Famous Middle Templars

Thomas Morris Chester (1834–1892)

Thomas Morris Chester was born in Pittsburgh in 1834, the son of campaigners for the abolition of slavery. After his schooling, he travelled to Liberia in 1853, a country which had been partly founded by the black diaspora, a community of freed men and women and free-born individuals.

Credit: New York Public Library collections

It was not long before hostilities broke out in the American Civil War. Chester hastened back to the United States, where he found work as a recruiter of black troops to the Union army fighting against the slavery-supporting Confederate states to the south. He was in part responsible for the raising of the predominantly black 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments.

Later in the war, faced with widespread distrust of armed African-Americans, he made his way to the front line as a war correspondent, sending frequent despatches and making much of the heroism of those with whom he marched.

Following the war’s conclusion in 1865, he crossed the Atlantic to travel Europe, spending time at the court of Tsar Alexander II in St Petersburg, meeting Alexandre Dumas in Paris (whose forebears included both slaves and noblemen), before arriving in London in 1867. Here he was admitted as a student of the Middle Temple, moved into chambers, and enrolled in private classes to support his studies. In 1869, he twice petitioned to be Called to the Bar early in order to return to Liberia on urgent business for the President.

Image of Thomas Chester’s Admission to Middle Temple (Credit: Middle Temple Archive)

This keenness to leave London was perhaps in part a result of an apparently prejudiced response from some of his fellow Middle Templars. In April 1869, he was issued with an order to vacate his chambers, following the accusation by a Mr Yelverton, who lived on the same staircase, that he had had unsavoury women visit his chambers. In response, Chester denied this allegation forcefully, pointing to his respectable associations, and the fact that he had spent much of the time in question not in the Inn at all, but enjoying the hospitality of the royal and imperial courts of Europe.

He declared that ‘in no way has my deportment been inconsistent with the dignity or respectability of a member of the Middle Temple’, ascribing Yelverton’s accusation to ‘personal spite’, and concluding that ‘identified with a race whose whole history has been one of suffering and injustice, I feel that however sensibly this ordeal may affect me, a consciousness of my innocence will enable me to greet it with becoming fortitude’.

Parliament read his letter in May: while no decision is recorded, a note in the ledger records that he did vacate the chambers in June. Nonetheless, he was the following year Called to the Bar, becoming the first African-American at the English Bar. Returning to the US in 1871, he set up a legal practice and also involved himself in local educational and industrial affairs.

Barnaby Bryan, ArchivistThis biography is featured at the Library exhibition at Middle Temple Library – “Becoming a barrister. Overcoming barriers on the path to the Bar” (Jan – Apr 2020)

Famous Middle Templars

Vallabhbhai Patel (1875/6–1950)

Patel was born between October 1875 and May 1876 (31 October 1875 was used in official documents) in Nadiad in the state of Gujarat. He grew up in a village together with his five siblings. Their parents had no formal education.

Patel visited several schools including a private English school. He was keen to learn English. ‘Socially, the language had already become a status symbol; but, more importantly, it had opened the gates to higher employment in service for Indians, or a more respectable and lucrative position in one of the newly thrown open professions – particularly the legal.’ He moved to Nadiad to finish his studies. Even though Patel did not pass his Matriculation for the first time, he succeeded a year later at the age of 22.

Patel started his legal career as a pleader in 1900 because he had neither higher education, nor the money to become a barrister straight away. He studied for three years to achieve this qualification. Then he and his wife moved to Godhra and, with borrowed money, Patel set up his first practice. After surviving bubonic plague, he moved to Borsad where he practiced criminal law. He kept his dream to become a barrister alive and worked hard to save money for his journey to England.

When he had saved enough, an unfortunate event happened. His passport and travel documents were sent by mistake to his brother. His brother, being older, took the opportunity to go to England to become a barrister first. Patel postponed his departure until his brother had returned from England, and finally left India in 1909 when he was already 34 years old, his wife having died in the meantime. He never married again and raised his two children with the help of his family.

After his arrival in England, he joined Middle Temple and allegedly studied at least 11 hours a day. Because he was not able to afford books, he used the services of the Middle Temple Library where he spent most of his days. He finished his exams in 1912 and was called to the Bar on 27 January 1913.

He returned to India in February 1913 and set up his practice in Ahmedabad. Patel was later involved in politics and joined Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian Independence movement. He became one of the leaders of the Indian National Congress and, because of his political activities, he was imprisoned several times.

After WWII, he was ‘a critical figure […] in the final negotiations with the British concerning the transfer of power, in the deliberations of the constituent assembly, and in the first government of independent India’. After India gained independence in 1947, he served as Minister of Home Affairs and the first Deputy Prime Minister. He was also known as Sardar (headman) Patel and ‘Iron Man of India’. He died after suffering a heart attack on 15 December 1950.

Recommended books

Balraj Krishna, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. India’s Iron Man (Rupa Publications India 2005)

Rajmohan Gandhi, Patel. A Life (Navajivan Publishing House, 1991)

This biography is featured at the Library exhibition at Middle Temple Library – “Becoming a barrister. Overcoming barriers on the path to the Bar” (Jan – Apr 2020)

Famous Middle Templars

John Edward Bankole Jones (1936– 2018)

John Edward Bankole Jones was born on 1 September 1936 in Essex as the child, as he puts it in his book, of ‘a white English unmarried mother and an African unmarried father from Sierra Leone’. He spent his early childhood in England. However, his mother did not acknowledge him publicly as her child and arranged for him to be placed in foster families and even in an orphanage. She paid for his care and visited him occasionally. Throughout his childhood, he called his biological mother ‘Aunt Winnie’ as he did not know that she was in fact his mother.

