Mercy Ashworth was called to the bar on 26 January 1923 at the same time as Mithan Tata. They were the first two women from Lincoln’s Inn. At the age of 54, Mercy had waited a long time for to be called. Mercy’s age was not unusual amongst the early barristers. Cornelia Sorabji, Amy Edwards and Emily Phipps were all even older.
Mercy, ‘Cissy’, was the daughter of a hat manufacturer and was well educated; first at University College, Aberystwyth, and then between 1895 and 1897 she read moral sciences at Girton. She lectured for a few years at Homerton College, Cambridge. In 1905 Mercy left for India where she worked as a schools’ inspector, returning to London before the outbreak of war. She became an active member of the Women’s University Settlement in London. This was an organisation founded in the 1880s by among others Octavia Hill, the social reformer, and Helen Gladstone, the Prime Minister’s daughter. The idea was to encourage University-educated women to settle in deprived areas so they could help women and children by increasing educational and recreational opportunities for them through evening classes, clubs and Saturday school. Women lived rent-free in the settlement in return for the work they did. They also collaborated with nursing associations to improve health and sanitation.
After being called to the bar Mercy had chambers in Lincoln’s Inn for many years and was listed on the south-eastern circuit. How much she practised is not clear. There is mention of her appearing in a landlord and tenant case (Trickebank v Brett 1934) but tracking how much of a practice a barrister had in those days is difficult. Barristers did not need to take out an annual practising certificate and their inclusion in the Law List is not a reliable indicator. Mercy, herself, was unsure what the future held. Interviewed at the time of her call by the Daily Chronicle, she said, ‘None of us knows yet what the future of women barristers is likely to be. It depends so much on the attitude of solicitors.’ Prescient words. The small number of women called to the bar in the early years faced numerous difficulties of which the reluctance of solicitors to instruct women was a major hurdle.
Written by Angela Holdsworth, First 100 Years Executive Producer