From the Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 26 October 1901
“The usual monotony of the meeting of the Benchers to-day was varied by an incident which should serve as a reminder to them and to all men that the slow-going nineteenth century has come to an end, and that we are now in the full blaze of the enlightened twentieth century. A young lady, hailing rom Derry, applied to be admitted as a law student. ‘Nolumus mutari’ is the motto of the Honourable Society of King’s Inns, and that the ruling members of that society should be aghast at such a revolutionary proposal is only to be expected. At any rate, they refused the application, and the dining hall of King’s Inns and the sacred precincts of the Law Library are safe for still a little longer from the footsteps of encroaching womanhood. St Kevin could not have acted more firmly.”
Who was this Derry girl who was the first to apply for admission to the Bar in Ireland or England?
A subsequent article in the Derry Journal of 28 October 1901 identifies her as Miss Johnston, daughter of Sir John B Johnston, of Boom Hall, Derry, and states that her application, being the first application by a woman for leave to be admitted to study at King’s Inns, aroused the greatest interest, and led to discussions by the Benchers for over an hour before they ultimately decided to refuse her application.
Miss Johnston’s full name was Isabella Marion Weir Johnston and she went on to be the first woman student to enter Trinity College, Dublin in January, 1904, where she left before taking her degree after marrying a lecturer in Mathematics.
An article in the Westminster Gazette of 26 October 1901 entitled ‘No Lady Irish Barrister – Yet,’ describes Miss Johnston as highly cultured and with an exceptionally good educational record. It is stated that ‘although she had several supporters among the Benchers, her application was refused.’ The Bournemouth Daily Echo of the same day describes the application as ‘having created a mild flutter in legal circles.’
Another woman, Bertha Cave, applied in 1903 to be the first female barrister in England. Her claim failed after a hearing before the House of Lords. Other than that she subsequently opted for bacteriology, we know little of Bertha’s subsequent life. But we know even less about the post-Trinity life of Miss Weir Johnston, whose application to be a barrister was the very first in England or Ireland..
Not even a photo! Time to redress this?