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Edward Terrell , Recorder of Newbury

Newbury's youngest Recorder - invented plastic armour in the Second World War.

Jackie Markham


01635 886654

Edward Terrell made history when in 1935 he was appointed to the weighty legal position of Recorder of Newbury, at the unusually young age of 32.

Legend has it this made him the youngest barrister to be appointed to such office since Judge Jeffreys, the infamous ”Hanging Judge” became the Recorder of London in 1678.  

By 1935, the Recorder was a Crown appointment made from the ranks of the Bar to preside over the courts of the Borough Quarter Sessions.

Socially, he was one of Newbury’s most important citizens, outranked only by His Worship the Mayor.

Surprised locals were heard to surmise that there must be some mistake – and an uncharitable rumour spread that the appointment was the result of confusion over names and had been intended for a similarly-named more senior barrister. 

Nonetheless, Edward Terrell jumped at the opportunity, and stayed in the job for 36 years, overseeing the administration of local justice for a whole generation of Newbury miscreants.

By the time he retired in 1971, he was the longest-serving Recorder in England. He was proud to say he had devoted the whole of his life to “saving young offenders from a life of crime”.

Terrell was born in June 1902, the son of Thomas Terrell, a King’s Counsel and Liberal Member of Parliament, who was a renowned expert in patent law. Educated at Berkhamsted School and London University, he was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn in 1924.  Four years later he married Winifred Shyvers and they had one son.

Initially he was keen to follow his father into a Parliamentary career, standing twice unsuccessfully in a General Election as a Liberal candidate, in 1929 for Watford and in 1935 for Lambeth North.

On his appointment to Newbury in May 1935, Edward chose not to move his family out of London but travelled from his home in Hampstead, taking up temporary residence at the Chequer’s Hotel for the duration of the borough quarter sessions (two or three weeks, four times a year). He was by all accounts a very private man, somewhat lacking in warmth and humour.  He encouraged neither intimacy nor informality which might compromise the dignity of his office, which he took extremely seriously. Occasionally colleagues would be invited to lunch at the Chequers, but none recalled ever hearing any mention of his family. (Mrs Terrell visited Newbury infrequently – she was photographed on the occasion of a Chequer’s dinner in May 1960 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her husband’s appointment, and once more at his retirement presentation). 

Retired solicitor Clive Williams, in a letter to the NWN earlier this year on the closure of the Newbury Magistrates Court, recalled that Mr Terrell  ”could be pompous”.  Local historian Penelope Stokes noted his liking for the extravagant hats worn by the female magistrates of the day, saying ”it was as if he relished their flamboyance vicariously, being of course unable to indulge in any kind of sartorial eccentricity himself.”

Terrell also had a prickly relationship with the media. Some of his decisions had been challenged and one or two reversed. It seemed to him that the press lost no time in reporting his errors, saying at his 25th anniversary dinner: “I have always noticed – and I cannot help noticing it - that I hit the headlines with a bang in all the newspapers. But when I am upheld with golden words of praise nobody takes the slightest notice, and I have to face that”.

During the Second World War, Terrell served with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.  The man who listed his recreations in Who’s Who as “tennis, yachting and inventing” distinguished himself in a number of ways.

 In 1940 he invented plastic armour - a cheap bitumen based material (a substitute for steel which was in desperately short supply).  It was fitted to Allied War and Merchant ships and saved the navy countless lives and a lot of money. After the war he was awarded £9,500 for the idea, a huge sum at the time, and the highest such award made to any wartime naval officer.

His other successful inventions included a device for dazzling enemy pilots, a rocket bomb for blasting German u-boat shelters, and the more prosaic but still useful non-spill ink bottle.

Terrell’s  book “Admiralty Brief: the story of inventions that contributed to victory in the Battle of the Atlantic” was published in 1958. Four years later it was dramatized and broadcast on BBC Radio.

He was also an expert on road accident law, and a keen advocate of road safety, contributing much to revisions to the Highway Code and the formulation of motoring law. He was one of the first to recognise and focus on the strong connection between road accidents and motorists’ consumption of alcohol, and championed automatic disqualification from driving. As a result he helped to save the lives of many thousands of drivers and pedestrians alike.

Post war he had returned to Newbury to fight legal battles, and led a campaign which saved the Newbury Magistrates Court from closure in the 1949 cull of quarter sessions in boroughs with populations below 20,000. In 1965 he was successful in getting a new courthouse for the Quarter Sessions to sit in, meaning they no longer had to be held in the Town Hall.

That victory was short-lived, however, for six years later the opening of a new Crown Court in Reading meant that Newbury finally lost its quarter sessions, and with them the post of Recorder. Edward Terrell, nearing retirement age, accepted an honorary Recordership on the understanding that if the Crown Court were to sit in Newbury, he would preside.

But effectively his appointment as Recorder of Newbury under four different monarchs, came to an end in 1971. He died in London in November 1979. In his will he gifted models of his main war-time inventions to the Imperial War Museum.

Lesser cases continued to be heard by Newbury magistrates in the Newbury Court building next to the police station in Mill Lane. That courthouse closed earlier this year, seeing an end to justice being dispensed in Newbury; its loss much lamented by the local legal community.

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