The Inns of Chancery

No picture of an Inn of Court can be complete without some mention of the Inns of Chancery. These seem to have taken their name from being originally bodies which served the needs of the clerks in the Chancery, the Lord Chancellor's Office from which all writs had to be obtained.

Later these Inns also included attorneys, who practised in the courts of common law, and also, as the Court of Chancery gradually evolved in the 15th and 16th centuries, solicitors, who performed corresponding functions there. In addition, these Inns provided some sort of initial training for those who would later join an Inn of Court and be called to the Bar. In about 1470, when there were ten Inns of Chancery, Sir John Fortescue C. J. referred to them in effect as being preparatory schools for the Inns of Court.

Each Inn of Chancery became somewhat loosely attached to one of the Inns of Court, which periodically sent Readers to provide some form of education, and exercised a degree of supervisory control. Physically, the Inns of Chancery were miniature Inns of Court, with a hall and chambers; but none had a chapel. They were all within half a mile of an Inn of Court, and most of them within 300 or 400 yards.

By the end of the 16th century, many changes were on the way. Attorneys and solicitors had by then been excluded from the Inns of Court, though the exclusion did not become complete until the end of the 18th century. Intending barristers increasingly tended to join an Inn of Court without first passing through an Inn of Chancery; and the Inns of Chancery were becoming social associations of attorneys and solicitors. The Law Society, developing out of a body established in 1825 (though an earlier organisation had been founded in 1739), came to serve the professional needs of attorneys and solicitors; and during the 19th century the Inns of Chancery withered and died.

By 1900 they had nearly all been wound up and sold. Today, with little more than two exceptions, they survive only in giving their names to streets or blocks of flats or offices, such as Clement's Inn, just west of the Law Courts, and Clifford's Inn, just south of the former Public Record Office at the southern end of Chancery Lane, where the old entrance to the Inn may still be seen. An illustrated description of the Inns of Chancery, their organisation, their rise and their decay, and finally their dissolution, together with a sketch map which shows where they stood, may be found in Megarry's Inns Ancient and Modern, published by the Selden Society in 1972. (This also gives a brief account of the ancient order of serjeants-at-law, which, like Serjeants' Inn, has now long been defunct.)

The two Inns attached to Lincoln's Inn were Furnival's Inn, founded in about 1383, and Thavie's Inn, which may have been founded some 36 years earlier, and certainly existed a century later. Lincoln's Inn bought the freehold of each of them shortly before 1550.

Furnival's Inn was on the north side of Holborn, about 300 yards east of Chancery Lane. Its site is now engulfed by the massive red brick gothic structure of the Prudential Assurance Co. Ltd., the preservers of Staple Inn. On the right of the main entrance to the Prudential Building can be seen a blue plaque inscribed “Site of Furnival's Inn Demolished 1897”. The Society of Furnival's Inn had ceased to occupy the Inn in 1817, and in 1888 Lincoln's Inn sold it. Thavie's Inn was on the south side of Holborn, a little further to the east. Lincoln's Inn sold it in 1772, after it had fallen on hard times; the proceeds were applied towards the cost of erecting Stone Buildings.

Today, no more can be seen than a short street called ”Thavies Inn”, terminating in a cul-de-sac just south of Holborn Circus, on the eastern side of the modern ''Thavies Inn House'' which itself lies eastwards of the bright colours of the Daily Mirror building. Gray's Inn was more fortunate, however: for some of Barnard's Inn and most of Staple Inn (its two Inns of Chancery) remain to show what an Inn of Chancery was like. Both lie on the south side of Holborn. Of Barnard's Inn, not much remains save the hall, tiny by comparison with the halls of the Inns of Court. It lies at the foot of a short and inconspicuous passage opposite the eastern wing of the Prudential Building. But Staple Inn, badly damaged by a bomb in 1944, has been faithfully restored and rebuilt.

The Institute of Actuaries now uses the hall and some of the chambers; the remaining chambers are mostly let out as offices. The entrance to the Inn is some 150 yards east of Chancery Lane, amid a Tudor frontage; and there is another entrance from Southampton Buildings, a street running north-east out of Chancery Lane.

The Inn lost the southern part of its southern courtyard to the neighbouring Patent Office in about 1884, but in other respects it appears today much as it must have appeared since it began to be used as an Inn of Chancery in the 15th century. It was probably one of the largest of these Inns; in 1586 it had more active members than any other Inn of Chancery.