Doctors’ Commons was a society of lawyers practising civil law in London located near St. Paul’s Churchyard, which existed until 1865. The writer Charles Dickens was a reporter at the Doctors’ Commons early on in his career as a journalist.
Like the Inns of Court of the common lawyers, the society had buildings with rooms where its members lived and worked, and a large library. Court proceedings of the civil law courts were also held in Doctors’ Commons. The institution was also known as the College of Civilians.
Charles Dickens and the Doctors’ Commons.
Having learned shorthand whilst working as a solicitors clerk at Gray’s Inn, Charles Dickens left this position in November 1828 to become a freelance reporter. A distant relative, Thomas Charlton, was already a freelance reporter at Doctors’ Commons, and Dickens was able to share his box there to report the legal proceedings for nearly four years.
This education was to inform works such as Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, and especially Bleak House—whose vivid portrayal of the machinations and bureaucracy of the legal system did much to enlighten the general public and served as a vehicle for dissemination of Dickens’s own views regarding, particularly, the heavy burden on the poor who were forced by circumstances to “go to law”.
In the nineteenth century, the institution of Doctors’ Commons and its members were looked upon as old-fashioned and slightly ridiculous. A satirical description of Doctors’ Commons can be found in Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz and also in his novel David Copperfield (in which Dickens called it a “cosey, dosey, old-fashioned, time-forgotten, sleepy-headed little family party.” (chapter 23)).
Doctors’ Commons being familiar by name to everybody, as the place where they grant marriage-licenses to love-sick couples, and divorces to unfaithful ones; register the wills of people who have any property to leave, and punish hasty gentlemen who call ladies by unpleasant names.
As anticipation of an impending abolition grew, there was a reluctance among the society to admit new fellows as this would dilute the proceeds of any winding up of the property. Dr Thomas Hutchinson Tristram was the last to be admitted.
The Court of Probate Act 1857 abolished the testamentary jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts and gave common lawyers the right to practise in areas which before had been the exclusive domain of civilians, while offering the token compensation that the civilians could practise in the common law courts. Critically, the Act also made it lawful for the Doctors’ Commons, by a vote of the majority of its fellows, to dissolve itself and surrender its Royal Charter, the proceeds of dissolution to be shared among the members.
Following this, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 created a new divorce court in which both barristers and advocates could appear. Then the High Court of Admiralty Act 1859 liberalised rights of audience in the Admiralty Court, leaving only the jurisdiction of the Court of Arches.
A motion to dissolve the society was entered on 13 January 1858 and the last meeting took place on 10 July 1865. The fellows did not formally surrender their offices, nor in the end their charter, but the society perished with the death of its last fellow Dr. T.H. Tristram in 1912.
The buildings of Doctors’ Commons were sold in 1865 and demolished soon after. They were located on what is now Queen Victoria Street.
Occupation by Post Office.
In 1861 the Palmerston Government set up the ‘Post Office Savings Bank’, a savings scheme aimed at encouraging ordinary wage earners to provide for themselves against adversity and ill health. In 1861 the Post Office Savings Bank Act enabled the General Post Office (GPO) to provide a simple savings scheme for ordinary wage earners.
Thus the Savings Bank opened for business on Monday 16th September 1861 in two small rooms within the Post Office headquarters, (GPO East) St. Martins-le-Grand, London.
By 1863 the Bank occupied a warehouse at 27 St Paul’s Churchyard. With continuing growth these premises became too small and a new headquarters was built at 144 Queen Victoria Street in 1880, on the site of the Doctors’ Commons.
The site was demolished in the 1930’s to make way for is the eleven floor Faraday building, completed in 1933, for the Post office. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Faraday Building was the centre of the United Kingdom’s telephone network.