[From Manx Quarterly #7 1909]



Died May 22nd, 1909.

Sir William Leece Drinkwater
Sir William Leece Drinkwater

The links which connect the twentieth century with the days when George the Third was King are rapidly disappearing, and on May 22nd the most notable of them, so far as the Isle of Man is concerned, was severed in the death of Sir William Leece Drinkwater, of Kirby. It was ardently hoped that Sir William would live to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and up to about three months previously everything pointed to him becoming a centenarian. He was even in the early part of this year, wonderfully active in body and mind for a man of his great age, and up to his ninety-seventh birthday, which fell on the 28th March last, he was able, when the weather was fine, to take pedestrian and carriage exercise. About two months ago, however, he weakened suddenly, and had to take to his bed, and it was then evident to his family that the end of an honourable and useful life could not be long delayed. Gradually he faded, and at 7-15 a.m. on Saturday, he went over to the great majority, his passing being a perfectly peaceful one. When the not unexpected news of his death was published, there were throughout the Island expressions of profound regret that one who had done the State such long and splendid service had been called away. Sir William, on the paternal and maternal sides, came of an old Liverpool family, which for generations had loomed large in the mercantile life of the great seaport. He was horn on the 28th March, 1812, so that he very likely had some recollection of the celebrations attendant upon the Battle of Waterloo, which took place over three years afterwards. His father was Mr John Drinkwater, of Liverpool, whose father, Mr James Drinkwater — Mayor of Liverpool in 1810 — married a Miss Leece, of Ballamona, Braddan. Hence one of Sir William's baptismal names and the Manx blood in his veins. The mother of Sir William Drinkwater was, prior to her marriage with Mr John Drinkwater, Miss Elizabeth Gandy, daughter of Mr James Gandy, of Kendal. The long European peace — which followed the Battle of Waterloo resulted in many English children being sent to France for education, and among these was William Leece Drinkwater, who attended Angoulëme College long enough to acquire a mastery of the French language — which he never lost. In the course of his judicial career, it sometimes happened that parties or witnesses had little or no knowledge of English, but were conversant with French, and on these occasions Sir William acted as interpreter between the speaker of the strange tongue and counsel engaged in the case. On leaving Angoulëme, Sir William attended at the Royal Institution School, Liverpool, and subsequently proceeded to St. John's College, graduating B.A. in 1834, and taking his M.A. degree three years later. He was the oldest Cambridge graduate, as was some few months ago pointed out by his son, Mr G. Drinkwater, in the course of a letter to the "Daily Mail." In 1837 he was called to the English Bar (Inner Temple), and for the next few years he practised in the Northern circuit (Liverpool Sessions), and for a time acted as a reporting barrister in the Common Pleas Division. It is very probable that his experience as a reporter stood him well when in later years it became necessary for him to state concisely his reasons for judgment.

And his judgments, whether written or oral, were ever models of conciseness. On the 30th November, 1847, Sir William was appointed Second Deemster of the Isle of Man, and eight years later — in 1855 — he attained to the position of First Deemster. As a judge his record was one of which any man would have had good reason to be proud, and one that the Island must for long years to come bear gratefully in mind. Than him no more impartial man ever sat on the bench, while his profound knowledge of both English and Manx law, and his common sense, combined to render him the almost perfect judge. Manx people had in him a confidence which was almost blind, and yet was ever justified. They preferred that he, unaided by a jury, should whenever possible determine lawsuits, and it is not too much to say that during the fifty years of his service on the bench, the judgments delivered by him from which there was appeal could be counted on the fingers of one hand. is illustrative of the implicit trust reposed in him by litigants, it may be mentioned that a right of way case came before him at Castletown, one of the parties to which was distantly related to him. He, before the opening of the ;case, mentioned this fact to the parties and their counsel, but with one accord they urged that he should continue the hearing — he was in his occupancy of the judgment seat as Caesar's wife. A feature of his judgeship was the concise and neat notes of evidence which he took. These included every point of importance, and were and are of much value to the legal profession. Perhaps the most commendable characteristic which distinguished Sir William as Deemster was his determination that poor litigants should not be prejudiced by reason of their inability to be represented by counsel. In such cases he invariably questioned the parties and witnesses with a view to bringing out clearly all points of the case of the unrepresented one, and it can safely be said that no man suffered through acting as his own lawyer the while Sir William was judge. In criminal cases he ever tempered justice with mercy, and in many ways he, in his sentences, so arranged as to anticipate the First Offenders' Act. His summing up, too, ever put before the jury every point in the prisoner's favour, and he was always painstaking to impress that the prisoner must be given the benefit of any reasonable doubt. His position as Deemster entitled him to a seat in the Legislative Council, and his record as a member of the Legislature was quite as distinguished as that of his career as a judge. In politics he was a Conservative, but his views were very broad, and at times he was more Liberal than the professed Liberals. Especially was this the case with respect to legislation having for object the promotion of the public health and the advancement of education. No more independent man ever sat in the Manx Legislature, and this independence of spirit often brought him into conflict with Sir Henry Loch, the able Governor who, for eighteen years or so, represented the Crown in the Isle of Man. Sir Henry, though a Liberal in politics, was very autocratic in his methods, and particularly did he rule ever the Legislative Council with a rod of iron. There was only one member of the Council who, when occasion required, "put up a fight" with Sir Henry, and this exception was Sir William Drinkwater. And on these occasions the Deemster seldom came off second best. Despite their somewhat frequent bickerings in the Council Chamber and the Tynwald Court, Sir Henry Loch and Sir William Drinkwater were on most friendly terms in private life. Sir William was a ready debater, and his thoughtful utterances always commanded the utmost respect in the Legislature. He for fifty years wielded an influence in the counsels of the Manx nation which might almost be described as commanding, and, what is more, he always wielded it for good. In 1877, the honour of knighthood was, on the recommendation of Sir Henry Loch, conferred upon the First Deemster, the then Attorney-General (Mr James Gell) being similarly and simultaneously honoured. In the autumn of 1897 came the announcement that Sir William was resigning his Deemstership and retiring from public life, and never did announcement occasion greater regret in the Isle of Man. His last court in Douglas was held on the 1st November, 1897, and at Castletown he for the last time sat on the bench on the 8th November, 1897. In connection with his resignation, the Bar of the Island presented him with an address, which was handed to him at the Peveril Hotel by Sir James Gell, the Attorney-General of the day. Sir William, in the opening of his reply, said: I look upon it as one of the proudest moments of my life, that I have received the congratulations of the Bar of this Island after the long term of my serving as one of the Deemsters of this Island. Gentlemen, this address will be placed amongst the greatest treasures I may possess. I look upon it as more valuable than silver or gold ten thousand times, and I am very proud to have received it from you. It is exactly to-day 50 years since I really commenced upon my work as one of her Majesty's Deemsters. I then took the oath that I would do justice between man and man without favour and without affection. The words which you have spoken in this address lead me to hope that the greatest wish of my heart, the greatest object of my career, has been to some extent, at all events, carried out. The Tynwald Court also expressed publicly their sense of the loss the Island was sustaining in Sir William's retirement, and on this occasion the late Sir Alured Dumbell (Clerk of the Rolls) said Sir William had been the Nestor of debate, whose ripe and mature wisdom was always available when doubt or difficulty came in the way. He had been to his fellow-judges a tried and trusted colleague, to the poor an upright, capable, and kindly judge, to the members of the Bar a faithful friend, and to the people at large a true, honourable gentleman. — After retiring from the bench and Legislature, Sir William for some half-dozen years continued to take a great interest in the Isle of Man Hospital, an institution which had in him a warm friend He was in his support of the Hospital influenced by his declaration, often and emphatically made, that the poorest of the poor should in the event of illness have the fullest opportunity of securing the best medical or surgical treatment and the most efficient nursing attendance under the best possible conditions. It was a great blow to the Hospital Committee when he, feeling that he was no longer able to fulfil the duties of the position adequately, resigned the chairmanship of the Institution. But to the very end Sir William was a good friend to the Hospital, and was keenly interested in the proposals for the erection of a new building on another site. Otherwise he did not concern himself in his retirement with public affairs, though some six years ago he, in consequence of the agitation for the imposition of Estate Duties here, was moved to write and publish a pamphlet on the subject of the duties and their probable effect upon the Island. when, however, it was pointed out to him that he had based certain of his arguments upon a misconstruction of the terms of the English Act dealing with Death Duties, he, with a view to effectually removing any wrong impression which the monograph might have created with regard to the incidence of the duties here, at once withdrew the pamphlet. The misconstruction in question did not in the least affect Sir William's conclusions as to the general principle and effect of Estate Duties. but he was so scrupulously fair that he could not for a moment tolerate even an incorrect detail being given currency to under his authority. It is said that during the years of his active service he had but one illness, and this was when Kirby mansion was under repair. While the necessary work was in progress he resided in apartments in Douglas, and then it was that his good health suffered a temporary interruption.

Sir William was wont to attribute the good health which he enjoyed almost to the end of his days to his regularity of life, his temperate habits, and his fondness for exercise out of doors. He rose early, and generally retired to rest ere midnight came. Except he was sitting with a jury, he while on the bench never adjourned for lunch, partaking of a few biscuits and a little wine while in the seat of judgment. It was his rule, too, to rise from the bench at about half-past four o'clock in the afternoon, though he made exceptions when necessary in the public convenience. He dined with hearty appetite, but was prudent in his choice of food. His favourite wine was old port, in the virtues of which, taken in moderation, he was a firm believer. Often he deplored the falling off in public favour of the beverage which was so fashionable in the clays of his youth, and though his strong common sense generally secured him against temptation to enact the role of laudator temporis acti, he occasionally let it be known that he regarded the supplanting of port by sparkling wines as a sign of degeneracy. When the famous Permit Bill was before the Legislature, Governor Sir West Ridgeway explained that his object in causing the bill to be introduced was to allow of the sale in boarding-houses of beer and light wines. At once Sir William asked, "Will the definition ' light wines' include ports" The Governor replied that he feared it would not. " That," remarked Sir William " is a great pity, for of all wines, port is the best and most wholesome." But in his partiality for port, as in all things, he was ever moderate, and while he had no sympathy with the people who would make us all, willy nilly, total abstainers, he cordially approved of temperance, and regarded with abhorrence excessive indulgence in alcoholic beverages. He was a non-smoker, and while he tolerated the use of tobacco, he could never overcome his repugnance to the nicotian weed in all its forms of preparation. He was a great believer in fresh air, and invariably took care to spend a reasonable portion of the day in the open. Exercise on rational lines had in him a warm advocate, and especially did he commend horseback exercise. He was a fine horseman, and he kept to the saddle until he was well advanced in the eighties. For many years after his appointment as Deemster he, in connection with his attendance at the courts in various parts of the Island, travelled on horseback, and the weather had indeed to be very inclement to induce him to adopt other means of conveyance. He was sufficiently old-fashioned in his ideas to be not over partial to travel by railway, and it is very doubtful whether he ever made use of the system of the Isle of Man Railway Company in connection with the discharge of his judicial functions. In his youth, Sir William was an excellent skater — as his son is — and his delight in the graceful sport was, some sixteen years ago, attended with rather unpleasant consequences. There came a rather hard frost, and the pond at Belle Vue was so firmly congealed that very good skating was obtainable. Sir William came to look on, but the temptation to join the skaters became so strong that he, despite his eighty odd years, sent for his skates, and was soon gliding about with the best of them. Unfortunately, he fell, and the result of his fall was a broken arm, which, however, so splendid was his vitality and so good his condition of body, mended quickly. But he never skated more, though when the great frost of February, 1895, was on, he often watched the skating at Kirby with rather a regretful expression of countenance. So arctic were the conditions of this memorable frost that the running water of the portion of the Douglas river which runs through Kirby demesne was frozen to the depth of several inches. Recognising how few were the sheets of ice available for skating in the Island, Sir William threw open Kirby to skaters, and so ordered matters that the pastime could be safely and comfortably indulged in by all who chose to avail themselves of his hospitality. Football, as played under Rugby rules, also had a warm supporter in Sir William, and when the Douglas F.C. was founded in the 'seventies, he gave the members the use of Kirby for practice and matches. By the way, his younger son, the late Mr John Drinkwater-Lawe, was a very fine exponent of the Rugby game, and was one of the founders of the Douglas Club. Again, in the 'eighties, when the club was in difficulties with regard to a ground, Sir William came to the rescue, and allowed the use of Kirby pending the taking of Belle Vue. Sir William's favourite, recreation for indoors was billiards, and until he was past ninety he nightly engaged in a game. He was never at a loss for an adversary, for, in the absence; of an opponent separate and distinct from himself, he played against himself. Being, so far as the use of the cue was concerned, ambidextrous, he just played right hand against left hand, and was as zestful in the game as if he had for rival a Roberts or a Stevenson. In the days when the late Capt. Duesbury was master of the Isle of Man Harriers, Sir William often followed the hunt on foot, and it was indeed a treat to see the youthful-looking septuagenarian going across country, and taking fences, banks, and ditches as smartly as men of not half his years.

Sir William Drinkwater married Eleanor, daughter of the late Mr Peter Bourne, of Liverpool and Hackinsall Hall, Lancashire. Their married life was a singularly long and happy one, and when they celebrated their golden wedding they were presented with some fine gold plate. Lady Drinkwater died about ten years ago at Kirby, and was buried in the family vault in Old Kirk Braddan graveyard. After this bereavement Sir William, so long as his health permitted, never neglected to pay a weekly visit to the scene of his wife's interment. The late Deemster was an adherent of the Established Church, but his views on religion generally were remarkably broad and sympathetic. Sectarian bitterness he abominated, and religious bigotry in whatever quarter it was found had in him a determined foe. Some twenty years ago there were considerable differences of opinion between the Vicar and wardens of Braddan and certain residents of Douglas, who claimed to be parishioners, and these differences were acutely ventilated at Easter vestry meetings. It was due to the pacific and wise counsels of Sir William that the trouble was eventually arranged and harmony restored. The late Lady Drinkwater bore to her husband two sons and two daughters, and of these one son, Mr Geo. Drinkwater, J.P., H.M. Seneschal and Crown Receiver for the Isle of Man, and one daughter, Mrs Stewart Jackson, survive. The other son, Mr John Drinkwater-Lawe, died about twenty years ago. Yet another bereavement which Sir William Drinkwater felt keenly was in the death of his grandson (Mr George Drinkwater's second son), who had just attained manhood and was about to adopt a soldier's career.

The funeral took place on May 26th, and in accordance with Sir William's expressed wish, it was strictly private of character. Seven members of the family only attended, these being Mr George Drinkwater and Mrs Drinkwater and their three sons, a nephew, and Miss Roddam. The interment was in the family vault in old Kirk Braddan graveyard. Canon Moore, Vicar of Braddan, read the service for the burial of the dead. Mr George Drinkwater and his family desire it to be known that they very much appreciate the thoughtful consideration and kindness of the public in so strictly respecting Sir William's wishes as to the privacy of the funeral.


Back index next


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2002