Spending more time than ever with our families has allowed some of us to re-acquaint ourselves with the dreams, detestations and temperaments of our close kin. The resurrection of shared family interests is at least one admirable redemption from this horrifying catastrophe. It has been entertaining seeing my father almost every day. Now (officially) retired, he spends much of his time perusing the shelves of his modest yet extensive library in Kent.

Over coffee, we usually chat for half an hour each morning about the volume he has chosen for the day and the subject that has aroused his curiosity. These regular conversations have allowed us to discover certain velleities we never knew we shared. We all pass through life and see careers that invoke an urge for exertion, careers that we know full well we will never actually pursue; perhaps in part because they are based on fantastical appreciations of a particular profession, or more likely because we understand how much success in a specific vocation would undoubtedly demand and how incapable we really are.

The other day I confessed to my dad that one ego-dream I had as a child was to be a latter-day Edwardian barrister, the sort that wept hot tears and banged their clenched fists emphatically on the courtroom mahogany. The stories of those commanding orators, eloquently pouring their impassioned arguments into the ears of an enraptured jury, mesmerised me when I was no taller than a long adult leg.

I owe my exposure to those legal sagas to my dad. Figures like FE Smith and Edward Carson have always been his heroes, but not because of their honourable profession as so much as for their wit and humour. The legends of those lawyers have engendered many fictional homages and literary romanticisations, like the urbane Sir Robert Morton in Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy. Having watched Robert Donat’s rendition religiously as a kid, it is hardly surprising that aspirations to emulate that suave and inspiring protagonist on TV began to stir in me.

My dad often spoke of their forgotten triumphs and overlooked accomplishments, of a bygone breed of British advocate. Still, he failed to mention that he too had been besotted by the idea, writing to his father in the 1950s about his future and laying down that route to fulfilment as one in which he found great fascination. When he heard that I shared his admiration for pre-First World War advocacy, he excitedly rushed to a dimly lit corner of his study and gifted me a copy of a recent and brilliant biography of the famous barrister, Edward Marshall Hall.

Edward Marshall Hall was a formidable and effective speaker who utilised the now rightly abandoned style of appealing to the feelings of the jurors. Despite a scanty knowledge of the law, his critical abilities would locate the loose thread in the fabric of his opponent’s argument. Like a modern world Demosthenes, he would devastatingly unravel the claims of whomever he was obliged to cross-examine. Many of his cases were the top news stories of the day, garnering the barrister deep respect and widespread reverence. One case in which he failed to score an expected victory was his defence of Victorian poisoner and landlord Frederick Seddon.

Seddon was accused of poisoning an elderly tenant who had not long before given him commanding access to her finances. He made the grave error of disregarding Hall’s advice not to give evidence himself. Hall had a reputation for obsessively attaching himself to the fate of his clients, providing pastoral guidance to those threatened by the excellent majesty of our legal system. That reputation usually compelled his clients to submit themselves entirely to his management, but not in Seddon’s case.

His supreme arrogance in thinking that he could adequately explain his suspicious purchasing of items that contained arsenic and his belief that he could do himself more justice than the great Marshall Hall cost him his life. As the lethal verdict was read out, a secret camera snapped the solemn scene. It is the only photograph of a death sentence being given in an English court. To the left, a sallow Seddon leans nervously over the wooden balustrade, staring up at the elevated seat of the man who presided over his destiny, Justice Sir Thomas Townsend Bucknil.

As is tradition, after the sentence was delivered, the defendant was asked if he had anything to say. Being a freemason and noticing that Bucknil too belonged to his secret order, Seddon reportedly made a gesture that some witnesses believed was the First Degree sign or Sign of Grief and Distress. Whatever their significance, they appear to have been muted pleas for clemency from one brother mason to another. In an unprecedented response, Bucknil revealed his allegiance to the masons.

According to several accounts, he is supposed to have mawkishly replied, “It is not for me to harrow your feelings – try to make peace with your Maker. We both belong to the same Brotherhood, and though that can have no influence with me, this is painful beyond words to have to say what I am saying, but our Brotherhood does not encourage crime; it condemns it.”

It must have been astonishing. To hear a judge confirm his masonic membership, a club known for its furtive codes of loyalty, before confirming his allegiance to the service of justice added an extra dimension of drama to a case that had already engrossed the press and public.

Those odd anecdotes make a desultory study of British legal history so enjoyable and have made my quick morning chats with my dad even more rewarding than they already were.