The Little Inns of Court

The origin of the decadent institutions located in certain grim and dreary-looking piles of building dotting the district of the Inns of Court proper, and known as the little Inns of Court, is involved in considerable obscurity. They appear to have originally held a similar position to the great seats of legal education as the halls of Oxford and Cambridge do to the Universities. But at the present time their relation to the Inns of Court proper is not very clear, and the uses they serve, otherwise than as residential chambers, are just as hard to discover. This state of mistiness concerning them has existed so long that no one now seems to know anything about them, and the evidence taken more than forty years ago by a Royal Commission did so little to clear away the dust and cobwebs hanging about them that they still remain, in the words of Lord Dundreary, “things that no fellow can understand.”

Lyon’s Inn has since that time been swept away to make room for the new Courts of Law, without any person evincing the smallest interest in its fate. Concerning this institution all that could be learned by the Royal Commission was contained in the evidence of Timothy Tyrrell, who “believed” that it consisted of members or “ancients,” he could not say which; he believed the terms were synonymous. There were then only himself and one other, and within his recollection there had never been more than five, and they had nothing to do beyond receiving the rents of the chambers. There were no students, and the only payment made on account of legal instruction was a sum of £7 13s. 4d. paid to the society of the Inner Temple for a reader; but there had been no reader since 1832. He had heard his father say that the reader “burlesqued the things so greatly” that the ancients were disgusted, and would not have another. There was a hall, but it was used only by a debating society; and there was a kitchen attached to it, but he had never heard of a library.

New Inn appears to have been somewhat more alive than Lyon’s, though it does not seem to have done any more to advance the cause of legal education. The property is held under the society of the Middle Temple, by a lease of three hundred years from 1744, at a rent of four pounds a year. Among the stipulations of the lease is one allowing the lessors to hold lectures in the hall, but none had been held since 1846, in consequence, it was believed, of the Middle Temple ceasing to send a reader. The lectures never numbered more than five or six in a year; and there is now no provision of any kind for legal education. Samuel Brown Jackson, who represented the inn before the Royal Commission, said he knew nothing concerning any ancient deeds or documents that would throw any light on the original constitution and functions of the body. If any there were, he “supposed” they were in the custody of the treasurer. The only source of income was the rents of chambers, which then amounted to between eighteen and nineteen hundred pounds a year; and the ancients have no duties beyond the administration of the funds.

Concerning the origin of Clement’s Inn, Thomas Gregory, the steward of the society, was unable to afford full information, but he had seen papers dating back to 1677, when there was a conveyance by Lord Clare to one Killett, followed by a Chancery suit between the latter and the principal and ancients of the society, which resulted in a decree under which the property so conveyed became vested in the inn. Some of the papers relating to the inn had been lost by fire, and “some of them,” said the witness, “we can’t read.” The inn, he believed, was formerly a monastery, and took its name from St. Clement. It had once been in connection with the Inner Temple, but he could find no papers showing what were the relations between the two societies, “except,” he added, “that a reader comes once a term, but that was dropped for twenty years—I think till about two or three years ago, and then we applied to them ourselves, and they knew nothing at all about it; the under-treasurer said he did not know anything about the reader, and had forgotten all about it.” It was the custom for the Inner Temple to submit three names to the ancients; and, said the witness, “we chose one; but then they said that the gentleman was out of town, or away, and that there was no time to appoint another.” But no great loss seems to have resulted thereby to the cause of legal education, for it appears that all a reader had ever done was to explain some recent Act of Parliament to the ancients and commoners, there being no students. The inn had no library and no chapel, but as a substitute for the latter had three pews in the neighbouring church of St. Clement, and also a vault, in which, said the witness, “the principals or ancients may be buried if they wish it.”

