Western Circuit

Samuel Carter, a Maverick on the Western Circuit

In the second half of the nineteenth century Samuel Carter of Tavistock was a colourful, outspoken and outrageous politician and lawyer. Maverick is not too strong a word. Anecdotes about him abound in the newspapers and literature of the period.[1] He had a short and explosive career in the House of Commons, and a longer career at the bar in which he rapidly acquired a national reputation for being rude to fellow barristers and arguing with the judges. Today he has been totally forgotten. Indeed in Stenton’s Who’s Who of British MP’s he is confused with Samuel Carter of Coventry (1805-78), a respectable solicitor who was briefly the Liberal MP for Coventry in 1868. He is worth rediscovering.[2]

Samuel Carter was a member of an old Tavistock dynasty of tanners[3] who lived at Rock View House. He was born on 11 November 1814 and baptised on 4 December in the Abbey Chapel, where his father, John Carter, had been baptised  on 7 April 1790, and his grandfather, Samuel Carter (son of another John Carter) had been baptised on 17 June 1749 and married on 24 February 1777. This non-conformist, puritanical and teetotal family tradition influenced him throughout his life, and he spoke with the broadest Devonshire accent. He originally worked with his father as a tanner, but then decided to go to the bar.[4] He joined the Middle Temple on 25 October 1844 and was called to the bar on 5 November 1847. He joined the Western Circuit  at the Summer Assizes 1848. He was a member of the Circuit Bar Mess for Devon and Cornwall at the Summer Assizes 1849, and for Devon only at the Spring Assizes 1850. After that he continued to practise at Devon Assizes, particularly as defence counsel in criminal cases, but with his fair share of briefs for the prosecution and a reasonable civil practice as well; but he boycotted the Bar Mess, where a non-conformist teetotaller was bound to feel very uncomfortable. This was probably just as well because he would almost certainly have been expelled if he had remained a member. Membership of the Bar Mess was not legally required but was practically essential. Only a determined maverick would ignore this rule of etiquette. He also practised at Devon County Quarter Sessions[5] and Exeter City Quarter Sessions: indeed by 1880 he was the senior member of the Exeter Sessions bar and in that capacity welcomed the new Recorder, Arthur Collins.[6] He married on 1 March 1858 Caroline, daughter of Captain J W Bennison, commander of  HMS Stirling Castle[7], and they had one son and two daughters. Towards the end of his life he moved to Bristol and continued to practise in the Bristol courts until shortly before his death.

The House of Commons, 1852-53

In August 1847, while he was still a bar student, he was a Radical candidate for Parliament at Tavistock. He advocated universal suffrage, including votes for women, the ballot, triennial parliaments and all points of the people’s charter. He came bottom of the poll; but in April 1852 he stood again, and this time he came top. His name appeared frequently in Hansard in the month of June. On 16 November 1852 there was a great debate in the House of Commons on the arrangements for the funeral of the Duke of Wellington and how much Parliament should pay for it. Carter described it as a “national folly,” called the pageant “a mockery,” and complained against giving the Government “carte blanche.” There was a second debate on 6 December. It was, of course, reported in Hansard, but the version in the Times is livelier:

Mr SAMUEL CARTER rose to address the Committee amidst loud cries of “Oh” from the Ministerial benches, which were renewed and renewed again as the hon Gentleman attempted to avail himself of an occasional lull in the storm; but no sooner had he succeeded in making some introductory expressions audible, or in announcing his intention to appeal to the chairman, than the cries with which he was greeted on presenting himself were again raised with a vigour, earnestness and perseverance to which the hon. Member yielded.

