Basil Montagu QC (1770-1851): A Portrait of an Early 19th Century Life in Literature and the Law
21 Pages Posted: 16 Jan 2009 Last revised: 24 Jan 2009
Date Written: January 15, 2009
In 1814 Basil Montagu, by now an extremely busy member of the Chancery bar took up residence at 25 Bedford Square in fashionable Bloomsbury. Together with his wife, large family and servants he continued to live at this address for the next 20 years or so. On Sundays Mrs Montagu often reigned over a salon that attracted prominent literary figures amongst whom were several long-standing friends of her husband. At the time of their marriage in 1808 Montagu had already been married twice before; his wife had been a widow for about six years and was bringing up her daughter who would one day as Mrs Proctor have her own salon frequented by a new generation of poets and authors. Montagu's chambers were at 10 New Square; his practice was mainly concerned with insolvency matters, serving as a Commissioner in Bankruptcy at the Guildhall. He was a prolific writer on commercial law but is best remembered, if at all, for his many books on bankruptcy and for a lengthy series of law reports. He also wrote numerous pamphlets on contemporary topics such as Catholic and Jewish emancipation. Additionally he published a book of essays one of which dealt with the general principles of law reform and a best selling philosophical anthology. If Bedford Square reflects Montagu's commitment to literature, then New Square represents his professional dedication; sometimes these two segments of his life came together; he acted as junior counsel for Shelley in the proceedings brought by the poet after his wife's death to obtain custody of their children; on at least one occasion Coleridge arrived at chambers to discuss Montagu's Francis Bacon project; urgent steps were taken by him and Bryan Waller Proctor, his step-son in law, to rescue Hazlitt from imprisonment for debt. In this article little attention is given to Montagu's legal career, his role as founder of the Legal & General Insurance Company, or to his work after 1836 as the first Accountant-General in Bankruptcy. Instead it concentrates on his literary activities and private life so often clouded by tragedy. It is suggested that when Montagu died at Boulogne in 1851 he was living there in exile fearful of arrest for debt at home resulting from involvement with the financial disaster of his principal publisher, William Pickering. His death does not end the story that must continue with the hunt, still in progress, for his voluminous papers, manuscripts and other documents together with reminiscences about him. Our research indicates that notwithstanding a belief that much of this material is lost this is by no means the case.
Keywords: legal history, basil montagu, bankruptcy, william wordsworth, samuel taylor coleridge, francis bacon, insolvency, debtors prisons
JEL Classification: K00
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation