Victor Tunkel (1933-2019)
Victor Tunkel, who died at the end of July 2019, was secretary of the Selden Society for nearly fifty years. He composed the following memoir of his time in office just after he retired from the position. He will be remembered by many members for his good humour as well as his efficiency.
I only came to be secretary of the Selden Society just to help out temporarily in an emergency. I had just come as a lecturer to the new law school at Queen Mary College in October 1967, having been some years lecturing at Bristol University. Within a month of my arrival the then Selden Secretary, Howard Drake, was taken ill and died. The society at that time had been based for some years at the University of London’s Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, where Howard was the Institute’s Secretary and Librarian. The Institute was not yet in its present building – in Charles Clore House – but squeezed into one of the many old converted Cubitt houses in Russell Square owned by the university.
At Russell Square, the Institute and library were bursting at the seams. Howard’s death made it opportune to look for a new home for the society, our many volumes, files and records, and at the same time to find a new secretary. The first choice fell on Queen Mary, where a new law school had recently been set up in a very new building with plenty of space to spare. Who might succeed as secretary there was a mere secondary consideration; it was the space that was wanted. But as I had been teaching legal history at Bristol University for some years (a compulsory two-year course!) they asked me. Howard Drake had at some point made a brief list of the main duties of the Selden secretary. The Dean Professor Crane with Professor Aubrey Diamond looked at this with me. They thought it did not amount to much. With some misgivings I agreed to take it on, on a trial basis.
The then president of the society was the deputy-speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Eric (later Lord) Fletcher. He, with the literary director Professor S.F.C. Milsom, and the honorary treasurer Colonel Russell, came to Queen Mary to meet the principal and bursar, to seek the approval of the college to host the society. They agreed the arrangements and terms and the rent of a room with all the college’s services, and to reimburse the college for providing a part-time secretarial assistant. An honorarium for the secretary was agreed. I hired a van and together with two students did the move from Russell Square, setting up all the files and volumes at Queen Mary. Our office has remained there fifty years. And thus I became secretary, only the fifth such in the society’s 129 years.
The regular work of the society, as I soon found out, was constant and sometimes pressing. In effect we are an old-established publishing house which is also its own sole distributor. But we function as a sort of book club. This makes for several distinct aspects to our work. All correspondence at that time was by hand-typed letter. I engaged in regular correspondence with the literary director and treasurer, but often also with members worldwide and on all manner of enquiries. My tasks as Secretary included maintaining our membership lists – checking every member’s name and address – and organising the printing and dispatch of the annual volumes worldwide, as well as dealing with the publication of the volumes in the Supplementary Series, and orders for individual volumes. When the Society was originally constituted, the Secretary also acted as Treasurer – but it was resolved to keep the offices separate after the tragic events of 1894, when the Society’s funds were embezzled by its first secretary, Edward Dove, who later shot himself. The annual volume of that year was only produced thanks to a whip-round among members, but ever since, the Society has followed a meticulous, if slow process in which three people – the Treasurer, his assistant and the Secretary – all take part in drawing cheques.
I had no concession on account of my Selden work as to my regular college obligation to teach, research and publish. I have managed over the years to write on various topics, in criminal law, evidence, medico-legal and other areas. Legal history I have left to the society’s real experts, save for one small instance. Professor Derek Roebuck was embarking on his series of volumes revealing the history of arbitration. Having covered Greece and Rome, he was starting on medieval England. So I mentioned to him a 13th-century case I had come across, of two Jewish brothers in Norwich arbitrating as to the division of their late father’s property which had been left to them as a whole. The case is mentioned in Davis: Hebrew Deeds of English Jews before 1290 (London 1888) but with only a summary of the first few lines. The original manuscript is in Westminster Abbey’s archives. I went there to see it. Most of the lower part was missing but I was able to transcribe and translate enough to provide a useful example to include in Roebuck: Early English Arbitration (2008)
The Life of the Society
When I became secretary the society never really met save for its annual general meeting, which was in my early days a brief and poorly-attended formal business-meeting as required by charity law. In those days Lincoln’s Inn, our regular venue, allowed us to make our own catering arrangements. So I brought from home the family’s very large catering-size teapot, and polystyrene cups (frowned upon by our then president, Sir Geoffrey Elton), with some sandwiches and cakes supplied by a shop in Chancery Lane. My intent was to save money. But with the welcome practice of recent years to follow the meeting with a lecture and reception, we hope that meetings are more inviting to members and more appropriate to a learned society.
