James Thomas Law: Lichfield's Greatest Forgotten Benefactor

Jonathan Oates came to our rescue for our January meeting when our booked speaker cancelled through illness. Jonathan rose to the occasion with a fascinating talk on James Thomas Law. Many freely admitted that this was a new name to us amongst the pantheon of Lichfield notables. Yet Jonathan stimulated our curiosity from the outset by explaining that, although little remembered now, James Thomas Law was at the time one of the most well known figures in Lichfield. So, just who was he?

John Thomas Law was Chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral for a record-breaking 52 years. He was born in December 1790 into a family of nine children. His father was the Bishop of Bath and Wells. It is not surprising then, that he had an ecclesiastical upbringing. He attended Christ's College, Cambridge, taking religious orders and graduating with an M.A. in 1815. His first appointment was as a prebendary at Chester Cathedral but by 1820 he had taken up a similar post at Lichfield Cathedral, where he remained for the rest of his life. He clearly was blessed with much ability since, within six years, he was appointed to the post of Chancellor of the Diocese of Lichfeld, at the relatively young age of 31 years. This gave him a wide range of legal responsibilities in the diocese; although it would appear that his M.A. was in the Arts. Doubtless a wise, logical head was the prerequisite, not a "legal brain"! Earlier, in 1820, he had married Lady Henrietta Charlotte Grey, daughter of the Earl of Stamford, who brought with her a substantial dowry.

Around this time, he was also appointed to the post of Master of St John's Hospital; residing in the Master's House. In 1824 he also assumed responsibility for Queen's College Birmingham, an ecclesiastical college. Whilst in Lichfield, he was also Master of the Theological College in The Close. All was not well with Queen's College, which closed with substantial debts, although no blame was attributed to James for its demise. Clearly a workaholic, he also sat as a judge on the Diocesan Consistory Court, which adjudicated over disputes between local clergy and their congregations. A demanding role, this required much travelling around what was then the largest diocese in England with 580 parishes. If all this was not enough he also sat as a judge in the local Probate Court, proving and adjudicating over disputes involving Wills. It is not surprising that he was well known throughout the wider Lichfield diocese.

His support for the City of Lichfield and its residents extended beyond his religious duties. His relatively wealthy situation prompted his first gift to the citizens of Lichfield. Many of us regularly see the fine sculpture of Dr. Johnson in the Market Place, which was paid for by James. In 1838, he commissioned one of the finest sculptors in England, Richard Cockle Lucas, to carve this sculpture at the then substantial cost of 850. In addition, he paid for a grand dinner at the Guildhall to celebrate its unveiling. Most found the sculpture very satisfying but Captain Dyott didn't, and he vented his disapproval in the local press. In 1859, James gave his support to the creation of a new Free Library and Museum, reputably one of the first in the country. The Libraries Act 1850 encouraged local councils to open such free libraries. James supported this initiative by selling land which he owned cheaply to the City Council. The building still stands, now the Registry Office, adjacent to Beacon Park. In 1871, he provided funds for the fountain in Beacon Park, which is still known as Law's Fountain.

His arrangements for his own funeral and resting place continued to reflect a concern for Lichfield's citizens through the erection of a magnificent, but somewhat unique, mausoleum in the graveyard of St Michael's Church. No ordinary mausoleum this, for it was sited at the very extremity of the graveyard close by Burton Old Road. On its roof, he had installed a clock illuminated by gas, thus enabling workers scurrying along the road to ascertain the time! The mausoleum remains to this day, though much entangled with brambles and weeds. Lady Charlotte died in 1866, whilst James continued to serve as Chancellor, eventually resigning in 1873 at the age of 83 years. He died on 22nd February 1876.

Jonathan held his audience's attention for this fascinating story of one man's life here in Lichfield for nearly one hour. In doing so, he helped many of us to add yet another name to the list of eminent Lichfield citizens.

Roger Hockney
January 2018