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Montagu, Algernon Sidney (1802–1880)

by P. A. Howell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Algernon Sidney Montagu (1802-1880), judge, was born at Cambridge, England, the second son of Basil Montagu, legal and miscellaneous writer and philanthropist, and his second wife Laura, eldest daughter of Sir William Beaumaris Rush, of Roydon, Essex, and Wimbledon, Surrey. His father was a natural son of the notorious John Montagu, fourth earl of Sandwich. Algernon's mother died in 1806, and he spent much of his childhood in Westmorland, in the care of his father's intimate friends, William and Dorothy Wordsworth. He was educated at a private school in Ambleside. He was admitted to Gray's Inn in November 1817, and called to the Bar in February 1826. Two years later he applied successfully for appointment as attorney-general of Van Diemen's Land. With the wife and son of a gentleman-transportee, Henry Savery, entrusted to his protection, he sailed in the Henry Wellesley, arriving at Hobart Town in October 1828. Montagu had scarcely taken office when he became embroiled in a quarrel with a solicitor, Henry Jennings, over a writ from Savery's creditors. Montagu's attitude was reasonable, but Jennings denounced him to the press and to the government. Both Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur in Hobart and Sir George Murray at the Colonial Office thought the quarrel was private and declined to intervene. Despite this affair, and James Stephen's prediction that Montagu was 'very likely to give himself up to various affectations of sentiment, romantic feeling, and literary taste', Arthur learned to appreciate his new attorney-general. He conducted prosecutions with skill and fairness, and voluntarily abstained from private practice. By 1831 Arthur was 'perfectly satisfied' with his work, and anxiously hoped that he would be chosen to replace the puisne judge, Alexander Baxter. Viscount Goderich agreed, and Montagu's elevation to the Supreme Court bench was gazetted on 1 February 1833, a very popular appointment.

Montagu soon became a controversial figure. His talents and his sound knowledge of law had won him acclaim as 'the disciple of Jeremy Bentham and Lord Campbell', but his eccentric ideas sometimes led to most indecorous behaviour. Once, after admonishing the attorney-general, Alfred Stephen, for undignified conduct in court, he was answered with sarcasm; his temper flared and prudence was thrown to the winds. Arthur had to warn both men against a repetition of the scene.

In 1834 Montagu incurred the enmity of the anti-Arthurite press, and was attacked as the 'mad Judge'. In his sturdy independence he was no respecter of high persons. In April 1840, on arriving in Launceston to hold a session of the Supreme Court, he found Lady Jane Franklin in residence in the government cottage, which had traditionally been available for judges on circuit. Believing that the court was affronted when its privileges were waived in favour of vice-regal amusements, he wrote petulant letters to Sir John Franklin until rebuked by Lord John Russell and persuaded to apologize. In 1843, when Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Eardley-Wilmot ignored his Executive Council and reprieved a bushranger, Kavanagh, ten minutes before the time set for execution, Montagu angrily declared that such intervention could only be justified by the virtual abolition of capital punishment!

On 12 March 1832 in St David's Church, Hobart, Montagu married Maria Ann Adams, a free immigrant five years his senior. Thereafter he lived to the limit of his means. He bought Rosny, a comfortable home on the eastern shore of the Derwent estuary, and later extended the estate to more than 800 acres (324 ha). He invested heavily in experimental farming and took to yachting on an impressive scale. In April 1841 he informed Franklin that he and the attorney-general, Edward MacDowell, wished to exchange offices; as the colony had no able barrister, Montagu believed he could make £3000 a year by private practice without neglecting his official duties. The proposal was coolly received but his brother, Alfred Otter Montagu, after hearing of the opportunities, sailed from England with his family in the Glenbervie. Arriving in Hobart in February 1843 he was soon admitted to the Bar and quickly built up a flourishing practice. His career was cut short in January 1849 when his yacht capsized in a sudden squall and he was drowned.

In the long depression of the 1840s Montagu's finances became precarious. In November 1847 he was sued by Anthony McMeckan for a debt of £283. Montagu obtained a summons from the chief justice, Sir John Pedder, calling on McMeckan to show cause why his writ should not be set aside as illegal. When his summons was dismissed by Pedder, McMeckan complained through his solicitor, Thomas Young, to Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison, but as the Supreme Court was then constituted so that each judge was an integral part of it and could not be constituted without both of them, neither judge could sue or be sued in it. A week later, however, in their decision on Symonds v. Morgan, Pedder and Montagu declared a local dog tax invalid, thereby casting doubt on all the colony's revenue legislation. Denison, who was known at the Colonial Office to be lacking in 'temper and calm judgment', was much upset. Young had long nursed a grudge against Montagu and now had opportunity to attack. The ensuing allegations and rebuttals showed that Montagu was financially embarrassed and may have been involved in questionable transactions. On 31 December 1847 Montagu was amoved from office by an order of the lieutenant-governor and his Executive Council.

Stunned and demoralized, Montagu sailed in the Rattler with his family on 29 January 1848 and, on arrival in England, lodged an appeal to the Privy Council. It was dismissed in July 1849, even though the main charges against him were based on circumstantial evidence. Before leaving Hobart he had received flattering testimonials from all classes in the community. According to the Hobart Town Courier, 'He moved in an eccentric orbit; and if he terrified by those motions, he occasionally delighted us by the brilliant light which he cast around his path. Fresh, vigorous and original, his intellect always commanded respect and not unfrequently admiration'. Long after he left the colony it was hinted that he had seduced Mrs Henry Savery in 1828. The story seems improbable and its authors may have been influenced by news of the moral degeneracy of Montagu's later life.

In 1850 he was appointed resident magistrate in the Falkland Islands. He arrived in Stanley in July, leaving his wife, who had borne him two sons and a daughter, destitute in England, until the Colonial Office helped her to join him. Montagu acted as coroner, chairman of the magistrate's court and of the police court, and member of the Executive Council. He resigned in June 1854 and went to London where he was appointed registrar of deeds in Sierra Leone. His wife had been left in the Falklands where she opened a small school and eked out a bare existence. Montagu tried to repudiate responsibility for her but was officially forced to pay a regular maintenance. She returned to England and died there in March 1872.

Montagu had at least two illegitimate children in Freetown and, with his Creole mistress, was involved in some absurd scandals. Yet in spite of his lurid private life and quarrels with several governors, he did valuable work in Sierra Leone. He served as master of the Court of Records, clerk of the Crown and registrar of the Court of Chancery. He was permitted private practice and on occasions in 1856-67 acted as chief justice. In 1857 he published in London the Ordinances of the Colony of Sierra Leone; it was an immediate success and ran to seven editions. In 1874 he published in London similar collections of the laws of the Gold Coast and of Lagos. In 1880 he was given leave to visit England. He died of apoplexy on 22 June 1880, soon after arrival in London.

Select Bibliography

  • E. F. Moore, English Reports, vol 5 (Edinb, 1901), 379
  • C. Fyfe, A History of Sierra Leone (Lond, 1962)
  • R. W. Baker, ‘The Early Judges in Tasmania’, Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), vol 8, no 4, Sept 1960, pp 71-84
  • correspondence file under Algernon Montagu (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • CO 78/35, 268/46, 280/253.

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Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'Montagu, Algernon Sidney (1802–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/montagu-algernon-sidney-2470/text3311, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 19 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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