The Law Society and the Mendham collection – will no-one rid us of these turbulent …, erm, “books”?

Many years ago I tried to consult a collection of rare books, owned by the Law Society of Great Britain, and known as the Mendham collection after the clergyman who assembled it and donated it to the society.  The bequest obliged the society to preserve it whole for perpetuity.  I failed to gain access.  Indeed my experience was a negative one.

Last year the society — the trade union of some of the wealthiest professionals in the country — tried to flog off 300 of the best volumes, in blatant contradiction of the terms of the bequest.  Some illiterate office manager, evidently felt his bonus would be safe if he could dispose of them.  Fortunately the outcry was so great that the lawyers backed off.

I learn today that they are at it again.  I received the following missive via the ABTAPL list:

There are renewed concerns about the long-term future of the Mendham Collection, formed by Rev Joseph Mendham (1769-1856), and a rich source of literature on evangelical Protestantism, Catholicism, and anti-Catholicism. The books include 77 incunables and 775 works published in the sixteenth century.

The collection was gifted to the Law Society in 1869 with the express wish by Mendham’s widow that it should be kept together. It has been on deposit since 1984 at Canterbury Cathedral under an agreement between the Society and the University of Kent and the Cathedral. The current agreement expires on 31 December 2013.

Thanks to a British Library grant to the Cathedral in the late 1980s, a full printed scholarly catalogue of the collection was published in 1994. A condition of the British Library’s grant was that the collection should not subsequently be dispersed.

In July last year a major public row erupted when the Law Society creamed off, and physically removed from the Cathedral, some 300 choice volumes, with a view to sending them to auction at Sotheby’s in the autumn. As a result of an online petition, negative media coverage, and private lobbying (including by the Religious Archives Group), the Law Society backed off.

Discussions have since taken place between the University of Kent and the Law Society with a view to the collection being acquired by the University and the Cathedral and remaining at Canterbury. These discussions have followed a dual track, one of which has been a without prejudice offer to purchase the collection. It is understood that this offer remains on the table but is currently not accepted by the Law Society.

In late January this year the Law Society wrote to the vice-chancellors of an unknown number of UK universities, reaffirming its intention to sell the Mendham Collection, and inviting bids to purchase the entire collection. Expressions of interest are sought by 24 February 2013 and firm proposals by 17 March 2013.

In addition to extensive and important holdings of antiquarian books, the collection still contains 12 manuscripts. However, the group of Italian and Spanish manuscripts was gifted to the Bodleian Library (where they remain) shortly after Mendham’s death, and in accordance with his wishes.

Dr Clive D Field, OBE
email: c.d.field@bham.ac.uk<mailto:c.d.field@bham.ac.uk>
webpage: http://clivedfield.wordpress.com/

Why don’t they just donate the books?  They certainly can afford to.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what corruption and neglect look like.  In 50 years things like this will be quoted as examples of the decadence of our days.

5 Responses to “The Law Society and the Mendham collection – will no-one rid us of these turbulent …, erm, “books”?”


  1. Michael Hall

    I have written a letter on the Times On Line about this in response to the letter that appeared today. I would be interested to know more.

  2. Peter M. Thornber

    The whole rigmarole of The Law Society’s wanton, shabby and totally unprofessional breach of trust and betrayal of fiduciary duty shews them up in a shameful light. Can not legal action be taken against both The Law Society and Sotheby’s starting with an injunction to have the relevant lots withheld from the sale on the 6th of June?

  3. Roger Pearse

    Take the Law Society on at law? Far better, surely, to engage in what used to be called “direct action” … get gangs of assetless students to stage protests and sit-ins. Only very rich people can afford to go to law; and who could expect justice in a case heard before a lawyer?

  4. Michael Hall

    I have still not received a reply from the Law Society’s President or Chief Executive to whom I wrote about this.
    I have queried what evidence the Law Society has that the title it claims is absolute and free from trusts and contractual obligations. Also how it can claim that the acquisition of, and trade in historical religious books is within the objects for which it was established as set out in the Royal Charter of 1845. It is not for the education of solicitors or the improvement of the law. It only has power to do what it was established to do. Furthermore the Law Society of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was the body to which the collection was allegedly given, not the Law Society of England and Wales. Ireland included what is now the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and they have their own Law Societies, and Great Britain included Scotland which has its own Law Society as well, so how can the England and Wales Law Society claim exclusive ownership?

  5. Peter M. Thornber

    Could the members of the Council of The Law Society be guilty of conduct likely to bring the profession into disrepute? If so, it would be a public duty to report them to the SRA.