Coming up on the outside

Published 9th June 2016

Arriving from Australia in January 1952 with an incomplete Sydney University degree and an offer for Oxford in October 1953 by which time I would be 21 and seemingly very old I sought alternatives. At a party the late Michael Sherrard suggested ” why not read for the Bar? ” What did he mean and how to go about it?

Joining an Inn was step one. Ignorant, I decided to inspect these inns. Research revealed Lincoln’s was “chancery”, i.e. Dickensian. Gray’s was “provincial”, how dreadful. Then there were two. At Inner the under treasurer suggested that Middle was like the black hole of Calcutta which, as a presumed practitioner of the White Australia policy I would not feel comfortable in.

So Middle it was, and a happy, happy choice.

Reading for the Bar, studying at a tutorial factory, Gibson and Weldons, and working as a clerk for a stuffy firm of solicitors in Lincoln’s Inn kept me busy for two years. If there was sexual discrimination it passed me by. The senior partner of the solicitors used my services occasionally to go to Dickins and Jones in my lunch hour to buy sexy underwear for his never seen mistress. It was fun and amazing.

Having finished the Bar exams by the summer of 1953 but not yet eaten enough dinners I sought a pupillage.

The family solicitor introduced me to IH (Jack) Jacob who had already had a woman pupil, Poppy Stanley, and he agreed to take me along with Louis Blom-Cooper. We slaved doing pleadings galore which Jack threw into the waste paper basket, unread. He then dictated model documents which impinged for their brevity and simplicity.

Getting Chambers was a different ball game. Jack kept Louis but I was out because the clerk and the other barristers would not have a woman. They did not do so for years. The first was Lord Hailsham’s daughter… Oh well!

After six months as a door tenant frequenting criminal courts on the south eastern circuit and having the occasional dock brief and doing lectures in the evenings at a poly in Woolwich I got lucky.

At 2 Dr.Johnson’s Buildings a split had occurred leaving three barristers and 6 rooms. I spoke to Albert the clerk and he said they did not take women but that Mr. Rochford the head of Chambers would see me. He was like Mr. Pickwick. He said that the Bar in its un-wisdom had decided to admit women. That my academic record was excellent and that he felt it was his duty to offer me a place which was available.

I went out and sat in the clerk’s (only one) room and Albert went in to see Rochford. He was clearly aghast. He told me that there would be a problem about sharing a room. About the lavatories.

When I came back to start the following week Peter Archer later Solicitor General, Labour, and Lord, agreed I could be in with him. We enjoyed 22 years cohabitation and never a cross word.

It was no more difficult for me than for the others. My bottom was unpinched.My skirts left to themselves.

I tried to start a Women’s Bar Association in about 1967 because the Bar Council had posted a notice in all the robing rooms stating that women should not wear mini skirts! They rarely did and the whole thing was outrageous. About thirty women turned up to a meeting. Before that Elizabeth Lane had sent for me and lectured me saying that we were barristers like the men and should not try separating ourselves. Those at my meeting agreed.

My practice was pretty wide, but mainly divorce and some crime.

In 1977 I was invited to be the first woman Chairman of Industrial Tribunals. In retrospect it was a mistake. I had applied for silk the previous year and should have persevered. But I remained in the job until 1991. The women’s and equal rights movements caught me up and in some ways left me behind.

Of my generation there were many man unsung success stories …Mary MacMurray, Pat Coles, Audrey Frisby, Hazel Counsell, Nina Collins (Lowry), Jean Henderson, Morgan Gibbon and many more most of whom went on the Bench or took silk or just stayed on in practice…

May the next hundred years be as joyful as despite the lack of evidence in support, the first fifty plus were.

Thank you.

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