Helena Normanton

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Helena Normanton

Helena Florence Normanton, QC (14 December 1882–14 October 1957) was the first woman to practise as a barrister in England. In November 1922, she was the second woman to be called to the Bar of England and Wales, following the example set by Ivy Williams in May 1922. When she married she kept her surname and in 1924 she was the first British married woman to have a passport in the name she was born with.

Early life[edit]

Normanton was born in London, the daughter of a piano maker. After her father was found dead in a railway tunnel in 1886, her mother began letting rooms in the family home, before moving to Brighton to run a grocery and later a boarding house.[1]

Normanton won a scholarship to York Place Science School in Brighton (later Varndean School for Girls). She trained as a teacher at Edge Hill Teacher Training College in Liverpool between 1903 and 1905.[2] There is a Halls of Residence called Normanton at the university in her honour.[3]

She read modern history at the University of London[4] as an external student,[4] graduating with first class honours,[4] obtained a Scottish Secondary Teachers' Diploma, and held a diploma in French language, literature and history from Dijon University.[5] She lectured in history at Glasgow University and London University, and began to speak and write about feminist issues. She spoke at meetings of the Women's Freedom League and supported the Indian National Congress.

Legal career[edit]

Normanton held ambitions to become a barrister from a young age. An application to become a student at Middle Temple in 1918 was refused, and she lodged a petition with the House of Lords. She reapplied on 24 December 1919, within hours of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 coming into force, and was admitted to Middle Temple.[6][7] She married Gavin Bowman Watson Clark in 1921,[5] but preserved her maiden name for professional reasons.[6] In 1924, she became the first married British woman to be issued a passport in her maiden name.[2]

She was the second woman to be called to the bar, on 17 November 1922, shortly after Ivy Williams. She was the first woman to obtain a divorce for her client, the first woman to lead the prosecution in a murder trial, and the first woman to conduct a trial in America and to appear at the High Court and the Old Bailey. In 1949, along with Rose Heilbron, she was one of the first two women King's Counsel at the English Bar.[2]


Normanton was a campaigner for women's rights and women's suffrage, becoming the first married woman in Britain to have a passport in her maiden name, believing that men and women should keep their money and property separately.[8] She was also a pacifist, later being a supporter of CND.[2]

Ten years after the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, Normanton spoke at the Women’s Engineering Society’s seventh Annual Conference in July 1929, alongside Professor Winifred Cullis, the first woman to hold a professorial chair at a medical school, and architect Edna Mosely. In her speech, Normanton noted that there were “nearly a hundred women solicitors in this country and most of them have brilliant qualifications; she did not believe in any boycott of men in professions, but the women ought at least to be brought into the sphere of action. There was a general muddle as present in regard to the position of women…They might become engineers but not minsters of the Church; they might not enter the sacred portals of the Stock Exchange nor the House of Lords; they could become a Cabinet Minister but not an Ambassador. While any woman was held back from the position to which her talents drew her, the whole of womanhood was lowered”.[9]

She acted as the Honorary Legal Adviser for the Women's Engineering Society from 1936[10] until 1954.[11]

She campaigned for divorce reform, and was president of the Married Women's Association until 1952, when the other officials resigned over her memorandum of evidence to the Royal Commission on Divorce, which they regarded as 'anti-man'. Normanton formed a breakaway body called the Council of Married Women.[6]

She founded the Magna Carta Society. She was a pacifist throughout her life, and demonstrated against the nuclear bomb after the Second World War.

In January 2019, 218 Strand Chambers, a set of eight members, will rebrand as Normanton Chambers in her honour. This is the first instance of a set of chambers being named after a woman.[12]

Death and burial[edit]

Normanton died on 14 October 1957, and after cremation was buried with her husband Gavin Bowman Watson Clark in Ovingdean churchyard, Sussex.[1]


  • Sex differentiation in salary, 1915
  • India in England, 1915
  • Oliver Quendon's First Case, 1927 (a romantic detective novel published under the pseudonym Cowdray Browne)
  • The trial of Norman Thorne : the Crowborough chicken farm murder, 1929
  • Trial of Alfred Arthur Rouse, 1931
  • Everyday law for women, 1932
  • The Trial of Mrs. Duncan, 1945


The archives of Helena Normanton are held at The Women's Library at the Library of the London School of Economics, ref 7HLN

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Joanne Workman, ‘Normanton, Helena Florence (1882–1957)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2011 accessed 20 July 2012
  2. ^ a b c d Helena Normanton biography Archived 2011-10-10 at the Wayback Machine, Spartacus Educational, accessed 10 January 2011
  3. ^ "Living on Campus". Study With Us. Retrieved 2017-11-04.
  4. ^ a b c Bourne, Judith (2016). Helena Normanton and the Opening of the Bar to Women. Waterside Press, 2016. ISBN 9781909976320.
  5. ^ a b Who's Who 1938, p. 2513
  6. ^ a b c 'Obituary: Mrs H. F. Normanton, Q.C.', The Manchester Guardian, 16 October 1957
  7. ^ "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Retrieved 28 December 2018.
  8. ^ Edge Hill magazine, Edge Hill University, accessed 10 January 2011
  9. ^ "The Woman Engineer Vol 2". www.theiet.org. Retrieved 2019-01-27.
  10. ^ "The Woman Engineer Vol 4". www.theiet.org. Retrieved 2019-01-27.
  11. ^ "The Woman Engineer Vol 9". www.theiet.org. Retrieved 2019-01-27.
  12. ^ "Normanton Chambers to become first at Bar to be named after a woman". The Lawyer | Legal insight, benchmarking data and jobs. 2018-09-26. Retrieved 2018-09-26.