Emma Warburton Hamlyn was born on Guy Fawkes Day 1860 in Torquay. Her father was a law clerk and after a while started work as a solicitor, a successful one of sorts, becoming a commissioner for oaths, doing a little bit of work from time to time for the province of Nova Scotia, and eventually making it onto the magistrates’ bench. Emma was an only child, with her mother mainly at home but helping out in the local Methodist schools and generally doing her bit for the faith which she shared with her husband. The family lived in Torquay pretty well all their lives, Emma never seems to have budged after her parents’ death: the most assiduous of searches have revealed membership of nothing, visits to nowhere, relationships with no one. She died in 1941, aged 80, in the house in which she had spent most of her life.
Anonymous in life, Emma Hamlyn has been immensely celebrated in death. Generations of lawyers recall her name with affection. In the decades since her apparently lonely demise, the greatest jurists of their day have grabbed the chance of her imprimatur to reach global audiences in the tens of thousands. Lucky law students have the chance to attend a “Hamlyn” lecture if their enterprising professors have managed to secure one for their university; many more study the lecture texts published annually as a book under her name. How can all this have happened?
Against legal advice and out of the blue, Emma Hamlyn chose to leave the residue of her considerable estate for the “furtherance by lectures or otherwise among the Common People of this Country of the knowledge of the Comparative Jurisprudence and the Ethnology of the Chief European countries including our own.” Her express intent was that, as a result, “the Common People of our Country may realise the privileges which in law and custom they enjoy in comparison with other European Peoples and realising and appreciating such privileges may recognise the responsibilities and obligations attaching to them.” Legal action in the Chancery Division was needed (as Miss Hamlyn had been warned) before the show—a set of annual lectures was the agreed format—could be got properly on the road, with (what is now) the University of Exeter leading in their organisation and the universities of London, Leeds, Belfast and Wales helping out with trustees.
The first lecture, Freedom under the Law, was delivered for the University of London in 1948 by Lord Denning and set the standard for the subsequent lectures. He wasn’t Lord Denning then of course, just plain Sir Alfred Denning, new to the Court of Appeal. But what a booking, a bit like getting the Rolling Stones to launch a series of concerts before anyone knew who they were. Denning went on to become a legal rock star, lived long, wrote much and in that era before mandatory retirement hung on as a judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg-style until the early 1980s (when a recklessly unchecked book did for him). Reviews of this first set of Hamlyn lectures stressed the beauty of Denning’s writing and the ability he had to reach both the “common people” and the legal glitterati.
The course of the Hamlyn lectures was set. In the 1950s, Lord Devlin lectured—famously—on juries as “the lamp that shows that freedom lives,” and the legendary legal polymath Glanville Williams on “the proof of guilt.” The 1960s saw the first woman (Baroness Wooton, on crime, bursting the format with a book in two parts) and moves into foreign jurisdictions: maybe the organisers thought—heretically!—that those abroad might have the occasional good idea. Reflecting the times as well was a new interest in welfare law, a sign of the innovative instincts of the trustees.
Perhaps the most famous Hamlyns of all are those of Lord Scarman in 1974, English Law—the New Dimension, talking about human rights before anyone really knew what they were. Constitutional Fundamentals by Professor William Wade in 1980 nearly launched a recherché legal revolution to impose those self-same human rights, with a wonderfully bonkers argument about how all it took to achieve a revolution was a few swear words from judges. (“Changing the judicial oath” was how this old-school but wildly fresh thinker put it.) Another early booking, Denning-style, was Brenda Hale, 1995, a newbie in the High Court’s Family Division. Cambridge University Press took the lectures over in 2005 and they now have a glossy website, lovely photos and an energetic publicity drive behind them. Eleanor Sharpston QC gives the first of her three—remotely, of course but notionally from Edinburgh—on 29th October, on the European Union and the rule of law: as a senior advocate within the European Court of Justice until Brexit there will be much of topical as well as academic interest for sure.
Of course you cannot have a lecture series with mega stars every year. We jobbing professors get a look in too, from time to time. I gave the Hamlyns in 2005, on the catchy title (for which I had one of the organisers to thank) Can Human Rights Survive? It is still easily my best-selling book (not a difficult achievement admittedly). I started mine at LSE (where I work) and then went to Durham (where some of my friends who violently disagreed with my ideas and were gagging to have a go at me worked) and from there to Belfast. (Dublin was ruled out: a bit too foreign for Miss Hamlyn it was decided.) The bequest paid my way, rewarded the attendees with a drink afterwards and laid on a lovely dinner at each venue. (My mother drove across the border for the Belfast one, got herself into the dinner of course even though she was unexpected, and then mortifyingly made an after-dinner speech about what a good little boy I had been; in memory, though, this has grown into the highlight of my academic career.) The Hamlyns do that—bring people together (and not just relations), and when done well focus attendees’ thoughts on a legal issue which has been rendered accessible by a speaker who knows both their stuff and the nature of the audience, and who can do it all with panache.
Covid-19 has pinched all our lives even if it has not destroyed them, and this year’s distinguished speaker will have to make do without the canapés and conviviality. In giving the lectures at a time when over 800 lawyers have felt compelled to sign a letter to the Prime Minister and Home Secretary calling on both to desist from using hostile language against those in the law profession, Sharpston will surely be choosing to reassert the importance of the rule of law. I used to be pretty scathing about judges and lawyers and the Inns of Court and all their paraphernalia of privilege—one of my Hamlyns went on and on about this (hence my Durham friendly enemies finding lots to attack on the night). But now I am not so sure. I guess my hostility was all the wilder for what I had for so long taken for granted about the United Kingdom—that the government would respect the law; that separation of powers would not be regarded as dispensable; that the executive would not exploit the vagueness of the UK constitution to hoard power without regard to the consequences. It is thought that Emma Hamlyn founded her trust in memory of her father, though she never said so. I like to think that the magistrate would have been pleased with what his daughter has set in train, and that there will be many in the (remote) audience nodding in agreement as Sharpston speaks, and many Emma Hamlyn’s too—decent, quiet observers of the UK who know something has gone decidedly rotten.
Conor Gearty is a professor of human rights law at the LSE, a barrister at Matrix Chambers, and Vice-President for Social Sciences at the British Academy