Bachelor, Doctor, Lawyer: Wilfrid Hooper LL.D. (solicitor)

In my continuing researches into aspects of ‘bastardy’ law, I recently had cause to read Wilfrid Hooper LLD (solicitor), The Law of Illegitimacy: a treatise on the law affecting persons of illegitimate birth, with the rules of evidence in proof of legitimacy and illegitimacy, and an historical account of the bastard in mediaeval law (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1911).[1]. The name was vaguely familiar to me, as it had come up in earlier work on women and law.[2] and I thought it would be interesting to do a little digging into his story. We hear so much about the ‘great men’ of late-19th C/ early 20th C legal history: wouldn’t it be good to know something more about the mostly-forgotten figures of this era, the ‘lesser’, local, legal historians? Rhetorical question – my blog, my rules, so yes, it would! What I have found, in my morning of investigation, is, I think, interesting in and of itself, and also suggests some areas and themes for further thought.

Who was Wilfrid Hooper?[3]

He was born in Reigate, in 1880 or 1881, the youngest child of ‘a well known local family’ – that of Mr Thomas Rowland Hooper (architect) and Mrs Elizabeth Hooper (née Perren). This relatively privileged background gave him the chance of more education than most of his contemporaries would have had – and until he was 11, he was a pupil at Reigate Grammar School; then he went to boarding school, at Oatenham School. He does not seem to have gone to university prior to embarking on a legal career – so he is not in the Maitland class of privilege, clearly – but was articled to some London solicitors, ‘the brothers Benson’, a firm which became ‘Withers, Benson, Birkett and Davies’. While working his way into legal practice, he also worked at acquiring some university qualifications, as an external, private, student, and achieved his LL.B. Hons in 1902. He was admitted to full-blown legal practice in 1903, when he was entered on the roll of solicitors. He did time in the office of Harvey Ford, in London, before, in 1906, setting up his own practice in Reigate, in a room in his father’s offices in Market Hall. He took on a pupil, H.S. Holt, who eventually, in 1937, became his partner. Hooper only gave up practice in July 1950. Newspapers show that his practice included real property as well as ‘crime’ and ‘tort’ work.[4]


His entry into the legal profession and establishment of a practice did not indicate the end of his academic ambition, however, because, in 1910, he entered for and was awarded his  LL.D. at the University of London – based on his work on illegitimacy which became the book I have mentioned. He continued to write on legal and historical subjects for much of the rest of his life. He was a ‘big cheese’ in the Surrey Archaeological Society, contributing to its transactions and serving from 1937-47 as Hon Sec. His ‘local history’ works included a Story of Reigate through the Ages, and he was apparently working on a history of Dorking at his death. He also wrote about less Surrey-based matters, including courts, sumptuary laws, [5]the law on women, and seems to have an interest in the (lawyer and) poet, Cowper.[6]

He also had other interests, legal (SE Surrey Law Society. Poor Persons Committee 1923 – 50), political (borough councillor for SE Reigate ward 1921-33)[7] and miscellaneous (school governor for Reigate Grammar School, for example). (The obituary also notes – without detail – that he served in the  1914-18 war).

The personal life angle is rather intriguing – he was a bachelor until he made a late marriage – only a month to the day before he died. He died on Saturday 2nd September 1950, aged 69. This was said to have been due to complications caused by an accident in January 1950: he had fallen in his office, and banged  his head on an iron safe, and another in May, when he fell in the street. He seems to have gone into a nursing home after that. Wilfrid had ‘day release’ from the nursing home to get married, on 2nd August 1950, at the Congregational Church in Reigate, to the widow of a solicitor, Mrs LL Nightingale, widow of Mr Thomas Nightingale.[8] He returned to the nursing home until 24th August, and then was discharged – presumably into the care of his new wife.[9]


Thoughts and themes

It is interesting to consider what all this tells us about ‘the middling sort’ of legal historian, the ‘amateur’, (who also feels qualified to opine on a variety of matters from architecture to literature, agriculture to economics) the ‘local’ expert.[10]

Hooper clearly had some ambition in the academic line – or was keen to be recognised as a skilled (legal) historian. He made the effort to acquire an LL.D., and one presumes that he did not object to being called ‘Dr Hooper’ – this is certainly the way he is described in most newspaper articles (though the Daily Mail demotes him to ‘Mr’).[11] He does not seem to have been an obvious academic superstar (or, perhaps was not sufficiently silver-spoon-showy) however, achieving a ‘second division’ result in his LL.B.[12] There are also signs that he was not quite in the mainstream of historical study – e.g. he wrote an article debunking the existence of a ‘pilgrim’s way’ between Winchester and Canterbury in the medieval period, unaware that C.G. Crump at the PRO had recently done exactly the same thing.[13]

I suppose we are seeing the point at which history, law and legal history draw apart, and specialised disciplines are created. While Hooper still felt that he had something to offer in all departments, from an academic and practical perspective, he probably outlived the days when it was realistic to combine so many different enthusiasms and be taken seriously in them (without rather higher social standing than that of a Surrey solicitor).



Image – the man himself.

[1] London Daily News, Tuesday 4th  July, 1911, p.3. The price is given as 12s 6d and I suspect it was less of a hit than Beatrix Potter, Peter Rabbit’s Painting Book, which is listed above in the ‘Juvenile’ section, at 1s.

[2] He wrote The Englishwoman’s Legal Guide (London: David Dutt, 1913).

[3] My main source for the basic facts is the obituary report in Surrey Mirror, Friday 08 September 1950, p. 5. Clearly this may be rose-tinted, but it ought to be relatively reliable in this case, I think.

[4] Times 20/6/1933 p. 30. Surrey Mirror 8/6/1915 p. 2.

[5] Wilfrid Hooper. “The Tudor Sumptuary Laws.” English Historical Review, vol. 30, no. 119, 1915, pp. 433–449.

[6] See, e.g. Times 4/11/1931, p. 11,

[7] His politicking deserves a separate post, I think. There is some great material from one of his victories, and the very British ‘burn’ by his defeated rival…

[8] Elsewhere she is called Janet, mind you: Surrey Mirror 8/9/1950, p. 1.

[9] The Daily Mail – on-brand as ever – says only that he had substantial assets: £44, 944 DM 30/12/1950, p.5.

[10] He gives his views on architecture in Banbury Guardian 1/8/1912, p.3.

[11] 30/12/1950, p.5.

[12] Times 4/11/1902, p. 8.

[13] Times 11/11/1936, p. 11; Observer 29/11/1936 p. 13.