After the end of the Second World War, Jones was introduced to his real father who took him to Sierra Leone where Jones lived with him and his new wife. He attended various schools in Freetown and Bo. Adapting to living in a different country was challenging enough, but the fact that he was of mixed race made matters even more complicated. In England he was black, in Sierra Leone he faced the opposite problem: “I was half African, half English, a Creole boy from Freetown and sufficiently fair skinned to be called white man by many of them! This angered me, as I so wanted to be accepted as an African.”

He ran away from one of the boarding schools which his father selected for him and did not manage at first to get to the college of his dreams. It was his father who decided that his first son should study law and follow in his footsteps as he was himself a very successful lawyer in Sierra Leone. Before Jones could afford to embark on his journey to England, he had to raise some money, and so worked as a clerk in a hospital for two years.

He moved to England in 1960 where he started studying law and joined Middle Temple. He also met with his mother again. In his book, he describes his experience of Middle Temple, lectures, dining sessions (including one in which he met his future wife), and meeting fellow students from various parts of the Commonwealth. He also referred to many difficulties which he had to face, for example, finding suitable accommodation was complicated by the fact that, at the time, people of colour and Irish nationals were openly discriminated against on the rental market.

Jones was Called to the Bar in November 1963. While in London he also worked as a freelance journalist for the BBC. Even though he was not initially that keen on studying law and was merely fulfilling his father’s wishes, it determined his future life and career. Jones worked in the Sierra Leonean Foreign Ministry as a career diplomat and a practising lawyer. He returned to England in the late 1980s where he took a post at the Crown Prosecution Service before retiring in 1996.

Recommended book

John Edward Bankole Jones, A mother’s dilemma. An English mother. An African father. England, 1936 (Novum Pro 2018)

This biography is featured at the Library exhibition at Middle Temple Library – “Becoming a barrister. Overcoming barriers on the path to the Bar” (Jan – Apr 2020)

Famous Middle Templars

Anthony Babington (1920–2004)

Anthony Patrick Babington was born on 4 April 1920 into an Anglo-Irish family in County Cork, and grew up in India and England. His father committed suicide as a result of alcoholism and poor financial decisions. Babington was 10 years old when his family suddenly found itself penniless and was forced to sell the estate.

Because of the changed family circumstances, he went to Reading School instead of Eton. During the Second World War, he served with the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Dorset Regiment and in 1944, he was severely injured in the Battle of Arnhem. Babington lost the use of all his limbs and the power of speech, seemingly ending his dream of becoming a barrister.

However, thanks to a speech therapist, he gradually learnt to speak again. Except for his right arm, his limbs became semi-functional and he used his left-hand for writing. He was later awarded the Croix de Guerre for his war service. Despite his long-term disability, Babington persevered and did everything to overcome the difficulties on the path to become a barrister. He took his Bar examinations using an amanuensis from the Bar Council, who sat next to his bedside in hospital taking his answers to questions.

Just as he passed the Final Examination, another misfortune struck – he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He had to spend months in hospitals and a sanatorium. He recovered and returned to the Bar. However, after he secured a place in chambers, he suffered a pleurisy attack which required more long-term treatment and resulted in the removal of half of his lung.

He was finally called to the Bar by Middle Temple in 1948. He later became a stipendiary judge and then a circuit judge. In 1977, Babington was made a Bencher of Middle Temple and in 1995, an Honorary Bencher of King’s Inn in Dublin. He also had a career as a writer. ‘His most notable successes were his studies of courts-martial in the First World War. Books such as For the Sake of Example (1983) and Shell Shock (1997) did much to change public and official thinking about issues of alleged cowardice and desertion.’ Babington died on 10 May 2004 in London.

Recommended books:

Anthony Babington, Shell-shock. A history of the changing attitudes to war neurosis (Cooper 1997)

Anthony Babington, For the sake of example. Capital courts martial, 1914-1920 (Cooper 1993)

Anthony Babington, An uncertain voyage. An autobiography (Barry Rose Law 2000)

Anthony Babington, No memorial. The story of a triumph of courage over misfortune and mind over body (Cooper 1988)

This biography is featured at the Library exhibition at Middle Temple Library – “Becoming a barrister. Overcoming barriers on the path to the Bar” (Jan – Apr 2020)

Overcoming the Barriers on the Path to the Bar

Students Called to the Bar at the Middle Temple have, for centuries, come from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. Many have overcome significant challenges and defied the most daunting of odds to get there. The greatest barriers have related to individuals’ religion, ethnicity, nationality, educational background or social status.


Throughout the centuries in England and the United Kingdom, religious divergence from the established Anglican Church presented barriers of various kinds in numerous professional, political and cultural spheres, and the law was no exception. From Elizabethan persecution and distrust of Roman Catholics to the incompatibility of barristers’ wigs with traditional Sikh headwear, hurdles abounded for aspiring and practicing barristers of different religious faiths.

Ethnicity & Nationality

The barriers, hurdles and injustices prevalent in society arising from ethnicity, nationality and country of origin have been felt at the Middle Temple as everywhere else in public and private life in English and British society. From early in its history, the Inn was home to students from overseas, many of whom became figures of note both at home and in England and the United Kingdom.

