William Garrow and the Royal Humane Society

As a descendant of William Garrow, I feel drawn to continue to explore the real life of William Garrow. This is in addition to enjoying the fictional aspects of Garrow romanticized in the BBC “Garrow’s Law”, a drama that moves quickly between fact and fiction.

Concerning the real William Garrow, I have been attempting to understand his engagement in the various civic societies seeking to improve the quality of life in London and the surrounding area, in addition to his newly remembered legal career. He was a member of the Royal Society with its international acclaim for probing scientific understanding, and for five years served as a trustee of the British Museum. He was a Vice President of the Royal Sea Bathing Infirmary, focused on dealing with tuberculosis in London’s children who were living in abject poverty. And he was a lifetime sponsor (contributor) to the Philanthropic Society, a boy’s town type program for children of convicted felons, children heading toward a life of crime themselves. Upon retirement he became a member of the Privy Council. In addition, he had a long time involvement as a Vice President of the Royal Humane Society. It is his involvement in the Royal Humane Society that is the subject of this report.

In Garrow’s day, the Royal Humane Society in London was a large and highly acclaimed society for administering first aid to individuals, such as drowning victims, who were apparently dead, or in “suspended animation” to use their terms. It had been discovered that, under some conditions, unconscious victims could be revived through resuscitation techniques. While the focus was on drowning victims, the service was extended to those experiencing a wide range of accidents which rendering them in “suspended animation.” The society pioneered the development of resuscitation techniques, and set up a large number of well equipped facilities (receiving houses), manned with trained volunteers (medical assistants), throughout the waterways of London where accidents frequently took place. While focused in London and Middlesex, the services extended into Herefordshire, Essex, Surrey, and Kent. The society not only pioneered in the development and use of these emergency techniques, it trained people in their use and publicized the possibility of recovering from “suspended animation”. Cash prizes were awarded to individuals who heroically saved the lives of those who were only apparently dead.

In their annual report for 1822, Baron Garrow is listed as a Vice-President. This report gives a detailed picture of the goals and history of the society. The report also gives accounts of successful resuscitations from suspended animation, and lists the recommended techniques to be used in situations, in addition to drowning, for such emergency situations as person apparently dead from hanging, suffocation, still-born children, hit by lightening, fatal effect from choking, excess cold, and noxious vapors from well, coal mines, cellars and fermenting liquors. It describes in great detail the organization of the society, including names of all those having responsibility in the society, and the places where they serve. A major part of the report describes methods for rescuing seamen and others from vessels stranded on the rocks near the shore during storms, the common way that many died in a maritime country in the early 1800s.

William Garrow, as a Vice President of the Society, served as a spokesman for the organization for many years. He became a Vice President in 1808 after establishing his legal career, and before he started serving in government positions such as Attorney General or as a Judge. He may have been influenced in supporting the Society by Dr. John Coakley Lettsom, founder of the Medical Society of London and a staunch supporter and leader of the Humane Society program. Garrow’s daughter married Lettsom’s son in 1802, and in 1805 Garrow successfully negotiated a libel action against Lettsom, saving him both money and embarrassment. 

As early as 1803 William Garrow was serving as Chairman of the Anniversary Meetings of the Society. The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle reported on the meeting of that year by stating:

“Mr. Garrow was Chairman of the day. In wishing “Prosperity to the Royal Humane Society,” and in presenting two medallions, Mr. Garrow addressed the company in so affecting a manner, as excited the admiration and touched the sympathetic feelings of the whole company.”

In 1805 the record describes Garrow’s participation in the Anniversary Meeting. In a letter to a friend Dr. Lettsom described the meeting, stating:

The music and singing, the procession of those raised from the dead, all combine to render the festival equally rational and pathetic. My good friend, the Hon. P. Pusey, joined me in a subscription to supply each of the restored objects with a Bible, which in the procession accompanies each object. My brother-in-law, Counsellor Garrow (yesterday elected M.P. for Gatton), has supplied them with appropriate religious books; so that the mind has, in many instances, been restored to life as well as the body.

