COPLEY, John Singleton (1772-1863), of 25 George Street, Hanover Square, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



18 Mar. 1818 - 1818
1818 - 1826
1826 - Apr. 1827

Family and Education

b. 21 May 1772, at Boston, Mass., 1st s. of John Singleton Copley, portrait painter, by Mary Susannah Farnum, da. of Richard Clarke, E.I. agent, of Boston. educ. at Dr Horne’s, Chiswick; Franks’s sch. Clapham; Trinity Coll. Camb. 179O-4, fellow 1795-1804, travelling bachelor (to USA) 1795-6; L. Inn 1794, called 1804. m. (1) 13 Mar. 1819, Sarah Garay (d. 15 Jan. 1834), da. of Charles Brunsden, wid. of Lt.-Col. Charles Thomas, 2 Ft. Gds., 1s. d.v.p. 4da.; (2) 5 Aug. 1837, Georgiana, da. of Lewis Goldsmith, journalist, 1da. Kntd. Oct. 1819; cr. Baron Lyndhurst 25 Apr. 1827.

Offices Held

Serjt.-at-law 6 July 1813; charity commr. 1818-34; King’s serjt. and c.j. Chester circuit Feb.-July 1819; solicitor-gen. July 1819-Jan. 1824, attorney-gen. Jan. 1824-Sept. 1826, master of rolls and recorder, Bristol Sept. 1826-Apr. 1827; PC 20 Nov. 1826; ld. chancellor Apr. 1827-Nov. 1830, Nov. 1834-Apr. 1835, 1841-46; chief baron of Exchequer Jan. 1831-Dec. 1834; high steward, Cambridge Univ. 1840-d.


Copley was born at Beacon Hill, Boston, the son of the renowned New England portrait painter. Copley senior was the son of Richard Copley, of a Yorkshire family settled in Limerick, and Mary Singleton, of a Lancashire family settled in Clare who emigrated to Boston in 1736. He came to Europe to study the masters in 1774, and his wife and infant family, unpopular in Boston because her father was a loyalist, fled after him in 1775 and settled in London, where the artist maintained a somewhat precarious existence.1 Copley junior distinguished himself at university where he had a reputation for republican views, and, at his father’s request, studied law. As a travelling bachelor of his university, he visited the United States, recovering £4,000 for quiet possession from the purchasers of his father’s Beacon Hill property, since become valuable and sold without permission during his absence. The family had had thoughts of returning there but now gave them up, and Copley commenced his discouragingly slow rise in the legal profession as a special pleader, assisted by his fellowship allowance until 1804 and then by his Boston brother-in-law Gardiner Greene, his father being unable to help him.

Copley practised on the midland circuit after his call in 1804, but found (1806) that ‘the profits increase very, very slowly’. After renewed assiduity his prospects improved, but his income went into maintaining his struggling family. In March 1812 he finally drew public notice by his successful defence of the Luddite John Ingham at Nottingham and, for the first time, his circuit work prospered. He became a serjeant-at-law in 1813 and on 26 Apr. 1814 appeared as counsel at the bar of the House against the clergy residence bill; but a further setback occurred on his father’s death in 1815 when he accepted the responsibility of discharging his debts and maintaining his mother and younger sister. Refusing to join her married daughter in Boston, his mother wrote that she wished to provide his ‘only domestic scene for comfort and resort from his arduous attention to business’. He postponed marriage until he felt that he could afford it.

After his success in the highly technical case of Boville v. Moore et al., Copley had become by 1817 acknowledged leader of his circuit. He further secured the acquittal of Watson and Thistlewood on a treason charge in that year with a masterly speech. His handsome presence, fine memory, wide knowledge and energy and grace of thought and utterance were now given their full due, though as early as 1809 Farington reported a legal acquaintance, Reynolds, as saying there was ‘no one more likely to become Lord Chancellor’.2 The fact that Copley went on to accept a crown brief against Brandreth Turner and others for riot at the special Derby assize in October 1817 disappointed those who imagined that his advocacy had radical overtones, but he had little taste for party politics. When Lord Liverpool brought him into Parliament for Yarmouth on the Holmes interest on a vacancy in 1818, it was without ‘pledge, promise or condition of any sort’.3 Nevertheless, as expected of him, Copley supported administration, knowing that he would obtain promotion. He spoke twice before the dissolution, defending the conviction of offenders reward bill on 4 May and the aliens bill against Romilly on 19 May. He was one of the ministerial Members summoned to Fife House to hear the government’s proposals for the royal dukes’ marriage grants and voted for them on 15 Apr.; he also voted his approval of the imprisonment of radical booksellers, 21 May 1818.

Copley was returned as a Treasury nominee on Lord Clinton’s interest at the general election of 1818. He then paid a visit to Paris. On 22 Nov. Lord Eldon recommended him to the Regent as chief justice of Chester in the reshuffle of judicial offices. He was appointed in February following and spoke once, in opposition to Burdett’s amendments to the trial by battle abolition bill, 10 Mar., before going his circuit. He voted with ministers against Tierney’s censure motion, 18 May, and on 10 June defended the foreign enlistment bill. In July he became solicitor-general in succession to Gifford, who had ‘totally failed in Parliament’, whereas his own ‘voice and manner’ were ‘excellent’. On 24 Nov. 1819, in the debate on the address, he stated the case for regarding the Peterloo meeting as illegal and on 2 Dec. spoke at length in favour of the seditious meetings prevention bill, emphasizing the need for a general rather than a local bill. Subsequently he defended specific clauses in it, as well as the stamp duties bill, 20 Dec., and the blasphemous libel bill, 21 Dec.; indeed he remained in the House until the end of the session to support the repressive measures on which, as a law officer, he had been consulted.4

Copley died 12 Oct. 1863, one of the ornaments of his profession.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


Based on Sir T. Martin, Life of Lord Lyndhurst (1884).

  • 1. On him see his gdda. Mrs Amory of Boston’s Life (1884).
  • 2. Farington, v. 150.
  • 3. Buckingham, Regency, ii. 241; Martin, 143; cf. a hostile account by Lord Campbell, Lives of the Lord Chancellors, viii. 21.
  • 4. Pellew, Sidmouth, iii. 233, 289; Geo. IV Letters, ii. 757; Heron, Notes (1851), 92.