On Monday 13 June, Corker Binning moved into new offices at 1 Ely Place, just around the corner from our old offices at 38 Chancery Lane.
At first glance, Ely Place may seem little more than a handsome but unassuming row of terraced houses. But for five centuries before its Georgian makeover, the land where Ely Place now stands was the London residence of the Bishops of Ely, an influential diocese in Cambridgeshire. This residence was a grand affair: the Bishops presided over a central palace, about a dozen cottages, an orchard and a vineyard, encircled with high stone walls and accessed through a grand, gated entrance. Not unlike Corker Binning, the Bishops were keen on hosting lavish events at their palace: Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon attended one of their feasts in 1531; contemporary historians noted that the feast lasted five days, with guests treated to 161 roasted swans.
In the 1770s, the Bishops sold the land to the Crown, leading to the construction of Ely Place and the Georgian terraces. Then, in 1852, a Body of Commissioners was appointed with powers of “paving, lighting, watching, cleansing and improving” the street on a private basis. Whilst most of these powers have since been ceded to local authorities, the so-called beadles who patrol the entrance of Ely Place continue to exercise “watching” duties.
This history of Ely Place as an autonomous territory has led to an oft-repeated tale: that for many years the police could not lawfully enter Ely Place to arrest those suspected of crimes. The idea of Ely Place as a safe haven for fugitives fleeing justice is a colourful one, but is there any truth in it?
Unfortunately, the answer is probably not. It is true that the Bishops of Ely not only owned the land for five centuries (making it geographically part of Cambridgeshire) but also exercised legal jurisdiction over it, reflecting the primacy of the church in overseeing the affairs of their parishioners. But once the Bishops sold the land to the Crown, it appears that Ely Place became extra-parochial; that is, outside the authority of any church.
In proceedings at the Old Bailey on 21 September 1824, for example, a defendant named William Dawson was convicted of stealing 38 silver spoons, eight silver forks and a coat from the Ely Place residence of his master, Alexander Sinclair Gordon. In cross-examination, Mr Gordon explained that his suspicions were first aroused after Mr Dawson failed to furnish him with the correct spoon with which to eat a pudding. In an apparent attempt to explain the legal status of Ely Place, Mr Gordon explained that its residents considered themselves exempt from paying poor-rates to any parish church, even though they occasionally received demands for them.
This evidence was important for what it did not say. Mr Gordon was clear that officials from the nearest parish (St Andrew of Holborn) had no jurisdiction over the inhabitants of Ely Place, but he said nothing about the police. This omission becomes particularly important when one recalls that Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police five years later in 1829 (the London City Police was founded three years after that). Indeed, as we approach the middle of the 19th century, reports begin to appear of the police chasing suspected criminals into Ely Place and apprehending them without any hesitation or obstruction. Back at the Old Bailey on 10 May 1848, for example, a suspect was convicted of stealing cloth from a draper with premises on High Holborn, having been arrested in Ely Place. If legal immunities had previously been enjoyed by those falling within the clerical jurisdiction of the See of Ely, they were now clearly a thing of the past.
In all likelihood, then, Ely Place was never a safe haven from the long arm of the criminal law. But what is true is that for the past nine centuries – whether under the ownership of the Bishops of Ely, the Victorian-era Body of Commissioners or the present-day beadles – Ely Place has been an enclave, a small area of land physically located in the City of London, but which exists separately from it.
And perhaps this is why Ely Place seems an appropriate new home for Corker Binning. Like Ely Place, we remain a small firm with a strong identity, offering a discreet refuge for individuals and companies large and small, who need experienced legal advisors in complex or sensitive investigations and inquiries.
We look forward to welcoming you to 1 Ely Place very soon.