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February 2024: ‘The Precepts of “The Hardwicke” Shall Maintain’ – The Forgotten Society of the Inns of Court

Throughout the history of the Inns of Court many subsidiary membership organisations have flourished. This month we focus on one of the most illustrative examples, the Hardwicke Society, which started off as a debating society in the mid-19th century and persisted for more than one hundred years. Independently run with membership open to members from all Inns, the society offered generations of barristers both enlightenment and entertainment. Today, the legacy of this long-forgotten society is largely preserved in the Middle Temple Archive. 

Little about the Hardwicke Society’s origin is known. The society’s earliest surviving record – a parchment-bound, clasped account book – dates back to November 1847, coinciding with the decade when reforms to improve the standard of legal education across the Inns of Court were in full swing. Indirect sources indicate that the society originated as a student- and barrister-led debate club which took place at various coffee houses, taverns and hotels around Fleet Street, before securing a lecture room at the Inner Temple as a longer-term rendezvous in 1874. 


Account book of the Hardwicke Society, 1847 (MT/20/80/1/1/4) 


While the society’s coming into being remains elusive, where it derived its name from is a matter of less obscurity. Research conducted by the society’s historian, Master William Latey, suggested that its enthusiastic founders had likely named the society ‘Hardwicke’ to honour the 18th-century marriage law reformer Philip Yorke, Earl of Hardwicke, Treasurer at Middle Temple and later the Lord Chancellor. Despite the passing of a century, the influence of Lord Hardwicke, considered to be a towering political and legal figure at his time, must have remained strong for many legal practitioners in the mid-19th century. 


Portrait of Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, painted by Rev. James Wills, 1740 (MT/P.112) 


Following its establishment the society saw remarkable growth in size and reputation. At the height of its reach it had over 2,000 members – many went on to hold prominent positions in the political and legal realms, including one Prime Minster, three Lord Chancellors, two Lords Justice of Appeal and many High Court Judges. Notable members who took the helm of the society as President included Oscar Wilde’s counsel Edward Clarke, Lord Justice of Appeal Baron du Parcq and more.  

Over the course of its existence the society was dedicated to the discussion of legal, political and social subjects through holding regular debates. Although switching between the premises of the four Inns of Court for its activities, for decades it used the Middle Temple Common Room as its registered address, where many debates were regularly hosted. Several question books and annual reports in the Archive reveal that the subjects debated ranged from the frivolous to the serious, covering diplomatic relations, current affairs, stag hunting and even Christmas gifting. During the interwar period the society organised an average of 30 debates per year, including occasionally joint sessions with other debating societies such as the Union Society of London.


A list of motions debated by the Hardwicke Society in their meetings, with the names of movers and opposers, 1936 (MT/20/61) 


The society also contributed their part to gender inclusion in the legal landscape. During the late 19th century when attendance to many clubs and societies was still exclusively available to men, the society held a Ladies’ Night Debate to admit ladies to listen to the debate, which quickly evolved into its popular annual tradition. However, it was not until 1923, one year after the first woman was Called to the English Bar, that the society admitted its first female member, Miss Ida Duncan, an Oxford barrister and member of the Middle Temple. A barrister writing in The Morning Post attributed this to the society’s ‘persistent little body of pro-feminists', who pioneered a change in membership admission that would later be enshrined in its printed rules stating that ‘Sex shall not be a disqualification for membership’. 


Notice of a Ladies’ Night Debate held in Middle Temple Hall, 1939 (MT/20/61)


In addition to sporting a thriving debating culture and a more representative membership makeup, the society was also fondly remembered for running a circulating library specialising in the fields of advocacy, legal biography and trials. This was a collective effort led by the then President, Duncan Campbell Lee, a Middle Temple member who later became the library’s honorary librarian. Thanks mainly to the largesse of its members, the library gradually amassed an impressive collection of nearly 1,000 volumes, with every donation recorded in the library annual reports and catalogues.  

