Solicitors celebrate second centenary
THERE aren't many local businesses that can claim to have been going 100 years, let alone twice that length of time.
So when that big anniversary comes along it really is something to celebrate.
Wolferstans Solicitors was established by Samuel Kelly in 1812.
It was a time when Plymouth was about to experience the greatest growth in population that it has ever known.
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The Guildhall at the top of Looe Street was still new; the town's first-purpose built entertainment venue, Foulston's original Theatre Royal, had opened the year before, the Sutton Harbour Improvement Company had just been founded and there were plans for a Chamber of Commerce. Kelly took rooms alongside the Sutton Harbour Company in another new building, in Vauxhall Street, the Exchange.
Both enterprises flourished and, by the time Samuel Kelly handed over to his son John, the practice was very well placed locally.
John Kelly was a highly respected figure and twice served Plymouth as mayor (1855-6 and 1872-3), but he had no natural heir.
So in the early 1870s he welcomed into his office 32-year-old Thomas Wolferstan.
Before long the firm had been restyled Kelly and Wolferstan and, on Kelly's death in 1879, Thomas took over.
Five years later another local legal practitioner and former Mayor of Plymouth, Coplestone Lopes Radcliffe, also moved on and Wolferstan acquired his business – and with it the Stewardship of the Maristow estates and offices in Princess Square, where the firm was based for the next 60 years or so until German bombing rendered the most of the splendid square uninhabitable.
Thomas Wolferstan, and his brother (and former partner) Harold, had taken their leave by that stage and the business had passed down through Thomas's nephew Henry Turner and seen various other businesses acquired, and partners taken on, including former policeman David Gabbitass, who had been persuaded to join the firm by Henry's son, Charles Turner, himself a partner in the firm.
Wolferstans had three partners and 17 employees in the late-fifties. Gabbitass, who joined as an articled clerk and had long harboured dreams of becoming a lawyer, was running the practice within a decade.
In 1970 Gabbitass moved the expanding firm into purpose-built premises, Deptford Chambers, at the top of North Hill.
Henry Turner, now well into his eighties, retired soon afterwards, and the company was rebranded simply as Wolferstans.
Under Gabbitass's guidance the firm grew and grew and in 1992, following one or two minor acquisitions, it merged with Rundle, Mcdonald and Rendle (founded in 1832), making Wolferstans one of the largest practices in the South West with 16 partners and over 120 staff.
More recently the Stroud Stitson partnership has joined forces with Wolferstans and Brian Stitson works with the practice in their Plymstock office.
In April 2001 the former Rundle Mcdonald and Rendle man, Paul Woods, took the helm and now Wolferstans is well set to enter its third century in good shape, with its remit wider than ever. "Three decades ago most of our work would have been residential conveyancing and not much else," says Paul Woods, "now this accounts for less than 10 per cent of our turnover."
The internet has changed aspects of legal work, as has the way we live – how little Samuel Kelly could have imagined that the firm he began now has seven departments, the biggest of which are Family, Medical Negligence and Personal Injury.
Furthermore half of those departments and more than half the staff generally, are women.
That would have been unthinkable in 1812, as would the idea of the telegraph, telephone and television, not too mention the motor car, aeroplane and space rocket, or even the internet and iPad. Who knows what the future holds, however?
One thing is fairly certain: we're still going to need solicitors.