Brenda Hale, a woman sitting on a large leather chair. Behind her is a shelf filled with books
© Alan Knox/FT

Three years on from wearing a spider brooch as she announced that Boris Johnson’s attempt to suspend Britain’s parliament was unlawful, Brenda Hale, former president of the UK Supreme Court, is more considered with her jewellery choices.

“These days, people do expect me to wear a brooch, and they look out for what it is that I am wearing, so I take a little bit more care about it than I did,” she explains.

Unlike the late US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, it was never Lady Hale’s intention to convey messages with her brooch collection, and she did not expect so much to be read into what she was wearing on September 24, 2019.

She was unaware of The Who song, “Boris the Spider”, which features the lyric “He’s come to a sticky end”.

“I only learned about that afterwards when a very old friend of mine sent me the YouTube clip of it and I realised this was something I probably shouldn’t have done,” she says.

Today, Baroness Hale of Richmond wears the infamous brooch “only if people are going to be really disappointed if I don’t”. She adds: “The others deserve their outings, you see, so it’s not fair if they don’t get a proper look-in.”

Antique silver spider (c. Victorian)

© Alan Knox/FT

It was her late husband Julian who started Lady Hale’s brooch collection, after suggesting the sober attire she wore on becoming a judge in the Family Division of the High Court in 1994 needed “livening up”. They found this first piece, a “discreet and simple” spider, in an antiques shop on London’s Chancery Lane, near the Royal Courts of Justice.

The legal cases she was hearing, most of which concerned children, were “very emotionally fraught situations”, says Lady Hale. “I think that’s part of the reason why my husband thought it would be a good idea not to be looking too severe.”

Once her custom of wearing a brooch in court became known, she started receiving the jewellery as gifts.

Sparkly spider (2010s)

© Alan Knox/FT

It was this arachnid that attracted all the media attention, however: a sparkly, “very convincing spider” that Julian told her he bought for £12 from the British greetings card chain store Cards Galore.

Lady Hale wore it for the prorogation ruling pinned to a black Goat dress. “I’ve got an awful lot on my mind, as you could imagine, at that point, so I didn’t address my mind to what media and viewers and so on would make of my wearing a spider,” she says.

Tatty Devine acrylic Hypnagogia Moth (2021)

© Alan Knox/FT

Lady Hale called her autobiography Spider Woman in a nod to the episode: “I haven’t set out to be labelled in that way, but I thought, well, it having happened why not capitalise on it.”

Her publisher, Bodley Head, gave her a “beautiful, delicate” limited edition moth brooch at the book’s launch at the Supreme Court in October last year.

She was aware of London-based company Tatty Devine, having first come across the statement jewellery brand when it collaborated with the Fawcett Society charity on designs to celebrate the unveiling of the statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett, near the Supreme Court’s home in London’s Parliament Square in 2018. “They have a definite feminist tinge to what they do and . . . it’s light, bright, a bit irreverent and cheeky,” she says.

Clifton Rocks silver sunburst (2016)

© Alan Knox/FT

Most of Lady Hale’s brooches are creatures. An exception is this piece the University of Bristol commissioned for her retirement as the institution’s chancellor in 2016. She had held the position since 2004 — the year she joined the House of Lords as the first female law lord (before transferring to the new Supreme Court in 2009).

The brooch, made by local independent jeweller Clifton Rocks, reflects the sun on the university’s crest, which itself represents the Wills tobacco manufacturing family: Henry Overton Wills III, the university’s first chancellor in 1909, was an important donor.

“I’m afraid Bristol owes an awful lot to tobacco,” observes Lady Hale.

Emma Keating silver scorpion (2020)

© Alan Knox/FT

The United Kingdom Association of Women Judges turned to Emma Keating, a UK designer who specialises in wildlife jewellery, for a brooch to mark Lady Hale’s retirement from the Supreme Court in 2020.

Lady Hale, the membership body’s honorary president, thinks that perhaps the association deemed the “terrific” scorpion appropriate because she could sting if necessary. “I don’t think I’m sharp but, of course, what I have had to do in the course of my professional life is some quite sharp things,” she says.

“It goes with the territory of being a judge.” Her large, uncounted collection continues to grow, but Lady Hale does not buy brooches for herself. “I don’t set out to collect them,” she comments. “They collect me.”

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