The Law Society has decided to sell a collection of early printed books, bequeathed to it long ago in the expectation that they should be preserved forever. Rebukes from academics have been met by stonewalling, and a refusal to discuss it. The collection is now visible on the Sothebys website. A sad email appeared on the ABTAPL email list a couple of days ago. I give it in full below.
It’s a wretched, shabby business, to all appearances. The refusal to discuss something like this always suggests to me that it is a case of officials, well aware that they are doing wrong, but intending to do that wrong anyway.
We may recall how 18th century officials neglected their responsibilities for short-term gain, thereby earning the well-deserved contempt of the Victorians.
My own memory of this collection is tinged with annoyance. Long ago I sought to access the incunable of Tertullian’s Apologeticum, then held at Canterbury Cathedral. The woman responsible — I forget her name, and doubtless she was a nobody anyway – was a horrible person who fought tooth and nail to ensure that I should not be able to see it or make a copy. For “safety” reasons, of course.
It is ironic, therefore, that the book will now be flogged on the open market.
But who knows? The new owner may be a better custodian. When public institutions fail, private men may do better. Let us hope that it is possible to find out who buys it, and talk to him, and get a copy of the thing on the web at last. Let us hope so.
From: Religious Archives Group On Behalf Of Clive Field
Sent: 29 May 2013 10:12
Subject: Break-up of Mendham Collection
The Law Society of England and Wales (the representative body for solicitors) is pressing ahead with plans to break up the Mendham Collection, commencing with a sale by Sotheby’s in London of 142 lots on the morning of Wednesday, 5 June 2013. Many items will doubtless be lost to the nation as a result of this auction. The e-catalogue can be viewed at:
The collection, formed by Joseph Mendham (1769-1856), Church of England clergyman at Sutton Coldfield, comprises 12 medieval and post-medieval manuscripts and 5,000 books published between 1450 and 1850, many not held in the British Library or other national collections. It constitutes a rich and coherent resource for both Protestant and Catholic history. Indeed, the Society itself previously described it on its website as ‘a unique collection of Catholic and anti-Catholic literature’.
The collection was gifted by Sophia Mendham to the Society in 1869 on the understanding that it would be kept together indefinitely, and accepted by the Society on that basis. Had the Society not accepted this provision, the collection would have been gifted to King’s College London instead. More than a century later, in recognition of the collection’s national importance, the British Library awarded a grant to catalogue it with the expectation that it would not subsequently be dispersed.
Since 1984 the Society has deposited the collection at Canterbury Cathedral Library, under a loan agreement between the Cathedral, the University of Kent, and the Society. At Canterbury it has been fully accessible for research. The agreement does not expire until 31 December 2013. Notwithstanding, on 18 July 2012 the Society withdrew around 300 items with a view to sale by Sotheby’s.
The withdrawal of these items and the prospect of the break-up of the collection resulted in a public online petition being launched by the University of Kent to save the collection, and in many interested and expert parties contacting the Society to ask it to think again. This campaign to save the collection was especially active last July and August and received extensive media coverage at that time.
The recent confirmation of the Sotheby’s sale on 5 June led to renewed expressions of concern to the Society, including an open letter to THE TIMES, published on 11 May 2013, and written by Dr Clive Field OBE (President of the Religious Archives Group), Diarmaid MacCulloch Kt (Professor of the History of the Church, University of Oxford), and Roly Keating (Chief Executive of The British Library). THE TIMES published further letters on 14 and 15 May from solicitors dismayed at the Society’s proposed dismemberment of the collection. It is understood that other solicitors have written directly to the Society in opposition to the sale.
The Society appears to have issued no public statements about its plans for the collection nor defence of its actions. It is now reported not to be responding to press queries on the matter, and all references to the collection seem to have been removed from the Society’s website. Expressions of concern sent to the Society’s President (Lucy Scott-Moncrieff) or Chief Executive (Des Hudson) have mostly been delegated for reply by the Society’s administrative staff, who have not fully addressed the points made by correspondents.
The University of Kent, acting on the advice of leading counsel, has latterly raised with the Attorney General a query whether the collection may actually be held by the Society subject to a charitable trust, which would inhibit its sale. Having examined the various current legal opinions, as well as contemporaneous documentation surrounding the original gift, and having taken his own counsel’s advice, the Attorney General has reportedly concluded that the collection is not held on a charitable trust.
Therefore, there exist no legal obstacles to the Society dispersing the collection through sale, although, given the circumstances and stated intent of the original gift, many will still debate the ethics of treating a collection of such historic importance as a disposable financial asset merely to address the Society’s short-term funding needs.
Unfortunately, too, it is understood that the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund have felt unable to offer funding to assist the University of Kent in buying the collection.
Dr Clive D Field, OBE
President, Religious Archives Group