As one of the most famous criminal defence barristers who ever practised in England and Wales, Sir Edward Marshall Hall KC MP makes a fascinating subject for a new biography, and Sally Smith QC, who took a year out of her own busy practice to write this book, more than does him justice.
Paul Magrath was at the book’s launch at the Old Bailey, where some of Marshall Hall’s most famous cases were lost or won, and now reviews it here.
There will be few, if any, members of the criminal bar of my generation, of the 60s and 70s, and of previous generations since the 20s who were, if not driven, at least powerfully drawn to that most noble of professions, that of criminal barrister … by one man.”
That man, Sir Alan (formerly Lord Justice) Moses told a distinguished audience of judges, barristers, solicitors, academics, librarians, and reporters gathered together beneath the glorious painted dome of the great hall of the Central Criminal Court at Old Bailey in the City of London on the evening of 22 June 2016, was Sir Edward Marshall Hall.
His fame as a defence barrister dominated criminal trials between 1894 and 1927. Sir Alan’s father had given him a copy of an earlier biography, written by Edward Marjoribanks (pronounced “Marchbanks”) which had been almost as popular as the man it described. It was the book that influenced so many practitioners of Sir Alan’s generation and before to go into practice at the bar, but “future generations have no need of Marjoribanks. For now we have Smith.”
Indeed there are a number of reasons why Sally Smith’s new biography of Marshall Hall should supersede the earlier work, not the least of which is that a contemporary writer can bring both a contemporary and an historic perspective to bear on her subject. Marjoribanks was writing his life soon after Marshall Hall’s death in 1927, so it not only lacked the historical perspective but was necessarily less open about things which a modern writer can more freely discuss. Sally Smith has also had the good fortune to find a huge cache of undiscovered papers – the holy grail for any biographer – which shed new light on both Marshall Hall’s cases and his private life. But she also has all the original material, including the voluminous press cuttings about his trials which Marshall Hall kept himself.
The reasons for Marshall Hall’s fame are twofold. He was something of a celebrity in his day – tall, handsome, and with a beautiful voice, he mesmerised audiences wherever he spoke, whether they were the jurors in court whose verdict he sought to win over, or the parliamentary constituents whose votes he sought, as their candidate, to gain. But he is also famous because of the notorious cases he acted in – cases that have retained their place in every True Crime anthology. The Brides in the Bath case, the Body in the Trunk, the mystery of the Green Bicycle, and so forth. These were cases of murder, tried in an age when a murder verdict carried just one sentence: that of death by hanging. At the time Marshall began practising, there wasn’t even a Court of Criminal Appeal (that only came in 1907). So every trial was a matter of life and death and to every client Marshall was probably their only hope of salvation from the noose.
In a gruesome way, that made it a golden age for the criminal bar, and encouraged the very courtroom drama – histrionics, even – for which Marshall Hall is famous. It is rare for criminal practitioners now to resort to the kind of tactics used in those days. If Sally Smith’s book inspires anyone to join the bar now, it will be a bar struggling with chronic underfunding, hampered by procedural hurdles and delays, and continually sniped at by politicians and the press. The modern champion of the downtrodden, whether cheered or jeered at, is more likely to be a human rights lawyer. But it’s interesting to note that Marshall Hall’s career began and ended long before the age of legal aid, and many of his poorer clients’ cases were funded in some interesting and unusual ways, such as by public appeals advertised by newspapers in their own pages, or in one case the sale of the chief exhibit from the case (a blood-stained trunk in which the body had been discovered) to Madame Tussauds. Otherwise a poor client would have a barrister assigned (pro bono) by the judge, or there was always the possibility of a “dock brief”, a resting barrister picked out by the prisoner, and paid a guinea.
Marshall Hall, a member of Inner Temple, was called to the Bar in 1882, the year that saw the grand opening of the majestic new Royal Courts of Justice in The Strand. (The Old Bailey was not to get its makeover for another two decades, and the reputation of the criminal bar at the time Marshall began practising was not high.) He paid 100 guineas to enrol as a pupil.
After an uncertain start, during which he eked out his fees with profits from dealing in jewellery and antiques, he began to get regular work and in 1888 he joined chambers at 3 Temple Gardens, where he remained for the rest of his life, filling his room with his books of press cuttings and the haunting memorabilia of his famous cases.
He was, by his own admission, not a great legal brain. “I am an advocate not a lawyer” he insisted. It was his advocacy, his appeal to the sentiments of the jurors, rather than his argument over the finer points of law or procedure, that won him cases.
In one of his earliest successes, he defended a prostitute charged with bludgeoning an elderly client over the head with a poker and hiding the body in a trunk. (This was the trunk sold to Madame Tussauds.) It was the first time Marshall had acted alone in a capital murder case. The evidence seemed overwhelmingly against him. An all-male jury were unlikely to be generous towards a prostitute who’d killed her client and then spent the money in his pocket. Yet with some clever cross-examination and courtroom dynamics he managed to raise a doubt as to how the fatal blows had been struck – replacing the assumption of cold-blooded attack with an idea of desperate self-defence – before embarking on a remarkable characterisation of his client as someone more sinned against than sinning.
Look at her, members of the jury, look at her; God never gave her a chance. Won’t you? Won’t you?”
On that basis, he positively dared them to find a verdict of murder – and of course they didn’t. Instead, they came back with one of manslaughter with a strong recommendation to mercy. That summer, the bloodstained trunk was the chief attraction at Madame Tussauds, and Marshall’s name was made.
As his fame grew, Marshall struck terror into the heart of his opponents. The best prosecutors would be pitted against him, and declare afterwards that the strain had been too much for them. On one occasion a young barrister, on hearing that he was up against Marshall Hall, applied for an adjournment “simply on the basis that he had not been expecting quite such a terrifying opponent,” writes Sally Smith.
Marshall Hall’s career coincided with the dawn of forensic science. Although he had gleaned some basic knowledge from his physician father during a Brighton childhood enlivened by notorious poisoning cases, and had picked up a knowledge of ballistics from a juvenile passion for target practice,
It was not until the turn of the century that scientific knowledge relating to the effects of poisons, to blood type and to fingerprints began to play a significant part in the detection of crime”.
Marshall’s attitude to scientific evidence was not always consistent. Sometimes he would cross-examine with relish and his own acquired expertise such eminent experts as the elderly Home Office pathologist Dr Augustus Pepper, or his successors William Willcox and Bernard Spilsbury; but on other occasions he would gloss over the possibly inconvenient scientific evidence and concentrate, for the jury’s benefit, on the emotional aspects of the case. It was then that he’d wheel out his great set-piece speeches about the “the look of infinite mercy which must always temper justice in a just man” and the way the scales of justice, when all the evidence had been put in on one side or the other, might still tip one way by the addition of that “unseen … overbalancing weight, the presumption of innocence”.
Sally Smith more than does justice to the extraordinary life of this complex man, with its ups and downs, its stresses and strains, its triumphs and occasional disasters. Her book is not only the portrait of a man, but also of an age and a profession the like of which we will never see again. There have been and will be other great advocates, but the raw battle for the life of an accused in the shadow of the noose is something that now belongs to history. It was a battle at which Marshall Hall excelled.
Marshall Hall: A Law unto Himself by Sally Smith is published by Wildy, Simmonds and Hill Publishing and is available from Wildy & Sons Ltd for £25.