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The Death of Doctor's Commons by R. W.

On the 20th of last October a venerable London institution changed its quarters. Doctors' Commons may almost be said to be no more. Its heart is gone. The Principal Registry of the Court of Probate—the successor to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury—is no longer to be found there, and those who seek their fortunes in wills have now to prosecute their researches in that hub of British departmental records, Somerset House. The knell of "the Commons" was rung about twenty years ago, when a campaign against the abuses prevailing in the ecclesiastical courts was begun in the London Times. It unquestionably had been the home par excellence of sinecures and monopolies, which culminated in the office of registrar of the Prerogative Court of the archbishop of Canterbury. This office was in the gift of the archbishop, and was at the time these attacks began held by the Rev. Mr. Moore. Mr. Moore was a member of a family which had certainly good cause to stand steadfast in the faith of the Church of England, and not to waver one inch in attachment thereto. It may be doubted whether since its foundation any family—we except, of course, those to whom grants were made from abbey-lands—during the whole history of the Church has drawn such vast sums from it. His father, a singularly fortunate man, set the ball rolling. Having gone up to Christ Church, Oxford, as a sizar, or poor scholar, he happened about the time of taking his degree to cross the quadrangle at the moment when a nobleman of great position was asking the dean to recommend a tutor for his son. Young Moore at that moment caught the very reverend functionary's eye. There is the very man, thought he. He called him up, presented him to the peer, and an engagement was made. In those days the patronage of a powerful peer was a ready road to preferment. Young Moore gave satisfaction to his noble patron, and was pushed up the ecclesiastical tree until he reached its topmost branch, being created in 1783 archbishop of Canterbury. In 1770 he formed a very judicious marriage with Miss Eden. This lady was sister of Sir Robert Eden, governor of Maryland in 1776 (who married the sister and co-heir of the last Lord Baltimore), and of the first Lord Auckland, whom George III. very justly stigmatized as "that eternal intriguer." To the "eternal intriguer" the elevation of Moore to the archbishopric was probably mainly due. Lord Auckland was for many years as intimate a friend as Pitt ever had, and his daughter (afterward countess of Buckinghamshire) is the great minister's only recorded love. For twenty-three years Dr. Moore filled the archbishopric, and in those days it was a far better thing pecuniarily than it is now. He made hay whilst the sun shone, and then and for long after did his relatives bask in the sun. Registrarships, canonries and livings fell upon them in rich profusion, and the great prize of all, the registrarship of the Prerogative Court of the archbishop of Canterbury, fell to the luckiest of the lot.

Of course the registrar never came near his registry: his duties were discharged by three deputies. Not one penny, moreover, beyond what was absolutely necessary did he expend on the registry itself. Such a hole as it was! Cribbed, cabined and confined were the clerks who ran the reverend sinecurist's business in one of the most extraordinary rabbit-warrens, to use the epithet Bethell, Lord (Chancellor) Westbury, applied to it in the writer's hearing. In Great Knight Rider street—a name derived from the days of the Knights Templar—was a dingy passage-way leading into a  yet dingier little court. Passing up a short flight of steps, you found yourself in a large room, with deep alcoves furnished with shelves, on which, above and on all sides, were ranged huge volumes with massive clasps. "What are all these books?" inquired a youthful visitor—"old Bibles?" "No, sir; they're testaments," was a waggish official's reply. They are, in fact, copies of wills. The originals are deemed too precious for exhibition except on special application, and the stranger who pays his shilling only sees a copy. Formerly, unless a searcher knew exactly when a will was proved, the process of finding it was very troublesome, because he had to search down indexes in Old English character arranged in order of date only; but now the registers have been put into alphabetical form.

The great change in Doctors' Commons took place in 1858, when the Probate Act came into operation. This was a very sweeping measure, which at a blow superseded the whole system of ecclesiastical courts, so far at least as wills were concerned. For them it substituted a Court of Probate, with jurisdiction over the whole of England. Attached to this court are about forty registries for wills. That in London is called the Principal Registry. A will must either be proved in the district in which a man dies or in the Principal Registry. The Principal Registry is a very large office, at the head of which are four registrars, who are also registrars of the Divorce Court, over which the judge of the Court of Probate presides, being styled "judge ordinary" of this latter. There are about forty registries scattered about the country, in most cases in places where formerly ecclesiastical courts existed for the proving of wills. The value of these registrarships ranges from three hundred to fifteen hundred pounds. They are all in the gift of the judge of the court, whose patronage is worth about sixty thousand pounds a year, and may be reckoned the best in England, inasmuch as he holds it continuously, whilst the lord chancellor and other political officers merely hold their patronage for the few years they may chance to continue in office. Moreover, the judge of the Court of Probate, not being a political officer, has no political pressure brought to bear upon him in the distribution of his patronage, and can dispense it precisely as he pleases. The registrars must, by the terms of the act of Parliament, be barristers, solicitors, or clerks who have served five years in the Principal Registry.

Doctors' Commons twenty years ago was a unique corner of the world. It lay so hid away that you might live for years in London, and be within a stone's throw of it, and yet never have its existence brought to your mind; and it had a life all its own. The ecclesiastical lawyers were called doctors and proctors, instead of barristers and attorneys; and although the former did not arrogate to themselves a higher rank socially and professionally than that of barrister, a proctor considered himself a great many cuts above an attorney, and indeed was, for the most part, the equal of the best class of attorneys. Proctors, it will be borne in mind, are sketched by Charles Dickens in the opening pages of David Copperfield, for Dora's papa, Mr. Spenlow, was in proctorial partnership with the reputably inexorable Jawkins. When the Probate Act came into force it was a frightful blow to the tribe of Spenlows. Not so much on account of the pecuniary loss. In that respect the blow was considerably tempered to the shorn lambs by a compensation all too liberal—for John Bull is unsurpassed as a respecter of vested interests—and the proctors were compensated on the basis of their incomes for the last five years, their returns proving in some instances curiously at variance with the amounts on which they had paid income-tax. But they regarded themselves as terrible losers in prestige and position by this rude invasion of the classic and aristocratic ground of the Doctores Commensales, and above all by being leveled down to the rank of attorneys. The clerks in the Prerogative Court—of which the registrars and head-clerks were all proctors, who, taking the cue from Chief Registrar Moore, executed their work by deputy, the deputies being clerks working  long hours for small salaries—had kotooed to them with the most servile subserviency; but the Probate Office clerk was a government official, who could not be removed, even by the judge of the court, without the consent of the lord chancellor. What cared he, then, for Spenlow and Jawkins? "I am astonished, Mr. Spenlow," said a young clerk of the new régime, "that you should have made such a mistake!" Mr. Spenlow, in turn, was too much astonished to utter a word. Speechless with amazement and indignation, he left the "seat," as the different departments were called, to weep bitter tears in regret for the past in the solitude of his dingy sanctum in Bell Yard, leaving an emancipated clerk, who had served under the thraldom of the old régime, exclaiming, "Good Heavens! Only imagine any of us daring to use such language to a proctor two years ago!"