Some remarkable evidence was given concerning Staples Inn, and the more remarkable for being given by Edward Rowland Pickering, the author of a book on the subject, which publication one of the Commissioners had before him while the witness was under examination. “You state here,” said the Commissioner, “that in the reign of Henry V., or before, the society probably became an Inn of Chancery, and that it is a society still possessing the manuscripts of its orders and constitutions.” “I am afraid,” replied the witness, “that the manuscript is lost. The principal has a set of chambers which were burnt down, and his servant and two children were burnt to death, seventy years ago; and I rather think that these manuscripts might be lost.” Where the learned historian of the inn had obtained the materials for that work is a question which he does not appear to have been in a position to answer; for when asked whether he knew of any trace of a connection between the society and an Inn of Court, he replied, “Certainly, I should say not. It is sixty years since I was there, boy and all.” A very strange answer considering the statement in his book. During the sixty years he had been connected or acquainted with the society, he had never heard of the existence of a reader, or of any association of the inn with legal education or legal pursuits. The only connection claimed for the inn by the principal, Andrew Snape Thorndike, was that, when a serjeant was called from Gray’s Inn, that society invited the members of Staples Inn to breakfast. There is a singular provision respecting the tenure of chambers in this inn by the ancients. “A person,” said this witness, “holds them for his own life, and though he may be seventy years of age, if he can come into the hall, he may surrender them to a very young man, and if that young man should live he may surrender them again at the same age.” If a surrender is not made, the chambers revert to the society.

Barnard’s Inn is a very old one, and the property has been held on lease from the dean and chapter of Lincoln for more than three hundred years. The society consists of a principal, nine ancients, and five companions, which latter are chosen by the ancients; but we fail to gather from the evidence of Charles Edward Hunt, treasurer and secretary of the inn, by what principles the ancients are guided in the selection. We learn, however, that applications for admission by solicitors are not allowed. Such a thing had occurred once, but it was as long ago as 1827, and “of course,” said the witness, “we refused him, and he applied to the court, and after some difficulty he got a rule nisi for a mandamus. It came on to be tried before Lord Tenterden, and Lord Tenterden said it could not be granted; that we were a voluntary association, and the court had no jurisdiction.” The applicant seems to have based his claim on the ground that Barnard’s was an Inn of Chancery, and that, as a solicitor, he had a right to be admitted. The matter was scarcely worth contention, as the privileges of the companions are confined to dining in hall and the chance of being made an ancient, that favoured grade being entitled to “their dinners and some little fees.” The books of the society showed no trace of there ever having been any students of law connected with the inn. “The oldest thing I find,” said the witness, “is that a reader came occasionally from Gray’s Inn to read; but what he read about, or who paid him, there is no minute whatever.” He did not know when a reader last came from Gray’s Inn; he thought it was about two hundred years ago. It only remains to be told of Barnard’s Inn that it has not even a library; there had been a few books at one time, the witness told the Commission, but they were sold as useless!

Concerning the remaining little inns—Clifford’s, Symond’s, and Furnival’s—no evidence was taken. They appear to be merely residential chambers, much the same as some of those concerning which we have information in the report of the Royal Commission and the evidence given before it, and the chambers are far from being used exclusively by members of the legal profession. Nearly sixty years ago the present writer found a retired army officer occupying chambers in Clifford’s, and on a later occasion made at Symond’s Inn, the acquaintance of a curate who resided there with his wife and a young family! Concerning Furnival’s Inn, it was incidentally stated by Michael Doyle, who represented Lincoln’s Inn before the Royal Commission, that the latter society received £576 a year under a lease of the former property granted to the late Henry Peto for ninety-nine years, £500 being for rent, and the remainder in lieu of land tax. The witness was, however, unable to give any information as to the manner in which, or the date when, the property was acquired by Lincoln’s Inn.

The inquiry by the Royal Commission resulted in the recommendation of some very important changes in the constitution of the little Inns of Court and the administration of the several properties; but these, we learn, have been modified so much in their adoption as to have been of very little value. The societies have long outlived the purposes for which they were instituted, though their principals and officials seem to attach considerable importance to their continued existence. It is probable, however, that their raison d’étre being gone, they will all sooner or later go the way of Lyon’s Inn, and become things of the past.