Helena Normanton

Legal pioneer Helena Normanton still remains an enigma according to a senior lecturer who delivered a thought-provoking insight into the life of the country’s first female barrister at Edge Hill University.

As one of the University’s most distinguished alumnae, Helena was a passionate believer in social reform, a pioneer in the legal profession and a champion of women’s rights to rival Emmeline Pankhurst. Yet the Edge Hill graduate’s remarkable work is largely overlooked in women’s history.

Judith Bourne, Senior Lecturer in Law at London Metropolitan University is trying to remedy this and is currently writing her PhD on why Normanton’s achievements have been so overlooked in the past. She enthralled the packed audience at Edge Hill with some of her findings in trying to rediscover the heroine during a special guest lecture on 31st January.

In her discussion, Judith explored the life and work of this inspirational but little-known woman who scandalised the legal profession in 1922, first by wanting to be part of it, and then by insisting on practising in her maiden name. As a champion for women’s rights, she was the first female to bring a prosecution in a murder trial and was a prolific campaigner for equality in marriage, being the first British woman to hold a passport in her maiden name.

Very little is known about Normanton’s life before her legal career. She is known to have been a trainee teacher at Edge Hill, graduating in 1905, but how or why she came to be studying so far from her home town of Brighton is a mystery.

Judith explained: “I’m a lawyer, not a historian, so I found some of this work particularly frustrating at times because Helena never left a diary, so a lot of my work is guesswork.

“For example, my theory as to why she came to Edge Hill to study was possibly because it had a reputation for its strong feminist culture, it was also renowned for teacher training, but I don’t know that for sure.”

Helena’s teaching career was prolific and successful and she never went without a job. But it was her switch to the legal profession that attracted controversy.

“She was formidable and intelligent, but I don’t think she was suited to the bar, probably due to sexism and her personality. She seemed to be more on a social mission and wanted to promote women’s equality. More often than not she would irritate the judges as every case she had she would try to turn into a mini state prosecution. Plus, she never really made enough money from it to live on either and her career never matched her ambitions or hopes.

“Yet she left behind a legacy,” said Judith. “In a way she was a social experiment and bore the brunt of discrimination for everyone else. A pioneer who fought against a lot of prejudice, she was the one who made it possible for women to enter the legal profession.”

When Judith has finished writing her PhD, her mission is for every female law student to know the name of Helena Normanton.

“The fact that her achievements have been so neglected in the past is a real tragedy as, for me, she is up there with the Pankhursts and Rose Heilbron in terms of her contribution to women’s history. Helena should be a name that law students know and I’m on a one-woman mission to promote her.”

Watch the video of the Helena Florence Normanton Talk by Judith Bourne >>