Helen Cox (1860-1930)

Born Helen Mary Clegg; also known as Mrs Harold Cox

Sector: Support Services (Accounting)

Helen Cox was a practising accountant decades before women were accepted into accountancy’s professional bodies in Britain.  Most of what is known about her comes from her interview with Margaret Bateson as part of the series on ‘Professional Women upon their Professions’ that ran in The Queen between 1893 and 1894.

Like Nancy Bailey, another of Margaret’s interviewees, Helen overcame barriers placed in her way by both her class and her gender. Her path to professionalism gives a fascinating insight into how women on a low income in London in the latter half of the 19th century could continue their education after leaving school. It is also brings to light some of the networks that transcended traditional class divides and enabled women from a wide range of backgrounds to create careers for themselves.

Helen Cox (c.1890). Photograph by Flemons, Tonbridge

Helen was born in 1860 in Clerkenwell, the eldest child of a master plumber, George, and his wife, also called Helen.  Over the next twenty years, the couple had at least another ten children.  When Helen was 15, she witnessed the failure of the business of some family friends due to an ‘inattention to accounts’ and it was this that triggered her interest in book-keeping, which she saw as a skill that could help her become financially independent.

Further full-time education was out of the question but by 1875 there were a number of low-cost adult education options open to women that they could fit in alongside work if they were prepared to do a double-shift and go to evening classes. First to open up was the London Mechanics’ Institute, founded in 1823. Later re-named the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution after its first president, George Birkbeck, women could attend lectures from 1825 and become members in 1830.  Though fees were charged, they were kept very low.  

In 1854, the Working Men’s College was founded in Bloomsbury by F.D. Maurice and in 1864 Elizabeth Malleson founded a comparable organisation nearby, the Working Women’s College. When a vote was carried for it to go co-ed in 1874, one of the team, Frances Martin, left and established a new College for Working Women in Fitzroy Street, supported by the publisher Alexander Macmillan.

Excerpt from the pamphlet, ‘A College for Working Women’ by Frances Martin (1879)
Image: Rev. Brooke Lambert collection, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick

Helen took advantage of all these opportunities.  She started with evening classes at the College for Working Women.  Around the time she was studying there, it offered free evening classes to roughly 200 women.   The most popular were the classes in the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic).  Helen took book-keeping lessons, where class sizes varied between 18 and 26 women per term.  

Helen continued her studies in book-keeping at the former Working Women’s College in Queen’s Square, by then known as the College for Men and Women. She further expanded her experience at Birkbeck.  Finally, she took an exam through the Society of Arts, which ran national exams from 1882 onwards.   Together these studies gave her the foundational knowledge she needed.

Then Helen had to get relevant work experience.  She commented that ‘members of the profession have done much more to help me than one might have expected’ including one un-named man who let her shadow him so she could see how he operated. When on one occasion he took her with him to a shop to examine their books, Helen recalled that ‘the youths sitting on their high stools in the counting-house were overcome with laughter on seeing a woman among them.’ She was undeterred.

While men helped Helen with her on-the-job training, it was women who gave her work. Her first paid job came through Louisa Goold, a former principal of the Working Women’s College and principal of Morley College from 1889 to 1891.  She was involved in the same amateur theatrical society as Helen and, discovering Helen’s training, asked her to look over the society’s accounts.   

Helen’s next break came courtesy of Henrietta Müller, an activist on many fronts who set up the Women’s Penny Paper in 1888, which gave ‘the opinions of all women on all subjects’ and was ‘the only paper in the world conducted, written, printed, and published by women’. Henrietta employed Helen as the auditor and Helen also helped organise Henrietta’s women-only lectures on topics including ‘Real Women’ and ‘Ideal Women’.

Another key client was Emily Ward, nee Lord (1850-1930), ‘a helpful friend to her own sex’. Before Emily founded the Norland Institute, revolutionising the approach to the training of nannies, she ran a school in Notting Hill, Norland Place School. Helen audited those accounts, giving her a vital foothold in the education sector.

By 1887, she was running her business from the family home at 25, Alfred Place near Bedford Square. ‘Women in business and women with incomes are glad to avail themselves of the services of the one of their own sex to balance their accounts’, reported one paper two years later. She knew Beatrice Headlam, who in the summer of 1889 asked her to go to Lincoln to audit the Massingberd Arms, which under the ownership of Emily Massingberd was now a temperance hotel. “It will be a new experience: fancy counting the boxes of cigars + the fruit drinks + mineral waters?” she wrote to a friend.

But conducting a professional business from home brought challenges and in the end the family all agreed to re-organise the space to give Helen an office.

“I think it is likely that more work will come to me when I have a corner of my own.. This room to myself may seem a small thing – but it is very serious to me – for I feel that I have the power to command more work + to help to open another career if only I could be freer than I have been. My sisters are very kind + helping me in planning small economies for my furnishing.”

Two months later she had changed her letter heading to include her professional status:

Helen’s new letterhead, July 1889: Courtesy of Pearson Collection, UCL Archives

In 1890, aged 30, Helen married Harold Cox, a barrister and economist. He was a member of the Fabian Society, as was his brother-in-law, Sydney Olivier, a future Secretary of State for India. Harold later became a member of ‘It’, a monthly debating society co-founded by the writer Edith Nesbit where he read a paper on ‘Nudity in Art and Life’. It is not clear whether or not Helen was there when he advocated, ‘with apparent seriousness, a dispensation from clothes’ but the ensuing scandal contributed to the demise of that particular club.

They set up home at 1 Kings Bench Walk in Temple. In the 1891 census, Helen described herself as an accountant and auditor. What she could not call herself was a ‘chartered accountant’. When the Institute of Chartered Accountants was founded in 1880, it preferred to make its relationship with women symbolic, choosing one for its coat of arms, rather than allowing any through the door. 

One economic consequence of this shut-out was that women working as accountants were expected to charge less. While we associate the call for ‘Equal pay for equal work’ as one coming from women, in the late 19th and early 20th century it was a cry that men raised ‘with painful persistence’, complaining that women stole work from them by setting their prices too low. As Margaret Bateson was quick to point out, ‘if men really wished to compel women to offer her goods at the same price as their own they would surely invite their underselling rival to join whatever societies they have formed for raising the status of the trades and professions.’ This invitation was not forthcoming for another 25 years and in the meantime Helen refused to sell herself short, claiming that she ‘steadfastly’ turned down all work not offered to her upon the same terms as it would be offered to a man.

Helen’s mantra was that ‘conscientious work is, in the end, [a woman’s] best recommendation.’ Word of mouth spread in the schools about her services and her client base quickly expanded to include a number of girls’ schools, in London and further afield.  ‘Imagine what it would mean to acquaint yourself, say, with the precise number of pupils who take milk for lunch, and you will have some idea of the mastery of detail required by a competent accountant,’ she said.

As well as her accountancy and audit work, Helen was passionate about equipping women to manage their own money. She created an ‘Investment Record Book’ so women could keep track of the purchase price of stock and record whether it had shown a gain or a loss. It was published by Eden, Fisher and Co and had ‘many purchasers.’

In the 1906 General Election, Harold Cox campaigned for the Liberal Party and was elected M.P. for Preston, a seat he held for four years. Helen took on at least some of the expected responsibilities of an M.P.’s wife, hosting receptions and giving out prizes, but her business kept her very busy. On 15th October 1907 she wrote to Pippa Strachey that she was unable to take on next year’s end of year audit of the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage because, with much of her work done for schools and colleges, September and October were her busiest time of year.

Helen and Harold did not have any children. Later in their lives, they moved to Tonbridge, where Harold had been to school. It was here that Helen died in 1930, with Harold surviving her by six years, writing letters to The Times on a range of economic issues right to the end. Helen was given only the most passing mention in his obituary and is another DNB Ghost.

Helen’s name has also vanished from the annals of the accounting industry. When women were finally allowed to apply to be chartered accountants after the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, Helen was 59 and, one suspects, could not be bothered. However, it feels fitting to re-consider her story today, demonstrating it does how adult education opportunities and inclusive networking structures can open up new opportunities for individuals and help level up the world of work.

Birkbeck College is now part of the University of London and remains committed to running all its courses in the evenings. The College for Working Women was renamed Frances Martin College in 1922. Frances’s name vanished when it was finally folded in to the Working Man’s College in 1967, now known as WM College, one of the nine Institutes for Adult Learning in London.

Sources include: The Pearson Papers, UCL Archives; ‘Professional Women up their Professions’ by Margaret Bateson in The Queen 29/9/1894;

‘A College for Working Women’ by Frances Martin in Macmillan Weekly October 1879 ; Morning Post 18/4/1887; St James Gazette 23/10/1888; Northampton Chronicle and Echo 17/11/1888; Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette 30/5/1889; The Sphere 25/9/1915

The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit by Eleanor Fitzsimmons (2018)

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