From draper’s apprentice to attorney-general: Sir John Rolt and the 1867 Reform Act

Disraeli’s ‘leap in the dark’ in 1867

With this year marking the 150th anniversary of the passing of the Second Reform Act, our MP of the Month is one of the lesser known architects of this measure, the attorney-general, Sir John Rolt, who, as one contemporary noted, undertook much of ‘the drudgery’ connected with the bill’s passage.

Rolt’s path to the attorney-generalship had been an unlikely one, and had largely depended on his tremendous capacity for hard work. Born in Calcutta in 1804, he was the son of a provisions merchant, James Rolt. He was brought to England about 1810, but after the deaths of his bankrupt father in September 1812 and his mother in May 1814, he became a dependant of his maternal grandparents, yeoman farmers at Fairfield, Gloucestershire. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a firm of woollen drapers in Oxford Street, London. He next found employment in the warehouse of a Manchester-based firm in Newgate Street. In 1827 he became a clerk in a proctor’s office in the courts of Doctors’ Commons at St. Paul’s, and six years later began his legal training at the Inner Temple. Supporting himself with employment as secretary to a school for orphans and a Dissenters’ grammar school, he was admitted to the bar in June 1837. He subsequently practised in the court of chancery, where he rapidly acquired an extensive practice, and became a queen’s counsel in 1846.

Harbouring parliamentary ambitions, Rolt unsuccessfully contested Stamford for the Conservatives at the 1847 general election, and was again defeated at Bridport in 1852. Undeterred, he secured a seat for West Gloucestershire at the 1857 general election. Although he ‘made no great figure’ in the Commons, he was far from the ‘silent Conservative’ that has been portrayed, and as a back-bencher he made more than 90 contributions to debate. While he largely confined himself to the affairs of chancery and the bankruptcy court, he was also one of the main speakers on the second reading of the Liberal reform bill of 1860, and as an opponent of household suffrage declared that he ‘stood by the constitution of 1832’. His most important parliamentary achievement came in 1862, when he carried through a measure that became known as Rolt’s Act, which was a significant step towards the fusion of law and equity.

Sir John Rolt as attorney-general

Having been considered for the post of lord chief justice for Ireland, Rolt was appointed attorney-general in October 1866 and was knighted. He was involved closely in the progress of the Conservatives’ reform bill and played a significant role in the government’s handling of the demonstration mounted by the Reform League at Hyde Park in May 1867. After furnishing his opinion on the legality of the proposed assembly, he attended the Cabinet meeting which considered issuing a royal proclamation that Rolt had drafted, which declared that public use of the royal parks did not extend to the holding of political meetings. However, the government’s subsequent vacillation on the issue resulted in the demonstration taking place and precipitated the resignation of the home secretary, Spencer Walpole.

During the 1867 Reform Act’s passage through the Commons, Rolt was at Disraeli’s side ‘during the first few hours of almost every night’. An unenthusiastic reformer, Rolt soon became convinced that once the Conservative Cabinet had decided to carry a measure of parliamentary reform they did not ‘much care’ what it would be. He subsequently complained that he and other members of the government were routinely ‘kept in ignorance’ about Disraeli’s intentions, and claimed that whenever he ‘asked any question, or made any suggestion … in advance of the precise question of the moment’, no answer could ever be got from Disraeli ‘beyond “We shall see”, “Wait”, or something to that effect’. While the bill was being considered by MPs, Rolt would terminate his daily business in the law courts and resort to ‘the miserable dens’ that had been allotted to the law officers near the House and spend ‘all night long, constantly at work in some way or other on the subject’ . Understandably, Rolt’s health suffered as a result and he began to experience an alarming ‘pressure on the brain’.

Shortly after the bill passed its third reading in the Commons in July 1867, Rolt was appointed lord justice of appeal in chancery. While he had never been ranked among the greatest lawyers of his day, his performance on the bench was generally commended. However, he suffered a mild paralytic stroke in January 1868 and was compelled to resign the following month. He subsequently lived in seclusion at his seat, Ozleworth, in Gloucestershire, and wrote his memoirs, in which he confessed that the momentous events of 1867 ‘made very little impression on me’, and that he had not treated them with ‘the importance and attention I now think they deserved’. He died in June 1871.

Further reading

  • The Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John Rolt. Lord Justice of the Court of Appeal in Chancery (1939)
  • J. M. Rigg, rev. P. Polden, ‘Rolt, Sir John (1804-1871)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
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