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Sir William Searle Holdsworth.

Sir William Searle Holdsworth, OM, KC, DCL, HON LL.D, FBA, (7 May 1871 – 2 January 1944) was Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford University and a legal historian, amongst whose works is the 12 volume History of English Law.


Early life

Sir William Searle Holdsworth was born in May 1871, the son of a well-known London solicitor, Charles Joseph Holdsworth and his wife Ellen Caroline (née Searle).[1] He was educated at Dulwich College and in 1890 went on to win a History Exhibition from Dulwich College to New College, Oxford. [2].


After taking a first-class both in History and in Law[3] William Holdsworth went on to become professor of constitutional law at University College, London (from (1903 to 1908)). In 1922 he became the Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford.[4]


History of English Law and other works

  • History of English Law (over 12 volumes, published between 1903 and 1938). This was Holdsworth's greatest literary academic achievement. The work begins with Anglo-Saxon times, and it is an account of legal procedure and court organization down to the Judicature Acts of 1875 and of the important phases of substantive law through the 18th cent. Many authorities consider Holdsworth's history among the most thorough scholarly accounts of English law ever written.
  • The Historians of Anglo-American Law (1928, repr. 1966); and
  • Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian (1928, repr. 1972), the book version of Holdsworth's Storrs Lectures at Yale Law School, argued that historians should pay closer attention to the novels of Charles Dickens as source material about the workings of English law and legal institutions; it contains a thoughtful and sensitive analysis of Dickens's novel Bleak House as an illuminating examination of the Chancery system. [4]


William Holdsworth was knighted in 1929 and was appointed as a member of the Order of Merit in 1943[5]. He died in 1944.


The Holdsworth Club

The Holdsworth Club is the University of Birmingham Law School’s student law society. The Holdsworth Club was founded in 1927 and named after Sir William Holdsworth, by Professor C.E. Smalley-Baker who served as the first Dean of the University of Birmingham’s Faculty of Law between 1928 and 1949. [6] Sir William Holdsworth was Smalley-Baker's mentor and had been an External Examiner at the University for several years.[7]

After giving his name to the Law Faculty's Student Club (the names of Bacon, Coke and Blackstone having been considered and rejected) Sir William Holdsworth became its active Patron. In this role he attended and spoke at the Club's annual dinner, and he gave an annual presidential address. The establishment of the presidency of the Holdsworth Club as an annual office, involving the sole obligations of attending a dinner and giving a lecture, led to the Faculty gaining a distinguished line of visiting speakers, (which by 1948 already included two Lord Chancellors and two Masters of the Rolls).

Sir William Holdsworth remained Patron of the Club until his death in 1944 (after which there have been two more Patrons: Dean Smalley-Baker 1949-72; and Professor O Hood-Phillips 1974-86). The list of distinguished Presidents includes Lord Chancellors, such as Hailsham, father and son, Master of the Rolls, Denning (three times); Donaldson; Bingham; Green, the majority of the great Law Lords of the 20th Century and academic lawyers such as the International Lawyer Sir Arnold McNair and the American jurist Dean Roscoe Pound to whom the Golden Medal of the American Bar Association was awarded for 'conspicuous service to the cause of American jurisprudence' was presented in 1940. This medal is still worn by Holdsworth Presidents when delivering their Address. The vice president of the club is Mr George Applebey, Lecturer at Law. Its current chair is Christopher Snell.[8]

The Holdsworth Society St John's College, Oxford

The Holdsworth Society is the College Law Society of St John's College, Oxford. The Committee consists of the President (the previous year's Secretary), the Secretary and the Librarian. The Holdsworth Society attracts a high calibre of guest speaker, and also hosts termly black tie dinners. The social highlight of the Society's year is undoubtedly the Alumni Dinner, which is held in Hall at the end of Hilary Term.

The St John's College Law Library is named The Holdsworth Room after Sir William Searle Holdsworth, Fellow of St. John's 1897-1922 and Vinerian Professor of Law, and later Honorary Fellow. His portrait in pastels by E. Plachter can be seen there.[9]


There are at least two portraits of Sir William Holdsworth by Bassano which are held by the National Portrait Gallery [10] His portrait in pastels by E. Plachter can be seen in the Holdsworth Room of St John's College, Oxford.[9]

Further reading

  • Goodhart, A.L. , (1954), Sir William Searle Holdsworth, O.M., 1871-1944, A Memorial Address, (Bernard Quaritch [for the Selden Society] London)
  • John Bosworth , (1987), History of the Birmingham Law Faculty, the First Sixty Years

External links


  1. ^ Canadian Bar Association (1923), The Canadian Bar Review, Page 362, (Canadian Bar Association)
  2. ^ (1944) The Law Quarterly Review, (Stevens)
  3. ^ (1965), The Law Journal, Page 9
  4. ^ a b The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Copyright 2007 Columbia University Press
  6. ^ University of Birmingham, (2005), LLM Taught Masters programmes in Law, Page 22, (University of Birmingham)
  7. ^ The Holdsworth Club
  8. ^ John Bosworth , (1987), History of the Birmingham Law Faculty, the First Sixty Years
  9. ^ a b St John’s College Oxford
  10. ^ National Portrait Gallery
Academic offices
Preceded by
William Martin Geldart
Vinerian Professor of English Law
Succeeded by
Geoffrey Cheshire


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