Georgie Frost became the first woman in Great Britain and Ireland to hold a full-time position in the law courts despite huge opposition from the powers-that-be, writes Robert Hume
Thomas Frost had held the position of Petty Sessions Clerk for the District of Sixmilebridge and Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co. Clare, for 45 years when, in June 1915 at the age of 73, he decided it was high time to retire and hand over to his 36 year-old daughter, Georgina – or Georgie as everyone called her.
The job had become something of a family tradition: before Georgie’s father, her maternal grandfather, John Kett, had been Petty Sessions Clerk.
The duties included minuting meetings, preparing warrants and issuing licences – particularly dog licences. Georgie, who had been forced to grow up fast after her mother died when she was eight-years-old, was hugely experienced, having worked alongside her father for six years and done the job on her own whenever he took time off, or was ill.
Being the only candidate for the position, in July 1915 she was elected unopposed by the magistrates, who were impressed by her excellent track record. “Great credit was due to the chivalry of the magistrates of Clare”, applauded the Clare Champion newspaper.
But Lord Wimborne, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, was less impressed. In his opinion, no woman could possibly do the job, and there must be a new election. In September Georgie was duly elected a second time.
Again Wimborne stopped her taking up the post and insisted on a third election in October… where she was voted in yet again.
“It is against the rules of the department for a woman to act as Petty Sessions Clerk”, declared Wimborne’s office.
The role was “inappropriate and unsuitable” for a woman, who was “not a proper person” for the job – in other words, not a man.
In the camp, on the bench, and in the jury-box there is no place for women
Although women were still not entitled to vote, the Clare magistrates pointed out that nowadays they were doctors, factory inspectors, overseers of the poor and mayors, and decided to nominate Georgina Frost as Petty Sessions Clerk for a temporary period of 12 months.
The government, they said, should “waive its prejudice aside”, and sanction her appointment permanently.
When this was met with a stony refusal, Georgie – described by distant relative Patrick Waldron, as a “fine, independent outgoing lady”, who wore tweed skirts and went to rugby internationals – refused to accept defeat. Emboldened by the work of the Irish Women’s Franchise League and Cumann na mBan, she engaged a top-notch legal team of Tim Healy, Michael Comyn, James Comyn and Robert Frost of Limerick.
A long legal battle ensued, that began with Georgie submitting a Petition of Right, and continued in the Court of Appeal in Dublin, where one judge, Lord Shandon, who was about to retire, left a letter instructing that her appeal should be granted, seeing there was no law on the statute book disallowing a woman petty sessions clerk.
However, his advice was ignored, and in December 1918 Lord Chief Justice Molony and Lord Justice Stephen Ronan dismissed her complaint, arguing that Georgie might be required during the course of her duties to take depositions in criminal cases, which due to the “finer qualities of women” she would find “painful” and “unpleasant”.
The decision handed down was given against her “purely on the ground of her sex”, wrote a Mrs Anna M. Haslam to the editor of the Irish Times.
In spite of improved educational and career opportunities for girls, many people still believed the role of a woman was primarily that of a doting mother and submissive wife who should take care of her physical appearance and sacrifice her own interests to those of her family.
The only thing for it was for Georgie to take her case to the House of Lords where it was heard as Georgina Frost (Pauper) v The King. By describing herself as a pauper she would not incur any legal costs if she lost.
But times were changing fast: the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act had been passed in December 1919, which allowed women to take up appointments in hitherto male spheres.
One hundred years ago, on 27 April 1920, the Lord Chancellor of England requested the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland not only to sanction her appointment but also backdate it to 1915. This made Georgie the first woman in Great Britain and Ireland to hold a full-time position in the law courts.
Although her career was exciting – when cycling home from issuing dog licences she was held at gunpoint and robbed – it was short-lived, because in 1923 the Irish Free State abolished her job, and she had to find alternative work.
For a while she acted as an agent for the Anchor Line shipping company.
Georgie never married, and returned to live in the large family home, Garna House, next to the River O’Kearney on Main Street, Sixmilebridge, looking after her father who lived until 96. In 1939, a year after he pased away, Georgie herself died. She was 59 years old.
Once deemed “not a proper person” to sit in a lawcourt, Georgina Frost deserves a place in history alongside some of the more outspoken, and certainly more widely known members of the suffrage movement, such as Countess Markievicz and Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington.
By means of her “tenacity and perseverance”, writes her biographer Joanne Mooney Eichacker, she “extracted a minor but highly significant concession from the male-dominated establishment”.