HUGO SOUTHERN was one of the most distinguished private-client solicitors of his generation. Almost a caricature of the discreet, old-fashioned family solicitor, he looked after the affairs of a number of great English families, including the Spencers of Althorp, the Cecils of Hatfield and the Sitwells. He travelled to Italy to finalise the dying Osbert Sitwell's will, and more recently he acted as one of the late Earl Spencer's executors. Many of his clients have especially good reason to be grateful for his consistent advice against investment in the Lloyd's insurance market.
Southern was an original and creative lawyer, fascinated by the myriad and changing complexities of personal estate planning, trusts work and inheritance tax. He also had a keen appreciation of the need to contain any family disagreement that might arise so as not to damage that family's interests as a whole. Great personal qualities enabled him to make firm friends of all family members, and to remain on good terms with everyone throughout periods of family disunity.
He enjoyed a particularly good rapport with the younger members of client families. Viscount Cranborne, who got to know Southern well as a result of their joint involvement with the Salisbury estates, was a great admirer of his skills and became a close friend. From the first he found Southern not only courteous, correct and charming, but also able to explain a complicated problem simply and to advise wisely, sometimes if only by remaining silent, on all manner of issues.
Southern was articled at Crossman, Block & Co, a London firm of solicitors specialising in liquor licensing. He had recently left Oxford without taking a degree, in part owing to an incident when he had climbed into his college after midnight. To avoid injury in traversing the spikes on the wall of Wadham College, he had covered them up with a newspaper which he then forgot to remove. The newspaper had been delivered to him the previous morning with his name on it, and the college authorities found him out.
After articles, Southern joined Frere Cholmeley, then based in Lincoln's Inn Fields, where he spent the remainder of his career in private-client practice. He worked with Philip Frere - whom he dubbed 'The Eminence Noire' - and with John Floyd, eventually inheriting many of their clients. He was an immensely hard worker, but always good fun. One former articled clerk, an Old Etonian, recalls singing 'Forty Years On' with Southern, an Old Harrovian, after enjoying a few drinks - and feeling, in Southern's company, that he might have been at Harrow too.
Fond of the pleasures of the glass and the table, Southern was a most generous and convivial host, whose home was filled with his and his wife's and their children's friends. He was also an immensely well-liked member of a number of London clubs, including, at different times, White's, the Beefsteak and Brooks's.
Francis Sitwell, another client who became a close friend, was particularly pleased to note in the index to a recent biography of his father, Sir Sacheverell, that Southern had been promoted to Sir Hugo.