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In 1903, Bertha Cave’s application to be admitted as a student at Gray’s Inn for the purpose of being called to the Bar was rejected because she was a woman. She appealed to the House of Lords, where the appeal was also rejected on the same grounds.

Although her application was unsuccessful, her appeal briefly placed Bertha Cave at the centre of the debate concerning whether or not there should be women lawyers.

Virtually nothing else is known about her, either before or after the application and appeal.

  • Bertha Cave applies to join Gray’s Inn

    Bertha Cave applies to join Gray’s Inn (1903)

    On March 3, 1903, Bertha Cave sent a letter to the Benchers of Gray’s Inn applying to be admitted as a student for the purpose of being called to the Bar.

    Bertha Cave’s application was first addressed at a Pension meeting on March 13, 1903, ten days after the letter was written. There were a number of legal implications to admitting Bertha Cave as the first woman to an Inn of Court, and a special committee was formed. The principal question that the committee sought to answer was whether the Society of Gray’s Inn had any power to admit as students women who were applying for the express purpose of being called to the Bar.

    On April 24, 1903, the special committee presented their report to Pension rejecting Bertha Cave’s application on two counts: firstly, a single Inn of Court did not have the power to set a precedent, such as admitting a woman to study for the Bar; secondly, any gender-neutral terms relating to the membership of the Inn should be read as male. Only when the legislature was changed could the Inn admit women. The Benchers of Gray’s Inn, upon hearing the conclusion of the special committee, moved that Bertha Cave be informed that they had no power to admit her.

    Bertha Cave then appeared in the House of Lords before Lord Halsbury, then-Lord Chancellor, and the Judges on December 2, 1903, to appeal the decision made by Gray’s Inn. The issue now was not whether the Judges in the House of Lords had the power to change the law, but whether they were willing to change it to allow women to enter the legal profession. The Judges decided against allowing such a precedent.

    Although Bertha Cave’s appeal to the Lord Chancellor and Judges was unsuccessful, she was following the correct procedure for someone who refused admission to an Inn of Court. According to an 1837 Lincoln’s Inn order, the Judges could entertain the application of any gentleman who refused entry to any Inn of Court; each Inn was willing to be bound by the decision of the Judges on such an application. The other three Inns of Court consented to this order on January 27, 1837.

    The entries relating to Bertha Cave’s application to join Gray’s Inn in the Society’s Pension minutes demonstrate that the Benchers of the Inn did not immediately disregard Miss Cave’s application. Although ultimately she was not admitted to the Inn, nevertheless, two Benchers had moved in favour of admitting her when she first applied. Even the special committee, which advised rejecting Bertha Cave’s application, did so by citing a number of legal precedents as to why the Inn’s Benchers were unable to make such a decision alone. As with the case of Margaret Hall before her, Bertha Cave had to appeal to the legislators for change. However, in 1903, those legislators were unable or unwilling to enact such a change.

    Women would have to wait until 1919, after a number of debates in Parliament (and a Great War), to be able to become members of the Inns of Court, with the enactment of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act late that year.

  • Where did Bertha Cave Come From?

    Where did Bertha Cave Come From? (1881 -1903)

    No personal information on Bertha Cave that may have been submitted at the time of her application in 1903 has survived in Gray’s Inn. She appears from nowhere, with no recorded education, and after 1904 disappears again into obscurity; no marriage, death, or emigration has so far been traced.

    In fact, nothing would be known about her at all if it were not for the press reports in late 1904 of court hearings regarding a dispute over her faulty bicycle, which, in passing, named her father James Cave and located the family in Croydon.

    The 1901 census for 14 Temple Road, Croydon, shows a small household under the headship of Annie Cave, a married woman, aged 46, of no occupation, born in Astley, Shropshire, with her son Montague Cave, aged 12, and daughter Bertha Cave, aged 20, of no occupation, both born in Brasted, Kent, plus two boarders. The 1891 census for Brasted, Sundridge, and Sevenoaks shows the same small family.

    Bertha’s birth was registered in the district of Sevenoaks. She was born on November 14, 1881, at Park Lodge, Sundridge, the daughter of James Thomas Cave, butler, and his wife Annie (nee Barker).

    James Cave, at the time of the 1871 census, was a footman at Pembroke Lodge in Richmond Park, in the household of Earl Russell, former Prime Minister and grandfather of Bertrand Russell. This was one of the most progressive, not to say scandalous, families of the time, having particular regard to the sometimes extreme views of the earl’s son, Lord Amberley, and his wife, the daughter of the Canadian-born Lady Stanley, a famous champion of women’s rights and one of the founders of Girton College. If there were a place in 1871 in which to be exposed to modern ideas on the role of women and a great many other subjects, this was it.

