A member of the first small cohort of women to practise at the English Bar, Ethel Bright Ashford was called alongside Helena Normanton and seven other women at Middle Temple in November 1922. Her political background and subsequent career were very different to Normanton’s, highlighting the diversity of the legal pioneers.
Thirty-nine years old at the time of her Call, and daughter of a retired merchant, Ashford had already been awarded a BA from the University of London as an external student before going on to postgraduate study at Woodbrooke College, Birmingham where she earned a Social Study Diploma; at London School of Economics; and at Bryn Mawr, the famous women’s college in Pennsylvania, USA. During the war, she had replaced her brother as managing director of a business , but also became active in local government. On her admission to Middle Temple in 1920, she was described as a lecturer in history and civics and councillor of St Marylebone.
Ashford had become a local councillor in 1919 and focused her career upon local government. She practised law in that area, and wrote and edited a number of books including Local Government: A Simple Treatise (1929), Glen’s Law Relating to Unemployment Assistance (1934) and The Water Act 1945 (1946). She also worked to educate other women to be informed voters and encouraged them to stand in council elections. In 1918, she and Edith Place had written a Handbook on Local Government for the Women’s Municipal Party, a non-partisan organisation whose purpose was to put more women into local government. While the Party disbanded a few years later, Ashford was Chair and then President of the Women Citizens Association (Marylebone Branch) until 1938. The Branch’s efforts bore fruit: in 1922, the year of her Call, she was also one of seven women councillors elected in Marylebone. She also travelled nationally to talk to women’s groups: newspaper reports record visits as far afield as Derby, Sheffield and Glastonbury.
Although much of her work was politically non-partisan, Ashford’s own politics were always conservative; and in 1939, she and her nephew visited Nazi Germany with a pro-Nazi organisation. However, while her nephew was a British Union of Fascists official and would be interned during the Second World War, Ashford’s involvement appears to have been much more limited and did not prevent her continuing to serve as a councillor. She continued to represent Park Crescent Ward on Marylebone Borough Council until 1953.
Interested in social work and local history, Ashford was a leading member and later Chair of the London Society and gave evidence to an enquiry on the future of the Nash terraces in Regent’s Park which resulted in their preservation. She was one of the founders of the St Marylebone Society in 1947; it published several of her works on the area’s history. Ashford died aged 97 in 1980.
Written by Caroline Derry
Photo originally from Westminster Libraries.