Mathew is born on July 10, 1830 at Lehenagh House, County Cork, eldest son of Charles Mathew, gentleman, of Lehanagh House and Castlelake, County Tipperary, and his wife Mary, daughter of James Hackett of Cork. He is of a Roman Catholic family and his uncle is Fr. Theobald Mathew, the temperance movement campaigner. His initial education is at a private school in Cork. He enters Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in July 1845, graduating BA (1850) as a gold medalist and senior moderator. In Hilary term 1850 he is admitted to the King’s Inns in Dublin. He moves to London, entering Lincoln’s Inn on June 1, 1851, and is called to the English bar in Hilary term 1854.
Mathew is a founding member of the Hardwicke Society, a legal debating society, and builds up a substantial practice as a junior barrister, being much in demand as counsel for jury cases in the Guildhall sittings. Despite being highly regarded by his peers, a certain lack of confidence holds him back and even when vacancies arise he does not apply to be made a Queen’s Counsel (QC). In 1873, however, he represents the treasury as a junior counsel in the prosecution of the Tichborne claimant, Arthur Orton, in one of the most celebrated legal cases of the day. He is the only counsel for the treasury who does not get into heated arguments in court with Orton’s leading council, Dr. Edward Vaughan Hyde Kenealy.
Mathew possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of legal procedure and in 1881 is made a bencher at Lincoln’s Inn and awarded an honorary doctorate by TCD. Although still only a junior counsel he is appointed a judge in the Queen’s Bench Division in March 1881 and knighted. After the return to office of the Liberal Party in August 1892 he becomes chairman of the commission established to investigate the state of evicted tenants in Ireland. His appointment is perhaps unfortunate, as he is a home ruler in politics and the home rule MP John Dillon is his son-in-law. When the commission begins its hearings on November 7, 1892, he announces that he will not allow witnesses to be cross-examined. This provokes protests from Edward Carson, who had recently been replaced as solicitor general for Ireland. Counsel is ordered to withdraw and eventually two members of the commission resign, while the landlords refuse to cooperate with the proceedings. Despite severe criticism, many of the commission’s recommendations are incorporated in the Wyndham Land Purchase Act of 1903.
Throughout his legal career, Mathew argues for the establishment of a separate commercial court, and eventually succeeds in convincing the other members of the bench and also Lord Russell of Killowen, who is appointed Lord Chief Justice in 1894, that such a court be established. As a result of this, he is appointed as the first judge of the Commercial Court when it is set up in 1895. In 1901 he is made a privy councilor and appointed judge in the Court of Appeal.
On December 6, 1905 Mathew is seized with a paralytic stroke at the Athenaeum Club in London, and his resignation is announced on the following day. On November 9, 1908 he dies at his London home, 46 Queen’s Gate Gardens. His remains are returned to Ireland, where they are interred in St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Cork.
Mathew marries Elizabeth Blackmore, eldest daughter of the Rev. Edwin Biron, JP and vicar of Lympne near Hythe, Kent, in December 1861. They have two sons and three daughters. His eldest daughter, Elizabeth Mathew, marries John Dillon. A portrait of Sir James Charles Mathew, by Frank Holl, is in the possession of the family. In 1896 a cartoon portrait of him by ‘Spy’ appears in Vanity Fair.
(From: “Mathew, Sir James Charles” by David Murphy, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie | Pictured: Sir James Charles Mathew by Alexander Bassano, half-plate glass negative, 1883, National Portrait Gallery, London)