Twins Izzy and Sophia Kilburn (13) have successfully campaigned and fundraised for a blue plaque in Brighton for pioneering lawyer Helena Normanton.
The plaque was unveiled to an enthusiastic crowd, which packed the street, on the afternoon of 18th June at 4 Clifton Place, Brighton. A girls’ choir of students from Brighton College (the twins’ school) sang “This Girl’s on Fire” to start the event.
Izzy and Sophia introduced speeches by a distinguished group of women, including the Mayor Cllr Lizzie Deane; Professor Judith Bourne, Head of Law at St Mary’s University; Professor Nicky Padfield QC, Master of the Bench at Middle Temple and Professor of Law at Cambridge University; Dr Helen Dancer, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex; and Shelley Baker, Head Teacher of Varndean School, who stood in for Caroline Lucas MP, who was unable to attend. The family was represented by Dr Angela Owen-Smith.
Photographs were taken by the plaque. Thereafter some of those present travelled to the graveyard of St Wulfran’s Church at Ovingdean to drink a toast to Helena at her newly cleaned and restored grave.
Izzy and Sophia said: “This year, 2022, marks 100 years since Helena Normanton was called to the bar at the Middle Temple. We think it is brilliant to be able to have a plaque put up in time to celebrate that and everything she achieved.”
The speakers stressed Helena Normanton’s national importance as a lawyer and a campaigner for women’s rights. She was the first woman to be admitted to an Inn of Court, lead murder trials in the English courts, the first female law student at an inn of court, the first female counsel to lead in a case at the high court, the first woman to run a trial at the Old Bailey and one of the first two women to be made a King’s Counsel.
She was a champion of women’s rights, outside as well as inside the courts, making history as the first married woman to have a passport issued in her birth name at a time when a wife not taking her husband’s name was a rarity. She was a strong supporter of female suffrage, being a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union and later the Women’s Freedom League. She was an early advocate for equal pay for equal work.
Born in 1882, her father was killed when she was only four years old. Her mother, Jane Normanton, moved to Brighton with her two young daughters. She ran a small grocery shop and also turned her family home at 4 Clifton Place into a boarding house.
Helena won a scholarship to York Place Science School, forerunner of Varndean School. She later trained as a teacher and then moved to London, but always retained her loyalty to her old school, to Brighton and to Sussex. In 1947, she attended a special reunion of the Varndean Old Girls Association to mark 21 years since the school moved to new premises. She recalled the early days in York Place and wrote for the school magazine. Speakers at the unveiling quoted her comment in the Varndean Chronicle that “a school is not a building, a place or a staff, but the whole living, breathing texture that moves on through generations.”.
Speakers stressed Helena’s love of Sussex, quoting her
touching statement that “You can go and see the Alps and the Andes, but where do you see anything as sweet as the rolling Downs?” . She was also the first person to leave money for the future University of Sussex saying “I make this gift in gratitude for all that Brighton did to educate me when I was left an orphan”. There is now the Normanton university scholarship in her name.
Please see the ITV news piece (link below) for background about the girls’ campaign.
We are so proud of the girls and delighted that, in addition to this campaign, the girls are also Youth Ambassadors for the Mary Clarke Statue Appeal.