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Charles Sparrow, QC, DL, FSA ~ Honorary Counsellor

Charles Sparrow, QC, DL, KStJ, FSA, LLB

16th September 1925 ~ 17th May 2005
The Association was privileged, and indebted, to enjoy the services and advice of Charles Sparrow, QC, as Honorary Counsellor from its’ earliest days until his death in 2005.
Although something of a “background” consultative figure in the early years, quietly giving his advice and commenting upon issues as they were raised, this all changed at the 1981 AGM when an informal discussion session led to calls for a more formal session, to be presented by Charles, to be incorporated within each future AGM weekend programme.
And so, the series of lectures, collectively entitled “Aspects of the Freedom” came into being, commencing in Great Grimsby in 1981 with the subject Freemen’s Land and Property right through to 2003, in Durham, when the topic was “A Grave Menace”. Charles was scheduled to deliver a further address in 2004 but, having suffered a stroke, was too ill to travel.
An index to all of the talks may be found elsewhere on the site together with the full text of the inaugural lecture.
This is the obituary which appeared in Edition 143 of the Association’s Journal.
Charles would recall from his earliest student days, probably lecture one on day one, that in this country we have parallel systems of “common law” and “customary law” as well as “statute law”. It was a brief that landed on his desk, at the time the 1972 local government reorganisation was being debated, that introduced him to one still pertinent aspect of customary law – the status of Freemen in ancient boroughs. His Opinion confirmed the fears expressed in his client’s instructions that the Bill, as it stood, would destroy the institution. This was Harry Ward acting for the “Freemen of England”. It has been held since that Charles was probably the only authority on this area of customary law. It lead to his advocacy in parliament to lay objections to the draft Bill and to the crucial amendments, adopted into the subsequent Act (Section 248), introduced in the Lords by the government itself.
Charles did not simply accept the brief and then, having successfully represented the matter, move on in the detached professional way of the Bar; instead he perceived immediately that the Freedom was a vital part of our living constitution and our law, not an anachronism of our heritage. He became totally committed, not just to defending the rights of freemen, but also of securing its future and development, as Harry Ward had advocated, by advising on changes where these could be initiated locally, and in proposing a legislative framework where change required Parliamentary approval.
Charles did not live to see the “Borough Freedom (Family Succession) Bill” achieve its passage through the Commons, but he expressed his satisfaction of its passing through the Lords by saying he regarded it as one of his lifetime achievements. It was he who had drafted it and it was adopted without amendment. Such was the standing of this most eminent jurist who served FEW, (as the Freemen of England had evolved into), as its Honorary Counsellor for nearly thirty years. He was a citizen of London and was granted honorary life membership of the York Gild of Freemen and also made a Burgess Freeman of Altrincham.
Although Charles’ family has roots going back many centuries in East Anglia, he was born in Kasauli, India, the elder son of Charles and Antonia. He attended the Royal Grammar School, Colchester, and served as a junior in the Civil Defence before “call-up” for service in 1943. Returning to the Far East, he served as a commissioned officer in the Royal Signals and was ultimately posted to Lord Mountbatten’s HQ in New Delhi where he worked on communications with Britain during the closing days of the “Raj” and the transition to independence. He returned from India on the “last official” troopship with carpets and enough Urdu to converse with Enoch Powell many years later. He was to reflect later, “You can never forget India, it remains an enduring influence”.
Although accepted for a place at Oxford, he had been advised whilst still in India to get started at the Bar as soon as possible. On his return to England, in 1947, he found that such a course of action was unnecessary but it was then too late and so, instead of going to university, he read for his Bar finals at Gibson & Weldon and at the Council for Legal Education. He took an external LLB with London University and was called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn in 1950.
Charles regretted this lost opportunity, although the corollary was that he had no affinities with any institution other than Gray’s. An active student member of the Inn, he took part in moots and debates and made his first contributions to Graya, the Inn magazine of which he subsequently became editor. He won an impressive array of prizes and scholarships including the Atkin and Holker Senior scholarships and the Lee and Richards prizes.
Through dining in Hall as a student, he came to know a number of Chancery practitioners and, feeling what he described as “a natural inclination” to this kind of work, he secured a pupillage with R W, later Lord Justice, Goff. He was in Chambers with Kenneth, later Judge, Rubin and this was followed by an invitation to join the set as a tenant of 13 Old Square, Lincoln’s Inn (later at Searle Court), a set he was to head, from 1967, for over 30 years. Continuing with Inn work after call, usually a Barrister’s practice gives no time for such collegiate activities, he was a founder member of the “junior members” society and in 1976 he was elected a Bencher. Unusually, in the late twentieth century he maintained residential status in the Inn.
In the 1950’s Chancery practice did not have the strong commercial leaning it has today and much of Charles’ early career was spent on the interpretation of documents, such as wills and trusts; not that he minded, as he had always been interested in the meaning of language. Nevertheless, along with the conventional Chancery work, his legal practice “had always been free range”. He led the 1981 internal inquiry into the London Playboy Club, investigating allegations that management had “improper associations” with the bunny-girls! Less attractively, in 1974, he led an enquiry into the running of the RSPCA, which included the presentation of a dead cat by a witness. Charles dealt with all of this with his exemplary patience and robust sense of humour.
