The Lady who Horsewhipped her Counsel, 1817

Irish barrister Charles Philips, c. 1821, by Woolnoth.

From the Sligo Champion, 3 July 1937, this remarkable story of Irish barrister Charles Philips, who won a famous case for his client – but left her so angry that he bore the scars of her displeasure for his life!



Charles Philips, of Sligo, died in 1859 with the air of a man who had been a credit to his profession, writes Sean Piondar in the ‘Sunday Graphic’.

It can be said in his favour, since he left 10,000 pounds behind him, that his vanity, expressed in eloquent language, seems to have been justified to some extent.

He could not complain if his critics recalled to public memory his conduct of the Merry Widow of Galway case.  It was in 1817, a few years after he had been called to the Irish Bar and just prior to his transfer to England in his rapid march to success.

He had been handed an opportunity that rarely comes to a junior barrister.  Senior counsel in the proceedings was unable to proceed and Philips had been asked to deputise. 

He knew that if he won at such short notice his name would be famous all over the country, his briefs would be never-ending.

And Philips won.  But in so weird a manner, that his victory cast a slur on his reputation that could only be dodged by deserting the Irish circuits altogether and going over to London.

For Philips won by mocking at his own client, making her look like a fool – encouraging the jury to pity and despise her.

She was Mrs. Mary Wilkins, 65 years of age, a lonely widow for 40 of them, a childless, friendless old woman whose only attraction, as her counsel truly though unkindly said, was her annual income of £800.

It was to obtain possession of that £800 a year, and to be able to live in Mrs. Wilkins’ lovely mansion at Brownsville, Co Galway, continued Philips, that plaintiff in the case, Lieutenant Peter Blake, had retired from the Royal Navy, and though close on thirty-five years her junior in age, had wooed and won her!

She had actually signed a contract to marry him, but, getting a glimmer of common sense at the last moment, had refused to accompany her youthful sweetheart to the altar.

He had at once served her with a claim for £5000 damages for breach of promise.

Daniel O’Connell, who held a special brief as senior counsel for the defence, was in another courtroom across the corridor, and would not be free for twenty minutes or so.  He appealed to the junior in the case, Charles Philips, to carry on for him and make the most of a pretty hopeless defence.

Philips’ instructions were to press for mitigation and damages.  He took a surprise decision almost as he was getting on his feet to speak, to fight for a clear-cut victory.

He would do what his client had not expected, what the great Dan O’Connell did not consider possible.

He would persuade the jury to find fully in favour of Mrs. Wilkins, written contract and all to the contrary.

Barrister Philips is into his stride, his solicitor colleague by his side is mystified, his client is fuming at this disregard of her instructions.

But there is no opportunity of breaking in on Philips, of whispering to him to change his tactics.  He is speaking too swiftly, too eloquently to heed anything.

‘The present action exhibits a picture of fraud and avarice and meanness and hypocrisy so laughable that it is almost impossible to criticize it, and yet so debasing that human pride almost forbids its ridicule…’

Philips revealed how it was the parents of young Blake who did the wooing and the winning, how the match had been arranged before ever he left his ship, how the Blake family had sponged on Mrs. Wilkins from that on, getting the poor deluded old woman, this venerable misguided client of his, to pay their debts to save old Mr. Blake from bankruptcy.

I do not impute as a crime to them that they happened to be necessitous, he said, but I do impute it as both criminal and ungrateful that, after having lived on the generosity of their friend, after having exhausted her most prodigal liberality, they should drag her infirmities before the public gaze, vainly supposing they could hide their own contemptible avarice in the more-prominent exposure of her melancholy dotage.

Melancholy dotage? Her infirmities? Was Mrs. Wilkins hearing aright?

Mrs. Wilkins had enough, She left the court in a tearing rage, and as she went she heard still more embarrassing references to herself:

 ‘A miserable dupe to her own doting vanity and the vice of others.  She should have been reflecting on funerals not on matrimony.’

Was there to be no end to all this eloquence?

A burst of applause which followed one of Philips’s brilliant sentences gave counsel for the other side an opportunity he had been awaiting for a long time.

He was on his feet and speaking to the bench before Philips could continue his oration.

‘I ask leave, my lord, to request a juryman to leave the box.’

That meant the plaintiff was withdrawing the case! Philips had won.

But the Widow Wilkins considered she had lost everything she had treasured most in the few years’ life left to her.

An ambitious, notoriety seeking, unscrupulous barrister had used her misfortune as a stepping strong to success.  She would teach him!

She had gone to her carriage when she left the courtroom, and there she sat, sitting patiently until someone came to tell her the result.  Still she sat there until Philips had changed his robes, coming out with praise-bestowing friends by his side.

Then she rushed over to him, the driver’s whip in her hand, and soundly thrashed the man who had won her case for her, and saved her 5000.

She whipped him so severely he fled from her in terror back into the courthouse.

She followed him, still swinging the whip, and he only escaped at length from her anger when he rushed into the disrobing room and slammed the door in her face.

He had to remain there until late that night, blood thickening on his face and the welts all over his body smarting with pain, for his outraged client besieged the place for many hours.

He bore the marks of those wounds to the grave with him, did Counsellor Philips, the lawyer whose death in 1859 found him a leader of the English bar.

The Irish client he ‘let down badly’ died a few years after her disgrace – in a lunatic asylum.

The merry widow of Galway had been driven to drink as a result of the humiliations caused by her counsel’s actions, and drink had driven her temporarily insane.”

Was Mrs. Wilkins justified? Decide for yourself – Counsellor Philips’ address to the jury in Blake v Wilkins is available to read in full here.

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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