Theodora Llewelyn Davies

Published 9th April 2018
Theodora Llewelyn Davies was the first female applicant to be admitted to the Inner Temple in 1920, and one of the earliest women to be called to the Bar on 17th November 1922.

Theodora Llewelyn Davies, usually known as Theo, was born on 18 April 1898 in Birkenhead, the daughter of Maurice Llewelyn Davies and May Roberts. They had three children, Roland, Mary and Theo, but tragically May and a fourth baby died in childbirth when Roland was aged ten, Mary seven and Theo four. Their father never remarried and was helped in their upbringing by May’s sister Nellie.

Theo was educated at Birkenhead High School and later, after her father’s retirement at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in London, and she then studied law at London University for a year. This was in 1916 when many universities had extra capacity while most of their male students were away fighting in the First World War. In 1917 Theo went up to Girton College, Cambridge, to read for the Law Tripos.

Girton was the first college for women at Cambridge and had been founded by Theo’s great aunt, Emily Davies. Emily’s niece, Theo’s aunt, Margaret Llewelyn Davies, had also been a student at Girton, but she left after two years. Margaret was the General Secretary of the Women’s Cooperative Guild for 26 years, during which time the membership grew from about one thousand to 52,000. Theo’s grandfather, the Rev. John Llewelyn Davies, Rector of Christ Church, Marylebone, had been heavily involved in promoting the education of women. So it came naturally to her to go to university and find an interesting and challenging career. Her sister, Mary, became a GP.

Life at Girton during the war was very hard. The students were short of food and always cold. But, over and above these physical hardships, was the heartbreak as telegrams arrived with dreadful regularity bringing news of the deaths of brothers, fiancés and friends. For Theo the news of her brother Roland’s death in France came in October 1918, a few short weeks before the end of the war. He had been an adored son, brother and companion.

Up until that time, of course, there had been no possibility for women to practise law. However, while Theo was at Girton, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act started its progress through parliament. This would make it possible for women to become magistrates and solicitors and to serve on juries. It would also have enabled women to be called to the Bar. However, as she explained in a television interview in 1986:

The question of the Sex Disqualification Removal Act came up, and that was going to open a lot of things … magistrates and solicitors and a lot of things. Not the Bar, because they never had been interfered with by legislation and the thought of having their special personality interfered with was abhorrent to them. They thought that even the presence of women at the Bar was more endurable than having it interfered with by legislation! So, while I was at Cambridge, they opened voluntarily, by coincidence, without any unpleasant interference by the legislature, and it was therefore possible to be admitted.

Theo applied for admission to the Inner Temple on 9 January 1920, at the age of 21, and was the first woman to do so. “They had to alter all the ‘hims’ to ‘hers’ and re-do it. However the man behind the desk seemed to bear up and got it done.” Shortly after, on 26 January of the same year, Ivy Williams, was admitted to the Inner Temple. Because of their years of study at university both women only had to eat three dinners a term instead of the usual six. In addition to this, Ivy’s exceptional academic record from Oxford enabled her to fast-track, and she was excused two of the four compulsory dining terms before being called to the Bar. So Ivy was called on 10 May 1922 whereas Theo was not called until 17 November 1922.

As Theo put it: “Owing to her brilliance and hard work she passed at a level that enabled her to cut two terms. So by this I’m not suggesting special generalship on her part! She was, in fact, the first woman to get called to the Bar. Though she never practised but then proceeded to become a teacher of law at, I think, Oxford. I didn’t really know her well, though I’d met her.”

Theo’s family well remember her account of the first time she took dinner at the Inner Temple. Her elder sister went with her as far as the entrance for moral support, but then she was very much on her own. “There was very little fussification at the Inner Temple; that is the nature of the place. The Middle Temple and, still more, Grays Inn, have toasts and all sorts of things. But the Inner Temple is too grand for that, or considers it unnecessary… One just turned up. And I was of course scared stiff, but succeeded in concealing it, I think. I was then taken to the men’s robing room and given an ordinary black gown.”

She was kindly escorted to a seat at the end of one of the benches, so that her long skirt would not make it difficult for her to climb over. Too nervous to be hungry, when offered a choice of clear or thick soup, she chose the clear. And for all the following dining terms she was invariably served with ‘your clear soup, Madam’. The Custodian at the hall regarded her as his special charge. According to a newspaper report at the time, he “sternly rebuked a presswoman who asked for some personal description: ‘She was a lady … and when I say she was a lady it is a hint to others to belong to the same class.'”

There were no facilities for women at the Inner Temple in those days, but this problem was solved by allowing Theo a key to the Benchers’ House that was attached to the Hall. There was a women’s cloakroom there which was used when women guests were invited to social events. “Some thinker among the benchers must have decided it was a good idea.”

