John Barnes, Historian

Charles Elton (1839 – 1900)

Charles Elton was a distinguished lawyer and legal scholar. He was also well thought of as an antiquary and as a major local landowner entered the Commons, initially as the Member for West Somerset, and after his defeat at Wellington in 1885, he regained the seat in the following year and held it until 1892.

Charles Isaac Elton was born in Southampton on 6 December 1839. His parents were drawn from the same west country family of landed gentry. His father was Frederick Bayard Elton of Clifton, Gloucestershire, magistrate and collector in India, and his mother, Mary Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Charles Abraham Elton of Clevedon, Somerset, the sixth baronet, who had some claim to be a poet. He was educated at Cheltenham and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he matriculated as a commoner in 1857. He took a first class in classical moderations in 1859, a second class in literae humaniores, and a first class in law and history in 1861. He graduated BA in 1862, and in the same year won the Vinerian law scholarship. He was elected to an open fellowship at Queen's (1862–4) and entered Lincoln's Inn on 7 June 1862. He was called to the bar on 17 November 1865 and became a bencher of Lincoln’s Inn in June1887.

On 6 August 1863 he had married Mary Augusta, daughter of Richard Strachey of Ashwick Grove, Somerset. They had no children. In 1869 he succeeded rather unexpectedly to his uncle’s property of Whitestaunton near Chard in Somerset. As the owner of a mediaeval manor house and estate, he had the ability to indulge his vaery varied interests. There were the remains of a Roman villa on the estate about which he wrote in The Academy, 1 September 1883. He took a practical interest in farming and indulged in his love of field sports.

Elton practised at the Chancery bar. His remarkable knowledge of old real property law and custom helped him to acquire with surprising rapidity an extensive conveyancing and equity practice. Early in his career he attracted the attention of Sir George Jessel by his quick application of a passage Bracton's treatise on English law to a case in which Jessel was employed. His tenacious memory and formidable powers of concentration earned him a reputation as one of the most erudite lawyers in his generation and it was largely due to his acumen and research, presented in letters to The Times, that the chapter of Christ Church, Oxford, was induced in February 1865 to carry out a moral obligation imposed upon them by a conveyance from Henry VIII and endow a Regius chair in Greek.

Elton also published. His first book, Norway, the Road and the Fell (1864), appeared before he was called to the bar. He also wrote on The Tenures of Kent (1867), on Commons and Wastelands (1868) and the Law of Copyholds (1874). This last work earned him a reputation as one of the first English jurist of the historical school and reached a second edition in 1893. His Observations on the Bill for the Regulation and Improvemt of Commons had appeared in 1876. Elton’s Origins of English History appeared in 1882 and was well received. In the same year he published Custom and Tenant Right. On 1 July 1885 it was announced that the Lord Chancellor had recommended his name to the Queen for the rank of Queen’s Counsel and letters patent for his appointment were issued the following day. He was received by the Prince of Wales at the Royal Levee on 13 July. Elton also served as a magistrate in Somerset, Dorset and Devon.

He had been adopted as the Conservative candidate for West Somerset on 7 July 1883 to replace one of the two MPs since he was too ill to contemplate standing again. Bisset resigned in November 1883 and Elton was elected to the House of Commons as the Member for West Somerset in a by-election on 15 February 1884. It was interestingly the first election held after passage of the Corrupt Practices Act but polling was heavy As a consequence of the third Reform Act, the seat was redistributed and he was defeated by Sir Thomas Dyke Acland in the contest for the Wellington division in 1885. In 1886 he managed to regain the seat from Acland, winning by nearly 900 votes, and sat until 1892. He seldom spoke in parliament unless legal matters were the subject of debate, but he was listened to with great respect when he gave his opinion on copyhold, the guardianship of infants, allotments and the estates of those who died intestate. He served on several important committees and Royal Commissions including that which enquired into the agricultural depression in 1893and an earlier commission on market Rights and Tolls 1890.

During the later years of his life he retired to a great extent from legal practice, and devoted much of his time to literary work. A prized volume on The Career of Columbus appeared in 1892, an Account of Shelley’s Visits to France, Switzerland and Savoy 1814-16 in 1894 and a fifth edition of Robinson on Gavelkind in 1897. An omnivorous reader, he built up a library that contained many rare books and he had a particular interest in 16th, 17th and 18th century bindings. He was a member of the Domesday Celebration Committee in 1886, a founder member of the Selden Society (29 January 1887), and he had become an FSA in 1883, serving on the Council from 1889. In 1891, in conjunction with his wife, he privately printed a catalogue of part of his library, and in 1893 he wrote Great Book Collectors, also in collaboration with his wife. He was also an enthusiastic collector and his collection of old Damascus, Rhodian, Persian, and Anatolian Faience was sold at Christies in 1901 for about £2000.

Elton suffered a severe bout of congestion in his lungs in December 1894 and his life was despaired of, but he recovered. He died of pneumonia at Whitestaunton on 23 April 1900 after a very short illness. He was survived by his wife. A posthumous work on William Shakespeare: His Family and Friends appeared in 1903, edited from his papers by A Hamilton Thompson.

In her novel, To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf quotes his poem "Luriana Lurilee", although the poem itself was not published until 1945.

Elton was the subject of a Spy cartoon. Andrew Lang wrote a brief account of his life for inclusion in William Shakespeare: His Family and Friends and there are some papers in the British Library, Add Mss 60635