Almost unique as a Chancery practitioner, he was for 25 years a member of the Parliamentary Bar, latterly its chairman, involved in work for the Central Electricity Generating Board and on major development projects like the Docklands Light Railway, the Jubilee Line Extension and the Dartford Bridge. This to his mind was advocacy at its purest with no law books, judges or Courts of Appeal; “Just you on your feet trying to convince a Parliamentary Committee of MP’s or Peers”. Charles was saddened when, due to pressure on Parliamentary time, this work, which was once the preserve of the Parliamentary Bar, was remitted to the planning law procedures.
Charles was made a Queen’s Counsel in 1966 – in fact he became the senior QC in the Chancery Division. Another are of the law in which Charles carved out his own niche was in “passing-off” cases, starting with the Morecambe and Mecca “Beauty Queens” case in 1962 and acting for the champagne and sherry shippers against the likes of manufacturers of “elderflower champagne”.
His place in the history of Gray’s Inn is that he was the first Bencher to have been freely elected as head of the Inn, the “Treasurer”, in 1994. It was a point of quiet pride that, lacking family connections and despite not being a judge, his senior colleagues chose him as their leader. He presided over the 300th anniversary performance of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors in Grey’s Inn Hall. Given his interests in matters historical, plus the fact he was a self-confessed “silver addict”, he was “Master of Pictures and Silver” of the Inn since 1985 having created a gallery of pictures and prints as well as a display room for the Inn’s silver.
Charles’s personal philosophy was always that legal practice should co-exist with outside interests and nowhere was this more evident than in the field of litigation. One of his private passions was military biography, dating back to his days in the army, and this led him to develop a theory that it is possible to conduct major pieces of litigation in terms of military strategy. Not so much Clausewitz On War as Sparrow On Law!
This blend of legal and other interests also came to the fore in his involvement with archaeology. From his schooldays in Colchester onwards he had always been interested in Romano-British archaeology and he joined the Essex Archaeological Society, (living near Ingatestone in Essex). When legal problems arose, it was only natural that he should offer his assistance. This culminated in his becoming honorary legal adviser to the Council for British Archaeology in 1966 – a post which he held until his death; most importantly this involved him in the reform of the law of treasure trove.
The primary aim of the Treasure Act of 196 was to ensure that more finds of important archaeological objects were offered to museums for public benefit than previously. The Coroner’s Court Inquest used to declare if items were “Treasure Trove” or not. If not, the find went to the landowner. Finders were now encouraged to report finds to local museum’s Finds Officers, for the prospect of clear procedure, an expert identification and assessment of significance and the removal of what previously seemed the unwarranted threat of confiscation. Essentially, the Act removed the vexed requirement to establish at inquest that objects had been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery. It confined the scope of treasure to objects, other than coins, that are at least 300 years old when found with a minimum of ten per cent by weight of precious metal.
The proof of the efficacy of the new arrangement is that treasure cases have risen from about twenty-five a year, before the law changed, to 205 in the first year of the Act and 223 in the second year. The definition of treasure adopted in the Treasure Act was built on the existing common law of Treasure Trove. The test of precious metal content was retained but the aim was to provide a definition more in line with archaeological significance and more comprehensible to finders and others. One of the most significant benefits of the Act is the requirement that objects found in association with treasure, regarded as valueless, should be reported, and this is producing new archaeological insights.
Living in the country, Charles had always believed in being active in local life and it was this that led him to accept an invitation to become involved with the St John Ambulance organisation. Inevitably, there had to be a legal connection; in this case the law as it applies to “good Samaritan” acts and the liabilities stemming from them. For ten years Charles was also an active Brigade Officer in the county of Essex, eventually responsible as County Commander for administering a force of some 2,000 members, along with vehicles and premises, between 1983 and 1993. He was recognised by the most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem with the award of a Knighthood of the order in 1993. Other local associations led to him becoming a Deputy Lieutenant for Essex and a member of the Court of that County’s University, both in 1985. Similar interests in historical research led to his being awarded a Fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries.
The list of his interests, beyond those already mentioned, includes; Persian rugs, English glass, English place names, The First World War poets, Thomas Hardy, English music – especially Tallis, Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Butterworth – hedging, ditching, dry-stone walling, carpentry and Champagne!
He was married in 1949 to Edith Taylor, “the best of many excellent decisions of my life”. She predeceased him in 1985; he was essentially a family man. He leaves two sons, a daughter and ten grandchildren, whom he adored.
Charles Sparrow will be remembered most of all by members of the Freemen of England and Wales for his annually delivered address on the various aspects of the Freedom. These papers, delivered to the AGM on a Saturday morning, were a highlight of the weekend’s activities. He was ever thorough and forthright in his delivery, always basing his remarks on the rock of ancient and well tried English Law. This series of papers ran unbroken, from 1982 to 2003, after which illness intervened to deprive the members of this valuable lexicon. At the customary church parade from Guildhall to Guild Church, Charles would be prominent near the head of the procession, regaled in full-bottomed wig and court dress. At intervals during the weekend Charles was invariably to be found with a glass in his hand, holding forth about the need for some sort of legislation to protect the interests of Freemen.
His contribution to the establishment and maintenance of the Association might not yet be fully appreciated but there can be little doubt that history will record the exceptional quality of the effort he made for the Freemen of England and Wales.
Perhaps what brings most of Charles’ various interests together may well be the tradition of training, or apprenticeship. He said it was most important to have “a concern for the students of the Inn, for they are the ones who ensure its future and as such must receive our best service. With the Inns of Court under threat we must look to roots which began with legal education. It is not enough to go through the paces.” So, too, this was a feature of his belief in the way to revive, continue and strengthen the Freedom.
With thanks to the Treasurer and Pensioners of the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn