Saturday, 1 June 2013

A female barrister in 1920s Britain


One of the central issues in The Most Remarkable Woman in England revolves around the perceptions of gender roles in the inter-war period.

There are many intersections between the topics of gender and murder in the 1920s (as in any other period).

I ran across one of the more striking ones today: a pair of newspaper stories in the Daily Herald on the first time a female barrister led the defence in a murder trial in Britain.  (It is also worth noting that a female barrister, Florence Earengey, participated in Beatrice Pace's defence.)


Woman Counsel Makes History 

Leads for First Time in Murder Trial. 

For the first time in the history of murder trials a woman barrister, at the Old Bailey yesterday, led for the defence of a man charged with the capital offence.

The woman to whom this distinction fell was Miss Venetia Stephenson, who has on several occasions defended prisoners at the Old Bailey.

Miss Stephenson wears horn-rimmed glasses and is petite and business-like.

A lucid speaker, she has several times been complimented by judges on her ability in conducting cases.

The case yesterday was that in which William John Holmyard, aged 24, a musician, was charged before Mr. Justice Humphreys with the murder of his grandfather.

Miss Stephenson had as her junior Dr. F. Hallis. Mr. Percival Clarke and Mr. G. B. McClure were for the prosecution.

 Mr. Clare, in opening the case, said the dead man, William Holmyard, aged 72, was a commission agent, living in Tachbrook-street, Pimlico. He was found at his house on December 7 with a fractured skull and other injuries, and he died in Westminster Hospital on December 10.

From time to time he had assisted Holmyard, who with his father lived next door. Asked to explain his movements on the day of the tragedy, Holmyard said he had been at Kennington all the time. Bloodstains were found on his coat, and he was asked how they got there.

Miss Stephenson asked that Holmyard’s answer to this question should not be disclosed to the jury, and Mr. Clarke commented contented himself with saying that Holmyard had made a statement which might be read later.
(Daily Herald, 16 January 1929)



Judge’s Compliment 

Ability of Woman Counsel in Murder Trial 

The first woman barrister to appear as leading counsel for the defence in a murder trial was complimented by Mr. Justice Humphreys at the Old Bailey yesterday on the ability she had displayed on her client’s behalf.

The barrister, Miss Venetia Stephenson, defended William John Holmyard, aged 24, a musician, charged with the murder of his grandfather, a commission agent, in Pimlico. He was found guilty and was sentenced to death.

Mr. Justice Humphreys prefaced his summing-up to the jury with a tribute to the “learned counsel for the defence.”

“This case,” he said, “has been defended with conspicuous ability. I am sure you will agree that a serious responsibility lies on her shoulders, but at least she may feel that she has discharged her duty to her client in a manner that reflects the highest possible credit upon her carefulness and her own ability.”

“It is a satisfaction to know that everything possible that could possibly be said for this young man, or done for him by advocacy, has been said and done.”
(Daily Herald, 17 January 1929)

There is, certainly, something condescending about the tone of comments directed towards Miss Stephenson; however, her efforts in this case were certainly one example of the continuing progress of women in the professions in this period.

As for Mr. Holmyard: he was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 27 February 1929.

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