Florence Earengey sat in on the Beatrice Pace murder trial when her husband was junior counsel to Norman Birkett, but the first woman to lead in a murder case at the Old Bailey was Venetia Stephenson. She defended William Holmyard, charged with the December 1928 murder of his 72-year-old grandfather.
Holmyard had borrowed sums of money from his grandfather, variously described as a street bookmaker and antique dealer, who had a shop in Pimlico. As the debt mounted up, the old man told Holmyard’s father. In a rage at what he saw as a betrayal, William struck him with a pair of fire-tongs, fracturing his skull.
At first, Holmyard said he had not seen his grandfather that day but he was unable to explain the blood on his coat and he then made a statement saying he had struck him in self-defence.
The trial was before Mr Justice Travers Humphreys, who initially was not in favour of women barristers. He thought they would be better doing family work as solicitors rather than criminal cases as advocates. He also thought they generally had one eye on the jury and one on the press.
The result was more or less pre-ordained, but at the end of the trial Stephenson received what could be described as a patronising advocate’s farewell from Humphreys. ‘It is a satisfaction to know that everything possible that could possibly be said for this young man, or done for him by advocacy, has been said and done,’ the judge said.
The case went to appeal when Stephenson was led by Sir Henry Maddocks, who argued that because an usher had brought a newspaper into the jury room giving details of legal argument in the jury’s absence the trial was vitiated. This argument received short shrift from Mr Justice Avory, who said there was nothing in the legal argument the jury could not have heard. Anyway, he deprecated sending juries out whenever there was such a discussion.
Holmyard was hanged at Pentonville on 27 February 1929.
As for Venetia Stephenson, in the 1940s she applied to be appointed the first female stipendiary magistrate. That distinction went instead to Sybil Campbell, possibly because her grandfather had been a judge. Campbell herself had not practised at the bar for some years. Nor was Stephenson successful in subsequent applications. She died aged 76 in 1967.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor.