On Christmas Eve 1919 the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act became law. On the same day the appointment of the first seven women to be justices of the peace (JPs) was announced by the Lord Chancellor. One of these seven was Miss Gertrude Mary Tuckwell (1861-1951), who shortly after became the first woman to be sworn in as a magistrate for London.
Tuckwell was the daughter of a radical clergyman. As a young woman she trained to be a teacher but later she became involved with the organisation of the Woman’s Trade Union League, which was led by her aunt, Lady Emilia Dilke. On behalf of the League Tuckwell campaigned for women factory inspectors (who conducted court cases years before women were allowed into the legal profession), for a minimum wage and for the protection of women workers from industrial accidents and diseases. A life-long Christian Socialist, she was a supporter of adult suffrage and equal pay for equal work. She also worked for improvements in health services for women and children.
Tuckwell was obviously very interested in the prospect of women entering the legal profession, as her papers in the TUC library contain many newspaper cuttings on the subject. She was given the job (with the other six women appointed in 1919) of drawing up a list of women suitable for appointment as JPs from across the United Kingdom. The list of 172 new women magistrates for England was published in July 1920: Tuckwell had been responsible for proposing most of those who were associated with the labour movement.
Tuckwell was also concerned about the treatment of working-class children in the courts, and advocated the use of probation (rather than corporal punishment) and the appointment of specially selected magistrates to deal with young people. Her connections with politicians and civil servants were excellent, and in 1920 she helped to organise a lobby in support of dedicated juvenile courts for London. But she was also ‘hands on’ in her approach to the work of a magistrate. In her unpublished memoir she recalled visiting the homes of children whose parents had been brought to court because the youngsters were absent from school. She also visited public houses on behalf of the Licensing Justices.
In 1921 Tuckwell became involved in the newly-created Magistrates’ Association (MA), and she served on its Council for nearly twenty years. In its early days the MA held special meetings for the new women JPs, which were often chaired by Tuckwell. She was made president of the National Association of Probation Officers in 1928 and was later its chairman. Tuckwell was passionate about modernising the magistracy: she supported training for magistrates, confessing that when she first joined the bench she ‘felt deeply [her] own ignorance’ and proceeded to self-educate with a large volume of Stone’s Manual for Justices. She also backed the introduction of a retirement age for JPs and led by example by resigning from the bench when she was seventy.
Gertrude Tuckwell was made a Companion of Honour in 1930. Working alongside some of the other first women JPs, she had transformed the administration of justice by promoting training for magistrates, the appointment of specialists to juvenile courts, and the greater use of probation.
Written for the First 100 Years project by Dr Anne Logan of the University of Kent.