Samuel Romilly

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Samuel Romilly

English lawyer and law reformer Sir Samuel Romilly (1757-1818) divided his time between the law and public service. He served as chancellor of Durham from 1805 to 1815 and was a member of Parliament beginning in 1806. A supporter of the social and political views of the Swiss Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Romilly devoted his life to advocating on behalf of the lower classes and worked to reform England's criminal law by abolishing capital punishment for minor crimes.

Inspired by French Ancestry

Born in London, England, on March 1, 1757, Romilly was the second son born to Peter and Margaret (Garnault) Romilly. Both of Romilly's parents hailed from French families whose members had fled France for England after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by French King Louis XIV in 1685. The wealth of the Garnault family allowed Margaret Romilly and her family, now newly of London, to live in comfort while her husband established a business as a watchmaker and jeweler.

In addition to gaining a basic education, Romilly worked in his father's shop where he began to learn the watchmaker's trade. A good student of the classics, he also excelled at the study of French literature, and when he inherited a legacy of 2,000 pounds from a French relative, he left his father's shop and went to work in a London law office. There Romilly determined to become a clerk in the Court of Chancery—a judicial body presided over by the Lord Chancellor wherein litigants could directly petition the king for justice. To this end he set about training himself and saving up sufficient funds to purchase the office. In 1778, however, the 21-year-old law clerk, determined to go to the bar, had entered himself at Gray's Inn, one of the four inns of court that conferred the rank of barrister.

In 1781 Romilly traveled abroad and visited Geneva, where he met Pierre Etienne Louis Dumont (1759-1829), a Swiss democrat who had been a protegé of politician and orator the Compte de Mirabeau during the French Revolution. The influence of the Enlightenment that inspired Dumont and Mirabeau would also inspire Romilly, and he eventually came to know Encyclopédie collaborators Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert.

Called to the bar in 1783, Romilly appeared briefly in circuit courts but spent most of his time working in the Court of Chancery. A reading of Martin Madan's Thoughts on Executive Justice with Respect to Our Criminal Laws inspired him to contemplate the issue of capital punishment and resulted in Romilly's first published book in 1786, the Observations of a Late Publication, in titled, Thoughts on Executive Justice. During work on his response to Madan, Romilly was introduced to Mirabeau himself and spent much time with the French politician.

While Romilly busied himself in the Court of Chancery, across the English Channel France was in the throes of political upheaval. In 1789 economic and class anxieties came to a head as King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were imprisoned and political power fell to a new body, the Estates-General. Due to his influence, Mirabeau quickly gained power in the Estates-General, and he turned to Romilly for help in acquiring a procedural manual of the English House of Commons for use as a model. Intrigued by the revolution and its ideals of equality and brotherhood, Romilly visited Paris and in 1790 published a pamphlet titled Thoughts on the Probable Influence of the Late Revolution in France upon Great Britain. His larger work, Letters Containing an Account of the Late Revolution in France, more fully expressed the alignment of his political sympathies with those of the revolutionary leadership, albeit the theoretical aspects rather than the terrifying reality of bloody revolution.

During the next decade Romilly's practice at the Court of Chancery flourished, and in 1800 he was honored by the government. In 1798 he married Anne Garbett of Hereford-shire. In 1805 he was appointed chancellor of the county court of Durham. Due to his philosophical leanings, Romilly had become known to many in the Whig party. In 1806, on the succession of the Whigs to power under Lord Grenville, he was knighted and appointed to the position of solicitor-general. Because Romilly would not qualify for the post unless he was a member of Parliament, it was arranged that the newly knighted Romilly stand for Queensborough in the House of Commons.

Throughout his tenure as solicitor-general, Romilly began the legal reform that would occupy the rest of his life. In keeping with his position, he instituted several changes in England's bankruptcy procedures. Although Romilly lost the post of solicitor-general when the Tories regained control of the government, he kept his seat in the House of Commons where he sat for Horsham, Wareham, and Arundel. During his tenure in Parliament, he became a strong advocate of social reform, using his skills as an orator, his firm grounding in the law, and his belief in democracy and equality for the benefit of the English people.

Active in Social Reform

Despite a growing public outcry to abolish the institution of slavery in England and its colonies, the issue of slavery had been politically controversial for several years. By 1804 however, the slavery question began to attract renewed interest, in part due to the influx of new Irish members, who tended as a whole to be abolitionists. Noted abolitionist and member of Parliament William Wilberforce (1759-1833) first introduced his Abolition Bill in 1804 and then 1805, both times without success. In 1806 Wilberforce published an influential pamphlet advocating Abolition and drumming up enough interest to force the issue once again to a Parliamentary vote. With sufficient support from the Whigs, the Abolition Bill passed on February 23, 1807, by an overwhelming majority of votes. One of the bill's staunchest advocates, Romilly added his voice to support of the bill, praising Wilberforce for his efforts and receiving a standing ovation from the House of Commons. Abolition would be the first of many social issues that would benefit from the new member of Parliament's support.

