Eliza Orme

Published 7th August 2015

Eliza Orme (1848-1937) was the first woman in England to earn a law degree, in 1888 at University College London; she was 39 years old and already unofficially ‘practicing’ law out of an office in London’s Chancery Lane where she and a colleague prepared the paperwork for property transactions, patent registrations, wills, settlements, and mortgages. ‘I “devilled” for about a dozen conveyancing counsel who kept me busily employed on drafts they wanted done in a hurry, and for twenty-five years I found it both an interesting and profitable employment’, Orme recalled in a 1901 interview. This support-level work was the only legal employment open to women, who were not permitted either to be called to the bar or join the Law Society. It was only a small part, however, of Eliza Orme’s reputation as a public figure.

Family and Education

Orme was the daughter of an upper-middle-class London family with literary and political connections. She went to school at Bedford College for Women and in 1871 began attending lectures at University College London. There she won awards for Political Economy, Jurisprudence and Roman Law. Her mentors were liberals, and she came to identify strongly with the ideology of Political Economy and, eventually, with that of the Liberal Party.

Professional Life

In 1875, her legal studies in progress, Orme set up chambers in Chancery Lane with a partner and fellow UCL student, Mary Richardson. In 1879 Orme was at Lincoln’s Inn, apprenticing in the chambers of a sympathetic barrister and hoping to be admitted as ‘conveyancer under the bar’, but this more prestigious and secure position also remained closed to her. Some time in the mid-1880s, Reina Emily Lawrence replaced Richardson. Lawrence remained a friend throughout Orme’s life and was named executor in her will. Meanwhile, the two women put together career portfolios that included in her own business, public service, voluntary work, journalism and politics.

Political Life

Eliza Orme was a feminist, but her feminism came second to her Liberal politics. she was an executive member and lecturer for the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage. In the mid 1880s she joined the Women’s Liberal Federation, and edited their newspaper, the Women’s Gazette and Weekly News. But that organisation split in 1892 over the question of whether it should be calling for women’s suffrage in defiance of official party policy. Orme was one of those who formed the Women’s National Library Association, remaining in accord with the party establishment and Gladstone’s leadership.

She was a member of the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women, a group outspoken in its opposition to protective legislation for women’s work. In 1892 she became Senior Lady Assistant Commissioner to the Royal Commission in Labour, supervising the work of three colleagues; her own particular areas of investigation where the working conditions of barmaids, women in the metal industries, and women’s work in Ireland.

Although she was concerned with women’s rights and opportunities, I believe Eliza Orme would be somewhat dismayed to know that she is remembered in terms of her gender. She valued her own reputation as a sensible ‘sound-minded woman’, the type – to use her own words – to ‘wear ordinary bonnets and carry medium-sized umbrellas’ while being able to undertake a railway journey on her own, or stand by a friend through a surgical operation. I have not yet found any personal papers that might shed light on  how she felt about the inherent inequality of her own professional situation.

Eliza and me

I first came across a mention of ‘Eliza Orme, LLB’ in the mid-1980s, as a graduate student in Victorian Studies researching George Gissing, ‘Miss Orme’, as he called her, assisted the novelist with some delicate and complex challenges related to his family life. I became intrigued with the juxtaposition of her law degree with his characterisation of a practical womanly helper. After a great deal of research, an article appeared in the Canadian women’s studies journal Atlantis in 1989 (‘”Sound-Minded Women”: Eliza Orme and the Study and Practice of Law in Late-Victorian England’). I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship that would have been focused on women in the legal profession but when that was unsuccessful my research moved elsewhere. When the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography called for “Missing Persons” I was able to contribute a notice of her life. My interest was revived a couple of years ago when I reconnected with Professor Mary Jane Mossman, of Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. A suggestion Prof Mossman made led me back to the Gissing scholar Pierre Coustillas, who possesses the only known photograph of Eliza Orme and generously let me have a copy. All this coincided with my retirement from full-time teaching and the opportunities presented by online research. The time has come for me – and I hope for many others – to discover more about this remarkable figure.

Guest post by Leslie Howsam

Distinguished University Professor Emerita, University of Windsor; Senior Research Fellow, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities