Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Evans, Ada Emily (1872–1947)

by Joan M. O'Brien

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Ada Emily Evans (1872-1947), barrister, was born on 17 May 1872 at Wanstead, Essex, England, youngest daughter of Henry Griffiths Evans, foreman at stoneworks and later architect, and his wife Louisa, née Cansdell. She received her early education at a private school at Woodford and in 1883, with her parents and some members of her family, arrived at Sydney. She attended Sydney Girls' High School, and later the University of Sydney (B.A., 1895). She was proficient in music and art and intended making teaching her career. With her sister she established a small private school, Cheltenham College, Summer Hill, but ill health forced her to abandon it.

Her mother came from a legal family, and Ada Evans was convinced that there was a need for women trained in the law to counter the prejudices of an all male legal system. Although aware, as the law then stood, she would not be permitted to practise, in 1899 she enrolled in the Sydney University Law School. Her entrance was made possible by the absence on leave of the dean, Professor Pitt Cobbett, who would not have accepted a woman law student. She applied to the Supreme Court to be registered as a student-at-law was rejected on the ground that the admission of barristers and solicitors did not apply to women. In 1902 she became Australia's first woman to graduate LL.B. Her next step was to seek admission to practise, but she was again refused. She canvassed the possibility of being called to the English Bar, but there too she was told there 'was no precedent'.

Numerous letters to successive governments requesting that the law be altered brought no result, although enabling Acts were passed in other States and a woman was admitted to the Victorian Bar in 1905. Women's organizations supported her endeavours but it was not until the passing of the Women's Legal Status Act in 1918 that the legal profession in New South Wales was opened to females. Ada Evans then served the required two years as a student-at-law and on 12 May 1921 was the first woman to be admitted to the New South Wales Bar. Although immediately offered a brief she declined, deterred by the lapse of time since her graduation, indifferent health and compelling family commitments. Under the nom-de-plume 'A.L.B.' in 1903 she had edited a weekly page for women in the newspaper, the Australian Star, and contributed articles ranging from the philosophical to the flippant, but always with an underlying theme that truth and kindness were essential ingredients for human happiness.

In 1909 Ada Evans, with her brother, bought Kurkulla at Bowral; keen gardeners, they made it their home and developed the sixteen-acre (6 ha) property into a self-supporting farm for herself and several members of her family. Taught by a visiting English nephew, she was also an expert pistol shot. After moving to Bowral she retained, for a time, her flat at Potts Point, and was a member of the Royal Sydney Golf Club, Rose Bay. She died at Kurkulla on 27 December 1947 and was cremated in Sydney with Anglican rites.

Physically attractive, intelligent, confident and compassionate, Ada Evans was well equipped to take her place as a member of the legal profession, but was frustrated in doing so by the law itself. Like many pioneers she was unable to reap the reward of her labours, but as Professor W. Jethro Brown had predicted when encouraging her to persevere with her legal studies, her reward would be 'the glory of the pioneer'.

Select Bibliography

  • T. R. Bavin (ed), The Jubilee Book of the Law School of the University of Sydney (Syd, 1940)
  • J. M. Bennett (ed), A History of the New South Wales Bar (Syd, 1969)
  • J. Mackinolty and H. Radi (eds), In Pursuit of Justice (Syd, 1979)
  • Australian Law Journal, 20 May 1948
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 1921, 29 Feb 1936
  • Bulletin, 21 May 1921
  • private information.

Citation details

Joan M. O'Brien, 'Evans, Ada Emily (1872–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/evans-ada-emily-6118/text10491, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 26 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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