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April 2021: A People's History of the Library

The physical building and re-building of the Inn’s library has been extensively documented throughout the last 400 years, but one aspect that can get lost, is the role that people play in the library’s history. This month we will be exploring the impact that librarians, porters, students and even thieves have had in the Library’s past.

Possibly the most influential single person in the history of Middle Temple Library was Robert Ashley, admitted to the Inn on 8 October 1588 and called to the Bar on 24 October 1595. It is known that the Inn had a small library prior to 1540, but this was re-founded and expanded when Ashley died in 1641. In his will, Ashley generously bequeathed the Middle Temple his own personal library of around 5,000 volumes, plus an endowment of £300 to support a library keeper. This donation created the foundations of the Library as we know it today, and the current building housing the Library is named after the Ashley family. Alongside Ashley’s donation, numerous other contributions from established members of the Inn have been made throughout the last 400 years, notably from Sir William Blackstone, William Petyt, Sir Francis North and William Scott, Baron Stowell.

Portrait of Robert Ashley.


A library is nothing without its librarians. Since its founding in 1642, the Middle Temple Library has had 28 librarians (originally known as ‘Keeper of the Library’). William Cox, executor of Robert Ashley’s will, was the first Keeper of the Middle Temple Library, employed from 1642-1655. The position appears to have been comfortable one as in 1653 William, due to his advanced age, put forward a petition to the Inn requesting a fireplace in the Library and help with sweeping it, which he was duly granted.

While librarians had (and still have) an important role in providing services for members/students, this did not appear to have been reflected in their pay. The salary of librarians was under constant scrutiny, and throughout the years several petitions were made by librarians asking for wage increases in line with their duties. For example, in 1817, Mr Gordon (Keeper of the Library 1817-1827) put through a petition for a pay increase, on the grounds that the salary of a librarian had not increased from 40 guineas since 1699.

Petition for the increase of a Librarian's salary [MT/9/LMF/3].

C. E. Bedwell (librarian 1909-1922) also put forward a case, stating that in 1919, after 21 years of service to the library during which he produced “a catalogue with a subject index on a fuller scale than in any other law library in this country” which was published and had a steady sale, he had not seen an increase in his wage. Bedwell stated that the librarian of Lincoln’s Inn received £550, and the librarian of Inner Temple was on £650, while he had received no increase on his £400 wage.

C. E. Bedwell's letter regarding a wage increase. [MT/8/SMP/180].

Many notable librarians have served the Middle Temple Library over the past 400 years. Sampson S. Broughton (1696-1700) who served as King’s Attorney General of the province of New York, Charles Hopkins (1750-1752), who went on to be Under Treasurer of the Inn and James Horsfall (1767-1776), who became Treasurer of the Royal Humane Society in 1774.

One long-standing librarian, HAC Sturgess, began as a library Assistant in 1909, being promoted to librarian in 1922, a position he held until 1963. Sturgess is well known for his contribution to the Inn, from compiling the Middle Temple’s Register of Admissions to his role as an Air Raid Warden.

Sturgess was one of two Middle Temple staff members who trained, and qualified, as instructors “in all branches of Air Raid Precautions” during World War II. In this role, Sturgess gave lectures on anti-gas measures, the duties of wardens and fire drills both to members of the Inn and volunteers known as ‘Temple Wardens’. When the library was bombed in December 1940, Sturgess was present with a small group of volunteers to work through the “task of getting approximately 50,000 books off the floors, brushing the glass from between the pages…and stacking them so that it would not be too difficult to find when wanted.”

Clear up operation of the Victorian library after bomb damage [MT/19/PHO/5/10/3].

It was not until 1963 that the first professionally qualified librarian, Charlotte Lutyens, was appointed by the Inn. Her appointment greatly modernised the Library services resulting in significant improvements to the enquiry service, opening hours and provisions for students, laying the foundations for the library as it operates today.

Library Porters

The library has long since employed porters to assist the librarian with their responsibilities, ensuring the smooth day-to-day running of the Library. One family, the Ing family, was responsible for providing a succession of three generations of porters during the 1800s. However, it appears that loyalty did not necessarily equal reward as John Ing, the last of this line, wrote to the Bench in 1904 stating that after 26 years in the role, his wage had only risen from 20 to 35 shillings, but that when “my grandfather and my father were library porters: their wages rose to 40 shillings a week.” 

