First female barrister to be commemorated with London blue plaque

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By Aishah Hussain on

Helena Normanton’s roundel will mark the address she lived for the early part of her legal career

Helena Normanton

The first woman to practise at the bar of England and Wales is to be honoured with an English Heritage London blue plaque this year.

Helena Normanton’s plaque will mark the address she lived for the early part of her legal career at 22 Mecklenburgh Square in London’s Bloomsbury.

It comes three years after Doughty Street Women, a group of barristers within Doughty Street Chambers, having realised their local connection to the site, joined forces with the First 100 Years project to nominate Normanton for the historical marker and raise her profile.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, a barrister at Doughty Street who was involved in the 2018 application to English Heritage, told Legal Cheek:

“The Doughty Street Women made this application in 2018, supported by the First 100 Years project, to mark International Women’s Day and to honour a true pioneer in the legal world who started her career as a junior barrister just metres away from our chambers.”

Gallagher added: “We are delighted that English Heritage has now confirmed it will recognise her groundbreaking role.”

Normanton scored a lot of ‘firsts’ during her time in legal practice. She was the first woman to practise at the bar and the second to be called after Ivy Williams (who was last year commemorated with an Oxford blue plaque) in 1922. She was also the first woman to be admitted to an Inn of Court, Middle Temple, in 1919, and hold briefs in the High Court and Old Bailey. In 1949, she became one of two women to be made King’s Counsel.

Her significance continues to the present day and in 2019, a London chambers renamed itself ‘Normanton Chambers’, a century after its namesake became the first woman to join an Inn of Court. Normanton Chambers was also the first set to be named after a woman. The following year, the first legal outfitters for women launched as ‘Ivy & Normanton’.

It would appear that Normanton is also the first female lawyer to be commemorated with a London blue plaque. A quick search on English Heritage’s website shows only a handful of former lawyers have been honoured in this way, and they’re all men. The former Lord Chief Justice Rufus Isaacs is commemorated with a ceramic plaque on his old Mayfair dwelling, whilst former Lord Chancellor Richard Haldane has one in Westminster.

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Normanton joins five other illustrious women to be commemorated with London blue plaques this year. Scientist Kathleen Lonsdale received the first blue plaque earlier this month to mark the 50th anniversary of her death. Other recipients of the famous roundel include Diana, Princess of Wales, fashion designer Jean Muir, social reformer Caroline Norton and anti-slavery campaigner Ellen Craft.

The plaques mark sites of historical or cultural importance and honour Londoners who have made a significant contribution in their field. There are over 950 blue plaques honouring men and women, affixed to the walls of buildings old and new across the capital.

Yet, the scheme has been urged to redress the gender imbalance as it is estimated only 14% of the 950 plaques celebrate women.

English Heritage, which founded the scheme in 1866, launched its ‘plaques for women’ campaign five years ago and said it has since received a number of nominations for female figures. In 2021, half of its new plaques will be dedicated to women, and women make up well over half of the cases currently in the pipeline, the charity’s curatorial director, Anna Eavis, said.

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