Lord Denning and I: (1) The Cumberland Lodge weekends


I ended my blog on Reading for the Bar in the early 1960s like this:

“And if I had had a law degree, I wouldn’t have been able to have had the unique experience of acting as a personal gofer for Lord Denning for 12 months, but that, too, is another story.”

This is the story, which I have not told before.

It was in the autumn of 1961. I was 25, newly graduated after four years at Oxford University. I had just settled down at home to studying for the Bar Part I exams by correspondence course.   I was due to take the first two papers[1] before Christmas. And then, out of the blue, I received a request from Lord Denning that he would like to meet me for tea at the Athenaeum.

I had very little idea who he was. He was then 62. He had been a law lord for four years, after a stellar progression from High Court Judge (at the age of 45) to Lord Justice of Appeal (at 50) and then law lord (at 58).   Later on I was to learn about his early life: one of a family of five boys[2] and a girl who grew up in Hampshire, living above their father’s drapers’ shop in Whitchurch.  He would describe his childhood home in these terms:

“Although it looked attractive, our household would have been condemned now as totally unfit for habitation. It had no indoor sanitation… No water from the mains. No water at all except that which we pumped up from a well just outside the back door beside the drain. To fill the iron kettle to put on the kitchen range – to fill the jugs with water to drink or to wash in – or to clean the boots.

No electric light, no gas except in two of the downstairs rooms a few flickering gas mantles which continually gave out. A paraffin oil lamp as a standby. Only candles to take up the stairs and into bed”

And so on.

After elementary school in Whitchurch and a grammar school education in Andover, he obtained the equivalent of a major scholarship[3] at Magdalen College Oxford in 1916, served for two years in the Army, obtained a First in Maths at Magdalen, taught maths for a year at Winchester College, and then returned to Magdalen for a further year, at the end of which he obtained a First in Law[4]. All by the age of 23.

This is not the place for another biography of this extraordinary man.  A flavour of his impact can be gleaned from two sources. First, from two short extracts from a tribute written by Lord Devlin[5]:

“When Tom[6] and I were young, the law was stagnant. The old fashioned judge looked to the letter of the statute and for the case on all fours. He knew that he had to do justice according to law. Either he assumed that the law when strictly applied would always do justice or else he decided that if it did not, it was not his business to interfere. Today this is not the idea…

In the 1920s and 1930s Lord Atkin was notable among the judges for the vigour with which he was ready to extend a principle into unoccupied territory. After the war it was Mr Justice Denning who led the way. It was not the result in High Trees[7] that came as a shock. That could, I think, have been reached unobtrusively by a little twisting and blending of old authorities, though many puisnes[8] would have left that sort of work to the Court of Appeal. Denning, a very recent puisne, preferred to cut a new channel from the main stream.”

And then from his own dissenting judgment in Candler v Crane, Christmas & Co [1951] 2KB 164, where he was 12 years ahead of the times in identifying the existence and the ingredients of a cause of action for negligent misstatement:

“This argument about the novelty of the action does not appeal to me in the least. It has been put forward in all the great cases which have been milestones of progress in our law, and it has always, or nearly always, been rejected. If you read the great cases of Ashby v White, Pasley v Freeman  and Donoghue v Stevenson you will find that in each of them the judges were divided in opinion. On the one side there were the timorous souls who were fearful of allowing a new cause of action. On the other side there were the bold spirits who were ready to allow it if justice so required. It was fortunate for the common law that the progressive view prevailed. Whenever this argument of novelty is put forward I call to mind the emphatic answer given by Pratt, C.J., nearly two hundred years ago in Chapman v Pickersgill when he said:

‘I wish never to hear this objection again. This action is for a tort: torts are infinitely various; not limited or confined, for there is nothing in nature but may be an instrument of mischief.’

The same answer was given by Lord Macmillan in Donoghue v Stevenson when he said:

‘The criterion of judgment must adjust and adapt itself to the changing circumstances of life. The categories of negligence are never closed.’

I beg leave to quote those cases and those passages against those who would emphasize the paramount importance of certainty at the expense of justice. It needs only a little imagination to see how much the common law would have suffered if those decisions had gone the other way.”

To which Lord Justice Asquith, one of the majority, memorably replied:

“I am not concerned with defending the existing state of the law or contending that it is strictly logical – it clearly is not. I am merely recording what I think it is. If this relegates me to the company of ‘timorous souls’, I must face that consequence with such fortitude as I can command.”

