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NEWS > Obituaries > His Hon Judge Esyr ap Gywlim Lewis 1926 - 2011

His Hon Judge Esyr ap Gywlim Lewis 1926 - 2011

When Esyr was born, on 11 January 1926, his father, Gwillym, and his mother, Mary, were living in Clydach Vale in the Rhonda valley in South Glamorgan
16 Feb 2023

(Ridgeway 1939-44)

When Esyr was born, on 11 January 1926, his father, Gwillym, and his mother, Mary, were living in Clydach Vale in the Rhonda valley in South Glamorgan, where Gwillym was the Minister at the local Welsh Congregational Church. Soon after, Esyr’s father was appointed as the Minister in Narberth, in Pembrokeshire and the family moved there. Esyr and his brother, Michael, who was four years younger than Esyr, spent their early years in Narberth and all his life Esyr retained vivid and happy memories of his childhood in South Wales.

The family left Wales when Esyr was ten, his father having been appointed Minister in Salford. Esyr attended Salford Grammar School and from there went to Mill Hill School. Mill Hill was then in Cumberland, having been moved there for the duration of the war.

Esyr left Mill Hill in 1944 and went into the army. The next three years, during which he served in the Intelligence Corps, were exciting times for him. Esyr loved his time in the army and he often reminisced fondly about it. After basic training, he was briefly stationed at Bletchley, where he worked on Enigma decoding. From there he was sent, in 1945, to Bedford, where he spent several months learning Japanese. And it was at Bedford that he met a group of fellow trainees who were to remain among his closest friends for the rest of his life. Shortly after the war, this group agreed to meet for lunch each Wednesday. This they did for over 60 years—until just last year—latterly at the Devereux pub, just down the road from here.

From Bedford, Esyr was sent to Palestine, where he had to get used to sleeping with a loaded pistol under his pillow. He was then moved to Karachi in October 1945. In January 1946, it was on to Singapore, via Calcutta and Rangoon, a trip evidently undertaken in rather unexpected style. During the journey, Esyr wrote in his notebook:

‘I can’t understand why a bunch of lance corporals should get a high priority flight in a luxury civil airplane. But I am not complaining.’

From Singapore, Esyr was sent to Kuala Lumpur. And it was there that he had his first experience of court proceedings: he attended the trial of a Japanese sergeant for war crimes committed against civilian prisoners.

But later in 1946, a heavy blow was to fall on the family. On 15 August, Esyr wrote in his notebook:

‘The doctor’s report on my father compels me to ask for leave to go home. I don’t want to do this: I would far rather finish my time out here, but I feel that I must.’

In the event, his request for compassionate leave was refused. But there was then worse news of his father in October. This time the army reacted: Esyr was speedily sent back to England. But his father died, at the age of 46, before Esyr had arrived home.

At this stage, Michael was still at school and the family lacked any obvious means of support. A few weeks after his return to England, Esyr bleakly confided in his notebook:

‘It is no longer possible for me to say now that I have a secure home. I am always haunted by the fear that there will be a collapse on our home front and we shall be left destitute.’

In spite of these worries, Esyr was determined that he and Michael—of whom he was immensely fond and proud—should go to university. But, for the time being, Esyr remained in the Intelligence Corps and in February 1947 he was appointed to the War Crimes Interrogation Unit. He spent some of his spare time learning Welsh ‘properly’, as he put it. And he now decided to join an Inn of Court. For some reason, he seems to have thought that the Inner Temple was the right choice. But, by May 1947, he had come to his senses and he joined Gray’s Inn.

Perhaps it was Esyr’s experience of war crimes which decided him on a career at the Bar. Undoubtedly, a further influence was his father, who had had an outstanding reputation as a preacher and as a speaker. Esyr often spoke of the power of his father’s sermons and they had plainly left a deep impression upon him. Esyr left the army in September 1947 and went up to Cambridge to read Law at Trinity Hall.

This was the beginning of a distinguished academic career. Gray’s Inn had awarded Esyr the Holker Senior Scholarship. Now, Trinity Hall also awarded him a Scholarship. Esyr was awarded a first class in the Law Qualifying examinations in 1948, confessing in his diary that he had had to do a great deal during the last two months. The following year he was awarded a First Class in the Law Tripos. He then won Dr Cooper’s Law Studentship and achieved a first in the LLB, something he modestly described as ‘unexpected’.

He left Cambridge and was called to the Bar by this Society in January 1951. Esyr wrote that he was choosing the Bar because he wanted to do something to advance the causes of sanity and humanity. He obtained pupillage with Frank Whitworth at Goldsmith Building and joined the Wales & Chester circuit. But he rejected advice to establish himself in Swansea. He wrote at this time that his interests were political, cultural and international and that he could not bring himself to abandon London. On completion of his pupillage, Esyr accepted a seat in Chambers at Farrar’s Building, where the head of chambers was Gerald Thesiger, and where Esyr quickly developed a busy practice. Among his contemporaries and friends in those chambers were Ronald Waterhouse, William Mars Jones and Monro Davies.

In 1957 Esyr married Elizabeth. They moved into a flat in the Inn and this became their comfortable and welcoming home for the rest of their married life. There, over the next eight years or so, Elizabeth presented Esyr with a series of exceptionally beautiful daughters: Emma was born in 1959, Clare in 1961, Alice in 1964 and Charlotte in 1967.

While still in pupillage, Esyr had written that he wanted a career in public affairs and that it was this which had, in part, decided him on a career at the Bar. In the 1964 general election, he contested the seat of Llanelli on behalf of the Liberal party. Victory would have meant the establishment of a home in Wales. But there was little chance of that: Llanelli was one of the safest of Labour seats. Esyr never pursued his political interests further and contented himself with maintaining his Welsh ties from London: he attended the City Temple, when there were no services in this Chapel and, of course, he remained an indefatigable supporter of Welsh rugby.

But the family needed space out of London, and in 1961, Esyr and Elizabeth bought their house on Hayling Island where the family spent, and still do spend, week-ends and holidays. The house, close to the shore of Langstone Harbour, was perhaps where they were all happiest. There, Esyr escaped the pressures of a busy junior’s (and later silk’s) practice and could pursue his favourite pastimes: gardening, reading, teaching his daughters how to mess about in boats, listening to jazz (he was a fan of Nat King Cole), watching old films (Buster Keaton was a particular favourite), painting rather good water colours (although he always insisted that he was colour blind) and, of course, smoking his pipe. The house on Hayling Island also afforded free rein to Esyr’s enthusiasm for DIY: an activity watched by Elizabeth and the girls usually with a degree of amusement, sometimes with a degree of nervousness.

Meanwhile, Esyr’s professional accomplishments continued. He served on the Bar Council. He took silk in 1971 and developed a busy circuit practice. He became a Recorder the following year. He served for many years on the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. In 1978 he became a Deputy High Court Judge, the Leader of the Wales & Chester Circuit and a Bencher of this Society.

In 1984, Esyr took an appointment as a Circuit Judge, sitting in the Division of the High Court which is known now as the Technology and Construction Court, but was known then, for reasons which have always escaped me, as the Official Referees’ Corridor. The end of the constant travelling and hotels which had been part of his circuit life was now very welcome.

After years as a busy circuit silk—dealing for the most part with serious crime and personal injury matters—the world of the Official Referees’ Corridor, with its building contracts, delay claims, Scott Schedules and so on, was hardly familiar territory for him. But Esyr took it all in his stride. On the Bench, Esyr was known for his unfailing patience, his courtesy, his charm and his sound judgment. He served as a judge for over fourteen years, the final four of them as the Senior Official Referee.

Esyr retired from the Bench in 1998. After nearly fifty years, he had decided that he had had enough of the law. He spent three months in Guyana where he rewrote the Civil Procedure Code, but that was the end of his active involvement in legal matters.

He had not, however, had enough of Gray’s Inn—very far from it. He had served as Treasurer in 1996 and 1997, which he considered the greatest privilege. He loved this Inn which had been his home for over forty years. And he firmly believed in all that Gray’s Inn stands for. He and Elizabeth continued to live here in his retirement as they had always done, Esyr a familiar figure in South Square, where he liked to walk and to smoke his pipe.

And the flat in South Square continued as busy and welcoming as ever. By the time of his retirement, Esyr and Elizabeth had accumulated six grandchildren and more continued to arrive until there were twelve. These grandchildren together with Charlotte, Clare and Emma were the sources of great comfort, support and consolation to Esyr and Elizabeth during the period of shadow cast by Alice’s long illness and untimely death.

Esyr suffered a stroke and died on the morning of 25 March 2011

In 1946, when he was a young man in Malaya, Esyr wrote this in his notebook:

‘. . . I was at Church for the first time in a month. Quite suddenly in Church, I began to think of my own death. I do not intend to die for a very long time—there is far too much that I have to do! But when I die I want no mourning with its beastly trappings. I would like to be cremated and my ashes scattered in some place that I have loved and in which I have been happy. My funeral bible reading would be no other than Isaiah 40.’

Esyr was cremated on 4 April this year and his ashes were scattered on the shore at Hayling Island.

Dominic Dowley QC

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