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.”

Dana Denis-Smith, Founder of the First 100 Years campaign, said: "Helena Normanton broke the mould throughout her professional and personal life. She was determined to become a barrister and, once admitted, she proceeded to score a lot of 'firsts' as a woman in law, including being one of the first two women to take silk in 1949. She loved calling herself ‘an enfant terrible’ for her radical views and persevered in the legal profession, continuing to practice until she retired, in 1951, however difficult it was for her to receive business. She was a true pioneer believing that women should progress once educated and gain not just rights as citizens and as voters, but also to gain and rise in their status as professionals. Once again, she has broken the mould in 2021, becoming one of the small number of women - and very few women lawyers - honoured with a Blue Plaque." 

Dr Judith Bourne, author of ‘Helena Normanton and the Opening of the Bar to Women’ (Waterside Press, 2016), said: “Helena Normanton battled prejudice throughout her professional and personal life. Her ambition was forged as a child after seeing her mother patronised by a solicitor. In practise as a barrister, enmeshed in a world of men, she faced a constant struggle to establish herself against a backdrop of prejudice, misogyny and discrimination — as when solicitors, fearful of the unknown, were reluctant to instruct her, leaving her to take on poor person’s cases, dock briefs and those ‘deemed suitable for a woman’. But Helena Normanton was a force to be reckoned with and she achieved great things, not only as a lawyer, but she was also a prolific author, leading feminist and speaker who entranced audiences at home and abroad. This Blue Plaque is a welcome acknowledgement of her achievements.”

A press release with more details and notes for editors is attached