Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Kentish Story of Brookland Steeple

Brookland Parish Church, with grounded steeple.
The Gallagher Law Library has a fascinating assortment of historical legal materials in its Rare Books Collection.

Perhaps unique among the items in the collection, The Religion of a Lawyer is a poem. The work’s full title reveals more about the book’s contents: The Religion of a Lawyer: A Crazy Tale (in four Cantos), Analytical of the Kentish Story of Brookland Steeple. Written in 1786 by an anonymous author, the work relates how the steeple of the church in Brookland Parish, Kent, England, came to be situated not on top of the church building but right next to it as a separate structure. 

The poem’s explanation, that the steeple jumped from the top of the church to the ground because a religious attorney got married there, is much more fantastic than the real reason: the steeple was built next to the building by design, as the steeple would have caused the church to sink into the marshy, Kentish grounds

The poem’s explanation is a jumping off point for the author to spin a wry anecdote about attorneys and their place in the social fabric. 
"Your Honor, I pray for relief."

Although the poem is an anonymous publication, there are numerous clues as to the book’s publication history and its prior owners. A handwritten title page indicates the publisher was “J. Walker in Paternoster Row,” who is likely John Walker, a bookseller located in Paternoster Row in London from the early 1780s to around 1820. At some point, the text was rebound, and many unusual extratextual materials were bound along with the poemt. Whoever commissioned the poem to be rebound surely had an eye for legal humor, as the rebound book includes
  • a bawdy proverb relating to the Inns of Court
  • a handwritten poem about an attorney reaching the pearly gates titled “The Lawyer”
  • an engraving from The Oxford Magazine lampooning judges’ behavior, and 
  • a newspaper clipping from The Standard about a Mr. Chamberlain’s roast of attorneys at a dinner in Birmingham, England. These materials appear to be from the 1880s, and it is likely the owner rebound the work shortly thereafter.

While not much is known about the work, besides that it is exceedingly rare -- only five libraries in the world list the poem in their holdings -- I envision the poem’s author as a clever, irreverent attorney with sufficient skill to craft an 80-page comedic poem. Hints about the book’s recent provenance, including a bookplate, indicate that Gallagher received the poem from Fred T. Darvill in September 1974. Mr. Darvill owned and ran Darvill’s Rare Print Shop on Orcas Island, north of Seattle in San Juan County, from 1942 to 1971, when he retired at the age of 90. Although the story of how an anonymous poem came to Washington State is likely unrecorded, we can still enjoy this work for its rarity and unusually funny look at the important role attorneys play in society!

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