Lost in the Past : The Rediscovered Archives of Clifford's Inn

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The Rediscovered Archives of Clifford's Inn

by Clare Rider, IT Archivist 1998-2009

Walking down Fleet Street, it is easy to pass by, unnoticed, the gateway to Clifford's Inn. Set back from the street down Clifford's Inn passage, and nestling against the church of St. Dunstan-in-the-West, it is all that remains of the last inn of chancery. Its reticence is symbolic of the obscurity which surrounds the inns of chancery. Yet, for more than four hundred years, Clifford's Inn played a role in the life of the legal profession, along with its fellow inns, notably Clement's , Lyon's, Barnard's, Furnival's, Thavie's, Staple and New Inns; a role amplified by Master Baker in his article on legal education in the inns of chancery in this issue of the Yearbook. Why did they decline and disappear whilst the inns of court with which they were associated continue to flourish ?

The decline and eventual disappearance of the inns of chancery is best explained by their limited professional role. Unlike the inns of court, which secured between them a monopoly of licensing practitioners by calling them to the bar, the inns of chancery never achieved a similar power over their members, who from the late sixteenth century were almost exclusively solicitors and attorneys. Nor did they have chapels, significant legal libraries or endowments. In contrast to the inns of court, they did not resume their educational role after the cessation of teaching in all the Inns in 1642, whilst the formation of the Society of Gentlemen Practisers in 1739 and of the Law Society in 1825 largely eclipsed them as professional associations. By the nineteenth century, they had become seen by many as moribund and anachronistic institutions, peopled by eccentrics. Their abolition and subsequent demolition became a question of time. Thavie's Inn, attached to Lincoln's Inn, had already gone, in 1769, whilst the final inn of chancery (Clifford's Inn) was sold in 1903. Its buildings, including a hall remodelled in 1767, were demolished in 1934 with the exception of the gatehouse.

Clifford's Inn, the longest surviving inn of chancery, has an interesting history. As early as 1344, the property on the north side of Fleet street which was to form the Inn was let to law students by Isabel, the widow of Robert de Clifford at an annual rent of £10. The freehold was purchased by the Society of Clifford's Inn in 1618. The inn was one of the ten lesser inns mentioned by Sir John Fortescue in his De Laudibus Legum of about 1468. At this date it was common for the inns of chancery to act as initial training schools for barristers, who 'after they have made some progress here, and are more advanced in years' were admitted and called to the bar by the inns of court. Edmund Paston and John Selden were two famous members of Clifford's Inn who followed this course. The sixteenth century saw the exclusion of attorneys and solicitors from the inns of court and the attachment of the inns of chancery to particular inns of court as dependent satellites. It was at this point that Clifford's, Clement's and Lyon's Inns became formally linked to the Inner Temple, although in 1561 the personal intervention of Robert Dudley, later Earl of Leicester, was required to prevent Lyon's Inn being transferred by Elizabeth I to the Middle Temple in compensation for the loss of Strand Inn. Although the inns of court elected readers and monitored the activities of the subservient inns, they were permitted to maintain their own rules and customs, including their special festive days. Clifford's Inn, governed by a principal and twelve 'rules' or governors, is famous for its after-dinner ceremony, in which the principal took from the butler four loaves baked in the form of a cross, raised them above his head and dashed them onto the table three times before throwing them the length of the table. This ceremony continued into the nineteenth century.

The inn is also notable for its 'Kentish mess', a category of membership below the 'rules', whose links with Kent are lost in obscurity, and as the venue where the Fire Court Judges sat in the seventeenth century to settle land ownership disputes after Great Fire of London. In the nineteenth century, Clifford's Inn achieved literary fame in the novels of Charles Dickens and in the writings of Charles Lamb, who featured his friend George Dyer, a long-term resident of the inn, in his essay 'Amicus Redivivus'. Dyer, who had occupied in chambers at number 13 Clifford's Inn for nearly fifty years, was a well-known eccentric and bibliophile. Wearing trousers which were always too short, devoid of a sense of humour, gullible and accident prone, Dyer's forlorn state excited the compassion of a Mrs. Mather, whose third husband, a solicitor, had just died in the chambers opposite. She advised him to get someone to look after him and, in the absence of other volunteers, ended up marrying him herself. The 'hermit of Clifford's Inn' as Dyer has been known, perhaps personified the public perception of the inns of chancery in the last century.