[After two other speakers]

Mr S CARTER again rose to address the House. He was entitled to a hearing, and he was determined to exercise his privilege. (Cries of “Question!” and “Divide!”) The hon. Member was here understood to say that the House should find he was a person of mettle, or that he was not to be put off his mettle – at which the House roared. The sum asked was greatly too much (groans), and to ask for such a vote was a breach of good faith. (A voice – “Fudge!” and cries of “Divide!”). Well (said the hon. Member), then I shall be obliged to move the previous question again. (Dreary groans now assailed the hon. Member whenever he opened his lips. The hon. Gentleman stood for some time with folded arms surveying the House in an attitude of lofty and heroic patience, when he suddenly shot off into a series of animated gesticulations, striking with his right on his left gloved hand with a smart crack. The sudden transition of the hon. Member’s mood amused the House, but groans soon drowned his voice again.) As well as we could make out, the hon. Gentleman was complaining that the funeral of the Duke of Wellington cost five times as much as that of Lord Nelson, who shed his blood for his country. (Groans). He called this unjust, and a fraud upon the members on his side of the House. (Groans repeated). A committee was appointed to search for precedents, but what was the use of precedents if they were to multiply a precedent by five. (Laughter, groans, and loud cries of “Divide!”). He supposed that the cost of the next public funeral would be multiplied by five upon the present. (Oh!”). He should divide the House against the vote. (The hon. Member’s resumption of his seat was the signal for a burst of cheering.)


Mr S CARTER rose again amid a storm of groans and cries of “Oh!” to ask one question. How much had the funeral car cost?

No answer was returned to this question.[8]

Apparently he sat down on his hat, which he had placed on the seat behind him, causing further merriment all round. Carter’s political opponents soon discovered that he did not satisfy the property qualifications then required for a Member of Parliament and he therefore lost his seat. He stood again for Tavistock in the elections in 1857 and 1865, but without success.

The Bar, 1847-90

It was not easy for someone with no connections to start at the bar. Advertising was unthinkable; barristers could only appear in court if  they were briefed by a solicitor, who also had a right of audience in the new County Courts established in 1846; and it was hard to establish a reputation. Like many other briefless beginners he turned to writing and produced two volumes of verse: “Midnight effusions and other poems”, in July 1848, and “The Avenger, a metrical tale or episode of Italy and the Italians”, in December 1851. Tucked away at the back of  Midnight Effusions there is a poem headed Water: A Temperance Ode.The first verse contains the lines:

But the noisy glee

Of the debauchee

Possesses no magic charms for me.

On the next page there is another poem headed simply Water and containing the following lines:

Oh! water – sweet water! thou fluid divine,

Ethereal essence, more precious than wine;

Thou life-blood of nature, without whose supply,

All things that have being must wither and die!

There is a longer poem on The Homes of the Poor. There are so many quotable verses in it. Here is the last verse:

Ay! build your model prisons

And houses of correction,

Pass penal laws, transport, and hang

To keep them in subjection;

One Sunday or one ragged school

And fitting homes will do

More than Old Baileys by the score

And all their terrors too.

It is not surprising that the author of these lines pursued a life-long career as the advocate of the poor. By 1850 his name was appearing quite frequently in the law report columns of the local press at Exeter, and in the period 1851 to 1853 he hit the headlines. In one case he persuaded his client, a dissatisfied plaintiff in the Marylebone County Court, to start criminal proceedings for corrupt and oppressive conduct against the judge of the court. The action failed, but it produced extensive publicity in the Times. At the Exeter Assizes in March 1851 he was double-booked, that is he had cases in both the civil and the criminal courts at the same time, which is a good indication of his progress at the bar; fortunately the judge in the criminal court was prepared to wait for him. He was not afraid to argue with the senior judges, the Lord Chief  Baron (the Head of the Court of Exchequer)[9] and Lord Campbell, the Lord Chief Justice (the Head of the Court of Queen’s Bench). In the second case the jury, after a short deliberation, acquitted the prisoner, to the surprise of most of the spectators, and evidently of the prisoner himself. Arguing with the judges was good for business.

