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.

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