William Porter was born at Artikelly, near Limavady, co. Londonderry, Northern Ireland on 15 th September 1805 and was attorney-general of the Cape of Good Hope, was the second son of the Rev. William Porter and his first wife, Mary Scott, daughter of Charles Scott, of Strauchroy, near Omagh, county Tyrone. His father had been ordained as a Presbyterian minister at Limavady in 1799; he was clerk of the general synod of Ulster from 1816 to 1830, but in that year he was elected the first moderator of the Unitarian Remonstrant synod and held the clerkship of that body from 1831 until his death in 1843.
He was first educated at a school in Limavady run by a man named Stevenson and then at the Artillery Lane school in Londonderry conducted by the Rev. William Moore and the Rev. George Hay. In 1819 he was apprenticed to John Classon, an iron merchant and farm implement manufacturer in Dublin, the brother of his father’s second wife, Eliza Classon. But he proved a failure in business; when his apprenticeship was within a few month of ending, in March 1826, Francis Classon wrote to his father about his future career. Every day, he said, brought added proof that Porter was unfitted for business. He had ‘neither heart nor mind’ in what he was doing. On the other hand he had made a name for himself as a public speaker and as a poet. Consequently Classon suggested that P. should immediately take up the study of the classics under Dr W. H. Drummond, of the Strand Street Presbyterian church, Dublin, and that, towards the end of the year, he should go to London and enter the Temple. John Classon was prepared to support him while he was reading for the bar.
William adopted the course mapped out for him. He was admitted to Gray’s Inn, London, on 26th May 1827 and to King’s Inns, Dublin, in the Easter term, 1829.
At Michaelmas, 1831, he was called to the Irish bar. During his years as a barrister in Ireland he served on the north-east circuit and lived with his elder brother, the Rev. John Scott Porter, at 4 Alfred street, Belfast, taking a prominent part in Unitarian affairs. He acted as secretary of the Irish Unitarian society and in 1834-35 contributed a series of twelve articles of outstanding literary merit on ‘Preaching and preachers’ to the Bible Christian, a journal edited by his brother.
In January 1839, thanks to the influence of William Curry, third sergeant of Ireland and M.P. for county Armagh, he was appointed attorney-general of the Cape Colony at a salary of £1,200 a year with permission to practice as a private advocate in civil cases where the rights of the crown were not directly involved. His appointment was well received: glowing tributes were paid to him in the press and a dinner in his honour in the town hall at Limavady on 6th May 1839 was attended by about fifty people drawn from every political party and religious denomination.
He left Kingstown (now Dunlaoghaire) on 17th June 1839 accompanied by a friend of his business days, Hugh Lynar, and ‘soon the land where live the living and where lie the dead who loved me as I shall not again be loved was hidden from my sight and the cloud that descended upon it settled cold upon my heart’. In London he made preparations for his voyage, attended a debate in the house of commons and was presented at court, where, he said, the queen heard ‘with astonishing indifference that her attorney-general at the Cape was now before her’. Much to his annoyance he was refused an interview by Thomas Macaulay, the historian, whom he greatly admired. On June 28th 1839 he and Lynar sailed on the Sterling and, after an uncomfortable voyage of seventy-nine days, entered Table bay on September 15. From his predecessor, Anthony Oliphant ‘who always took the world easy’ he inherited an untidy office in which ‘you would imagine (wrote Porter) all the “dirty work” in the colony was done; with not a chair which it is safe to sit down upon’.
As an official member of the executive council and of the legislative council he was called upon to participate in political life. Just over a month after his arrival he was involved in a clash with the governor, Sir George Napier, in the legislative council. When the governor called upon him to oppose a usury bill of which he disapproved he refused. He would, he said, ‘look out for the first vessel that was to leave Table Bay and bid adieu to the colony’ if he found that his office prevented him from expressing his opinions freely. He was equally firm in his insistence on his right to appoint Hugh Lynar as his chief clerk. William was able to make this spirited assertion of his rights, which won much public approval, without giving offense or arousing resentment.
In his professional capacity he quickly made a name for himself. He was admitted to practice before the Cape supreme court in October 1839 and before long he showed that he had mastered Roman-Dutch law although he had no know-ledge of Dutch. When his practice began to grow with his reputation he behaved so modestly towards his fellow barristers that he won and retained their friendship and admiration. In criminal cases he was renowned for his fairness: his summing up for the prosecution was so carefully weighed that it was said no judge could have done better than repeat it word for word.
Apart from publications which bear witness to his literary interests (The public library, Cape Town, 1845) and his article ‘O’Connell’, in the Cape of Good Hope Literary Magazine (October 1847), P. also wrote on the laws of the colony: The law of inheritance in the Colony of the Cape (Cape Town, 1848) and the Report of the committee on the operation of the law of debtor and creditor (Cape Town, 1861).