While often welcomed and encouraged, nonetheless many difficulties and barriers remained for these young men and women on their journey to the Bar, from the segregation of Irishmen in Hall in the 18th century to certain Benchers’ persistent concerns over numbers of ‘non-European members’ in the 1920s, via the difficulties of the English climate and suspicious neighbours.


Educational background and qualifications have often presented difficulties for prospective barristers. In the earliest centuries of the Inn’s history, there was no specific requirement for any educational background before admission. Later, Oxford and Cambridge dominated the educational background of those being Called to the Bar, as borne out by the many certificates of degree submitted by the offices of those universities accompanying the admission.

Following the revolution in legal education in the mid-19th century, a full set of standardised rules governing admission and Call to the four Inns of Court were introduced in the form of the ‘Consolidated Regulations’. These dictated educational requirements for those admitted to the Inns, as well as the criteria for qualification to be Called to the Bar.

Social status

From the earliest centuries, the issue of social status and class was a sensitive one at the Middle Temple. Associations with the higher strata of society, direct royal decree, and widespread snobbery presented barriers to admission to the Inn for those from different socio-economic groups.

It is written that Henry VIII once advised a suitor that while he could not himself elevate him in society, he should enrol at one of the Inns of Court, ‘where an admission makes one a gentleman’. Certainly, many admissions to the Middle Temple were the sons of the gentry and nobility, who seem chiefly to have sought a liberal education, useful contacts and a good time in London, rather than to practice at the Bar with any seriousness. King James I decreed in the 1600s that only the sons of gentlemen could be admitted to the Inns.

However, such decrees and standards were evidently flouted. The MP, historian and Master of the Revels Sir George Buck complained heartily about social standards in the Inns being diluted by the admission of the ‘sons of graziers, farmers, merchants, tradesmen and artificers’. The Benchers proclaimed in 1561 that any member of the Inn working as a servant would lose his chamber.

The Inn’s role as a (supposedly) rarefied finishing school for the upper echelons of the English and British class systems was inevitably to fade, as fashions changed, the force of antiquated regulations weakened and some of the more vociferous snobbery of the membership faded. While in 1734 the Bencher Charles Worsley noted that the Inns were seen as ‘places designed for the education of the sons of the nobility and gentry’, by 1758 William Blackstone recorded that ‘few gentlemen now resort to the inns of court’, suggesting that increasingly it was populated by those actually wishing to practice at the Bar.

Across the 18th and 19th centuries, the intake at the Middle Temple continued to evolve, and increasingly admissions came from the middle classes – the sons of professionals, merchants and the like. While social barriers continued to soften as scholarships were introduced in the 20th century, difficulties undoubtedly prevailed, including strict regulations governing the admission and Call of those employed in other professions or trades.

Barnaby Bryan, Archivist

To learn more about this topic visit our latest Library exhibition (Jan-Apr 2020) or contact Middle Temple Archive at archive@middletemple.org.uk

Becoming a Barrister at the Middle Temple

The path to the Bar has long been fraught with obstacles. Barriers to admission to an Inn of Court, the conditions imposed on those studying, and the requirements for Call to the Bar, have evolved over the many centuries, but rarely have things been straightforward.


The earliest admissions to membership of the Middle Temple are lost to recorded history. The Society’s formation is a matter of conjecture, but was likely a voluntary association of lawyers occupying the lands West of Temple Church following the vacation of the Knights Templar. The first known Middle Templar was one William Hankforde, a Serjeant-at-Law referenced in 1388 during the reign of Richard II, and by the early 1400s the Inn was certainly a place of education, students being admitted and serving their superiors in Hall until they had completed the first stage of their learning

Middle Temple Hall (Credit: Middle Temple Archive)

Official records of admission date from the earliest surviving minutes of the Inn’s Parliament in 1501 – John Mervyn, Voell and Boyfeld were admitted on the 2 November of that year. Admission came with associated fees, and one could choose to pay to be ‘specially’ admitted, thus avoiding obligations to engage in the Inn’s educational activities. This was popular, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, when many young gentlemen sought admission to the Inn with no real intention of being Called to the Bar or practicing the law. Various regulations, privileges, trends and pressures have governed admission to the Middle Temple over the centuries since.

Call to the Bar

In the absence of widespread printed legal publications, aural and practical legal education was a key element of the Inn’s activities in the 15th and 16th centuries. As a part of this curriculum, mock courts would be set up for ‘Mooting’, at which legal cases and problems would be pled and argued by members of the Inn. Junior students would sit within the ‘Bar’ or bench of the court, listening to the case, while those among their number who had undertaken sufficient study would stand outermost, at the bench, to plead these cases, coming to be known as ‘Utter Barristers’.

This gave rise to the phrase and practice of being ‘Called to the Utter Bar’ or, more briefly, being Called to the Bar. It is not quite clear when this status came to qualify those awarded it to plead in court, but it had become commonplace by the later 1500s, and was formalised towards the end of the century.

Call Day (Credit: Middle Temple Twitter)

Calling students to the Bar became the sole preserve and distinguishing practice of the four Inns of Court and a thread which runs right through their history to the present day, though the precise requirements and qualifications entitling a student member to be Called have changed many times over the centuries. Attendance at exercises and other educational activities were generally required, and dining in Hall was always, as it is today, an important aspect of membership and to a greater or lesser extent a pre-condition of Call.

The widespread reforms to legal education in the 19th century introduced many new elements to the life of a student for the Bar – officially appointed lecturers, for example, as well as standardised examinations which had to be passed before Call. It was also stipulated that all those Called to the Bar must have ‘kept’ twelve terms – dining in Hall a certain number of evenings in a term qualified it to be counted. This age-old tradition lives on in today’s Qualifying Sessions.

Barnaby Bryan, Archivist

To learn more about this topic visit our latest Library exhibition (Jan-Apr 2020) or contact Middle Temple Archive at archive@middletemple.org.uk

Two Middle Temple Benchers on Legal Reading, 400 Years Apart

To “think like a lawyer” also requires one to “read like a lawyer,” navigating legal authorities efficiently and accurately. Books written to assist law students in developing this skill go back centuries. One important English legal method book was written by a Middle Temple Bencher in the seventeenth century: Sir John Dodderidge’s The English Lawyer (1631). By examining The English Lawyer alongside fellow Middle Temple Bencher Glanville Williams’ contemporary legal classic, Learning the Law, we can explore the remarkable persistence of teaching law students a particular way of reading and understanding the common law.

The English Lawyer

Sir John Dodderidge (1555–1628) was a well-respected judge of the King’s Bench.[i] During his lifetime, reading and private study were the primary means of learning the law.  Aural exercises at the Inns of Court were “more perfunctory” and would cease altogether by 1700.[ii] The lack of formal direction in legal education meant that there was an important place for books like The English Lawyer, a 271-page quarto that was published posthumously in 1631. [iii]

Picture 1
Title page of The English Lawyer. Courtesy of the Benchers of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple

There are two copies of this book at the Middle Temple Library, one bound in leather, and the other bound in parchment with other works by Dodderidge and some Star Chamber case reports. It carries the bookplate of “Richard Clark, Esq, Chamberlain of London.” There is also a handwritten table of contents dated 1761 with Clark’s name. Clark’s ownership of the book one hundred and thirty years after publication and its subsequent placement in the Middle Temple Library suggests it had enduring value for generations of law students and lawyers.

Picture 2
Table of contents with Richard Clark’s name, dated 1761. Courtesy of the Benchers of the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple

In The English Lawyer, Dodderidge advocates sustained time for reading. Time allows for reflection and guards against exhaustion:

What booteth it to reade much, which is wearinesse to the flesh; to meditate often, which is a burthen to the minde; to learne daily with encrease of knowledge, when as the matter learned is to seeke, at that time especially when we have most need of the use thereof? Memory therefore is the Chest of an inestimable treasure given from God for the preservation of all kinde of knowledge.[iv]

Time of day matters too: the morning is for committing information to memory and after dinner, “being silent and quiet,” is for memorizing speeches to deliver the next day.[v]

Both Latin and Law French are indispensable: Latin in order to read legal sources like the Magna Carta, and Law French in order to read law books. [vi] Dodderidge assumes his readers already know these languages: he includes untranslated excerpts of both Latin and Law French. He parallels the way in which common law treatises like Glanvill, De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae, and Fleta order the common law with the divine order of the universe:

GOD in his most excellent worke of the frame of transitorie things, though hee hath furnished the world with unspeakeable variety, thereby making manifest unto all humane creatures, to their great astonishment, his incomprehensible wisedom, his omnipotent power, and his insearchable providence, yet being the God of order, not of confusion, hath admitted no infinitenesse in nature (howsoever otherwise it seeme to our weak capacities) but hath continued the innumerable variety of particular things under certaine specialls; those specialls under generalls; and those generals againe under causes more generall, linking and conjoyning one thing to another, as if by a chaine, even untill wee ascend unto himselfe, the first, chiefe and principall cause of all good things.[vii]

The common law might seem less refined than civil law, but not to Dodderidge. The law changes over time; better to have the law “not left in any other monument, than in the mind of man” so it can be applied anew as circumstances change.[viii] Such a system requires lawyers who are ready with the legal principles in their minds, so Dodderidge provides step-by-step instructions on how to extract the most important parts of a case:

First, after the case read, let us consider with our selves, & meditate in our minds, to what severall purposes the same case may bee applyed, and what matter, or severall matters the resolution of the Case can confirme. Which when wee have considered of, it shall be good for our memorie to commit them to writing […] Upon meditation had of this case, what it will prove, these Propositions or Rules following may easily be collected [.][ix]

Echoing his description of the divine order of the universe, Dodderidge asserts that law students can go from “the particular case, to the Speciall Reason, from that to a more generall, untill we finde out the very primarie ground of naturall reason, from whence all the other are derived.”[x] This draws from French logician Peter Ramus, whose method had spread to Oxford and Cambridge in the late sixteenth century. Ramism’s subsequent popularity at the Inns of Court coincided with increasing numbers of law students who first attended university, like Dodderidge, who had a B.A. from Oxford.[xi]

Dodderidge’s guidance would help law students create what was known as a commonplace book, in which passages would be organized by general and specific headings. Many Early Modern readers kept commonplace books to collect and make sense of what they read. As Robert Darnton explains,

Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life…. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts.[xii]

Creating legal commonplace books would help students make sense of the common law.

