Joyce Gutteridge CBE, aka ‘Auntie Joyce’ and how she inspired me

Published 6th May 2016
By Alice Ackernley (née Gutteridge)

Scene: Christmas Day, 1980
Me (aged 5): [throws ball narrowly missing Christmas tree]
My mother: “Alice, don’t throw balls in the house!”
Me: “But I didn’t throw the ball, I bowled it.”
Auntie Joyce: “One day Alice, you will be a lawyer…”

Fast forward to 2019. Me, mother of two, in-house lawyer. Christmas ’80 a distant memory, a family anecdote. Growing up I would say I didn’t want to go into the law – but it was actually always in the back of my mind, thanks to Auntie Joyce.

As a child, she was my wonderful great aunt who took my brother and me to the pantomime, let me play with her amazing collection of dolls gathered from all over the world. I would pore over her notes of those travels (which we still have) thinking “One day…”, but little did I know at the time what those notes really meant. For whilst Joyce was ‘Auntie Joyce’ to me, she was to most other people Joyce Gutteridge CBE, leading international lawyer. The most senior woman member of the Foreign Service. A global authority on the Law of the Sea and the powers of the United Nations, and a pioneer in the newly emerging law of the Outer Space.

Joyce studied at Oxford and was then called to the Bar, but it was during the Second World War she came to the notice of Sir Gerald Fitzmaurice, then head of the legal department at the Foreign Office. She was invited to work there on a temporary basis, but her warm personality and intellectual ability soon established her as a permanent member of the team and she became the Foreign Office’s first ever female legal adviser. What followed was a CV that most of us can only dream of.

To name but a few of her key roles, she helped to draw up the Geneva Convention (Red Cross) 1949. At short notice, she was asked to advise on the Torrey Canyon Oil disaster. She spent a lot of time in Iceland during the Cod Wars. In 1958, she was the UK’s representative on the Continental Shelf Committee of the Law of the Sea conference. There was also a four year spell in the sixties in New York where she was Legal Counsellor to the UK mission to the UN. Kennedy was in power and he was determined to land the first man on the moon. This kindled her interest in outer space and she visited Cape Canaveral and met the astronauts who were later to achieve their President’s objective. She also represented the UK both on the UN’s Outer Space Committee to New York and the Outer Space Legal Sub-Committee held in Geneva in 1962, and became affectionately known as “Our Lady in Outer Space”!

I would marvel at the photos of her at these delegations, the only woman, a sign in front of her saying “United Kingdom”, sat between her US and Russian counterparts. Even now, they still amaze and fascinate me, and I am so proud of what she achieved. Not only was she awarded a CBE in 1964, she also received an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Westerness College for Women, Oxford, Ohio, in 1963.

Sadly Joyce passed away whilst I was at university. As a student, I always thought I would follow my love of the arts, wine and travel when I graduated. But I had a niggle that a career in the law beckoned, and this was probably heightened when Joyce died. I decided to apply for a training contract at a city law firm, to see where I’d get to – and I got the job! At that point, I started to believe that maybe law – and Auntie Joyce – was part of my make-up. A couple of years later, when researching in the law school library for a dissertation that I was writing on my chosen subject, I came across an essay Auntie Joyce had written on the exact same topic many years before. It was as if it was meant to be.

Before I started my training contract, I took some time out to travel and worked as a paralegal in leading Hong Kong and Australian law firms. Working in the city, I also spent time on secondment, in Paris, Rotterdam, Madrid and Munich amongst other places. Now I am in Yorkshire, married with children, and feel very lucky to have a great in-house role, working for a fantastic company. Joyce not only inspired me to go into the law, but she also paved the way for me and thousands of other female lawyers to have diverse and fulfilling careers too. I can’t begin to imagine what barriers she will have had to cross, and I am both in awe and deeply grateful.

There are other women in law who have inspired me too: my mother, a magistrate for nearly 40 years, and my former bosses at the city law firm where I trained, and the investment bank where I worked after that, as well as many other colleagues, friends and clients along the way. They have guided me, advised me, challenged me and made me laugh, and I am very fortunate to have had the privilege of knowing them and working with them over the years. But it was Auntie Joyce’s warmth, kindness, humour, intellect and of course unrivalled stories of foreign travel and insight that sowed that very first seed on Christmas Day 1980. My desire for travel, learning new things, challenging myself, problem solving… a career in the law. Perhaps not just an anecdote after all.

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