‘A Lady Thoroughly Conversant’: Victorian Women as Constructively Briefless Barristers

Ann M. Hale is a PhD candidate at the University of Greenwich. Her research focuses on the relationship between nineteenth-century legal periodicals and professional identity. She was awarded the 2014 Rosemary VanArsdel Prize for the best graduate student essay investigating Victorian periodicals and newspapers. The prize-winning essay, “W.T. Stead and Participatory Reader Networks,” appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Victorian Periodicals Review. She can be contacted at ann@ann-m-hale.org or @ann_m_hale.

‘A Lady Thoroughly Conversant’: Victorian Women as Constructively Briefless Barristers

Figure 1  @VPReditors Twitter posts from 1 April 2016 and 5 April 2016.

Figure 1 @VPReditors Twitter posts from 1 April 2016 and 5 April 2016.

March madness is over. Well, the March madness that I cared about anyway. Punch (1841-2002) won the 2016 Research Society for Victorian Periodicals/Victorian Periodicals Review Bracket Challenge.[i] The result was neither surprising nor scientific, but for me it was satisfying. The nineteenth-century legal periodicals that are the focus of my PhD research are important and seriously understudied, but I am under no illusion that they will be the subject of a Victorian popularity contest any time soon. However, in my opinion, a Punch win is a legal-periodical win. After all, an 1892 letter to the editor written by Arthur William à Beckett in the guise of “A. Briefless, Junior” jokingly refers to Punch as “the universally acknowledged organ of the legal profession.”[ii]

Punch and the Gendered Legal Profession

Punch, like the rest of the press, not only constructed and disseminated popular images of the legal profession and its members, it overtly and covertly policed the profession’s gendered boundaries. Governmental entities accede to professional groups, such as the Bar and the Law Society, the right to regulate themselves because they possess, as Magali Sarratti Larson puts it, “esoteric bodies of knowledge linked to central needs and values of the social system.”[iii] Professional periodicals are important gatekeeping tools that allow professional communities to regulate themselves, educate and inform members, indoctrinate new professionals, and, according to Andrew King, protect the profession’s “gender and class monopolies.”[iv] However, neither the professions nor their periodicals exist in isolation.

The nineteenth-century professional press was embedded in and coexistent with the press as a whole, just as the regulation of professionals was embedded within larger social, political, and market forces. Manifestations of these forces, such as universities and the popular press, also participated in regulating the professions.[v] In the case of Punch, a number of its early contributors combined legal training with publishing expertise, including Thackeray, Henry Mayhew, Tom Taylor, Gilbert Abbott à Beckett, and his son, Arthur William à Beckett.[vi] Little wonder that legal material was popular in Punch, or that the satire was often sympathetic toward the profession. By weighing in on some aspect of the law in almost every issue—seemingly endless law-reform measures, rituals of dress and practice, the relationship between the bar and the press, the difficulties solicitors and barristers experienced in a rapidly growing and changing profession, and, occasionally, the spectre of women becoming solicitors or barristers—Punch participated in policing the profession’s boarders. In doing so, it also helped to forestall women’s full participation in the law until 1922.[vii]

Figure 2 "The Briefless Barrister." Bells’ Life in London (24 Feb 1833): 2. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk).

Figure 2 “The Briefless Barrister.” Bells’ Life in London (24 Feb 1833): 2. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk).

Briefless Barristers

I would like to suggest that one way in which Punch, and the popular press as a whole, helped to maintain the profession’s monopolies of gender was through depictions of actual and fictional briefless barristers. Briefless barristers, legitimated by the specialised term “briefless” (and concomitant OED definition[viii]), created an impression that the Bar was woefully overpopulated, leaving no room for new communities to join its ranks, whether drawn from the middle or lower classes, women, or other unrepresented populations.[ix]

The briefless barrister likely most familiar to the BAVs community is Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Robert Audley, although she never deploys the term. Audley is a “handsome, lazy, care-for-nothing fellow” who devotes his time to French novels, dogs, and complaining to colleagues that he has “knocked himself up with over work,” while in truth he is free to abandon his chambers and non-existent briefs to pursue fishing, a mysterious aunt, and his missing friend.[x] He represents a one type of briefless barrister, the gentleman who pursued legal education as a form of finishing education rather than as preparation for active practice. Of course, briefless barristers are a heterogeneous group despite being all men—some found success, while others did not; some were gentlemen who chose not to practice, while others lacked the social and professional connections necessary to obtain paying briefs. And some, like a few of the Punch contributors, elected to combine the law with other pursuits, such as journalism.

