Leslie Howsam

Published On


Page Range

pp. 37–54


  • English

Print Length

18 pages

3. The Commitment to Law

1872 to 1888

In her early twenties, Eliza Orme decided to enter the legal profession, enlisting the help of Helen Taylor, the stepdaughter and assistant of John Stuart Mill. Orme’s award-winning performance in her university courses attracted the attention of other mentors, some of whom tried to help her secure a position, not in one of the Inns of Court (which remained unthinkable) but by working as a junior in a barrister’s chambers. That was unsuccessful. Later, guided by another mentor, she established her own chambers in Chancery Lane, the legal district, and began working there with Mary Ellen Richardson. They were conveyancers and patent agents, and both were directors of the Nineteenth-Century Building Society (an organization for financing real estate transactions). Some of their legal work was legitimate because unregulated, while the more lucrative, regulated, opportunities came about when senior barristers paid for Orme and her associates to prepare legal documents which would appear under the official (male) signature. In an enthusiastic letter to Taylor, Orme described their chambers as ‘a miniature Girton’.

There is evidence of discrimination and challenges, including a fellow-student who sought to appropriate a scholarship she had earned and a newspaper column speculating on the matrimonial ambitions of someone who had led her class in Roman Law. To counter this, Howsam offers a letter from an American woman lawyer describing Eliza Orme and Reina Emily Lawrence working together in a busy, well-appointed office: ‘a fine chaos’. Orme persisted through the challenges and prospered, along with Richardson, Lawrence and other women colleagues. The chapter ends with Leslie Howsam’s informed speculations about the level of Orme’s commitment to legal practice—was that the extent of her ambition, or was it a step on the way to exercising her passionate interest in contemporary politics?


Leslie Howsam

Emerita Distinguished University Professor at University of Windsor
Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Digital Humanities at Toronto Metropolitan University

Leslie Howsam is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Emerita Distinguished University Professor at the University of Windsor (as well as Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Digital Humanities at Toronto Metropolitan University). Her most recent book is the Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book (2015); her best-known book is Old Books & New Histories: An Orientation to Studies in Book and Print Culture (2006). For further information please see