One of the first 10 women solicitors in England and Wales, Edith Berthen was also the first woman to qualify in Liverpool and later formed the first all women partnership with Beatrice Honour Davy.
She was born in 1877 in Rockferry, Cheshire, the daughter of corn merchant Thomas Jones Berthen and his wife Lucy Anne Edwards from Wrexham. Having obtained a First Class Honours degree in Philosophy from London University she spent the years until she began her legal training in 1921 either in teaching or in social work, even at one time operating as co-proprietor of Roseneath School, Wrexham. Her final teaching post was at Liverpool High School for Girls and it was in Liverpool that she qualified as a solicitor in 1923.
Her subsequent life oscillated between London and Liverpool, when in 1924 she started a partnership in London’s East End with Hector Munro, another Liverpool solicitor, then returned to Liverpool in 1927 to the firm of HJ Davis where she had initially trained, and finally once again returned to London in 1931, where she continued to practice until just before her death in 1951.
Berthen’s legal work in London appears to have had two distinct phases. Like many other early women solicitors Berthen was a Soroptimist and was very much concerned with improving the lot of the disadvantaged. Hector Munro, her first partner, was a resident of Toynbee Hall, a “settlement” where socially conscious university educated young men lived and shared much of their lives with the deprived of Whitechapel. He and Berthen gave a considerable amount of their time to provide free or discounted legal advice under the Poor Man’s Lawyer scheme, an experience which later caused her to conclude that “if you are a Poor Man’s Lawyer, by the end of the week you begin to congratulate yourself that you are not married.”
The second phase began when in 1931 Berthen entered into partnership with Beatrice Honour Davy. Davy, whose grandfather was a solicitor, had first qualified as a barrister, but having decided that “for a woman who must earn her own living, the Bar is the very last profession in the world” she re-qualified as a solicitor. The new partnership worked from offices in the far more salubrious Manchester Square just off Oxford Street where they trained several other women as solicitors, including in 1937 Madge Easton Anderson, the first Scottish woman solicitor when she left Scotland for London.
Written by Elizabeth Cruickshank, author and First 100 Years Champion