Garrow again chaired the Anniversary Meeting in 1812. The Belfast Monthly Magazine reported on the meeting. It stated:

The thirty-eighth anniversary dinner of this truly noble and philanthropic institution, was held on Monday, at the city of London Tavern; William Garrow, Esq. in the chair, supported by a very numerous assemblage of its friends; and seldom have the talents of this distinguished ornaments of the English bar been more happily elicited, than on this occasion, when advocating the cause of those rescued from the jaws of death, by its exertions. After enforcing the necessity of individual support, and claiming the patronage of the higher classes, Mr. Garrow particularly noticed, among others, two cases of suspended animation: –one, of an only child, saved by the persevering efforts of Mr. Gretton jun., of Vauxhall; the other of a poor labourer, found apparently dead, from hunger and fatigue, under a hayrick, by Mr. Cooke, of Plaistow. The procession of the persons recovered by the Society’s means, during the past year, including several interesting children, afforded a scene of the purest delight to the company; after which, fifteen medals were presented to different gentlemen, who had been the fortunate instruments of preserving the lives of their fellow-citizens…….

The report also noted that the Anniversary Sermon had been preached by the Rev. David William Garrow, and that the request had been made that the sermon be published.

Concerning this Anniversary Meeting for 1812, an interesting observation is recorded by Lettsom in his Memoirs. (“Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Late John Coakley Lettsom, with a Selection from his Correspondence”, by Pettigrew published in 1817). The Memoir quotes a letter to a friend in which Lettsom comments on the meeting. He stated:

The Anniversary was highly interesting from the conduct of the Chairman, Mr. Garrow. He had his only son, the Rev. Mr. Garrow (who preached the Anniversary Sermon) on his left hand. Somehow, in an apostrophe, he gave an eulogy on his own son, which drew tears of sympathy from the company. The son attempted to speak in reply; his voice faltered, and he was unable to proceed, from the affectionate and filial emotions which were thus unexpectedly excited – but the whole together was truly the feast of souls. The company exceeded 300.

It was typical in that day for institutions like the Royal Humane Society to include a sermon in their annual meetings, to focus on the moral and religious value of the mission of the society, and to raise money. Rev. David Garrow’s sermon served those purposes. In addition this sermon was a carefully crafted scholarly essay stating the Christian theology, as understood in that day, supporting the activities of the Royal Humane Society. By the time of the 1812 Anniversary meeting the Regency Bill had passed Parliament, and the Prince of Wales had become Regent, acting as King in his father’s place. The Regent had appointed Rev. David Garrow as one of his Chaplains in Ordinary. Rev. Garrow had finished his studies at Christ Church College, Oxford University and had been awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity. The sermon reflects his level of academic achievement. It displays both the relative science and theology of that day. Quotes from this sermon further describe how the Society was being celebrated.

Quotes from a 20 page sermon
preached by Rev. David Garrow
on the 19th of April, 1812
before the Royal Humane Society.

…….for if absolute perfection be truly ascribed to God, we must necessarily suppose, not only perfect knowledge, but also perfect power. Without entering into any abstract disquisition, we have ample evidence of this divine attribute in the stupendous works of the Heavens, the Earth, and the Seas; all that we behold, above, beneath, and around us, are mighty arguments to our senses of that infinite Power which can create something out of nothing, and can, when it pleases, convert into nothing again!

This being our conviction of the heavenly omnipotence, shall the powers of man, distinguished as they are in the creation, presume to counteract the ordinances of God? You will unanimously answer, unquestionably not. ………………

…..when an association of persons combine their efforts and their skill—not to restore what God hath taken away, not to “make alive” when he hath “killed,” — but to rescue from impending death the body which he permits still to live, and to awake the sleeping spirit — they must not be charged with the arrogant purpose of placing human ingenuity in opposition to the will of Omnipotence. …………………..

