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Appreciation: Ethel May Houston OBE

15 January 18

Tribute to a pioneering woman in the Scottish legal profession who also worked as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park

by Peter Nicholson

Ethel May Houston OBE

19 April 1924 – 30 November 2017

Ethel Houston was a pioneering woman within the Scottish legal profession who also had a less publicised, yet significant, earlier role as one of the Bletchley Park codebreakers during the Second World War.

Born in Spain to Christian Brethren missionary parents, Miss Houston – as she would invariably be known during her professional life – came with her family to Edinburgh in her early years and attended James Gillespie’s High School for Girls. When she was 16 her father decided she should attempt the University of Edinburgh preliminary exams so that she could study at the same time as her older brother James; she passed after cramming two years of study into three months and went on to graduate MA at the age of 19.

Seeking a legal apprenticeship, which at that time was undertaken alongside the LLB degree, was not an easy matter for a woman in Edinburgh, but Balfour & Manson, which also had a Christian Brethren tradition, offered her a place and she joined the firm in October 1943. 

Her talents had already been noted as of value to the war effort, however, and four months later she was called up and posted to Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire. There she was one of the team who, with the aid of Alan Turing’s Bombe machine, worked to decipher intercepted enemy messages encrypted using the Enigma code.

Returning to Edinburgh, she qualified as a solicitor in 1947 and in 1949 was assumed as a partner at Balfour & Manson – one of the first, if not the first woman partner in a Scottish practice. By the time she retired in 1994, she had achieved the status of senior partner and latterly director.

Well known and respected within the profession, she was one of the first two women – along with Margaret Hall – to be elected to the Law Society of Scotland’s Council, on which she served from 1975 to 1981. She was also a member of the Royal Commission on Legal Services in Scotland, under Lord Hughes, which reported in 1980; sat on the Commission for Racial Equality in the mid-1980s; and was involved late in her career in four public inquiries into major accidents or disasters, including the Piper Alpha oil platform explosion and the Lockerbie aircraft bombing.

A compassionate and caring woman, she also volunteered, with others in her firm, for the Edinburgh Legal Dispensary’s free legal advice service; invited her office staff to care for their children at work, before daycare became established; and privately provided housing and employment to young people who sought her help. She served as a director of the Leith School of Art, helping to steer it after its co-founders were killed in a road accident.

In private life she was an excellent cook and an entertaining hostess, whether at her New Town home or cottages she rented in the Borders. She loved Scotland and loved walking; and rather than slow down as she approached old age, she acquired a brightly coloured sports car – wearing a crash helmet while behind the wheel as a strategy to mitigate risk.

She was awarded an OBE in 1981 for services to the legal profession, and in 2009 an honorary membership of the Law Society of Scotland, at which the President hailed her as “a champion of the less fortunate”. 

Elaine Motion, current chair of Balfour+Manson, paid this tribute: “Ethel was an inspiration to woman lawyers and led the way in ensuring recognition and the ethos of equality for women, not only in Balfour+Manson but for the profession at large.” 

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