In search of an enigma - Basil Montagu QC (1770-1851) - the father of modern insolvency law

Although there is an enormous amount of material concerning the lives of Wordsworth, Coleridge and other close friends of Basil Montagu, no biography has ever been written about him. This is a pity not only because of his prominence in literary circles but on account of his stature as the most eminent insolvency lawyer of his own or, indeed, any other age.  The key document for understanding Montagu is the address he prepared in 1833 or thereabouts for the “Electors of Finsbury.” By then he had succeeded in reconciling his passion for academic learning with the daily demands of practice at the Bar and his ceaseless activities relating to the reform of criminal law, bankruptcy and other causes such as the abolition of religious disabilities. These events must be seen against the background of his large family, frequent bereavements and the regard for him of a vast number of friends, some of whom occasionally looked to him for financial and other support.

Montagu never in fact became a Member of Parliament, but instead at the age of sixty-six in 1836, took up the newly created position of Accountant-General in bankruptcy.  In this capacity he was responsible for laying down the foundations of our present administrative insolvency system. He finally retired in 1846. It is a terrible irony that when he died in 1851 Montagu was living at Boulogne as an exile fearful of returning home lest he be arrested and imprisoned for debt. The somewhat mysterious circumstances of his later years have never been fully investigated. 

Montagu deserves to be rescued from obscurity, so that at long last he may receive, in large measure through his own words and those of his friends, a fair hearing and justice. For an interim attempt see

Picture credit: Basil Montagu (1770-1851) as an older man on an alabaster medallion which now resides in the Athenaeum, Pall Mall. Montagu was a member of the club. See: Tait, H & Walker, R. The Athenaeum Collection. London, 2000, “No.606 HWB Davies, 1849, A painted plaster medallion 46x40cm un-inscribed.” The original was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850 and then in the library of the National Gallery. It seems likely that at the time of his final retirement in 1846 Montagu was invited by his colleagues at the Athenaeum where he had spent much time for over twenty years to sit for what became the medallion. It was sufficiently important to be noted in the catalogue of 1849 and to be exhibited at the Royal Academy a year later.