John Ing served as a porter for fifty-five years (1878 to 1933) and it was reported that he supposedly used to feed the ducks swimming in the Thames by throwing crumbs from the old library’s oriel window, which faced directly onto the Thames. Ing also provided the Inn with a sketch, created from memory, of a reading wheel that was used at the library between 1861-1870 but destroyed in 1881 to create four reading desks.

Sketch of a Reading Wheel [MT/9/LMF/11].


The library has always been a widely used and popular space for both students and members to undertake their study and work. Members of the library were given admission cards for entry to the building, although records show that many young gentlemen left their admission cards behind by accident! The Library kept a daily Attendance Book from 1851-1964 which is a testament to how actively and frequently the library was used.

Library Attendance Book from 17 April 1899 - 16 July 1904 [MT/9/LAB/24].

The library was important for work and study, and therefore needed to have ample resources. In 1731 members petitioned the Inn asking them to improve the facilities of the library by acquiring books on “law history and antiquities, as may render our Library … usefull to every gentleman in the Law” and create “a catalogue alphabeticall.” There was also a Suggestions Book in the library where users were able to put ideas for new purchases. An example of one such request is from 26 August 1880 when members asked for “a duplicate copy of Hunters Roman Law, the only copy in the library being always in use.”

Library Suggestion Book from 1873 - 1886 [MT/9/LMV/20].

Time in the library to use these resources was also needed and students put forward many petitions requesting increased opening hours of the library. It was argued that unless the hours were extended, “the Library is of no use or advantage to the Gentlemen of this society who attend Westminster Hall” (the location of some law courts before the Royal Courts of Justice was built). These petitions were often successful for example, in 1766 it was ordered by the Inn’s Parliament that the library “be continued open before dinner until two of the clock in the afternoon, and after Dinner until supper” so that students could use it without missing meal times.

Order of Parliament regarding the opening hours of the Library [MT1/PPA].

A further petition regarding opening times was put forward on 24 June 1864, stating that as many members of the Bar stayed in town (London) during vacation, the library may also stay open during the holiday. Two options to accommodate this were put forward: a) each Library be open for a portion of the Vacation, b) the Head Librarian have his full vacation and his attendants should be in attendance alternately week by week. 

Petition regarding the opening times of the library [MT/21/1/12].

The Middle Temple Library also appears to have been popular with members of other Inns as in 1919, Mr. Sharp, and then in 1920, Mr. Statham, both of Inner, asked to be admitted to chambers at Middle so they may “enjoy the privileges of the Library and Common Room of the Inn.” 

Petition from Mr. Statham to enter chambers in order to use the library. [MT1/PPE].

Thieves in the Library

Thefts were rife and in 1693, the Library took the decision to protect their books by chaining them together, however these safety measures were removed at some point in the 18th century. In 1736, one member of the Inn, Henry Justice, was found in his chambers with a large number of books stolen from both the Middle Temple Library and Trinity College Cambridge. He was found guilty and sentenced to seven years convict transportation to America for his crimes.

The Inn attempted to protect its books by bringing in a watchman to safeguard them. However this backfired in 1756, when Cunningham, the watchman, left his post while on duty, resulting in books being stolen. He was consequently “fined the sum of five pounds for his great neglect of duty” that led to the library being robbed.

Order for the watchman to be fined for neglecting his duty of watching the library [MT1/PPA].

Later, in the 1980s, two Ortelius Atlases kept in the library had been inadequately protected allowing a member of Inner Temple to steal them. The perpetrator was eventually caught by the police, convicted, and imprisoned in 1981, and the (subsequently damaged) atlases were returned to the library’s care. 

Since the Library in its current form was constituted in the 1640s, it has been a central part of the Inn, providing resources and space for the studies and work of students and members alike, and remains so to this day. This valuable service has been provided by generations of hardworking staff who, from the early days to the present, have all made their contribution to the running of the library and ensured access to information to all those who require it.