Surviving a journey of centuries, about 1,000 volumes of rare English law books spanning 400 years of legal writing were delivered to Langdell Library this spring, a gift of the late Henry Ess III ’44.

“This is probably the most important gift of books to an American law school in 150 years,” said Professor Daniel Coquillette ’71, a legal historian and visiting faculty member at the School. “No library in England, or anywhere else in the world, begins to approach the strength of the HLS library in Anglo-American legal history.”

The Ess collection, valued at more than $1 million, contains the treatise The Abridgements of the Statutes (1481), which some scholars believe is the first legal book ever printed in England, and more than 20 copies of Littleton’s Tenures, the earliest printed treatise on English law. Also included are first editions of John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651).

At the time they were printed, it would have cost an ordinary worker a year’s salary to purchase one of these books. Often only the printed sheets of the books were purchased. They were then bound at a later time. Many of the books contain margin annotations with summaries or criticisms of the text, offering scholars thoughts of lawyers of the period and insight into how our legal system may have evolved.

Ess became fascinated with early English law while he was a student cite-checking a review of Robert Bowie Anderson’s A Supplement to Beale’s Bibliography of Early English Law Books (1943) for the Harvard Law Review. “He was impressive in that type of work. He had that kind of interest in detail,” said Professor Emeritus Arthur von Mehren ’45, who was on the Law Review with Ess. For the next 50 years Ess combed auctions and specialized booksellers, acquiring about 30,000 books by the time he died last October.

In the 1980s Ess moved to a new high-rise in Manhattan with poured concrete floors to support the weight of the books. There, every wall of his three-bedroom apartment, with the exception of his bathroom and kitchen, was lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves organized by subject area. An easy chair and reading lamp flanked every window.

Until his retirement from Sullivan and Cromwell, where he was a partner in the trusts and estates department, Ess also housed pre-1620 books at the firm.

Nearly 30 books from the collection are now on display in the Caspersen Room in Langdell Library, which is open to the public. “Ess wanted students to have the same pleasure that he did in holding [the books],” said Coquillette. “They are an inspiration to my students . . . like an unbroken chain from the past to present-day [lawyers] that they can see and touch.”