Richard Wilberforce, Baron Wilberforce

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Richard Orme Wilberforce, Baron Wilberforce, CMG, OBE, PC (11 March 1907 – 15 February 2003) was a British judge. He was a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary from 1964 to 1982.

The Lord Wilberforce
Lord of Appeal in Ordinary
In office
1964 – 10 March 1982
MonarchElizabeth II
Preceded byThe Lord Devlin
Succeeded byThe Lord Brightman
Justice of the High Court
In office
9 January 1961 – 1 October 1964
Preceded bySir Harold Danckwerts
Succeeded bySir Blanshard Stamp
Personal details
Born11 March 1907
Jullundur, British India
Died15 February 2003 (aged 95)
Chelsea, London
Alma materNew College, Oxford

Early life and careerEdit

Born in Jalandhar, India, Richard Wilberforce was the son of Samuel Wilberforce, ICS, later a judge of the Lahore High Court, and of Katherine Wilberforce, the daughter of John Sheepshanks, Bishop of Norwich.[1] His grandfather was Reginald Wilberforce, who helped restore British order in Delhi, after the Indian Rebellion of 1857.[2]: 260  His great-grandfather was Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Winchester, and his great-great-grandfather was the abolitionist William Wilberforce, a connection which had much influence upon him.[1][2]: 260 [3]

Wilberforce spent the first seven years of his life in India, before being sent to England in 1914 on the outbreak of the First World War. He attended five preparatory schools, the last being Sandroyd School.[1] From Sandroyd he went to Winchester College in 1920 where Monty Rendall, the headmaster, convinced him to drop Mathematics, in which he excelled, in favour of Classics, in order to broaden his career options.[1] Wilberforce excelled in his new subject, winning all four top college prizes.[1]

From Winchester Wilberforce entered New College, Oxford, where he was a scholar, obtaining firsts in both Classical Moderations (1928) and Literae humaniores (1930). He won the Craven, Hertford, and Ireland scholarships in Classics, as well as the Eldon Law Scholarship. In 1932, on his third attempt, Wilberforce was elected a prize fellow of All Souls College: the two other successful candidates that year were Isaiah Berlin and Patrick Reilly.[3] Wilberforce remained a fellow of the college until his death seventy years later.[1]

Moving to London, Wilberforce was called to the bar by the Middle Temple in 1932.[3] He was the pupil of the renowned Chancery junior Wilfred Hunt; a fellow pupil was H. L. A. Hart. Wilberforce joined the chambers of Andrew Clark (today called Wilberforce Chambers) and practised at the Chancery bar but, lacking family connections, his earnings were meagre, although they began to increase toward the end of the decade.[1]

Wartime serviceEdit

Fearing that war was inevitable, Wilberforce joined the Army reserves after Munich in 1938. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 Wilberforce volunteered for service in the British Army, though he was advised against it, and was commissioned into the Royal Artillery. In 1940 he was aide-de-camp to Major-General Bernard Paget, who led the British expeditionary force during the Norwegian Campaign.

After Norway, Wilberforce held various staff appointments, before being posted to the War Office where, as a lieutenant colonel, he was put in charge of Army entertainments. In 1944 he was attached to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. In 1945, he drafted the German Instrument of Surrender which Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and others signed in Berlin on 8 May.

After the German surrender Wilberforce, by then a brigadier, headed the British legal section of the Allied Control Council. In 1946–7 he returned to London to serve as Under-Secretary at the Control Office for Germany and Austria. For his wartime service, Wilberforce was appointed an OBE and received the American Bronze Star.[3] He retained the rank of honorary brigadier.

While in Berlin, Wilberforce met Yvette Marie Lenoan, a captain in the French Army and the daughter of Roger Lenoan, a judge of the Cour de Cassation posted to Berlin: they married in 1947.

Return to the barEdit

Wilberforce returned to the bar in 1947 when the Control Office for Germany and Austria was abolished. His old set of chambers had disappeared, forcing him to find new accommodation. His practice was at first very small, and he considered leaving the bar. He acted for Prince Ernest Augustus of Hanover to be recognized as a British subject under the Sophia Naturalization Act 1705. He became a member of the Bar Council in 1951 and was appointed a Queen's Counsel in 1954.

He participated in several Foreign Office cases, including Corfu Channel case and the Norwegian Fisheries case in the International Court of Justice. He was also appointed as the British legal member of the International Civil Aviation Organization. He was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George for services in relation to the Warsaw Convention in 1956.

In the 1950 election, he stood for Kingston upon Hull Central as the Conservative candidate, in the city formerly represented by his ancestor William Wilberforce, but lost to the incumbent Labour MP Mark Hewitson.[3]

Judicial careerEdit

Wilberforce was appointed to the High Court in 1961 and assigned to the Chancery Division,[3] receiving the customary knighthood. On 1 October 1964, after only three years' service, he was elevated to the House of Lords as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, and was made a life peer as Baron Wilberforce, of the City and County of Kingston-upon-Hull;[4] he was also sworn of the Privy Council. He is the only English judge in recent times to have been appointed to the House of Lords straight from the High Court, without first serving in the Court of Appeal.[3]

Wilberforce served as a law lord for 18 years, during which he heard 465 appeals, often giving the leading judgment. He was the Senior Law Lord from 1975 to his retirement in 1982. His decisions were highly regarded and covered large areas of the law.

He was president of the Anti-Slavery Society from 1971.[3]

In the early 1970s he chaired two inquiries. The first was into power workers' pay in 1971, and found in the workers' favour. The second was set up during the miners' strike of 1972; thanks to Wiberforce's high work rate, it reported within a week, and recommended pay increases of between £4.50 and £6 to miners.[3]

Wilberforce was Chancellor of the University of Hull between 1978 and 1994, High Steward of the University of Oxford from 1967 to 1990, Visitor of Wolfson College from 1974 to 1990 and Visitor of Linacre College from 1983 to 1990.

Famous judgmentsEdit

Wilberforce gave many important and prescient judgments, including in the following cases:

High CourtEdit

House of Lords and Privy CouncilEdit


  • with Alan Campbell and Neil Elles, The Law of Restrictive Practices and Monopolies (2nd edn London, Sweet and Maxwell 1966) LCCN 66-70116
  • Law and economics: Being the presidential address of the Rt. Hon. Lord Wilberforce (Holdsworth Club 1966)


Coat of arms of Richard Wilberforce, Baron Wilberforce
Argent an eagle displayed Sable armed Gules.[5]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Neill, Patrick. "Wilberforce, Richard Orme, Baron Wilberforce". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/89469. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ a b Torrent, Mélanie (2009). "Crowning the Work of Wilberforce?: The Settlers Descendants' Union and the Challenges of Sierra Leone's Independence". Cahiers Charles V. Paris, France: Institut d'anglais Charles V, Université Paris VII (46): 241–292. doi:10.3406/cchav.2009.1541. ISSN 0184-1025. Retrieved 25 December 2021.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Obituaries: Lord Wilberforce". The Telegraph. 18 February 2003. Retrieved 21 July 2019.
  4. ^ "No. 43451". The London Gazette. 2 October 1964. p. 8292.
  5. ^ Baz Manning. Middle Temple Armory.

External linksEdit