The generation game

This Christmas, two law firms will mark 125th anniversaries.

Grania Langdon-Down traces the origins of even older practices and finds their heritage interwoven with the country's social and cultural history

With two law firms celebrating their 125th anniversaries this Christmas, there is definitely a sense of heritage in the air.

And with the law being one of the oldest professions, some firms can trace their contribution to their communities much further back down the centuries.

Haworth & Nuttall, established in 1877 in Blackburn, is marking its 125 years by donating 125 books to nine local schools.

There are still two Haworths at the firm, John, a consultant who has been with the practice for 40 years and senior partner Chris Haworth, with a mere 34 years behind him.

Manchester firm Davis Blank Furniss is mixing the old and the new by celebrating its anniversary with an on-line competition (see [2002] Gazette, 12 December, 13).

Meanwhile, Reading firm Blandy & Blandy has announced that it will have no Blandy in the partnership for the first time since 1783 after the retirement of Nick Blandy, the seventh generation of Blandys at the firm.

Hawkins Russell Jones in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, was founded in 1591 by John Skinner.

A former assistant with the firm, Reginald Hine, documented its history in his book The Confessions of an Uncommon Attorney, published in 1945.

The records show that Mr Skinner came to Hitchin from Norwich to be secretary to the Lord of the Manor, Ralph Radcliffe.

Mr Skinner lived for 90 years, practising in the town with his two sons John and Ralph through huge political change, from Elizabethan times, through the reigns of James 1, Charles 1, and the period of parliamentary rule and the civil war.

Senior partner David Heymans says the firm had various names and sole practitioners, including three generations of George Drapers, until John Hawkins took over early in the 19th century.

'He was much involved in local politics and good works.

Much of the land locally was held through copyhold tenure, so called because a copy of the deeds was held by the local manorial court.

The clerk of the court was called the steward and John Hawkins was steward of some 30 manors.'

One of his sons, Henry, was articled to him but loathed the lot of the provincial solicitor.

Mr Hine records that Henry disliked some of his father's clients and forged a letter to the local paper in his father's well-known handwriting, announcing the local bench chairman's death.

The editor was subsequently astonished and enraged to hear that four days after printing the obituary, the 'deceased' was presiding as usual at the petty sessions.

Henry had apparently felt that 'the flutter of even a false alarm might shorten his days'.

Mr Hine's book recalls that he was banished to London, where he became a barrister and built a large practice.

He prosecuted in the infamous Tichborne trial and proved that an Australian who claimed to be heir to a family's millions was an imposter.

His triumph reunited father and son.

The firm, which has been in the same building since Queen Anne times in the 18th century, remained Hawkins & Co until 1987, when it merged with Russell Jones & Co of Welwyn Garden City - the founder of which, Arthur Russell Jones, also set up national trade union firm Russell Jones & Walker.

Grays of York has documents tracing its origins back to 1695, to attorney Francis Taylor.

Partner Tony Lawton says: 'There is evidence that Taylor acted for the dean and chapter of York - clients to this day, which makes it one of the longest professional relationships in England.'

The first Gray to join the practice was William, who was articled to then-partner John Graves in 1772, becoming an equal partner two years later.

A History of Grays of York by William Cobb, William Gray's great-great-great grandson, records William's comments on his future career: 'Yet, with regard to emolument, so slender was his business, that I hesitated about accepting his offer of a partnership till he assured me that, should it not yield my stipulated salary of 60 a year, it should be made up to me...

Mr Graves had opulent friends who were ready to employ him when he was ready (which he never had been) to do their work.

I was on the spot and willing to work.'

By 1778, he was earning 300 a year, which enabled him to set up a charity fund.

In 1788, he was appointed under-sheriff of Yorkshire, followed by distributor of stamps in 1790, a job for life for which Mr Gray felt considerably overpaid, refunding the Treasury 1,000 in 1821 and 1822.

He was also a close friend of William Wilberforce, acting as almoner for Wilberforce's charities, and was a generous donor to his anti-slavery campaign fund.

Three generations of Grays followed William into the law in York.

Birmingham firm Lee Crowder traces its history back to 1760, when Thomas Eyre Lee set up as an attorney.

One of the firm's earliest clients was John Taylor, who financed the founding of Lloyds Bank, while the firm also assisted in the foundation of the Birmingham and Liverpool Railway, as well as the London and Birmingham Railway.

In 1936, the practices of Lee & Arthur Smith and Smythe Etches & Co, then owned by John Crowder and previously by his father and grandfather, were amalgamated to form Lee Crowder & Co.

The present name was adopted in 1989.

Family connections with the law have proved strong down the centuries.

Since Thomas Lee moved to Birmingham in 1760, members of every subsequent generation have practised law in the city, including his tenth direct descendant Thomas Marston Lee, who was a partner from 1941 to 1972.

The first Lee was founder and president of Birmingham Law Society in 1815, a role John Crowder filled more than a century later in 1947.

