From women’s rights to women at the Bar 

10 May 2024

As you wander through the old buildings of the four inns of court it’s hard not to think of the lawyers who lived and worked there in generations past.

5 Essex Chambers celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2024 and last year we moved from 5 Essex Court in Middle Temple to our wonderful new accommodation in Gray’s Inn.

A surprising piece of history

The huge project of moving to new premises presented an opportunity for a thorough spring clean. One item that caught my eye – and about which I’d often wondered since I began pupillage in 2006 – was a small, postcard sized, illustration hanging on a wall in one of the communal areas of chambers.

I took the opportunity to take it home, clean the frame and have a closer look. It shows, as the pencil inscription says, “a pair of old oak doors at 5 Essex Court, Middle Temple” “1st Floor”.  It is dated 1882.

The name on the right-hand door is “Conybeare”, and gives us a small hint as to how 5 Essex Court was occupied before our chambers was established in 1954.

The door suggests that one particular wing of chambers was occupied by two Messrs Conybeares, possibly father and son.

Conybeare and the Women’s Suffragette Movement

Charles Augustus Vansittart Conybeare (1853 –1919) was an English barrister and a radical Liberal politician. He was the son of barrister John Conybeare. I suspect it is their names painted on the door.

In 1885 he was elected MP for Camborne and subsequently nicknamed the ‘Miners’ Friend’; a result of campaigning for better conditions for Cornish miners.

In 1889, he was imprisoned in Derry Gaol for helping to distribute bread to destitute evicted Irish tenants in County Donegal.

He married Annie Strauss in 1896, who was an active member of the Women’s Suffragette Movement. It is maybe not surprising that Charles became a member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. He was also a joint author of ‘Conybeare and Andrew’s Married Women’s Property Acts’.

Supporters of women at the Bar

5 Essex Chambers is proud to be home to a large number of successful female members of the bar, including the second highest percentage of female silks of any chambers*. It therefore feels rather fitting that a former tenant of our previous building was such a supporter of women’s rights.

It’s funny what history you can find in a dusty old picture.

*The Chambers Most List – Legal Cheek

Related article

In “A Bar-bie world“, an article written for Counsel magazine in September 2023, by Francesca Whitelaw KC talks about the challenges of being a female barrister. “At one set, female silks outnumber male silks by 4:1 – and in a male-dominated field of law… Francesca Whitelaw KC shares the secrets to that level of progress with a view to helping equality, diversity and inclusion more broadly” Click here to read the full article.


Mark Thomas

Call 2006


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