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First to the Bar

In the first of a new series on local people and places,
Mister Adam looks at a woman who tore up the rulebook

When the whistle came through from Whistler HQ asking if I’d do a column on local history, I dusted off my books and compiled a list of olden days notables from this part of town. 

While the list is shorter than those of more seaward neighbourhoods, its demographics surprised me. The pre-railway districts are dominated by moustachioed fancy hats who look like Sherlock Holmes villains, whereas a surprisingly high percentage of historic Diallers were pioneering women.

So who better to pick for a first column than someone who achieved more firsts than a hangar full of Old Etonians? Helena Normanton (1882-1957) was the first woman to qualify as a barrister. Many other female legal firsts followed; becoming a King’s Counsel, prosecuting a murder trial, taking a case to the High Court and Old Bailey, winning a divorce trial, conducting a case in the USA… the list goes on. She was also the first married woman to demand and receive a British passport in her maiden name.

Helen’s father died in uncertain circumstances when she was four – his body found in a tunnel under Paddington station – and they relocated from London to Brighton. As was often the case with widows from the ‘lower classes’, mum turned their Brighton home into a boarding house to make ends meet. Thus 4 Clifton Place became Helena’s home and part-time workplace for 15 years. 

She later spent a year on Hampton Place at either number 11 or 26 (they renumbered the whole street that year so records differ).

Probably the most pivotal Brighton location in Helena’s trajectory is even vaguer. It was a solicitors office, likely in the Dials area, but where isn’t recorded. Aged 11 she explained mortgage law to her mother, receiving a pat on the head and a slightly patronising “you’d make a great little lawyer” from the solicitor. She decided to take him up on this suggestion – a ballsy move given that no female (let alone a lower class one) was allowed into barrister school back then.

This set Helena on the path to Edge Hill in Liverpool, leaving Brighton in 1903. It was a hotbed of the Suffragette movement which she became heavily involved with. Fast forward to Christmas Eve 1919 and Helena banging on the doors of London’s Middle Inn. The Sex Disqualification Act had just become law. Women were no longer barred from the Bar. Helena was first and her whirlwind of female legal firsts had been set in motion.

She would never forget her upbringing, citing her “gratitude for all that Brighton did to educate me”. You might imagine that crowdfunding was invented by Kickstarter, but the litany of buildings and monuments with ‘by public subscription’ bronzes tells another story. In the final year of her life, Helena repaid the debt she felt to the town and chalked up another first, becoming the first person to donate to the crowdfunder that would create the University of Sussex.

While her name adorns the UK’s only dedicated legal outfitters for women and the only barristers chambers named after one, Brighton itself has been slow to recognise her. The University has fellowships named for her and a number 50 bus bore her name until quite recently, but is a blue plaque on 4 Clifton Place really too much to ask for? 

If you want to pay your respects, Helena Normanton’s ashes are interred at St Wulfran’s in Ovingdean, not far from a moustachioed fancy hat called Magnus Volk.

You can check out Mister Adam’s video series on Brighton history at factmeup.com and his magazine about Brighton’s awesome women’s roller derby team at issuu.com/turnleftmag

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