WWI Remembered

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Lesley Whitelaw reflects upon the role of Middle Temple during the First World War.

When on 9 July 1914 the Masters of the Bench of the Middle Temple convened at the final Parliament before the long summer vacation, few if any would have thought that a month later, Britain would be part of the first European-wide war in 100 years. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated 11 days earlier but already the first steps were taken which would lead to that conflict. The proceedings of this Parliament follow in the long tradition of records of the Inn’s governing body dating back to 1501 in making no reference to national events. Instead the Masters confined their official deliberations to consideration of the Consolidated Regulations of the Bar, disciplinary matters and the Fancy Dress Ball which had been given on 7 July.


When Parliament re-convened on 15 October 1914, Britain had been at war for over two months. The tone and concerns of this Parliament were now fully focused on what would preoccupy its members for the duration of the War: support for the war effort and for those who fought, and securing Inn buildings and possessions against the risks of something new, aerial warfare. Its first order was to vote a donation of £1,000 to be divided equally between the Prince of Wales’ National Relief Fund and the Officers’ Families Fund. Its second act was to approve insurance of £94,400 against Bomb Fire for the Hall, Screen, Parliament Chambers and their panelling (£43K), Library (£18K) and books (£18K), Molyneux Globes (£5K) and paintings, engravings, other books and furniture (£10.4K). Middle Temple’s share of the Temple Church, windows, books, organ and Master’s House was similarly insured for £22.2K. Thirdly, an amendment was made to the Consolidated Regulations to enable Benchers of any Inn to dispense with the keeping of terms by any student unable to do so by reason of his being a member of the Forces of the Crown or otherwise engaged in connection with the War.

The Parliament of 15 November 1914 invited advocates of the Belgian Bar who were in England to become Honorary Members of Middle Temple (if not already Honorary Members of another Inn) with all privileges including use of Hall, Library and dining room during the continuation of the War.

The same Parliament was the first of all too many at which letters of sympathy were sent to Benchers whose sons had been killed. Letters of condolence were sent to Master Erskine Pollock on the death in action of his son, Lieutenant F.R. Pollock, and to Master Glyn who was to lose a second son in the Indian Army in Mesopotamia in January 1917.

On 3 June 1915, after directing letters of condolence to the families of members killed in action, Parliament ordered that the death of any member of the Inn in the service of his country should be reported as soon as possible to enable Parliament to give the necessary order for letter of condolence.

By the time Parliament reconvened in early November the list of fallen included a major, three captains and seven lieutenants.

From the outset the Inn made its Hall available for raising funds for War charities, particularly the Red Cross and the Order of St John. The fi rst application came in a letter from H.F. Dickens asking leave to give a dramatic recital of the works of his father, Charles Dickens, a former member of the Inn, in Middle Temple Hall to raise funds for the British Red Cross Society and was approved by the Bench on 12 November 1914.

The most ambitious of these fund raising events took place in July 1916 after the Inn granted Lady Price’s request on behalf of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John of Jerusalem for the use of Hall and Gardens for a Shakespeare Fete to raise funds. The glittering cast and supporters included names from the world of theatre, politics and Society – Ellen Terry, Sir George Alexander, Lillah McCarthy, the daughters of the Prime Minister and of the Chancellor the Exchequer, Miss Nancy Cunard, and Lady Diana Manners (later Cooper). Despite inclement weather, it raised the substantial sum of £1,560 which was acknowledged by the King and by Queen Alexandra.

The other area in which Parliament was active was ensuring the adequacy of fi re appliances for protection of buildings and property of the Inn against fi re bombs and other risks. Meanwhile, the Fire Committee sought advice on the enlargement of mains to connect with Inner Temple and were authorised to buy a fire engine and to employ a man to overhaul the present appliances. One rather over-zealous Bencher lost a motion that the Fire Committee be instructed to consider the advisability of fixing steel or other netting over the roof of Hall and over the roof of the Church. It was left to Master Treasurer’s discretion to order the removal of pictures to a place of safety over the long vacation. By November 1915 the Fire Committee could report their work was complete.

In fact, despite the fear of bombing, the Inn’s property suffered minimal damage, so different from the devastation it was to suffer in the Blitz just over two decades later. On 11 January 1917 Parliament gave leave for the Director of Aircraft Equipment to erect a tent in Middle Temple Gardens for an Exhibition of Zeppelin Wreckage which attracted considerable public interest.

Months later, on the night of 30 September 1917, the Inn suffered minor damage in fact from anti-aircraft artillery. Brass plaques in the floor of what was then the Parliament Chamber (now the Queen’s Room) mark where a three inch shell fired by anti-aircraft artillery, having burst through the corridor roof, fell through the floor. A report by the Head Porter to the Treasurer describes an incendiary bomb attack on 19 December 1917 in which a bomb exploded in the upper floors of No 1 Hare Court and damaged No 1 Pump Court. This was the only actual damage caused by enemy fire.

As food shortages worsened the increasing cost of provisions led to the introduction of a war charge of 6d for each dinner and 2d for each luncheon served from 13 March 1916. In January 1917 Parliament ordered the curtailment of menus so as to come within Food Regulations and from February 1918 only non-rationed food was served in Hall for luncheon. Notwithstanding this, in June 1918 the Wine Committee felt able to buy a parcel of port, “about 13 dozen” 1863 and 1868 vintage, from the cellar of the late Lord Justice Farwell.

While life at the Inn continued, it was noticeable that overwhelmingly those Called to the Bar were now from abroad. Charitable functions continued. The Inn paid for equipment for choristers joining the OTC; it made a donation to Inns of Court OTC for increased accommodation; it gave concerts in Hall for wounded soldiers with music by Dr Walford Davies and his choir; and it generously refunded fees of officers withdrawing from the Inn because they faced financial embarrassment. For staff called up on active service, the Inn made up the difference between their military pay and their Middle Temple salary. Throughout there was a keen awareness of the suffering and courage of those in the trenches and the bereavement of members who had lost sons and brothers. Although two Middle Templars won the VC, both joined after the war itself. James Leach was decorated for recovering a trench near Festubert in October 1914 and Paul Bennett for rallying an attack near Le Transloy in November 1916. Members on active service were requested to keep the Inn apprised of their service and the records were conscientiously kept and made into a finely produced illuminated volume in grateful and lasting memory of those “who in the Great War with the Central Powers of Europe nobly and courageously fought for King and Country in Defence and Vindication of Liberty and Honour”.

On 14 June 1917 General Smuts was Called as an Honorary Bencher of the Inn at a dinner attended by over a hundred Benchers, barristers and students. He had been admitted to the Inn in 1892 while an undergraduate at Cambridge before returning to his native land to fight against the British in the Boer War. Now in Britain representing South Africa in the Imperial War Cabinet, he was to play a prominent role in the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

As the tide of the War turned, the Master of the Temple preached a sermon Jerusalem on 16 December 1917 to commemorate General Allenby’s capture of that city a few days earlier. The records of 1918 give an intimation of two developments which were to shape the post-War Middle Temple: the admission of women barristers and the Inn’s close links with America.

On 21 February 1918 Parliament rejected Helena Normanton’s application to join the Inn. However the effects of the war on the role of women meant that the days of all-male Inns were numbered and she was indeed to become the first woman to be admitted to the Middle Temple at the end of the following year, after the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919.

In June 1918 the Inn held a Guest Night to which Prime Ministers of the Dominions were invited. The following month a dinner was given for American Lawyers and Law Students serving in Britain. The close ties between the two countries had been promoted by Lord Reading, a Middle Templar, who served as British Ambassador to the United States (1918-19) while still Lord Chief Justice. This dinner foreshadowed the Call of the Hon John Davis, US Ambassador and former Attorney General, in January 1919 as an Honorary Bencher of the Middle Temple, which still continues the tradition of electing US ambassadors Honorary Benchers.

In November 1918 the Armistice was proclaimed at Temple Bar. Physically the war had left no mark on the Inn. On Sunday 29 December 1918 The King and Queen, Princess Mary, Prince Henry and Prince George attended morning service at Temple Church.

Lady Reading was granted the use of Middle Temple Hall for a ball on 31 December. In a world which had seen the overthrow of the German, Russian and Ottoman emperors, the life of the Inn might have appeared deceptively unchanged, but after four years of carnage nothing would be the same again.

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Lesley Whitelaw

Lesley is a Registered Archivist, whose previous jobs have included the post of Archivist to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and curatorial posts in the National Archives of Scotland. She was appointed as the Inn’s first full-time Archivist in 1990. The Archivist at Middle Temple is responsible for the maintenance and preservation of the Inn’s archival records from 1501 to the present day.