Learning the Law

First published in 1945, Glanville Williams’ Learning the Law has run to sixteen editions so far. Williams’ obituary described it as “a little introductory book about law studies which was, and still remains, indispensable reading for any would-be law student.”[xiii] Williams (1911–1997) had an illustrious career as a lawyer, reformer and scholar. Recent editions of Learning the Law still bear his name but are edited by lawyer and professor A.T.H. Smith, also a Bencher of the Middle Temple.

Williams tells students that learning to identify the ratio decidendi of a case is “an art gradually acquired through practice and study.”[xiv] The Latin phrase is an example of the persistence of Latin in law, though now, like Law French, it exists only in particular terms. Rather than suggesting a student should know either language, Williams directs students to dictionaries and guides on pronunciation.[xv]

While Williams agrees with Dodderidge that students must study cases in order to understand the law, today’s students have another option that Williams endorses: casebooks. First, there is so much more legal literature now.[xvi]  Second, structured law courses compress learning into an “alarmingly short space”[xvii] with many hours needed for lectures, tutorials and other activities, in addition to reading the law. He concludes that students need only read some cases in their entirety and can rely on casebooks for the rest.[xviii]

While practicing lawyers have little need “to carry much law in the mind,” law students “must also be able to recite a considerable number of rules and authorities,” at least for exams.[xix] Like Dodderidge, Williams teaches specific mnemonic techniques, but they are adapted to the academic year:

you can learn the same amount in less learning time by distributing your learning evenly over term and vacation than by crowding your learning into the term and leaving the vacations an academic blank.[xx]

Reading should be done in small portions in order to allow time to assimilate new information into a coherent whole, and passages should be reread multiple times. [xxi]  Rather than following Dodderidge’s advice to meditate silently on the reading, Williams advocates reciting aloud, drawing, perhaps unknowingly, on the Medieval technique of murmuring.[xxii]

The Continued Survival of Early Modern Reading?

Robert Darnton once described the Early Modern reader as reading in fits and starts, breaking up texts, and reassembling them to suit a purpose.[xxiii] This reading for action “compelled its practitioners to read actively, to exercise critical judgment, and to impose their own pattern on their reading matter.”[xxiv] While largely extinct, Darnton found that this type of reading still survived “in places.”[xxv] Could the legal profession be one of those places? When law students learn to brief cases and compile them into outlines for exams, they are hearing echoes of Dodderidge’s advice to “frame a Directory… fit and convenient both for the speedy finding of that we would seeke, and the ready having of that we can wish for.”[xxvi] While they may have new tools, law students continue to have to assemble their learning in a way that makes sense to them individually and makes sense of the common law as a whole. Perhaps these unique needs have meant that Early Modern reading techniques have persisted in this profession while they have been largely forgotten elsewhere.

This guest blog post was written by Amy Kaufman (B.A., LL.B., M.I.St., Head Law Librarian, Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada )*

It is based on an article that was recently published in the Canadian Law Library Review: https://callacbd.ca/resources/Documents/CLLR%2044.3%20(Final).pdf


[i] David Ibbetson, “Dodderidge [Doddridge], Sir John,” in Sir David Cannadine, ed, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2005), online: <doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/7745>.

[ii] Wilfrid R. Prest, The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts, 1590-1640 (Aylesbury: Longman, 1972) at 48, 124-41.

[iii] Sir John Dodderidge, The English Lawyer (London: Assignes of I. More Esq, 1631).

[iv] Ibid at 12-13.

[v] Ibid at 22.

[vi] Ibid at 40-41; 244-45.

[vii] Ibid. at 236-37.

[viii] Ibid. at 241.

[ix] Ibid at 247-49.

[x] Ibid at 255.

[xi] Richard J Ross, “The Commoning of the Common Law: The Renaissance Debate over Printing English Law, 1520-1640” (1998) 146 U Pa L Rev 323 at 346; AWB Simpson, “The Rise and Fall of the Legal Treatise: Legal Principles and the Forms of Legal Literature” (1981) 48 U Chicago L Rev 632 at 649-50; Richard J. Ross, “The Memorial Culture of Early Modern English Lawyers: Memory as Keyword, Shelter, and Identity, 1560-1640” (1998) 10 Yale JL & Human 229 at 287-95, 304; Ibbetson, supra note 1.

[xii] Robert Darnton, “Extraordinary Commonplaces”, New York Times Review of Books (21 December 2000), online: <www.nybooks.com/articles/2000/12/21/extraordinary-commonplaces/>.

[xiii] JR Spencer, “Obituary: Professor Glanville Williams,” Independent (17 April 1997), online: <www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-professor-glanville-williams-1267628.html>.

[xiv] ATH Smith, ed., Glanville Williams: Learning the Law, 13th ed (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 2006) at 92.

[xv] Ibid at 85-88.

[xvi] Ibid at 73.

[xvii] Ibid at 74.

[xviii] Ibid at 75.

[xix] Ibid at 71.

[xx] Ibid at 72.

[xxi] Ibid at 72.

[xxii] Ibid at 73; Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, 2nd ed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) at 205.

[xxiii] Darnton, supra note 12.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Dodderidge, supra note 3 at 269.

*Thanks to Giles Mandelbrote, Dr. Cynthia Johnston, Daniel Boyer, Sivan Tumarkin, and Simon Baron for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of the paper that this blog post is based on. I am grateful to Renae Satterley, Librarian of the Middle Temple, for all her help.

