Remembering Bill Wedderburn, Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

Bill WedderburnExtracts of the eulogy delivered at his funeral by fellow Labour Peer, Lord Grabiner, QC

When I read the obituary notices on Bill I was interested to discover that his parents, Herbert and Mabel Wedderburn, ran a scale makers business in New Cross Road in South East London. I'm sure their scales were well balanced and I like to think that that image was so engrained in Bill's soul that it determined his life-long commitment to the law and to social justice.

At a time when social mobility was more achievable than, regrettably, it is today, Bill was what we used to call a scholarship boy who made his way to Queen's College, Cambridge. He must have been one of the very best law students ever to arrive in Cambridge. He graduated with a double starred First Class Honours degree and then won the prestigious Chancellor's Medal. He became a Fellow of Clare, a beautiful College located on the Backs of The Cam - a long way from The New Cross Road.

Bill's obituaries rightly emphasise his spectacular contribution to the development of labour law through his teaching and writings over many years, but I think the notices rather overlooked Bill's genius in other, less politically and socially controversial areas of the law including company law, contracts and torts. He wrote seminal pieces in the Cambridge Law Journal on collateral contracts, on corporate personality and on the comically entitled Dickensian decision, Foss v. Harbottle.

In 1965, at the remarkably young age of 37, he was appointed to the Cassel Chair of Commercial Law, tenable at the LSE. Bill's two immediate predecessors in that Chair were Professor L.C.B. Gower, of company law fame mentioned earlier, and Lord Chorley: an outstanding line of talent. Bill’s appointment was an astute move by the LSE inspired, I am sure, by the late Professor Sir Otto Kahn-Freund who was then the Convenor of the LSE Law Department. Bill became a leading member of what, in retrospect, was the best law faculty in England.

By good coincidence that was when I met Bill. Little did I know it but all was set up nicely for me. I'd come from Well Street Common, in Hackney to the LSE. Geographically speaking that was a short number 6 bus ride to The Aldwych but, to borrow the words of Neil Armstrong, it was a giant leap for Tony Grabiner. Bill took me under his wing. He was a brilliant and inspiring law teacher able to combine deep analytical skills with an acute appreciation of the social and political context of the problem.  He took the point full on and taught us to face it rather than dodge it.  This was, and I hope always will be, the hallmark of an LSE education which aims to encourage students to 'understand the causes of things'.

I have been speaking from my personal perspective but there are about 50 generations of law students at Cambridge and the LSE who would tell similar stories about the importance to their lives of having come under the influence of Bill Wedderburn as an inspirational teacher and as a friend.

It was at the LSE where Bill met his beloved Fran - then Frances Knight. That was a special piece of luck for both of them. They were married in 1969 and Jonathan is their son. Fran was the perfect partner for Bill for more than 43 years. He wasn't always easy and in the last few years he did not enjoy great health but she was always brilliant and completely supportive. The word 'rock' is frequently overused in this context but not in this case. Also Fran you should know that Bill knew it and loved you for it. Bill also leaves Sarah, David and Lucy, the children of his marriage to Nina Salaman and their ten grandchildren. We all mourn his passing.

Beyond his lifetime commitments to Charlton Athletic F.C. – a worthy but hopeless cause – and, latterly, Humanism, Bill was not exactly a believer. If he's listening, and I hope he is, I'm sure he won't mind my making reference to the Book of Psalms. In Psalm 90 there is a famous sentence I'd like to end with. It reads:

"Teach us to number our days aright, that we may get a heart of wisdom".

Bill Wedderburn was always hugely hard working, with his law teaching, his parliamentary duties, his unswerving commitment to social justice and, above all, his devotion to Fran. Bill maximised his use of the time allotted to him and he had a heart of wisdom.

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