Mary Elaine Sykes, “The Wise Little Owl”

Published 23rd November 2016

Born in 1896 Mary Elaine Sykes was one of the first four women to pass the Law Society’s Final Examinations in 1922. She was the middle child of Huddersfield solicitor James Sykes and his wife Emma Amelia Turner. Her elder brother, Eric, died in France in May 1917 at the age of 22 but her younger brother, Philip Sykes, too young to volunteer to serve in the First World War, later qualified as a barrister in Lincoln’s Inn and came to be regarded as the foremost company lawyer of his generation.

Whether or not it had been Mary’s ambition to become a solicitor before the death of her elder brother, she demonstrated her intellectual determination by studying for BA and LLB degrees from London University while simultaneously working for her father and undertaking her articles. On the first day that women were enabled by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act to register their articles with the Law Society, Mary’s father rushed his daughter onto the early morning train to London so that she could be the first woman to do so. In this they were unsuccessful as it was “another girl”, most probably Katharine Elizabeth Chambers, the 24 year-old daughter of a London solicitor, who obtained that distinction.

Her father, who died in 1921, was not able to enjoy the achievement of his only daughter, when she subsequently passed the Law Society Finals in December 1922 and then was admitted as a solicitor in early 1923. However, she continued to practise with his firm until in 1930 she set up her own firm, Mary Sykes & Co and continued to demonstrate through her later life the strength of her non-conformist upbringing and the ideals of duty and responsibility with which it had imbued her.

Mary was a joiner and a contributor. A problem-solver with “an acute legal mind”, she balanced her life as a solicitor with involvement in local politics. She was a stalwart member of the Labour Party, and in a succession of “firsts” became in 1935 the only woman on Huddersfield Town Council at the same time as she was Huddersfield’s only practising woman solicitor, in 1937 the town’s first woman alderman and ultimately in 1945 the first woman to be elected as Lord Mayor of Huddersfield.

She was not afraid to fight for the rights and freedoms of all her constituents and her interests were diverse, ranging from concern for a private charged with murder in post-war occupied Germany to arguing (unsuccessfully) for municipal laundries to enhance the facilities of council housing and to make it easier for women to return to work. Indeed she saw her election to Huddersfield Council in 1935 not just as a personal achievement but most decidedly as an opportunity to assist other women. “I hope to be able to do something for the women and children of the town, particularly if I serve on the Health and Housing Committee. Considering that more than half the population of Huddersfield are women, they ought to have their interests catered for by women. I hope that my being elected to the Council will encourage more women to contest the next Municipal elections.”

Somewhat of a polymath, who could speak several languages and peppered her conversation with Shakespearean quotations, Mary was thrust by the Second World War into another unexpected activity, that of developing a remarkably self-sufficient smallholding with her friend Phyllis Kelway, a noted naturalist and writer. It was Kelway who called her “a wise little owl”, a succinct summing up of a woman whose physically small stature and diminutive hands were combined with substantial mental capacity, powers of observation and ability to organise and compute. Mary trained at least four women as solicitors and later took one of them, Dora Atkinson, into partnership.

Her success in the law and politics could be attributed not only to her legal abilities and determination but also to a puckish sense of humour. When she and a fellow Huddersfield solicitor were summoned before the Huddersfield magistrates for parking offences, they acted for each other. When found guilty and fined and asked whether she “could pay the fine now” she replied “I think I can borrow it from my solicitor,” which left the other, by now financially depleted, solicitor unable to pay his own fine, much to the amusement of the court-room.

Although through her membership of the Soroptimist Society and local business women’s luncheon clubs she frequently urged women to follow her into politics, she was forced to admit that her political commitment had made her life “one long rush”. Unsurprising then that she did not marry until 1953 when at the age of 57 she married Richard Harry Browne. Both had been past Presidents of the Huddersfield Labour Party and together members of the Huddersfield Town Council since 1937.

She continued to practise well into her seventies and died in 1981. Perhaps the best tribute to her had come much earlier from one of her fellow councillors in 1945 when he said that “Alderman Sykes is one of the first four women to be admitted as a solicitor and we are very proud of that in Huddersfield.”

Photograph courtesy of Huddersfield Local Studies Library

By Elizabeth Cruickshank