Bristol Legal History

Our interests cover several different jurisdictions, from Scotland to Australia, but we are also very conscious of our location in a city with its own important place in the history of law.

While London and Westminster have dominated traditional scholarship on the development of the common law, Bristol has long been the site of important courts and considerable legal business, as well as campaigns to change the law, or to resist unjust laws. There is also the long and deep involvement with the slave trade to contend with, and the issue of how the city and the university engage with that history is of particular importance. Bristol has also been an important site for resistance, protest and demand for reform of the law. Notable riots took place in the 1831 (as depicted on our banner) , for example, and in the twentieth century, Bristol saw protest and resistance in relation to women’s suffrage, peace activism, labour movements and race discrimination.

Bristol, a leading commercial city from the early medieval period onwards, and a major centre on the Western Circuit,  has long had a large legal professional presence. It has been the site of a number of courts dealing with criminal, civil and commercial business, including the picturesquely named Tolzey Court and Court of Pie Poudre, both dealing with the legal disputes of merchants and commercial cases. Bristol Law Society, for solicitors, is the oldest local law society in England, dating from 1770 (and formed at the Bush Tavern, Corn Street).

In terms of legal education, there were attempts to establish lecture courses on law in the 1830s, for those wishing to practise as solicitors, but no permanent institution emerged at that time. Law lectures were given in Bristol, mainly to articled clerks (trainee solicitors), from the 1870s, with some breaks when support waned. When the University of Bristol received its charter in 1909, Law was not taught as an independent degree subject, though some law subjects were offered to students. A greater amount of law teaching was available from the 1920s, with law units (Jurisprudence, Constitutional History and Roman Law) contributing to the BA degree in Arts. A law degree (LL.B.) became available once the Law Faculty was founded in 1933. Legal education in Bristol is also provided at the University of the West of England (which has been teaching law for more than forty years).

It is interesting to note that Legal History has been part of the curriculum for many University of Bristol law students. Early law lecturers at Bristol included E.W.W. Veale, who published work on aspects of medieval land law, and Legal History was also taught in the twentieth century by Jan Grodecki, George Duncan, Hugh Beale and Andrew Borkowski. The curriculum for first year law students in 1933-4 included Constitutional Law and its History, and History and Outlines of Roman Law. Final examinations included The History of English Law. This emphasis on a historical perspective remained until the 1960s, when there was some reduction in the compulsory papers in this area, though legal history was often available as an option in later years.  It remains a popular option into the twenty-first century, and is currently taught by Gwen Seabourne, Joanna McCunn and Catherine Kelly.

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