Henry Gwillim

Sir Henry Gwillim (c. 1759-September 12, 1837) was a British lawyer who served as puisne judge in the High Court of Madras (now Chennai) from 1801-1808. Henry was born in Hereford to a family of Welsh origins. His father, John Gwillim, was a well-respected surgeon and apothecary. Henry attended Christ Church, Oxford, and graduated in 1779. The following year, he was admitted to Middle Temple, one of the Inns of Court in London, to study law. He was called to the Bar in 1787. During this time, he married Elizabeth Symonds, who was also from Hereford. The couple would have three children. However, none of them made it past infancy. In 1794, he was appointed as Chief Justice of the Isle of Ely. During this time, he wrote, edited, and published important legal works, such as:

In 1801, Henry was appointed as a puisne judge to the recently established High Court of Madras, along with Sir Benjamin Sullivan, while Sir Thomas Strange was appointed Chief Justice. The creation of this court was part of a wider governmental policy to curb the growing powers of the East India Company (EIC), who were the ruling executive authority in British India at that time. The British government hoped to tighten its control over the area by appointing judges to dispense English law. Significantly, these courts were distinct from the locally controlled EIC courts. Henry would come to find himself in the middle of these jurisdictional conflicts.


“St Thome House,” Madras Album, The South Asia Collection, PIC106.77.
Inscription: “Sir HG’s bedroom. The Miss Symonds’ drawing room. St Thome’s House. The part in front, built for Sir HG.”

In February 1801, Henry moved to India with his wife, Elizabeth, and his sister-in-law, Mary Symonds. He received his knighthood later that year. With his fellow judges either ill or often away, Henry became essential to the running of the court. However, due to personality conflicts, along with the larger political issues, Henry made powerful enemies. In 1804, Henry had a falling out with the Governor of Madras, Lord William Bentinck. He soon fell out with Sir Thomas Strange as well. These issues culminated in 1807 when Lord Bentinck established a new, local police force under military control. Henry was a loud opponent of this move, believing it was unconstitutional. Additionally, Henry became embroiled in another controversy when the EIC suspected him of issuing a writ of Habeas corpus to release an Indian man accused of conspiring against the government.

Due to these issues, Lord Bentinck and Sir Thomas Strange sent formal complaints to London requesting Henry’s removal, and an order for his recall was issued on November 12, 1807. Henry acknowledged receipt of this order in June 1808. Before leaving, however, Henry would receive numerous addresses from locals thanking him for his impartiality, and for his efforts in protecting their rights and liberties. In October 1808, Henry and his sister-in-law, Mary Symonds, set sail for England, arriving in May 1809. His wife, Elizabeth, had passed away that previous December. His case was reviewed in England, and he was formally removed from his post, with an allowance granted.

Henry settled in the village of Staplefield, near Cuckfield, Sussex, at Staplefield Place, where he continued to practice law in the local setting. He married Elizabeth Chilman of Clerkenwell St. James on November 11, 1812, and they had one daughter together, also named Elizabeth, born in 1816. On September 12, 1837, Henry died in Staplefield, Sussex.

Henry’s will requested that his trustees — his brother John Gwillim and John Peter Cherry of Cuckfield, Sussex — sell all his possessions, excluding his books and the household furniture and goods. They were to invest the profits in government stocks, and the proceeds were to be used to support his wife and daughter. However, Elizabeth Chilman had died eight months before Henry on January 17, 1837.

If Elizabeth Gwillim’s paintings remained in Henry’s possession after his return from India, it seems likely they were sold along with the rest of his goods by his brother John Gwillim, who had Henry’s will proved in October 1837. John Peter Cherry had previously renounced his role. On November 23, 1837, Staplefield Place and its gardens were sold at the London auction mart.

Elizabeth, Henry Gwillim’s daughter by his second wife, married John Henry Hughes in 1835. She died on May 7, 1845. Her husband had died the previous year. They had a son, Henry Gwillim or Gwilliam, baptized at St. Peter Brighton on March 22, 1840. There is also reference to a William Henry Hughes, who died on August 9, 1863, at Falmer at the age of 5 months, perhaps the son of Henry Gwillim.


For more information: Arthur MacGregor, “Sir Henry Gwillim: tender husband, ‘fiery Briton’ and stalwart judge,” Women, Environment and Networks of Empire, Anna Winterbottom, Victoria Dickenson, Lauren Williams and Ben Cartwright, eds., (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, forthcoming).


Documents pertaining to Henry Gwillim


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Henry Gwillim’s Wikipedia page has been updated as of March 2022


Much of this information is courtesy of Arthur MacGregor. Supplemental information courtesy of Anna Winterbottom and Victoria Dickenson.