Women barristers and legal costume

As we move towards 2019, many will be preparing to celebrate the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. In anticipation of the numerous events marking this historic piece of legislation, we look at one of the hurdles which the first women barristers faced when entering the profession: what should they wear? Or let’s be more precise, what others thought women barristers should (and should not) wear, as reflected in the contemporary press.

It was not until 1919 that women were first allowed to practice law and join an Inn of Court or the Law Society. The question of what they should wear as barristers followed shortly and sparked a heated discussion in the profession itself as well as in the press. In 1922, as the Call of the first woman to the English Bar was approaching, the practicalities of legal costume for women had to be decided. In March 1922, the Committee of Judges and Benchers of the Inns of Court specified the dress code for women barristers in court. However, the debate did not end there, especially with regard to women barristers’ headwear.

It was this Act which allowed women to become lawyers.


The press observations

Women entering into the legal profession did not escape the attention of the press. Already in 1919, after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 came into force, speculation as to whether there should be special wigs made exclusively for women arose. The Daily Mail (31 December 1919) featured an article in which a Temple wig-maker raised concerns about women’s demand for wig alterations. The Bystander magazine (7 January 1920) speculated about the need for hairpins, the ridiculousness of ‘curlybits’ of the counsels’ wigs dangling over a bun or ‘the wig planted on the top of a fashion coiffure’.

Miss Helena Normanton, the first woman Called to the Bar by Middle Temple, commented wittily on these concerns: ‘It does not matter much what is outside one’s head’. However, the discussion of women barristers fashion was not over. Even when Normanton stood at court, remarks on her attire and appearance were part of the story. The Daily Express (22 December 1922) reported not only on the case but also on Miss Normanton’s appearance: ‘Her wig was a little newer and whiter than those of the other counsel. Her stiff white collar with square ends was a little higher than those worn by the men.’

Helena Normanton
Helena Normanton. Credit: The Law Society of Ontario Archives

The Manchester Dispatch (18 November 1922) commented on the legal dress of women barristers at their Call at Middle Temple. According to the reporter, women in wigs and gowns were indistinguishable from men. So much attention was paid to this sight that the text reflected every detail. ‘The wigs completely covered the women’s hair and one of them tugged at the lapels of her gown in the same way as a seasoned barrister examining a witness in court’. Another press article from The Daily Mail (18 November 1922) concluded that ‘it was noticeable that the fashion of hairdressing for women barristers is a compact flat scroll around the head, very little hair showing beneath the curled wig at the back’.

1922 dress code committee

On 31 March 1922, The Times reported that ‘the Committee of mere men appointed to determine the style of dress to be worn by women barristers in Court have completed their delicate task’. The Committee consisted of judges and Benchers of the Inns of Court. According to the paper, their decision was summed up in three points:

  1. Ordinary barrister’s wigs should be worn and should completely cover and conceal the hair
  2. Ordinary barrister’s gowns should be worn
  3. Dresses should be plain, black or very dark, high to the neck, with long sleeves, and not shorter than the gown, with high, plain white collar and barrister’s bands; or plain coats and skirts may be worn, black or very dark, not shorter than the gown, with plain white shirts and high collars and barrister’s bands.

As The Times wrote, the regulations were supposed to ‘preserve the dignity of the Courts, and at the same time provide against any chance of women barristers exercising undue influence on the impressionable juries by virtue of the attributes of their sex’. However, the regulations did not seem to specify any sanctions if they were not followed.

Reactions to the dress code recommendations

Before the regulations were agreed, some judges allegedly suggested that women barristers should wear a birreta (a square cap with three or four ridges/peaks) instead of a wig. This idea was repeated in some of the comments in The Times as a reaction to the dress code recommendations. One reaction stated: ‘women barristers ought to wear a distinctive, and probably dark-coloured, head-dress in approximately the form of biretta, a turban, or a toque.’ (1 April 1922)

The same author was primarily concerned about the length of women’s hair and their hair styles:

‘If women barristers are going to cut their hair as short as we cut ours, our wigs will suit them well enough, but I do not believe they will do anything of the kind.’

‘Suppose a woman barrister wears her hair “bobbed”. Her wig, if it completely conceals her hair, will certainly not be an ordinary barrister’s wig. Suppose she has plenty of hair, and wears it coiled in one of the usual ways. She will then want one pattern of wig when fashion places the coils on the top of her head, another when they are resting on the back of her neck, and a third when they approach the situation of the old-fashioned chignon, high up on the back of the head. Each of the three will impart to the wearer a hydrocephalous, ungainly, and ludicrous appearance.’

Another person contributed the following comment to the debate:

‘It is pointed out to me that, in order to strictly conform with regulations, it will be necessary for a lady barrister to crop her head with masculine abbreviation and to incur no inconsiderable expense in obtaining mannish shirts and “stiff high collars” of a kind which, owing to the softer trend of feminine fashions for the last ten years, are unobtainable in ordinary shops, thus putting her to an economic disadvantage compared with a male advocate, whose expenses are limited to the purchase of wig, gown and bands, and whose “quick change” in the robing room chiefly consists in the removal of his tie. While the ban on short sleeves and low necks is agreed to, it is urged that, if the length of skirts is to be governed by that of the stuff-gown, which reaches to just below the knee, the rigid masculinity of the upper portion of a lady barrister’s costume may be discounted without infringement of the regulations by an excessive and illogical insistence on femininity with regard to stockings!’ (3 April 1922)

Despite this initial scepticism, wig-wearing women barristers became a regular sight.  It did, however, take many more decades before they were seen as equal, professionally-speaking, to men barristers.