In all of my work and time spent as secretary I was still expected to be a full-time law teacher, with no concession for the Selden work. The most difficult time was in the summer, when examining and marking of piles of scripts collided with the annual audit, preparation of the annual report, organising the AGM, and welcoming overseas visitors who dropped in to see us. Then came the summer of 1987, our hundredth anniversary. For the Centenary, I suggested that we should invoke our royal patronage. Approaches were made to our Patron, Prince Philip, and he graciously agreed to attend and speak at our centenary dinner. As a barrister of Gray’s Inn, I had the entrée there and arranged to hold the dinner in Gray’s Inn Hall. For this, the Palace imposed elaborate security arrangements. The buildings, in and out, were first thoroughly inspected both visually and with sniffer dogs. Everyone attending had to be listed and checked and ticketed. The royalty protection squad, three police officers, had to be present (and fed!). And all this was well before the heightened terrorist threat of recent times. For the dinner I made a comprehensive table plan with a top table for the Patron, the President, the Lord Chief Justice and other prominenti. Prince Philip’s private secretary and personal detective had to be seated among the diners in the hall in a sort of triangulation. A photographer was hired, with strict instructions about when and when not to photograph Prince Philip. I sought the original 1886 announcements in The Times proposing the formation of a society for legal history, and its later reporting of our first meeting. I reproduced these for a souvenir menu. I arranged for flowers to be set on every table. Gray’s Inn brought out their fine historic silver. It was a truly memorable occasion, and remains a highlight of my years in office.
I have also participated in arranging a number of other commemorative events. We celebrated the third centenary of Sir Matthew Hale in 1971 by mounting an exhibition of his memorabilia in Lincoln’s Inn Old Hall. His Chief Justice’s robes (the oldest surviving judicial robes), his various portraits, his patents of appointment and his autograph manuscripts were put on display, and we had a lecture by David Yale on Hale’s historical method and achievement. More recently we mounted an exhibition there of manuscripts as part of the book-launch for our supplementary series Vol.15, the Taussig Collection.
It was proposed to us that Maitland, our founder, be commemorated in ‘Poet’s Corner’ at Westminster Abbey. We were asked to contribute to the cost of engraving a circular plaque. The proposal and the request for a contribution were approved by the Council. This was despite an objection from one medievalist: Maitland ought not to be in the abbey at all since ‘Maitland was not a Believer’. The Dean, Dr Wesley Carr, said this did not matter ‘so long as Maitland was not positively antagonistic to belief’. When we received a photo of the proposed plaque we were disappointed to see Maitland described as ‘Historian’. We asked for it to say ‘Lawyer and Historian’. But it seemed the engraving has already been started and could not be altered. There was an unveiling ceremony in the abbey attended by many of the council. The Dean and Professor Milsom spoke. Tea afterwards. We were less successful in restoring Maitland’s grave. He used to spend the winters in the Canary Islands, for his health. While there in 1906 he died aged 56 and was buried in the small Anglican cemetery. An enterprising member found his grave, with some difficulty as it was overgrown. He suggested to the council that we pay for its restoration. But the Anglican chaplaincy on the island said that the grave was in good order and did not need attention.
When our president was Sir Robert (“Ted”) Megarry, I had to go to the Law Courts from time to time to report to him. He was then the Vice-Chancellor, president of the Chancery Division. He kindly let me use the judges’ entrance at the rear of the building in Carey Street, where a corridor led straight to his room. However with the IRA bombing London, enhanced security later precluded this. Instead I reached him through his court room, after hours, when he unlocked the court door for me to go through with him to the judges’ exit behind the bench. On one such occasion, going through the court room, I was astonished to see piles, hundreds, of volumes of law reports, every one flagged and stacked for citation in a part-heard case. When I expressed astonishment, he said ‘all that lot’ indicating a pile on one side ‘have been cited so far, and those’ indicating a much larger stack, ‘remain to be cited’. I asked him what the case was about. He said ‘it concerns two islands in the South Seas’. I said, jokingly, ‘well of course you’re going to have a view…’ to which he did not reply. I took his silence as dismissive of my weak jest. Some months later there appeared in the newspapers a photo of Megarry, in tropical shorts, accompanied by officials, coming ashore at an island atoll. The case, reported as Tito v Waddell  3 All ER, has – in the judgment alone – 260 cases.
Another excursion, to the Foreign Office, was memorable for less pleasant reasons. We were contacted by a Mr Rodger of the FO. He said that the Indonesian foreign minister would be paying a visit to London. Apparently the foreign minister was known to be a fan of Selden’s Mare Clausum (1636). Selden’s powerful argument, that a state could have dominion not only over its land but also over its surrounding seas, was especially welcome to a country like Indonesia. The FO wanted to present him with a copy of the 1652 English translation. They expected us to supply one. All I could offer was to borrow a copy, which the FO could photocopy and bind as a facsimile. Rodger accepted this. I borrowed an original from the Institute of Historical Research. It was a large folio and very thick with its many pages. I had some qualms about sub-lending it but thought it would be safe enough with the FO. So I wrapped it carefully in plain strong brown paper and made my way with this big heavy object to the FO. At that time there was a very present IRA scare with heightened security, and I suppose the FO was a prime target. At the main entrance was an armed policeman. In the entrance hall inside was a security man. I approached the reception counter, where a fierce middle-aged woman regarded me and my parcel with immediate suspicion. I didn’t feel it necessary to explain the purpose of my visit to her. I just said ‘I have to deliver this to Mr Rodger’. ‘Mr Roger Who?’ she demanded. I explained that was his surname. She opened an internal directory, searched, and said emphatically ‘there is no Mr Roger’. I said, ‘no, it is “Rodger” with a “d” ’. She scowled at me, turned back a page, and then said more emphatically ‘there is no Mr Rodger with a “d” ! ’, and she looked over my shoulder and beckoned to the security man. I said ‘but wait: I have his extension number’, and I went to reach in my pocket for my diary. This caused alarm. They let me very slowly take out my diary and I read the number he had given me. She looked at me in total disbelief. She dialled, watching me intently the whole time. There was a reply. She said ‘Mr Rodger?’ To my great relief I heard a ‘yes’. ‘What section are you?’ ‘South-East Asia’. ‘You’re not in the directory!’ I could not hear his explanation but she seemed grudgingly satisfied. I was provided with an escort to go to his room, through long and increasingly dingy corridors. He was at his desk, eating a sandwich. I told him that he had nearly got me shot. I handed over the book. He undertook to do any copying with the utmost care, assuring me that they had all the necessary equipment, and could disbind and rebind the volume if needed. I was just relieved to be escorted out of that building.
Another outside excursion is sometimes called for. London is the centre of the world for auctions and occasionally an item is listed which needs looking into: an early legal manuscript, a portrait, an archive of title documents, letters written by or to a leading legal figure of the past, an old lawyer’s commonplace-book or even just his fee book, or an early law book, printed but very fully annotated in a contemporary hand. So I go to view and perhaps to bid. On one such occasion the catalogue listed a sixteenth-century judge’s notebook. None by him was previously known to exist. We wanted it but were outbid by an American library. So for the next step I applied to the Department of Trade to withhold an export licence until we had a copy made (at the library’s expense) and studied. Our Vol.102, Port’s Notebook, was the outcome. One never knows what will turn up at auction. Sir John Baker keeps an eagle eye on every catalogue and he periodically lists legal manuscript items in the Journal of Legal History so that they may be subsequently traced – if he doesn’t buy them himself.
I am sometimes asked about the society tie. The idea of having a tie, which came from an overseas member, was at first greeted by our then president Sir Robert Megarry and others with scorn. However we were persuaded and a design based on the arms of John Selden was chosen. Actually Selden, of comparatively humble stock, had no family arms. But his mother came from an armorial family, the Bakers of Kent. So Selden adopted their arms, being those of his maternal grandfather, Sir John Baker, who died in 1558. In non-heraldic terms, the emblem is a golden swan’s head with a duke’s coronet in red round its throat. Many years later when our present Sir John Baker was knighted by the Queen, he chose for his arms these same ancient Baker arms as had John Selden. I have heard the tie design jokingly referred to as ‘the Baker’s Arms’.
Dealing with Our Printers
An excursion of a more urgent sort was needed some years ago. Our printers, Spottiswoode Ballantyne, who had printed all our volumes from the very first in 1887, suddenly and with no prior warning went into liquidation. Having printed for us for so many years, they held a large stock of our original undistributed back volumes. I went hurriedly to their works at Colchester to identify and rescue our property from the clutches of the liquidators. The abandoned printing works were a sad sight. I searched around and was able to find another printer. The Alden Press, an established family firm at Witney outside Oxford, took us on and were soon producing high-quality typesetting, imposition and binding for our volumes. Later I was invited to a grand occasion there when their new works opened with huge new machines and plant on display. The local Member of Parliament, one David Cameron, made a congratulatory speech.
Alden printed for us for many years until the seemingly inevitable day when they too went into liquidation, their income unable to sustain their heavy borrowing. The liquidators moved into the works and were seizing for sale not only the massive printing plant but all other goods stored on the site. I had to get there quickly to once again assert our title, and locate and secure our several hundred stored volumes until we could find a safe haven for them. It was a freezing midwinter. Our stock was held in a metal shipping-container, outside and away from the main buildings. I was concerned at first to find water from the roof dripping inside onto the stock, but was reassured to discover that this was just our breath condensing! I made a second visit with shippers to load the stock and send all to Buffalo, USA, where our good friends Hein & Co have long stored and reprinted for us.
We had then once again to find quickly another printer who could cope with our exacting work: type-setting Law-French and medieval Latin, page-making with text and translation in alignment at each opening, pages double-numbered, extensive footnotes, several separate indexes, and lengthy introductions with roman numbering, tables, etc. I knew by name one or two of the Alden ex-employees, so I resorted to the local phone-book for their home numbers, to commiserate and to ask if they had found a new employer. One, a man who had handled our work over the years at Alden, said he had been taken on by another printer at Eynsham nearby. I approached this new printer, Information Press. They were able to continue almost seamlessly to handle our work.
Then after many years they also failed. We seem to be a Jonah for printing firms! I hastily searched again. It seemed to me that the printers of the Law Reports and the All England Reports, the Europe-wide CPI, might be a likely and durable choice. They gladly accepted us, so I undertook yet a third rescue operation, going to Eynsham, identifying our stock which was spread over their very large warehouse, hiring a van to collect it and take to CPI depot at Beccles. Finally I should mention that our policy throughout has been to have concurrently two competing printers to quote for our work. So in recent years we have been happy to place volumes alternately with Henry Ling in Dorchester.
I mentioned Hein Inc earlier. We already knew them as one of several subscription agents for some of our library members. Many libraries subscribe and take our volumes in this indirect way. When we first approached them to reprint our back volumes, they were just one among several American reprint companies. They subsequently grew to be the leading law reprinters in America. They willingly undertook the task, too expensive for us, of keeping all our back volumes in print. We have continuing requests for individual early volumes; and occasionally a library joining the society would require a complete set. Hein undertook to replicate our volumes’ size and binding style. Later, with our printers’ failure, we asked Hein if they would take in and store all our back volumes. So began a happy relationship. All our past volumes in both our series are thus kept available in hard copy. The society keeps stock only of the very recent years’ issues. I also got Hein to reprint the complete lecture series 1957 – 2001 into a bound volume and to supply us with 100 free copies; which members snapped up quickly.
My part in all this was to negotiate and draft each of the agreements with Hein, and their later amendments. I also paid a visit to Hein’s works in Buffalo, USA to see their impressive operation at first-hand. By a later agreement, all our volumes apart from the last few years’ have been filmed by Hein and are now included in their enormous on-line website. There was never an overall index to all our volumes but this site now makes such a search possible. Members have privileged access to Hein’s Selden site, and which also has other historical material, by a password.
