The oldest law firm in operation – Guinness World Records.
Thomson Snell & Passmore stands out in the English legal scene for its exceptional lineage. There is a clear line of development – of partners passing on the traditions, the culture and the expertise – from one generation to another since the late 16th century. And in the course of that time the economic context in which these lawyers worked has been transformed not just once but three times in the wake of the agricultural, the industrial and the digital revolutions.
As it happens, the three 'name partners' – Thomson, Snell & Passmore – were active in the latter half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. Jeremy Passmore, the son of John Passmore, was the last practising member of the family after retiring in 2017. However, they were joining together firms whose genealogy went deep into the legal traditions of both Kent and London. These shaped the character and the values of the firm and account for its unique position in the legal history of this country.
So the firm's longevity is a tribute to its steadiness and deep commitment to working both for its clients' best interests and the good of the local community. The story of the first two hundred years is really about two families – the Hoopers and then the Scoones and the bonds they forged. Thereafter it is a tale of how a modern firm emerged from such ancient roots.
In 1570 in the east end of London the Whitechapel Bell Foundry – the world's most famous bell-maker - was established. It survives today as Britain's oldest manufacturing company. Meanwhile in the same year Nicholas Hooper, a curate of the Tonbridge Parish Church in Kent, announced himself to the world as a 'Scrivener and Drafter of Documents'. He chose his timing well. It was the beginning of the expansionist, mercantile age encouraged by Queen Elizabeth 1st and in the following year the Royal Exchange was established by Thomas Gresham – and opened by the Queen herself - in the heart of the City of London as a principal centre of commerce.
Hooper had obviously picked up on the mood of the period and understood that he could turn to good account his writing and recording skills to supplement his modest ecclesiastical stipend. Interestingly records remain of a Will which he drew up on behalf of a certain Thomas Lamparde, a 'yeoman' of Tonbridge as well as a bond for a property in nearby Hadlow (dated1593). He also devised charters and indentures and undertook conveyancing - so he had clearly made a good start to his 'second career'.
Following Nicholas Hooper's death in 1618 his son John took on his father's practice and continued to grow it. John had obviously been working with his father for some time and there is documentary evidence of a conveyance in his hand from 1612. In due course John went on to become the Parish Clerk of Tonbridge and started a tradition of the firm engaging with local government institutions. Meanwhile as a 'Notary Public' John Hooper drew up a Town Lands indenture in respect of 30 acres in Tonbridge with the rents and profits from the land being directed to the maintenance of the town's bridges over the Medway, then, towards the end of his life, he purchased a house/office for himself in what is now East Street, Tonbridge. These premises were to remain, remarkably, in the ownership of the firm throughout until the late twentieth century.
In the next generation it was John's son George who kept the family business going through all the turbulence of Monmouth's rebellion against James II and the arrival of William of Orange as king. And he continued, thereafter, into the Georgian age, dying in 1741 and being succeeded in his turn by another George, the fourth Hooper in succession to run the practice. But in 1759 the Hooper story came to an end with the death of George and no further family member to take it on.
Despite the expiry of the Hooper line there was still value in the business (presumably a number of clients and lots of good will) and it was quickly acquired by another local family, the Scoones.
Thomas Scoones had attended (like several of the Hoopers) Tonbridge School and took over from where the Hoopers had left off in strengthening the links of the practice with key local enterprises. He became Clerk of the Medway Navigation Company and reinforced the firm's connections with the management of the river. Other local interests included becoming Steward of the Manors of Frant, Southborough & Rusthall which in 1760 gave him control of the Pantiles, the famous Georgian colonnade of Royal Tunbridge Wells, an important link with the neighbouring town.
Upon Thomas's death in 1786 his son William took over the management of the business and in due course two of his sons – William Jnr and John - joined him as partners. In 1820, as the legal profession became increasingly professionalised, William Jnr. became a founder member and President of the Kent Law Society. And in keeping with his forebears' entrepreneurial activity he was active in bringing gas lighting to Tonbridge.
The firm was clearly continuing to grow and a young lawyer, Sydney Alleyne, was recruited to support its expansion. History then repeated itself at around the mid-point in the century. In the same way as the Hooper line had expired so did that of the Scoones. Fortunately Sydney Alleyne was on hand to take the firm over.
ALLEYNE & WALKER
With a new leader in Sydney Alleyne the firm changed its name. In fact, as soon as he had taken over its management Alleyne brought in another young lawyer to support him and the new firm of Alleyne & Walker emerged out of the husk of Scoones. And once again the tradition of active involvement in local life continued when Alleyne was appointed in 1866 to the Tonbridge Sewer Committee. Not necessarily, perhaps, the most glamorous role. But at this time the development of modern sewers represented, right across England, an important advance in making towns healthier places and it was significant that Alleyne was involved in it.
Unfortunately, perhaps, neither Alleyne nor Walker had any offspring who wanted to continue in the firm and so, following their deaths in 1890, the firm took a new direction for the third time when - through the involvement of William Morgan, a clerk in the firm - it was taken over by John Thomas Freer. And so the firm now traded as Alleyne Morgan & Freer.
AT LAST – THOMSON SNELL & PASSMORE
There then followed a time of rapid expansion and change with various new partners joining. This was the height of the British Empire but it was followed, of course, by the catastrophe of the First World War. Everything in the commercial world speeded up while at the same time young men destined for professional careers were diverted to the armed forces.
Frederick Alfred Snell, the son of the founder, later became the oldest practising solicitor in England at the age of 96 when he died in 1954.
In 1939 upon Walker's death the Practice was put up for sale, and at this time Templar & Passmore agreed to buy it and amalgamate it into one branch.
Because of the War, Douglas Thomson, the young man who they wished to direct the amalgamation, undertook military service in the Far East and they had to remain as 2 Firms: Walker, Freer & Brown and Templar & Passmore. They continue side by side at 130 High St. Tonbridge until he joined them in partnership. A series of complicated link-ups and mergers ensued over the subsequent decades involving Alleyne Morgan & Freer (which morphed through the arrival of new partners into Walker Freer & Brown) in conjunction with a firm (originally from London) called Snell & Co. and another firm Templar & Passmore. The result was that in 1968 a new merged firm of Thomson Snell & Passmore was created which then expanded to have offices in Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge, Cranbrook, Sevenoaks, Maidstone, Ashford and London.
Changing economics and markets, however meant that by 1998 the firm slimmed down to focus on the Kent and south east region from its office in Tunbridge Wells. But in 2005 it was recognised that the regeneration of the Thames Gateway area presented exciting new opportunities and a new office was developed for that market.
It remains to be seen where new demands will take the firm next. But what is clear is that the firm has benefited enormously from its history of constant progression and development for well over four hundred years. Over that time it has built long-term relationships by encouraging a culture of respect, understanding and excellence which combines commercial understanding with clear, common sense advice. It's a formula which has worked remarkably well for firm and clients alike – and will continue to do so in the future.
An example of our ability to innovate and embrace change is discussed here in this video from Jeremy Passmore on how we were on of the first to adopt word processors in the 1970’s.
2020 will be a landmark year for the world’s oldest law firm. In July that year we celebrate our 450th anniversary. We take great pride in our heritage and, to mark this milestone, we are creating a timeline. This timeline will not only showcase our own history but also enable clients and other organisations which take an equal pride in longevity to plot theirs. View the timeline here: Thomson Snell & Passmore historical timeline