    Bertha has not been traced in the 1911 census. There are several possible reasons for this, including the usual ones of death, marriage, emigration, change of name, recording, or transcription errors, but the 1911 census had special significance for the women’s suffrage movement. It was marked by the refusal of many supporters of women’s suffrage to participate, withholding their information even though doing so was a criminal offence. This reflects the thinking of the 1903 decision against women’s right to admission to the Bar: if women were not persons under the law, then the government had no right to enumerate them, or as it was put then, “If women don’t count, why should we be counted?”. It is tempting to think that Bertha Cave deliberately evaded the census, having given herself an unusually good reason to protest being declared a non-person.

    As interesting as it is to know more about Bertha Cave’s background, it leaves many important questions unanswered, the main one of which is what exactly motivated a young woman of modest social status and apparently limited resources to apply for admission to study at the Bar. There is no evidence of any education she may have had beyond what was normal for girls of her station during the period (she is not mentioned in the records of the University of London, for example), although a newspaper article mentions in relation to her application that she had “passed all her examinations and has received the usual certificates of fitness.” [“Shall we have lady barristers?”] Cheltenham Chronicle, December 5, 1903 (and repeated in Gloucestershire Echo, “Unsuccessful Appeal,” December 2, 1903, as cited by Dr. Judith Bourne, “The Vanishing Act of Miss Bertha Cave,”  conference paper, June 9, 2016, First Women Lawyers in Great Britain and the Empire), nor of any occupational or vocational training. A report of her rejected application was published in “The British Journal of Nursing” on December 5, 1903, and Bertha Cave trained as a nurse in the 1890s, according to the Registers of the Royal British Nurses’ Association (now held in the KCL archives), but the dates don’t quite work: Bertha Cave, the nurse, began training at the Royal Margate Sea Bathing Infirmary in March 1893, when Bertha Cave, the Grey’s Inn applicant, was aged 11. *** It is likewise unknown whether her father had any means beyond his wages as a butler, which would not have been more than modest; the newspaper accounts of the “bicycle hearings” of 1904 make it clear that his was the only source of income in the family.

    While she was clearly in communication with Christabel Pankhurst, in that they both applied for admission to an Inn of Court at around the same time and once spoke at the same public meeting (at which all the credit went to Christabel, as Bertha was reportedly a poor speaker), her place and involvement in the wider suffrage movement are obscure; apparently she has not been traced in extant records (ex., Dr. Judith Bourne).

  • After Bertha Cave's Appeal

    After Bertha Cave’s Appeal (1904/5)

    Although Bertha Cave’s application to Gray’s Inn was unsuccessful, her appeal to the Bench of Judges in December 1903 briefly placed Bertha Cave at the centre of the debate concerning whether or not there should be women lawyers.

    Late in December 1903, Miss Cave wrote to the “Saturday Review” to offer her immediate thoughts on the decision of the Judges in the Lords [reported in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 19 December 1903]. She was dismayed that some men were concerned that opening the Inns of Court to women would overwhelm these societies with women and take away work from their male counterparts. Cave argued that, compared to the number of women that would be immediately admitted, men still dominated the profession, and “a few women, more or less, cannot make much difference.” Miss Cave had humble legal aspirations and sought only to provide counsel should she be allowed to pursue a legal career. She did not aspire to the Bench. Quite understandably, Cave ridiculed the notion that a Judge would be so fascinated by a lady lawyer that he would be unable impartially to administer justice. Immediately after her appeal, Cave stated that she would seek any loophole to be admitted to the law and announced that she intended to seek admission to the Rolls as a solicitor [The Times, 3 December, 1903].

    Bertha Cave’s high-profile appeal brought to the fore opinion pieces regarding female lawyers in general. A contributor to The Yorkshire Evening Post, writing on the day of Bertha Cave’s rejected appeal on December 3, 1903, chastised the judges for not seriously considering her appeal. The contributor pitied the overly-conservative view of the judges and remarked that, in relation to the United States of America and many European countries, England and Scotland lagged behind in their reticence to accept women in the legal profession.

    In January 1904, less than a month after Bertha Cave’s unsuccessful appeal in the Lords, two other women looked to ‘play the part of Portia’ [‘The Lady and the Law’, Portsmouth Evening News]. Ivy Williams, who in 1922 became the first woman called to the Bar in England, offered the Inns of Court an ultimatum: “Admit us or we shall form a third branch of the profession and practice as outside lawyers” [reported in Law Journal, 34, 1904, 1-2]. Less than a fortnight after Bertha Cave’s unsuccessful appeal in the Lords, Williams stated her intent to apply to Inner Temple as a student for the Bar and, if necessary, to appeal to Parliament itself. She did not wish to practice for money and instead wished to act as a poor man’s lawyer [Cambridge Independent Press, 18 December 1903]. However, the Inns of Court were still reluctant to admit women without a significant change to the law; an application by Christabel Pankhurst, in the same month as Williams’ ultimatum, was rejected by the Benchers of Lincoln’s Inn for the same reason that Bertha Cave had been rejected from Gray’s Inn: that there was no precedent for women lawyers in England and they, as Benchers of an Inn of Court, were unable to change the law.

    Writing for the Lady’s Pictorial early in 1904, Bertha Cave put forth a lengthy and reasoned argument for women lawyers, directly challenging some of the comments made in her unsuccessful appeal in the Lords [reprinted in Dundee Courier, 16 February, 1904]. In Cave’s opinion, the main reason that men were reluctant to admit women to the Inns of Court was an aversion to departing from the traditions and precedents of legal procedure. Cave’s response piece, printed in the Lady’s Pictorial, argued that allowing women to join these legal institutions would not, in fact, upset the status quo of the Inns.

    Mixed lectures have already occurred in schools and colleges, so there should be no great upset in legal education. It appeared strange, “almost heathen,” to Bertha Cave that in a society where men and women shared classes and lectures, they could not take their meals together. She dismissed the opinion that if women were allowed to take meals in Hall, there would be a free-for-all amongst the male students for “the honour of sitting at a woman students’ mess”. More likely, she argued, the male students would initially resent the presence of a female student, but the novelty would quickly wear off and things would go on pretty much as before.

    Cave was particularly critical of those who said that a woman could not accomplish the practical process of being Called to the Bar: “Are not women as capable of walking in procession to the top of the hall, signing their names in a book, and listening to a few short speeches (which constitute the whole ceremony) as men”?

    These high-profile appeals by women to be admitted to the Inns of Court no doubt influenced the decision of the Union Society of London to have as the topic of their Ladies’ Night debate, held at Lincoln’s Inn on January 20, 1904, the question of whether or not female admission to the Bar should be allowed. Both Bertha Cave and Christabel Pankhurst were in attendance. Mr. Edward Atkin made the principal motion, “That this house rejoices at the decision of the Lord High Chancellor of England protecting the Inns of Court from invasion by the gentler sex and records its belief that ladies ought not to be allowed to practice at the Common Law Bar or to hold judicial office” [reported in The Times, 21 January, 1904].

    Both Bertha Cave and Christabel Pankhurst raised objections to this motion. Miss Cave claimed that women criminals ought to have the benefit of having women advocates; Miss Pankhurst lamented that women witnesses could only be examined by men. Their desire for women lawyers was supported by Dr. Kenrick, who pointed out that no difficulty had arisen from the admission of women to the practice of medicine and surgery; from a logical point of view, all men and women should be admitted equally in every profession. Ivy Williams, though absent from the debate, wrote to support the view that women should be admitted to the Inns of Court and said she would have moved an amendment in favour of the admission of women to these societies if they had passed all the required law examinations at university. Further debate suggested that maybe women should only be allowed to practice in certain courts. Mr. Atkin’s original motion, that women should never be allowed to join the Inns of Court, was rejected by 103 votes to 85. This debate did not, however, have any legal power to change the law to reflect this vote in favour of women lawyers.

    Despite the largely positive attention Miss Cave and other women like her were receiving on the subject of women in the legal profession, by April 1904, Bertha Cave seemed to have given up on her ambition to join the Law Society and qualify as a solicitor. The Master of the Rolls, Sir Richard Collins, had been one of the Lords of Appeal that rejected her admittance to Gray’s Inn in December 1903, and she believed that he would object to a woman’s name being placed upon the Rolls, an objection that “could not fail to have weight with society” [reported in the Portsmouth Evening News, 13 April 1904].

    Bertha Cave next appears in the newspapers in November 1904, in a case relating to a broken bicycle. On November 11, 1904, nearly a year after her appeal against the decision of the Benchers of Gray’s Inn not to admit her to society, Miss Cave appeared before the City of London court. She spoke in defence of her father, James Cave, who was the defendant in a case brought by Frank Peach and Co. (Limited) for failing to pay £8 18s 9d for a bicycle sold to him. Ultimately, judgement was given in favour of the plaintiffs.

    Miss Cave’s appearance attracted the attention of the papers because she appeared robed in the law student’s cap and gown and acted as unofficial counsel for her father. The Times reported the story under the heading “A Law Student’s Bicycle,”  but other newspapers used the more misleading headline “Lady “Barrister’s” Bicycle” [e.g., Nottingham Evening PostDerby Daily Telegraph], despite her robes being those of a student, not a barrister.

    It is unknown what became of her after the bicycle hearings.

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