Figure 3 Illustration of Mr. Briefless and Mr. Dunup from “Protection to Barristers.” Punch 21 (1852): 32. Print.

Figure 3 Illustration of Mr. Briefless and Mr. Dunup from “Protection to Barristers.” Punch 21 (1852): 32. Print.

It is impossible to detail the hundreds of examples of briefless barristers in addition to Robert Audley that I have come across. Nineteenth-century briefless barristers served as comic filler,[xi] cautionary figures to dissuade those aspiring to the professions,[xii] exemplars of the abuses of political patronage,[xiii] figures of fun,[xiv] linchpins in marriage plots,[xv] and debauched revellers in pornography.[xvi]  I do have a few favourites, however. Between 1841 and the end of the century, Punch regularly featured “Mr. Briefless” (Figure 3), a character created by Gilbert Abbott à Beckett; “A. Briefless Junior,” created by his son Arthur; and numerous other nameless, briefless men. In 1849, a regional newspaper took Punch and other publications to task for making fun of the briefless:

A briefless barrister appears to be viewed by all men as a fit and proper object ‘for scorn to point his slow, moving finger at.’ From Mr. Punch, down to the dull parliamentary proser … Do they forget, or did they ever know, that Burleigh and Cromwell, that Pym and Hampden, that Moreau and Ireton … that Henry Fielding and Walter Scott, were briefless barristers?[xvii]

This sympathetic newspaper piece appears to be front-page filler, but I have been unable to locate it in any other papers. John Mills’s 1855 novel The Briefless Barrister; Or, the Wheel of Life features not one, but two briefless barristers: Algernon Smith, a gentleman who chooses not to practice, and John Peckinsnoffe, a middle-class upstairs neighbour lacking social connections whose ultimate professional success is made possible by his briefless colleague’s largesse.[xviii] However, my personal favourite briefless barrister is an 1853 John Leech illustration in Punch.


Figure 4 John Leech. "The Barrister." From "The Ladies of the Creation; Or, How I Was Cured of Being a Strong-Minded Woman." Punch's Almanack for 1853. Print.

Figure 4 John Leech. “The Barrister.” From “The Ladies of the Creation; Or, How I Was Cured of Being a Strong-Minded Woman.” Punch’s Almanack for 1853. Print.

‘A Lady Thoroughly Conversant’

Sixty-nine years before the first woman was admitted to the bar, Punch published “The Barrister” (Figure 4), which depicts a parasol-carrying woman walking down Chancery Lane wearing a barrister’s wig, robe, and a glorious pair of plaid bloomers.[xix] Another wigged woman carrying a brief sack appears in the background. It is supposed to be a joke, of course. Women could not be barristers. By implication, the women in the illustration must be briefless. That brief bag must be empty. They were absurdities alongside strong-minded, bloomer-wearing women seeking to join other male-dominated professions, such as parliament and the police.[xx] And yet, the illustration makes the impossible seem possible.[xxi]

In the law, legal fictions, such as the constructive trust or constructive liability, are deployed in the interest of justice in situations where legally-required facts do not exist. I propose adopting the term “constructively briefless barrister” as a way of legitimating those nineteenth-century individuals who, despite being barred, attempted in some way to participate fully in the law, whether as analogues of barristers or other members of the legal profession. Even though brieflessless was used to marginalise and satirise underemployed men, the existence of a word to identify them gave the group a legitimacy and an identity that others, such as the women completely barred from the profession, did not have. The concept of the “constructively briefless barrister” would recognise and legitimise those who challenged the gendered boundaries of the legal system, whether by representing themselves, representing others, or, in certain cases, acting outside of the juridical system.

Let me give you two brief examples of women I consider to be “constructively briefless barristers.” Not surprisingly, when they challenged the boundaries of the legal profession, the press actively participated in chastising them and marginalising their achievements.  First, there is Annabella Shedden, a “lady pleader” who represented herself and her father’s interests in the 1860 case of Shedden and Shedden v. Patrick and Patrick, and the Attorney General when her paid counsel were unprepared to proceed. The press praised her knowledge of the complexities of the suit, which involved questions of legitimacy and proof of marriage. According to the Ipswich Journal, “there was a smile of ridicule on the face of almost every lawyer in the place, and [the judge] looked vexed, as though some absurd scene was about to take place. … at length everyone allowed that a veritable Portia had come to judgment. The lady displayed a marvellous amount of forensic skill. Her language was apt, her manner most becoming, and her Latin unexceptionable. The Attorney General could not have done it better; indeed the next day he acknowledged as much”.[xxii]

Angela Burdett-Coutts was so impressed with Shedden, she gave her financial support so she could continue pursuing the case, which dragged on for more than a decade. The press may have praised Shedden’s performance, but they also emphasised her outsider status, her unusual and surprising abilities, and the physical limitations of her female body.[xxiii] In 1865, the Pall Mall Gazette called for a new legislation formally barring women like Shedden from the courts because “female plaintiffs have become common phenomena in our law courts to an extent that seriously affects public interests.”[xxiv]

Second, there is “Mrs. Churchill,” who advertised legal consulting services on the front page of the Telegraph in late 1863.[xxv] Mrs. Churchill described herself as a “lady thoroughly conversant” with the workings of the divorce court, which drew the immediate ire of members of the profession. A correspondent in the Solicitors’ Journal and Reporter called on fellow members of the profession, as a matter of public interest, to identify anyone assisting Mrs. Churchill in her work.[xxvi] The correspondent, well aware that women were not allowed to study the law before the 1870s, questioned “in what legal school her ‘thoroughly conversant’ knowledge of the ‘routine and protection’ of the Divorce Court has been acquired.”[xxvii] The popular press reacted to Mrs. Churchill’s advertisement in three ways: (1) they marginalised it by categorising it as an interesting or entertaining advertisement;[xxviii] (2) they emphasised that she was a “strong-minded woman” exposing herself to the “public gaze” and, as such, ridicule;[xxix] or, they actually drew attention to the issue of women attempting to enter professions previously reserved for men.[xxx]

The terms used by the press to describe Mrs. Churchill and Annabella Sheddon—“lady pleader” and “lady proctoress”—also served to marginalise and trivialise their achievements. That is why I want to appropriate the term “briefless barrister” in order to constructively convey upon them membership in a community of legal practitioners, albeit one that was marginalised yet highly visible.

Other Constructively Briefless Barristers

I am continuing to refine the idea of the “constructively briefless barrister,” looking not only for more examples of women like Sheddon and Churchill, but also for fictional figures to whom the term could also be applied. I certainly see Lucy Audley as a candidate, not only because her actions often mirror those of Robert, such as their parallel infiltrations into the other’s private, domestic spaces, but also because both consciously choose to act outside of the constraints of the law. Robert punishes Lucy extrajudicially by immuring her in a foreign asylum rather than pursuing public legal avenues, while Lucy chooses to break laws that fail to protect abandoned married women like herself. Of course, the figure of the “constructively briefless barrister” in Lady Audley’s Secret requires a great deal of additional work.

Should you have any ideas or suggestions of other constructively briefless barristers, please let me know!


[i] @VPReditors, “By a single vote…” Twitter. 5 Apr 2016. https://twitter.com/VPReditors.

[ii] A. Briefless Junior [Arthur William à Beckett]. “The Honour of the Bar: To the Editor of Punch.” Punch 102 (23 Jan 1892): 48. HathiTrust. Web. 9 Apr 2016. See also, e.g., A. Briefless Junior [Arthur William à Beckett]. “A Really Valuable Suggestion.” Punch (11 Oct 1890): 180. Punch Historical Archive. Web. 25 Sept 2014; A. Briefless Junior [Arthur William à Beckett]. “Homage to Sir James Hannen.” Punch (31 Jan 1891): 60. Punch Historical Archive. Web. 25 Sept 2014; A. Briefless, Junior [Arthur William à Beckett]. “Mr. Briefless, Junior, and his Canine Client.” Punch (15 Feb 1899): 81. Punch Historical Archive. Web. 25 Sept 2014.

[iii] Magali Sarratti Larson. The Rise of Professionalism: A Sociological Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. x. Print.

[iv] Andrew King. “‘Army, Navy, Medicine, Law, Church, Nobility, Nothing at All’: Towards the Study of Gender and the Press in the Nineteenth Century.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 5.2 (2009). Ncgsjournal.com. Web.