‘Wig fashion’ The Daily Mail (London 31 December 1919)

‘A Question of Hairpins’ The Bystander (London 7 January 1920)

‘Women Barristers’ Costume’ The Times (London 31 March 1922)

‘Women Barristers’ The Times (London 31 March 1922)

Herbert Stephen, ‘Women Barristers And Wigs’ The Times (London 1 April 1922)

C. P. Hawkes, ‘Women Barristers’ Costume’ The Times (London 3 April 1922)

’10 Women To Be Called To The Bar’ The Daily Herald (16 November 1922)

‘Women Called to the Bar’ The Manchester Dispatch (18 November 1922)

‘Portia Win Her First Case’ The Daily Express (28 December 1922)


You may also find interesting:

The First 100 Years

1920s cartoon predicts that first women barristers would hilariously modify their wigs

The Association of Women Barristers

Temple Women’s Forum

The Portia effect: Early women law students and their legacy

Women: the Beginnings

Women Lawyers: Equals at the Bar? [Gresham College]

Wigs in the English legal world

While today they are arguably an integral part of the popular image of judges and barristers, the wearing of wigs by legal practitioners was, initially, nothing particularly special – the custom simply followed wider English fashion. With the Restoration of King Charles II following his exile in France, he and the royal court returned from France, bringing with them the practice, already widespread there, for gentlemen to wear wigs. All of fashionable society adopted this habit, and so the judges and lawyers (being dedicated followers of fashion), did the same.

Blackstone (2)

Prior to the advent of wigs, judges had for centuries worn the coif – the headgear of the ancient order of Serjeants-at-Law, from which they were exclusively drawn. From the 14th century onward they had added to this a black skull cap, and by the reign of Henry VIII they had also taken up the pileus quadratus, a four cornered black hat of limp, soft material. This set of items, formalized in the Judges’ Rules of 1635, still made up the standard judicial headgear when wigs arrived on the scene.


Having been brought in on a tide of modishness, wigs remained subject to such whims. Originally, judges and barristers alike wore long, or ‘full-bottomed’ wigs, but as shorter wigs became more popular in society, young barristers, eager to keep up, adopted short ‘tie’ wigs, which had rows of horizontal curls along the back sides – much as barristers’ wigs do today. Judges, perhaps wishing to maintain some gravitas and distinction, stuck to the more traditional length, and full-bottoms remained the dress of King’s (or Queen’s) counsel, as they do in ceremonial contexts today.


By the late 18th century, however, even judges had bowed to fashion and, perhaps, comfort, by adopting an ‘undress’ wig – a short wig with one vertical curl at the back and two queues behind, for ordinary sittings in court – reserving the full-bottom for ceremonial occasions.


A major development in the history of legal wigs was the innovation of Humphrey Ravenscroft in 1820s and 1830s. He patented in 1822 a barristers’ tie wig which did not require any maintenance – previous such wigs had needed daily treatment with ointment and powder. Similarly, in the 1830s he brought out a similarly low-maintenance full-bottom for judges – though many more conservative on the bench refused to adopt such a new-fangled device. Wigs are still manufactured by Ede & Ravenscroft to this pre-Victorian design.


Despite the rapid and widespread rise to popularity of wigs, the old coif, skullcap and pileus quadratus did not disappear from the judicial head. The coif and skullcap began to be attached to the back of wigs, growing smaller over the years – by the 1750s they were simply small circles of white and black. While this vestigial coif did eventually disappear, it is still recalled today by a small, circular depression in the back of a judge’s wig marking its position.


Meanwhile, the pileus quadratus became a ceremonial item – largely carried by hand except on occasions of particular significance. By the 20th century, it had become associated with the pronouncement of a sentence of death. This practice continued until the abolition of the death penalty in the mid-twentieth century, but judges continue to carry the cap as part of their full ceremonial dress.


Various changes have been proposed in recent centuries to limit the wearing of wigs, though this has often met with resistance. In 1948, the House of Commons debated a motion which would have introduced a clause prohibiting the wearing of wigs in court, though it was defeated. A survey taking in the views of almost 4 000 barristers showed that while the Bar would embrace change in some areas, it was strongly felt that wigs should remain in place in the Crown Court.

In July 2007, Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips announced that from January 2008 judges in civil and family cases in England and Wales would no longer wear wigs. However, the Bar Council conducted an extensive consultation in which the overwhelming majority of barristers responded in favour of retaining court dress including wigs. This resulted in the issuing of the Revised Guidance on Court Dress in June 2009.

Tradition in legal dress, then, of which wigs are an undeniably core element, remains strong, despite changes over the years. Legal wigs have evolved time and again over the centuries since their introduction – future evolution may be on the horizon.

This post was prepared in cooperation with the Middle Temple Archive.

Middle Temple Dress Codes

Over the centuries, members of the Middle Temple, from students to Benchers, have had their clothing discussed, disputed and delimited by outside statute and internal order. In this post, we look at some occasions on which dress codes have been imposed upon Middle Templars – and occasions on which such codes have been violated.

