The Defence Team: Counsel for the Prisoner

Palmer loses one of his Defence Team

The Counsel for the Defence
The Counsel for the Defence

John Smith known as ‘Honest John Smith of Brum (Birmingham)’, was the solicitor for the Defence and was responsible for hiring the men who were to defend Palmer in court. He chose Mr. Serjeant Wilkins who had studied medicine before he took up law and would be ideal to conduct the Defence. Wilkins agreed and represented William Palmer in January 1956 when Mrs. Palmer was unsuccessfully sued by Padwick at Westminster Court.

Unfortunately, just three weeks before the trial, Wilkins withdrew from the Palmer case. He claimed ill health but the real truth is that he had got into debt and had to escape quickly to avoid arrest himself. He succeeded in getting away to Dieppe in France by travelling on a ‘fishing-smack’.

A Late Replacement

So Smith had to look round at the last minute for a replacement. He unsuccessfully approached Sir Frederick Thesiger and then chose Mr. Serjeant Shee, Q.C. who was the Member of Parliament for Kilkenny. He was an able barrister but was a devout Roman Catholic. Robert Graves, in his book They Hanged My Saintly Billy, suggests that there was there was a strong ‘anti-catholic sentiment’ which was ‘particularly rife among London trades people of the Roundhead tradition’. Many of the jurors were London tradesmen.

Mr. Serjeant Shee, Q.C.: His name led to a comedian in the court cracking the following poor joke – “Why cannot Palmer be hanged for poisoning his wife?” Answer, “Because Shee was in court!”


Shee’s unusual statement

A picture of Mr. Serjeant Shee is from The Trial of William Palmer (from the Notable Trials Series) Second Edition revised by Eric R. Watson published in 1923
A picture of Mr. Serjeant Shee is from The Trial of William Palmer (from the Notable Trials Series) Second Edition revised by Eric R. Watson published in 1923

One unusual occurrence, almost unique, was that Shee, the leader of the Defence Team, told the jury that he personally believed in Palmer’s innocence. The Attorney- General replied to this quietly and pointedly, “You have had from my learned friend the unusual, I think I may add the unprecedented, assurance of his personal belief in his client’s innocence. It would have been better if he had abstained from so strange a declaration.” He continued “If he was sincere in that – and I know he was – there is no man in whom the spirit of truth and honour is more keenly alive – he said what he believed. But what would he think of me if, imitating his example, I at this moment stated to you, upon my personal word and honour as he did, what is my personal conviction from a conscientious consideration of the whole case?”

A few days before the execution Serjeant Shee sent a sympathetic letter and a bible to Palmer whilst he was in Stafford Gaol. Shee went on to become a judge in 1863 and died aged sixty-three in 1868.

Mr Grove Q.C.

Mr Grove Q.C. Lawyer and Scientist
Mr Grove Q.C. Lawyer and Scientist

Born July 11, 1811, Swansea, Glamorgan, Wales, died August 1st 1896, London.

His scientific career led to the practice of patent and other law after 1853. Grove was appointed as a barrister and a judge to the Court of Common Pleas in 1871. He also served in the High Court of Justice. Grove became famous, or perhaps infamous, as the defender of Dr. William Palmer, the “Rugeley poisoner.” But Grove was also scientifically oriented, and would sometimes get so sidetracked in patent cases that he ended up suggesting improvements in the product’s design, rather than worrying about mere legalisms. Grove was knighted in 1872. Ill health interrupted his law career, and he turned to science. After retirement from the bench in 1887, he resumed his scientific studies. He is also credited with inventing the ‘fuel cell’, the forerunner of today’s batteries.

Mr. Kenealy

Mr. Kenealy was a scholar and gifted in many ways but he also is said to have had ‘a touch of madness’. Some time after the Palmer trial he was ‘struck off’ for his conduct and abuse of the judges in the Tichborne trial. After being struck off he became an M.P. for a few years. He died in 1880 aged 61.

Mr. Gray

I can find no information about the fourth member of the Defence Team.