On 21 July 1817, a 36-strong group of London solicitors was preparing to meet at the London Coffee House in Fleet Street. Their purpose was philanthropic – to create a unique fund for the families of London lawyers, to “provide against the occurrences of calamity in private life among the members of the profession.”
On the following day – and probably fuelled by copious quantities of strong, gritty coffee – the group succeeded in drawing up the constitution for “The Association for the benefit of Widows and Families of Practisers in the Courts of Law and Equity in the Metropolis and its vicinity”. Their first task was to raise funds and a subscriptions book was duly opened. Among those signing up (either two guineas a year or 20 guineas for life) were such legal luminaries as James Freshfield, Edward Wilde and Samuel Denton.
It may have taken a good deal more coffee for the founding committee to hammer out the Association’s eligibility criteria. One early question, which was to vex the Association for many decades, was how to treat the dependants of those who had not been subscribers but who were otherwise in desperate straits. Their solution was elegant and instantly recognisable to any 21st century charity lawyer; the families of non-subscribers could be considered, but only after the primary claims of members’ families had first been satisfied and, of course, if funds permitted.
The next few years were spent gathering wealthy and influential allies to the cause, along with those all-important guineas. The target was to build a fighting fund of £10,000, after which disbursements would commence. This tipping point was reached just five years later and the very first award was made in 1823, to 35-year-old Louisa Marriott and her four young children, left destitute after the death of her solicitor husband.
To “provide against the occurrences of calamity in private life among the members of the profession.”
The Law Association’s Minute Books, the earliest of which are bound in green leather and impeccably inscribed in copperplate, are now held at SBA’s office in Wandsworth. They record a unique insight into charity governance across Regency, Georgian and Victorian London and beyond.
The first reference to the Solicitors Benevolent Association seems to appear in 1870. SBA had been created in 1858 along similar lines to the Law Association but with wider rules on eligibility and a geographical remit that covered England & Wales, including London. The two organisations were to have intermittent merger talks over the next century, sometimes conducted testily via the pages of the Solicitors Journal. Their separate constitutions certainly seemed irreconcilable, with different areas of benefit and different membership structures. But it was the lack of cultural fit that delayed formal amalgamation. The Law Association was not happy with SBA’s increasing tendency to support any solicitor, irrespective of their subscription status and they wished to retain their own identity as a Mutual Benefit Association for London lawyers only.
The two organisations eventually managed to set up a sensible working protocol, which saw joint funding being offered to legal families in London. This continued until 1973, when – finally – full merger was completed and both Law Association staff and Trustees joined their colleagues at SBA.
In the last 12 months, SBA has committed over £210,000 in grants and interest-free loans to London solicitors and their families. The original philanthropic impetus that inspired those 36 London lawyers back in 1817 is still going strong and, with the number of applications to SBA steadily rising, is now needed more than ever. Sincere thanks to all the many individuals, firms, local law societies and bodies in London for continuing to make this work possible.