Legal Life is delighted to be able to publish the reminiscences of Fred Yeo who was a partner with Sibley Clough and Gibb. Fred entered articles 70 years ago and it was certainly a different world to that experienced by today’s trainees.
Although by 1942 most solicitors’ practices had lost to the forces a goodly proportion of their pre-war male staff, principals were still demanding from articled clerks premiums of up to 300 guineas. The profession was primarily non-graduate and it was by no means uncommon for a 16 year old boy who had matriculated (with Latin) to enter into articles.
I was fortunate in being offered articles without paying a premium but it was made perfectly clear to me at the interview with the formidable senior partner that the firm’s normal policy of not taking articled clerks was being broken solely because my father had served in the 1914-18 War in the same battalion of the County regiment as himself and the junior partner, to whom I was to be articled.
Such was the background against which I commenced my legal career in April 1942. My articles of clerkship attracted stamp duty of £80 (the equivalent of at least £1000 in 1989) and on 15th May 1942 were duly impressed with Inland Revenue stamps of that amount. My father was required to join in the articles and he covenanted that I would “readily and cheerfully obey and execute the lawful and reasonable commands” of my principal. I covenanted not to practise during my principal’s lifetime within 10 miles of the parish church of the small market town where he practised. In turn, he agreed to take me as his clerk for the term of five years and “to the utmost of his skill and knowledge teach and instruct (me) … in the practice and profession of a solicitor”.
My legal education was through the medium of a correspondence course with the firm of Gibson & Weldon. In addition, there was compulsory attendance on one day a week during term time at an University College some 40 miles away. After one year, I was paid 5 shillings per week but I was fortunate enough to be one of the first recipients of a bursary in the sum of £100 under the “Stannard” bequest. I was obliged to live in lodgings which cost 1 pound 7 shillings and sixpence per week.
The firm was a predominantly agricultural conveyancing and probate practice. Michaelmas day was the most popular date for completions and was always the busiest day of the year. Mortgage loans were forthcoming from private trusts administered in the office, interest rates varying from 3% to 3.5%. I never saw a Building Society mortgage during the whole of the period of my articles.
Probate practice was not dissimilar to the present day but on intestacy an administration bond given by two bondsmen was required. My principal’s brother and brother-in-law were often asked to act in this capacity! Estate Duty was payable on all estates over £100 nett and in many cases legacy duty and succession duty were also payable.
Criminal work could not be undertaken as the Senior Partner was also Clerk to the Magistrates. My principal was Clerk to the local Urban District Council, Clerk to the Income Tax Commissioners, Superintendent Registrar and Chief Food Executive Officer. He did not perform the marriage ceremonies himself but arranged for his secretary to be appointed Deputy Superintendent Registrar.
The office had a telephone with a single digit number, with two or three extensions. All calls were dialled through the operator and trunk calls were a rarity. Despite the war, the postal service was excellent and land charges registry searches always came back by return of post. Registered land was something that might have been relevant in Middlesex but I never saw a registered title.
The first two years of my articles went by quickly and I duly passed both the Law and Trust Accounts sections of the intermediate examination. The war still continued and in common with all 18 year olds I joined the Forces, bringing to an end the first part of a career in the Law that was destined to last exactly 47 years.
By way of postscript, military service counted as due service under articles and I was subsequently required to enter into further articles for 191 days. By then the war was over and the pre-war staff had returned. Legal practice was beginning to change and the unique atmosphere of a war-time solicitors’ office had disappeared for ever.