Blue Plaques

NORMANTON, Helena (1882–1957)

Plaque erected in 2021 by English Heritage at 22 Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury, London, WC1N 2AD, All London Boroughs

All images © English Heritage

Profession

Barrister

Category

Law and Law Enforcement, Philanthropy and Reform

Inscription

HELENA NORMANTON 1882–1957 Barrister and advocate for women’s rights lived here 1919–1929

Material

Ceramic

Helena Normanton was one of the first women in England to practise as a barrister, and was a lifelong campaigner for women’s rights. She launched her legal career while living at 22 Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury, where she is now commemorated with a blue plaque.

Helena Normanton in 1921, two years after she moved into 22 Mecklenburgh Square
Helena Normanton in 1921, two years after she moved into 22 Mecklenburgh Square © National Portrait Gallery, London

EARLY LIFE

Helena Normanton did not have the privileged background that most barristers of her time enjoyed. Born in Stratford, East London, her father – a piano tuner – died when she was four years old, and her mother raised her and her sister on her own, renting out rooms to support the family.

Normanton did, however, receive a good education. She initially worked as a teacher while studying for a history degree in her spare time at London University, graduating in 1912 with first class honours. As a school teacher, she was not willing to follow the accepted line with regard to history – especially in relation to imperialism in India, which she believed was based on force and fraud – and in 1916 she took a job as a University Extension Lecturer at the University of London instead. At the same time she wrote for India, the weekly journal of the India National Congress, and became the journal’s editor in about 1918 or 1919.

LEGAL CAREER

In 1918 Normanton embarked on her legal career. She wanted to become a barrister, she later claimed, because she had once seen her mother patronised by a solicitor. Normanton herself would now experience first-hand the masculine world of the legal profession.

In order to study for the Bar, it was first necessary to gain membership to an Inn of Court, but Normanton’s application to join Middle Temple was rejected on the grounds that women could not be admitted. She appealed the decision, attracting considerable press attention. The appeal was rejected, but on 24 December 1919, the day after the passage of the Sex (Disqualification) Removal Act, Middle Temple accepted Normanton’s application, making her the first woman to be admitted to an Inn of Court.

It was also in 1919 that Normanton moved into 22 Mecklenburgh Square, where she lived until 1929. While here she achieved her career ambition: Normanton passed her bar finals on 26 October 1921 and was called to the Bar on 17 November 1922, along with ten other women.

She practised law for the rest of her working life, relying mostly on dock briefs – papers given directly by a prisoner to one of a panel of barristers waiting in the courtroom. Her income from this work was meagre, and she was forced to supplement it with public speaking and writing. Entrenched prejudice often hampered her career advancement – her background meant she couldn’t network in the same way as her peers, and female barristers were still regarded as inferior in court to male ones. She was not appointed to the General Council of the Bar until 1946, and she never became a judge. In 1949, however, she and Rose Heilbron became the first women in England and Wales to be appointed as King’s Counsel. She retired in 1951.

Normanton in 1922, the year she was called to the Bar. She is wearing a barrister's gown and wig
Normanton in 1922, the year she was called to the Bar © Public domain

WOMEN’S RIGHTS

Normanton was an active campaigner, speaker, and writer for equal rights for women throughout her life. Among the many causes she fought for were equal suffrage, equality between men and women in pay and employment, equal parenting rights, and reform of the divorce laws. Her 1915 pamphlet, Sex Differentiation in Salary, argued for equal pay for equal work, and she was the first Secretary of the National Women Citizen’s Association, founded in 1917. When, in 1921, she married Gavin Bowman Watson Clark, she did not take her husband’s name and became the first married woman to have a passport issued in her birth name.

The complexities of the women’s movement at this time, however, meant that Normanton was occasionally seen as anti-feminist by her fellow campaigners. In 1952 she resigned as President of the Married Women’s Association after submitting a report proposing that a fairer financial partnership be achieved by the husband ‘paying’ the wife an allowance from the family income – the idea was to guarantee a liveable income for women whose husbands were not generous with their funds. For other campaigners, however, it equated to ‘pocket money given to a child’ and undermined the principles of equality in a marriage. Normanton eventually left the Association and formed a new group, the Council for Married Women. 

Normanton died on 14 October 1957 in a Sydenham nursing home. In November her ashes were buried with her husband’s in Ovingdean churchyard, Sussex.

Nearby Blue Plaques

Nearby Blue Plaques


'step into englands story