Lord Denning’s unique prose style: 34 more examples

On this site I have published three blogs in which I described my dealings with Lord Denning at different times across a span of nearly 40 years: from the days when I helped him to start the Cumberland Lodge weekends for Inns of Court students in 1962 to my visit to his home at Whitchurch in 1997, 16 months before he died at the age of 100.

These earlier blogs were:

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

Lord Denning and I (2): 1962-1972

Lord Denning and I: (3) The Final Years

See also Another memory of Lord Denning in his old age

Last week, in my first miscellany of memorable opening lines of judgments I quoted some of the favourites from Lord Denning’s repertoire, from bluebell time in Kent to the threat  of a curtain call on village cricket at Lintz, in County Durham.   For this new collection I am indebted to my Canadian friend John Wright, who has drawn my attention to an article  called “It all started with Gunner James”, by Cameron Harvey of the Faculty of Law at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

This blog contains 34 more excerpts.  Some of them I remembered well. Some were quite new to me.  They cover his two turns of duty in the Court of Appeal (1948-1957 and 1962-1982).  There is nothing from his unhappy five years as a law lord (1957-1962).

In The Family Story (Butterworths, 1981) Lord Denning wrote:

I try to make my judgments live…

I start my judgment, as it were with a  prologue – as the chorus does in one of Shakespeare’s plays – to introduce the story.   Then I go from act to act as Shakespeare does – each with its scenes drawn from real life…  I draw the characters as they truly were – using their real names… I avoid long sentences like the plague because they lead to obscurity.  It is no good if the hearer cannot follow them… I know that people are prone not to accept my view unless they have support in the books. But never at much length. Only a sentence or two.  I avoid all reference to pleadings and orders.  They are mere lawyers’ stuff, they are unintelligible to everyone else.  I finish with a conclusion – an epilogue – again as the chorus does in Shakespeare.  In it I gather the threads together and give the result.

Here they are:


This is yet another case in which the doctrine of constructive desertion has been allowed to run wild.[1]


This case ought to have been simple, but the lawyers have made it complicated.[2]


Mr. Deeble has a milk round. He sells milk to people at the doors of their houses. He runs his business from a dairy building where he keeps his equipment, refrigerator, spare milk bottles and so forth, and a stable where he keeps his horse and float. His round is seven streets adjoining the premises. He does not actually have a shop as ordinarily understood. His lease of these premises is coming to an end, and he wants to stay on there. This depends on whether the premises come within the definition of a ”shop” in the Leasehold Property Act.[3]


This case concerns an accident which took place in the sausage department of the defendant’s food factory in Cadby Hall. At 2:30 in the afternoon the tea-break was called. The plaintiff, a married woman, was the first off towards the tea-bar. She was always, the judge said, pretty quick off the mark for her cup of tea. [4]


Counsel for the vendor referred to this case as a comedy of errors. It is no comedy, but a history of errors.[5]


There is a small country station at North Tawton on the main line between Okehampton and Exeter. The stationmaster was Mr. Videan, who lived in the station house with his wife and four small boys, aged six, five, three and two. They had been living there for three years, the youngest being born there. The station house was on the up side of the line, and their garden and chicken run on the other side. There was a footbridge for passengers and a barrow crossing for porters with barrows. Mrs. Videan used sometimes to take the pram with a child across the barrow crossing, and one of the staff occasionally took a child across by the hand. But the children by themselves usually went by the footbridge. Mrs. Videan said:

“The children were always trained to do that. They were not allowed to run about on the tracks … But they did run out on to the platform. That was quite another matter”.[6]


This case has been a battle of wits between the hirer and a finance company. The fortunes of war have fluctuated to and fro.[7]


Old Peter Beswick was a coal merchant in Eccles, Lancashire. He had no business premises. All he had was a lorry, scales and weights. He used to take the lorry to the yard of the National Coal Board, where he bagged coal and took it round to his customers in the neighbourhood. His nephew, John Beswick, helped him in the business. In March 1962, old Peter Beswick and his wife were both over 70. He had his leg amputated and was not in good health. The nephew was anxious to get hold of the business before the old man died. So they went to a solicitor, Mr Ashcroft, who drew up an agreement for them.[8]


The defendant has in the past occasionally had a wager on a horse-race. Today she has been taking part in another game of chance or skill – the game of litigation.[9]


There is a civil war flaring in Nigeria. Sparks from it have come down in London. Some have landed on No. 35 Woodstock Road, London, N.W.11.[10]


On Friday, September 27, 1963, near Longfield, in Kent, a gang of robbers laid in wait for a bullion van. It was about mid-day. They had come down from London in convoy. They were in a Land Rover, a Dormobile and a lorry. All three vehicles had recently been stolen. Whilst waiting for the bullion van, they went on to a village green and kicked a ball about. It was a red plastic ball. The local folk saw them. Soon afterwards the gang left. They got themselves ready. They had iron bars in their hands. One had an Indian club. They ambushed the bullion van. They must have known its movements. It belonged to Martins Bank and had been round the branches collecting money. One was the branch at Welling. The robbers stopped the van and overcame the driver and guard. They stole £87,300, and went off.[11]


In this action the leading actor is Andrew Shute, but he is the only one on stage who has not given evidence. To some he is the hero. To others the villain of the piece.[12]


It was soon after midnight on the 14th/15th February 1971 in the Bloomsbury area of London. Men were seen acting suspiciously near the headquarters of the Territorial Army in Handel Street.[13]


Mr Kavanagh wants a gun, perhaps many guns.[14]


This is the first case in which in this court we have had to consider the Treaty of Rome. It comes about because of a tin can.[15]


This case reminds me of the story of David and Goliath, with a difference. Goliath is winning all along the line. David has sought to find some stones in the brook called the Industrial Relations Act 1971, but every one of them has so far bounced off the invincible Goliath.[16]


In 1962 life was peaceful in Buckinghamshire. We mean in the northern part of it. It retained its old attractive qualities. Bletchley was the little market town serving the villages and farms about. Two miles north of Bletchley there was the little hamlet of Walton. It had a manor house built in Tudor times, and a few cottages.[17]


Today we look back far in time to a town or village green. The turf is old. Animals have grazed there for hundreds of years. Nowadays they are pleasant stretches of grass where people sit and talk. Sometimes they play cricket or kick a ball about. But in medieval times it was the place where the young men mustered with their bows and arrows. They shot at the butts. There might be stocks there where offenders were put for their petty misdemeanours. In the month of May they set up a maypole and danced around it. We have no record of when it all began, but the poet tells us:

On the green they watched their sons

Playing till too dark to see,

As their fathers watched them once,

As my father once watched me . . .[18]


This is the case of the barmaid who was badly bitten by a big dog.[19]


It is eight years ago now since Robert Riddick, the plaintiff, was dismissed from his employment. Yet the manner of it has reverberated through the Law Courts ever since. He was a shift engineer, in a mill at Worthington in Cumberland. Tree trunks went in at one end of the mill. Cardboard came out at the other end.[20]


David Emlyn James is a lawyer who has gone astray. He was a partner in a firm of five lawyers practising at Lusaka in Zambia. James went off with a sum of £ 60,000 belonging to the firm or its clients. He disappeared. But the story goes that, with the money in his pocket, he gambolled round Europe and came to rest for a while in England.[21]


One thousand cases of whiskey were stolen. It was on Friday evening, 24th January 1975.[22]


Mr. Sharp was only employed by the China Clay Company for 20 months. He left of his own accord. Yet he has been awarded £ 658 as compensation for unfair dismissal. There seems something wrong with the award. What is it?[23]


This is the case of the three smugglers.[24]


In I976 rumours were rife in Blackpool. Gossip abounded about the goings on of the Chief Constable of Lancashire. He lived in the town. Not only about the Chief Constable himself. But about police officers too. And well-known citizens.[25]


It is, it is a glorious thing, to be a Pirate King,

said W.S. Gilbert (The Pirates of Penzance). But he was speaking of ship pirates. Today we speak of film pirates. It is not a glorious thing to be, but it is a good thing to be in for making money.[26]


Many years ago Sir Edward Coke had a case about six carpenters. Now we have a case about six car-hire drivers.[27]


The village has an attractive name, Dibden Purlieu. It goes back to the times of the Norman French.[28]


The coast of Cornwall is beautiful. Much of the inland is ugly. It is despoiled by china clay workings. Not far from them there is open farmland with small villages dotted around. Pleasant enough but not outstanding.[29]


A woman’s hair is her crowning glory, so it is said. She does not like it disturbed: especially when she has just had a “hair-do”.[30]


This case will be of interest to those in the Civil Service – and elsewhere – who are approaching retirement. Unlike me![31]


A gigantic ship was used for a gigantic fraud.[32]


Once again we have to consider the doctrine of unity. It says that in law

“husband and wife are one and the husband is that one”.

I remember well that it was invoked when I used to prosecute in the magistrate courts. A wife was travelling on the railway using her husband’s ticket. When she put forward the excuse:

“We are one in the eyes of the law,”

the collector replied:

“But not in the eyes of the Southern Railway.”[33]


Many of you know Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”. In it there are these words (chp. IV):

‘The time has come’, the Walrus said,

‘To talk of many things:

Of shoes and ships and sealing wax,

Of cabbages and kings’.

