The admission of overseas students to the Inner Temple in the 19th century

Article Index

English common law was considered an important area of study, since it was in operation in all the British colonies, although it never entirely replaced native laws and customs. Moreover, training for the bar had the added advantage of equipping students with advocacy skills and conferring status, prestige and potential wealth at home. It is no coincidence that many of the leaders of the early independence movements had been trained as barristers in England. These included Gandhi, Nehru, Seretse Khama, the first president of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana) and Tunku Abdul Rahman, founder of modern Malaysia; all of whom had been educated at the Inner Temple. Whilst in Britain, they adopted the dress and manners of English gentlemen in line with their contemporaries. Mohandas Gandhi was no exception. Nevertheless, Gandhi maintained a number of Indian practices and traditions in London, including his diet. As a committed vegetarian he must have caused some commotion in the Inner Temple kitchens on dining nights. However, he was a popular member of any student mess, because his refusal to drink alcohol meant that there was more wine for his companions.

Meanwhile, the promotion of British higher education spread further through the Empire. Students from Japan and Hong Kong arrived in England soon after those from India, whilst the sons of African chiefs, merchants and clerics were admitted to the Inns of Court and universities not long afterwards. In the West Indies the situation was different. With the virtual extinction of the indigenous peoples, the black population was made up almost entirely from former slaves, who did not share the advantages of their eastern counterparts. However, after emancipation, an educated class emerged, some of whom were able to send their sons to Britain. Since former slaves tended to adopt the surnames of their European masters, it is difficult to assess when the first black West Indians entered the Inns of Court. Certainly they were in evidence by the 1890s. In 1899 George Christian of Dominica, the son of a former slave, was admitted to Gray's Inn, where he was called to the bar in 1902. He was to play a significant part in the pan-African Congress held in London in 1900. He subsequently went to West Africa to assist in the establishment of the British legal system there.

To return to India, a country in which the vast majority of women remained in subjugation, it is interesting to find evidence of surprisingly liberal views amongst the Indian intelligentsia in Bengal. Thus Cornelia Sorabji, a Parsee whose parents were Christian, was allowed to travel to England to matriculate at Somerville Hall in 1888. In 1892 she became the first woman at Oxford University to sit the examination for Bachelor of Civil Law, although she could not be awarded the degree to which she was entitled for another thirty years. After the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919, Cornelia Sorabji was amongst the first women to be admitted to Lincoln's Inn. She was called to the bar in 1923, the year after the first female barrister, Ivy Williams, had been called at the Inner Temple. She subsequently enrolled in the Calcutta High Court and worked assiduously to remove the disadvantages of purdah. Returning to England in later life, she remained in favour of British rule in India, as did the majority of Indians educated in England.

The history of British colonialism continues to give rise to controversy. However, the positive effects of western education should not be overlooked. Without their legal training, would Gandhi and Nehru have been able to negotiate for Indian independence so skilfully, and without major bloodshed? Although much has been made of the Benchers' decision to disbar Gandhi from the Inner Temple in 1922, his conviction for sedition in a British Court made this course of action inevitable . Nor should it be forgotten that, by admitting overseas students in the previous century, the Inns of Court had played a significant part in preparing the British colonies for independence.

2076 words (excluding endnotes)
Researchers wishing to consult the archives should apply in writing to:

The Archivist
Treasurers Office
Inner Temple
London EC4Y 7HL
Tel. 020 7797 8251
Fax. 020 7797 8178