(Original post by a noble chance)
Henry Duke worked as a journalist after a pauper's education before entering Gray's Inn. He later served as Chief Secretary for Ireland, as a Lord Justice of Appeal and as President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court
Archibald Bodkin worked on a farm before entering Inner Temple and was later appointed Director of Public Prosecutions
Rufus Isaacs worked in a shop and various other modest occupations before entering Middle Temple. He was later appointed Lord Chief Justice and Viceroy of India
How did this all work, and why isn't it possible today? Should it be? Superficially it seems that social mobility in the legal profession has gone backwards
Rufus Isaacs was jolly lucky not to see the inside of the Scrubs.
You may be interested in Kipling's anti-Semetic poem about Isaacs.
Incidentally Isaacs' house is now the law faculty building of the University of Reading.
In answer to your question, it is still just about possible to become a barrister without a degree. Here is one.
The reason goes back to Ormerod Committee which recommended that the the solicitors and barristers' professions should become all law graduate professions.
Jonathan Sumption, then a relatively junior barrister, led the fight against it. He wanted to retain the idea that you could become a barrister if you could pass the (old) bar exam. The problem was that the old bar exam (unlike Solicitors' Finals) was dead easy and everyone knew that it provided no worthwhile introduction to the profession. Pupillage was readily available. I am not sure when premiums for pupillage disappeared but what barrister would not want a couple of free dogsbodies for a year. Of course even in a massively expanding bar, tenancies were like unicorn poo.
The Ormerod proposal was adopted but with a lengthy introduction period because of the number of "5 year men" already in the system to become solicitors.
By then attendance at the College of Law had become compulsory for solicitors but the idea of attendance for a full academic year was a consequence of moving to an all graduate profession. Going to an all graduate profession allowed the Law Society to dispense with all its examinations other than Finals and to move Finals to before the commencement of articles.
I am not sure attendance at the Inns of Court School of Law was ever compulsory for the old bar exam but the old bar exam was phased out for all but those intending to practice abroad. The new course from the early 1980s required attendance for an academic year.
There was an exception to the all graduate requirement for solicitors from the beginning for legal executives; the old managing clerks, but that was a long, long road to qualification as a solicitor in one's mid 30s. It is only in the last 5 years or so that there have been any quick legal exec routes to qualification.
The bar initially and later the solicitors took exception to the need for non-law graduates to do what has since been named a senior status law degree and by the time the new rules were in force, City of London Polytechnic (now London Met) had come to the rescue and the Common Professional Examination (common because it was common to solicitors and barristers) was born.
The need for a degree in something remained a requirement for direct entry into either profession and this remained until the last year or so. The legal apprenticeship route, I think, allows someone to become a solicitor without at least nominally becoming a legal exec first. The legal exec graduate diploma route still requires an applicant to be a legal exec for a few weeks.
Other than this, if you want to be a barrister without a degree you have to be another sort of lawyer first.