The demolition of the inns of chancery led in many cases to the loss of their archives. Whilst the records of some inns, notably Barnard's Inn, the Staple Inn and New Inn, have survived in some quantity, the inns connected to the Inner Temple have not fared so well. A pension book and a few other records from Clement's Inn survive and have been edited for the Selden Society, whilst an eighteenth century account book, held by the Public Record Office, Kew, and some statutes held by the Inner Temple library are all that remain of the Clifford's Inn archive. Or so we thought, until recently. On 2nd April 1998, Frank Wright, a member of the Middle Temple based in Winchester, appeared in the Inner Temple Library with a number of documents from Clifford's Inn, which had been discovered some years ago in the basement of premises in Brick Court, formerly occupied by George Thatcher and Sons, solicitors, by his father-in-law, Alec Thatcher. Offering them to the Inn, and with the promise of further material on his next visit to London, he was delighted to learn of the historical significance of the find. It is rare that new information on the inns of chancery comes to light and the rest of this article will be devoted to the rediscovered papers of Clifford's Inn.

The records, which date from 1618 to 1885, appear to be the administrative papers of the principal or his clerk. In addition to deeds of title, including the 1618 bargain and sale transferring ownership of the inn to the Society, and chambers admissions, they include drafts which would have been copied up into more formal records such as admissions registers, minute books and account books. In the absence of the formal administrative records (apart from the principal's account book for 1738 to 1749, a fortuitous survival in the records of the Lord Chamberlain's department and now held by the Public Record Office as LC9/344) these apparently ephemeral papers assume historical significance. For here we have detailed lists of members and occupiers of chambers of the inn, sadly lacking for many of the inns of chancery. Although piecemeal, they restore some of the previously lost membership data. Moreover, the mere existence of the papers provides a flavour of the Inn as a living, working society. Whilst the records of the Inner Temple, in particular the Bench Table Orders and Acts of Parliament, do provide occasional glimpses into the life of Clifford's Inn, such as the complaint of fifty-six members against the principal in 1615 concerning his alleged financial chicanery, they are a poor substitute for 'the real thing'.

The account book of Daniel Dandy, principal from 1738 to 1749, held in the Public Record Office, remains a good starting point for understanding the workings of the inn in the eighteenth century. Providing details of Dandy's payments and receipts on a half-yearly basis, one forms an impression of the activities routinely undertaken by the leading officer of the inn. There are regular payments to the local scavenger and dustman for removing rubbish; to the paid servants of the Inn, including the head and under butlers , the cook, the gardener and the 'woman in the kitchen', for their salaries; to suppliers of food and drink, most notably the brewer; to the New River Company for water and to the central government for taxes; as well as occasional payments, for example for building works undertaken in the hall and other buildings and, in January 1745, the shilling expended on 'the bricklayers who opened the drain of the boghouse at 12 o clock at night for beer'. Of particular interest to social historians are the payments for nursing, clothing, christening, maintaining and educating the 'dropt' children, who were presumably left on the doorstep by mothers appealing to the inn's charity, a practice also common at the inns of court. One of these, a girl, was apprenticed at the inn's expense, whilst another, a boy, was kitted out and sent to sea. However, a number of these children, all given the surname Clifford, died despite medical attention, and were buried, after a funeral, in shrouds and coffins purchased by the inn. The income to offset these expenses came principally from members' commons, with additional fees for chamber admissions (one third of which were payable to the principal), rents and fines. As might be expected, a number of members (all named in the account book) fell well behind in payment of their dues and Land Tax contributions, and the principal had to seek reimbursement from the inn at the end of each accounting period for the shortfall.