Georgina “Georgie” Frost was the first woman to hold public office in the UK and Ireland.
Born on the 29th December 1879 in Sixmilebridge, County Clare, Georgie was one of five children. Her father was the petty sessions clerk of Sixmilebridge and Newmarket-on-Fergus. Before that, Georgie’s grandfather John Kett had also acted as petty sessions clerk, so the job was something of a family tradition.
Between 1909 and 1915, Georgie helped her father in his duties and sometimes performed them herself, becoming well-known in the area during this process. When Thomas Frost retired, the local magistrates elected Georgie to succeed him. However, at this time all appointments had to be approved by the Lord Lieutenant who rejected the appointment, arguing “a woman by virtue of her sex is disqualified from being appointed or acting as Clerk of Petty Sessions.”
Undeterred by this, the magistrates granted Georgie a temporary year-long contract, in order to give her time to fight her case. However, she was again rejected by the Lord Lieutenant. Represented by Tim Healy KC and James Comyn KC, Georgie brought the case to the chancery division in Dublin under the ‘petition of right’ procedure. However, in echoes of the infamous Bebb v The Law Society case, Mr Justice Dunbar Barton dismissed her claim saying that it was a matter for parliament, referring to the Statutes governing the Office of Clerk of Petty Sessions, and arguing that there had never been a woman Clerk of Petty Sessions.
The reason of the modern decisions disqualifying women from public offices has not been inferiority of intellect or discretion, which few people would now have the hardihood to allege. It has been rather rested upon considerations of decorum, and upon the unfitness of certain painful and exacting duties in relation to the finer qualities of women.
Georgie did not give up, taking her claim to the court of appeal in November 1917, before Lord Shandon, Lord Chief Justice Molony and Lord Justice Stephen Ronan. By the time judgement was delivered in December 1918, Lord Shandon had resigned, although he left a letter instructing that the appeal should be granted because no statues or principles of common law disallowed a woman being appointed. Despite this, the other judges upheld the decision that Georgie was excluded from public office, arguing that it was a rule of common law women could not be appointed to public office.
Georgie brought the case to the House of Lords in forma pauperis because there had been a dissent in the Irish court of appeal. This meant that if she was unsuccessful she would not be required to pay the costs. By the time the case was listed for hearing on the 27th April 1920, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 had passed, which removed any legal bars to women being appointed public office. Retrospective approval was therefore granted to Georgie, who was appointed in April 1920, making her the first woman to hold public office in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland after a lengthy fight which had spanned several years.
During the Irish Civil War, Georgie retained the position and was held at gunpoint by the IRA, and the petty sessions court house from which she worked was destroyed. However, her career proved to be short-lived, when in 1923 the Irish Free State abolished her job.
Georgie died on the 6th December 1939, aged just 59.
Written by Annabel Twose, Project Coordinator of First 100 Years