Over hot and sour tom karr soup and mussels, washed down with an Abstinence on the Beach mocktail at Yum Yums on Stoke Newington High Street, barrister and writer Nemone Lethbridge discusses sexism at the bar in the 1950s, her expulsion from chambers after her marriage to a convicted murderer was made public, and what it is like to go from ‘outlaw to feminist icon’.
Now 85, Lethbridge is enjoying a renewed blush of fame after the story of her extraordinary life and career was rediscovered.
Born in 1932, was sent to board at a convent school in Chew Magna, Somerset at the age of eight. The young Lethbridge ‘fell in love with it’ and, contrary to the agnostic teaching of her parents, found faith – something that has played an important life ever since.
In deference to her mother, she promised not to be received into the church until she had finished university, and when she finally became a Catholic, her mother told her she had ‘betrayed everything that the family stood for’ by going back to a ‘primitive, barbaric religion.’
As a young woman, Lethbridge was very political. ‘I wanted to go into politics,’ she says, and a law degree seemed a good way in. A liberal by persuasion, she is a card-carrying member of the Liberal Democrat party. ‘I’ve always been in the minority,’ she says, and hopes their fortunes will turn around.
‘I’m not impressed by anybody else. I like Jeremy Corbyn — I think he’s a very honest man, but I can’t see him as a prime minister.’
Following school, Lethbridge believed there were only two universities – Oxford and Cambridge. She picked for the former, and in 1952 went up to Somerville College to read law.
One of only two women studying law, she found there was no law tutor at her college and the pair were drafted out to Keeble College to be taught by ‘Davage’s father’.
‘The law tutor there didn’t have a Christian name. His son was a distinguished rowing blue and he was known as Davage’s father,’ she explains.
Whatever his name was, he did not think much of his two female charges. ‘He told us neither of us was clever and that the idea of going to the bar was laughable. But he said “It doesn’t matter, as both of you will commit matrimony”.’
The law degree itself was not of much practical use in the modern world, she recalls: ‘The first year was Roman law, done in Latin. I can tell you how to manumit a slave. The second year was largely mediaeval land law done in Norman French.’
Pupillage through nepotism
Still intent on going into politics, she did the bar exam and ‘through sheer nepotism’ got pupillage with Mervyn Griffith-Jones, of Lady Chatterly fame. Prosecuting in the 1950 obscenity trial, he had asked the jury the now infamous question on whether it were a book they would wish their wife or servants to read.
‘I don’t know why he said that foolish thing, which is the only thing people remember about him. It is so unfair because he was a nice man and a very good prosecutor,’ says Lethbridge.
Lethbridge got the position through her father’s connection to David Maxwell Fyfe, the first Earl of Kilmuir, who had been one of the prosecutors at the Nurmeburg trials after the war. ‘My father was the Chief of Intelligence for the British Army of the Rhine and had worked very closely with the Nuremberg team.’
While Griffith-Jones was always courteous, Lethrbidge notes that he was ‘highly embarrassed by having a woman trailing around after him’. Her arrival did not impress his clerk, Henry Twelvetree, who told Griffith Jones: ‘This is a royal command. Regard it as an experiment which need never be repeated.’ While the junior clerk was dispatched to acquire nail varnish remover to remove Lethbridge’s nail polish.
In at the deep end
Back then, pupils were on their feet from day one, and Lethbridge was thrown in at the deep end. ‘My first case was defending a man charged with arson, at the Old Bailey, before the terrifying recorder, Sir Gerald Dodson.
‘Unsurprisingly, my chap was convicted and he gave him seven years – a bit of a shock in one’s first case.’
Then, it was off for her second six to 3 Pump Court, where she found a ‘much more relaxed and tolerant’ atmosphere. ‘Rose Heilbron was already there and had broken the glass ceiling,’ says Lethbridge.
Heilbron was the first woman to lead in a murder case, the first female recorder, the first woman judge to sit at the Old Bailey, and the second woman to be appointed a High Court judge. She was, recalls Lethbridge, a ‘remarkable woman — very nice, very unspoilt’.
