Helena Normanton – from Brighton classroom to King’s Counsel
31 January 2019
By Kate Elms
Sifting through material at the end of last year for our archive-inspired Advent Calendar, we opened a box containing a Christmas card from Helena Normanton. We didn’t include it in the calendar (competition is fierce for those festive slots), but it piqued our curiosity. Who was Helena Normanton? The card was within the archives for Varndean School and it became apparent that at the end of the 19th century, she had been a pupil at Brighton’s York Place School, which later became Varndean School for Girls.
Among the papers there was also a photograph of her wearing a barrister’s wig and gown and some newspaper cuttings referring to a distinguished legal career. During last year’s Suffrage Centenary, we highlighted the lives and work of some of the pioneering women represented in our archives, but we’re delighted to start this year sharing Helena’s story, particularly as 2019 marks the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, a piece of legislation that allowed women to practise law, among other professions, for the first time. We discovered not only that Helena was quick to take advantage of this opportunity, but also that she broke new ground for other women and championed equal rights throughout her life.
Born in London in 1882, Helena moved to Brighton with her mother and younger sister a few years later, after the death of her father. She was admitted to York Place School of Science in October 1896. Records held at The Keep suggest she was a talented student, moving swiftly through the Standards in the class for the brightest pupils. Her achievements often popped up in the Girls Pages of the school magazine and in July 1900, she pursued a well-trodden path, becoming a pupil teacher at one of the local Board Schools.
From 1903-1905, Helena attended Edge Hill teacher training college for women in Liverpool, the first non-denominational college of its kind in the country. She followed this with a Diploma in French language, literature and history at University of Dijon (1907), and a first-class degree in History at the University of London (1912). A vocal supporter of many causes, including female suffrage and equal pay for men and women, she pursued a teaching career while also becoming known as a charismatic speaker.
She made her first application to the Middle Temple in 1918, immediately after the Equal Franchise Act gave some women the right to vote, but was refused. Although she immediately challenged the decision, the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed before her appeal could be heard, and the following day, 24 December 1919, she reapplied and became the first woman admitted as a student to the Bar.
In 1921, she married Gavin Bowman Watson Clark and, in keeping with her independent nature, retained her maiden name. Reflecting on the reasons many women changed their name on marriage, she was direct and unequivocal: ‘They seem to think they have got to. There is no got to about it. A woman only becomes Mrs Bill Jones by habit…’ When she was called to the Bar in 1922, the Lord Chancellor tried to persuade her to take her husband’s name but again she refused, stating in an article published in the Yorkshire Post, ‘I could see that if a Lord Chancellor was interested, I must have been exercising an important liberty.’ When invited to travel to America to give a series of lectures, she became the first married British woman to be issued a passport in her maiden name. News of her visit, and her uncompromising stance, was splashed across the New York papers: the New York Times described how she visited lawyers at the Foreign Office when her initial request was refused at the UK passport office, while the Evening Post described her as an ‘English Portia’, succeeding where her American counterparts had failed.
Helena was not the first woman to be called to the Bar but she was the first to practise as a barrister, and racked up a number of other ‘firsts’ in her career: she was the first female counsel in the High Court of Justice and the Old Bailey, the first woman to obtain a divorce for her client and the first to lead the prosecution in a murder trial. In 1949, she and Rose Heilbron were the first women in England to be appointed as King’s Counsel.
Despite the fact that she lived in London, Helena remained attached to her old school and to Brighton and the surrounding area. In 1947, she attended a special reunion of the Varndean Old Girls Association to mark 21 years since the school moved to new premises. She recalled the early days in York Place and, in school magazine The Varndean Chronicle, observed that ‘a school is not a building, a place or a staff, but the whole living, breathing texture that moves on through generations.’ She returned in 1950 to give the address and to hand out certificates at the school’s Speech Day, and the following year was guest of honour at a dinner held by the Hastings & District branch of the National Council of Women. At that event, she spoke of her fondness of Sussex, observing, ‘You can go and see the Alps and the Andes, but where do you see anything as sweet as the rolling Downs?’
