‘St George in a Wig’ – A new biography of a ‘judicial maverick’

How fleeting is the fame of judges — well known one day and consigned to obscurity the next — a mere footnote in legal history.  Such seems to have been the fate of Mr Justice McCardie, who if Antony Lentin’s latest biography is anything to go by, was an especially notable and fiercely controversial judge.

9781443897808A High Court judge from 1916 to 1933, McCardie was a household word in his day, a towering figure around whom clouds of controversy continually swirled. Almost like Lord Denning in the latter half of the twentieth century, the name of McCardie has undergone a sad eclipse, as evidenced rather poignantly by his bronze portrait bust in the Queen’s Room at Middle Temple Hall, which inexplicably bears no plaque which identifies it.  Also, it seems that there is no mention of him in the recently published ‘History of Middle Temple’ of which he was a member.  Perhaps these oversights will eventually be redressed with the publication of this book.

This particular judicial biography grew out of an entry on Mr Justice McCardie which the author was asked to write for ‘The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’ – and a startling journey it has obviously been.  Lawyers, academics and general readers interested in all things judicial – and their effects on social change – will be especially fascinated.

‘St. George in a wig’

McCardie was both lauded and denounced for his iconoclasm, says the author, notably on ‘his insistence that ‘the law must move with the times’.  He deplored outdated laws and precedents which fell to him to administer – and as Lentin also observes, ‘he strove not merely to make the law comply with precedents, but beyond that, to make it answer the needs of the day.’

 ‘Judicial creativity’ like this, manifested in public statements widely reported in the press, incurred fury within a large cross-section of society scandalized by, for example, McCardie’s heretical views on mid-Victorian divorce laws, abortion, contraception and eugenics.  The ‘Daily Express’ called him a ‘St. George in a Wig, a champion of women’s rights’ who ‘turns his bench into a pulpit for Woman’s cause.’

No wonder McCardie was popular with some and vilified by many others as a ‘judicial maverick’ and ‘rogue judge.’  But other voices like that of the Manchester Guardian predicted that ‘history will give Henry McCardie his place in the succession of the great common-law judges of England.’

Fatal Flaws

In all, Antony Lentin paints a vivid picture of a courageous judge much ahead of his time.  An assiduous scholar, McCardie was also a well known Latinist who for instance, founded the Horatian Society which even now continues to attract enthusiastic devotees of Horace. It is only when you get to the penultimate chapter of this book that you discover  the personal flaws and failings that led to McCardie’s eventual ruin.

Unknown to most of his contemporaries, McCardie was a compulsive gambler and kept two mistresses.  One of them bore him a son of whom he was very fond, but to whom he never admitted paternity.  Eventually debt-ritdden and penniless, he ended his own life.  For details read this book, which the author has copiously researched using many original sources.  The result is an absorbing narrative which fills in any number of blanks in the story of Mr Justice McCardie and which therefore makes an important contribution to English legal history.

Phillip Taylor, MBE, Barrister-at-Law

For more information on Mr Justice McCardie (1869-1933): Rebel, Reformer, and Rogue Judge and to purchase a copy, click here.

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