In 1840 he went on circuit in the eastern province to see for himself what grounds existed for the easterners’ claim to a separate government. He was not convinced by their case; to him all colonial questions were matters of common interest. This view brought him into conflict with the easterners; in the west he incurred the enmity of the Anti-Convict association in 1848 by ruling that the governor could not set aside his instructions. Yet he was opposed to the admission of convicts. He advised the governor against declaring the Anti-Convict association illegal and he held that the convicts could be retained on board pending further instructions.
The anti-convict agitation interrupted the work of constitution making. By the mid-forties the colonial office had become favourably disposed to the demand for representative government. Early in 1848, at the request of the governor, Sir Harry Smith, he prepared a memorandum which formed the basis for discussions focusing mainly on two problems: the nature of the upper house and the franchise. William originally suggested a legislative council of members nominated for life but, after seeing how ill a nominated council fared when passions were aroused as happened during the anti-convict agitation, he proposed, instead, an upper house elected on the same franchise as the lower but with a high property qualification for members. The franchise qualification he wanted to fix as low as possible because, as he said, ‘I deem it to be just and expedient to place the suffrage within the reach of the more intelligent and industrious of the men of colour’ and because he hoped that a low franchise would promote ‘that fusion of race, and colour and language which is undoubtedly in progress … ‘, and that the peace and prosperity of the colony might ultimately be advanced.
The results of deliberations at the Cape on the constitutional proposals by the executive council and three judges of the supreme court were formulated by Porter in the draft constitution for-warded in July 1848 to the colonial office. At a later stage, in 1850, he contributed to the final Cape proposals the idea of electing the members of the upper house by means of a western province electing eight members, and an eastern province electing seven.
The parliament which was established at the Cape in 1854 embodied most of Porter’s recommendations, notably the elected upper house and the low franchise. He had an ex officio seat in both houses but, though he was recognized as one of the outstanding figures in parliament, he found his position awkward and irksome. He was a member of an executive which was not responsible to the colonial parliament. The legislative council debarred official members from sitting on committees, introducing bills or moving amendments. Even in the legislative assembly, where he was allowed more scope, he was neither a private member nor a responsible minister. More and more he became convinced that responsible government was the proper solution and he did not hesitate to express his views in parliament. With the appointment of Sir Philip Wodehouse* as governor in 1862 his position was likely to become more difficult, for Wodehouse was opposed to responsible government. But at this point his health broke down and he resolved to pay a visit overseas.
This was the occasion for a great display of public esteem. An address was presented to him and a fund was launched for the purpose of having a life-sized portrait painted. When he declined to sit for his portrait the subscribers used the money to present some 200 standard works to the S.A.P.L. to form the Porter collection. When he went on board the Camperdown in May 1862 he was ‘escorted by bands of music and all the volunteers of Cape Town’.
William made a sufficiently good recovery to be able to return to the Cape and resume his duties as attorney-general in 1864, but soon decided to resign. His constant companion, Hugh Lynar, resigned at the same time. Once again he was given remarkable proof of his popularity. The two houses of parliament passed resolutions declaring that he had a most beneficial effect on the community at large. In October 1865 a special act conferred on him his full salary for life. At first he thought of refusing but then, feeling that ‘there are times when it would be ungenerous not to take, as well as when it would be ungenerous not to give’, he accepted and immediately vested an annuity of £500 in the board of examiners, established in 1859, the forerunner of the University of the Cape of Good Hope. He provided further that, should he die before the board had received £2,500, his executors should make up the balance.
After his resignation on 17th March 1866 he had not yet finished with Cape politics. In 1869 his friend Saul Solomon persuaded him to stand for election to the legislative assembly and he was returned at the top of the poll in Cape Town. In his first session as an M.L.A. he took over his friend Solomon’s annual motion in favour of the ‘voluntary principle’ regarding grants for the salaries of clergymen (cf. his pamphlet, The Voluntary principle at the Cape, Cape Town, 1869).
In 1871-72 he took the place of J. C. Molteno as a member of the commission appointed by the governor at the request of the legislative assembly to investigate the desirability of constituting ‘provincial governments’ for the eastern and western parts of the Cape Colony. The report which he. helped to compile soon passed out of notice because of the parliamentary struggle for responsible government, which was now entering on its final stage. When the new attorney-general, W. D. Griffith, refused to draft a bill the governor, Sir Henry Barkly, entrusted the task to Porter. His draft included provision for two new heads of departments, a commissioner of crown lands and public works, and a secretary of native affairs, and the act establishing responsible government was carried in 1872.
William Porter was generally regarded as an obvious choice for the premiership but he had already said that, owing to the state of his health, it would be ‘folly and madness if he risked taking advantage of any claims he might have’. When the office was offered to him he declined it. He also refused to accept a knighthood, but on 30th November 1872 he was created a C.M.G., a distinction he rarely used in writing, however.
The first session under responsible government was William Porter’s last in the Cape parliament. His residence in South Africa was drawing to a close. He had on three occasions been offered the office of chief justice; instead he retired to nurse his friend Lynar in what proved to be his last illness. Lynar died in July 1873 and very shortly afterwards Porter left the Cape for good, having evidently lost all interest in public affairs after the death of his friend.