If the complicated structure of the body be considered, with what minute sympathies, and in what mechanical order the different organs operate so as to maintain the vital process, there can be no wonder that we contemplate with admiration the excellence of every part; and while we truly acknowledge that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” we might almost conclude, were we not assisted by the light of science, that if by some accident the machine were suddenly arrested, but for a moment, no powers of man could recall it into action – the common and fatal error has been to suppose that the ordinary signs of dissolution, such as the discontinuance of respiration, the fixed eye, and the vivid cheek, must inevitably be followed by the instant disunion of matter and spirit. But the result of physiological experiment has proved that the powers of life are not in their nature so volatile as of necessity to escape when the principal organs shall have suspended their operation. —The Royal Humane Society have taught the mistaken world that life may adhere to the system when the semblance of death may exhibit it ghastly horrors; and that body and soul must not be precipitately separated by the weak suggestion of prejudice or despair.

Think of some fellow-mortal just rescued from the overwhelming deep; the stagnant blood withholding the supplies of life – the dormant pulse, the heart and arteries profoundly still—the lungs refusing their accustomed office –sense excluded from the mazy regions of the brain—the nerves and muscles of the eye at deadly rest—the channels of the ear are sealed—the limbs extended, frigid, and inert—motion, sentiment, perception—every faculty allied to the contemplation of Being would seem to be at an end; and nothing more than the material man appears—The distracted wife and weeping children, deaf alike to consolation and to hope, bedewing with fruitless tears the unconscious body, in sadness contemplate those melancholy rites which must consign it to its parental dust!

Pause awhile, exclaims Philosophy with Christian benevolence emanating from the Humane Society, yet pause awhile; ye know not what ye do—beware lest ye destroy what death may not yet have smitten; commit to our hands your slumbering relative—we cannot utter the accents of Omnipotence, LAZARUS, COME FORTH!..but we know that appearance of death are often delusive—give place then, to our attentive cares—the silver cord may not yet be loosed; some small portion of the vital flame may still exist—despair not ye; we will hope.

……….By the Gospel of your Redeemer ye have been taught that ye are to live in neighborly affection with all human kind; that ye are to cherish feelings of pity even towards enemies in misfortune. “A certain man fell among thieves—they stripped him, wounded him, and left him half-dead.—A Priest and a Levite came; they looked on him, and passed by on the other side.—But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took car of him.” —The man was left half-dead—and this charitable Samaritan saved his life! Receive instruction from the sacred narrative—it is in your power to assist the Christian cause of preserving life—contribute amply, then, and without reserve; so shall you prove that in obedience to you holy Master, “ye love one another.”

……remember that countless multitudes of our countrymen pass a considerable portion of their lives amidst the threatening tumults of the ocean—how then will you appreciate the importance of an Institution, the fruits of whose discoveries may rescue them from that premature death to which they are so frequently exposed? Upon innumerable rivers and canals the life of man is continually beset with danger…….when heedless youth, jocund on the icy surface, suddenly sink into the watery abyss—when the industrious laborer is visited by the attack of unwholesome exhalation—or, when the rapidly descending fires of the heavens exhibit men to all appearance mortally smitten—the agents of this Society are ever ready to save the life which might otherwise in ignorance or in desperation be abandoned.—……….

I appeal to your bounty in behalf of an Establishment, the Directors of which have not satisfied themselves with confining their liberal exertions within the sphere of our own country, …..their glorious object has been to instruct England, Europe, if possible, the World, in that scientific process which can remove death’s image from the slumbering life, and revive the principle which, but for human aid, must , like the waning lamp, have died away. —To the most remote parts of Great Britain, to many Kingdoms of the Continent, to distant India, in the East and in the West, have this Society, with a zeal which sufficiently proves the excellence of their motive, transmitted their engines of philosophy, and the valuable chronicles……………

I have represented to you faithfully I trust, however inadequately, the objects, the merits, the PRACTICE of the ROYAL HUMANE SOCIETY.—Remember that through they may be able to do much, and were willing to accomplish more, it rests with you to enlarge their capacity.

