New Zealand Law Society

Navigation menu

Ethel Benjamin was first; who was second?

29 November 2018

The pioneering efforts of Ethel Benjamin, who was the first woman to be admitted as a lawyer in New Zealand, are well known.

However, little is generally known about the next women to join the legal profession - and the identity of the second has only just re-emerged..

Writing in the October 2018 issue of the New Zealand Law Journal, legal historian Jeremy Finn has identified Matilda Jane Monteith as the second woman to be admitted.

The names of the third and fourth women - Ellen Melville and Geraldine Hemus - were known and recorded in the New Zealand Law Society's own record. It was assumed they were the second and third women. However, when contemporary newspapers noted the admission of Geraldine Hemus on 15 February 1907 there were comments such as "She is the fourth lady to enter into practice in New Zealand." (Auckland Star, 15 February 1907).

Professor Finn's research shows that Matilda was born to Elizabeth and Stewart Monteith in 1885 in Reefton. And her last name - Monteith was later made famous by a brewing company. This is because her father, Stewart was a beer brewer. That small brewery later amalgamated with other breweries to form a larger group in Westland which was eventually taken over by the major company that has appropriated Stewart's surname by renaming the brewery Monteiths.

Matilda Monteith was admitted as a solicitor of the Supreme Court on 22 September 1906 by Justice Edwards. Professor Finn says this was on the motion of Samuel Free, a partner in the Reefton firm of Free and Cottrell.

The next woman to become a member of the legal profession, Ellen Melville, was admitted in December 1906. She was followed by Geraldine Hemus on 15 February 1907.

While Matilda Monteith practised as a lawyer on the West Coast Professor Finn finds few details of her appearing in court. "It may well be that after her first two years or so of practice most of her legal work was in the field of estates and conveyancing, and thus not requiring appearances in court," he says.

Matilda married Robert Monson, a Hokitika doctor, in early 1913. They moved to Westport and it appears there is little evidence that Matilda practised law. Dr Monson served in World War I and returned to New Zealand with psychological trauma in 1917. Both were ill in the influenza epidemic but recovered.

The couple left New Zealand in 1921 for Europe and further medical study by Robert before they moved to Sydney. They had two children, but Robert died in 1927. Professor Finn says it appears that Matilda remained in Sydney. She died there on 10 October 1970.

Professor Finn's research has also identified the 11th woman to be admitted: Annie Harriet Down (born Annie Tasker), who was admitted in June 1927.

The Law Society's Women Legal Pioneers has been updated.

Last updated on the 7th October 2019