November 2

1818 Death of Sir Samuel Romilly

Samuel Romilly was born in London in 1757 to descendants of French Protestants who had fled the persecutions of Louis XIV. He entered the legal profession in which he rose to renown and wealth. Romilly’s sympathies were always on the side of reform. During the 1780s he made the acquaintance of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot and he had high hopes for the French Revolution but its increasing radicalism and violence ultimately dismayed him.

Romilly’s brilliance and oratorical skills won him the patronage of influential politicians and when he entered Parliament in 1808 he was made Solicitor General. He was a fierce opponent of the slave trade and a firm supporter of the attempts by William Wilberforce to abolish that institution but his main contribution as a reformer was to amend laws to which the death penalty was attached.

Since the sixteenth century England had passed legislating mandating execution not just for crimes of murder or treason but for far more trivial offences. By 1800 there were over 200 offences for which death was the mandatory sentence: theft of goods worth more than 12 pence, wrecking a fish pond, cutting down a young tree, keeping the company of gypsies, or impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner. Romilly’s efforts resulted in a gradual abolition of many of these statutes. (Britain’s last execution was in 1964 though the death penalty was abolished only in 1998.)

In October 1818 Romilly’s wife Anne died and a few days later, in a paroxysm of grief, he cut his own throat.

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