With its emphasis on the art of advocacy, the Library of Advocacy, as it was called, took pride in providing members the opportunity of ‘elevating themselves by elevating their professions’. Those who found resonance in the library’s mission included Leonard Chalmers-Hunt, a Middle Templar who once channelled his appreciation with much poetic flare: 

To the Library of Advocacy (extract) 

For in these honoured shelves who looks may find 
Pages that fill with hope th’ aspiring mind. 
And ‘neath these gothic walls shall books have space— 
A tribute to the Masters’ act of grace. 
Thus eager zest to learn and zeal to train 
The precepts of “The Hardwicke” shall maintain. 


To the Library of Advocacy, a poem written by Leonard Chalmers-Hunt, 1930 (MT/20/80/2/1/1) 


Similarly to the society’s other undertakings, the library never operated at a fixed location. During the interwar period it was housed at the Inn’s Common Room, and immediately after WWII at a makeshift location near the garden. In 1948 the library was given a space at the headquarters of the Council of Legal Education in Lincoln’s Inn. Regardless of its drifting nature, law students and barristers continued to find much solace in the library. Perhaps from the design of the library’s bookplate we can glimpse the experience, no doubt absorbing for members, to lose themselves happily in the society’s illuminating collection.


Design of the Hardwicke Society’s bookplate and other illustrations (MT/20/80) 


Within several months of the reopening of the library in Lincoln’s Inn the society again came under the spotlight when the late HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh graced its centenary celebration dinner in 1949, and was said to have read ‘an amusing extract’ of the society’s minute book to the audience. The society’s subsequent annual dinner, held in Middle Temple Hall, also generated some media interest. The dinner was attended by Earl Mountbatten and was described by The Sphere as an occasion of ‘wit and learning’.  


Extract of The Sphere’s coverage on the Hardwicke Society’s annual dinner at Middle Temple Hall, 1950 (MT/19/ILL/D/D5/6) 


However, looming behind the society’s vigorous presence during this period was the continued shrink in membership. As the society’s income relied solely on subscription fees by new members, this had put its financial stability at risk and, in 1953, accumulated to a point that rendered its existence precarious. Aggravating the situation was the uncertainty hovering over the society’s much celebrated library, now housed in the librarian’s chambers in Essex Court under an expiring tenancy. The Inn, having provided both venue and financial support over the years, was a natural institution for the society’s President to appeal to for assistance.

The vulnerable condition of its library immediately received special attention from some Benchers. This included Master James Cassels, who pleaded to the Treasurer to provide the books a proper home at the Inn, writing that ‘To the young barrister it offers a mine of assistance and advice; for the senile it provides means of happiness and entertainment.’


Master James Cassels’s letter to Treasurer regarding salvaging the Hardwicke Society’s library, 1953 (MT/20/47/2) 


In October 1953, endorsing the report submitted by Master Denis Pritt – again hinting at the possibility of offering the library a place in the Middle Temple Library – Parliament granted a one-off subvention to help the society weather its financial storm. Arrangements were later made between the Inn and the Essex Court tenant to allow members’ continued access to the library. The crisis facing the society and its library was temporarily averted. 

Material shedding light on the final days of the society is scarce, but it did not seem to have regained the popularity it once enjoyed. A minute book dates its last debate to the Trinity term of 1977, after which all its activities appear to have come to a halt. In the following decades, efforts to resurrect the society were attempted by Master Quentin Edwards, Autumn Reader 1993 and the society’s sole trustee, who later had to conclude that the society was ‘moribund’.


A silver box presented to the Hardwicke Society by its members commemorating the occasion of Lord Russell of Killowen, former secretary to the society, being made Lord Chief Justice, 1894 (MT/20/47/1) 


The Hardwicke Society’s papers, including several minute books, question books, financial documents, correspondence, library catalogues and a few artefacts, have found their way into the Middle Temple Archive through various routes over the years. Many of its valuable volumes were also donated to the Inn after the society diminished in the late 20th century and, in 2020, they found a new home in Lincoln’s Inn. Although the society has bid farewell to the contemporary legal stage, its history remains accessible to those who are curious about how past generations of law practitioners have lived the best of their legal life.