Reform of England's Penal Code

At the turn of the 19th century the social and economic landscape of England was in a state of flux due to the effects of the Industrial Revolution. The widening rift between poorer working classes and the wealthy elite had created tensions that the unfolding French Revolution continued to fuel. Police and guard details found themselves constantly short-handed when faced with ever-increasing crimes, riots, outbreaks of mob violence, and other types of social disorder. Larger cities often relied on English troops to reestablish order, while smaller towns called on their local militias when needed.

As a practicing attorney confronted with the burgeoning cases brought to trial each year, Romilly had become aware of the many inequities in England's criminal justice system. Often ill-conceived and frequently cruel, the nation's statutory laws governing criminal activity doled out the death penalty as a punishment for 220 crimes, many of them minor infractions that did not warrant it. Children as well as adults were subject to these outdated laws, many dating back to the more brutal age of Queen Elizabeth I and some applying to minimal crimes—among them pick-pocketing, pulling down turnpike gates, stealing fish from ponds, and highway robbery when the goods taken were valued greater than a penny. Because the execution of all those men, women, and children whose crimes demanded death according to the statutes was infeasible, the death penalty eventually began to be enforced randomly. Many of the condemned—including children, who would remain subject to the death penalty until 1908-were given a less-harsh sentence after their initial condemnation; of course, there were others who received the prescribed penalty because of the personal whims of the judge or some other arbitrary reason.

Romilly believed that it was the certainty of punishment rather than the severity of punishment that was the true deterrent to crime. He gathered statistics showing that despite the increasing use of the death penalty during the 18th century, the number of crimes had not decreased, in fact, crime had increased. In 1808 he managed to begin the process of repeal in the case of an Elizabethan statute which made petty theft a capital offence. Unfortunately, his success in this instance resulted in opposition from the House of Lords in the person of Lord Ellenborough, and three other pieces of reform legislation were discarded. Romilly continued to fight for reform, but ultimately waged a losing battle. Success came in 1812, when he requested the repeal of an even more unjust statute that declared it a capital offence for an English soldier to beg without written permission from his commanding officer. In 1813, after attempting to introduce a bill before the House of Commons that would repeal the law, making it a capital offence to steal goods of a minimal value from a store or warehouse, he watched the bill pass by a two-to-one margin in the House of Commons on March 26 and then be thrown out of the House of Lords scarcely a week later.

For the remainder of his career in Parliament, Romilly continued his efforts at penal reform and during the same period he saw little legislative progress. However, his well-articulated arguments for change did not fall on deaf ears, for he wisely published them in widely read periodicals such as the Edinburgh Review and the changes he envisioned were eventually enacted.

Romilly soon became famous throughout Europe, where his 1810 work Observations on the Criminal Law of England was widely known. Other writings by the legal reformer would be published posthumously, among them a collection of his speeches published in 1820 and a version of his memoirs, edited by his sons and published in 1840.

Tragically, Romilly's long career of public service ended too soon. On the Isle of Wight on November 2, 1818, three days after his wife died following a long illness, he descended into a grief so great that he took his own life. Following his death at age 61, Romilly's work to reform England's penal codes was continued by Sir James MacIntosh, who in early March of 1819 succeeded in establishing a Parliamentary committee to review the uses of the death penalty. Many of Romilly's proposed changes in English law were made later in the 19th century during the reign of Queen Victoria. Romilly's second son, John, Baron Romilly, followed in his father's footsteps, becoming solicitor general in 1848 at age 46 and attorney-general in 1850.


Collins, W. J., Life and Work of Sir Samuel Romilly, Huguenot Society, 1908.

Romilly, Samuel, Thoughts on the Criminal Law of England as It Relates to Capital Punishments, and on the Mode in Which It Is Administered, T. Cadell & W. Davies, 1810.

—, The speeches of Sir Samuel Romilly in the House of Commons, 2 volumes, James Ridgway & Sons, 1820.

—, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Samuel Romilly, 3 volumes,[London, England], 1840.

The Speeches of Sir Samuel Romilly in the House of Commons, 2 volumes [London, England], 1820.


United States Magazine and Democratic Review, Volume 27, 1851.


Reading Romilly Association Web site, (May 27, 2003). □

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Samuel Romilly

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