However Lord Denning may have been regarded by many of his fellow judges, most law students of my day regarded him with something close to hero-worship.

When I met him that day for tea, he told me that he was Chairman of the Trustees of St Catharine’s Foundation at Cumberland Lodge, in Windsor Great Park (of which I had never heard). He wanted me to consider going there for a time.

His main reason was this. He had just finished a job for the Government in which he had led a committee which had been looking at the way in which Bar schools could be set up in the emerging countries of the new Commonwealth. He told me that wherever he went, he would ask local judges and senior lawyers how much they had enjoyed their time in London studying for the Bar.   He would nearly always get the same answer:

“We remain very fond of your country in spite of the way we were treated when we were Bar students in London, not because of it.”

The four Inns of Court had been accepting Bar students from British colonies overseas in their hundreds, but broadly speaking they were doing little for them except to take their fees, require them to eat 36 dinners in their Halls over a three year period, and provide them with the facilities by which they could study and pass their exams, if they were clever enough[9] – and I heard of one who took and failed the same relatively easy exam fourteen times. This neglect caused not only serious social problems, but it deprived English judges and lawyers of a golden opportunity to interrelate with ambitious students who would in due course become leaders in their home countries as they aspired to independence.

In contrast to today’s scene, the Inns did not on the whole regard themselves as having any significant pastoral role or responsibility towards these students.[10] Some of them would spend years in London struggling with the exams, frightened of returning home as failures in the eyes of those who had funded their visit to England.

At our meeting Lord Denning invited me to consider acting as his lieutenant in a venture to persuade all four Inns to bring down large groups of students to Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Park for weekend study conferences with leading members of their Inn.   This would be an ideal setting in which to break the ice and to expose large groups of students to the opportunity of in-depth talks and discussions with judges and senior lawyers.   He had already achieved this with his own Inn (Lincoln’s Inn) but had made no progress with the other three.

I remember telling him that I felt I had no qualifications for the job. I don’t remember now if there were any non-white boys at my public school (Marlborough) in the early 1950s when I was there. There certainly weren’t at my prep school or among my friends at home.   And at Oxford, my non-white contemporaries were mostly very clever people who had lived a long time among educated western people and had imbibed western culture.   Like Ved Mehta, the blind Indian writer, or a black medical student I remember who was more English than the English. I had never had any personal dealings with large numbers of black and Asian and other non-white people who did not fall into this rather special category, and I was very unconfident how on earth I could gain their trust and persuade them that I wasn’t involved in something rather subversive.

He told me not to worry.

“Just dive straight in”, he said. “You’ll find you’ll have lots in common”.

His other reason for asking me to go there was that the Foundation was going through a difficult transitional phase. Its remarkable founder and first honorary warden, Miss Amy Buller, was now 70. Her vision (based on what she had observed among university students in Nazi Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War[11]), of creating a centre at which students could meet and discuss ethical and social issues outside the normal confines of their degree courses, had been taken a long way forward by its first principal, Sir Walter Moberly, a former Vice-Chancellor of Manchester University, but since then nobody of his stature had been found to replace him. The current Director of Studies, Dr Harry Judge, was due to leave at Christmas, and somebody was needed to help Miss Buller to keep the ship afloat until a major new source of funding could be identified and a new principal identified. In this role I would be described as “Senior Tutor”, but this was always to be subordinate to the two challenges of getting the Inns of Court all fully on board, and of taking and passing my remaining Bar exams.

I am sure that I didn’t say “Yes” there and then, and I certainly needed to visit Cumberland Lodge and meet Miss Buller before anything could be finalised. But I was tempted by the job, and eventually, following an initial visit, I decided to give it a go: to combine a most unusual assignment with the rather boring task of completing my Part 1 exams and receiving a bit of a salary (as well as free board and lodging in a beautiful place) at the same time.

I spent Christmas down there, as part of their annual get-together for overseas students who would otherwise have no home to go to, and started at Cumberland Lodge early in the New Year. I had a direct reporting line to Lord Denning, and communications were made easier the following April when he moved back from the House of Lords to the Court of Appeal when he became Master of the Rolls, an office he was to hold for over 20 years.

The first legal weekend I helped to host was organised by the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, which Lord Denning had helped to found and of which his step-daughter, Hazel Fox QC CMG, was later to be the Director. Lord Denning and his wife came down for the weekend, and he had also invited two recently appointed High Court Judges, Leslie Scarman and Edmund Davies, who both later became law lords, to join the group. I remember vividly the meeting the four of us had in my study (a very large room close to the side door of the Lodge, which had been turned into a bar when I last went down there), when I was asked to report on the progress I had so far been able to make with the four Inns.

I told them that the Lincoln’s Inn weekend was due to take place in June.   I was optimistic that Gray’s Inn could be persuaded to come for the first time a week or two later. But I had drawn a blank with the other two.

Lord Justice Willmer, who chaired the Inner Temple’s Students and Barristers Committee, had told me that he was unable to persuade his Benchers to do anything so revolutionary.[12] Lord Justice Diplock, on the other hand, who was then a fairly junior Bencher of the Middle Temple, had told me that he shared Lord Denning’s view that something ought to be done, but he had been thoroughly disillusioned when he had arranged a weekend at Cumberland Lodge for his Inn in an earlier year but hardly any students had signed on. He was understandably reluctant to try again.

At our meeting I told the other three that my overall strategy was still concentrated on bringing all four Inns on board before Christmas. But the tactics had to be different.   I was certain that I could fill the place with the students of any of the Inns, given appropriate publicity in the right place, and that we would be able to avoid another setback such as had occurred with the Middle Temple in the past. There was space for all four Inns in the Cumberland Lodge programme for the year, and we wanted to get the weekends started.

If the three of them could help me by encouraging senior members of each Inn to come, I could obtain outside funding which would pay for coach travel for the students and a small subsidy to make Cumberland Lodge’s charges viable for the students. I calculated I would need £250 as a subsidy for each weekend.

Lincoln’s Inn was already in the bag. Sir Edmund Davies delivered Gray’s Inn very quickly: its Treasurer, Lord Justice Sellers, came down with a very successful group of Benchers and students before the end of June. All that remained was the challenge posed by the Middle Temple and the Inner Temple.   I remember that in due course Leslie Scarman persuaded Desmond Ackner QC ( a future law lord) and John Arnold QC ( a future President of the Family Division) to come down with Middle Temple students once I had told him I was able to stage an unofficial weekend at Cumberland Lodge for that Inn.

I was able to square the circle through the good auspices of Sylvia Fletcher-Moulton, who was a friend of my mother’s. The daughter of a law lord and herself a former member of the Chancery Bar, she rapidly understood the need and was able to secure £1,000 for me from the Leche Trust. This was a charity established by Mr Angus Acworth of which she was a trustee.  It was principally concerned with the conservation of historic Georgian buildings but it was also able to include projects like mine within its terms of reference.[13] The way was now open for me to set up two unofficial weekends, one for each recalcitrant Inn, which I called “Law At Home” weekends.[14]

A letter from Lord Denning on 7th June 1962, immediately after the Lincoln’s Inn weekend in which he had played a very full part, gives a good report on progress:

“I am delighted that the weekend was so good and do want to thank you for the tremendous part you played in making it such a success. Everyone at Lincoln’s Inn is speaking highly of it….

It would be very nice indeed to see you over the weekend. Do come over on Whitsunday if you can fit it in… Don’t trouble to come after dinner: come to dinner – and to dinner.”

He always signed his letters:

“Yours sincerely, Denning.”

I remember visiting the Dennings that June at their home near Haywards Heath[15]. I probably discussed the situation at Cumberland Lodge more generally with him, in addition to talking about the nuts and bolts of the future campaign with the Inns. Both he and his wife were always remarkably friendly, both to me and to every other student they ever met. He wrote again on 19th June, after the first Gray’s Inn weekend:

“I am delighted to hear what a successful weekend you had with Gray’s Inn. It was really splendid.

You have indeed broken through in the legal sphere if you have got the International Commission of Jurists to come. I do hope they will get a good team together…”

This extra weekend was the first time I got to know about the work of JUSTICE, with which I have been continuously associated ever since. Their remarkable first director, Tom Sargent, who was not himself a lawyer, came down to Cumberland Lodge with that group.

