It fell upon Marie Beuzeville Byles to be the first woman to be admitted as a legal practitioner in NSW. Byles’ mother had been a suffragette who impressed upon her daughter the need to be financially independent of men.
Byles was head prefect and dux of Pymble Ladies College in 1917. She obtained her arts degree in 1921and her law degree in 1924, but had trouble getting a job until the Dean of Law at Sydney University, Sir John Peden, persuaded Henry Davis & Co to give her an opportunity.
Henry Davis & Co
Byles had to pay double the usual £100 premium to her master solicitor during her training and the articles of her clerkship stated that her father should “provide all manner of necessary and becoming apparel”.
The following year, 1925, Byles became the first woman to attend an AGM of the Incorporated Law Institute of NSW. She became managing clerk at Henry Davis & Co and stayed with the firm until 1927.
She then travelled for two years on a Norwegian cargo boat (a journey she wrote about in By Cargo Boat and Mountain
, published in 1931), before returning to Sydney in 1929 and establishing her own practice at Eastwood. The work was mainly conveyancing and probate – and divorce settlements for women.
Byles became the first female master solicitor when Margaret Crawley was articled to her after the war. She gave many other women their first steps in the legal profession, and preferred to employ married women.
Permanent part-time work
Well ahead of her time, she introduced a system of permanent part-time employment for her staff, who were also paid bonuses based on annual profit.
She was the legal correspondent for Australian Woman’s Mirror
(1927-36), advising women on their rights. In one column, titled “Who owns the housekeeping?” she counselled women to “spend all you can” as there was no reward for frugality when it came to money that was deemed by the law as held in trust to spend for their husbands.
She attended her second Institute AGM in 1936 alongside Lillian Goldsmith – the first woman to complete the Solicitors Admission Board course (in 1933).
Although Byles continued to practise until 1970, the last time she appears in the list of attendees at an AGM of the Institute was in 1950. By that time, she had other well-established interests, including as a member of the Sydney Bushwalkers Club successfully campaigning for the creation of Bouddi National Park on the NSW central coast in 1935; as an explorer climbing New Zealand’s Mt Cook and leading an expedition to Mt Sansato in western China; and as a founding member of the Buddhist Society of NSW.
Byles’ “break” with the professional body signalled the start of a period of disengagement by women lawyers.
For more on Marie Byles, read Anne McLeod’s biography, The Summit of her Ambition
Extracted from Defending the Rights of All: A History of the Law Society of NSW
by Michael Pelly and Caroline Pierce