William May’s background was very different from William Slaughter’s. Born in 1863, May was from a professional, landowning family in Berkshire. His father was a surgeon in Reading, as had been his grandfather. William was born in the family home at Caversham, a mansion set in large grounds by the Thames. He was educated at Charterhouse and New College,Oxford, where he read classics and modern history. Whereas William Slaughter left little personal information about his life, May regularly kept a diary for many years. He describes a comfortable, rural family upbringing. Much time was spent shooting, riding, boating on the Thames, playing cricket and tennis with family and friends, and going for hearty walks. He was keen on boats, and later kept a yacht. He loved music, playing the piano and cello, and enjoyed going to the opera and theatre.
After leaving university he decided to train as a solicitor and was articled at Ashworth, Morris and Crisp where he met William Slaughter. May took his final law examinations in early 1888 and qualified as a solicitor in July that year. In spite of the differences in their family backgrounds and education, May and Slaughter must have got on well for by the end of that year they had decided to go into partnership together.William Slaughter had already made a name for himself in the city and was gaining a number of successful clients. He must have felt that he would benefit from having May as a partner, both professionally and socially.
In the last decade of the 19th century until the start of World War 1, the legal profession in London was flourishing.The legal reforms of the 1850s onwards resulted in raising the standards of the profession and the social standing of lawyers. Better communications, in the form of improved postal services and the expanding railway system meant that business could be dealt with more speedily and efficiently.It was also a period of relative financial security. England was still on the gold standard, inflation was low, while salaries, expenses and taxation were stable. Business and trade were expanding all over the globe – mining and railways were being developed worldwide . New companies were being formed to facilitate these, and the fees for providing legal work for setting up such companies were very profitable.
The new firm of Slaughter and May was soon actively conducting business, initially with about thirty clients. Before long it was decided that they needed new premises, so they bought the leasehold on a block at 18 Austin Friars, in the city. The old buildings were demolished, and replaced by a new one designed by the architect Frank Hay Roberts. Opened in 1892, it remained the home of the firm until 1968.
But while the business partnership was flourishing, the personal lives of the founders were following very different paths.In 1890, William Slaughter’s wife, Ida, had died of typhoid leaving him a widower aged 33, with three young children. His unmarried sister, Mary, moved in to care for the family and manage the household. In 1895, William May had bought a large property called Ashburton House at Send, near Woking which had frontage on the river Wey, as well as tennis courts and several acres of land. William and Mary Slaughter’s sister, Elizabeth and her husband Reginald Drew, lived nearby and there were frequent visits between the families. When the children were older, Slaughter sometimes brought them over for a day out at Ashburton House, and they would play tennis or go boating on the river.
William Slaughter bought himself a country estate in 1898, when he purchased Whiteness, at North Foreland near Broadstairs. Marrying for the second time in 1899, he renamed the house Bruce Lodge, after his new wife, Hester Mary Duff Bruce. She was the daughter of William Duff Bruce, an official at the Port of Calcutta, and a cousin of Stanley [ later Viscount] Bruce of Melbourne. Slaughter had been the main adviser to the Duff Bruce estate after the death of Stanley’s father in 1901.
So far, so conventional, but at some point during the years between the death of his first wife and his marriage to Hester, William had embarked upon an affair with a French governess, which resulted in the birth of an illegitimate son. This had been a well-kept family secret for many years, no doubt being considered not quite the done thing for a respected member of the legal profession – though not unknown in late Victorian times. How my mother discovered about the affair will have to wait until another chapter.