And finally, at the end of July, we had the first of my unofficial “Law At Home” weekends, for Benchers and students of the Inner Temple. We got a team of Inner Temple Benchers together, with help from contacts I made through my father and from Lord Justice Willmer, who had remained supportive throughout, and we filled the place with Inner Temple students. At most of these weekends we had roughly 80% black and Asian students, and 20% home-based British students, and the mix worked well.

I still possess two letters which testify to the impact we made on humane senior judges who had not thought about these problems before.

Lord Justice Pearson wrote of:

“my grateful thanks for a most interesting and enjoyable and instructive weekend. What fascinated me most was to find the overseas students so easy to get on with and appreciative of what we were trying to do for them.

It is a great work that is being done at Cumberland Lodge, and long may it continue!

P.S. Thank you for your letter, which has just arrived. I have reported favourably to your boss. I think that you will now find the Inn highly co-operative.”

And Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest, a law lord, wrote:

“I think that you must have been doing splendid work at Cumberland Lodge if I may say so – this last weekend was admirably organised and I think it was a great success. The pervading spirit was just right and I feel sure that all the students and especially those from distant parts were very appreciative. I think that from such gatherings they must gain much that they could not derive from their ordinary programmes of studies.”

When I reported on that weekend to Lord Denning, he replied at once that he had heard from both of them that it had been a great success:

“I must say you have done simply splendidly. The “Law At Home” weekends are now not only triumphantly launched but firmly established. I do hope they will manage to keep things going, but I have a feeling that no-one will really be able to take your place and I am wondering how we can keep the impetus going. Do please help as much as you can, but on the other hand I do think it is most important that you should now be getting down to your work for the Bar…”

He expressed the hope that they might now have been able to identify a new source of funds which would enable them to appoint someone first rate as the new Principal. He ended his letter by saying that not only had the “Law At Home” weekends been doing a splendid work, but also that they had kept Cumberland Lodge afloat over what he called “this most difficult period.”

I had agreed with him that I would finish my job at Cumberland Lodge at the end of July, so that I could attend the course for Bar Finals which started in September, but that I would be happy to go on with organising the remaining legal weekends that year and attending each of them.

The unofficial weekend for Middle Temple Benchers and students took place in September, and went as well as its predecessor.   I still possess a small photograph of Sir Jocelyn Simon, the President of the Family Division, giving one of the talks in the large drawing-room which was then used for these purposes[16], with Miss Buller sitting, as she always did, in a high-backed chair close to the door, and me and other students sitting comfortably on one of the sofas.

For this occasion I still have a letter from Lord Justice Diplock, who had asked for Miss Fletcher-Moulton’s address so that he could thank her for obtaining the financial support which had made the two unofficial weekends possible[17]. He wrote enthusiastically about what he had heard from the Middle Temple Benchers who had been there, and said:

“…[T]he Middle Temple is prepared, as I believe the other Inns are, to arrange two weekends a year for their students as a regular feature of our community life.”

He was politely complimentary about what I had been able to achieve since I met him earlier in the year, and ended his letter by saying that he had had a word with Lord Denning about these legal weekends and that he knew that Lord Denning would like to talk it over with me sometime in the near future.[18]

I completed my work there by attending two official weekends, one from the Middle Temple and then, finally, from the Inner Temple. Both took place before the end of 1962. And they have been going there with their students since, although I have never been back to Cumberland Lodge again with any of the Inns (not even my own).


[1] Roman Law; Constitutional Law and English Legal History.

[2] Of the five boys, two did not survive the Great War (Lord Denning called them “the best of us”), the second son became a lieutenant-general, the fourth son became a law lord, and the fifth and youngest became a vice-admiral.

[3] It was known as a “demyship”.

[4] He obtained a wide range of alphas, and a “gamma minus” for jurisprudence.   He would say: “Jurisprudence was too abstract a subject for my liking. All about ideologies, legal norms and basic norms, ‘ought’ and ‘is’ realism and behaviourism, and goodness what else.” R.F.V.Heuston, Lord Denning: The Man and His Times (Chapter 1 of Lord Denning: The Judge and the Law (Jowell & McAuslan, Sweet & Maxwell (1984) at p 3).

[5] From his Foreword to Lord Denning: The Judge and the Law (Jowell & McAuslan, Sweet & Maxwell (1984) at p v-vi).

[6] Although Lord Denning’s first name was “Alfred”, he was always known as “Tom”.

