Another memory of Lord Denning in his old age

One of the delights I have enjoyed from writing this blog has been when old friends have contacted me as a result of something I have written:and sometimes I am thrilled to learn they are still alive.

I had this experience a couple of days ago, when I heard out of the blue from Vibert Lampkin, the 83-year-old Guyana-born former Canadian judge whom I mentioned in the third instalment of my blogs on “Lord Denning and I”.  He corrected something I had written (I have now rewritten the passage), and was good enough to send me a copy of an article he had written last year in which he recalled his last visit to Lord Denning in his home at Whitchurch.

It is such a charming memento of a very great judge that  I was pleased when he gave me his permission to reproduce it here.

[When I say that he was a very great judge, I remember him from those years in which he bestrode the English judicial firmament (between about 1948 and 1978): it is sad that younger people today remember him mainly for remarks he made towards the very end of his judicial career (and after it) which had been much better left unsaid.]

By the time I made my much shorter visit 16 months later he had become much more frail, although his mind was still very sharp.  I saw him in his library, which Vibert describes so well.

Here is Vibert Lampkin’s article (from which I have made some minor excisions):




Monday, July 1, 1996. Canada Day. But I was in London. I caught the Tube to Victoria Station in time for the 9:30 train to Whitchurch, Hampshire, for my second visit with Lord Denning. I walked the short distance to The Lawn and was ushered into his study where he was waiting for me. We greeted each other warmly.

He was now a widower for the second time. Lady Denning had suffered a second heart attack on October 19, 1992 and died in hospital on October 22 at the age of 92. Lord Denning was first married to the former Mary Harvey, the Vicar’s daughter, in December 1932. Unfortunately she died in November 1941 leaving her three year old son Robert. She was only 41 years old. The years went by. The war was over. Then he met Joan Stuart, herself a widow with two daughters and a son. They met at a party arranged by the headmaster and his wife for parents and prospective parents of boys. It was a whirlwind courtship. They got engaged within weeks and were married on December 27, 1945.

After Lady Denning’s death, in almost every letter to me he talked of being old and decrepit and lonely. And he must have been lonely with no close family nearby. He had survived his four brothers and only sister. His only child, Dr. Robert Denning, was a Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and the Dean of Magdalen College, Oxford University, his father’s old college, and was only able to visit The Lawn occasionally with his two young sons. Lord Denning had a live-in Australian Nurse, Vivian Richards, aged about 27, but really no one else for company. There was Charlie, the gardener, who started with him at age 14 and was then 44. There was a maid and a cook. His Secretary, Peter Post, went in from time to time to type his letters as his handwriting was almost illegible.

Not surprisingly, he was not as brisk as he was on my last visit on August 3, 1990. He walked with two canes (‘sticks’ he called them) and had to be assisted to sit and stand. He read with the help of a large magnifying glass. He ate well. For lunch we had baked chicken raised on his farm, potatoes and other vegetables grown in his kitchen garden. In a BBC interview he had been asked the secret of his long life. He said that he ate simply, “none of that rich French food”.

His mind was still as sharp as ever. On Saturday June 29, two days before my visit, there was a full page article in The Times commemorating the Battle of the Somme in which he was extensively quoted. He had lost his eldest brother in that battle. I had taken a letter from Lord Justice Brooke with whom I had spent an afternoon the week before at the Royal Courts of Justice. I had met Lord Justice Brooke in May when he addressed our Court at our Annual Conference. In fact he was elevated to the Court of Appeal from the Trial Division while he was here in Canada. When I mentioned Brooke to Denning, he immediately said, even before reading the letter: “Oh, Henry, Henry. He used to appear before me. You know his father was Home Secretary at the time of the Profumo Affair”. Even though Lord Denning had always regarded his Profumo Report as among his best work, it was still remarkable that, at 97 years of age, he could recall Brooke’s genealogy so readily, bearing in mind that the Profumo Affair had occurred close to 40 years before. After lunch he had his Nurse bring out the Who’s Who so that we could read up more about the background of Henry Brooke. He also wrote a letter of congratulations which I delivered to Lord Justice Brooke on my return to London.

I mentioned to him that I was still missing his two books “Freedom Under the Law” and “The Road to Justice”, which were out of print. The former was a collection of four lectures under The Hamlyn Trust and he was invited to deliver the first series of four lectures which he did in the Senate House, University of London, in October and November, 1949. The latter was also the collection of lectures that he had delivered in 1954 as the Nuffield Visitor to the Universities of the Union of South Africa and in 1955 in Canada and the United States of America as the guest of the Canadian Bar Association and the American Bar Association. “Freedom under the Law” had been recommended as additional reading for the subject “The English Legal System” when I was doing the Intermediate Bachelor of Laws Degree of the University of London in the mid 50’s. But as a poor student reading for the examination externally in Guyana who had to import all his books from England by air mail – the cost of which was astronomical when you consider the size and weight of books like Radcliffe and Cross: The English Legal System; Kenny’s Outline of Criminal Law; Wade & Phillips Constitutional Law; Phipson on Evidence; Megarry’s Law of Real Property; Hanbury’s Equity; Snell’s Trusts; Lee’s Roman Law; Maine’s Ancient Law; Salmond on Jurisprudence; Cheshire & Fifoot on Contract; Winfield on Torts; etc. etc.- you can understand why I had to cut and trim my reading list.

