Doughty Street Women and First 100 Years successful in application for Blue Plaque to honour pioneering woman barrister, Helena Normanton
On International Women’s Day in March 2018, barristers from Doughty Street Chambers announced that they had made an application, supported by the First 100 Years project, for a Blue Plaque to honour the life and work of barrister Helena Normanton. Just over three years later, English Heritage have now confirmed that the application has succeeded, and there will be a Blue Plaque installed in London to honour Helena Normanton later in 2021.
Background: Helena Normanton
Born in 1882, Helena Normanton was a leading campaigner for women's rights, particularly within marriage and in the legal profession. Despite a lifelong dream to work as a lawyer Helena began her working life as a school teacher, since the legal professions were at that time closed to women. Helena fought alongside other women to remove these bars, including by litigating for her own membership of Middle Temple, unsuccessfully. After the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 Helena became the first woman to join one of the Inns of Court, in December 1919. In 1922 she became the second woman called to the bar of England and Wales, but she was the first to set up practice as a barrister and to appear in the High Court. In 1949 she became one of the two first women to take silk in England and Wales, becoming King's Counsel.
Both professionally and personally Helena also fought for women to be accorded equal treatment in the home. She fought for divorce and inheritance law reforms. She proudly created a stir by continuing to use her own name throughout her life and in her work, despite having married, and is thought to have been the first married woman to have been issued a UK passport other than in her husband’s name.
During the early years of her practice Helena lived in Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury, next to Doughty Street. In 2018, having discovered her local connection thanks to the work of the First 100 Years Project and the writing of academic Dr Judith Bourne, barristers from Doughty Street Chambers decided to take steps to honour Helena Normanton and increase her profile through a Blue Plaque. The application was filed with English Heritage in March 2018 by barrister Megan Hirst on behalf of the Doughty Street Women and First 100 Years.
A Blue Plaque for Helena Normanton
The London Blue Plaques scheme started in 1866 and is now run by English Heritage. Over 950 plaques across the capital honour notable people who have lived in London, , with around 15% being dedicated to women and their achievements. On 1 April 2021, English Heritage announced that “six illustrious women” would be commemorated by English Heritage with a London Blue Plaque in 2021, including Helena Normanton. The date and address of installation of the Blue Plaque remains confidential until later this year.
Responding to the news, Megan Hirst, of Doughty Street Chambers, said: “In 2018, we learned that the first woman to practice at the Bar of England and Wales, Helena Normanton, had started her professional life as a junior female barrister at Mecklenburgh Square, about 250 metres from our Chambers on Doughty Street. Helena was a pioneer in the legal world, but she also fought for women’s rights to vote and to have autonomy in their financial and personal lives. We’re proud that Doughty Street Women could be a part of having a local feminist icon recognised with a Blue Plaque. We hope it will help make her name, her work and her inspirational life more widely known.”
Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, of Doughty Street Chambers, said: “Helena Normanton’s achievements would be impressive today, but in her time they were truly incredible. She was the first woman admitted to an Inn of Court, the first woman to practice at the Bar of England and Wales, the first woman to appear in the High Court, the first woman to appear in the Old Bailey, and in 1949 she became one of the first two women to take silk. The Blue Plaque scheme currently recognises far too few women – just 15% of the list – although English Heritage are taking active steps to change this gender imbalance. Helena Normanton will now, rightly, now be added to the names of those remarkable people honoured on London buildings.”
A press release with more details and notes for editors is attached.