[7] Central London Property Trust Ltd v High Trees House Ltd [1947) KB 130, the starting point for the modern doctrine of promissory estoppel.

[8] “Puisne”, meaning “inferior in rank”, was an epithet used of High Court Judges, the lowest level of the judiciary in the superior courts.

[9] A distinction must be made between those who had already attended schools and universities in England, and the vast majority who had not.

[10] My own Inn, the Inner Temple, still refused to accept their specialist sub-committee’s recommendation that they should appoint a Students’ Officer even after the changes in attitude we had achieved through the Cumberland Lodge initiative.

[11] Her book, Darkness Over Germany, published in 1943, made a great impact on those who supported her quest for a new centre in which her vision might become a reality.

[12] Perhaps he did not use those exact words, but the net effect was the same.

[13] I see from its website that it currently supports overseas students from developing countries who find themselves in unforeseeable financial difficulty during the final six months of their PhD course at a UK university.

[14] I see from the world wide web that I wrote an article about them in GLIM, the students’ magazine which was being produced by members of the four Inns at that time. It started: “What’s all this about country house weekends for students?” Perhaps a copy is still extant in some dusty archive.

[15] In the following year they moved to a large house in his beloved Whitchurch, where I was to visit him in 1997, shortly before he died. But that is another story.

[16] The Mews at Cumberland Lodge was converted into conference facilities about ten years later.

[17] I was able to return the unspent £500 to the Trust, which must have been a novel experience for them.

[18] I am sure this happened, but I cannot remember what we talked about.

9 thoughts on “Lord Denning and I: (1) The Cumberland Lodge weekends

  1. What an interesting story! I remember going to Cumberland Lodge in the early 1980s and doing a role play in which I was a policeman giving evidence in court. I had no idea of the background to Cumberland Lodge being used for barristers’ training.


  2. Pingback: Law students prefer Lady Hale to Lord Denning and Amal Clooney - Legal Cheek

  3. alikelman

    I too recall a Cumberland Lodge Weekend I went to in the 1970s as a Bar student after my first degree in engineering from Birmingham University. What enormous fun it was. I remember playing and singing the Noel Coward song “The Stately Home of England” on the Bechstein Grand piano in the Lodge – it all seemed so apt, including the bathroom plumbing and the huge Victorian cast iron baths. Everyone from whatever background was being made welcome them – it was part of building up the community of the Bar.


  4. Pingback: Lord Denning and I (2): 1962-1972 – Henry Brooke

  5. Pingback: Lord Denning and I: (3) The Final Years – Henry Brooke

  6. Gosh, I have just read this piece and looked at your website, having been alerted to it by an academic friend and fellow member of the Pluri-Legal forum. There are loads of blogs here which I will dip into over time but for now I just wanted to say how I too enjoyed the Cumberland Lodge weekends during my time as a student at Lincoln`s Inn during the early 1960s. I attended at least two of these sessions and of course you were very much at the centre of the proceedings as the organiser and constant intermediary between us, a diverse group from all parts of the Commonwealth and the legal big-wigs (literally!).

    It was during the interactive sessions at the Lodge that one got to know people like Lord Denning, yes, and other judges (at that time I remember chatting with Widgery J, in particular, who later became Chief Justice, and Scarman also). I still have some group photos of the time there. I then returned to Kenya and practised there for 10 years from 1964 to 74, when I properly migrated back here, converted to the Solicitors` side (having had to disbar myself first) and practised as such for the next 30 years until retirement, after which I have turned to academic research and writing. So I will certainly be looking at your site for the gems of wisdom and memories of times past that it promises. Thank you.


  7. Emma Albery

    I am the Friends, Alumni and Outreach officer at Cumberland Lodge and am in the process of setting up an Alumni network for all past participants and visitors to Cumberland Lodge. It’s great to hear everyone’s fond memories. 2017 an exciting year as the Charity celebrates is 75 anniversary, since its beginnings in 1947 by Amy Buller. If anyone would like to join the Alumni network and keep up to date with events at the Lodge please email me emma@cumberlandlodge.ac.uk or you can join the Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/CumberlandLodgeAlumni/

    I do hope you return to Lodge again!

    Emma Albery


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  9. Pingback: Lord Denning and I: (1) The Cumberland Lodge weekends | seftonblog

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