For the next seven years he lived with his brother, the Rev. John Scott Porter, in Belfast. He took no part in public life in Ireland but was interested in charitable work and was a well-known figure in the Belfast commercial newsroom. He kept in touch with events in South Africa. When Saul Solomon came bottom of the poll in Cape Town in 1879 after condemning the Zulu War, William wrote ‘I have very little doubt that, had I been a seventh candidate at the late election, I should have deprived you of the distinction of being lowest on the poll’. When the University of the Cape of Good Hope was instituted in 1873 as an examining university, he was selected as the first chancellor, an honour which he prized. In his address as chancellor he wrote ‘If, indeed, no qualification was needed for the office to which I have been elevated but a love for learning, and a desire to promote it, I should not deem myself entirely unfit. I have, as everyone knows, no other qualifications. But if our gratitude for favours should be all the greater because we cannot but be sensible how little we have deserved them the members of Convocation, who have followed an old colonial servant into his retirement in order to do him an honour of which any man might be justly proud, may rest assured that their generosity of feeling is justly estimated and will never be forgotten’ (cf. An address to the University of the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Town, 1876).
He died in his seventy-fifth year at Lennoxvale, Belfast, the home of his brother, the Rev. John Scott Porter on 13th July 1880, who had died but eight days before. William Porter is buried in the borough cemetery, Belfast. His will is a revealing document. He began by making a large number of bequests ranging from £5,000 each to two of his brothers to £25 each to his brother’s servants. A remarkable feature of these bequests is the number of women who received legacies: forty-six women benefited under his will. In this way he disposed of £36,550. He then proceeded: ‘The increased value of certain of the investments in which I placed my earnings at the Cape of Good Hope (where everything I possess was acquired) proves to be so considerable as to enable me, after remembering relatives and friends in manner aforesaid to gratify my wish to testify in some useful way my attachment to the people of the Cape of Good Hope whom I long served and whom, dying, I should be sorry to forget’.
Accordingly, he bequeathed £20,000 for the establishment of a reformatory for boys at the Cape (which, on the old Tokai estate, still bears his name). He directed that, should the Cape parliament for any reason decide against the establishment of a reformatory, the money should be used for some other public purpose, and expressed a wish that a portion of it should be applied to promoting, through the University of the Cape of Good Hope, the higher education of women. He then bequeathed £250 to the S.A.P.L. in Cape Town; £100 each to the South African museum, the sailors’ home, the Free Dispensary and the Ladies’ Benevolent society in Cape Town; £100 each to the public libraries of Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth; and £100 to every other public library in the colony at the time of his death. William Porter was an impressive figure of a man, tall, dignified, with handsome features and, in later life, a long snowy beard.
He never married. Throughout his life in South Africa he lived with his friend, Hugh Lynar; in later years they shared a rambling, single-storied house, Wolmunster, in Rosebank, Cape Town. William Porter played a full part in the life of the colony. In addition to his legal and political activities he was, for example, captain of the Cape Town volunteer cavalry and a member of the board of trustees of the S.A.P.L., Cape Town, from 1840 until he left the colony in 1873. In social life he was a most acceptable figure; he was a brilliant talker and was renowned for his fund of anecdotes and his great charm. He was a kind man, unselfish and generous in the extreme.
He had his faults. He was so anxious to be fair, so ready to see both sides of a question, that he found great difficulty in making up his mind definitely and decisively on any point. Although a man of great eloquence, his formal speeches tended to be over-long. His deep-rooted faith in the inevitability of progress blinded him to the complexity of some of the problems confronting the colony. He was probably not in the first rank either as a lawyer or as a statesman, but he possessed in ample measure the qualities which earned him a very special place in the Cape society in which he moved for some thirty-four years of his life.
Several portraits of Porter are in existence; there are some among the Porter papers in the S.A.P.L., Cape Town, and one known to have been taken by the early Cape Town photographer Frederick York* was mentioned in the Cape Argus (1st February 1866) as a portrait enlarged and finished in crayons. A small portrait and a life-size portrait in oils are in the possession of descendants, in Cape Town, of William Porter’s youngest half-brother, Francis Porter (†1886), a merchant of Cape Town, and his wife, Magdalena van der Bijl; two of their daughters married into the Sampson and Pillans families at the Cape. A portrait appears with the biographical article in the Cape Monthly Magazine (vol. V, 1859). A portrait of William Porter in the uniform of the Cape Town volunteer cavalry is in the same publication for October 1861, and in McCracken (infra). Another portrait is known to have been executed by W. H. Schröder from a photograph and is probably that which is at present in the state library, Pretoria. Beside university scholarships and the Cape reformatory bearing his name, he is commemorated by the town of Porterville, named after him in 1877. A portrait in oils by F. Wolf is in the houses of parliament, Cape Town, and a pen sketch, by an unknown artist, in the U.C.T. law library, Cape Town. The S.A.P.L. has a photograph (1853) which hangs in the new reference room.
J. L. M.