Here might I conclude; but I have those in my view, whose re-animated forms are the best demonstration of all that has been advanced; what I have omitted, their presence shall supply…….Attest, ye regenerate Brethren, if I may correctly so address you, attest the unwearied zeal which, under the great Providence has wrought your preservation; describe, if you can, your emotions when, rescued from the jaws of death, ………. Make known, if it be in your power, those feelings with which in the early moments of restoration ye beheld your wives, not prematurely widows; your children, not orphans, as they must have been, but for divine mercy, and the pious cares of those kind deliverers in whose presence ye now appear. You have been preserved…….

Copies of Rev. David Garrow’s sermon were made available as a pamphlet and as a chapter in his book of sermons.

One more observation may be of interest. William Garrow took part in awarding the Emperor of Russia the Royal Humane Society’s medial for heroically rescuing one of his subjects from premature death by drowning. The award was well covered by the press. The award ceremony took place during June of 1814, while Alexander the First, Emperor of Russia, was in London. His visit was a real celebration. People thought the Napoleonic War with France was over, in a large part because of Nepoleon’s heavy losses as he retreated from Moscow. Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s forces in this Russian campaign made Alexander one of the most powerful rulers in Europe. And now with Napoleon’s defeats, and with the signing of the Treaty of Fontainebleau (11 April 1814), the victors exiled Napoleon to the island of Elba, restoring the French monarchy with Louis XVIII as King. Who could imagine that Napoleon would return to continue the struggle. The Congress of Vienna was redrawing the map of Europe. It was in this context that the Emperor of Russia made his visit to England.

A delegation of perhaps 30 members of the Royal Humane Society made the presentation. The Edinburgh Annual Register, in reporting on this event listed only four members by name, including Sir William Garrow, however other reports include Dr. Lettsom (treasurer) and T.J. Pettigrew (secretary). Each person was introduced and graciously received by his imperial majesty.

The presentation commenced with these words:

May it please your imperial majesty: …The Royal Humane Society, instituted for the recovery of the apparently drowned or dead, humbly approach your imperial majesty to offer their respectful and cordial welcome …… on your happy arrival in Great Britain….. (a discussion of the military victories was presented) ….. But the Royal Humane Society which the beloved sovereign of Britain has so long patronized, feels, in its approach to your imperial majesty, peculiar emotions, in the remembrance that it addresses a monarch whose powerful arm maintained the cause of freedom against confederated hosts, yet has deigned his own assiduous exertions in rescuing a subject (though of the meanest class) from premature death, …. The Royal Humane Society is impressed with the sincerest gratitude for the condescension with which your imperial majesty has been please to accept the medal of the society, the highest token of admiration and respect in its power to offer…and for the gracious manner in which your imperial majesty has been pleased to consent to be an honorary member of the Royal Humane society. ……… That your imperial majesty may long reign over a brave, united, and unconquered people, and be gratified with the effects of a peace so gloriously achieved in the affections of emancipated millions, is the fervent prayer of, sire, your imperial majesty’s most obedient humble servants, the members of the Royal Humane Society.

The Royal Humane Society still functions with a program to grant awards to recognize individuals for a variety of acts of bravery in saving human life. Those individuals employing methods such as resuscitation techniques, especially under heroic conditions, are still being honored by the Society, as in those early years in which Garrow was engaged in the Society’s program. The Societies website www.royalhumanesociety.org.uk/‎ gives much information on the Society’s contemporary program and it’s history.


Richard Braby is a direct descendent of William Garrow and co-author (with John Hostettler) of Sir William Garrow: His Life, Times and Fight for Justice published by Waterside Press.

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