Carter v. The Coleridges

He did not even spare a Devonshire judge, Mr Justice Coleridge, from Ottery St Mary, a former Recorder of Exeter, a nephew of the poet and the first of three generations of distinguished lawyers who all became High Court judges and one of them Lord Chief Justice of England, and with whom Carter had a long family feud.

It started in a case at the summer assizes in Exeter in 1851. Mr Justice Coleridge had admitted evidence of what the prisoners had said to a police constable without being given a suitable caution. In his final speech to the jury Carter criticised that ruling of the judge.[10] Coleridge interrupted him:

Coleridge: You will not reply to my ruling, Mr Carter, in an address to the jury.

Carter: The judges of the land are amenable to a jury.

Coleridge: The jury are judges of the guilt or innocence of the prisoner.

Carter: I will use every proper means and courage to defend those whose interests are entrusted to my care.

Coleridge: It is idle to talk of courage. There is no necessity for courage.

Carter: I thought there was necessity for courage.

Coleridge: I put it to you, as a member of a liberal profession, bound by gentlemanly rules, whether the course you have pursued is a proper one. There is not a gentleman who sits at that table who does not know that it is not the business of the advocate to reply to the ruling of the judge, in an address to the jury.

Carter: I am not replying.

Coleridge: You are at perfect liberty to discuss any point of law with the judge till he has decided, and then you must stop.

Carter: In what way am I replying to your lordship?

Coleridge: If you mean to say, as a gentleman, that you were not replying, I beg you will go on.

Carter: If  I am restrained by a rule of law which is not proper, I have a right to remark upon it.

The judge’s son, another John Coleridge, was six years younger than Carter but had joined the Western Circuit a year before him. They were in direct competition, and they did not like each other. At the Exeter Spring Assizes in 1852 he wrote to his father: “Carter, too, adds seriously to the length. A larceny of  potatoes took very near five hours to try the other day from his defending it. But he has made Talfourd (the judge) really fierce once or twice, which is a feat, I think, no-one else could achieve.”

They came into open conflict at the Exeter assizes in March 1864, three years after Coleridge had taken silk and at a time when it was known that he was planning to stand for election as MP for Exeter.

Mr Carter took advantage of his reply on the whole case to make a most unprofessional and uncalled for attack on Mr Coleridge, the learned counsel for the defence – the man with the silk gown, as he sneeringly called him – accusing him, when addressing the jury, of trying to get up a little popularity in the city that he aspired to represent. He sneeringly criticised the learned Counsel’s well-known suave style of address and examination, attempting a ridiculous imitation of it. This unseemly abuse of the privilege of the bar was received with much disapprobation by the auditory, but was passed unheeded by Mr Coleridge himself. Mr Carter then commented on the evidence, going out of his way on the smallest pretext to abuse Mr Coleridge, evidently well pleased that he had the opportunity of a QC.

There is another account, to the same effect but with a twist in the tail:

“Gentlemen, it has been with great difficulty that I remained quiet during my learned friend’s opening, but I know he hates interruptions, and if  I had interrupted him he would have been sure to make a grievance of it. You have heard his version of the transaction; now you shall hear mine, and you will see what a very different complexion the case assumes. When my learned friend was speaking, I noticed you twelve gentlemen hanging on the silvery tones of his voice and seemingly believing every word he said. Don’t trust him, gentlemen, I warn you. You don’t know him as well as I do. He’s not a jesuit, but his brother is.”[11]

Coleridge was appointed Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in 1873 and Lord Chief Justice of England in 1880 and frequently visited Exeter for the assizes. The obituary notice for Carter in the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette in 1904contains the following paragraph:

I remember Lord Coleridge presided in a case in which Mr Carter was defending. The latter, as the case proceeded, “gave himself away.” Lord Coleridge never once interposed. Some thought this ominous. So it proved. When the time came for the Judge to sum up, he, in those silver tones for which he was famous, gave, in vitriolic language, most carefully chosen, his view of the defence. Once Mr Carter essayed to interrupt the Judge. This breach of etiquette brought from Lord Coleridge the command, “Silence, Sir”, in a tone which I do not think anyone who heard it will ever forget.

