Headline Western Daily Press 29 July 1920

‘Have They a Sense of Justice?’: Britain’s first female jurors at the Bristol Quarter Sessions

By Holly John

New Series, 2020.

The right to trial by jury has been traditionally acknowledged as a pillar of the English legal system. Under the principle of ‘twelve good men and true’, juries had been trusted for centuries with the responsibility of dispensing justice impartially and according to evidence.[1] Defendants had the right to be tried ‘by their peers’, but juries had always been composed entirely of men. In 1919, reforms in the law allowed women to take their seats as jurors in a criminal trial for the first time. The trial took place here in Bristol in 1920, and not everyone was entirely happy about it.

As Judge Stanger put it a year later at a Bristol conference on ‘the duties of women jurors and women magistrates’,

“it was sometimes said that the [feminist] movement had gone far enough, and many people thought it had gone too far. It was said in some quarters that it had developed beyond what some promoters of the feminist movement bargained for, and too far for the good of the community.”[2]

But just how far had it gone, and how did the reforms of 1919 come about?

Under the terms of the Representation of the People Act in 1918, about two thirds of adult women had been granted suffrage and were able to vote in the subsequent general election. To qualify, women had to be above the age of thirty and meet the minimum property qualifications.[3] Although they hadn’t been granted suffrage on the same terms as men, women’s equality was apparently on the government’s agenda. The Conservative Party included a commitment to addressing the inequalities of women in its manifesto; while the Labour Party proudly declared itself ‘The real Women’s Party’.[4] Commitments to address women’s rights were being used to garner support. In 1919, the Labour Party put forward a private members bill, the ‘Women’s Emancipation Act’, which directly addressed many of the legal inequalities that stood in the way of women’s full citizenship. The bill passed through the House of Commons, only to be quashed in the House of Lords. The government swiftly replaced it with their own, less radical act. The ‘Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act’ – intended as it was to pacify those calling for the full citizenship and equality of women – excluded a number of the demands of the Labour Party’s bill. However, the Act did grant women the right to serve as jurors and magistrates, practice as barristers, and be awarded university degrees. The Act also stipulated that for a woman to be eligible to serve as a juror she must meet a minimum property qualification. The implication of this clause is that very few women were actually eligible, since married women didn’t own property in their own right, and many of the women who did meet the property qualification were widows who were too old to be permitted on the jury.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act included an important clause which imposed further restrictions on those who were eligible for jury duty. Lord Chief Justice Reading saw to the inclusion of the proviso which allowed the presence of women on a jury to be routinely challenged. A judge retained the right to call for a single-sex jury ‘by reason of the nature of evidence given’.[5] The proviso also stated that ‘anyone before whom the case is or may be heard’ could apply for a single-sex jury; this included the accused.[6] The concerns that underpinned these restrictions on women in court – their exposure to indecent evidence – only existed on the administrative side of the law. As the Suffragette newspaper ‘The Vote’ reminded readers in March 1920, women had always been frequent visitors to the courtroom, both as witnesses and as defendants.[7]

Despite these restrictions, women took their place in the jury box at the Bristol Quarter Sessions on 29 July 1920, for the first criminal trials ever to be heard by a mixed jury in Britain. The event was reported across the nation, and even featured in the New York Times.[8] These news reports reflected a full spectrum of public opinion. While some argued that full citizenship for women must embrace the right to take part in the administration of justice, traditionalists objected and resisted.[9]

Newspapers reported very few details of the actual trials heard at the Bristol quarter sessions that summer, save that the first trial which women jurors presided over was a case of theft, and that the defendant had been found guilty.[10] The focus of the press coverage was the novelty of the women jurors; an interview with them on the day of the first trial was widely reprinted. Most of the women were ‘glad to have had the experience’, although Mrs Wellings was concerned about having left her three children at home alone.[11] Miss Gulliford told the press that she ‘found it most interesting, as [she] had never before been in a criminal court’.[12] Miss Gulliford was satisfied that women could be of use, and indeed were necessary on a jury. Five out of the six jurors shared this opinion. Mrs. Yandell, a widow, was the only juror to disagree, believing – so it was reported – that ‘men were much more suited than women for jury work’.[13] Mrs Yandell was also apparently dismayed at having had to close her shop to attend jury duty. Many of the newspapers across Britain who published this interview only reported the complaints of Mrs Wellings and Mrs Yandell, framing them as a case in point as to why women were unsuited to jury work.[14]

The New York Times was the only newspaper to report that when these two women were excused from further service after the first day of the Quarter Sessions, ‘two other women immediately volunteered and were selected’.[15] Despite this, women’s unsuitability and lack of enthusiasm continued to be emphasised.

W. K. Haselden, ‘The Woman Juror and Her Excuses’.
Daily Mirror, 17 January 1921.

Almost a year later in June 1921 the Western Daily Press concluded that ‘experience has proved that jury service is unpopular amongst women… Many women who never wanted the vote, and have never exercised it, now regret that because of it they are called upon for jury service’.[16] Those women who avoided their duties or expressed negative feelings towards any aspect of jury work were taken to be representative of their entire sex in the press.

On the basis of the reported experience of these first female jurors, it was often argued that the civil equality of women was not deserved, since they were unwilling to take the bad with the good.[17] Very few newspapers alluded to the fact that the proportion of women who were eligible for jury duty was very low because of the property qualification they had to meet. Mainstream discourse maintained that few women were interested in attending court and that many sought to evade their duty.

Throughout the early 1920s, press reports suggest that many men believed women were invading the male sphere. By far the most widely reported moment from the first trial at Bristol was the welcome given by barrister R. E. Dummett, who opened by addressing the ‘Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury’, and congratulated the women ‘upon at last taking up [their] proper place in the jurisdiction of this country.’[18] In the following weeks, a debate arose in the newspapers both in the Bristol region and nationally. Feelings of outrage were reported at the judge’s use of the phrase ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ in the court. The argument posited by these men was that it was against tradition.

Such a strong reaction to the mention of ‘Ladies’ in a court room reveals a feeling that women were interlopers in the masculine domain of the court room. The objection to the phrase was a thinly veiled disdain for women holding judicial office, which proved to be an enduring attitude. In February 1921, the Western Daily Press reported that Mr Justice Shearman, presiding at the Bristol Assize courts, had declared that ‘in legal language the term ‘man’ embraced ‘woman’’, and that as the jury had been addressed as ‘Gentleman of the jury’ for hundreds of years, ‘he saw no reason why that practice should be discontinued.[19] This statement was made shortly after reports of public objection to Mr Justice Rowlatt’s repetition of the phrase ‘Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury’ in a Bristol court.[20]

The fundamental argument against permitting women into the jury was that they lacked the basic skills needed to dispense justice properly and fairly. Women were continuously the victims of emotional profiling in the press, where it was frequently stated that women were too sentimental and lacked the capacity to make decisions based on fact rather than their feelings. Women were simply not believed to be rational enough to take on such a responsibility. One rather satirical report in The Liverpool Echo highlighted these beliefs, suggesting that many would be surprised that the trial at Bristol had run its course without hindrance from the women on the jury:

“they will guess that the council for the prosecution couldn’t get a word in edgewise; and that the judge had his work cut out to exclude sentiment and give law a chance; and that when it came to ‘consider your verdict, ladies and gentleman’, the women jurors filed into the room with their arms akimbo and their heads tossing jauntily”.[21]

The Bath Chronicle in October 1920 happily reported that the concern that women would be lenient as a result of their oversentimentality, or that they would hamper proceedings, had been disproven. The autumn Quarter Sessions at Bath provided the first experience locally of women sitting on a jury:

‘In the first instance the prisoner was acquitted after some half an hour’s deliberation; and in the second the jury returned a verdict of guilty in less than ten minutes… Clearly, therefore the progress of justice was by no means delayed by the introduction of women jurors’.[22]

Indeed, Kevin Crosby found in his study that women jurors were inclined to judge their own sex more harshly than men did.[23] Nevertheless, the practice of denying the presence of women on the jury in cases which were deemed unsuitable was common. In March 1924, Mr Justice Rowlatt, presiding at a lecture on Criminal Law, said that ‘the practice of counsel for the defence in challenging the presence of women jurors in murder trials had become in his experience universal. The reason was that … a woman juror took the view that he (the killer) ought to be killed.’[24] While such reasoning might seem at first to contradict the stereotype of oversentimentality, Rowlatt went on to draw an imaginary picture of a weeping widow and her children over the body of a murdered man, calling upon the audience to imagine the ease at which she would condemn a man to death in that moment.[25]

In the same week that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed, Alice J. Whitmore wrote a piece for The Sheffield Daily Independent entitled ‘Have They a Sense of Justice?’.[26] In it, she offered a critique of the notion that that women were oversentimental, as well as ‘the deeply ingrained belief that there is such a thing as a fixed female character’.[27] She argued that if there were any truth to these charges, it was ‘rather a result of education and environment’. Whitmore reminded readers that men too were influenced by sentiment when they were lenient on ‘the fair sex’ in court, and that men were only able to acquire experience by making mistakes. Nevertheless, she anticipated that ‘the old arguments will be revived with renewed force now that, with the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, some women have been appointed as magistrates and others will speedily claim their right to sit upon the bench.’[28]

W. K. Haselden, ‘How to Suit the Woman Juror to the Case’.
Daily Mirror, 5 December 1921.

Those who supported the admission of women to the jury often claimed the expertise of women in particular areas which were traditionally believed to be feminine. Miss Gulliford, one of the jurors from the Bristol Quarter Sessions, told the interviewer that she was satisfied women on a jury would be of use, ‘especially in cases where their own sex were concerned… they understand their temptations and errors better than men’.[29] An unnamed female juror from the same trial agreed that ‘women were necessary on juries where women were charged ‘because they saw through the wiles of their own sex better than men, who were easily deceived by a clever female’.[30] The categorisation of women to being useful in certain speciality cases was a common narrative among both women and men. Women could provide insight and perspective to many issues regarding women and children, but as Anne Logan has suggested, it is likely that many women also understood that their perceived expertise was a way into these new administrative roles.[31] From here, they were able to demonstrate their competence.

Negative stereotypes of women were, as we have seen, far more prolific. At times the press coverage of women jurors could only be described as outright mockery. In January 1921, the Western Daily Press published a short piece entitled ‘What should they wear?’. The author went on to imagine what a hilarious scene there might be in the court if crinoline skirts came back into fashion, leaving no room for men in the jury box!  Or what trouble women might cause if they all arrived at court wearing their funerary hats with long feather plumes and other embellishments.[32] This condescension of women was present on both sides of the debate. The conference mentioned at the beginning of this article was organised by the Bristol Branch of the National Council for Women and included three female speakers, but the many reports of the event in the local press failed to include the female voices. While the speeches of the men present were recorded in detail, the record of these progressive women went no further than a mention of their name, if at all.[33] The speeches of these men were peppered with humour: words of caution to women not to study the law, for fear of their bewilderment; and that the books on magisterial or judicial practice were heavy.[34]

Women’s education was fundamental to their assimilation into these new civil roles. In this period, Bristol was home to an entire movement of women who organised and campaigned for women’s rights. A key aspect to the work that these organisations undertook was to equip women with skills and knowledge to step into the roles that were newly open to them. The organisations themselves gave women experience in leadership.[35] As the Dublin newspaper, The Weekly Freeman, rather liberally proclaimed in the week of the first mixed jury at the Bristol Quarter Sessions:

“The idea of a woman as a tender and exotic plant unfitted to bear the stress of wind and weather is a stupid fiction. Women have always had to do their share, and a bit more, of the hard work of the world; the only difference is that nowadays they are not satisfied to allow man a monopoly of the particular kinds of work which he had marked off as his own.”[36]

In Bristol, there had been a growing nexus of women’s organisations championing a range of causes, on a local and a national level, since the 1860s. The sheer numbers of organisations involved in social action and political reform campaigns, as well as the breadth of their interests is noteworthy.[37] Jury duty was just one aspect of the fight for women’s social and political emancipation. Despite the persistent opposition evidenced in this article, the women’s organisations of Bristol continued their concerted efforts to challenge gender inequalities both within the Bristol region, and on a national level.


[1] William Blackstone, “Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books.” In Two Volumes. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1893). Vol. 1 – Books I & II

[2] Western Daily Press, 22 March 1921.

[3] Representation of the People Act, 1918.

[4]Archive of Labour Party Manifestos”, Accessed 3 August 2020. http://www.labour-party.org.uk/manifestos/1918/1918-labour-manifesto.shtml Labour Party.Org.

[5] Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, 1919.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Vote, 5 March 1920.

[8] New York Times, 29 July 1920.

[9] Anne Logan. “Making Women Magistrates: Feminism, Citizenship and Justice in England and Wales 1918-1950.” PhD thesis, University of Greenwich, 2002.

[10] Western Daily Press, 29 July 1920.

[11] The Vote, 6 August 1920.

[12] Ibid.

[13]Ibid.

[14] See for example: Portsmouth Evening News, 29 July 1920; Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 29 July 1920; Daily    Mirror, 29 July 1920

[15] New York Times, 29 July 1920.

[16] Western Daily Press, 20 June 1921.

[17] Western Daily Press, 20 June 1921

[18] Western Daily Press, 29 July 1920

[19] Western Daily Press, 25 Feb 1921

[20] Western Daily Press, 17 January 1921

[21] The Liverpool Echo, 29 July 1920

[22] The Bath Chronicle, 30 July 1920

[23] Kevin Crosby, “Keeping Women off the Jury in 1920s England and Wales.” Legal Studies. Vol. 37, No.4 (2017): pp.695-717.

[24] The Gloucester Citizen, 5 March 1924

[25] Ibid.

[26] The Sheffield Daily Independent, 31 December 1919.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] The Vote, 6 August 1920.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Anne Logan, “Building a New and Better Order? Women and Jury Service in England and Wales, c.1920-70.” Women’s History Review. Vol. 22, No. 5 (2013): pp. 701-716

[32] Western Daily Press, 17 July 1921

[33] Western Daily Press, 22 March 1921

[34] Ibid.

[35] Madge Dresser, “Women and The City: Bristol 1371-2000.” Bristol: Redcliffe Press, 2016. p.114.

[36] The Weekly Freeman, August 7 1920

[37] Madge Dresser, “Women and The City: Bristol 1371-2000.” Bristol: Redcliffe Press, 2016. p.134.

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