It should come as no surprise that, when a fund was established in 1956 to create a new university in the county, Helena was the first to contribute. She supported the idea with great enthusiasm and conviction during her lifetime, and set up a trust fund to benefit the University after her death in 1957. The University of Sussex is one of The Keep’s partners, and it seems appropriate that its Special Collections are kept under the same roof as the local archives that have been used to research this blog. It is also fitting that, 100 years after Helena’s admission to the Inns of Court and the legislation that made it possible, 218 Strand Chambers in London will be renamed Normanton Chambers on 31 January, making Helena the first woman to have a Chambers named after her. Over 60 years after her death, she’s still a trailblazer.
Onward and Upward: York Place to Varndean, 1884-1975 by Tony Allt and Brian Robson
Helena Normanton and the Opening of the Bar to Women, Judith Bourne, 2017, Waterside Press
Papers of Helena Normanton, relating to her career and other interests are held at the Women’s Library at LSE, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE.
First 100 Years is a history project celebrating 100 years of women in law.
Pioneering women: Margaret Bondfield, 1873-1953
6 August 2018
By Kate Elms
Did you know that the UK’s first female cabinet minister started her working life in Sussex? Margaret Bondfield, elected Minster for Labour in 1929, was born in Somerset in 1873 but, at the age of 14, she moved to Hove where she was offered work at Mrs White’s ladies’ and juvenile outfitters in Church Road.
This seems initially to have been a positive experience. In a biography written by Mary Agnes Hamilton, a pioneering woman in her own right, Margaret is quoted as saying,’I was apprenticed to one of those old-fashioned businesses where the relations between customer and server were of the most courteous and friendly, and the assistants, of whom I was the youngest, were treated like members of the family.’
During this time, she was befriended by Louisa Martindale, a customer of Mrs White’s and a well-known local suffragist. Louisa had moved to Brighton to ensure her own daughters, Louisa, born in 1872, and Hilda, born 1875, received a good education and the opportunity to pursue fulfilling careers, and she opened up her home in Stanford Road to young working women on Saturday afternoons. Margaret had grown up in a family that valued social justice, and this chance to mix with like-minded people helped to develop her political ideas.
When Mrs White retired, Margaret moved to Hetherington’s, a much larger establishment in Western Road. There she had a different experience of working life, with long hours and cramped living conditions. In the 1891 census, she is listed as the youngest resident (aged 18) in a household of eight female draper’s assistants, none from the local area, in a small house owned by William Hetherington in Stone Street, Brighton. It has been said that the Victorians invented late-night shopping – premises were often open until 10pm at night and young staff worked up to 74 hours per week, while the ‘living-in’ system gave them no privacy or freedom.
Moving to London in 1894, Margaret seems to have drawn on her own experience, becoming active in the Shop Assistants’ Union, campaigning for equal pay and better conditions for workers. She joined the London District Council of the Union and began to contribute articles to Shop Assistant, a publication launched in 1896. In the same year, she was asked by the Women’s Industrial Council to investigate the pay and conditions of shop workers. Her subsequent report and elevation to Assistant Secretary of her Union meant that by the age of 25, her political potential was being noticed in wider circles. She was recognised as the leading authority on shop workers, giving evidence to parliamentary select committees and was often the only female delegate to speak at conferences.
In 1908, she turned her attention to the Independent Labour Party and some of the broader issues it faced, including healthcare and pensions. She was involved with numerous organisations, including the Women’s Co-operative Guild, the National Federation of Women Workers and the Women’s Peace Council; supported equal suffrage for men and women, which put her at odds with the Women’s Social and Political Union; and continued to campaign for equal pay.
In 1923, she was elected as MP for Northampton and became the first female chair of the TUC. And in 1929, she became Minister of Labour in Ramsey Macdonald’s government, the first woman to hold a cabinet post. It was a difficult time, defined by the depression following the Wall Street Crash, and Margaret became a controversial figure who was seen by some to have betrayed the principles of her own party. She retired in 1938 and died in 1953.
New display celebrates Women’s History Month at The Keep!
8 March 2018
By Eleanor King
For Women’s History Month this year, a display has gone up in our reception area highlighting some of the lesser known heroines of our collections. Pictured below, the display loosely takes the themes of ‘a woman in a man’s world’ and the power of the female voice and friendship. The women featured all created something unique in their lifetimes and all have contributed to the place of women in the 21st century. To gather these women together, I put a call out to the ladies of The Keep for their champions and unsung heroines, and sure enough the call was answered.
A women whose archive I‘ve wanted to explore in more detail for while is that of the remarkable Dr Rosey Pool, whose scrapbooks of her time working with African America poets in the United States I have had the pleasure of being able to leaf through in teaching sessions. Dutch-born Dr Pool studied in Berlin until the expansion of the Nazi regime forced her return to Amsterdam, where she became a teacher, counting Anne Frank among her pupils. She had formed an interest in African American poetry at university and during the war continued to seek out and collect works by poets and artists. Following the war, Pool spent time in America, lecturing and speaking out in favour of civil rights, desegregation and championed the work of unknown African American poets and artists. Her archive includes a wealth of poetry from the middle of the 20th century, as well as much of her own writing. A recent display at The Keep featured a book from Rosey Pool’s archive that underwent conservation last year. A piece written by Special Collections Supervisor Rose Lock about this book and its conservation can be found on the University of Sussex library staff blog.
Another woman I knew I had to feature was Tilly Edinger, an eminent scientist whose pioneering work led to the discovery of ‘paleo neurology’. It was Samira Teuteberg, archivist for the German-Jewish collections held at The Keep, who told me about Dr Edinger; knowing my interest in all things ‘Jurassic Park’, she knew a woman who pioneered the study of dinosaur brains was always going to pique my interest. Tilly Edinger led me to Eva Ehrenberg, her cousin and a translator and writer. I came across a photograph that, for me, embodies the phrase ‘a woman in a man’s world’, featuring Eva Ehrenberg at work at her desk in an office alone, on one side of the room whilst a group of men sit around at a desk on the other side of the room. The two parties could be occupying entirely separate spaces; Eva is isolated and ignored, working alone while the men appear to be deep in discussion. A copy of this photograph is now part of the display, alongside material related to the work of Tilly Edinger.
Despite Tilly’s move to America to pursue her career, she and Eva maintained a correspondence and a friendship. This got me thinking about the importance of female friendships and how empowering they can be, and I wanted to find other examples in our collections.
It was Rose Lock who alerted me to the incredible women of the Cooperative Correspondence Club, the CCC, who, following a call for help from a lonely mother in Nursery World magazine, created a publication written by the women, for the women and only to be read by CCC members. The magazine ran from 1935-1990 starting with 24 contributors who all wrote under pseudonyms and formed close friendships over the years. The power of being given a voice cannot be underestimated, and the CCC offered women across the country a chance to have their voices heard and their opinions counted in a world where they may have otherwise been ignored or undervalued.
In keeping with the theme of female friendship and comradery, East Sussex archivist Anna Manthorpe directed me to the Women’s Institute records we hold from chapters across the county. These include reports, minutes and record books, and we also hold several scrapbooks created to celebrate key events such the Golden Jubilee. On display are some images taken from the Falmer WI scrapbook from 1965 that feature a run-down of the year’s activities, including thoughts on the impact the new university will have on the village. Community groups such as the WI provided a space for women to work beyond the male gaze and their domestic arrangements, forming friendships and contributing to their local communities.
Other women who feature in the display include Mrs Mary Philadelphia Merrifield, a Brighton-based writer and translator from the 19th Century. She took herself off to France and Italy to study the Old Masters and later studied marine life, becoming a leading algologist (seaweed expert). A blog about Merrifield written for International Women’s Day in 2016 by archive assistant Emma Skinner can be read here. Brighton and Hove colleague Kate Elms and archive assistant Lindsey Tydeman also provided me with the names of many great women, including politician and activist Margaret Bondfield, pioneering physician Dr Helen Boyle and women’s rights campaigner Barbara Bodichon, all of whom have local connections but have made an impact historically.
The archives at The Keep are full of fascinating, remarkable and extraordinary women; from scientific pioneers to outspoken activists, to housewives seeking friendship. We hope you will inspired to come and find out more, or perhaps to discover your own family heroine? In 2018, the female voice is being heard perhaps louder than ever before, let’s keep it up!
Women of Sussex – Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891)
8 March 2018
By Lindsey Tydeman
When one thinks of 19th-century feminist pioneers, the name Barbara Bodichon does not spring to mind. History associates her neither with medicine (Elizabeth Blackwell), the vote (Millicent Fawcett), health and hospitals (Florence Nightingale), secondary education (the Misses Beale and Buss) or higher education (Emily Davis). Yet at different stages of her life she committed time, energy and huge amounts of money to all of these in the name of the ‘freedom and justice we English women struggle for’.
Born in 1827 in Whatlington, near Robertsbridge in East Sussex, Barbara Leigh Smith was always going to experience the chill of social exclusion as well as the freedom and privilege of wealth. Her father Benjamin Smith was the son of William Smith, the abolitionist and Unitarian spokesman in parliament. Benjamin inherited the family’s commitment to social improvement, particularly education, and founded an infant school in Westminster which also provided food, sewing lessons and baths. Although Ben Smith was committed to Barbara’s mother, a milliner called Anne Longden, they never married and his children were not publicly acknowledged by his married siblings and their families. After Anne Longden’s early death in August 1834, Benjamin Smith rented a house in Pelham Crescent, Hastings, and provided tutors, governesses and riding masters in a free-thinking environment where the girls enjoyed early independence, received drawing lessons and mixed with visiting and local artists. Art and ‘the sisterhood’ would the dominating themes of Barbara’s life, often intertwining but sometimes pulling her in different ways. In 1862, she acknowledged the temptation of art; it was much more enjoyable than these, ‘dusty dirty attempts to help one’s fellow creatures’ with, ‘long sojourns in stifling rooms with miserable people’.
On reaching the age of 21, Barbara received an investment portfolio from her father which gave her financial independence. It may have been a mixed blessing; while she could now afford to spend time painting, writing and organising projects of political and social reform, the need to earn a living, which was acting as an impetus for several women who would later be at the forefront of feminist initiatives, had been removed. She also learned that her father had a second illegitimate family with a woman he had met after her mother’s death. These children were not acknowledged by Barbara and her siblings.
In 1848, Barbara had her first article published in the Hastings and St Leonards News. ‘An Appeal to the Inhabitants of Hastings’ wished that reformers would give the same energy to social health issues as the Church of England did to the distribution of Bibles. This was followed by pieces denouncing the enforced ignorance of middle-class women, the foolishness of feminine fashion (particularly tight corsets) and ‘The Education of Women’, pleading with parents to let their daughters follow their interests in art or politics ‘unmolested’. The following year she attended drawing classes at the new Ladies College in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, and enjoyed unchaperoned art trips with friends through Germany and Europe.
Barbara’s A Brief Summary, in Plain Language, of the Most Important Laws concerning Women of 1854 was her summary of Wharton’s 550-page Exposition of the Laws relating to the Women of England, published in 1853. The short book was meant to be read in a single sitting, with salient points highlighting the propertied single woman’s inability to vote and the married woman’s legal state of being ‘absorbed’ by her husband. In November the same year, her much-cherished project, that of a progressive infant school where social classes mixed together, Portman Hall School, opened near the Edgware Road in London.
In 1856, Barbara drafted a petition for the reform of laws affecting women which secured 3,000 signatures and was presented in parliament the same year. She produced the pamphlet Women and Work, an argument for the right of middle-class women to have professions without losing gentility or perceived ‘femininity’, and became a founding member of The Society of Female Artists, creating a space in which women could display and sell their works. She was instrumental in securing lecture halls and local receptions for Elizabeth Blackwell’s first lectures on ‘Medicine as a Profession for the ladies’. The same year, having narrowly escaped a sexual liaison with her publisher Chapman – which would have undoubtedly ruined her socially – her father took his daughters to Algiers for the winter where Barbara met and soon married the eccentric and philanthropic French doctor Eugène Bodichon. Future years would be divided between Britain and Algiers. In Sussex she would paint; in London, from her home and political base in Blandford Square, she would organise reforming committees; and from Algiers, in-between art expeditions, she would direct funds and instructions back to London.
