better paid.  Charles' fellow barristers seem to have viewed this fraternisation with solicitors in a very dim light,  perhaps concerned that he wanted to open competition to solicitors. Thus they would not allow him to join the Midland Circuit - the Midlands lawyers professional organisation. 

The volume of works that he published in the 1850s also contained a selection of translations on the theme of romantic love – in particular that of two people who cannot be together – for example Petrarch’s Sonnet To Laura,  a poem concerning a women the author loved but could never marry. Another example of this theme from the book is the lengthy ‘Semele’ by Schiller, which concerns an illicit relationship between the eponymous heroine and the God Jupiter.  The story ends with Jupiter’s wife Juno taking her revenge on the heroine by killing her.

At about this time when he was in his late forties he became acquainted with a widow named Patience Swinfen who was about six years younger.  Patience,  who had met her husband whilst a serving maid in a London boarding house, had inherited the family seat of her husband Henry.  In a cruel twist of fate, her husband had died slightly earlier than his father Samuel.  Samuel had provided in his will that his son would inherit the Hall after his death, but the will had not catered for Patience in the event of Henry dying first.  Samuel thought very little of his son Henry but he had a great deal of time for Patience,  who had looked after him and had managed the Hall back to prosperity. The Swinfen men were best known for their lavish spending and poor housekeeping. Henry had been no exception to the family rule.  Shortly before he died,  Samuel had been persuaded to make a new will by his brother Charles and the family doctor.  What was at the root of all the subsequent conflict, was that the mental state of the old man was questionable at the time. At the time of Samuel’s death, his next of kin was his idiot brother John who lived in an asylum and therefore was not able to contest the will. Patience was able to reside at the Hall in peace.  However the next in line was Samuel’s nephew, one Captain Swinfen of the Cavalry,  a dashing soldier with a very overbearing and exremely ambitious mother, Marianne Swinfen.  They had visited the Hall shortly before the death of the old man and were convinced,  perhaps with good reason, that Patience had got Samuel to sign a new will when he was not fit to do so.  They already had the other Swinfen seat and were determined to have both.

As soon as John died,  the will was contested by Captain Swinfen.  The case was heard at Stafford Assize Court. The barrister for Patience Swinfen was Frederick Thesiger,  a distinguished and well-connected QC who was rising fast in the legal world of the time – exactly the kind of legal figure that Charles Rann Kennedy most detested.  He had another case the following week and was in no mood for the Swinfen case to drag on.  During the first day in court, he conferred in open court with the Judge Mr Justice Cresswell which was contrary to proper legal practice.  During the weekend that followed Thesiger proposed to Patience’s solicitor that a compromise be struck whereby Patience received a large sum and the Captain received the Hall.  The solicitor,  a Mr. Simpson, a prominent figure in Lichfield as he was the Town Clerk, knew that his client would never settle for the deal.  He told Thesiger this.  The trial continued on the following Monday on which Thesiger informed the judge that a compromise had been arrived at – even though Patience had told him she would not accept the deal.  Patience was furious that her wishes had been overridden in this way. 

Charles Rann Kennedy saw Patience’s plight as embodying everything that he detested in the legal system,  and he saw Thesiger as the embodiment of the kind of lawyer he most objected to.  He offered to represent her for free and he would only claim a fee if she won and was able to pay him.  Patience was immediately won over by her dashing new friend and his passionate advocacy of her rights.  He wrote poetry dedicated to her (‘To Patience Swinfen’,  included in the volume mentioned earlier) and prepared her case. Charles was very well acquainted with Thesiger and Cresswell,  both of them were senior Masters of The Bench in the Inner Temple in 1837 at the time when he was called to the Bar.

The Captain arrived on the appointed day on which he was to take possession of the Hall.  However neither the servants nor Patience would answer the door.  When he retreated she fired a blank pistol charge over his head,  signifying that she would fight for the Hall.  The Captain,  to his credit,  took this calmly enough.  He bowed gracefully to her in return,  as a true Cavalier.

The first part of the court case was a ‘rule nisi’ in the Court of Chancery served by the Captain over Patience not vacating the Hall as decided in the first court case.  Kennedy strongly stated the facts of the case – that Thesiger had gone against the wishes of his client and that the first case was not concluded correctly.  The judge discharged the ‘rule nisi’ and the trial was set to run again at Stafford Assizes.  However there was much disquiet at the strong words that Kennedy aimed at Thesiger and Judge Cresswell.  Thesiger by this time was Lord Chelmsford – and he was now Lord Chancellor.

Kennedy’s conduct during the trial caused a sensation.  Thesiger and Cresswell were both described in the most damning terms.  Patience conducted herself with tremendous dignity however and the outcome was in her favour - she could keep the Hall.

When they returned to Lichfield,  Patience found herself the heroine of the old City.  The church bells were rung as if a great victory had been won,  as indeed it had.  Kennedy was by this time extremely close to Patience.  They spent much time together and indeed it seems that they had even become lovers.  Howard Clayton implies as much in his classic work on the case ‘The Swinfen Case’.  This was scandalous enough considering that he had represented her professionally.  Moreover he was already married with six children. It seems that his wife had a history of mental instability and alcohol abuse but in those days there was no way of getting a divorce. 

During this period the Lichfield townsfolk were still flushed with joy over her victory and nobody was pointing to any impropriety on the part of Patience and her barrister knight in shining armour.  Kennedy though was determined to ram home his point and sought another trial at which he would bring Lord Chelmsford to justice for his behaviour in the first trial.  This demonstrates Kennedy’s state of mind at the time.  He was showing all the signs of having been cheated out of a career by the legal establishment and he was intent on taking furious revenge upon it and its head.  He clearly did not care what the establishment or Society thought of him at all. His awesome temper had simply taken over.

When the third trial got underway Kennedy used all of the facts unearthed in the first two trials but went quite overboard with his fury against the pair of Lord Chelmsford and Mr Justice Cresswell.  He accused them of all manner of perfidy and malpractice,  not stinting in his use of hyperbole.  As was pointed out in the press afterwards,  if he had restricted himself to the specific incidents in question – the improper deal and the conferring between advocate and judge in open court – he might have succeeded.  As it was he was virtually putting the System on trial.  Of course there is no accident in that.  Kennedy had a point to prove against the System.  As it was he failed to convince the jury and lost the case, despite Patience’s dignified performance. 

Patience lost a lot of money in costs as a result of the case,  but Kennedy had lost his great battle and was now seen by the establishment and English Society as utterly ‘beyond the pale’. 

Matters had taken a turn for the worse in their affair.  There was no longer an urgency to the mutual declarations of love in their letters.  It was at this time that Charles asked for Patience to go to London with him to discuss an important matter.  He then revealed that he wanted her to sign a deed which, if invoked, would hand the Hall to him and his children if she died first,  which she did, though apparently with reservations.  He apparently said to her that he needed the deed in order to secure loans as a result of financial problems he was suffering due to loss of business during the Swinfen trials.  Some time later she decided that she had better end the affair. She accepted an offer of marriage from a Scottish landowner named Broun,  who was a friend of a friend she had met whilst on holiday north of the border. 

Kennedy received the news by letter whilst on a boat to France.  As might be expected he was utterly incandescent with fury at what he saw as outright betrayal by the woman he loved.  Upon his return to England he plastered libellous posters defaming Patience all around Lichfield.  He then demanded £20,000 payment for his legal services from her.  She resisted at first, then,  in the face of his threats of legal action,  offered him £10,000 if he would relinquish the deed she had signed and let matters rest.  He refused and was on the point of publishing a pamphlet condemning her as the ‘Serpent of Swinfen’ Hall before friends dissuaded him. 

The fourth Swinfen trial must have brought no pleasure to anyone except Captain Swinfen,  his mother and Lord Chelmsford.  Kennedy’s plan of attack was to reveal all the intimacies of their relationship in order to prove that she was morally defective and untrustworthy.  He read out his and her private letters and poems he had written.  In the atmosphere of artificial social rectitude that reigned during the mid Victorian era,  this shocking behaviour scandalised the public.  He actually won the case to much amazement in the country at large. However he was roundly condemned by the Press who wanted him thrown out by the Bar.  However the legal authorities pointed out that this could not be done.  Nonetheless, as a result of the damage he had wrought on his own reputation, he was never hired as a barrister by any client ever again.

The case was appealed by Patience and her husband at the High Court and this time Charles lost on the point of law that a barrister cannot sue his client.

He continued to practice in Birmingham in local criminal and civil cases.  A while afterwards, his family suffered the tragedy of his wife’s death at their home – from falling downstairs.  It was at this point that the stories of her drink and mental problems emerged. It was not long then before his own death, from tongue cancer, a few years later.

His death was noted with some sadness in the press obituaries, that a man of such genius should fall so far from grace.  It was said that he was temperamentally unsuited to the Bar.  This may be so – his temper was evidently extreme.  He wrote during the period of the third trial of wanting to ‘exterminate’ Lord Chelmsford. However he was genuinely against snobbery, injustice, corruption and lack of propriety in his profession and took this struggle to the bitter end.  It seems that his feelings carried him over the precipice of emotional sanity when he found that the true soulmate whom he believed he had found actually was not prepared to show him commitment in return.  She of course could never have married him,  so what that commitment would have meant in practice is moot.

Recent researches by my cousin Will have revealed that Charles had an illegitimate son William,  born in Birmingham in 1837.  He married in 1857 and his wife bore a son a couple of years after,  christened Bernard Swynfen Ward Kennedy,  no doubt in honour of his grandfather's involvement in the case - before it went sour.

My favourite poem of his is 'Courage',  which for me sums the man up in his best moments.

"Praise to each heart, that honest courage warms:
Praise to the soldier disciplin'd in arms,
Who firm and fearless on the battle-day
One duty knows, his leader to obey,
Hears but the word that him to victory calls,
And in the moment of his glory falls.
Yea, not unblest is he.  Yet happier those,
Who make no war but with their country's foes,
Ne'er draw the sword but in a rightful cause,
For their own hearth and home, their faith, their laws.
And happier still is he, who ne'er put on
The soldier's garb, no laurel ever won;
But bears a heart of purpose firm and high,
To fight the great life-battle manfully,
Himself, his pride and passions to subdue,
The path of right unswerving to pursue,
Despising pleasure, wealth, and world-reknown,
Earning his heavenly meed, a bright immortal crown."


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