Marjorie Powell

Published 20th March 2018
Marjorie Powell is a forgotten name, buried in the history books, but she was, and remains, a very important woman. She was the first female student to join Lincoln’s Inn, paving the way for others to follow her.

Marjorie Powell was born on 5th October 1893, in Market Drayton, Shropshire, to a working-class family. She attended Orme Girl’s School in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and remarkably, from these humble beginnings, attended Newham College, Cambridge, in 1912. Her attendance at the College was made possible by the assistance of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the well-known suffragist, who from 1871 made it possible for women to have accommodation in Cambridge so they could attend all the lectures. Thanks to Mrs Fawcett and her own hard work, Marjorie Powell was able to gain a first-class honours degree in the Economics tripos. She went, almost immediately from finishing her degree, to a teaching position and was temporarily in charge of the study of Economics at Queen’s University, Belfast, lecturing there during the war, between 1916-1918. After Queen’s University, Belfast, she became an assistant lecturer in Political Economy at Victoria University, Manchester.

As records of Lincoln’s Inn’s Black Books show, in January 1919 the Council of Lincoln’s Inn met with twenty-nine male Benchers present. During this meeting the Right Honourable Lord Muir Mackenzie referred to communications he had received from the Treasurers of the other Inns of Court in relation to the application of a “Lady for admission as a student of this Honourable Society”. It is not clear whether this is in relation to Marjorie Powell, or Gwyneth Bebb, who had both applied at a similar time. However, Marjorie Powell was admitted to the Inn a year and three days later, on 16th January 1920, less than a full month from the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 receiving Royal Assent. This meant that she was the first female student of Lincoln’s Inn. Marjorie Powell was admitted even before Gwyneth Bebb, to whom she arguably owed the pleasure of being able to join an Inn of Court or to practice law. In 1920, whilst she was lecturing in Manchester, she joined Lincoln’s Inn. At the age of 26 she was the first female student to be admitted to Lincoln’s Inn and one of only three female students to join that year.

However, Marjorie was never called to the Bar to practice law, choosing instead to further her teaching of Economics. In 1921, after only having worked at the University of Manchester for a very short amount of time she was promoted from an assistant lecturer to a lecturer. Her salary at the university was £300 per annum. In September 1920, she married the renowned physicist Harold Robinson in her home town of Market Drayton. Harold Robinson also worked at Victoria University, Manchester and he was a senior lecturer in physics.

Marjorie Powell’s personality contrasted greatly to her husband. However, it was, by all accounts, “a most happy match”. She returned to Cambridge in 1921 (having become upon marriage Marjorie Robinson), and took a position as a lecturer and a Director of Studies in Economics at the two women’s colleges, Newnham and Girton, for two years, becoming an associate between the years 1923-1938. She also wrote a handbook in 1922, entitled Public Finance, in the Cambridge Economics Series for Cambridge University Press. She was the Director of Newnham College Cambridge during the years 1933-1938. She settled in London in 1930 when her husband was appointed to London University as a lecturer.

Whilst there she had two children, to whom she was devoted. Unusually for women at the time, her children did not stop her academically, and she took a position in lecturing, in Birkbeck College, London. She taught at Birkbeck between the years 1930-1936, making her a very early example of a woman combining a fulfilling career with the responsibilities of motherhood. The Royal Society’s Biographical Memoirs of Harold R. Robinson record that: “she was a small woman: it was reported that their baby carriage had to have the handle bar adjustable for height… she was bright, alert, sparkling and vivacious” and that she and her husband “each took a loving, amused, almost tolerant delight in the other’s difference. Until her death in 1939 they lived in warm understanding, affection and harmony, with much gaiety mingled with gravity when necessary”.

Marjorie Powell died on 6th December 1939, in Cambridge, at the age of 46, following three short months of illness.

Written by Kayleigh Cooper, Second Year LLB Student, School of Law, University of Worcester, with thanks to Hollie Fletcher for her initial research and contributions towards an earlier draft