100 years of women magistrates

On 23 December 1919, The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act became law when it received Royal Assent. For the first time, women could become barristers, solicitors, jurors and magistrates. The very next day, Christmas Eve, the first seven women magistrates were appointed. They were:

•    Lady Crewe
•    Lady Londonderry
•    Margaret Lloyd George
•    Elizabeth Haldane
•    Gertrude Tuckwell
•    Beatrice Webb
•    Mary Augusta Ward

Selected to represent different geographical areas and political parties, these were the first women to have a formal role in the courts. These seven women drew up a list of 172 more women suitable for appointment to the magistracy; this was published in July 1920 and included several non-militant campaigners for women’s suffrage. 

Among the early magistrates were Ada Summers, Mayor of Stalybridge and the first woman to sit as a magistrate, Gertrude Tuckwell, founding member of the MA and the first woman to sit as a magistrate in London, and Margery Fry, long-term secretary of the Howard League for Penal Reform. Many of these women were political, such as Margaret Wintringham, who was the second woman to take a seat in the House of Commons, and Mavis Tate, an MP who campaigned for equal pay, better pensions and equal rights for women. Others were influential figures in youth justice, such as Clare Spurgin and Geraldine Cadbury, or authors, editors, philosophers, educators, nurses and doctors, to name just a few. Many of the women had been influential in the movement for women’s suffrage, and the majority were active in public life, sitting on various committees and involved in numerous organisations. All were trailblazers, and as magistrates they brought diversity to a previously male-dominated environment, paving the way for a modern magistracy that reflects the communities it serves.

Ten years after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, there were 1,775 women magistrates. By 1948, there were 3,700, making up nearly a quarter of the magistracy. Today, 100 years after women first joined the magistracy, 56% of all magistrates across England and Wales are women.

You can read more about some of the early women magistrates below.

Lady Eleanor Acland (1879-1933), a Devon magistrate, was one of the 172 women magistrates appointed in 1920, having been selected by the first seven. An active suffragist, in 1913 she founded the Liberal Women’s Suffrage Union and in 1929 was elected president of the Women’s Liberal Federation. As well as being a published author, she was involved with politics and was one of eight signatories to the 1931 Liberal Party Election Manifesto. She received the Queen Elisabeth medal for her work for the Belgian Repatriation Fund during World War One. 

Elizabeth Andrews (1882-1960) became a magistrate in 1920, one of the earliest women magistrates in Wales. She became a respected authority on juvenile delinquency and was awarded an OBE in 1948 for her services as a magistrate. She was the first woman organiser of the Labour Party in Wales and translated leaflets from English to Welsh, encouraging women to use their newly-won vote. She was also a leading figure in the campaign for pithead baths and one of three women who gave evidence in the House of Lords before the 1918 Sankey Commission in the mining industry. She also opened the first nursery school in Wales in the Rhondda in 1938.

Ethel Bentham (1861-1931) set up a general medical practice with fellow magistrate Ethel May Williams in Newcastle. In London, she was the driving force behind the establishment of a mother and baby clinic in North Kensington, the first in the country to provide medical treatment alongside advice. Daughter of a magistrate, she joined the magistracy herself after World War One, working in the children’s courts and serving on the Metropolitan Asylums Board. Elected to Kensington Borough Council in 1912, in 1929 she became the fifteenth woman MP.

Geraldine Cadbury (1864-1941) was one of the first two women magistrates in Birmingham, appointed in 1920. She became an expert on youth justice, chairing the justices’ panel in the Children’s Court from 1923 and being appointed in 1925 to the Home Office Departmental Committee on the Treatment of Young Offenders, which paved the way for the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act. In 1928 she helped to design the second purpose-built juvenile court in England and in 1938 she published ‘Young Offenders Yesterday and To-Day’, a history of youth justice. She became the vice-president of the International Association of Children’s Court Judges and travelled extensively investigating juvenile justice provision in Europe, America, New Zealand and Australia.

Cicely Craven (1890-1962) became a magistrate in St Albans in the 1930s. Formerly a history teacher, in World War One she joined the Ministry of Pensions before moving to the Ministry of Labour in 1919. She was one of a few women allowed to stay in a civil service post when the war ended. She was selected by fellow magistrate Margery Fry to succeed her as secretary for The Howard League for Penal Reform, where she worked for the next 24 years, and where she played a major role in editing and writing the Howard Journal. She also wrote for the New Statesman and Penal Reform in England and gave evidence to various enquiries, including the 1935-6 committee investigating social services in the law courts.

Phoebe Cusden (1887-1981) was a magistrate in Reading, where she was also the second female councilor to be elected to Reading Council and where she served as Mayor twice. A pioneer of early years education, she was the author of ‘The English Nursery School’ and from 1933, Organising Secretary of the Nursery Schools’ Association. As well as establishing the Reading Women’s branch of the Labour party, she edited ‘Reading Citizen’ for 30 years. After World War Two, she founded and chaired the Reading-Düsseldorf Association, making Reading the first British town to form such a link with Germany, a connection that still exists today.

Lady Mary Emmott (1866-1954), appointed a magistrate in 1920, was a founder member of the local branch of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) as well as the main founder of a local branch of the National Union of Women Workers, for which she later chaired the Parliamentary and Legislation Committee. She was also vice-chair of the national Women’s Liberal Federation, served on the executive of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage and was President of the National Council of Women from 1928-9. At the time of her death, she was president of the Fawcett Society. Her eldest daughter also became a magistrate.

Charis Frankenburg (1892-1985) became a magistrate in Salford in the 1930s and was a keen member of the MA. A nurse and a leading campaigner for birth control advice to be made freely available, she was passionate about improving maternity care. She helped establish clinics in various cities and joined the co-ordinating committee of the National Birth Control Association (later the Family Planning Association). She was also a member of the Howard League for Penal Reform and also volunteered in many charitable roles, including for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Margery Fry (1874-1958) was appointed as a magistrate in 1921. In addition to being instrumental in shaping the Magistrates Association, she also became secretary of the Penal Reform League in 1918. After the organisation merged with the Howard Association in 1921 to become the Howard League for Penal Reform, she was secretary of the combined organisation until 1926 and chaired its council from 1926-1929. She became a strong voice against the death penalty and supported compensation schemes for victims of crimes. In addition to her prison reform work, she was principal of Somerville College, Oxford from 1926-1930.

Almyra Gray (1862-1939) was appointed as a magistrate in York. Known for raising money for a 1925 York Minster memorial to the ‘women of the Empire’ who gave their lives in World War One, she was also actively involved in healthcare and women’s rights. Having formed a local National Union of Women Workers branch in York in 1896, she was elected national president of the union in 1907. After partial suffrage was achieved in 1918, she founded the York Women Citizens’ Association, preparing women to be full participants in public life. In 1921 she gave evidence to the committee on child adoption, arguing for legislation to prevent casual and irresponsible adoption practices, and she campaigned both as a member of the legal subcommittee of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child and as chair of the laws committee of the International Council of Women.

Elizabeth Haldane (1862-1937), one of the first seven women magistrates, was the first female magistrate in Scotland. As well as being an author, a philosopher and a suffragist, she was also heavily involved in public life. In 1890 she helped to establish the Scottish Women’s Benefit Society and she became a manager of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in 1901. She was vice-chair of the territorial service in World War One and received the Queen Elisabeth medal for her work with Belgian refugees. In 1918 she was made a Companion of Honour and was a representative on the General Council of Nursing from 1928.

Ethel Hartland (1875-1964) became the first woman magistrate in Gloucestershire in 1922 and co-founded the Gloucestershire Women Magistrates’ Society, an educational and campaigning organisation. Prior to this she had been secretary of the west of England federation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage and had campaigned within the Women’s Liberal Federation for the selection of pro-suffrage parliamentary candidates. She also argued for the employment of women probation officers and women police officers.

Margaret Lloyd George (1864-1941) was one of the first seven women magistrates appointed in 1919, selected to represent the interests of Wales and the Liberal Party. Wife of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, she often stepped into his place on political tours and on election platforms.  She also served on Cricieth urban district council and was president of the Women’s Liberal Federation of North and South Wales. In 1918 she was awarded the Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire after raising £200,000 for war charities.

Clara Rackham (1875-1966) was one of the first women to become a magistrate in Cambridge, having already served as the first woman Labour councillor on Cambridge City Council, a Poor Law Guardian and a factory inspector. An expert on factory conditions, workers’ rights, equal pay and national insurance, she was an early advocate of the 40 hour work week and fought to improve living conditions for working-class communities, famously lobbying for an indoor swimming pool on Parker’s Piece. She was an instrumental early member of the MA and also joined the Howard League for Penal Reform, working as part of a group reporting on child sexual abuse to Parliament in 1925. She was a pioneering broadcaster in the early days of BBC radio in the 1920s, and was one of the first women to be heard on the airwaves, often speaking about the work of a magistrate and legal matters.

Clare Spurgin (1897-1986) became a magistrate for Gloucestershire in 1943. She had previously been involved in local affairs through the Women’s Institute and as a parish councillor, being particularly interested in housing policy. As a magistrate, she became a specialist in youth court work and was the chair of the panel of juvenile court justices in her county as well as the chair of the Gloucestershire probation committee. She became very involved with creating and maintaining international links for magistrates and represented the Magistrates Association on the International Union of Magistrates. In 1966 she became the first British citizen, first lay justice and first woman to be elected president of the International Association of Youth Magistrates.

Ada Summers (1861-1944) was the first woman magistrate to sit in court on 31 December 1919, one week after The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act became law. Although she was not named officially as one of the first seven women magistrates, as Mayor of Stalybridge she became a magistrate ex officio. Known for her philanthropy, she set up a nurses’ home and funding a maternity and child welfare centre and an employment centre. She was also president of the Stalybridge Mechanics Institute and was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1918.

Mavis Tate (1893-1947) was a Conservative MP and campaigner for women’s rights. She was a passionate advocate for equal pay, equal rights and better pensions for women, as well as arguing for training for the unemployed and challenging the employment of children in factories. After the end of World War Two, she reported from the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany for British Pathé News. 

Gertrude Tuckwell (1861-1951), one of the first seven women magistrates, was a pioneering force in many organisations, and was instrumental in setting up the Magistrates Association, where she sat on the Council from 1921-1940. She became President of the Women’s Trade Union League in 1905 and in 1908 she was appointed president of the National Federation of Women’s Workers and campaigned to protect women from industrial injuries. She was described by ‘The Woman Worker’ newspaper as ‘the power that moves a myriad organisations’ and served as Chair of the National Association of Probation Officers from 1933-1941.

Mary Augusta Ward (1851-1920), better known by her married name Mrs Humphrey Ward, was a best-selling Victorian novelist and the aunt of Julian and Aldous Huxley. She worked to improve education for the poor and founded the Mary Ward Centre. During World War One, she was asked by former United States President Theodore Roosevelt to write articles explaining to Americans what was happening in Britain. This involved visiting the trenches on the Western Front and resulted in the publication of three books.

Ethel May Williams (1896-1948) was one of the first female doctors in Newcastle, where she set up a general medical practice with fellow magistrate Ethel Bentham. She also helped set up mental health residential care in the Tyneside area. Having been President of the Newcastle and District branch of the National Union of Women's Suffrage, during World War One, she joined the Workers Educational Association as a tutor and set up women’s health courses in the North East of England. She became a magistrate in her retirement and continued her activism in the fields of heath, social welfare education and international relations.

Margaret Wintringham (1879-1955), as well as being one of the first women magistrates appointed in 1920, was also the first ever female Liberal MP; the second woman and the first British-born woman to take a seat in the House of Commons in 1921. She campaigned for equal franchise, equal pay, state scholarships for girls as well as boys and for women police officers. She was also involved in the campaign to enable women peers to sit in the House of Lords in their own right. From 1925-1926 she was president of the Women’s National Liberal Federation and in the 1920s and 1930s she was active in the campaigns for nursery education and to reduce maternal mortality.