Passport to Reform: Helena Florence Normanton

‘The Pioneering Barrister’

Born on 14 December 1882, Helena Florence Normanton was a Suffragist, writer, barrister, and activist for much of the early-20th century. According to the DNB, Normanton

  • “combined a teaching career with a developing interest in the position of women, becoming a prolific writer and public speaker on feminist issues”;
  • “Described by her niece Elsie Cannon as a ‘suffragette—though not of the ultra-militant kind’, she was active in the campaign to extend the franchise to women”;
  • In 1914: “she published a pamphlet entitled Sex Differentiation in Salary arguing for equal pay for equal work”; Passport Reform Helena Normanton
  • “Pamphlets advertising public meetings organized by the Women’s Freedom League throughout 1919 list Helena Normanton as a speaker and she was also an ardent and practical supporter of the Indian National Congress and editor of its London-based organ India (1918–20)”.

After developing the “ambition of becoming a barrister at the age of twelve during a visit to a lawyer with her mother,” and “[d]espite the many barriers Helena forged a successful legal career that included some notable ‘firsts’” — earning her the epithet of the ‘Pioneering Barrister’:

  • Her first application to be admitted to the Middle Temple, in 1918, was presented immediately after the enfranchisement of women became law but was unanimously refused. Undeterred, and supported by the Women’s Freedom League, she lodged a petition against the benchers’ decision at the House of Lords. However, before the date fixed for its hearing, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Bill (1919) was introduced which allowed women entry to the legal profession; the press attributed its enactment in large part to her campaign. On Christmas eve 1919, within forty-eight hours of the passing of the new act, she made a second application to the Middle Temple, and was successful.[…] She was called to the bar on 17 November 1922, a few months after Ivy Williams had become the first woman to do so.” Passport Reform Helena Normanton
  • After getting married in 1921, “her application to retain her maiden name after her marriage attracted considerable public interest. Helena deplored the loss of a woman’s identity on marriage and its disadvantageous legal results. While she believed in the respectability of retaining the title Mrs. she also wished to maintain continuity of identity in her professional career. She was the first married British woman to be issued a passport in her maiden name (1924) and also fought for the right of women who married foreigners to retain their British nationality.”
  • “She was the first woman to obtain a divorce for a client and to lead the prosecution in a murder trial (May 1948).
  • “She was the first female counsel in cases in the High Court of Justice (1922), the Old Bailey (1924), and the London sessions (1926).
  • “In a breach of promise case she obtained for her client the highest damages in such a case obtained by a woman up to that date—£1250 and costs.
  • “In 1925 she became the first woman to conduct a case in the United States, appearing in the test case in which a married woman’s right to retain her maiden name was confirmed. Passport Reform Helena Normanton
  • “In 1949, with Rose Heilbron, she became the first female king’s counsel in England and Wales.”

Even after her legal career came to a close “[a]fter the Second World War she remained active in feminist circles as a member of the Six Point Group and the Council of Professional Women. Her irrepressible activism continued and, maintaining her long standing pacifist beliefs, in 1953, aged seventy, she marched in a women’s demonstration against the atom bomb” [DNB].

Normanton — born the same year as Virginia Woolf — died in 1957 at the age of 74, and was buried with her husband in Sussex.

[Passport image via DNB; portraits (1921) and (1949) by Elliott & Fry, via National Portrait Gallery]
Source: Passport Reform Helena Normanton



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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

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Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...

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