Ivy Williams

Published 27th June 2014
Dr Ivy Williams was the first woman to be called to the English Bar on the 10th May 1922, although she never practised as a barrister.

Born in 1877 in Devon, Ivy’s mother was Emma Ewers, and her father, George St Swithin Williams, was a solicitor. She was educated privately along with her brother, Winter Williams. They studied Latin, Greek, Italian and Russian, and she spoke French and German fluently. Her brother, Winter Williams, became a barrister but died in World War One. In 1923, Ivy endowed two law scholarships at Oxford in his memory, one for women only.

Ivy studied law at the Society of Oxford Home Students, which was later incorporated into Oxford University as St Anne’s College. She was the third female law student at Oxford. Although she completed her law examinations in 1903, she was prevented from receiving her BA, MA and BCL until Oxford changed its regulations and allowed women to matriculate in October 1920. She also received an LLD in 1903 from London University. In 1904, Ivy speculated that women could form a “third branch of the profession”, practising as “outside lawyers”, an opinion which was dismissed by the Law Journal as “a futile attempt of a persistent lady to gain admission to the Bar.”

Ivy joined the Inner Temple as a student on the 26th January 1920, after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 removed the prohibition on women entering the legal profession. In an article for Woman’s World magazine in 1921, Ivy wrote that if her application to be called to the Bar was unsuccessful, she would petition parliament. She was eventually called to the Bar in 1922 aged 45, after receiving a certificate of honour (first class) in her final bar examinations, which excused her from two terms of dinners. Her appointment was the result of a lengthy campaign by women to gain access to the legal profession. Ivy herself described it as “the dream of my life”.

At the event, the Treasurer, Henry Dickens, the son of Charles Dickens, spoke of the great advances in women’s rights, and the prejudices which still remained. Williams thanked the Benchers for the honour they had bestowed upon her and asked them to support the women who would follow her. The Law Journal described her call to the Bar as “one of the most memorable days in the long annals of the legal profession”, although the editor added that the admission of women “was never likely to be justified by any success they will achieve in the field of advocacy.”

The news even crossed the Atlantic, with the New York Times commenting:
The jollities of Call night at Inner Temple were touched with historical significance tonight when a woman was for the first time called to the English bar.
Ivy taught law at the Society of Oxford Home Students from 1920 until 1945, the first woman to teach law at an English university. In 1923 she became the first woman to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Civil Law in Oxford for her published work, The Sources of Law in the Swiss Civil Code, which was described as ‘an extremely readable introduction to the study of the latest great continental codes’ by H. F. Jolowicz. She also represented Great Britain at the Conference for the Codification of International Law in The Hague in 1930, and in 1956 she was elected an Honorary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford.

In her spare time, Ivy enjoyed travelling, tennis, gardening and driving. In her later years when her eyesight grew weak, she taught herself to read Braille, and systematised the learning of braille into a primer, which was published for the National Institute for the Blind in 1948.

Ivy died in Oxford in 1966. She is remembered for her persistent yet measured resolve to open access to the Bar. While she never practised, she opened the door for other women to become barristers.

Written by Annabel Twose, Project Coordinator of First 100 Years