By Liz Allen and Dan Scales
East London, 1931. Two lawyers meet. One is the internationally renowned champion of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi. The other is a young Toynbee Hall resident named Ambrose Appelbe, whose father was a friend of Gandhi. They discussed law and reminisced about Appelbe’s father.
Ambrose Appelbe founded an eponymous law firm, notorious for representing the movie star Ingrid Bergman, murderer John Christie, and Mandy Rice-Davies, a showgirl embroiled in the ‘Profumo affair’. However, Appelbe was also a principled philanthropist who had a life-long relationship with Toynbee Hall.
From birth, Appelbe’s life was extraordinary. He was born in 1903 in British Bechuanaland, now Botswana, to Christian missionary Dr. Reverend Robert Appelbe and his second wife, for his first was murdered by the tribesmen they attempted to convert. Demonstrating a stubbornness that Ambrose inherited, he returned to Africa with his new wife. Ambrose recalled his childhood fondly; his father teaching him classics by the fireside, the trio of African servants whom he treated as brothers, and the visits of a certain young Indian.
After the war, Appelbe drifted as a concertina player before obtaining a scholarship to read law at Cambridge in 1923. Upon graduation, he began working for a law practice involved in evictions, where he was told to show no mercy for evictees. This conflicted with Appelbe’s values. In a fit of compassion, he found himself at the doors of Toynbee Hall, where he became a residential volunteer.
One of Toynbee Hall’s services was – and remains – the ‘Poor Man’s Lawyer’, now known as the Free Legal Advice Service. Established in 1898, it provides vital free legal services for local people. It was here where Appelbe honed his legal acumen, volunteering from 1926 until the early 1930s, dealing with people ‘seeking escape from their partners; tenants and landlords… workmen’s compensation, hire-system, and money lending cases’. At that time, Poor Man’s Lawyers were considered peacemakers who provided legal aid with ‘common sense and friendliness’.
Appelbe remained a member of this ‘family’ even whe he married, moving out to live in rooms in Booth House on the Toynbee estate. His new wife was a noteworthy figure; Carrie Morrison. She had become Britain’s first female solicitor in 1922. Morrison gave legal advice alongside Appelbe at Toynbee Hall, later becoming a solicitor at Appelbe’s firm. Carrie Morrison shared her philanthropic urge with fellow student Mary Elizabeth Pickup, who gave legal advice in Birmingham.
The 1920s were a time of industrial strife and Toynbee Hall was a hub for unionism. Appelbe would have encountered dockers and railwaymen as they attended Toynbee Hall during the General Strike.
Appelbe left Toynbee Hall in the early 1930s to establish his law firm. Nevertheless, he remained involved, serving on Toynbee Hall’s Council from 1952 until retiring aged 82 in 1985.