Dr. Ivy Williams

Equality is Justice

Dr. Ivy Williams was born just over the road from where you now stand, at 21, Devon Square, on 7th September 1877. She was the daughter of George St. Swithin Williams, a solicitor, and of his wife, Emma Ewers. Ivy’s brother, Winter, two years her senior, was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and became a barrister, but was tragically killed in the First World War. Ivy had been educated privately with her brother, studying Latin, Greek, Italian, and Russian but also spoke French and German fluently, travelling Europe before joining the Society of Oxford Home Students in 1900. Prior to October 1920, women were not allowed to matriculate (i.e. to become members of a University) and whilst Ivy took a 2nd class degree in Jurisprudence at 23, was a Bachelor of Civil Law at 25, and took a 2nd class in the London University examination to become a Doctor of Law at 26, her efforts were not officially recognised until academic regulations were reformed in 1920.

January 1920 saw women first admitted to the Inns of Court and Ivy Williams, who was already 42 years old, joined the Inner Temple and enrolled as a student at Oxford, receiving her BA, MA, and BCL in October of the same same year.

On 10th May 1922 she was called to the bar by Henry Dickens, becoming the first female entitled to practice as a barrister in England.  During the years preceding her admission, Ivy’s feelings on the issue are best summarised by her comment , described as a ‘threat’ by the Law Journal in 1904, that ‘The legal profession will have to admit us in their own defence … a band of lady University lawyers will say to the Benchers and the Law Society ‘Admit us or we shall form a third branch of the profession and practice as outside lawyers’.

Having reported her comment of 1904 as ‘a futile attempt of a persistent lady to gain admission to the Bar’, the Law Journal subsequently revised its view, describing Dr Williams's call to the bar in 1922 as ‘one of the most memorable days in the long annals of the legal profession’.  Even so, its editor, noting that she did not intend to practise, concluded that the admission of women ‘was never likely to be justified by any success they will achieve in the field of advocacy’.

From 1920 to 1945 Ivy Williams was tutor and lecturer in law to the Society of Oxford Home Students and in 1923 became the first woman to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Civil Law in Oxford for her published work, The Sources of Law in the Swiss Civil Code (Oxford University Press. 1923).

Elected an honorary fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford in 1956, Ivy was a dedicated teacher and scholar, devoting endless thought and care to the work and careers of her pupils and to the general advancement of women in the legal profession. Recognition in her lifetime came by way of academic honours.  She served in 1930 as delegate to The Hague conference for the Codification of International Law, under Sir Maurice L. Gwyer, and in 1932 as a member of the Aliens Deportation Advisory Committee under Roland Vaughan Williams.

In her later years, realizing that her eyesight was failing, Ivy Williams taught herself to read Braille and found it so difficult that she systematized her learning, first into a booklet and later into a Braille primer which was published for the National Institute for the Blind in 1948 and went into more than one edition. She herself had correspondence pupils in many parts of Britain whom she taught to read and write in Braille almost to the end of her long life. She died at her Oxford home on 18 February 1966, aged 88. ‘Of no one could it more truly be said’, wrote Miss Ruth Butler, former vice-principal of the Society of Oxford Home Students, in her obituary, ‘that “she turned her necessity to glorious gain”, using in old age for the service of others her powers and enthusiasm which had won her distinction in her youth’.

“Admit us or we shall form a third branch of the profession and practice as outside lawyers”