London History Bulletin – January 11

This London History Bulletin is about the first woman admitted to an Inn of Court.

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

This one’s going to be fun to do. It’s quirky, it’s unexpected, it’s important, it’s satisfying. 

It’s about dinner. Pea soup, followed by roast mutton, vegetable curry, plum pudding and cheese. 

Dinner on January 11th, 1920. Dinner at Middle Temple Hall. 

A brand new law student is enjoying her first dinner in Hall. Just two and a half weeks after she was admitted to Middle Temple.

And there, the pronoun has surely given the game away. It was Helena Normanton, a newly admitted student to the bar, who was tucking into the viands at Middle Temple Hall that night. She was the only woman seated and dining. I’m guessing there may have been women in the kitchen and serving and cleaning up afterwards, but who knows for sure. In any case, if there were, Helena Normanton – her gender apart – wasn’t one of the scullery crew. She was there with the big hittters, the benchers, barristers and her fellow law students. She was one of them. The only one of them. Helena Normanton was, in short, the first woman to be admitted to an Inn of Court. And among the first to practise as a barrister in England and Wales. It had been – this will come as no surprise – an uphill battle for her. She’d first applied to become a student at Middle Temple in 1918. Her application was refused. Refused because she was a woman. 

She was probably the best applicant in that year. She’d graduated with First Class Honours in Modern History as an external student at the University of London. But that wasn’t good enough. She had the XX chromosome instead of the XY one and that debarred her from the bar, never mind how first-class her mind was, let alone her determination and resourcefulness. 

Helena wasn’t taking no for an answer. She lodged a petition against the benchers’ decision at the House of Lords. In the event, before the date fixed for the hearing of her petition in the Lords, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act came into force. It allowed women entry to the legal profession. The press said Helena Normanton’s campaign was a critical factor in getting the bill over the line. On Christmas eve 1919, within forty-eight hours of the passing of the new act, Helena made a second application to the Middle Temple, and was successful.

After the Christmas break, came that first dinner. Good for you, Helena. 

Just a couple of other points to add.

Helena Normanton was a Londoner.

Her life wasn’t easy. When Helena was a tiny girl, four years old, her father, a pianoforte manufacturer, was found dead in mysterious circumstances with a broken neck in a railway tunnel. Her mother moved Helena and her sister to Brighton, where she opened a small grocery store, which she later converted to a boarding house. After her mother’s death, Helena helped to run the boarding house. In 1903, when she was 21 years old, she went to a teacher’s training college in Liverpool. That was followed by the external degree at the University of London. Academic appointments followed: She lectured in history at Glasgow and London universities. And then – she was in her late 30s – she embarked on her legal career. While a bar student she married Gavin Bowman Watson Clark, the son of the Scottish politician, Gavin Brown Clark. She caused a stir by applying to retain her maiden name after marriage. In the words of biographer Joanne Workman, “Helena deplored the loss of a woman’s identity on marriage and its disadvantageous legal results. While she believed in the respectability of retaining the title Mrs she also wished to maintain continuity of identity in her professional career. She was the first married British woman to be issued a passport in her maiden name (1924) and also fought for the right of women who married foreigners to retain their British nationality. Later in life she quipped, ‘Anne Boleyn did not change her name even though she married the King. He at least had the decency to leave her with her own name even though he took her head.’”

Her legal career was one of those rarities – it was successful in every respect except financially. It was a career that had its share of ‘firsts’. She was, for example, the first woman to obtain a divorce for a client and the first woman to lead the prosecution in a murder trial. Indeed, she became the first woman to conduct a case in the United States. For good measure, she became the first female King’s Counsel in England and Wales.

She was her mother’s daughter. To make ends meet – a consequence of her low earnings – she let rooms at her house in Mecklenburg Square. A KC – King’s Counsel – who was running a boarding house on the side. She had some grit, Helena Normanton.

And this is where the tale got really satisfying for me. First of all, I tracked down the house. That was prompted by my guiding instincts.

And then I remembered Francesca Wade’s book Square Haunting, about five female writers who lived in a Bloomsbury square. Two of the five being Dorothy Sayers and Virginia Woolf. For the record, Francesca Wade got the title of her book from a Virginia Woolf diary entry about ‘street sauntering and square haunting.’

Anyway, the deeply satisfying point is the square for the five was Helena Normanton’s Square: Mecklenburgh Square. Fits right in with my every instinct about certain London addresses having a genius loci. As Wade puts it – borrowing of course Virginia Woolf’s phrase – “At last, here was a district of the city where a room of one’s own could be procured.”

The five weren’t there at the same time – so it wasn’t as though they’d all gathered round the same campfire. But still, maybe some of the embers were there right throughout those early 20th-century decades. I’d very much like to know if any of them were aware that haunting their square was another female pioneer, Helena Normanton. At the very least they must have sensed her presence at some sort of pre-conscious level. A genius loci level.

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin. 

Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *