Teenagers' campaign sees blue plaque for University of Sussex founding funder Helena Normanton
By: Anna Ford
Last updated: Friday, 17 June 2022
A campaign by Brighton twin schoolgirls for a blue plaque to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of lawyer and women’s rights activist Helena Normanton KC (1882–1957), whose bequest helped establish the University of Sussex, has come to fruition. The blue plaque will be unveiled at an event at 2pm on Saturday 18 June 2022, at 4 Clifton Place, which is the Brighton home where Normanton lived as a teenager in the 1890’s.
Normanton was a trailblazer of her time: the first woman to be admitted to an Inn of Court (Middle Temple), the first woman to be briefed in the High Court and Old Bailey, the first woman to conduct a trial in America, one of the two first female King’s Counsel, and the first married British woman to be issued a passport in her maiden name. She was also the first person to leave a legacy donation in her will to the University of Sussex in 1957, becoming a founding funder. The University, which is currently celebrating its 60th year, went on to open its doors to the first cohort of Sussex students in 1961.
This marks the second blue plaque for Normanton, following one at 22 Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury, where she was living when she was called to the Bar in 1922.
Thirteen-year-old Brighton twins, Izzy and Sophia were inspired to start a blue plaque campaign to commemorate Normanton’s contributions to their city and to women’s rights after a school project led them to discover her grave in Ovingdean churchyard in Sussex.
Normanton, who moved to Brighton from East London aged four with her mother and sister after her father died, was subsequently orphaned when she also lost her mother at a young age. Whilst also providing for her young sister, she was awarded a scholarship to, what is now, Varndean College, Brighton. Of the University of Sussex legacy donation she wrote:
“I make this gift in gratitude for all that Brighton did to educate me when I was left an orphan.”
Dr Helen Dancer, a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex, barrister member of the Middle Temple and a recipient of a Helena Normanton Doctoral Fellowship at Sussex, was in attendance at the blue plaque ceremony and had this to say of Normanton’s legacy: “Helena Normanton dedicated her life to social justice and women’s rights. She was a visionary who valued education and wanted to help other women gain access to the law.
“Her determination to fulfil her vision in the face of many social, economic and professional barriers at the time is incredibly inspiring and a powerful legacy for the University of Sussex and for aspiring lawyers and academics of today.”
Professor David Maguire, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex says of Normanton’s founding donation: “The extraordinary achievements of Helena Normanton KC are testament to the power of education to bring about real and positive change in society.
“We are grateful to Helena for her legacy gift, which helped to establish the University of Sussex, and for embodying the spirit of what made – and 60 years on, still makes – Sussex such a special university, in which convention is challenged to make society fairer for everyone.”
The Helena Normanton Society at the University of Sussex was founded in 2015 in honour of Ms Normanton’s many contributions. The Society recognises the foresight and generosity of University of Sussex legacy donors, all of whom have pledged to support one of a wide range of activities with a gift in their wills: the creation of scholarships, hardship grants, academic posts, new buildings and research centres.