Family History Notebook
14th October 2007

Sir George Lewis - Obituary

8 December 1911


We have to record the death of Sir George Lewis, which occurred at his town house in Portland-place yesterday morning. He had been ill for some time.

George Henry Lewis was born in 1833, the son of Mr. James Graham Lewis, who founded the firm. He received his early education at Edmonton, and from there, at about the age of 14, he went to University College, where he remained four years. He was then articled to his father for five years, and became a solicitor in the spring of 1856. In his later years Sir George occasionally recalled with amusement his first case, in which he was successful in clearing a young man from a charge of robbing a publican. He used to tell how the young man’s mother came to the office, hurried him away in a cab to the Court, and when the case was over expressed her delight by smacking him on the back in so forcible a manner that he felt the effects for some days.

Serious business began later with the frequent calls which were made upon him to act as prosecutor for Lloyd’s Salvage Association, and in 1869 he acted in the police court, but not at the trial, in the prosecution of the directors of Overend and Gurney’s Bank. He was also engaged in connexion with other banking prosecutions.

The criminal cases which he conducted included the one known as “the Balham mystery,” in which he acted for the family of Mr. Bravo, a barrister who was poisoned. The verdict of the first jury in the matter was not accepted, and the Queen’s Bench Division ordered another coroner’s inquest, which lasted a month. Among the counsel engaged in it were the then Attorney-General, Sir John Holker, and the Solicitor-General, Sir John Gorst, for the Crown; Sir Henry James, as he then was, for Mrs. Bravo; while the late Mr. Murphy, K.C., and the late Serjeant Parry represented other interested parties. In the result a verdict of “wilful murder against some person or persons unknown” was returned, and Sir George Lewis in after years, when most of the participants in the trial had passed away, did not hesitate to express the opinion that a certain person whose guilt was apparently not in question during the proceedings caused Mr. Bravo’s untimely end. Another notorious case in which Sir George Lewis played a leading part was that known as “the Hatton-garden Diamond Robbery,” in which his clients were the Alliance Marine Insurance Company. The robbery of a quantity of bar gold while in transit from London to Paris also engaged his attention, with the result that the guard of the train and his confederates, who had substituted boxes of shot for those containing bullion, received exemplary punishment. Of libel actions he had a large number, and it was in one such case that he gave Sir Charles Russell his first brief from Ely-place.

Sir George Lewis was perhaps not so much a lawyer as a shrewd private inquiry agent; audacious, playing the game often in defiance of the rules, and relying on his audacity to carry him through. It is for obvious reasons impossible to particularize the notable cases with which Sir George Lewis was connected, but it is common knowledge that they included some of the most sensational. In Court he was always cool, keen, and ready. His knowledge of law was not by any means profound, and he relied rather upon his great tact, one of his innate qualities. He was the confidential adviser of many prominent people. He was probably right in priding himself most upon his peculiar success in keeping his clients from coming before the public eye at all. His professional successes were dependent upon the acumen and personal application of the head of the firm, to a degree unknown in the great majority of solicitors’ offices. It was at Ely-place that he spent the greater part of his time, and his father, Mr. James Graham Lewis, the founder of the firm, had gone even further, having, as was the custom in his time, resided on the firm’s premises in Ely-place. Interesting as would be the recital of even only the names of the parties in some of the principal cases which Sir George Lewis conducted, it is undesirable to recall them, because it would unnecessarily lacerate the feelings of not a few who now have the right to ask that the proceedings should be buried in oblivion. He was solicitor for Mr. Parnell and the Irish Party in the Parnell Commission, and soon after its close received the honour of knighthood through Mr. Gladstone. He was created a baronet in 1902, and made a commander of the Victorian Order in 1905.

Among the larger reforms which Sir George Lewis was instrumental in bringing about was that of the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal, while he also did much to put a legal check upon the abominations connected with moneylending. The marriage laws also necessarily received his consideration, and he was an advocate of equal rights for both sexes and of the cheapening and decentralization of divorce practice. He was honorary solicitor to a large number of movements, including the Newspaper Society, the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre, and the King’s Sanatorium. His houses were filled with tokens of gratitude from clients whom he had extricated from awkward situations, and although he was never reluctant to point these out, his reticence was not relaxed to the extent of giving the names of the donors. He early recognized that his business was of an extremely confidential nature, and his encyclopaedic memory—for he seldom or never made a note of anything—enabled him to say with some assurance that, when he died, his clients’ secrets would die with him. It was partly on this account that he never published an autobiography.

Sir George Lewis married in 1863 Victorine, daughter of Philip Kann, of Frankfurt-on-Main, by whom he had one daughter. Mrs. Lewis died in 1865, and in 1867 he married Elizabeth, daughter of F. Eberstadt, of Mannheim, by whom he had one son and two daughters. He is succeeded by his son, Mr. George James Graham Lewis, who was born in 1868.

The funeral will take place on Sunday at the Jewish Cemetery, Willesden, leaving 88, Portland-place at 11 o’clock. There will be a memorial service at the Central Synagogue, Great Portland-street, W., at 3 p.m. on Sunday.

16 February 1912