In the last few months I have used this blog to reveal some research about lesser-known (but interesting) Kent women who became magistrates (also known as justices of the peace – JPs) such as Eliza Packman, Emily Juson Kerr, and Alice Mackley.
This time I am featuring two comparatively well-known women, who can be found in the Dictionary of National Biography and are mentioned in a great many history books: Lucy Deane Streatfeild (1865-1950) and May Tennant (1869-1946). They were the first women to be made magistrates in Kent. Perhaps it was a coincidence that they both settled in the county of Kent after marriage: in any case, they were former colleagues in an unusual occupation which provided both of them with unique experience of the courts and legal system in the era before the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act opened the legal professions, magistracy and jury box to women. This was because May Abraham and Lucy Deane were two of the earliest cohort of women to become factory inspectors.
In fact, May Tennant (nee Abraham) was the first woman to be appointed to the inspectorate. Born in Dublin, Abraham moved to London and took up the post of secretary to Lady Dilke who was leader of the Women’s Trade Union League. (She succeeded Gertrude Tuckwell in that post and it is surely no coincidence that years later, Tuckwell was a member of the Lord Chancellor’s Women’s Advisory Committee which picked the first women for appointment as justices of the peace.) Back in 1891, Abraham, who had become involved in campaigning on behalf of women working in laundries and other so-called ‘sweated’ industries, was made one of only four lady assistant commissioners appointed to report to the Royal Commission on Labour on women’s working conditions. She gathered evidence at over 170 textile mills and many other workplaces (McFeely, 1991: 11). Two years later the Home Secretary in a new Liberal government, Herbert Asquith, in response to pleas from women’s organisations including the WTUL and the Women’s Liberal Federation, decided to appoint the first ‘lady’ factory inspectors.
Lucy Deane was born in India, daughter of a military man. She was well-connected: her mother was a relative of Lord Falmouth. However, before Deane reached the age of twenty-one she had lost both her parents and she subsequently undertook professional training as a health worker and worked as a sanitary inspector for the borough of Kensington. In 1893 she and Abraham met socially and they quickly found that they had much in common. The following year Deane joined the team of lady inspectors when it was expanded from two to four.
The lady inspectors’ job was a challenging one. Abraham was said to have travelled 3,646 miles in only a few months after her appointment (McFeely, 1991: 17). The ladies were on the receiving end of hostility from male inspectors – despite their inferior salary – and perforce travelled alone and stayed in unpleasant hotels. After only a few months in the job Deane had identified eight potential prosecution cases against firms breaching the Factory Acts in their treatment of women employees. It was, as Mc Feely (1991: 34) quotes, the inspector’s job to ‘open the case, … state the facts, and call his [sic] witnesses, presuming a plea of not guilty is made’. Therefore Deane – like Abraham only months before her – found herself in the role of prosecutor, a unique experience in an age when women had no place whatsoever in the legal profession.
In 1895 Abraham, now the senior lady inspector, was appointed to a government committee of inquiry on dangerous trades, where she became better acquainted with the committee chairman, Harold John Tennant MP. The following year she married Tennant, although she continued to work as an inspector until shortly before the birth of her first child. Deane continued with the inspectorate until 1906 when she retired on health grounds and moved to Westerham, Kent. She married Granville Edward Stewart Streatfeild, an architect, in 1911.
Both women continued with their public work after they had left the inspectorate: May Tennant was named a member of the Royal Commission on Divorce in 1909 and in 1917 she was made director of the women’s division of the National Service department. She and her husband moved to the village of Rolvenden in Kent just before the outbreak of the First World War. Deane Streatfeild’s public work included participation in the National Health Insurance Commission and membership of some of the new trade boards, introduced to fix minimum wage rates for the ‘sweated industries’ following legislation in 1909.
Lucy Deane Streatfeild was also a firm supporter of women’s suffrage. In 1913 when the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies organised its Pilgrimage she was president of the Sevenoaks branch, one of the largest in Kent with 130 members and 182 Friends. The branch took part enthusiastically in the Pilgrimage with two well-attended open-air meetings held as the procession passed through on its way from Tonbridge to London (NUWSS Kent Federation, 1913).
It is fair to conclude that Tennant and Deane Streatfeild were among the best qualified candidates to be made JPs when the Bench was opened to women in 1919, not least because of their direct experience of the courts. At first only seven women were made magistrates and they formed the Lord Chancellor’s Women’s Advisory Committee, tasked with producing a list of worthy women from around the country. This list, published in July 1920, contained both Tennant’s and Deane Streatfeild’s names, as the first and second women to be nominated for the County of Kent. Local newspapers reveal that Mrs Tennant sat at the court in Cranbrook (along with her husband) and Mrs Deane Streatfeild at Sevenoaks police court.
NUWSS Kentish Federation Annual Report, 1913
List of Names Recommended by the Women’s Central Advisory Committee for appointment as Justices of the Peace for England, Scotland and Wales (copy in London Metropolitan Archives ACC/3613/03/002/B)
Kent and Sussex Courier, 4 Feb 1921, 1 July 1921
Harrison, ‘Streatfeild, Lucy Anne Evelyn Deane’ Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
Kelly ‘Tennant [nee Abraham] Margery Mary Edith Josephine Pia [May]’ Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.
M D McFeely, Lady Inspectors: the Campaign for a Better Workplace, 1893-1921, University of Georgia Press, 1991.