In 1858, Barbara and her childhood friend Bessie Parkes established a new magazine, The Englishwoman’s Journal. Its headquarters in Langham Place had a ladies reading room, a luncheon room, and, briefly, a women’s employment exchange. She was at the height of her campaigning energy. In 1859 she headed a petition of 39 women artists to force the Royal Academy to admit women students to its schools; in 1866, she was instrumental in the campaign for extending the franchise to female householders. In 1872, she put down the first £1000 towards what would eventually become Girton College, Cambridge.
In later years, Barbara Bodichon drew fulfilment from more personal projects which brought immediate results. She supported several women through higher education, assisting their families financially to free them to attend university colleges. After retirement to her house at Scalands Gate in Sussex following a stroke, she asked Gertrude Jekyll to design an addition to the house which would serve as a reading room, library and night school for young working men who could not read or write. She donated liberally to local hospitals and charities. After her death in June 1891, the Sussex Agricultural Express reported that around 50 members of the night school preceded her funeral cortege on its journey from Scalands Gate to the church at Brightling. ‘The basis of Madame’s character,’ wrote J Piper in his History of Robertsbridge (1906), ‘was a sense of abstract justice.’
Pam Hirsch, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon 1827-1891: Feminist, Artist and Rebel (1998)
Henry Fawcett and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, campaigners for female suffrage
By Kate Elms
It might seem strange on International Women’s Day to focus on a married couple, Millicent Garrett Fawcett and her husband Henry Fawcett. It’s certainly true that Millicent’s achievements and legacy speak for themselves – she was an early and active campaigner for female suffrage and for higher education for women, and the Fawcett Society, founded in 1866 to fight for gender equality, is named after her. But Henry Fawcett, Brighton’s Liberal MP from 1865 to 1874, was equally committed to the idea of votes for women and encouraged Millicent in both her campaigning and her writing. Theirs appears to have been an equal partnership, which seems worth celebrating.
Millicent Garrett was born in 1847 in Suffolk into a large family in which freedom of speech and political debate was encouraged. At the age of 12, she was sent to boarding school in London, where her elder sister Elizabeth was studying, and it was there, in 1865, that she first heard the radical MP John Stuart Mill speak on women’s rights. Mill was one of the first men to argue against the subordination of women and, in 1866, presented a petition to Parliament on behalf of Elizabeth and a group of women known as the Kensington Society, demanding the right to vote. The petition failed, but it had gained a significant number of signatures as well as the support of certain MPs, suggesting that some men agreed with them. Henry Fawcett was one of these men.
Born in Salisbury in 1833, Fawcett was educated at Cambridge and initially planned a career in law. He was blinded in a shooting accident at the age of 25, but pursued his studies, becoming Professor of Political Economy in 1863. Two years later, he was elected MP for Brighton. A man with profoundly liberal views, he joined Mill and other radical members of parliament in campaigning for equal rights for women, which brought him into contact with Elizabeth Garrett and her circle.
In 1865, he proposed to Elizabeth but she turned him down, choosing instead to focus on her medical studies (she later became Britain’s first female doctor). Henry then met and fell in love with Millicent, Elizabeth’s younger sister, and the pair were married on 23 April 1867. Their meeting was described in Fawcett’s biography A Beacon for the Blind as, ‘the beginning of a rare understanding between two strangely harmonious and independent natures … their affection rested on a strong foundation of common principles and interests and of the love of freedom and justice.’ The couple had one child, Philippa, who was born in 1868.
Millicent assisted her husband in his work as an MP, while he encouraged her in her career as a writer. In 1870, she wrote Political Economy for Beginners and, in the same year, delivered a lecture at Brighton Town Hall on the ‘electoral disabilities of women’ which was reported at length in the local press. She became a well-known speaker, not just on women’s issues but on political and academic subjects too, at a time when few women expressed their views on public platforms.
Meanwhile, Henry supported Mill’s proposed (but unsuccessful) amendment to the 1867 Reform Act, which would give women the same political rights as men, and campaigned for equal access to further education and employment. In 1872, he and Millicent co-produced Essays and Lectures on Social and Political Subjects, and the couple had their portrait painted by Ford Madox Brown; the finished artwork was bequeathed to the National Portrait Gallery in 1911.
