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Sir James Gell

Title: Sir

Epithet: Deemster and constitutional reformer (1823-1905)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

When Sir James Gell died, Sir Spencer Walpole (Governor 1882-93) wrote: ‘The Island may have produced men of greater ability and, though this is hard to believe, of greater industry, but, in the long centuries of its past history, has never been represented by a man who had a more intimate knowledge of its Constitution or who was animated by a deeper loyalty to its people.’

James Gell was born at Kennaa in 13th January 1823, the second son of John Gell and his wife Margaret. The date was almost midway between the Revestment Act of 1765, under which the Dukes of Atholl surrendered the regalities to the Imperial Government, and the sale of the Atholl Manorial Rights to the Crown in 1865.

His father died when he was only five. His mother sent him to the Old Grammar School in Castletown and then to King William’s College. When he was sixteen she articled him to her brother, John McHutchin, who was Clerk of the Rolls. James was called to the Manx Bar in 1845 and at the age of 31 became High Bailiff of Castletown. Doubtless emboldened by his professional progress, he had married in 1850 his cousin Amelia Gill, eldest child of the Revd William Gill, Vicar of Malew, thus, as James said ‘putting her ‘I’ out!’ They had seven children, of whom one also became High Bailiff of Castletown in 1892.

The effects on the Island of transfer of rule and then ownership from the Derby family to the Crown were varied and disturbing: an influx of English officials who had little or no interest in Manx aspirations, a disaffected population whose ‘landlord’ was no longer the focal point of loyalty or justice, confusion in harmonising Manx and English law – notably Customs duties – and hence extensive smuggling which threatened absorption of the Island into English control. James Gell was to play a major role in solving these and other problems and the ultimate attainment of Manx ‘Home Rule’.

The appointment of Henry Brougham Loch (later Lord Loch) as Governor in 1863 was the crucial point. He was determined to change the constitution, for which the reform of the House of Keys was a vital first step, and to introduce elected, rather than self-appointed, members. James Gell was by now, 1886, Attorney General and became personally concerned with three-quarters of the Acts which had to be put on the statute book. His prodigious memory and his ardent patriotism, tempered by a desire for progress, commended themselves to Governors Loch and Walpole and he enjoyed the confidence of his fellow Manxmen and the friendship and support of the First Deemster, Sir William Leece Drinkwater. So progress to a modern, largely self-governing constitution was achieved. He and Sir William Drinkwater were knighted in 1877. He was appointed Deemster in 1897, and in 1902 he was acting Governor when Edward VII and Queen Alexandra paid a surprise visit to the Island and he received the honour of CVO.

Sir James died on his knees at the beginning of morning prayer in Castletown on 12th March 1905, and is buried in the old glebe graveyard at Malew of which he was Captain of the Parish.

The Speaker, in a tribute at Tynwald Court on 17th March, concluded with these words: ‘On the tombstone of Bishop Wilson there is no record of his achievements, simply the fact that he was 57 years Bishop of this Diocese and then the words ‘let this Island speak the rest’. Feeling how inadequate my words are to offer a full and just tribute to our departed friend, Sir James Gell, I say ‘let this Island speak the rest’.

Biography written by J. Stowell Kenyon.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.183-4.)

Culture Vannin


Nationality: Manx

Gender: Male

Date of birth: 13 January 1823

Date of death: 12 March 1905

Name Variant: Gell, James, Sir


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