I was delighted to be contacted a few months ago by the grandchildren of one of our founders, Mr T Weldon Thomson, who opened our law firm in Tewkesbury in 1897 before taking over its only competitor in the town, Mr George Badham, Solicitor, who had been practising since 1830. Later we merged with Mr Gordon Bancks’ practice in Pershore, who had opened back in 1934; Thomson & Bancks would later become our firm’s name in 2005, in recognition of our ancestors.
Mr Thomson’s grandchildren had a hugely fascinating story to tell about his wife: Gwyneth Bebb (later Gwyneth Thomson OBE) is famous for suing the Law Society in 1913 for not admitting women into its preliminary examinations and therefore preventing them from becoming solicitors. Sadly, she was unsuccessful in ‘Bebb v Law Society’, but thankfully she did not give up.
Gwyneth Bebb was only the sixth woman to study law at St Hugh’s College Oxford and although she was awarded first-class marks in 1911, at that time women were not awarded degrees. Hers was a test case as her barrister sought a declaration that she was a “person” within the meaning of the Solicitors Act and was, therefore, entitled to be admitted to the preliminary examination of the Law Society.
Incredibly, from a modern viewpoint, the Judge ruled that women were incapable of carrying out a public function in common law, a disability that must remain “unless and until” Parliament changed the law; in other words, that women could not be solicitors because no woman had ever been a solicitor and officially were not ‘people’ for the purposes of the Solicitors Act! She then applied to join Lincoln’s Inn as a student barrister in 1918 but, again, she was refused.
Gwyneth was an important part of a chain of events which resulted in the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. With this act in force, four women with first class degrees were finally allowed to pass their law exams and become lawyers. The 1919 Act was passed into law on 24 December; Gwyneth immediately applied once more to join Lincoln’s Inn and was admitted as a student on 27 January 1920. She attended a banquet at the House of Commons on 8 March 1920 to celebrate the passing of the Act, where she proposed a toast.
The reason that I had been contacted was to remember and celebrate Gwyneth’s life and achievements as part of St Hugh’s College, Oxfords Alumni weekend. This was in conjunction with ‘The First 100 Years for Women in the Law’ (1919 – 2019) movement. As the first woman in Thomson & Bancks Solicitors to become a Partner of the firm, I was tremendously proud to attend on 22 September 2018, for a symposium honouring Gwyneth Bebb which was very informative and most uplifting! I was however ashamed that her wonderful story had been lost to us. Also present was Christina Blacklaws, the President of the Law Society, as well as MPs and other women lawyers.
The tragedy of it all was that Gwyneth’s story, and life, was cut short – at just 31 years of age, after her second daughter, Marion, was born, Gwyneth passed away due to complications which started during the pregnancy. This meant that she was cheated of becoming the first ever woman at the bar, which saddens me.
I wonder what Gwyneth would have made of the progress which has been made in the past 100 years and in particular, our law firm, Thomson & Bancks. Now, 3 out of 7 of our Partnership are women (43%), a statistic that bucks the legal industry trend.
Still, whilst women make up 48% of all lawyers in law firms, in 2017 women make up 59% of non-partner solicitors compared to just 33% of partners (up from only 31% in 2014). The difference is greater still in the largest firms (50 plus partners), where 29% of partners are female. We still have many strides to make towards complete equality for women in the field of law.
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