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September 2006 Issue
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Letters reveal giant intellect


University of Adelaide historian Wilfrid Prest has published an edition of the letters of William Blackstone, an 18th century scholar and judge credited with writing perhaps the most influential law book in the English language.

Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769) is regarded as the first comprehensive account of English common law, the basis of both the Australian and American judicial systems.

Professor Prest, who holds a joint appointment in History and Law at the University of Adelaide, is working on a full-scale scholarly biography of Blackstone. Editing Blackstone's letters was the first step in this process.

"This has been a complex task, for the sources are very widely dispersed," Professor Prest said.

Original copies of some of the 180 letters now published are housed in over 30 archives, libraries and private collections on both sides of the Atlantic. Others survive only as facsimiles, transcripts and summaries in a variety of printed books, catalogues and periodicals.

William Blackstone's letters reveal an extraordinarily erudite man who excelled as a poet, bibliophile and critic, editor and scholar, academic administrator and national politician, historian, practising lawyer, judge and penal reformer.

Born in 1723, Blackstone only lived to 57, but apart from the Commentaries, published another half-dozen books during his lifetime. He wrote his first treatise on architecture in his 20th year.

Now in the Getty Research Library, Los Angeles, this manuscript and its slightly later successor (at the Codrington Library of All Souls College, Oxford, where Blackstone was a fellow) are currently being edited by Ms Carol Matthews as an Adelaide history PhD thesis.

Her work, like that of Professor Prest, is part of "William Blackstone: Life and Works", a Discovery Project supported since 2002 by an Australian Research Council (ARC) Professorial Fellowship.

Besides teaching history at the University, from 1966-2002, and editing the Wakefield Companion to South Australian History, Professor Prest has published numerous works on the English legal profession.

He hopes to publish the Blackstone biography in 2008 to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Blackstone's inaugural lecture as Vinerian Professor of the Laws of England in the University of Oxford, which made him the world's first common law academic.

The Letters of Sir William Blackstone 1744-1780 (Selden Society, London, 2006), may be ordered from the Law School Office. Contact them on (08) 8303 4020.

Story by Candy Gibson

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