The Law Society and the Mendham collection – afterthoughts

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

In 1869 Sophia Mendham gave her husband’s collection of early books to the Law Society of Great Britain, on the understanding that it would be preserved for all time.   However the current controllers of the Law Society decided to sell it.  It went under the hammer earlier this month and was sold for around 1.2 million GBP.  Most of this must have been for one or two manuscripts, not listed in the detailed sale, where many lots sold for a miserable one or two thousand pounds.

The Law Society represents one of the wealthiest professions in Britain.  When interviewed by the Guardian, an anonymous spokesman explained why they were selling the collection:

It costs around £10,000 a year for their upkeep. If it raised a six- or seven-figure sum it would be good for the Law Society’s capital reserves.

The motive then is simple.  The current council of the Society want cash.

It leaves a bad taste in the mouth, when the officials of an institution dispose of inherited treasures, received in trust from others, in return for ready cash.  The Law Society should, surely, have donated the collection to another suitable trustee on the same terms, if it did not wish to be troubled with it.  But to sell it!  To break it up, in defiance of the founders’ wish!  That is an act of vandalism.

The legal profession has often adorned the world of literature and letters.  All lawyers must be learned men, and many form part of the history of culture.  The rediscovery of the Pandects, Justinian’s Digest of Roman Law, forms part of the history of the renaissance, the rediscovery of ancient literature and the birth of the modern world. The Republic of Letters has always had a legal division, in a sense other than the one known to modern enthusiasts for copyright enforcement.

But in corrupt times institutions decay, and officials take salaries but are negligent in performing their duty, especially to society.  For instance, in the last great period of decay, the 18th century, the guardians of the Oxford Museum were zealous in collecting their salaries, yet allowed the stuffed remains of a dodo — an irreplaceable item — to rot.  Doubtless they would have said that preventing this was not their responsibility, and that nobody was ensuring that they did it or seemed to care.  Posterity has not agreed with them.

We do live in corrupt times, today.  Few officials will be meticulous, self-denying, endlessly hard working, when the motto of the times is “if it feels good, do it” and if such hard work is mocked as “anal”.  Examples of negligence abound.  At Stafford hospital armies of state officials drew their salaries and busily moved paper around, while leaving patients to lie in filth and die of thirst.  Nobody has been punished.  Nobody, it seems, was responsible.  The permissive society has become a caricature of self-centredness and contempt for others, and for posterity.

These are the thoughts, then, that rise when one looks at the case of the Mendham collection.  The statements made by the Law Society officials sound like announcements by firms of estate agents, not by learned men of standing and culture.  Nothing in them betrays any awareness of any duty beyond convenience.  They talk as if they cared for nothing except how they could turn this item, entrusted to them 150 years ago, into ready cash.  The sale betrays Mrs Mendham’s trust — for she would not have given them the books, except for a promise of perpetuity.  It brings the society into disrepute.  But little men care nothing for anything but cash and convenience.

They say that every man has his price, and those of us who must work for others to earn a pittance are ever aware of what that price is.  But the Law Society is a great and famous institution.  How much, then, does it cost to induce the current leadership of the Law Society of Great Britain to ignore a principle, renege on an undertaking, and betray a benefactor?  The answer, apparently, is about a million pounds.  How awful, that one can calculate the price of the Law Society!  I think we must recognise  that this means that the government should act to reform the society.

Of course adults know that institutions do not exist.  There are only people; you, and me, and Fred, and Bill whose wife needs that operation, and Phylllis who is trying to get promoted.  There is no Law Society; only a group of people.  We should ask, therefore, who these people are.  I have found this hard to determine.

All we can do, therefore, is to record the names of those who held office in the Law Society in 2013, when Mrs Mendham’s trust was betrayed for cash at Sothebys.  According to the Law Society website, the current office holders are:

President – Lucy Scott-Moncrieff
Vice president – Nick Fluck
Deputy vice president – Andrew Caplen
Chief executive – Des Hudson

Let us hope for better times, and that the Law Society rediscovers a sense of pride in itself and its history.  For no self-respecting institution could do such a thing.

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

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.

Law Society to sell Mendham collection – and my own experience of it

In the days when I was hunting for rare early editions of the works of Tertullian, in order to photograph them and place them online, I became aware that a copy of the 1493 Scinzinzeler incunable existed at Canterbury cathedral, in the Mendham collection.  This was the property of the UK Law Society — the solicitors’ trade union, essentially — but since they had no use for a collection of theological books, it was in the hands of the library at Canterbury cathedral.

