Who was the first British woman barrister?

Women were not allowed to train for the Bar until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act became law in 1919. Immediately several women enrolled at Middle Temple to start their qualifications.

The very first British woman to be called to the English Bar in May 1922 was Ivy Williams but she didn’t actually practice law preferring to remain an academic.

On December 2nd 1922 another member of the first cohort of female entrants to the Bar, Miss Monica Mary Geike Cobb, became the first woman barrister to play an active part in a British law court when she appeared for the prosecution at Birmingham Assizes.

She successfully prosecuted for bigamy one Thomas Fallow for which crime he was found guilty and sentenced to six months hard labour. Monica was complimented by the judge and the other male lawyers for the brevity and clarity with which she presented the case. However, the newspaper report at the time couldn’t resist describing that her appearance was trim and neat and how her silver horse-hair wig and black gown fitted her perfectly.

A couple of years later, Monica told a reporter from the Yorkshire Post that witnesses were often unsure how she should be addressed in court. She recounted how she’d been called both ‘Madam’ and ‘Sir’ along with ‘My lady’ and even, by a very elderly lady witness, ‘My dear’.

HELENA NORMANTON 1882 – 1957

The first woman to actually practise as a barrister in the High Court was Helena Normanton.

Born in 1882, highly educated and successful as a university lecturer, Helena was determined to become a barrister. She too was in the first cohort of trainee women barristers which she’d completed by November 1922.

Helena took all three parts of her first Bar exams in one go and her results were the best ever achieved up to that date by men or women. She gained a First in Constitutional Law and Legal History, a second in Roman Law and a second in Criminal Law and Procedure, all in one sitting.

On the day of the second part of her exams Helena was suffering from metallic poisoning and there was concern that she would be unable to attend. However she carried on and managed to pass all papers.

On December 21st 1922 Helena became the first woman barrister to present a case in the High Court.

She acted for the petitioner in a divorce case and was sucessful. She appeared in front of Mr Justice Horridge in an undefended divorce brought by a Mrs Searle. Helena had to prove desertion and misconduct as reasons for the divorce and she made a confident case gaining both the decree and costs.

Helena was married herself to Gavin Bowman Clark but kept her maiden name for professional purposes, a radical step at the time. Nevertheless she used the prefix Mrs because she felt that clients would be more comfortable in talking to a married woman.

In 1924, Helena became the first woman to appear at the Old Bailey.

In 1930 Helena appeared as the lead defence in a murder case at Newcastle Assizes. Leslie Aynsley aged twenty three was charged with the attempted murder of his nineteen year old wife and her father. The novelty of a woman barrister appearing in court is still apparent in the court reporting on the first day which focused on Helena’s appearance. Details included that she was wearing a turned down collar instead of the wing collar favoured by the men and the assertion that her face was lit up by a smile when she noticed all the male barristers gazing at her. Helena successfully entered a plea on behalf of her client of guilty to unlawful wounding for which he was sentenced to twelve months in prison.

In 1948 Helena became the first woman barrister to prosecute a murder case. The case was against a young soldier accused of murdering his wife for which he was found guilty.

A year later, along with another feminist lawyer Rose Heilbron, Helena became the first woman to be appointed King’s Council (KC).

Helena remained a lifelong feminist, pacifist and campaigner for divorce reform and died in 1957.

Image Credit: Helena Normanton – Elliott & Fry, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons