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LILLY, GEORGE, auctioneer, notary, militia officer, lawyer, office holder, and judge; b. in the early 1770s in the Thirteen Colonies, possibly in Boston; m. 25 Jan. 1800 Mary Ann Roberts in St John’s, and they had at least seven children; d. 10 Sept. 1846 in St John’s.

George Lilly was probably the son of loyalist William Lilly, a Harbour Grace magistrate. By his own account he came to Newfoundland “at a very early period of my life with my Father who left America in consequence of the revolution.” He apprenticed as a clerk with the St John’s merchant Nathaniel Philips, and by 1810–11 had established himself as a notary public and auctioneer. During the War of 1812 he helped to raise and equip a militia, serving himself as adjutant and captain. In Newfoundland’s economic crisis of 1815–19, Lilly’s services as auctioneer and conveyancer were much in demand; but his premises were destroyed in the St John’s fire of 21 Nov. 1817, and he subsequently endured financial losses when rents fell on property he had acquired on long-term lease from the government. It appears that he was not successful in business.

Gradually Lilly focused his attention on the practice of law. He had no professional education in that area, but in the absence of properly trained lawyers, early judges in Newfoundland permitted unqualified attorneys to plead before the courts. In 1826 Lilly was formally enrolled as a barrister. He would be remembered by reformers as attorney for the plaintiffs in the suits by Philip Butler and James Lundrigan* in the Supreme Court in 1820 against David Buchan and John Leigh*, the surrogate judges who had ordered the two fishermen whipped. In both cases, the jurors found for the defendants. Lilly in the 1820s was not averse to being associated with the cause of reform. His name appears, for example, among the early signatures on the petition to the king provoked by the Butler–Lundrigan incidents, and he also supported later calls for the granting of a legislature. In the 1832 election for the first house of assembly, however, he endorsed fellow lawyer William Bickford Row*, an indication that Lilly saw himself as allied with establishment interests. When Governor Sir Thomas John Cochrane* in 1834 named Lilly as acting clerk of the House of Assembly, reformer William Carson opposed the appointment. In 1835 Lilly signed a public address supporting one of the reformers’ most prominent opponents, Chief Justice Henry John Boulton*.

Cochrane appointed Lilly acting assistant judge in the Supreme Court in September 1834. He would serve in this capacity until 1845 when, on the death of Edward Brabazon Brenton, he was at last given a permanent appointment. Lilly advanced his claims for an assistant judgeship on a number of occasions after 1834, but his capacities were not highly regarded, and he was not as well connected as other aspirants. He was, Governor Henry Prescott* noted, “the only Barrister to whom the half salary allotted to an acting officer was an inducement to accept it.”

It was while he was acting as assistant judge that Lilly played an important part in a confrontation that helped to undermine representative government in Newfoundland, and he showed considerable courage and, perhaps, intelligence in the affair. On 9 Aug. 1838 he was applied to for a writ of habeas corpus by Bryan Robinson*, solicitor for Edward Kielley*, a respected surgeon being held in custody on a warrant issued by William Carson in his capacity as speaker of the assembly. Kielley had allegedly committed a breach of the assembly’s privileges. Lilly granted the writ, returnable on the following morning, and was in chambers on 10 August when Kielley was duly brought before him. After listening to Robinson’s arguments, and without then considering whether the assembly had the right to commit for contempt, Lilly decided that the warrant was void. He later stated as his reason that it did not “disclose a sufficient ground of commitment.”

On the following day, the sergeant-at-arms of the assembly, Thomas Beck, accompanied by five or six of the house’s “Doorkeepers and Messengers” as assistants, entered the judges’ chambers and tried to arrest Lilly, acting on another warrant of the speaker. Lilly told Beck that he did not recognize either his authority or that of the assembly. If the arrest were to proceed, he added, “it must be by force.” Beck and his assistants thereupon seized him, “some by the collar, others by the arms and some pushed me from behind, and so dragged and forced me with great violence” downstairs to the speaker’s room – the House of Assembly being in the same building. There he was incarcerated. Soon afterwards, accompanied by a “great crowd of men and boys,” who had presumably gathered to witness that extraordinary phenomenon, the arrest of a judge, he was taken to Beck’s home where he was held for two days. On 13 August he was released as a consequence of the prorogation of the legislature by Governor Prescott.

On the same day he was discharged, Lilly delivered his judgement on the imprisonment of Kielley. In a cogent and lengthy argument, he denied Carson’s claim that the assembly possessed analogous powers to those of the House of Commons. Moreover the power claimed in this instance was unnecessary. While members of the house were “particularly entitled, to protection in the due performance of their functions,” the laws of the land were “equally open to them as to every other lawfully constituted body.” Lilly’s arguments were presented again as a dissenting opinion in December 1838 when, in Kielley v. Carson, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the assembly; but in January 1843, the judicial committee of the Privy Council in London in effect sided with Lilly and rejected the claims of the house. How far Lilly himself was responsible for the learned judgement he presented is not clear. Success has many fathers, and subsequently both Robinson and Edward Mortimer Archibald*, chief clerk and registrar of the Supreme Court, took credit for the arguments. Archibald said he “prepared the judgment” in its entirety, and Prescott seemed to confirm this in an official dispatch to London.

Lilly’s career afterwards as judge was pursued chiefly in the humbler duties of the northern circuit. They involved, according to his own statement in 1845, experiencing the “dangers incident to a sea voyage at a stormy part of the year, . . . from the Effects of which I have been no slight sufferer.” He said he had tried some 2,000 cases, not one of which had been appealed. In 1845 Governor Sir John Harvey* remarked of his career as a circuit judge that Lilly’s “mild and conciliating manners, have rendered him a great favourite with the Inhabitants of the Out Harbours.”

Patrick O’Flaherty

Cathedral of St John the Baptist (Anglican) (St John’s), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials (mfm. at PANL). Law Soc. of Nfld. (St John’s), Barristers’ roll. MHA, George Lilly name file; William Lilly name file. PANL, GN 2/1/A, 20–22, 34, 39; GN 2/2, January–April 1835: 273; July–December 1838: 179–236; GN 5/2/A/1, 8–9 Nov. 1820. PRO, CO 194/64–126; CO 199/20–42 (copies at PANL). Supreme Court of Nfld. (St John’s), Solicitors’ roll. Nfld., House of Assembly, Journal, 1834–35. Newfoundlander, 16 Aug. 1838. Newfoundland Mercantile Journal, 1816–19, esp. 11 Dec. 1816, 16 Jan. 1818. Newfoundland Patriot, 1838. Public Ledger, 1838. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, 25 Nov. 1817, 16 June 1835. E. J. Archibald, Life and letters of Sir Edward Mortimer Archibald . . . (Toronto, 1924). Prowse, Hist. of Nfld. (1895).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Patrick O’Flaherty, “LILLY, GEORGE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 16, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lilly_george_7E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lilly_george_7E.html
Author of Article:   Patrick O’Flaherty
Title of Article:   LILLY, GEORGE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   June 16, 2024