The serious work of the society is of course research and publishing, for which the literary director, not the secretary, is responsible. But the office has often been called upon for a wide variety of other legal-historical things: to evaluate a manuscript; to identify a judge in a portrait; to help trace someone’s lawyer-ancestors; to explain on radio or TV some current happening in the law which has a historical aspect. We have also helped in current litigation or legal practice where a historical matter has arisen. Some instances:
A small river, the Effra, runs into the River Thames in South London. It sometimes floods, probably because it is not in its natural river-bed. It appears that in about 1350 the Prior of Bermondsey dammed and diverted it from its bed to run through his priory. Twenty years later he was summoned to appear before the King’s Bench, because the new watercourse was now tending to flood the nearby highway, which needed to be raised, and this was held to be his responsibility. The 1371 proceedings are in our Vol.40. Apparently the area is still subject to flooding and we were contacted to supply details of the report to see if from it there might be some clue to ascertain the original natural course.
In Vermont, USA, a small local garbage-collection company was imposed on by a larger multi-state garbage company. The larger company had been soliciting its customers and tipping-out its bins. The smaller company successfully sued. They were awarded an appropriate amount of compensatory damages; but then additional heavy punitive damages for deliberately interfering with the plaintiff company’s customers. The defendants appealed saying this was an ‘excessive fine’, and so forbidden by the US Bill of Rights. That expression came from the Virginia Bill of Rights. But that took it from the English Bill of Rights of 1689. But that took it from Magna Carta. So the society was asked, what did Magna Carta in 1215 mean by ‘excessive fines’, and would it have included (excessive) damages? We offered an opinion. We were cited in the US Supreme Court report of the appeal. (Browning-Ferris v. Kelco 106 L.Ed 2d 219)
In a town in the south of England a lease was granted in 1674 for a thousand years. We were approached by the solicitors for the original tenants who were still in possession. They were a Quaker meeting-house. No rent had been paid in living memory. Our Law of Property Act 1925 has a provision for converting such an ancient long lease into a fee simple. The solicitors asked our help to transcribe the title documents, which they were unable to read. I got them to send photocopies. I ploughed through these, dictating to my assistant who did all the typing. In several places a photocopy was not readable and I went to the solicitors’ office to check with the original. We then put the ‘Selden Society’ stamp on the transcriptions and certified them to the Land Registry. They registered the Quakers as owners. The Quakers were then able to sell with a complete title, as they had always intended.
When the BBC were filming Bleak House they wanted to set a scene in a Dickensian law-stationers’ shop. A search of all the many legal engravings of the period revealed none of so mundane a subject. So we advised on what it would have contained and looked like, drawers with quills and folios, tapes and sealing-wax, etc. They then also wanted a Dickensian barrister’s bag, and there I was able to lend them mine for copying by their wardrobe department.
We were consulted some years ago for an opinion as to the title to the seignory of Sark, a small island in the Channel Islands group which came to the English crown with William I, and the last
feudal seignory in Europe. A problem goes back to King John, who seized the throne of England on the death of his oldest brother King Richard I in 1199. There was in fact a boy, Arthur, son of a deceased elder brother of John and who by normal inheritance law should have succeeded Richard as king. Arthur was suppressed by John, a sort of ‘wicked uncle’ figure, and took the throne. But this had the effect for some years of distorting the law of succession, enabling ‘wicked uncles’ to spring up everywhere and succeed in preference to the rightful heir. Their claim could not be defeated without in effect denying the king’s title to the throne. The present Seigneur of Sark was such a nephew, and there was such an uncle. He approached us, claiming that since Norman customary law still applies in the Channel Islands, this gave him priority. He had even obtained legal aid for counsel’s opinion. A detailed historical opinion from one of our medievalists settled the matter in favour of the status quo.
We have sometimes tried to help finding venues. Sir John Donaldson MR was reported in The Times complaining that the current long delays in cases being heard in London were partly due to a lack of court-rooms. This prompted me to send him two pictures of courts sitting in court rooms in London and which nowadays were empty and unused. The first was Westminster Hall with the King’s Bench and Chancery in session. The second was Lincoln’s Inn Old Hall with the Lord Chancellor sitting. He thanked me, dismissed Westminster Hall out of hand, but said he might approach the Inn to see if their hall could be made available. I had myself been at a hearing there some time before, when a court of five judges heard an appeal by a barrister against his disbarring for misconduct.
