Dorothy Thompson

Lady Dorothy Thompson was the first women to study law at University of Canterbury and one of the first to work in the region. Every year her family awards two scholarship to the top female IPLS graduates in her honour. Her son, Gary Thompson writes the following about his mother -

My mother was born Dorothy Maud Simes, who’s uncle set up W E Simes & Co and was joined shortly after by my grandfather, ie my mother’s father in 1908. My mother was born in 1911, attended Somerfield Primary School and then Opawa Primary School where she was dux. She went to Girls High and in her third year there was a bad flu that went round the city and because of the flu epidemic a few years before which was worldwide, Girls High was closed for one term and that was my mother’s matric year.

My grandfather did not want her to fail matric because she had an outstanding academic record so sent her to Rangi Ruru. She achieved well there, was a prefect and decided to do law. She was the first woman in Canterbury to study law but took her time because she helped at home and by now lived on Cashmere Hills. One year she was unwell and because there were no aegrotats she simply had to repeat the year.

Women were not sought after in any form of responsible employment so it was not until she was starting what she hoped would be her final year that she looked for a job.

She managed to get a job with A C Brassington who was lecturing part time in constitutional law and international law - his firm later became Brassington, Goff and Clark, then there was a break away and he went back on his own, the other firm became Goff, Clark and Bissfen, now Clark Boyce.

The only way she could get a job was to be paid 15 shillings per week ( ie $1.50), when most males in her position were getting paid about twice as much. Really the reason she got the job was that Alan Brassington was a friend of my grandfather and said he would employ my mother if he could get some conveyancing work sent to him. The pay was so low that I think one deal was enough to pay her salary for the whole year. During 1936 my mother and father got together and at the end of that year she, for the first time in her life, sat an exam and failed it. It was international law which Alan Brassington lectured but he neither set nor marked the paper. My mother could have been admitted to the Bar as a solicitor only and then a barrister later but the cost was several weeks wages and it was unlikely that even if qualified she would get paid much more. So, she carried on doing the subject again, unfortunately she took things too easily and failed yet again, but finally passed at the end of 1938. By now Alison Carey, later Alison Lawrence, Isobel Wright, later Isobel Matteson and Peggy Kennedy, later Peggy Fitz were admitted before my mother was although Isobel was admitted as a barrister only. In 1939 therefore mother was admitted as a barrister and solicitor. She and my father were engaged later that year and married in 1940. When they married Alan Brassington told her that he did not employ married women. In fact, very few people did. So she had had four years, one of which was as a barrister and solicitor and then she was out. I may say that it was tough in those days then as a solicitor, female, because they were simply not recognised. She could only do a plea in mitigation in respect of a traffic matter, consent adjournments or consent judgments in other matters and nothing in the High Court. Not even an undefended divorce. Not long after she was admitted she went to the library to look up some law for her boss and Charlie Thomas was outraged to see a female there, thought she was a law clerk using the facilities and told her to go. My mother duly did leave and told her boss that she could not look up the law. He accepted the position and told her simply to go at another time when Charlie Thomas was in court. Ironically, Charlie Thomas employed my father who later went into partnership with him and took over the firm.

Not long after my parents were married my father had a haemorrhaged ulcer and was hospitalised. My mother duly informed the office and said she was happy to explain law. She was summoned to see Charlie Thomas who’s opening remarks indicated that he was to be replaced, hence no job for either, but he said that if she took his job he would continue to employ my father. There were strings attached because files had to be taken back and forth to the hospital, my mother did not have a car, her bike would not take the weight of files and she could not afford a taxi because she was still paid at about the rate Alan Brassington paid her. My grandfather again came to the rescue and agreed to work his property inspections and valuations round her visits to the hospital.

For four years my mother worked for Charlie Thomas because the war meant that people left and she took over a lot of their work. She carried on until early 1944 with my sister Mary being born in July that year. I would add that being a female in a male dominated profession was not easy. Isobel Matteson travelled overseas. Peggy Kennedy left Christchurch to go to Ashburton where her family resided and Alison Carey did not continue with her law and later went to live in Wellington. The next person to be admitted to the Bar was Fay Matteson, no relation of Isobel and this was in 1952. When my sister Mary was admitted to the Bar she was the seventh female admitted in Christchurch. Accordingly there were only three people admitted between my mother and my sister who were females bearing in mind that Isobel Matteson was admitted as a barrister only. So Mary could have been the eighth.

My father managed to persuade my mother to play in the Law Society Golf Tournament. When she arrived at the Shirley Golf Club she was told that women were not allowed on the course that day but is was pointed out that the agreement with the Club was that all lawyers could play on the course. Accordingly, my mother was allowed to play golf but not go into the pavilion afterwards so my grandfather had to pick her up at the end of play so that my father could socialise. In the 1920s there was a man in Opawa convicted of manslaughter and Charlie Thomas appeared for him. I’m not certain of all the details but he cut his wife into pieces and cooked them. There was a funny smell in the area for some time and when the case was heard my grandfather was called as a witness over the smell in the area. This man was convicted of manslaughter only and in the 1940s he was released from prison. He came into the office to see Charlie Thomas who was in Court so was put through to my mother. He asked for his file which she gave him and he told her that he did not kill or cut up his wife. About 35 years later there was some articles in the paper of people who though they were wrongly convicted of crimes. This man was interviewed and still protested his innocence, he said that in the 1940s he tried to see his lawyer but saw a lady lawyer who gave him his file. He did not know what happened to her but he said that he told her that he definitely did not kill his wife nor did he burn her parts. Little did he know that the lady lawyer was the daughter of one of the prosecution witnesses.

My mother did not practice after 1944 but retained her practising certificate. She had hopes of returning to law particularly when better deals were now coming the way of women. However, she had a busy life with my father so she eventually relinquished her practising certificate in the 1960s when Mary qualified.

In 1970 mother was in the supermarket slipped on a banana skin and broke a couple of vertebrae. She was confined to home for some time and her mother was on her last legs. When I could see that her mother was deteriorating quickly I told my mother that and she duly stopped thinking about herself and ran round after my grandmother who duly died about a fortnight after. Mother never complained again and did not go back to the doctor until six years later when she was looking after my elder daughter when my son was born. She took her for a walk to what is now Southern Cross and nearly collapsed. She went to the doctor and it was discovered that she had bruised her liver six years previously in her fall and it was malfunctioning. The next six years were very difficult for her. She wasted to almost nothing but tried to do as much as she could. She went to London when my father was knighted and carried on to Wales where my elder sister Mary was living and still is, and then to Toronto where my younger sister was in the Trade Commissioners Office. She nearly died but came home and refused to have a night in hospital once she was well enough to go home even though she really was a hospital case. She battled on courageously and even got up and dressed the day before she died. She was only 71. We received letters from all over the place including Charlie Thomas, the man who threw her out of the library and later employed her. He told me she was the best solicitor he ever employed. Ken Goff who took her job with A C Brassington said it was remarkable how meticulously she kept her files. They were great to take over.

Sir and Lady Thompson when their daughter Mary Pugh was admitted to the bar in 1966. This was the first occasion that a person was admitted to the bar with both parent's lawyers. Gary Thompson was the second.

In those days women were not allowed to robe.