I have not found any case like this and I do not believe it. It would be uncharacteristic of  Lord Coleridge to use vitriolic language, and unseemly in any judge. But it shows how stories improve in the telling and how a reputation may exceed the reality. Carter appeared before Lord Coleridge on a number of occasions and there was a certain amount of sparring, but no outright warfare.

Lord Coleridge’s son, Bernard, joined the Western Circuit in 1879 and soon appeared in cases at Devon Quarter sessions. In October 1881 he prosecuted in a case in which Carter was defending:

Mr Carter then summed up his case and complained that Mr Coleridge had not cross-examined this witness in the same style as that which he had adopted in cross-examining the witnesses for the prosecution. He had been straight forward in the questions he had put, but Mr Coleridge relied on insinuation, suggestion, and sneers in his attempts to shake the evidence of the witnesses for the defence. This was not the first time he had heard a Coleridge do this – he had been accustomed to it for years.

Hon B Coleridge, in reply, said that after the observations of the learned counsel for the defence he felt he must apologise for having failed to adopt the style and tone of  Mr Carter. But all who practised at the bar felt that in his own line Mr Carter was unapproachable, and he could only anticipate that possibly the experience of future years might enable him to come to the level of that exquisite style, tone, and language which Mr Carter had condemned him for not emulating.[12]

Carter v. The Rest 

Carter quarrelled with many other judges. In 1852 he quarrelled with the new Recorder of Exeter at the Exeter City Quarter Sessions, and the Western Times headlined MR CARTER RENEWS THE WAR WITH THE LEARNED RECORDER. In 1853 he quarrelled with the Commissioner of Assize in the Guildhall. The same paper reported it under the headline WRANGLING WITH THE JUDGE and added an editorial on THE ASSIZES – MR COUNSELLOR CARTER AND THE LICENSE OF THE BAR. The judge “was subjected to one of those escapades for which Mr Counsellor Carter, or Tartar, has become rather celebrated.” This seems to have been the first occasion on which Carter was referred to as Counsellor Carter.

The following years were comparatively calm, but in 1858 there was a series of confrontations between Carter and  Baron Channell at the summer assizes. At the end of one case a member of the bar rose to express the barristers’ deepest sympathy with the judge at the insults he had received. The judge interrupted him and said that he thought Carter had only desired to do his duty, and then left the court. The Times reported what happened next:

We then heard Mr Carter use the words, “You are a pack of cowards. It’s only because I have all the business.”

Other members of the bar: You are stating that which is false, and which you know to be false.

Mr Carter: If you said that outside I would kick you.

Another learned counsel made some observations which we did not hear.

Mr Carter: Come outside, and I will answer you.

Much more took place, which we could not sufficiently hear to report.

Carter replied in a long letter to the editor. He complained about the way in which he had been treated by the members of the circuit bar mess: “from the time I began to be prominent I have been subjected to the most dastardly system of annoyance and persecution that combination and gentlemen can alone successfully inflict.” And he added: “I have saved my client where I am supposed to have lost myself; and impartial and observing juries have sanctioned my resistance by acquitting the accused.” In 1866 Montagu Bere complained to the Benchers of the Middle Temple that Carter had acted “contrary to the rules which regulate the conduct of a barrister in professional matters” in a case at the Devon Quarter Sessions. The Benchers found that there had been a breach of etiquette but took no further action. Carter wrote to them on 26 June in a letter which unfortunately has not survived. The Benchers decided, by 6 votes to 5, that “the tone and language of the letter being so very disrespectful and insulting to the Bench, the Under Treasurer is directed to make no reply to it.”[13]

In fact Carter had built up a very large practice, and because he was always busy he had learnt how to persuade juries. As a result he was frequently briefed for the prosecution as well as the defence, and in 1865 he led for the prosecution in a high profile murder case from Torquay and in 1866 in another from Plymouth.

