Edith Hesling

First woman to be called to Gray’s Inn and first woman on the Northern Circuit


On 13 June 1923 Edith Hesling was the first woman to be called to Gray’s Inn, the last of the four Inns of Court to Call a woman to qualification as a barrister-at-law. Achieving the distinction of being the first woman to qualify with Gray’s Inn, Hesling had been the second woman to be admitted to student membership, on 4 October 1920 (after Mary Share Jones (1874-1954) who, although admitted first in January 1920, never went on to qualification as a barrister and, in fact, qualified as a medical doctor).

Edith Hesling was born in 1899, in Flixton, just outside Scarborough in North Yorkshire. Her father is listed in the 1901 and 1911 censuses as a wholesale grocer and provision merchant and by 1911 the family were living in Heaton Moor, Stockport. Hesling attend the academically ambitious independent day school, Manchester High School for Girls, and went on to study Law at the Victoria University of Manchester (later the University of Manchester), graduating with an LlB (Hons) in 1922. In 1923 Hesling was elected as the first woman on the Northern Circuit and was in chambers at 23 King Street in Manchester from 1923-1929. In 1929 she moved to 2 Booth Street where she remained until her retirement in 1963.

In 1927 Hesling married Frank Bradbury and went on to have three daughters, twins (Anne and Judith) born in 1929 and Elizabeth, born in 1934. The year of Elizabeth’s birth saw Hesling take the presidency of the Manchester Soroptomists Club.

Alongside legal practice, Hesling was a part time lecturer at the University of Manchester from 1934-1963 and her Gray’s Inn entry says she was in the commercial world:

for a time, but principally ... an academic at the University of Manchester.

She was certainly working in Chambers through to her given active date of 1963 and a retired Manchester solicitor starting her career in the late 1950s speaking in 2018 said that both she and her barrister husband remember Miss Hesling, still seen as a novelty as a woman barrister, some 40 years after her Call.

Although full appointment of a woman as a County Court judge was not made until Elizabeth Lane (1905-1988) was appointed as Recorder to Derby in 1962, Hesling became the first woman to preside over a County Court, as a Deputy at Macclesfield in 1946. Her application in 1949 for a full appointment was not, however, successful.

In the post-war period Hesling sat on a range of boards and tribunals including the Industrial Disputes Tribunal, the National Insurance Board Tribunal and the Employment Appeals Tribunal.

Hesling was very much a Manchester lawyer, not involving herself with London or national matters. She did not appear to make a particular point of being a pioneering woman but simply got on with working across a range of roles in academic and professional life, board positions and women’s networks throughout a long career. She died in Bucklow, Cheshire in 1971.

Carrie de Silva LIB (Hons) MA

Principal Lecturer -Law and Taxation, Harper Adams University