And so I never had acquired nor read those books, the only two of his eight that I did not have. I told him that perhaps that was why I had garnered only a mere Pass in English Legal System while I had done so well in the other subjects. He did not know that Freedom under the Law was recommended additional reading for the examination. He told me that he had four copies of ‘Freedom’ which had gone through thirteen reprints but only one of Road to Justice. He sent me into his library to get a copy of ‘Freedom’. That was another experience.

The library was a large room adjoining his study. Law Reports, not only from England but also from the Commonwealth and the European Union, from wall to wall, from floor to ceiling, with four additional free standing book cases full of Law Reports. More than 4,000 volumes, his law library was reputed to be the best in private hands in the British Commonwealth. I roamed through the Library for several minutes but could not find “Freedom under the Law. He sent his Nurse in to find it which she did. He endorsed it to me as follows:

 For my good friend Vibert Lampkin with congratulations for his success in the law and his good judgments and best wishes for future success and happiness.

I was shocked to see that although he had resigned from the Bench on September 29, 1982, the same day I was sworn in, … he still kept abreast of the law. At my arrival at 11:00 a.m. he was at his desk reading the current issue of the All England Law Reports – at 97 years of age.

After lunch we repaired to the ante-room for coffee and a leisurely chat. He did not grow up in the age of computers and had misunderstood what I had said two hours before about having my judgments printed from a disk. He asked me what is this “disco” and whether I liked it. His question was straight out of the blue. I began to tell him that I was too old for disco although I enjoyed some of the music. Fortunately his Nurse Vivian was present during our earlier discussion and she came to our rescue and explained what I had said

He needed to take a nap and as he did so, I walked the grounds. The house built during Regency times, with Drawing Room, Dining Room, Library, Bath Room, Billiard Room, Small Sitting Room, Butler’s Pantry, House-keeper’s Room, two Kitchens and other conveniences on the ground floor, and on the upper floor eight Bed Rooms of good dimensions, Water Closet, House-maid’s Closet, and large Attic Bed Room, was much too large for him and his wife when he purchased it late in 1960. They converted it to suit themselves, pulling down more than half the house and adding a new wing, converting it into two self-contained halves, one for themselves, the other as an annexe for their younger generation when they went to stay.

You walk out from the library or his study through French Casements to a wide open lawn down to the River Test. It is why the place is called ‘The Lawn’. The house, lawn and garden occupy about 4 acres. You then come to an island in the river having an area of about ¾ of an acre crossed by two charming bridges, one of wood, the other of wrought ironwork. Beyond the island is the main stream which is also crossed by a bridge. On the far bank he owned about 20 acres full of willows, poplars and hazels. I walked through the garden, once featured in a book of English gardens and adjudged to be the second best in England in private hands. I chatted with Charlie. I crossed the bridge to the other side of the river and wandered among the huge trees. I went onto the island, pausing on the bridges to watch the trout swimming about. I sat on the bench at the river’s edge and admired the vast expanse of the property.

He took a daily walk with his Nurse about 3:00 p.m. I told him I would be back in January 1999 to help celebrate his 100th birthday. He said:

Oh Vibert, I don’t know if I will be around until then.

We embraced. As he went around the corner of his home, he looked back and waved. We both knew we would never see each other again. I left shortly after to catch my train to Bath where a friend was to pick me up to take me to his home in Wells, Somerset. On my way to the train station, I visited the cemetery in the Church yard around the corner from his home to visit the tomb of Lady Denning.

He died on Friday March 5, 1999, six weeks after his 100th birthday. His son Robert called me from Oxford to inform me of his death. I was myself ill at home, nursing a bout of pneumonia under orders from my doctor to rest at home and not to go to work. But I disobeyed him and delivered a Eulogy in court on Monday March 8, 1999.

At the invitation of his son Robert I attended the Memorial Service at Westminster Abbey on Thursday 17 June, 1999 – as a member of the family. Memorial services at Westminster Abbey are reserved for Kings and Queens and members of the Royal Family – Princess Diana to cite one such – but Denning’s reputation was such that his Service was granted that privilege.

Twenty years ago today, yes. But to me it is but as yesterday.”

Vibert Lampkin

                                                                                                            July 1, 2016.






2 thoughts on “Another memory of Lord Denning in his old age

  1. Pingback: Lord Denning’s unique prose style: 34 more examples – Henry Brooke

  2. Irene Burns nee stamper

    Lovely reading about Lord Denning. When I was young I used to write to him. I was studying for a law degree and his name was often mentioned.
    I still have his six letters, some hand written, some typed from 1984 and 1985. I never met him but I really enjoyed reading his Profumo report.

    Irene Burns in County Durham


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