On Beacon Hill 10: Claud Bicknell

CLAUD BICKNELL 1910-2002 of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Claud Bicknell was the first practising solicitor to be appointed to the Law Commission, the body established in 1965 by Harold Wilson’s first Labour Government. It was the brainchild of the late Lord Gardiner, who made it a condition of his accepting the post of Lord Chancellor that a full-time body be created to keep the laws of England permanently under review for systematic improvement and reform. A similar body, the Scottish Law Commission, was established at the same time.

Lord Gardiner appointed Mr Justice Scarman, then a judge of the High Court, to be the Law Commission’s first chairman. His four fellow Commissioners consisted of barristers and law dons. They were appointed for five years, and eligible for re-appointment, but after the first five years one of them was not re-appointed. Scarman, who remained as Chairman for the next three years, insisted that a solicitor from a general practice be included in their ranks. Bicknell, whose practice was in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was told by the Lord Chancellor’s office that he was to be appointed unless he positively refused. No-one else was being considered. He was asked to call on Lord Gardiner and Mr Justice Scarman as soon as possible.

At the wedding of Julian Bicknell of London and Cambridge to Treld Pelkey of Boston, Mass., in 1967. Left to right Mark Bicknell, Nigel Bicknell, Peter Bicknell (moustache) and Claud Bicknell.

Many people assumed that the Law Commission was another committee of elderly experts, meeting once a quarter at five o’clock on a Friday afternoon; and indeed until 1965 the only law reform groups were exactly of that nature. Shortly after Bicknell’s appointment a recently-retired Chairman of the Law Society, the solicitors’ governing body, asked him how he coped with attendance at London meetings from a Newcastle practice, and solicitously hoped he was being paid proper travel expenses. In fact, as Bicknell immediately discovered, the appointment involved him moving to London to undertake a full week’s work at a salary only slightly less than that of a High Court Judge and with a pension similar to that of a judge – half pay for fifteen years – if you were young enough to survive that long.

Lord Scarman (as he became in 1977)  told me that he was anxious that the Law Commission should be drawn from the legal profession as a whole and that Bicknell’s knowledge, personality and drive were outstanding. The meetings in his day were “tough, friendly and exciting”.

When Bicknell’s five years at the Law Commission ended in 1975 the Lord Chancellor invited him to be a “guinea pig” Chairman of the Industrial Tribunals. Bicknell found the work interesting and very varied, needing common sense and patience.

Bicknell was born in a pit village close to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, but he did not come of a north country family. His maternal grandfather had been appointed the Head Brewer, later Managing Director and Chairman, of a group of Newcastle breweries (now part of Scottish & Newcastle Breweries) created in the late 1880s. Bicknell’s father died in the Alps during his last year at Oundle. He won a scholarship to Queens College, Cambridge, where like his elder brother Peter and later his younger brother Nigel, he became President of the Alpine Club. He listed “mountains” as his recreation. The Bicknell were all keen climbers.

At the age of 24 he married Esther Bell, the daughter of an Oxford don, the same year he qualified as a solicitor in the firm of which he eventually became the senior partner. During the war Bicknell served in the Auxiliary Fire Service, becoming a Senior Fire Staff Officer at the Home Office.

He became Secretary of the Northumberland and Newcastle Society, a preservation scoiety for Northumbria, and enjoyed taking cases to public enquiries.  He was one of the Secretary of State’s appointees to the Lake District Planning Board from inception in the 1950s until his move to London in 1970, and was involved in the enquiries into the plans of Manchester City Corporation after the war to increase the amount of drinking water extracted from the Lakes. He also played a role in drafting the Countryside Code.

Leonard Miall

Claud Bicknell, lawyer, born Rowlands Gill, County Durham, 15 June 1910; OBE 1946; Solicitor, Atkinson, Stanton & Bird, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1934-1970; Auxiliary Fire Service, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1939-1941; senior fire staff officer, Home Office 1943-1945; President, Newcastle–upon-Tyne Law Society 1939; Law Commissioner 1970-75 and part time chairman of the Industrial Tribunals 1975-83; married 1934 Esther Bell (died 1958, 1 son, 2 daughters, and 1 daughter deceased), 1960 Christine Reynolds, CBE (died 1999); died in Kendal March 18th 2002.