Sale of the Mendham Collection

Revised version – 4 October 2013

The sale of valuable books from the Mendham Collection, which has been in the possession of the Law Society since 1869, has been causing controversy. It is astonishing that this was not reported in the Law Society Gazette until after the event, and that the Law Society has not responded to the recent letters in the Times. More information about the history of this collection and the Law Society’s involvement is to be found on the website of David Shaw,

and the tweets of Dr Alixe Bovey of the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies @alixebovey. I gather that the University has contacted the Attorney General of England and Wales who does not agree that the Law Society received the books on trust or conditionally.

The controversy has spread to the Netherlands and Germany – see

The Law Society has now replied to my letter, in which I queried whether the Royal Charter powers of the Society included  acquiring a collection like this, which the Law Society has recognised does not serve its purposes. It never did serve its purposes and so acquiring it was in my view clearly beyond the powers of the Society. It was only authorised by the Royal Charter to acquire items that it considered ‘requisite’.  The legal effects are unclear.

I do not agree that trading in books which are part of the historical heritage of our countries and which properly belong in a University or Cathedral Library, does anything to enhance the public standing of a professional body.

The Law Society has sent me a copy of the minutes of the meeting of the Council of the Law Society meeting on Friday 4th June 1869 which read as follows:

“Read the following letter from Mr Collette 23 Lincoln’s Inn Fields London WC – 1 June 1869

“Dear Sir

The late Joseph Mendham made a very valuable collection of Tracts & Books on the Roman Controversy, and also of works of the old Fathers. These Books have come to the Widow of Mr Mendham’s Brother, and by her are placed at my disposal.

She is most anxious that they should be kept together & be called the Mendham Collection. I have got her permission to present them to the Library of the Law Institution. If they do not go there they go to the King’s College Library. The collection is more valuable than at first sight appears. I send an Index of some of them. If your Library will accept them & call them the Mendham Library I shall be able to have them duly presented. Your answer will oblige. Yours truly. To the Secy of The Law Institution – A H Collette.”

Resolved that the Secretary be directed to thank Mr Collette for his letter and request him to express to Mrs Mendham the acknowledgments of the Council for the handsome offer which she has been so kind as to make, and to state to her that the Council will have great pleasure in accepting it.”

The British Library made a grant to Canterbury Cathedral for the cataloguing of the Collection. It was accepted by the Cathedral subject to the condition that the Collection was kept together. This places a moral obligation on the Law Society to repay the grant to the British Library on behalf of the Cathedral, as it now has the sale proceeds of a large part of the Collection – about £1 million.

The British Library has revealed this in its response to my FOI request on that:  BRITISH LIBRARY 130704 Response 1336

No-one knows why Mrs Sophia Mendham would have wanted to benefit the Law Society by making what the Law Society claims was an unconditional gift, despite the wording of the letter set out above.  That is a matter of interpretation, and they are entitled to their opinion. I know they have taken the advice of a barrister, in view of the lack of clarity in Mrs Mendham’s intentions as expressed on her behalf by her agent Mr Charles Hastings Collette of Lincoln’s Inn.

I already know that the Council of the Law Society (its democratic ruling body) was not involved in the decision to sell the books. Its decision to loan the books to the University of Kent was reversed by a Committee of the Council without the specific approval of the Council. The Law Society has revealed this much to me by its responses to my Freedom of Information request.

It seems fairly clear to me that Mrs Mendham intended to create a charitable trust, but the Attorney General and the Charity Commission have decided that this was not the effect of the words used on her behalf by her agent in his letter to the Law Society.  Nevertheless, if a charitable intention can be understood from the nature and circumstances of the “gift” (and that what I myself believe) and the trust failed to take effect, from my understanding of the law of trusts, I believe it is likely that, if the successors of Mrs Mendham were to make a claim,  the court would find a resulting trust in their favour.  But I am sure they will take advice from their own solicitors and not rely on my opinion.

