Preparations are under way to celebrate the centenary of a solicitor becoming prime minister. But David Lloyd George remains one of a kind.
Few legal actions in history have sought damages for 'wrongly entering the plaintiff’s land, digging a grave therein, burying a corpse, and conducting a funeral service'.
But that was the particulars of claim for £50 sought by the Church of England rector of Llanfrothen, North Wales, in 1888. Representing the grave-digging defendants was a young solicitor - who had advised them in the first place to break into a churchyard from which they'd been locked out as non-conformists.
The Llanfrothen burial case earned a national reputation for David Lloyd George, setting him on the path to Downing Street. He remains the only solicitor to have risen to the office; the Law Society will be among those commemorating the centenary in December.
Llanfrothen was not Lloyd George's only notable achievement in the law. I've been reading some anecdotes of his career in a gushing four-volume biography published by his Liberal MP colleague John Hugh Edwards in 1913.
Of course from the vantage point of 2016 a biography of Lloyd George that omits his term as prime minister - let alone the First World War - could be said to miss the big story. And don't expect any revelations about Lloyd George's private life. Instead we get a glimpse of life as a solicitor in an age with standards very different to our own.
For a start, Lloyd George would not even get into the profession today. His formative years in Llanystumdwy near Criccieth were not quite as humble as he later made out - uncle Lloyd, who brought up David George after the death of his father, was a modest employer - but the family cottage and cobbler's workshop was a world away from the upbringing of his political contemporaries.
The native Welsh speaker left the village school at 15 and, as the brightest in his class, would conventionally have been destined for teaching or the pulpit. Both were ruled out by his family non-conformism. According to Edwards, David turned to the law because he had heard his mother speak admiringly of a Liverpool lawyer, but faced several barriers.
First, the Preliminary Law Examination required proficiency in Latin and French, neither of which had been taught in Llanystumdwy. The village schoolmaster provided the Latin; for the French, David and his uncle studied a volume of ‘Cassell’s Popular Educator' which billed itself a 'full course of instruction in the French language’. (It was presumably stronger on the written than the spoken language.)
In January 1879, 11 days after his sixteenth birthday, David was articled to the junior member of Breese, Jones and Casson of Portmadog, a practice ‘and in high repute as one of the best firms in North Wales’. The required premium of £100 (then two years' wages for a clerk) was met from his uncle's life savings.
According to Edwards, Lloyd George had a wide apprenticeship: ‘Matters dealing with agricultural rating, assessment of land and houses, as well as matters that hinged upon the administration of licensing and criminal law - came almost daily within the sphere of his observation and duty, and as a result his knowledge rapidly increased.’
There is a hint that he was not the total paragon of the articled clerk. ‘He would often complain of the irksome necessity of being tethered to a desk in order to pore over musty parchments... while great and vital issues, on which depended the health and welfare of the toiling millions, were being fought upon the broad field of battle.’
After a five and a half year apprenticeship, Lloyd George was admitted as a solicitor in a ceremony conducted before the master of the rolls. He moved his family to Criccieth and fixed to the door of their house a brass plate: 'D. Ll George, Solicitor.' There was one remaining snag, he later recalled. 'In Wales a solicitor has to appear robed before he gets audience in the county court. The robes cost about three guineas, and, if I remember rightly, I had to wait 'til I had got one or two cases before I was able to meet this outlay.’
Once robed, he seems to have specialised in behaviour that would have got him rapped firmly over the knuckles today. As Edwards puts it: 'Mr Lloyd George soon found himself the bete noire of the justices. Scenes were constantly taking place in which the young solicitor boldly and unflinchingly stood up to the bench and openly accused them of bias and partiality.'
One run-in was at a hearing into the renewal of a pub licence, when Lloyd George took exception to being curbed after speaking for only five minutes. In another, he got four men off a charge of poaching on the grounds that the lake in which they had fished was not a 'river' within the meaning of the law - after accusing the landowning magistrates of bias.
Lloyd George told the family: 'Go on, carry the matter right through now, and I will defend you’
The climax was the Llanfrothen burial case. The burial in question was that of a non-conformist quarryman who had wished to be laid to rest alongside his daughter in a burial ground newly attached to the parish churchyard. The Burials Act 1880 had empowered non-conformist ministers to officiate. But the funeral arrived to find that the Church of England rector had ordered the grave to be closed and the churchyard locked.
Instead he offered, in Lloyd George's words, ‘a spot, bleak and sinister, in which were buried the bodies of the unknown drowned that were washed up from the sea in this region of shipwrecks, or of suicides, or of the few Jews that died in the district’.
Asked, literally on the hoof, for advice, Lloyd George told the family: 'Go on, carry the matter right through now, and I will defend you’. The lock was broken, a new grave dug, and the corpse, which had been shuttled back and forth on a borrowed bier, finally interred.
Before the county court, Lloyd George did not deny the fact of trespass but said it was in full exercise of his clients’ rights. The case hinged on the status of a conveyance through which the burial ground had become part of the church. The jury backed the nonconformists, but Judge Bishop reserved judgment. When it was delivered two months later, he ignored the jury, expressed his disapproval of the defendants’ actions - and entered a verdict for the plaintiffs ‘for five guineas with costs on the higher scale’. However on appeal in the Divisional Court, lord chief justice Coleridge and Mr Justice Mainstay ruled: ‘The jury were perfectly right... there is an end to the plaintiffs’ claim.’
David Lloyd George's reputation was made.
A dinner to commemorate the centenary of the first solicitor becoming prime minister will be held in London on 7 December, with speakers including historian Dan Snow, broadcaster Huw Edwards and president of the Law Society Robert Bourns. For details, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The event will launch the Lloyd George Appeal, to support the museum at Lloyd George's childhood home. One of the exhibits is the lock broken on his advice in 1888: better not let the Solicitors Regulation Authority know.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor