John Duke Coleridge was born in London in 1820, eldest son of Sir John Taylor Coleridge, a barrister and judge, and his wife Mary Buchanan. He was educated at Eton and then Balliol College Oxford. He spoke frequently at the Oxford Union and was its president in Michaelmas term 1843. Illness interrupted his studies in 1842 and he only graduated with a pass degree. Even so, he was elected to a fellowship at Exeter College, which he held until his marriage in 1846.
In 1846 he was called to the bar by Middle Temple. His reputation grew and his career prospered. In 1861 he became Queen’s Counsel. Always interested in politics, he unsuccessfully contested the parliamentary seat for Exeter in 1864 but won it in the general election of the following year. In 1868 he was invited by Gladstone to become Solicitor-General, and with this appointment also received a knighthood. Three years later he was appointed Attorney-General, though he continued to practise as a barrister. In 1873 he was appointed Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, along with a seat in the House of Lords and in 1880 he became Lord Chief Justice of England.
Coleridge and his wife, Jane, had four children. Jane died in 1878 and a few years later, their eldest child, Mildred went to live with Charles Warren Adams, the lawyer and anti-vivisectionist. Her family were appalled, considered the match inappropriate and viewed Adams as simply a fortune hunter. Mildred’s brother, Bernard –a lawyer like his father - wrote a strong letter to her and was in consequence sued by Adams. Correspondence from Lord Coleridge then became public, leading to a second libel action by Adams against both father and son. This brought about the most unusual situation of the Lord Chief Justice becoming a defendant in a court over which he had overall jurisdiction. The verdict was acquittal, but not before all the family’s dirty linen had been hung out in public. Meanwhile, in 1885, Mildred and Adams had eventually married.
1885 was also the year in which Coleridge himself remarried. He had met Amy Lawford on board ship while returning from a visit to the United States in 1883. Coleridge died at his London home at 1 Sussex Square in 1894.
Coleridge had a great love of English literature – particularly that of the Elizabethan period – and published several articles on the subject. The library at his home in Ottery St Mary in Devon contained over 12,000 volumes, including many from the 16th century.