Elsie Bowerman was called to the Bar in 1924, two years after Ivy Williams became the first woman called. She was also a suffragette, a Titanic survivor, and barrister.
Born in 1889, Elsie was the daughter of a prosperous businessman who died when she was five years old. When she started at Wycombe Abbey, aged 11, she was the youngest ever student. However, she tackled school with an upbeat determination that was to characterise the rest of her life, and didn’t shed a tear when her mother dropped her off. After Wycombe, she studied for the Medieval and Modern Languages Tripos at Girton College, Cambridge.
Whilst at University, Elsie became a committed suffragette. Both she and her mother were members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Elsie formed a suffrage group at Girton, and had Mrs. Pankhurst once stay with her after a meeting in Cambridge! Her mother even took part in the infamous Black Friday demonstration on November 18th 1910, when suffragettes and police clashed in Parliament Square.
In 1911, having completed the Tripos examination Class II, Elsie and her mother set sail on the infamous RMS Titanic. The passenger liner sunk after hitting an iceberg in the Atlantic; over 1,500 people died in the disaster. Both Elsie and her mother survived, and continued their travels in Northern America.
Although the WSPU intensified their militancy from 1912-14, on the outbreak of World War One, it ceased suffrage activities. In 1916, Elsie began work as an orderly for the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, an all female organisation that placed doctors, nurses, chauffeurs and orderlies to treat injured soldiers in war zones.
Post-War, Elsie was Christabel Pankhurst’s election agent for the 1918 general election, and founded the Women’s Guild of Empire, a organisation that promoted Britain’s imperialist aims, with fellow suffragette, Flora Drummond.
Elsie joined Middle Temple, was called to the Bar in 1924 and practised as a barrister until 1938. Her most famous case was when she helped prosecute prominent communist activist, Harry Pollit, for libel. She was the first women barrister to appear at the Old Bailey, and she also wrote a book titled The Law of Child Protection.
Elsie remained active during World War Two. She joined the Women’s Voluntary Services, which aimed to help those in need throughout the UK. After the war she was asked to help in the setting up of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
By the end of World War Two, Elsie was fifty-six. She never married, and lived close to her widowed mother. She remained deeply involved with Wycombe Abbey, the school where she was educated, for the rest of her life. She died in 1973, and a blue plaque commemorates where she lived in St Leonards.
A tribute to Elsie in the Wycombe Abbey Gazette noted Elsie’s own words on her approaching death:
“As one approaches the end of life an accountable feeling of melancholy creeps over one. This is not because of my fear of the life to come, rather than joyful anticipation….Life has been so full of surprises that one cannot believe that there are not even greater joys and adventures in store.”
In 2016, a previous unknown portrait of Elsie Bowerman was unearthed. In it, she appears in her orderly uniform from The Scottish Women’s Hospitals. The portrait was found by a family having a clear out, and was auctioned off. During the auction process, it was discovered that the auctioneer Timothy Medhurst was the great-great-grandson of Robert Hichens, a quartermaster who’d been in lifeboat six with Bowerman when she was saved from the Titanic.
Elsie Bowerman lived an extraordinary life, and was deeply involved with the political issues of her day. She achieved so much: she was the first women to appear as a barrister at the Old Bailey, she worked close to the front line to save lives during World War One, and was committed to the principle of equal rights.
Written by Laura Noakes, PhD researcher at the Open University