[v] I believe that the professional press cannot and should not be studied in isolation. It must be viewed as part and parcel of the press as a whole. At the same time, I also see the need break down some of the persistent silos that isolate, and occasionally privilege, certain categories of publications. Viewing, for example, legal periodicals or scientific periodicals in isolation from other genres, disciplines, or professions ignores the natural hybridity of the medium and professions themselves. For example, there are a few medical-legal periodicals.

[vi] Thackeray studied at the Middle Temple but was never called to the Bar. Mayhew was the son of a solicitor and trained for a short time in the law, but did not complete his studies. Tom Taylor was a member of the Middle Temple and was called to the bar in 1846. Gilbert Albert à Beckett and Arthur William à Beckett were both members of Gray’s Inn, the father was called to the bar in 1841 and his son in 1882. Gilbert practiced for a time and then became a magistrate, while Arthur chose not to practice.

[vii] The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 made it possible for women to become both solicitors and barristers, but the first women were not formally admitted until 1922. Ivy Williams was the first woman called to the bar in England; while Carrie Morrison, Maud Crofts, Mary Pickup, and Mary Sykes were the first women admitted to the Law Society. The First Hundred Years project (first100years.org.uk) is actively recovering the histories of the earliest women practitioners in anticipation of the upcoming centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act.

[viii] The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “briefless” dates to 1888, and all of the example texts are from before 1864, including an 1842 example from one of Punch’s “Ballads of the Briefless” (“briefless, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 14 Jul 2015).

[ix] The term “briefless” relates only to barristers, while the term “clientless” can apply to either medical or legal professionals, at least based on the examples in the OED (“clientless, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 9 Apr 2016). Interestingly, the example texts for “clientless” come from the 1880s, whereas the examples for “briefless” and related words are drawn from 1820-1860. There are occasional references to “clientless solicitors” in fiction and the press, however the numbers are a very small compared to briefless barristers. This, of course, is a reflection of the hierarchical nature of England’s divided legal profession, where barristers are seen as the top of the profession in part because they do not interact directly with clients, instead relying upon solicitors to bring them work. For examples of “clientless solicitors,” see, e.g., “Frozen Out Lawyers.” Punch (1861): 82. Punch Historical Archive. Web. 2 Oct 2014; “What Shall We Do With Our Boys?” Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette (14 Sept 1863): 2. British Newspaper Archive. Web. 6 Feb. 2016; and the character of Edward Hammond in Mrs. Robert MacKenzie Daniel’s novel Georgina Hammond (1849).

[x] Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Ed. Natalie M. Houston. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2003. 71. Print. Actually, briefless barristers embroiled in marriage or inheritance plots seem to be particularly prevalent in two periodicals associated with sensation fiction authors: Belgravia (1867-1899), edited by Braddon between 1867 and 1876, and the Argosy (1865-1901), which was acquired by Ellen Wood in 1867. See, e.g., Frederick Dolman. “A Briefless Barrister’s Story.” Belgravia 61 (Feb 1887): 439-48. ProQuest British Periodicals. Web. 26 Jul 2015; and “When Will She Marry?” The Argosy 4 (1867): 465-78. ProQuest British Periodicals. Web. 2 Feb 2015.

[xi] For examples of periodical filler, see, e.g., “Paris Wit,” The Times no. 9,489 (7 Apr 1815): 3. Times Archive. Web. 15 Jul 2015; “To a Briefless Barrister,” Morning Post no. 16,762 (9 Sept 1824): 3. Gale 19th-Century Periodicals. Web. 2 Jun 2015; “Varieties, &c.,” Cambrian 81 (8 Feb 1884): 6. Welsh Newspapers Online. Web. 20 Aug 2015.

[xii] In his 1857 The Choice of a Profession, Henry Byerley Thomson uses the briefless barrister as a cautionary tale: “How often is a talented, but mild and retiring man, found getting grey as a briefless barrister…” (The Choice of a Profession: A Concise Account and Comparative Review of the English Professions, London: Chapman and Hall, 1857, xiii). Thomson acknowledges that parents want to place their sons in positions of power; but, he cautions them against assuming all individuals are suited to tasks and responsibilities associated with a particular profession. The book includes a brief census of the legal profession in 1857, which he enumerates as being comprised of 18,422 individuals (16,763 qualified practitioners plus 1,659 students). He then breaks the community down further: 85 superior/local judges (the majority of whom are over 60 years of age); 3,111 barristers or advocates (both practicing and briefless); 13,256 solicitors or attorneys; 1,436 officers of courts of justice; 16,626 law-clerks (9,270 under age of 25); and 1,087 law stationers (Thomson, 6).

[xiii] Politicians were accused of creating governmental jobs for the benefit of members of the Bar, such as the role of revising barristers responsible for confirming voter eligibility. A 28 March 1840 article in the Spectator points to a Parliamentary report on the amounts paid to revising barristers between 1835 and 1839 as evidence that briefless barristers administering the system for confirming the franchise had no “check upon the charges” submitted by each “save what their own legal consciences may suggest; and these consciences are of various calibres” (“Charges and Services of Revising Barristers,” Spectator [28 Mar 1840]: 302-03. Spectator Archive. Web. 20 Jul 2015.

[xiv] “Gallery of Lavater.—New Series: Law Phisogs. No. 3. The Briefless Barrister.” Bells’ Life in London and Sporting Chronicle 12 (24 Feb 1833): 2. British Newspaper Archive. Web. 2 Jun 2015.

[xv] See, e.g., “Which Will She Marry?” The Argosy 4 (Nov 1867): 465-87. ProQuest British Periodicals. Web. 2 Feb 2015; “The Barrister’s Clerk.” The Argosy 31 (May 1881): 367-80. ProQuest British Periodicals. Web. 9 Feb 2016; “Aunt Paradox.” The Argosy 40 (1885): 342-59. ProQuest British Periodicals. Web. 2 Feb 2015.

[xvi] See “Swivia; or The Briefless Barrister: The Extra Special Number of the Pearl.” London: Edward Avery, 1879. Print; and its sequel, “New Year’s Day: The Sequel to Swivia” in The Pearl Christmas Annual 1881. Atlanta: Pendulum Books, 1967. Print.

[xvii] “Defense of Briefless Barristers.” Pembrokeshire Herald and General Advertiser (16 Nov 1849): 1. Library of Welsh Newspapers Online. Web. 18 Jul 2015.

[xviii] John Mills. The Briefless Barrister; Or, The Wheel of Life. London: Ward and Lock, 1855. Google Books. Web. 15 Jul 2015.

[xix] The bloomers are a continuation of what I like to call “Punch’s Bloomer Obsession of 1851-1852.”

[xx] “The Ladies of Creation; or, How I was Cured of Being a Strong-Minded Woman.” Punch’s Almanack for 1853 (1853). Print.

[xxi] The joke also works on another level. Barristers were required to elicit suits from solicitors, or, pardon the pun, suitors. If viewed through a heteronormative lens, the relationship could be seen as one where a female barrister must attract the attentions of a male solicitor. As such, “The Barrister” illustration can be viewed as a representation of the profession’s systemic feminization of barristers.

[xxii] “A Lady Pleader in the Divorce Court.” Ipswich Journal (17 Nov 1860): 8. British Newspaper Archive. Web. 29 Dec 2015.

[xxiii] See, e.g., “Extraordinary Law-Suit. A Lady Pleading Her Father’s Cause.” Jersey Independent and Daily Telegraph (17 Nov 1860): 4. British Newspaper Archive. Web. 29 Dec 2015.

[xxiv] “Ladies at Law.” Pall Mall Gazette 1 (7 Feb 1865): 7. Gale 19th-Century British Newspapers. Web. 19 Mar 2016.

[xxv] The advertisement only ran three times: 13 Nov 1863, 18 Nov 1863, and 23 Nov 1863. See, “Divorce.—A Lady thoroughly Conversant…” Telegraph No. 2,619 (13 Nov. 1863): 1. Microfilm.

[xxvi] Y.Z. “General Correspondence: Lady Lawyers.” Solicitors’ Journal and Reporter 8 (21 Nov 1863): 52. HeinOnline Law Journal Library. Web. 18 Oct 2014.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] See, e.g., “Singular Advertisement.” Western Gazette (28 Nov 1863): 4. British Newspaper Archive. Web. 28 Sept 2015.

[xxix] See, e.g., “A Strong-Minded Woman.” Leeds Intelligencer 110 (28 Nov 1863): 3. British Newspaper Archive. Web. 28 May 2015.

[xxx] See, e.g., “Amateur Proctoresses.” Newry Herald and Down, Armagh, and Louth Journal 8 (21 Nov 1863): 4. British Newspaper Archive. Web. 28 Sept 2015.

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