Carrie Morrison

Published 8th September 2015

Guest post by Elizabeth Cruickshank

In December 1922 Carrie Morrison became the first woman to be admitted as a solicitor in England and Wales. At the age of 34, and with a varied career behind her, Carrie set a high standard of determination and dedication to her profession for the women who came after her.

Although three other women (Maud Crofts, Mary Elizabeth Pickup and Mary Elaine Sykes) passed their Law Society Finals examination at the same time as Carrie, she was the first to be admitted simply because her articles had expired first. The traditional 5 year period in articles to be served before qualification was shortened to 3 years for all 4 women because of their university degrees. In Carrie’s case this was a First Class Honours degree in Mediaeval and Modern Languages; her articles were shortened by a further year because of the “important war work” in which she was engaged in Constantinople at the end of the First World War. The ten years between her time at Girton College, Cambridge, and entering into articles with a well-known solicitor’s firm in The Strand in London were spent variously as a teacher, in the Military Permit Office of MI5, the Ministry of Munitions and in Constantinople with the Army of the Black Sea.

Law for her was not simply a way of making money. In the years immediately after qualification she spent much of her time working as a Poor Man’s Lawyer in the East End of London. In 1929, she married Ambrose Appelbe, a fellow solicitor, and for a time they lived in Booth House, a tenement building in Whitechapel with communal WCs and cold running water, a very far cry from the comfortable upbringing provided by her father, a wealthy metal broker. Throughout her legal career she was not afraid to stand up for those less fortunate than herself. She represented prostitutes in court, was the solicitor for the Women and Children’s’ Protection Society and defended the Becontree Estate protesters in 1932. She was also a strong advocate of Divorce Law Reform, but had a remarkably equitable attitude to the relative positions of men and women. She was just as apt to criticise wives who took advantage of their husbands as to castigate men who treated their wives harshly and in her office tried to shield her 17 year old male articled clerk from the details of the more brutal and salacious cases that she dealt with.

It was inevitable that she and Helena Normanton would attract attention for being the first woman solicitor and woman barrister respectively. The Daily Telegraph of 26 May 1928 reported that “At the conclusion of an undefended divorce suit Lord Meredith, granting a decree nisi, said it was the first time in his memory that a woman petitioner under the Poor Person’s Rules had had the advantage of a lady solicitor. The solicitor was Miss Carrie Morrison of Mile End Road, London, who was admitted in 1922”. She was the first woman to speak at the Law Society’s Annual Provincial Meeting where in 1931 she advocated the institution of “Courts of Domestic Relations” to deal with matrimonial difficulties and family quarrels but with power to grant divorces. Even after she divorced her husband in 1937 she continued to work with him in the practice that that they had built up in New Square near the Royal Courts of Justice. The two solicitors had a similar political vision and a shared purpose, which was to make the process of divorce more reasonable and the result more equitable to both parties, for the law at that time required that the process should be adversarial, that there should be an identifiable guilty party and that any suspicion of collusion should result in the suit being thrown out of court. Both were therefore involved in the Married Women’s Association and her husband became for a short time the Chairman of that organisation.

Carrie acted as the solicitor for the wife in the notorious 1943 case of Blackwell v Blackwell [1943] 2 All ER 579 where the court decided that the money that a wife had accrued as dividends by doing her shopping at the Co-operative Society should belong to her husband. Robert Boothby MP said that this was the correct judgment stating that if wives were permitted to save money from the housekeeping for their own purposes they would not feed their husbands properly.

The national press had noted her varied career and her dark hair and dark eyes when she became the first woman to qualify in 1922; on her death in 1950, after a career of dedication to improving the lot of the less comfortably off members of society the press knew so little about her legal career that they spent almost as much time writing about her cats as about her achievements. It was left to The Hertfordshire Mercury, the local newspaper of Broxbourne, where she had lived for the last fifteen years of her life, to praise the generosity and compassion of a complex and at times gruff and eccentric woman. True recognition came from her peers in the 1919 Club for women solicitors, of which she was a founder member, who kept a minute’s silence when her death was announced.