Son of Dr Richard Bethel of Bradford on Avon, he is reputed to have been a boarder at the Hungerford Almshouse School, before gaining a scholarship to Wadham College in 1818.
In 1823 he was called to the Bar, attaining Queens Counsel in 1840. He was responsible for the reform of legal education that ensured that: ‘students, before coming to the Bar, should have at least some acquaintance with the subject they were to profess (sic).’
He was created Lord High Chancellor in 1861 with the title 1st Baron Westbury of Westbury (during the Palmerston administration). His ambition was to compile a digest for the whole law. Although this was soon found to be impracticable, he was responsible for the Divorce Act of 1857.
His career was marred by a number of events and appointments showing: ‘a certain laxity and want of caution’, and he resigned the office in 1865.
Lord Westbury died on 20th July 1873, within a day of his special antagonist Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford and Winchester.
As Lord Westbury was celebrated for his sarcastic humour, the duels between the two must have been something to savour, for we are speaking of ‘Soapy Sam’, as Samuel Wilberforce was known, who was humiliated by Thomas Henry Huxley (Darwin’s Bulldog) during the famous 1960 Oxford Union debate on ‘The Origin of Species’.
The epithet ‘Soapy Sam’ was coined by Benjamin Disraeli, who found him: ‘Unctious, Oleaginous, and Saponacious’ – ‘nuff said!
Image: Lord Westbury in the House of Lords, Cartoon by Pelligrini, Vanity Fair 1869.