Today   it is not “of cabbages and kings” but of cabbages and what-nots.  Some farmers ordered 30 lb. of cabbage seed.  It was supplied.  It looked just like cabbage seed.  No one could say it was not.  The farmers planted it over 63 acres.  Six months later there appeared out of the ground a lot of loose green leaves.  They looked like cabbage leaves but they never turned in.  They had no hearts.  They were not cabbages in our common parlance because they had no hearts.[34]

None of you nowadays will remember the trouble we had – when I was called to the Bar – with exemption clauses. They were printed in small print on the back of tickets and order forms and invoices. They were contained in catalogues or timetables. They were held to be binding on any person who took them without objection. No one ever did object. He never read them or knew what was in them. No matter how unreasonable they were, he was bound. All this was done in the name of “freedom of contract.” But the freedom was all on the side of the big concern which had the use of the printing press. No freedom for the little man who took the ticket or order form or invoice. The big concern said,

“Take it or leave it.”

The little man had no option but to take it. The big concern could and did exempt itself from liability in its own interest without regard to the little man. It got away with it time after time. When the courts said to the big concern,

“You must put it in clear words,”

the big concern had no hesitation in doing so. It knew well that the little man would never read the exemption clauses or understand them.

It was a bleak winter for our law of contract.


The George Mitchell judgment was his last, after 38 years as a judge.  When it reached the House of Lords his old sparring partner, Lord Diplock, marked the occasion by saying:

My Lords, I have had the advantage of reading in advance the speech to be delivered by my noble and learned friend, Lord Bridge of Harwich, in favour of dismissing this appeal upon grounds which reflect the reasoning although not the inimitable style of Lord Denning M.R.’s judgment in the Court of Appeal.

I agree entirely with Lord Bridge’s speech and there is nothing that I could usefully add to it; but I cannot refrain from noting with regret, which is, I am sure, shared by all members of the Appellate Committee of this House, that Lord Denning M.R.’s judgment in the instant case, which was delivered on September 29, 1982 is probably the last in which your Lordships will have the opportunity of enjoying his eminently readable style of exposition and his stimulating and percipient approach to the continuing development of the common law to which he has himself in his judicial lifetime made so outstanding a contribution.








[1] Pike v. Pike [1953] 1 All ER 232

[2] Marsden v. Regan [1954] 1 All ER 475

[3] Deeble v Robinson [1954] 1 QB 77

[4] Braham v. J. Lyons & Co Ltd [1962] 1 WLR 1048

[5] In re Stone and Saville’s Contract [1963] 1 WLR 163

[6] Videan v British Transport Commission [1963] 2 QB 650

[7] Capital Finance Ltd v Bray [1964] 1 WLR 323

[8] Beswick v Beswick [1966] Ch 538

[9] Tote Investors Ltd. v. Smoker [1968] 1 QB 509

[10] Agbor . Metropolitan Police Commissioner [1969] 1 WLR 703

[11] Stupple v Royal Insurance Co Ltd [1971] 1 QB 50

[12] Cory Lighterage Ltd v TGWU [1973] ICR 339

[13] R v Criminal Injuries Compensation Board ex p Ince [1973] 1 WLR 1334

[14] Kavanagh v Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall [1974] 1 QB 624

[15] Application des Gaz SA v Falks Veritas Ltd [1974] Ch 381

[16] Post Office v. Crouch [1974] 1 WLR 89

[17] Myers v. Milton Keynes Development Corporation [1974] 1 WLR 696

[18] New Windsor Corporation v Mellor [1975] Ch 380

[19] Cummings v Granger [1976] QB 397

[20] Riddick v. Thames Board Mills Ltd [1977] 1 QB 881

[21] In re James (an Insolvent) [1977] Ch 41

[22] James Buchanan & Co Ltd v Babco Forwarding & Shipping (UK) Ltd [1977] QB 208

[23] Western Excavating v. Sharp [1978] 1 QB 761

[24] Allgemeine Gold-und-Silberscheideanstalt v Customs and Excise Commissioners [1980] QB 390

[25] R v Lancashire County Council Police Authority ex p Hook [1980] QB 603

[26] Rank Film Distributors Ltd v Video Information Centre [1980] AC 380

[27] Cinnamond v British Airports Authority [1980] 1 WLR 582

[28] Jennings Motors v Secretary of State for the Environment [1982] QB 541

[29] Regina v. Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall ex p CEGB [1982] QB 458

[30] Ministry of Defence v. Jeremiah [1980] 1 QB 87

[31] Howard v Department for National Savings [1981] 1 WLR 542

[32] Shell International Petroleum Ltd v Gibbs [1982] QB 946

[33] Routham v Arun District Council [1982] QB 502

[34] George Mitchell (Chesterhall) Ltd v Finney Seeds Ltd [1983] QB 284

2 thoughts on “Lord Denning’s unique prose style: 34 more examples

  1. Pingback: Lord Denning’s unique style of writing: more on the topic from Sir Henry Brooke – Bermuda Legal

  2. Pingback: 5 Lessons From The Most Influential English Judge Lord Denning

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