One of the earliest records of costume at the Middle Temple is a document describing life at the Inn during the reign of King Henry VIII. Covering a wide range of aspects of the Society’s habits and governance, including the manner of study, discipline, food prices and staff wages, it also describes the mode of dress amongst Middle Templars. The document states that while members of the Inn ‘have no order for their apparell’, each Middle Templar ‘may go as him listeth so that his apparell pretend no lightnesse, or wantonesse in the wearer’. The original document is part of the Robert Cotton collection at the British Library, but a transcript of it from a century or so later was recently discovered amongst the archive’s collection of loose papers.

henry viii
Extract from a manuscript copy of the state, orders and customs of the Middle Temple, taken from a report to Henry VIII (HI/6/FW)

In Tudor England, clothing and apparel were closely regulated by what were known as ‘Sumptuary Laws’ – laws which delimited consumption of various sorts. This was chiefly a matter of status – the authorities were concerned that people dress according to their rank or position, and not demonstrate exhibitionist vanity. A statute of 1574, by order of Queen Elizabeth I, fretted that, quite apart from the damage to the realm wrought by the import of flashy foreign fabrics, there was risk of ‘the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen… allured by the vain show of these things’.

Elizabeth I
Portrait engraving of Queen Elizabeth I (MT.19/POR/245)

This atmosphere of tailoring totalitarianism was felt everywhere in society, even within the cloistered precincts of the Inns of Court. The minutes of the Middle Temple’s Parliament from the mid-sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries are littered with detailed sartorial diktats.

For example, in 1557 orders were made that ‘none of the Companies except Knights or Benchers shall wear in their doublets or hose any light colour except scarlet and crimson, or wear any upper velvet cap, or any scarf or wing in their gowns’. Members of the Inns were forbidden from wearing their ‘study gowns’ into the City, from wearing ‘Spanish cloak, sword and buckler’ in commons, and from wearing their beard over three weeks’ growth.

Parliament 1558 b beards
Order of Parliament that no one below the rank of Knight wear a beard above ‘three weeks growing’, Minutes of Parliament, 1557 (MT.1/MPA/3)

Parliament 1558 doublets size
Order of Parliament concerning the colour of doublets, velvet caps and scarfs in gowns, Minutes of Parliament, 1557 (MT.1/MPA/3)

Transgressions against these rules are also recorded extensively in the archive. On Friday, 23 May 1617, four young Middle Templars were hauled before Parliament to answer for a terrible crime: wearing hats in Hall. Not to be cowed, they appeared before the Benchers in hats, boots and spurs, and were threatened with expulsion.

Things grew worse, as the minutes of the subsequent Parliament relate, describing the Benchers’ frets about a ‘great conspiracy among the gentlemen of the Fellowship’. Many members had taken to dining in their own rooms rather than Hall – presumably in order to wear their hats in peace, free of disturbance or censure.

Sir Nicholas Crispe
Portrait engraving of Sir Nicholas Crispe (1599-1666), sporting flamboyant fashions (MT.19/POR/188)

One incident arose concerning a clash between a barrister’s court dress and his position within the Inn. In 1668, Francis North (later 1st Baron Guilford and Lord Keeper of the Great Seal) was made a KC at the tender age of 31. Barristers of this distinction had, of late, taken to wearing a cloth gown with velvet facings, lace and tufts (traditionally a ‘Reader’s Gown’), and so North understandably started to wear one. He was taken to task by Sir Thomas Twisden, a judge, for wearing such a gown without being a Reader, or Bencher, of the Middle Temple. An engraving of a near contemporary and a Bencher of the Inn, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, demonstrates the style of gown in question.

Geoffrey Palmer cropped fully
Portrait engraving of Sir Geoffrey Palmer (MT.19/POR/531)

Eventually, the Benchers resolved the dilemma by Calling North to join their number, leaving him at liberty to wear his gown free from criticism or outrage. He did eventually serve as Reader in 1671 – his Reader’s Feast, described by his brother Roger North as one of ‘debauchery, disorder and waste’, was attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury. His portrait hangs today in the Prince’s Room.

CC Sir Francis North 1st Baron Guilford
Portrait of Francis North, 1st Baron Guilford

Dress codes at the Inn did not dominate in quite so much exacting detail again after this period, though gowns in particular remained an issue. In 1819, one W. Boyd removed his gown during dinner and sat on without it, despite the Chief Butler’s reference to various Orders enforcing the wearing of gowns at dinner. In the end the Benchers ordered that he be expelled from the Hall, and be put out of Commons for his ‘Contumacy’.

Boyd Order 1

Boyd Order 2
Order for W. Boyd to be put out of Commons following his refusal to wear his gown during dinner, Minutes of Parliament, 1819 (MT.1/MPA/11)

Gowns continued to be a source of controversy as the nineteenth century unfolded – in 1840, Master Girdlestone submitted a motion to Parliament ahead of the 6 November meeting proposing that the wearing of gowns to Parliament be dispensed with. There are no records of his proposal having formally been discussed, and no Order was made on the subject.

Today, of course, there are still dress codes enforced at the Inn, though these now most commonly govern dress in Hall, and are not applicable to members going about the general Temple precincts. The code of dress for lunch, in particular, is informed by modern fashion – while once velvet caps and scarlet doublets were outlawed, nowadays the regulations focus on t-shirts and trainers. The unacceptability of wearing a sword to lunch is, however, understood still to be very much in force.

Barnaby Bryan, Assistant Archivist

To learn more about legal fashion both in and beyond the Inn, visit Michaelmas 2018’s Library exhibition, “Legal ‘Fashion’: From Mantles to Mourning Hoods” at Middle Temple Library.

This post was first published as an Archive of the Month article here.