This is not to say that the Law Society does not have the legal title, and right to sell the Collection, until such time as a claim to it is proved in court by Mrs Mendham’s successors (which the Law Society obviously believes will not happen).

I have been researching the family tree on and have obtained some copies of Wills. Her nephews the Revd Charles Henry Turner who became the Bishop of Islington and Francis Charlewood Turner were her executors.  She had a brother, Thomas Turner who was a barrister who became the Treasurer of Guy’s Hospital and Charles and Francis were his sons.

However I have now received a copy of Mrs Mendham’s Will and see that, rather surprisingly, she left the residue of her estate  to her sister in law Mrs Anne Turner of Dingle Head Liverpool (who was the wife of her brother Charles Turner MP) and her companion Miss Annie Thompson as “joint tenants”. So whichever of those ladies survived the other would be entitled to claim the residue of her estate (but they could have agreed to take equal shares).

I have also received a copy of the Will and probate of Mrs Anne Turner.  Mrs Turner also appointed her husband’s nephew, the Bishop of Islington, Charles Henry Turner as one of her executors.  She left the residue of her estate to her nieces and nephews and the nieces and nephews of her late husband, Charles Turner MP.  So Bishop Charles was a residuary beneficiary.  He had several children. One of them, Francis McDougall Charlewood Turner, who was a fighter pilot in the First World War, lived to become the President of Magdalene College Cambridge. He lived in Chichester at 1 St Martin’s Square, until his death in 1982. Magdalene College and Chichester Cathedral are entitled to three quarters and one quarter respectively of his estate.

3 September 2013

It has now been reported in the Independent that the Law Society has sold to St Paul’s Cathedral a book which disappeared from the Library of the Cathedral sometime in the 19th century and somehow found its way into the Mendham Collection.  The Independent 3 September 2013

We already know that there is a connection between St Paul’s and the Mendham family –  The Revd Charles Henry Turner who was the Rector of St George in the East (just to the east of the Tower of London) was a prebendary of St Paul’s and went on to become the Suffragan Bishop of Islington. He was the nephew of Mrs Sophia Mendham, who placed the collection in the Library of the Law Society after the death of her husband The Revd John Mendham the Rector of Clophill in Bedfordshire in 1869. This may be absolutely coincidental.

My question – is it reasonable for the Law Society to expect the worshippers of St Paul’s Cathedral  to pay thousands of pounds to buy a book that already belongs to the Cathedral,  which somehow found its way into the Law Society’s Library?

I had the following comment published in the Times on 4 September in response to an article by Frances Gibb, in which she mentioned that according to Des Hudson the Chief Executive of the Law Society, it has “done everything possible to keep preserve the collection as one” :

Has the Law Society “done everything possible to preserve the collection as one”?  It could have simply left it where it was in Canterbury Cathedral Library. Was the Missal of Sarum the only tome which was removed from a Cathedral Library? This collection of books was not bequeathed to the Law Society. I have a copy of Mrs Sophia Mendham’s Will. She died in 1893 in St Leonards-on-Sea. After various bequests she left half her estate to her sister in law Anne Turner (the widow of her late brother Charles Turner MP) and the other half to her companion, Miss Annie Thompson. Another of her brothers was Thomas Turner a barrister who became the Treasurer of Guy’s Hospital. He had a son, the Revd Charles Henry Turner who was the Rector of St George’s in the East, London E1, and died in 1923. He became a prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1893 and later Bishop of Islington. The Sarum Missal was already in the hands of the Law Society by the time he took up his post at St Paul’s in 1893. He was a 27-year old curate at Godmanchester in 1869 – he was not at St Paul’s. His obituary was published in The Times on 14 July 1923. Mrs Mendham presented the collection to the Law Society in 1869 stating that she was very anxious that it be kept together, and the Law Society gave effect to her wishes by keeping the collection and looking after it for 143 years with the help from 1994 of Canterbury Cathedral and the University of Kent.

The British Library had paid Canterbury Cathedral for cataloguing, from which the Law Society has benefited.

