Break-up of the Mendham Collection – Law Society flogging their books to Sothebys

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:

http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2013/the-mendham-collection-l13409/lots.list.1.html

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

10 Responses to “Break-up of the Mendham Collection – Law Society flogging their books to Sothebys”


  1. No Honor among Lawyers | Aliens in This World

    [...] After being given a collection of books in 1869 under the clear understanding that it would never be broken up or sold, and after being given cataloguing money by the UK under the same understanding, a society of lawyers is selling the books anyway. [...]

  2. suburbanbanshee

    Well, that stinks. Blogging about it.

    Also, I can’t tell about the binding of the Tertullian, but the paper looks like it’s in good clean condition. A bit thin, maybe, from being able to see the ink on the other side; but just from here, it looks like it’s just absorptive paper, and not terribly thin. I can see bringing out the gloves and such, but it looks pretty useable. The font is nicely easy to read.

    Still, given the rarity, I suppose that the unofficial policy may have been that only the head folks were allowed to sit with scholars working with it. Or it may have been locked up in one of those nice temperature-controlled chests of drawers, and the chick was too lowly to have the key. In which case the woman should have just said, “Look, I’m not sure I’m allowed to let you use the incunable without armed guards or something.”

    But yeah, she was probably just a jerk.

  3. suburbanbanshee

    Also, it would seem that this is a lousy economy to be selling rare books in. 8000 pounds for one of two copies? Honestly, that doesn’t seem like much, and I wonder if they’ll even make 2000 these days. If you’re going to be evil, sell off a few books now and save the goodies for later, when you can make more money.

  4. suburbanbanshee

    One of ten copies, I mean. But still.

  5. Roger Pearse

    I did get to handle the volume in the end, and it was perfectly sound. But no, the woman was being a jerk. I found out later that the Cathedral decided to experimentally allow readers to take a few photos, evidently after I wrote to the Dean. But he didn’t tell me, and she made sure I never heard of it. Everyone at the Cathedral, when I did make that later visit, was surprised that I had not been told.

    There are some inexplicably nasty people around, in life.

    The stuff on the Sothebys website is good, tho. Clearly the auction house has had a really good go at cataloguing. I wonder if they will keep it up after the sale?

  6. Roger Pearse

    Yes, a very daft time to sell.

  7. Matthew Hamilton

    Try a different tact on this.

    1. The collection was given, with an agreement, to the law society, yet they are ignoring that agreement.
    2. The collection was lodged, with an agreement, at Canterbury Cathedral Library.
    3. If agreement 1. is ignored, why not also ignore agreement 2.?

    Instead of letters to the Times, either just ask the Cathedral Librarian to lock up the collection and refuse to unlock it, or just ask the librarian to have the collection loaded up in a truck and driven away to an location that they don’t know of (so they can’t be legally compelled to do anything).

    The collection might be inaccessible for a few months, perhaps even a few years, but it will intact.

    It all comes down to either who is the Librarian, or who has control over the Librarian

  8. Roger Pearse

    Sadly the Cathedral authorities seem like wet rags.

  9. Michael Hall

    Does anyone know how the Revd Joseph Mendham acquired this collection? Lot 58 Durani’s Rationale was originally in the Library of St Cuthbert’s Cathedral Priory (Durham Cathedral), and it may have been lost on the dissolution of the monasteries or stolen from the Library later. What seems quite certain is that it was not sold or given away, and handling stolen goods is an offence, however long ago the theft occurred. See http://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/library/history. The Attorney General has refused to intervene at the request of the University of Kent, and this is an exercise of the Royal Prerogative that he will claim is outside the scope of judicial review. If the gift to the Law Society was a charitable gift to benefit the Law Society, as a corporation established by Royal Charter for the public benefit, the Law Society is entitled to sell the collection and use the proceeds for the purposes for which it was established – i.e. for example to buy law books for its library, or to make a grant to the College of Law or a bursary for the training of impecunious trainee solicitors. However the gift was accepted subject to the clear proviso that the collection was kept together, this suggests that the members of Council of the Law Society who agreed to accept the collection had a religious motive and were using the Society for the propogation of the Protestant religion, which was an improper purpose, outside the objects of the Society under its Royal Charter. Nevertheless they established the Law Society quite unconstitutionally as a religious charity custodian trustee and they cannot pretend this did not happen. I would like the Attorney General to intervene because it is wrong for the Law Society to treat these sacred texts which are part of the national heritage as no more than a windfall of dead whale meat for butchering. I have written to the Attorney General and to Durham Cathedral about this.

  10. The Law Society and the Mendham collection – afterthoughts at Roger Pearse

    [...] blogged earlier on a minor scandal of our times, and I have a few more reflections on the matter [...]



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