But, she adds: ‘People were awful about her. I think it was jealousy — she was very able, very successful and very beautiful.
‘They said she only got her work because the men were all away at the war and that she pinched the men’s work. And people would say disparagingly “look at her solicitors”.’
Heilbron faced three-fold prejudice, says Lethbridge — ‘against a woman, who came from the provinces (she was a Liverpool girl). And I’m afraid there was also a strong streak of antisemitism’.
Lethbridge commends Heilbron’s response: ‘She was very sensible – she wasn’t bitter – she just got on with it and did very well.’
Another one of the handful of female barristers in London at the time, recalls Lethbridge, was Jean Southwell. ‘She was at 6KBW. She’d been in the Wrens and had worked at Bletchley Park. She was taken on as a pupil by Christmas Humphries. He realised he’d got a treasure and didn’t let her go.
‘She was a very clever, very able woman, who’s never had the recognition she deserved – people don’t remember her, which is crazy,’ laments Lethbridge.
Lethbridge’s pupil master at Pump Court, was Norman Broderick, whom she describes as ‘an absolute sweetheart’. He practiced family law and medical negligence. Having witnessed a defended divorces, which were common at the time, Lethbridge determined not to do family law. That experience also convinced her, despite her faith, of the need for divorce reform.
Barred from the facilities
In 1957, when most sets still refused to admit women or black people, Lethbridge was taken on as a tenant at Hare Court. The first woman there, she had a frosty reception. ‘I was barred from using the facilities,’ she says, recalling that a Yale lock had been installed on the lavatory and each male member had been given a key, while she was instructed to use the Kardomah coffee house on Fleet Street.
‘I wasn’t allowed any work … not even traffic cases,’ she adds, explaining that in the days before the Crown Prosecution Service, chambers depended on work provided by the Scotland Yard solicitor, who did not like women and would not brief them.
‘I had to find my own work,’ she recalls breezily. This she did, either by way of the dock brief or by finding favour with the wine waiter in the bar mess on the Western circuit, who had the gift of patronage over prosecution work. ‘Briefs were handed at the beginning of dinner,’ she recalls, ‘hence the term “the soup list”, still used today’.
Lethbridge and the Krays
Lethbridge got a break, when the senior partner at Lincoln & Lincoln, who was an orthodox Jew, required an ‘available gentile who was happy to go to court on Saturdays’.
It was those Saturday morning courts that Lethbridge first came to act for a couple of East End villains, who found themselves regularly nicked by ‘ambitious young policemen’ under the old ‘sus laws’, under which police could arrest anyone loitering with intent under the Vagrancy Act 1824.
That pair of crooks were the now infamous Kray twins, whom she represented until she forced to leave the bar in 1961, and whom she recalls as being much smaller fry than their reputation now suggests, but ‘very polite’. Her husband Jimmy was none too impressed with them either – asked once by Lethbridge what he made of them, he replied simply ‘fucking cheap suits’.
Marriage to a convict
Lethbridge had met her husband, Jimmy ‘Ginger’ O’Connor, at the Star Tavern in Belgravia. The pair had been introduced by a member of her chambers, Sir Lionel Thompson, known as the Bad Baronet — ‘He was one of the few men who weren’t embarrassed to be seen with me,’ she recalls.
From a vastly different background to Lethbridge, O’Conner grew up in grinding poverty and had been a petty criminal.
In 1942, when Lethdridge was nine years old, he was arrested for the murder of George Ambridge in April the previous year. Another crook gave evidence that O’Conner had sold him the victim’s gold watch, telling him that it had come from a ‘robbery that went wrong’.
In spite of questionable evidence, O’Connor was convicted and, in the Old Bailey’s court number 1, sentenced to be hanged. The date of execution was set for his own birthday.
After an intervention from one of the police officers, the home secretary, Herbert Morrison, commuted the death sentence and O’Connor served 11 years of a life sentence.
Lethbridge and O’Conner had married in secret in Ireland in 1962, so there would no record of their union at Somerset House. Her chambers knew of the relationship and turned a blind eye, until it was exposed, following a piece in The Telegraph about her sister’s wedding.
