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Newsletter, April 2013 (Issue 191)

The Tailors of Ipswich


Bernard Brown, a member of the Society, is a legal historian based in New Zealand. His late mother Beatrice Brown (nee Welton) lived in Providence Street and worked as 'a gentlemen’s tailoress' for Mr John White, Tailor, of the Arcade, Butter Market, in the 1920s and 30s.

'The Case of the Tailors of Ipswich' came before Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke (pronounced 'Cook') in the Court of the King's Bench c.1615, reported in Coke's own words and in Rolle's Reports (in law-French). Coke, a Norfolk man, is revered on both sides of the Atlantic as "the master and magician of the Common Law" - magician but not master in the conventional sense of dutifully following precedent which, by Elizabeth's reign, was already becoming the law's hallmark. For all that, Coke was a great Elizabethan of typical gusto, intent on reform and perfectly cheerful to ignore precedent when it suited him - and to push for law as he thought it should be ..... Yes, there are judges like that today.

'The Tailors (or Taylors) Case' makes that 'activist' point. There had been established in Ipswich since the early 14th century a guild (gild) of Tailors incorporated by the King and legally empowered to make its own by-laws. A tailor could be barred and fined who went about the trade without proof he had served an apprenticeship of seven years.

Even before James I's reign the nation was integrating itself and widening its markets. Gilds had largely served their purposes and were irritatingly conservative to Coke and others, being 'combinations' acting in restraint of trade. They were monopolistic. In spite of that they had served a useful economic regulatory role in ensuring a high quality of product and of fair dealing with the public; not least they protected the conditions of their apprentices' service.

William Shennings had come to Ipswich and set up as a tailor without proving to the Gild that he had served a seven years' apprenticeship. He had lived with a family known as Penney and had made and sold clothes to them and possibly to others. Coke's court held, against the weight of precedent, (with which Coke would have been conversant) that no man could be prohibited from working in any lawful trade "for the law abhors idleness, the mother of all evil, and the law abhors all monopolies." To prohibit men and punish them as the Ipswich Gild had done was to act in restraint of trade "against the liberty and freedom of the subject (and being) a subtle device for the oppression of young tradesmen by the old and the rich of the same trade."

Coke who, when it suited him, could function as a kind of Francis Drake of the law, certainly had played ducks and drakes with the terms of the Magna Carta and given them much of their modem meaning. In an earlier cause, 'Doctor Bonham's Case', Coke had gone so far as to suggest that in extreme circumstances the courts could overrule statute law. His modern namesake (by pronunciation) Sir Robin Cooke, a New Zealander, made the same daring point some ten years before he was appointed to the House of Lords in the early 1990s as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary. Bernard Brown adds, "My mother, who lived to her 99th year, was interested in suits rather than law suits. Well taught in Ipswich, she could make a man s entire three-piece with hand-stitched lapels ('to curve them') and button-and-fly holes. She gave up when men's zip-fronts were introduced. "

    Front cover of issue 191 Cover, issue 191

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