Update: 20 February 2014

As mentioned above, under the Will of Francis McDougall Charlewood Turner, assuming I am right about the resulting trust, Magdalene College Cambridge and the Dean and Chapter of Chichester Cathedral are entitled to claim a share of the proceeds of sale of the Mendham Collection from the Law Society. I have learnt from the website of the Special Collections of Cambridge University Library that one of the books sold by the Law Society is now in the Cambridge University Library.  So there is a continuing link with the Right Reverend Lord Williams of Oystermouth, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who is now the Master of Magdalene College. How extraordinary.




About michaeljameshall

I live in Orpington and am a retired solicitor. I am also a Liberal Democrat campaigner, interested in democracy, human rights, legal affairs and law reform. I am a member of the Liberal Democrat Lawyers' Association.
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4 Responses to Sale of the Mendham Collection

  1. Clive D. Field says:

    Many thanks for this helpful briefing. My recent note to the Religious Archives Group membership may also be relevant, at:

    • Many thanks indeed for your comment, and I have had look at your note to the Religious Archives Group, which is very relevant and helpful. I have thought about whether a judicial review of the Law Society’s decision would be possible, but presumably the QC for the University of Kent has already considered this and decided that judicial review is not possible since the decision was not an exercise of any quasi-judicial functions of the Law Society, but is a matter of private law and a private trust. It would therefore need to be based on the argument that the Society has exceeded its Royal Charter powers, which again I suppose is a matter for the Attorney General, rather than an individual Solicitor to take up. Possibly King’s College would have locus standi to bring an application for an injunction, if it wishes to claim title based on the wording of the letter which I have set out in my blog, and you may know the relevant people there in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, who may be interested, and they are very conveniently situated for attending the High Court, and for consulting with Counsel.

      • Christopher Whitmey says:

        Thanks Michael. I was in the Hereford Cathedral library, with its chained library. I’m appalled by the Law Society’s decision.

        You quote, “She is most anxious that they should be kept together & be called the Mendham Collection. I have got her permission to present them to the Library of the Law Institution. If they do not go there they go to the King’s College Library.”

        Clive Field’s note includes, “Since 1984 the Society has deposited the collection at Canterbury Cathedral Library, under a loan agreement between the Cathedral, the University of Kent, and the Society. At Canterbury it has been fully accessible for research. The agreement does not expire until 31 December 2013. Notwithstanding, on 18 July 2012 the Society withdrew around 300 items with a view to sale by Sotheby’s.”

        Accepting there is no charitable trust. Are then any grounds for a breach of trust in breaking up the collection or breach of the agreement?

  2. Michael Hall says:

    I would not necessarily accept that there is no charitable trust, and it seems that the gift was intended to be charitable and it was accepted by the Law Society as such. There are many unregistered charities, and the Law Society might be one for all I know. The object of the education and training of lawyers is for the general public benefit and is a charitable object and it has always been non-profit making, so it does seem to be a charity. Accepting charitable gifts is another indication of a charity. Registration of charities is a comparatively recent phenomenon.
    I notice it is mentioned in the Sotheby’s catalogue in respect of Lot 58 that it was formerly in the Library of Durham Cathedral, and I am sure they would not have given away or sold any such book. It is mentioned on the website that there were many “losses” of books from the Library, and no doubt the Revd Joseph Mendham bought it at a very reasonable price in the 19th century equivalent of a car boot sale and the seller looked perfectly respectable, so he had no reason to doubt his honesty.
    I have written to the Librarian of Durham Cathedral to suggest the catalogue is checked.
    If there is a private trust, it would be a private matter between the successors of the donor and the Law Society, and so no-one who has no claim to ownership would be entitled to take proceedings. Incidentally I was interested to read on the website of Lambeth Palace Library that they have recently recovered 1,400 stolen books. Obviously if the books were taken and sold during the dissoluton of the monasteries, it is not now possible to argue that Henry VIII was a thief (though of course he was).

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