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In a recent post on Mr Francis Henry Goldsmid (1 May 1808 – 2 May 1878), the first Jewish barrister, we examined his contribution to the chancery jurisdiction. Since that post Professor David Graham QC has been investigating Sir George Jessel MR (pictured below left).
Sir George Jessel (13 February 1824 – 21 March 1883 - pictured below left) is best remembered as a great Master of the Rolls and a lucid exponent of equity. His contribution to the cause of bankruptcy law reform is however less well known. Born in 1824 and educated at a Jewish school in Kew, he went to UCL where he distinguished himself, especially as a mathematician. Proficient in Hebrew and biblical literature Jessel later became a founding trustee of Jews' College, set up to train candidates for the ministry.
Called in 1848 Jessel practiced at the chancery bar from chambers in Stone Buildings, taking silk in 1864 at the fourth attempt. The delay was not, as has been surmised, due to religious prejudice, but to the personal hostility towards him of Lord Westbury (formerly Richard Bethell) as Lord Chancellor. This Lord Chancellor is famous for his "unjustified and unconquerable animosities." The two men had been at odds at the bar. A survey of the law reports for Jessel as a junior and in silk reveals that he was frequently instructed in bankruptcy matters. Case in which he appeared include:
In the House of Commons
In December 1868 Jessel was elected Liberal MP for Dover. On the following 3rd March he presided at a dinner of the Jew's Asylum. In a speech he traced the history of the idea of an orphan asylum from the days of Greece and Rome and its evolution in practice since the 17th century. He strongly supported the training in manufacturing skills and the apprenticeship system. The technique of drawing on the historical background displayed on this occasion was put to good use when he gave his maiden speech in the House of Commons two days later, on 5th March 1869 on a bankruptcy bill introduced by the Attorney-General. After Jessel spoke this senior Government official said that he [Jessel] was entitled to speak with great authority on this subject and that he would welcome Jessel's advice on the details of the bill.
Jessel's contribution to the discussion on bankruptcy law in 1869 attracted wide attention. It was his memorable speech on 5th April 1869 that first aroused Gladstone's special interest in him and began this famous liberal politician's extreme respect and admiration for Jessel as a lawyer and a man.
On 9th April the Jewish Chronicle quoted another usually restrained contemporary paper as comparing this speech to the addresses of Macaulay. Jessel presented, as was to be expected, an historical survey of bankruptcy law in England and elsewhere. He based his suggestions on his own experience and what he called "the experience of the whole world." He looked behind accepted notions and reaching back to their origins he explained inconsistencies and took the magic out of anomalies. In particular he urged the abolition of imprisonment for debt.
There are entries about Jessel in the DNB and the ODNB. The editors of the latter, where however, seemingly unaware of the superb lecture and article on him by the late His Honour Judge Israel Finestein QC entitled "Sir George Jessel (1824-1883)" (The Jewish Historical Society of England - Transactions (1953/1955), vol.18). Although there is no full scale biography of Jessel, this lengthy article is an excellent substitute. It contains handsome photographs of the Master of the Rolls, along with a photograph of his father Zadok Aaron Jessel. It was appropriate that Finestein delivered his lecture at UCL where Jessel towards the end of his life became a fellow and Vice-Chancellor.
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