On another occasion we were approached by a TV production company who wanted us to find an authentic 19th-century court room for a film set. It was to recreate a historic criminal trial. (The most perfect original English court-room that I know is in Philadelphia, but that was no help.) I said I would make some enquiries. But they phoned again soon after to say thanks, they had found one. A week or two went by. They then phoned to say that they could not see where the jury would sit. I said ‘in the jury-box, in two rows facing the witness-box’. But they could not see anywhere such. So I asked for a plan or photo of their court. It was a grand oak-panelled chamber but clearly a magistrates’ court. I told them this was no use. But they said they had already started filming and must continue. They asked: could the jury sit in three rows of four? I didn’t know of any rule of the constitution, written or unwritten, that says that a jury must sit in two rows of six. But I said it would certainly look strange in any filmed reconstruction. I suggested that they only show the jury in close-up, and perhaps alternate the front bench four with four others. I don’t think I ever saw the film.
Our main task is and will always be the production of our annual volumes. Our pace of production, demanding very exacting scholarship, is inevitably slow, and my QM faculty colleagues used to be highly amused when letters arrived in our mail room addressed to the ‘Seldom Society’. (I got my own back by showing them another letter addressed to us at ‘Queen Mary’s Cottage’.) This question of pace of production, a mere one volume a year, was commented on over 40 years ago by a writer in the Law Library Journal. He calculated that if we continued at the present rate we would complete the editing and publication of all the printed year book law reports, a series that we started in 1890, by the year of grace AD 2750. Stung with this and his other criticisms I felt it very desirable to have this critic ‘in the tent’: on the society’s council. It was at my suggestion that he, John Baker, was nominated for election. (He has since opined that the date 2750 was wildly optimistic.)
The year books are personal and unofficial reports by individual lawyers (or more likely aspiring students), of which there are many variant manuscripts from the 1300s to the 1600s. I will say more of these below. A much bigger corpus of materials is the plea rolls, our most embarrassing riches, a vast mass of parchment material containing the central courts’ own formal records. (Comparable records but less formidable, exist for other local courts.) Right down through the Middle Ages, the essential stage of each case in the central courts was punctiliously entered into the front or the back of a parchment membrane by an official court scribe, in Latin and in a formalised ‘court-hand’ writing: the details of the parties and the subject-matter, the pleadings, the decision, and any later proceedings. Each membrane when full was later stitched to the preceding one at the top, so as to be vertically peeled back and readable on each side, rather like a newspaper-reporter’s notebook. By the end of each law term this produced one or more huge parchment rolls. The National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) has hundreds of these rolls, available to researchers. But by the end of the middle ages the records are so copious that the most diligent scholar can only make sample dips. For example, for the reign of Henry VIII and just for the court of common pleas, there are 102,566 membranes. For Elizabeth’s reign there are 310,800 membranes. With the writing on both sides, the scholar wanting to read, say, just the common pleas cases of just the 1500s line by line will have to cover about 500 miles of parchment. If, undeterred by eye strain and back-ache, he or she wants to read the contemporary King’s Bench and Exchequer cases as well, there will be about the same again. I mentioned earlier the AALT project to reproduce all these and other records in electronic form, readable on-screen. This will take some years to complete but will obviate much travel and effort.
The plea rolls are the courts’ own official records, accurate and reliable but dull. At the same time as the court scribe was solemnly making his enrolments, down in the court were students needing to learn how to plead; because pleadings were oral for much of our earlier history. Their hasty jottings of the experienced advocates’ arguments and the judges’ interjections give life to the formal enrolments. These spoken exchanges in court are recorded in reports called ‘year books’. There may be several such versions of the same case and all differing. The society’s editors try to bring together these two aspects of the same case, the formal roll and these informal ‘verbatim’ notes. Each then supplements the other to give a full picture of the facts, legal issue, argument and result. But to achieve this involves matching the year book report with the corresponding official enrolment. And making that identification is the hardest part because the students that scribbled their reports were not interested in matters irrelevant to their study, like the correct names of the parties or the date of the hearing, or often indeed the result! Their purpose was to hear and note down the way oral pleading and argument was done and so to learn the art. But in doing so they recorded not only subtle legal reasoning but everyday locutions, topical allusions, quips, put-downs, oaths, hesitations, asides, all there for the historian of popular culture and language. No other European nation has anything to compare with the year books. And they are also a treasury of incidental information. Because long before mass-media, the only continuous records for most of our history are legal records. So we have been asked by medical historians looking for evidence of epidemics; by lexicographers searching for the earliest use of an English word; meteorologists for mentions of freak weather conditions; and every other sort of historian, economic, social, family, linguistic, wanting to read between the lines of litigation for gems of information.