Mr Crowder was also the first president of the West Midlands Association of Law Societies, and retired in 1990 aged 87.

Another descendant of Thomas Lee, Judge Malcolm Lee (1943-1999), took great pride in the family's legal tradition, becoming a barrister and a QC and the first mercantile judge when the mercantile court was set up in Birmingham in 1993.

The history of City law firm Denton Wilde Sapte can be traced back to 1785 to attorney Thomas Wilde (1758-1821), who started the practice with his partner Samuel Archer Hussey.

According to a history of the firm written by Alan Salmon, Mr Wilde's three sons followed him into the law.

The eldest, John, became judge-advocate in New South Wales in Australia in 1815, before taking up the post of chief justice of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa in 1827.

The second son, Thomas, was articled to his father in 1789 at the age of 14 and built his legal career at the firm before becoming a distinguished barrister - acting as junior counsel for Queen Caroline during George IV's attempts to divorce her in 1820 - and, as Viscount Truro, became Lord Chancellor in 1850.

The youngest son, Edward, joined his father's practice and took it over on Thomas's retirement in 1810.

When John went to Australia, his father went with him and became clerk of the peace and Crown Solicitor, and later director of the newly founded Bank of New South Wales.

He died in Sydney in 1821.

Edward Wilde went on to pioneer the Law Society, which obtained its first Royal Charter in 1831, becoming president in 1842.

He was also Sheriff of London.

His son, Charles, was a partner in the firm from 1835 to 1882, and was succeeded as senior partner by his son Ernest, who was a partner from 1874 to 1913.

His son Edward became the last member of the Wilde family in the firm.

The first Sapte to join the firm was Fitzroy Sapte, who became a partner in 1907.

His son Francis followed in 1929; the firm merged with Denton Hall in 2000.

The founders of City law firm Simmons & Simmons were twin brothers, Edward and Percy.

Articled at 16, they were just 21 years old, with no other experience in either business or law, when they opened their own firm in 1896.

They started in offices in St Olave's House in Ironmonger Lane, with one office boy.

Legend has it that their first client was a hansom cab driver.

They were so similar in looks, they wore different-coloured buttonholes to avoid confusing clients.

However, they were different in character - Percy was extrovert and energetic, while Edward was quiet and reserved.

A history of the firm by Teresa Henry says Percy became a major in the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and became a grand officer of the Crown of Belgium in recognition of his war service.

The inter-war years were a golden period for the firm, which began to expand and build its client base.

While Edward concentrated on the firm, Percy also pursued his political interests, becoming a councillor on London County Council.

He was made a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1921.

The twins remained the only partners for three decades.

By 1932, they had built the firm up to 35 people, 22 women and 13 men, including Robin Fox, the father of actors Edward and James, and later a theatrical agent.

The brothers appointed the first partners in 1939, the year Percy died, including Edward's son Gordon, who later became senior partner.

Edward died in 1951.

But when it comes to founding fathers, surely nobody can match Stanley Berwin, who came from of a well-known Leeds clothing family.

Mr Berwin set up Berwin & Co in 1963 (since merged twice to form Berwin Leighton Paisner) and SJ Berwin in 1976, both now top 25 City law firms, while his nephew, Paul Berwin, founded Yorkshire firm Berwins.

Paul's brother and father (Stanley's brother) are still active in Berwin & Berwin, the suit manufacturers.

So not only does the Berwin family make the suits, but it also ensures there are plenty of lawyers to wear them.

Now that's what you call good business.

Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist

Some other famous founders

CMS Cameron McKenna: Henry Markby, president of the Law Society in 1887 and one of the founders of what is now CMS Cameron McKenna (whose constituent firms include Cameron Markby Hewitt), won immortality through a tiff with Oscar Wilde.

Feeling that the Wildes were not quite the right kind of people, he forbade his wife and daughters from any further contact with Oscar's wife, Constance.

Revenge was swift, and the plays of Oscar Wilde are peppered with derisory references to all sorts of Markbys, most famously in The Importance of Being Earnest.

Travers Smith Braithwaite: founded in the City more than two centuries ago.

One of the firm's partners drafted the constitution for the first Stock Exchange in 1801.

In 1851, Joseph Travers Smith joined and became senior partner.

An authority on Havana cigars and vintage port, and solicitor to Westminster Bank and 'old families from royalty downwards', he was reputed to be the model for the character Tulkinghorn in Charles Dickens' Bleak House.

Stephen Braithwaite joined in 1873 and the firm became Travers Smith Braithwaite in 1876.

Shoosmiths: founded in Northampton by William Shoosmith in 1846.

He was town clerk of Northampton and involved in founding the Northampton Town and County Benefit Building Society, which later became the Anglia Building Society, now part of the Nationwide conglomerate.

He took three of his sons into partnership in 1895.

One of the three, Thurston, and William's daughter Florence, were both noted artists who are still collected today.