Barrister and advocate for women’s rights Helena Normanton receives English Heritage London blue plaque
Female pioneer in the legal profession with a series of firsts, including being the first woman to be admitted to an Inn of Court, and to lead at the High Court and Old Bailey.
The trailblazing female barrister and champion of women’s rights, Helena Normanton, has today been commemorated with an English Heritage London blue plaque. Erected almost 100 years after she passed her Bar finals (on 26 October 1921), the plaque marks 22 Mecklenburgh Square, Normanton’s home from 1919 to 1931, the period when she was forging her legal career. Whilst living there, she funded her training and supplemented her income by letting rooms in the large property.
A century later, Helena Normanton is seen as instrumental in paving the way for women in law. She was the first female law student at one of the London Inns of Court and one of the first to be called to the Bar. As a practising barrister, she was the first female counsel to lead in a case at the High Court, the first woman to accept a dock brief and run a trial at the Old Bailey, the first woman in the English courts to lead murder trials, and one of the first two women to take silk as a King’s Counsel (the recognition given to the most senior barristers).
Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director at English Heritage, commented:
Widely acknowledged as a trailblazer, Helena Normanton scored a remarkable number of firsts in her legal career and paved the way for other women to advance in the profession. We are delighted to commemorate her with a blue plaque on the building in which she lived when she first started out as a lawyer.
Lady Hale, the first woman to serve as President of the UK’s Supreme Court, unveiled the plaque and added:
Helena Normanton was the pioneer of women barristers. She had to overcome a great deal of prejudice and discrimination. A blue plaque is a fitting tribute to her courage and her example to women barristers everywhere.
“Plaques for Women”
The London blue plaques scheme was established in 1866 and today, only 14 per cent of the scheme’s 950 plus plaques commemorate women. English Heritage doesn’t think this is good enough and is working to address the historic gender imbalance in the scheme. The London blue plaques scheme relies on public nominations and since 2016 the charity has been encouraging people to nominate more remarkable female figures from the past – figures like Helena Normanton – for a blue plaque. Since launching our “plaques for women” campaign five years ago, we have received an increasing number of public nominations for female figures. This year, half of our new plaques will be dedicated to women.
Born in Stratford, east London in 1882, Normanton did not have an easy path in life. Her father was declared bankrupt four years before she was born, and he died when she was four. Her mother, Jane Normanton, supported the family by letting rooms and running a pub, before setting up a modest boarding house in Brighton. Well educated, Normanton initially worked as a teacher from 1905 but, in her spare time, studied for an external degree in history at the University of London, passing with first-class honours. In 1916, she became a lecturer at the University of London, and was an active campaigner, speaker and writer for equal rights for women.
Normanton took her fight for equality into an entrenched masculine stronghold – the Bar. She later claimed that she had wanted to become a barrister because, as a child, she had seen her mother patronised by a solicitor. Studying for the Bar required membership of an Inn of Court and in February 1918, she applied to join Middle Temple but was rejected on the grounds that women could not be admitted. She appealed and was rejected again, attracting significant press interest, but on 24 December 1919, the day after the passage of the Sex (Disqualification) Removal Act, Middle Temple accepted her application, making her the first woman to be admitted to an Inn of Court.
Supporting herself by letting rooms at the large house she had taken in Mecklenburgh Square and by editing India magazine, Normanton passed her Bar finals on 26 October 1921 and, on the same day, married Gavin Bowman Watson Clark. Normanton never took her husband’s name, which was most unusual for the time, and was the first married woman to have a passport issued in her birth name.
Normanton practised law for the rest of her working life, despite the prejudice faced by women trying to make their way in the profession. Many of her cases were dock briefs, given directly by a prisoner to one of a panel of barristers waiting in a courtroom; her practice income was meagre and she was offered jobs with much higher salaries outside of the law. Still Normanton persisted, supplementing her legal income with public speaking, journalism and by writing books.
In 1940, Normanton was made Bailiff at the old Bailey and in 1949, which put her in charge of ensuring that every prisoner who wanted representation would have it. In the same year, she and Rose Heilbron became the first women in England and Wales to be appointed as King’s Counsel. The press was fascinated by her, and her career was dogged by charges of self-advertising (forbidden for barristers) although she insisted she did not solicit this coverage herself.
A lifelong advocate of equality feminism, Normanton was actively involved in numerous campaign groups, including the Women’s Freedom League, Six Point Group, the Married Persons Income Tax Group, the Married Women’s Association, the Council for Married Women and the British Federation of Business and Professional Women. She was also active in the long-standing campaign for reform of divorce laws, aiming to make divorce more equal, less difficult to achieve and less expensive.
Normanton retired in 1951 and died in 1957. Her ashes are buried with her husband’s in Ovindgean churchyard, Sussex.
The English Heritage London blue plaques scheme is generously supported by David Pearl and members of the public.