Theo’s decision to apply to the Inner Temple rather than the Middle Temple, where the larger group of women barristers were, was because her uncle, Arthur Llewelyn Davies, had worked there “and was remembered with great affection.” He and his wife Sylvia du Maurier were the parents of the five Llewelyn Davies boys who were adopted by J. M. Barrie after the early death of their parents.

She was taken on as a pupil at the chambers of her second cousin, Sir Malcolm Macnaghten and Theo Mathew, well known as ‘O’, the author of Forensic Fables, whom she particularly liked. These were common law chambers which was what interested her.”I was very lucky and enjoyed that part extremely. There was work and not really basic responsibility. Lovely. They were fearfully friendly and kind. There were only four of them.” The same chambers also took on Monica Cobb from the Middle Temple.

Theodora Llewelyn Davies leaving chambers

During her seven years at the Bar Theo attended various assizes and took some dock briefs but was mainly occupied in chambers doing a considerable amount of written work. On one occasion she went to Guildford, which was an assize town on the South Eastern circuit, with one of the barristers from chambers, expecting just to watch and take notes. The system at the time was that a defendant could have a dock brief if they were unrepresented, choosing any barrister who was present in court.

“I was taking a risk which I didn’t realise – that I might be picked by some enterprising criminal for a dock brief, which you had to take. I think it was half a guinea that you got for it and you might have to wait quite a time until the case came on. So the experienced slipped out when the dock briefs were offered. But it never occurred to me that I might get one. But the judge in question was Mr. Justice Darling who liked his joke of a morning and was well known as being a humorist, and so encouraged some man to choose me. I was appalled. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might actually be asked to … However, there it was. I had no choice.” This case turned out to be that of a man who had assaulted his wife with a hatchet. Theo had a short interview with him in the cells and then had to chat with the judge, who was highly amused, over lunch and do her best with the case in the afternoon.

We have a newspaper report of another occasion when Theo was involved in a dock brief. The case was at Lewes Assizes and concerned the trial of two young women for a series of burglaries over a period of ten years. They were invited by Mr. Justice Avery to leave the dock to have a better view of the barristers. “Gordon, after carefully scanning counsel, inquired of Miss Llewelyn Davies, whose wig gives her a pleasing boyish appearance, “Are you a lady?” Blushing at the ordeal, Miss Davies replied softly: “Yes, I am a lady barrister.” “Then I will have you,” remarked Gordon.”

Theo practised at the Bar for seven years until her marriage to Roy Calvert in 1929. They were both involved in penal reform and particularly the campaign for the abolition of the death penalty and met as fellow members of the executive committee of the Howard League for Penal Reform. A few weeks after their wedding they went on a six week visit to America to report on the penal institutions there for the Howard League. One of the prisons they visited was the notorious Sing Sing, where they were invited to sit in the electric chair – an invitation that Roy accepted but Theo declined. The trip included the 59th Annual Congress of the American Prison Association. Theo’s typically written report on that Congress makes excellent reading. A few extracts give a taste of her at times caustic style:

“(The speech of welcome was) a monument of prolixity and tactlessness. An uninteresting presidential address followed… A series of speeches were read by more or less eminent persons… Speaking generally, much time was given to the utterance of platitudes and to mutual congratulation. This is not surprising to anyone used to penologists and more especially to American penologists… American penal reform societies are legion and their principal point in common seems to be dislike of each other… Under a superficial air of goodwill the Congress is divided into two more or less hostile camps – the Wardens (i.e. Prison Governors) versus the Reformers.”

Theo and Roy were the joint authors of The Lawbreaker – a Critical Study of the Modern Treatment of Crime, published in 1933. This was republished in 2016 in the series Routledge Revivals and contains arguments that are still relevant today. They had two daughters, Mary and Jane. In 1933 Roy died of septicaemia following a routine operation. He was 35. After Roy’s death Theo returned to live with her sister and her father whose encouragement and financial support had enabled her to embark on her career.

Theo continued to work as Chair of the National Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty and to serve on the committee of the Howard League, of which she was Vice-chair for some time. She also gave legal advice at a Citizens’ Advice Bureau as a ‘Poor Man’s Lawyer’ and was a magistrate for many years. Her father died in 1939 and the two sisters continued to live together until Mary’s death in 1976. They moved a number of times, living in London, Surrey, Cheltenham and finally Birmingham, the last two moves being to be nearer to family. She died in December 1988 at the age of 90. An obituary notice in The Times recorded:

Theodora Calvert was a lifelong agnostic, a pacifist and a passionate Labour supporter. Though her left-wing views did not wane with old age, her attitude to younger people showed a remarkable adaptability and openness of mind. Her many descendants provided an endless source of interest. For them and for many friends she was a fount of knowledge and wisdom whose affection and support, courage, wit and sound judgement have profoundly influenced their lives.


Written by Theo’s daughter Jane Wynne Willson, with contributions from other family members, 8 April 2018