Sir Francis Buller, 1st Baronet

The Right Honourable
Francis Buller
King's Bench.
In office
6 May 1778  19 June 1794
Succeeded by Sir Francis Buller-Yarde-Buller, 2nd Baronet
Personal details
Born (1746-03-17)17 March 1746
Devon, England
Died 5 June 1800(1800-06-05) (aged 54)
London, England
Education King's School Ottery St. Mary
Christ's Hospital, London.
Occupation Judge
Arms of Buller: Sable, on a cross argent quarter pierced of the field four eagles displayed of the first[1]
Cartoon of Buller by Gillray

Sir Francis Buller, 1st Baronet (17 March 1746 – 5 June 1800) of Downes, Crediton in Devon, was an English judge.

Personal life

Buller was born at Downes House in Devon, the son of James Buller, of Morval in Cornwall and of Downes and King's Nympton Park in Devon, Member of Parliament for Cornwall, by his second wife Lady Jane Bathurst, daughter of Allen Bathurst, 1st Earl Bathurst.

In 1763, at the age of 17, he married Susanna Yarde (1740–1810), the daughter and sole heiress of Francis Yarde (1704–1750) of Ottery St Mary in Devon (who was the fifth son of Edward Yarde (1669–1735), of Churston Court, a Member of Parliament for Totnes in Devon 1695–1698[2]). Susanna was also the niece and heiress of John Yarde (1702–1773) of Churston Court in the parish of Churston Ferrers, Devonshire.[3]

Buller's eldest surviving son and heir[4] was Sir Francis Buller-Yarde-Buller, 2nd Baronet (1767–1833), who in compliance with the will of his maternal great-uncle John Yarde (1702–1773) assumed the surname Yarde in lieu of his patronymic, but later by royal sign manual added the additional surname Buller.[5] His eldest surviving son was John Yarde-Buller, 1st Baron Churston (1799–1871), who was raised to the peerage in 1858; and his second surviving son was Sir Edward Manningham-Buller, 1st Baronet (1800–1882), who was created a baronet in 1866.

In the late 1790s Buller was in poor health, suffering from frequent attacks of gout and other ailments. He died during the night of 4/5 June 1800 after having some form of attack during a game of piquet at his house in Bedford Square, shortly before he had arranged to resign.[6] He was buried in St Andrew's Churchyard, Gray's Inn.[7]


After an education at The King's School, Ottery St Mary and Christ's Hospital, London, Buller was entered in February 1763 at the Inner Temple as a pupil of special pleader William Henry Ashurst, taking out his own certificate as special pleader in 1765. In Easter term 1772, he was called to the bar and rose rapidly through it, becoming King's Counsel on 24 November 1777. On 6 May 1778, at only 32, he was made a puisne judge of the King's Bench.[6]

His conduct on the bench, however, was often the subject of severe criticism, accused of being hasty and prejudiced. He has been the subject of controversy over time due to an alleged statement he made that a husband could thrash his wife with impunity provided that he used a stick no bigger than his thumb.[6] This claim was widely circulated and led to Buller being caricatured as "Judge Thumb" by James Gillray in 1782. Under the system of coverture marriage, the couple were one legal person, over which the husband had rights and responsibility; accordingly, crimes by him against her were not recognised except in the most extreme cases. If Buller did make the ruling, it was a refinement of earlier precedent; a death of a wife by beating with a pestle had been ruled murder, but only after consideration that "though a husband by law may correct, the pestle was no instrument for correction".[8]

He was one of the three judges in the 1783 appeal hearing of the Zong massacre case. He also presided over an important trial in 1785 involving the validity of a patent held by Richard Arkwright, the cotton manufacturer. The jury held the patent to be invalid because the specification was unclear. Expert evidence showed that Arkwright had claimed inventions made by others. Arkwright had by that time established several cotton spinning mills, and continued to prosper despite losing the patent battle.

Buller was always the second judge in his court, though when Lord Mansfield was absent through illness (e.g., the last two years of Mansfield's life), he took the lead and in effect acted as Lord Chief Justice. However, on Mansfield's death, William Pitt delayed and then in the end appointed Kenyon to the role. (Buller was thought to be the superior lawyer).[6] As additional recognition, Pitt made Buller a baronet on 13 January 1790. On 19 June 1794, Buller resigned from the King's Bench and took his place in the Common Pleas.[6]

He was a guardian of Anna Eliza Brydges and a trustee to the 1796 settlement between her and Richard Temple, later the first Duke of Buckingham and Chandos.

Work on Dartmoor

Prince Hall, today a hotel

In 1790 or shortly before, Buller bought the Ancient Tenement of Prince Hall on Dartmoor from Christopher Gullet who had acquired it some ten years earlier and had already built new farm buildings on the old site. Buller greatly extended the buildings, converting the property into one of "Georgian opulence".[7] He was friendly towards his tenants and other workers on the moor, inviting them to weekly religious services at Prince Hall.[7]

He also enclosed some 2,000 acres around Prince Hall,[9] and set about improving the land. There was a strong belief among the intelligentsia of the time that Dartmoor's moorland could be "improved" for agriculture. Robert Fraser in his 1794 book General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devon (one of the General View of Agriculture county surveys series) promoted Buller's programme of fertilising the soil, improving the breeds of sheep and cattle and large scale planting of trees as an example of best practice – even though he noted that almost all of the 40,000 larch and other conifers that Buller had planted had already died.[10] The avenue of trees leading to the property has, however, survived to the present day.[7] While Buller was attempting to "improve" Dartmoor at Prince Hall, Thomas Tyrwhitt was doing the same at nearby Tor Royal.[11]

Buller acquired other estates on Dartmoor, for example Skerraton in the parish of Dean Prior.[12] He also built an inn, named the Saracen's Head after his crest, at Two Bridges, on a site now occupied by the Two Bridges Hotel.[13]


  1. Burke's Landed Gentry, 1937, p.279, Buller of Downes
  2. History of Parliament Online YARDE, Edward (1669-1735), of Churston Court, Devon. Accessed 17 November 2016
  3. Vivian (1895), p.831, pedigree of Yard
  4. Vivian (1887), p.58, pedigree of Buller
  5. Vivian (1887), p.60
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Courtney 1886.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Hemery, p.462
  8. Gale, Giles Jacob. The Laws of Appeal and Murder, (1719). p. 38.
  9. Milton, p.32.
  10. Milton, p.35, citing Fraser pp.57–59
  11. Milton, pp.33–4
  12. Hemery, p.603
  13. Crossing, William (1967). Le Messurier, Brian, ed. Crossing's Hundred Years on Dartmoor. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. pp. 31, 74.


Baronetage of Great Britain
Preceded by
New creation
(of Churston Court)
Succeeded by
Francis Yarde-Buller
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