Henry Fawcett remained MP for Brighton until 1874, after which he represented Hackney. He was appointed Postmaster General by Gladstone in 1880, and in this role he continued to champion women’s rights, extending their employment opportunities and, after taking advice from his sister-in-law Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, appointing women doctors to care for them. He died in 1884 at the age of 51.
Millicent was only 37 at the time of her husband’s sudden and premature death, and within a short time, she was back at work campaigning for women’s suffrage, among many other things. She became leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, the main Suffragist organisation in the country, with far more members than the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union. Committed to a pragmatic, law-abiding approach, she distanced herself from the more violent campaigning inspired by Suffragettes such as the Pankhursts in the early years of the 20th century, but she acknowledged the impact their actions had on the overall movement, and is said to have commended the bravery of the women who faced imprisonment.
Millicent died in 1929 and until the end of her life she fought for equal access for women not just to the right to vote, but also to education, employment and divorce. Fittingly, she was present in the gallery of the House of Lords to see the Equal Franchise Act passed in 1928, more than 60 years after her first involvement in the struggle, one of the few women involved from the beginning to end.
Letters from the Archive: ‘Suffragettes’ Lack of Sense of Proportion’, published in the Brighton Herald, 25 May and 8 June 1907
In 1907, Suffragettes were active in Brighton, holding meetings in prominent public places such as the Royal Pavilion. On 11 May of that year, a letter from Mr John Crombie was published in the Brighton Herald referring to a comment made by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence at a lecture the previous week. He went on to say: ‘When women find themselves becoming notorious through getting their names mentioned in the daily papers, they lose all sense of proportion… and they cannot therefore expect that their views on any question are likely to command attention and respect from disinterested outsiders.’ The letters reproduced and transcribed below appeared in the Herald in subsequent weeks, illustrating contrasting views of the same very divisive issue.
Sir – I have read the letter which your correspondent Mr Crombie addressed to last week’s issue of your paper with considerable interest – and approval.
I entirely agree with the view he takes re the utter want of proportion recently exhibited by certain ladies – well known to the reporters – at present engaged in the shrill cry, ‘Votes for women! Votes! We want the vote!’
Mrs Pethick-Lawrence recently made the amusing statement that ‘Women’s suffrage was the greatest movement the world had seen since the dawn of Christianity.’
I am humbly grateful to her for thus even attempting to set a limit, and can only suggest, Is not that sacred epoch too recent? Why stop there? Why not be bold and say since the Creation of Man?
I have frequently noticed that amongst hysterical women there is a morbid craving for some form of martyrdom – not too severe – and that when this runs linked hand in hand with a similar thirst after a cheap public notoriety, the most irrational and irresponsible results are apt to follow. In this case, the disease has had its natural corollary in women’s suffrage.
However, the vapourings of a small and select clique of females (some scarcely out of pinafores and short frocks) will never be taken seriously by that great mass of the British public who constitute the thinking, working and controlling factor in the affairs of this country – justly termed the ‘Land of the Free’.
Two weeks later, the following response appeared:
Sir – The title of this correspondence attracts me, and incites me to write my first letter to the papers. ‘Lack of sense of proportion’ is in other words the keenness and initiative and disregard of the dead level in public opinion, so admired by posterity in all reformers, so misunderstood by contemporaries. It is the divine fire that makes the world go round. The well-bred indifference of the happily placed woman pleases the average man now; but how will it look in the eyes of history one hundred years hence? It is not want of heart in man or woman that is the offence so much as want of thought; and a certain lazy arrogance makes many, both men and women, refuse to recognise that the political disabilities of women is a subject demanding thought. Ridicule there is in plenty, but not thought. However, witticisms founded on ignorance are cheap.
For years I have been a lukewarm suffragette. What has made me keen and vigorous was the fulfilment some months back of the simple resolution, ‘I will not depend on hearsay. I will go and listen to the firebrands myself, and judge for myself.’ Mrs Fawcett and Lady Frances Balfour of the old school, Miss Pankhurst and Miss Kenney of the new, are well worth hearing. Men are thought to be more fair than women, and they can afford to be more independent in their judgments. May I appeal to them specially to go and listen in good faith to one or more of these speakers and judge their cause as a whole, and not by any catchword such as necessarily heads a popular newspaper correspondence.