The wilderness years
To spare her mother the embarrassment of the publicity, Lethbridge took her abroad for six weeks. ‘It was at the time of the Bay of Pigs, when we got back, we saw the world had nearly come to end,’ she recalls. And on their return to London, Lethbridge’s former life came to an end too.
Her head of chambers had sent a letter stating: ‘For reasons that you’ll appreciate … I can no longer accept your rent as a member of chambers.’ So, in 1961 she was cast out of the profession she had loved so much – and to which she did not return for almost 20 years.
O’Connor, who had done a writing course with Ruskin University while in prison, had become a writer for television and radio, and Lethbridge turned her hand to writing too. The pair lived for a time on Greece before returning to London and had two sons.
Lethbridge made a couple of attempts to return to the law, and at one stage had her name removed from the barrister’s roll, and signed up to become a solicitor. But, she changed her mind after seeing the solicitors’ accounting exams.
Back to the bar
Then in 1981, she was invited to join the chambers of Louis de Pinna on Chancery Lane. He was, recalls Lethbridge, ‘an old school Liberal of independent mind and without prejudices’ who had taken on black tenants. ‘Braver still,’ she adds, ‘he took on me, despite my years in the wilderness’.
Lethbridge was astonished how much the bar had changed during her absence. ‘There were women and black and Asian faces everywhere. The judges were courteous to women and there were women on the bench.’
Describing herself as a feminist, Lethbridge is against positive discrimination to bring about gender equality on the bench. “Some appointments were made in the Callaghan days, as a result of positive discrimination that set women back,’ she explains – and recounts one female judge who would weep openly on the bench and another whose pompous manner out-pomped the men.
The appointment of Lady Hale as president of the Supreme Court, she says, is ‘absolutely brilliant’. Hale, she says, is ‘so good and a normal, modest woman who is comfortable in her skin’.
Lethbridge’s advice to women looking to go to the bar now: ‘Be yourself – don’t feel you have to behave like a man – and have a rich daddy,’ she adds, dismayed by the cost of legal education.
No call for Latin
The continuing cuts to legal aid also causes her much consternation. So outraged was she when the government started its assault on public funding in 1995, that she set up a law centre – Our Lady of Good Counsel Law Centre – in Stoke Newington, with family barrister Mark Twomey QC.
Her priest had asked for people to share their skills in the community. ‘I initially offered to teach Latin, but the priest didn’t think they’d be much call for that in Stoke Newington,’ she recalls. And so, she hit on the law centre idea, which is still open every Saturday, helping more people than ever, and at which Lethbridge can still be found.
During her time at the bar, Lethbridge appeared in the courtroom where her husband had, years before, been sentenced to death. While in court, she says she thought of his ordeal often. ‘I just thought it was so unfair and wanted to clear his name’ – something she is still trying to do.
From outlaw to feminist icon
Lethbridge’s story was rediscovered after barrister Katie Gollop QC bought an old scrapbook that contained newspaper clippings about her. Her appearance last year at the Spark 100 conference, organised by the First 100 Years project, sparked media interest at home and abroad. Her cousin, she says, commented on how she had gone ‘from outlaw to feminist icon’.
On being a legal celeb after all this time, Lethbridge says: ‘I think it’s quite funny. It’s bizarre. I’m having a wonderful time. I’ve sort of come back to life.’ Adding: ‘I never actually went away’.
Too polite to call them two-faced hypocrites, Lethbridge finds it ‘hilarious’ that ‘people who wouldn’t speak to me for 20 years are now trying to be friends. I think it’s quite funny; It’s quite sad. I’m the same person; nothing has changed as far as I’m concerned,’ she smiles.
Despite the way she was treated by the bar, Lethbridge harbours no bitterness. ‘I was angry, but if you let yourself become bitter, you destroy yourself.’
Lethbridge’s life has been too eventful to do it justice over one short lunch. Thankfully, she is penning her memoirs, so her full story will be aired, providing she can follow her publisher’s instructions and write more about herself and less about her husband. It is bound to be a fabulous read.