I remember this volume.  The librarian at the time was some woman whose name I have forgotten.  For some reason, as I could tell from her emails, she took a dislike to me and my enquiry, even though we had never met, and decided to frustrate my wishes.    I wrote quite a number of emails to various people, both at the cathedral and at the Law Society, but in vain.  Someone at the cathedral decided to run a trial of user photography, with the idea that I might contribute; the woman made sure that I wasn’t told about it.  Eventually I gave up, and I believe she went off to Durham, there to cause trouble for others, no doubt.  There is, even now, no access to this edition online anywhere.

Yesterday I read that the Law Society has sent Sothebys down to Canterbury to remove 300 of the choicer items from the collection, in order to sell them.  Cash, cash, cash, apparently is the motive.   Of old lawyers were men of literature.  But since I was quite unable to interest the Law Society in the matter of access, I am not in the least surprised. 

Kent Online have the story:

Medieval documents taken from the Canterbury Cathedral library will be auctioned off unless academics can raise enough money to buy them back.

The University of Kent and Canterbury Cathedral campaigned together to stop the removal of 300 books and manuscripts from the Mendham Collection by The Law Society. …

It has been in Canterbury since 1984, attracting academics and researchers from across the world.

The Law Society said they needed to sell the documents to raise much-needed cash and have given the university and cathedral until November to submit a bid to reclaim the collection.

Spokesman Emma Alatalo said: “In these challenging times, we can no longer justify the ongoing cost of maintaining the collection, which despite its great value to academics does not form part of an archive useful to our members.

“We owe it to our members in these hard-pressed times to get the very best price that the market can offer.”

Of course they do; and society as a whole can go hang.  What “on-going cost” there might be,  for a bunch of books maintained by someone else, is not explained. 

There is a petition here, and there are blogged comments at Infoism here and at the Rechtsgeschiedenis blog here and the Medievalists here.  The THES comments here.

So … how do I feel about the sale of the collection?  Well, I have mixed feelings.

On the one hand there is little doubt in my mind that the Law Society are acting improperly.  Lawyers, above all men, should understand the value of past times, and rely on stability in records and institutions.  They, like all of us, have a duty to be good citizens.  A historical collection should be preserved in its entirety, in nearly every case. 

It is doubtless the case that the Law Society has no interest in it, but they should simply transfer it to the cathedral or some suitable body.  Lawyers are very rich men, on the whole, and the idea that the Law Society needs the money so badly that it must destroy heritage need hardly be considered.  Any one of the richer members of that society could write a cheque for the sum that will be raised and not notice it.

Yet the fact is that the collection is inaccessible to researchers as it stands, unless they live in Canterbury.  The only person to express interest in a volume in the collection in the last 20 years — myself — was unable to make use of it, in its current location and ownership.  Even the catalogue of the collection is not online!  I can’t determine whether the Tertullian is one of the 300 volumes already removed by Sothebys.  They fought like demons to make sure that no copy was made of that Tertullian edition; and they are now watching it vanish into the hands of some rich collector, never to be seen again, perchance. 

Any library that holds a collection of rare books has a duty to make a copy of them, simply for security reasons.  Books burn.  Mice nibble.  And the losses of unique items during the last century have been terrible.  Something like 5% of all surviving medieval manuscripts perished in the events of the 20th century, it has been estimated; in the burning of Dresden, of Louvain, in the massacres of the Armenians and Nestorians in 1915, and so forth.  The real figure is probably higher. 

But this, as far as I know, Canterbury have not done.  Over 150 years after the invention of photography, their books remain at the mercy of fire, theft and the Law Society.  A school-leaver on minimum wage with a digital camera could photograph the lot in a year.  Why has this not been done?

Likewise any such photographs should appear online.  For very few people can make any use of books in a collection such as this.  A day trip might be possible, but real work tends to require real access.  The copies of early editions in our major libraries go almost unused, as Pierre Petitmengin discovered when he inspected a number, because scholars resort to buying copies on the art market so that they can have them where they can use them. No-one has ever been able to use that Scinzinzeler.

So … it is possible that the dispersal of the Mendham collection will actually serve the public interest, unlikely as this might seem.  A new owner might be more public spirited, although I fear this will not in fact happen.  But only because Canterbury have been asleep at the wheel.  Why, why is there no catalogue online?

But the failures at Canterbury — will they be remedied? — should not disguise the fact that the Law Society are doing something which is immoral.

The Law Society should cease this discreditable and sleazy-looking action and return the books at once.