We started to edit and publish year books in 1903. A government-funded series, the Rolls Series, was then already doing Ed.I and Ed.III. So Maitland decided we should start with the reign of Edward II, the early 1300s. This was the period when the first professional judges were appointed from the bar, when local justices of the peace emerged, when the first gropings towards a law of tort and contract are seen; when we perceive the casual origins of a separate equity jurisdiction; when it became a valid challenge to trial jurors that they had been on the (accusing) grand jury. So it is a vital formative period for the common law and its profession. Maitland calculated that the Ed.II year books would require seven volumes. He later revised this to twenty. Now 130 years on, we have produced twenty-seven volumes and we are only two-thirds through that reign. Of course we have published much else in that time, both in our main annual series and in a supplementary series; and you cannot hurry meticulous scholarship.
In this connection it has seemed to me that the society would be much more supported if this painstaking work was better known and appreciated. I thought that this could perhaps be brought home to members and people generally in some visual way: to show how our editors go about unearthing the raw material, transcribing, translating, making all readable, and then providing commentary. It needed a medieval case, significant yet with simple facts and argument, and preferably one not yet in any of our volumes. John Baker thought this a good idea. We settled on the ‘Humber Ferry case’ of 1348, a seminal case in tort and contract. A copy of the official record, obtained from the then Public Record Office, revealed the case as Bukton v Townsende. Then, to find a year book report of the case I went down with Mr Ringrose, the Lincoln’s Inn librarian, into their underground strong-room where a year book manuscript, once owned by Chief Justice Hale, had a clear version. Bringing all the materials together in facsimile, transcription and translation, with typical editorial comment to each, and a general introduction, made a large attractive wall-chart: from the raw material to the finished Selden product. As the American Bar Association were about to hold their 1985 annual meeting in London, we issued it as a souvenir. The first issue sold out and we had to have a reprint.
I would not have done this job all these years if I did not enjoy it. I have had the honour to work closely with some of the most distinguished English judges of recent years: Lord Diplock, Lord Mustill, Sir Robert Megarry, and our recent past president, Lord Judge; and some of the leading practitioners and academics who have also been our presidents, in our rotation: academic, practitioner, judge. I have corresponded with and met distinguished judges and leading academics in many countries overseas. Our memorable first arrival was Sir Victor Windeyer from Australia who came specially to visit our Queen Mary operation. From his three very distinguished careers, as academic, soldier and judge, he made the interesting observation that in war we face old problems with new weapons, whereas in law we face new problems with old weapons! With our ordinary members I have had very frequent friendly enquiries and exchanges. These are sometimes about the society’s work and publications, but quite often very general: their travel plans, the UK political scene, the best book-shops to visit, and so forth. A US professor wanted us to find out where there was any relevant meeting, or failing that an archaeological dig, that he could claim to have visited and so qualify for his expenses. One American lady who came over for the AGM wrote to complain to us on that her return her car was not where she had left it parked. A member from Europe here for the centenary dinner reported that his suitcase was stolen from his London hotel and asked if we could lend him a dinner suit; we got him a jacket. For another overseas member who had recently had major surgery, I was able to obtain an unusual appliance to enable him to attend and extend his stay. When I started all correspondence was by letters to and fro. One of the first things I did on becoming secretary was to design an air-letter form with the full Selden heading, to get the cheaper postal rate. It is hard to imagine how we managed before the advent of email.
At the end of my 49 years as Secretary of the Society I send warm greetings to the many members, lawyers, historians, librarians, students, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting on their visits here, and of the many more with whom I have had pleasant exchanges over the years. I lament that we are not more supported by the English legal profession, surely our natural constituency. We are the more proud of our support from American lawyers and universities and especially the enthusiastic membership in Australia. We all share a noble legal heritage which, unchanging, goes far beyond contemporary politics and culture: surely the supreme gift of the English people to the civilised world.