“Sit down, sir!”

 There were still occasional outbursts. In 1864 Baron Bramwell threatened to turn him out and the case was reported under the heading JUDGE AND COUNSEL  –  “TURN HIM OUT.”  In 1877 Mr Justice Hawkins put him down firmly: “Mr Carter, I am not arguing the question. Sit down, sir!”  And in 1879 he had a longer argument with Mr Justice Mellor, reported under the heading SCENE BETWEEN JUDGE AND COUNSEL. Carter interrupted the judge during his summing up.

Mr Carter: Your lordship prevented me from calling my evidence …

His Lordship: Sit down, sir! I have ruled that you could not give the evidence, and you have no business to interrupt me in this way. If you do it again I will have you removed.

Mr Carter: Oh.

His Lordship: It is a most indecent thing to do. It is conduct that I am astonished at in a person of your age.

Mr Carter: My lord …

His Lordship: Sit down!

Mr Carter: If you prevent me …

His Lordship (hotly): If you don’t sit down instantly, I shall fine you. I will not allow any counsel systematically to think that he is going to get a verdict by bullying either the judge or the jury. I cannot find any language to adequately express my view of your conduct. It is most indecent. Am I presiding here or is Mr Carter presiding I should like to know. It is a most painful thing to find that there is one person on the circuit who persistently and constantly occasions interruptions of this sort.

In spite of everything Carter continued to practise successfully until he retired from the Exeter Assizes in December 1890, aged 76.

Revising Barrister, 1879-94

In 1879 Carter was appointed as a revising barrister for Dorset by Lord Chief Justice Cockburn, the senior judge at the summer assizes. That was a part-time post to revise the electoral rolls for parliamentary elections. The salary was £200 per annum, a useful income for an old barrister without a pension. The appointment was for one year only, but traditionally re-newed every year for as long as the barrister wished. Carter was re-appointed every year until 1894, and by Lord Coleridge himself  in 1880, 1884 and 1887.

He was revising barrister in Dorset for seven uneventful years. In 1886 he transferred to Exeter, and there in 1888 there was an extraordinary scene in the revision court, reminiscent of  his earlier years. He had recently been taken ill in court in London and thought that he was a dying man, but that does not justify his behaviour. He told Mr Harris, a solicitor representing the Liberals, that his objections were worthless. He did not care what Mr Harris said, it was not worth listening to. If a record of all Mr Harris had said or done in the court had been kept, he would be ashamed to show his face in Exeter. Mr Harris said that he should withdraw from the court, but he should represent to the proper authorities what he thought of the conduct of the Revising Barrister in this matter. The Revising Barrister said that Mr Harris had appeared in court without his request, and he could withdraw in the same way. In 1889 he was transferred to Bristol, but the friction between him and those appearing before him continued. In 1892 he was transferred again to South Somerset, with no better results. Finally, in 1894 Mr Justice Lawrance wrote to him : “With complaints on all sides and from all parties concerned, complaints which I gather have existed for some years – after warnings which I hear you have received from some of the Judges who have re-appointed you – the best construction I can put upon your conduct is that your age prevents you from carrying out your duties in a satisfactory manner.” The judge gave him the opportunity to resign (no-one talked of retirement in those days) and, when he declined to do so, sacked him (technically, refused to re-appoint him).[14]


Carter died on 30 December 1903, aged 89. There was a short obituary notice in The Times. A reader who did not know otherwise would think that he had a long and distinguished career at the bar[15] and, since very few people have an obituary in The Times, that he had been a pillar of the establishment.

David Pugsley
Honorary Circuit Archivist

[1] William Hunt, Then and Now, or Fifty Years of Newspaper Work (1887) 25-26; Montagu Williams QC, Later Leaves, or Further Reminiscences (1891) 23-25; J Alderson Foote, Pie-Powder, being Dust from the Law Courts (1911), reprinted by the Western Circuit (1999) 34-37, 47. See also Antony Harwood, Circuit Ghosts, A Western Circuit Miscellany (second impression, Western Circuit, 1997) 90, 119.

