Series 2: Ivy Williams (1877 – 1966)

Ivy Williams devoted most of her life to the scholarship of law and the furtherance of women in the law from her home in Oxford and as a tutor at St Anne’s college. She is known primarily as the first woman barrister in England and Wales. She was the unexpected late arriving daughter to successful business man and solicitor George St Swithun Williams whose unconventional relationship with his family’s much younger servant produced two brilliant children when he was in his mid-forties. Ivy and her slightly older brother Winter were born away from Oxford possibly to escape family censure of the union, but with the death of her grandfather Adin, a prominent mercer from wealthy local farming stock and a staunch Congregationalist, the family returned to Oxford. In spite of what may have been a period of tense relationships Adin was generous to his son in his will and specifically provided for the education of his female line.

Ivy and her brother were home schooled. She was a talented linguist learning Latin, Greek, Italian, French, German and Russian. She was surrounded by intellect on her father’s side of the family. Her brother was a barrister, her father a solicitor, her cousins also qualified as lawyers. When she was in due course called to the bar Charles Dickens’ son sponsored her call. Her uncle is buried close to C S Lewis. Her aunt was married to a well-known missionary who translated the bible into the local patois, and other of her female cousins overcame adversity and qualified as a doctor working in Asia as a missionary and medic. More distantly she was related to the ship building martyr John Williams, murdered and eaten in Erromanga when preaching the bible in 1839. They were a close family and corresponded regularly sometimes sharing accommodation. What is less well known is that her mother’s relations were no less valued by the family. Although of modest means her father supported and promoted his wife’s family and in due course Ivy would choose initially to entrust her personal affairs to her uncle on her mother’s side.

Oxford University admitted women to its law course in 1890 and in 1896 Ivy became one of the first women students to study law as an undergraduate as one of 46 “Home Students”. The Home students were in 1942 to be renamed St Anne’s Society and subsequently St Anne’s college. Ivy remained devoted to the college throughout her life and her picture hangs in the library there.

Ivy was a diligent student fortunate to be tutored by some of the great legal academics of the time. She took a second class degree in 1900 and a further second class in the BCL in 1902 although Oxford women were not formally awarded degrees until 1920. She participated in mock trials as a student and was elected President of the Oxford Students Debating Society in 1900.

In the meantime her brother graduated in law from Corpus Christi and was called to the bar in 1899. Ivy also studied in her own time for a law degree from London University who were already awarding degrees, and received her London LLB – upper second- in 1901. She got her LLD from London in 1903, the second woman to be so awarded. She was one of the first class of women at Oxford to be awarded degrees in 1920 where she graduated with a BA in jurisprudence, MA and BCL. She seemed poised to take on the establishment with quite militant threats to create a new profession of lady lawyers reported in the Law Journal in early 1903.

In July 1903 her brother Winter was killed in an accident in Cowley, and within a year her father had also died. Ivy was very close to both and in due course went on to endow scholarships in her brother’s name. In acting as executor of her father’s extensive estate Ivy seems to have been drawn into the family’s business affairs which involved loans secured against mortgages and purchase of ground rents. By the 1920s she was actively running down these businesses. She also served as a parish councillor and worked as a law clerk in local solicitor’s offices, and did war work. Her early ambitions seem to have been overtaken by events.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 enabled Ivy to enrol as a student at the bar in 1920 at Inner Temple. She obtained outstanding results in her exams coming 2nd of all the candidates beaten only by a future high court judge. Her exam success enabled her to forego two terms of dining and created her “senior student” at the Bar call of May 1922 fulfilling her own and her father’s lifelong dream for her.

Ivy never practiced. Instead she joined the Home Students as a tutor in Jurisprudence and became the first woman to lecture in law at Oxford. She focussed on private international law especially the Swiss Code which she wrote on and for which she was awarded a DCL by Oxford in 1923 – one of only two women to have been so awarded at Oxford to date. In 1924 she suffered a slight accident to her knee skiing which was to dog her for a while and for the next few years she was confined to hospital and a succession of nursing homes as a series of treatments were tried without significant success. With her knee recovering she then succumbed to tonsillitis and took a sea cure for several months in Harrogate. Throughout this period she continued to keep in touch with family members and to run her business affairs. In these she was scrupulously fair and honest and always kind. On hearing of a long lost cousin fallen on hard times in Canada she arranged for him to be sent money, although never having met him.

Ivy seems to have been similarly conscientious and dedicated to the students she taught and from her personal wealth assisted with the purchase of accommodation for students and to support the college library. Her endowment extended to her church and to the local hospital giving property to both selling the family property to settle herself in the relatively modest house in Staverton road where she died.

As well as her academic work Ivy was appointed as a delegate to the League of Nations for the Codification of International law and latterly as a member of the Aliens Deportation Advisory committee.

Ivy never married but remained throughout her life close to her family in particular her cousins, and to her church. Her correspondence shows a sparkling wit and some of her actions suggest a slightly eccentric personality (to recuperate she purchased a tricycle to the excitement of her cousins). Her close friends tended to be female and of a similar intellect. She retired in 1945. The family had a tendency to blindness and finding her sight was going she took a typically practical approach and developed a braille reader. Her will specifically donates her braille equipment.

Ivy speaks to me for her academic brilliance, her unfailing sense of duty, and a steady determination throughout a life spent mainly within the academic confines of Oxford University.

Bridget Wheeler is a barrister. Ivy Williams is her first cousin twice removed.

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