The three Judges selected for the Palmer Trial

Baron Alderson, Lord Chief Justice Campbell, Justice Cresswell From the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer, published 1856
Baron Alderson, Lord Chief Justice Campbell, Justice Cresswell From the Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer, published 1856

The judges were Lord Chief Justice Campbell, Baron Alderson and Justice Cresswell.

Lord Chief Justice Campbell

Lord Chief Justice Campbell, the senior judge for the trial, was seventy-six or seventy-seven years of age. Dudley Barker, in Palmer the Rugeley Poisoner published in 1935 described Campbell as “an old man then, past his real greatness, but eager still to preside at such a trial, and painstaking, if not brilliant in his long summing-up. That he had been very keen to preside over the trial was never doubted but, it was said, he was also very keen to see Palmer convicted. He even took the unusual step of passing sentence on the prisoner, a role normally given to one of the junior judges.

A picture of Lord Chief Justice Campbell is from The Trial of William Palmer (from the Notable Trials Series) 2nd Edition published in 1923 revised by Eric R. Watson.
A picture of Lord Chief Justice Campbell is from The Trial of William Palmer (from the Notable Trials Series) 2nd Edition published in 1923 revised by Eric R. Watson.

In Fletcher’s Book on Palmer published in 1925 and from newspapers at the time we learn that Campbell had thought of retiring before the ‘Palmer Act’ meant that the trial was to be switched to London. Fletcher even suggested that he was too old for such a trial.

Lord Chief Justice Campbell used the whole of the eleventh day of the trial (May 26th 1856) to sum up the case for the jury. He commented on the whole of the evidence for the Prosecution. He continued his summing up on the twelfth day finishing at eighteen minutes past two o’clock. The jury then retired to consider their verdict.

Shee’s ‘unseemly interruption’

George Fletcher’s 1925 book the Life & career of Dr. William Palmer of Rugeley (page 191) tells us that The Lord Chief Justice Campbell had to sum up the case before the jury retired to consider their verdict and finished with the words, “May God direct you to a right finding”. At this point there was a most unusual interruption by Serjeant Shee who was leading Palmers defence.

….. Serjeant Shee caused a somewhat unseemly interruption by stating the question left by the Lord Chief Justice was whether, “the evidence proved that Cook’s symptoms were consistent with death by strychnine.” This ought to be followed by the questions “Is it inconsistent with death from natural causes?” and does the medical evidence establish the death of Cook by strychnine?”
In the middle of the arguments Shee invoked the Almighty with the words, “It is my duty not to be deterred by any expression of displeasure – I am accountable to a much higher tribunal than even your Lordship’s – to submit what occurs to me to be the proper question.”
At the end of the argument the Judge said to the jury, just before they retired:
“The question whether the symptoms were consistent with death from strychnine was not THE question, but it was most material in finding your judgment as to whether he died from natural disease, or from poison administered by the prisoner. If the symptoms were consistent with death by strychnine, then you must consider the other evidence in the case as to whether the death was due to natural causes or whether he did not die by poison – by strychnine. And if it were, was it administered by the prisoner.
“If you so believe, then it is your duty to God and man to find a verdict of guilty.”
The jury retired to their room to consider their verdict.

Baron Alderson and Justice Cresswell

I have been unable to find details of these two judges but will add facts as they are unearthed. (See additional information found about Baron Alderson below)

Criticism of the judges

In the William Salt Library is an 1856 pamphlet comprising of a letter, supposedly written by the Reverend Thomas Palmer, to the Lord Chief Justice Campbell which contains derogatory remarks on the conduct of the Prosecution and the three judges. There is also another 1856 pamphlet entitled ‘The Rugeley tragedy revealed; being a review of all the startling disclosures of Rev Thomas Palmer proving the innocence of his brother William Palmer. Published: T Duggan’. However it is thought that Thomas was not the real author of either of these pamphlets.

Baron Alderson

Professor Albert Alderson, Director of Research, School of Computing, Staffordshire University, approached us with the following additional information from the ‘Alderson Family History Society’

Hon. Sir Edward Hall Alderson, Baron of the Exchequer, was christened on the 25 Oct 1787 at the Old Meeting Gaol, Great Yarmouth. His father was Robert Alderson (b. 1753, d. 01 Dec 1833), a Presbyterian minister, who changed career to become a successful lawyer, and was buried in Norwich Cathedral. His mother was Elizabeth Hurry (b. 20 Apr 1751, d. 30 Jun 1791).

Edward Hall Alderson was called to the Bar in 1811; had chambers in Symonds Inn in 1822; became Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in 1830; had chambers in Searjeants Inn in 1833; and was appointed Baron of the Exchequer in 1834.

On 25 Oct 1823, he married Georgiana Drewe (b. 1791). The most famous of their children was Georgina Charlotte Alderson (b. 1827 St. Mary Magdalen, Paddington, d. 20 Nov 1889). She married Robert Arther Talbot Gascoyne Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, who became Prime Minister as Lord Salisbury. This was a love match; Salisbury married her after some resistance from his family. They were blissfully happy and Georgina was a brilliant hostess. She died on 20 Nov 1899 at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire. Their son the Reverend Frederick Cecil Alderson (b. 20 Apr 1836, Norwich, d. 3 Dec 1907, Peterborough) was a Canon of Peterborough Cathedral and Chaplain to HM Queen Victoria and King Edward VII.

As well as trying the Palmer case, he tried a number of other high profile cases and gave famous and long lasting judgements, including:
· In 1840, Edward Oxford was tried for High Treason, in shooting at Queen Victoria while riding along Constitution Hill with Prince Albert, and found insane. The trial took place at the Central Criminal Court, on Thursday, the 9th of July, 1840, before Lord Denman, Mr Baron Alderson and Mr Justice Patteson.
· In 1845, in the case of Turner v Mason, a maid, who against her employer’s express order left the house to visit her dying mother, was held to be properly dismissed for misconduct. In the robust manner of judges of the day, Baron Alderson said that the pleadings did not even show that the mother was likely to die that night and that it was most improper misconduct to leave the house.
· In 1856, Baron Alderson stated what has become the most commonly accepted definition of negligence as:” the omission to do something which a reasonable man, guided upon those considerations that ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs, would do, or something which a prudent or reasonable man would not do.”

He died in 1857 in London. His portrait (NPG D7313) by William Skelton, after Henry Perronet Brigg’s line engraving, published 1832, is in the National Portrait Gallery, but not currently on display.

At the end of High Street, Lowestoft, just beyond the High Lighthouse, is the entrance to the Sparrows’ Nest, a picturesque thatched house in pleasant grounds, now the property of the town. The house was formerly the country residence of Baron Alderson, the father of the late Marchioness of Salisbury. The grounds surrounding it contain some fine trees growing on the crest and slope of the old cliff-line on which a considerable portion of North Lowestoft is built. Parts of the slope are covered with turf, as also, in front of the house, is a pleasant expanse of level ground on which open-air concerts are held during the season.