[2] For details of his political career see now Gerry Woodcock, Tavistock in Parliament: The History of a Constituency (2014) 116-134.

[3] But when he joined the Middle Temple he gave his father’s occupation as bootmaker, and when he stood for Parliament in 1847 he gave his own occupation as saddler.

[4] Perhaps encouraged by his father who had won a slander action at the March Assizes in 1818 against a cattle-jobber called Shepherd from Holsworthy who had said in the presence of a dozen people at the Union Inn, Tavistock, that “Carter is liable to be hanged for forgery.” Damages £5, costs 40s.

[5] He had a strong facial resemblance to the Earl of Devon who usually presided in one court of the Quarter Sessions. The Earl of Devon’s statue at Exeter was said to be a good likeness of Samuel Carter.

[6] In that year at the January Assizes in Exeter he defended Albert Smale who was prosecuted, unsuccessfully, for burning down a rick of wheat belonging to William Cheriton, one of the North Devon Savages at Nymet Rowland: see Peter Christie, The true story of the North Devon Savages, in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association, vol. 124 (1999), who refers to him, at p. 174, as “A Mr Carter.” Actually he was the Mr Carter; there was no other.

[7] The Stirling Castle was a convict hulk at Devonport and, after 1844, at Portsmouth. Did he meet his future wife in her father’s house when visiting a client awaiting transportation to Australia?

[8] The Times, 7 December 1852. In defence of Carter it must be said that this was not the speech of an awkward young man, but the complaint of a convinced puritanical teetotaller who was only too well aware of the grinding poverty of the peasants, as he called them, in and around Tavistock. The funeral had already taken place. Parliament voted £80,000 to cover the costs even though a complete set of receipts was not yet available. The funeral car cost £11,000. Lord Nelson’s funeral cost £14,000. Fifteen years earlier almost to the day Benjamin Disraeli had made his maiden speech in the House of Commons. He was heckled at least as much as Carter and concluded: “though I sit down now, the time will come when you will hear me.” In 1852 he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and he went on to be Prime Minister. John Bonham-Carter, MP for Winchester (and great-great-uncle of Mark Bonham-Carter who won the Torrington by-election in March 1958) wrote a letter to the editor of The Times to emphasize that the speech had not been made by him but by Samuel Carter.

[9] He was not alone. Not long before, Cockburn and Thesiger had had bitter arguments with the Chief Baron; they went on to be Lord Chief Justice and Lord Chancellor respectively.

[10] Here, as so often, Carter was half a century ahead of his time. The Judges’ Rules about the interrogation of suspects by the police first appeared in 1898.

[11] This was not a gratuitous insult but part of a political campaign. Coleridge was a Liberal, but he lost a lot of Liberal votes because of his high churchmanship. In a by-election in August 1864 he was defeated by Lord Courtenay (Con) by 1096 votes to 1070. In the general election the following year they were both returned unopposed, while Carter stood in Tavistock for the last time, unsuccessfully.

[12] This story improved in later versions: see J Alderson Foote, Pie-Powder, p.37. In due course Bernard Coleridge became a Judge. Foote concluded: “when that time came, the satisfaction of the Bar was tinged with something of regret. It was almost a tragedy that Samuel Carter should not have survived, in order to defend one more unhappy man before his hereditary antagonist.”

[13] I am grateful to the Middle Temple for permission to reproduce this extract from their Minutes of Parliament (MT.1/MPA/17 folio 61).

[14] This was almost unprecedented. The only previous case was in 1864 when Lord Chief Justice Cockburn declined to re-appoint Edmond Beales who had been an active political campaigner which was inconsistent with the impartiality required of a revising barrister.

[15] There is a much longer and less complimentary obituary notice in the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette.

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