Ethel Ayres Purdie (1874-1923)

Born: Ethel Matilda Ayres

Sector: Professional Services (Accounting)

‘Comrade, Fighter, Worker and Pioneer’ ran the headline in The Vote on 13th April 1923, which devoted the whole of its front page to commemorating Ethel Ayres Purdie who had died two weeks earlier aged 48. She was a trail-blazing accountant, who had spent the last fifteen years establishing and running a successful business, recognised as an authority on Income Tax in both Europe and America, and a fervent campaigner for women’s rights, one of the original members of the Women’s Freedom League.

Ethel Purdie Ayres (1877-1923) Accountant, suffagist and tax specialist
Ethel Ayres Purdie from The Vote 13/4/1923
With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive ( 

Ethel was born on 2nd October 1874 to Margaret and Henry, a tool-maker. After leaving school she worked at the Telegraph Office and perhaps these early working experiences shaped her feminist views. She certainly quickly noticed a financial implication for her female colleagues of the marriage bar. All employees had compulsory salary deductions which went in to the pension fund, but women who had to resign on marriage did not benefit from this. Through one of the committees, Ethel successfully fought for a change in policy which led to a ‘gratuity’ being given to women who had been employed for six years or more and had to leave on marriage, commensurate with their length of service.

She married Frank Purdie, a commercial traveller, on 16th June 1897 and they had two sons, Harold, in 1901 and Desmond in 1902. She would have been expected to stay at home in Harlesden and look after them but instead Ethel started training as an accountant, studying at the Royal Society of Arts like Helen Cox before her and passing her final exams in 1906. Then she set up her own business.

In 1907, Charlotte Despard and Teresa Billingon-Grieg lead a breakaway movement from the WSPU to fight for women’s suffrage through less militant forms of resistance and created the Women’s Freedom League. Ethel became the auditor of this new organisation and embraced the suffrage agenda. In November 1908, she appeared on a platform at the Queen’s Hall during a meeting of Business and Professional Women demanding the vote. Alongside her were Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Chrystal Macmillan.

1t was in December 1908 that Ethel first advertised her services in Votes for Women, ‘London Chamber of Commerce Senior Honours, Certified Accountant and Business Specialist. Auditor to a prominent Suffrage Society’. At this point, she was working from her parents’ address, 13 Stock Orchard-Crescent in Holloway. By February 1909, she had set up at 52, Craven House on Kingsway and she started to make it clear in her adverts, which could be found between those of suffragette decorator and a suffragette milliner, that she was available to advise women on ‘all matters of business’.

Breaking new ground
On 13th May 1909, ‘women achieved another step forward’ when Ethel was accepted into the London Association of Accountants (LAA), making her the first woman to admitted into an accounting society. At the annual dinner where her admission was formally recognised, she sat down with over a hundred of her male colleagues and was accorded ‘a most gratifying and whole-hearted reception’ and gave a speech in response.

That same month, the Registration of Accountants Bill was under discussion. Winston Churchill, President of the Board of Trade and hitherto not known for his support for women’s rights, agreed that it should explicitly include women but the Bill fell by the wayside. For the next nine years, the LAA was the only one of the seven professional accountancy bodies open to women. Although there was at least a route to women becoming accredited, other barriers were placed in their path to practising. Some Bills going through the House of Commons, for example those establishing local authorities, large public companies or national bodies, like the Nurses Registration Bill or the Midwives Act, had audit clauses, drafted in such a way that only men were eligible to audit the accounts and the remaining six accounting bodies were not above agitating for such wording. Women banded together and used their influence with sympathetic MPs, such as Philip Snowden, to stymie these efforts.

Ethel’s professional status gave her the right to appear before the Special Commissioners of Income Tax at Somerset House and to be heard on behalf of the appellant. She used this to carve out a niche for herself as a tax expert for women. When the WFL laid out its three distinguishing forms of protest on 2nd January 1908, top of the list was: ‘Passive resistance to taxation until women are represented in the House of Commons. Those women who pay Income Tax, Property Tax or Inhabited House Duty can show the Government that they have the spirit to resist taxation levied without their consent.’ (The other two were police-court protests and heckling Cabinet Ministers and M.P.s). Ethel used the suffrage newspapers to advertise her services.

‘Women should note that September 29th is the last day for claiming any benefit or relief offered by it. Income tax returns are prepared, appeals conducted and over-paid tax recovered by Mrs E Aynres Purdie A.L.A.A., Certified Accountant and at present the only woman who is entitled under the Revenue Act of 1903, to appear on behalf of a Client before the Special Commissioners of Income Tax.’ (The Vote 22/9/1909)

Sometimes she tried to generate revenue for the WFL at the same time:

‘Women versus the Budget: Why not reclaim. your income tax from the government and give it to the Women’s Freedom League? If your income has been taxed before you get it and does not exceed £700 yearly, you are entitled to recover a portion of the tax. NB: Infants, Married Women and Lunatics are not so entitled.’ (Common Cause 25/11/1909)

As well as offering accounting services, Ethel started working as an intermediary for women seeking to invest in or find partners or buyers for their businesses: gardening, dress-making, millinery, floristry and small retail businesses. In July she advertised for a ‘young and enterprising woman’, a commercial lawyer ‘who has no compunction in defying man-made prejudicious and traditions.’ For some reason, ‘preference will be given to a Scotch woman’. She was clear that for women to be successful in business ‘talents and capacity must be supported by capital’. She advocated for a women’s bank, set up and run by women, to make it easier for women to get access to funding. Business was clearly going well: by the end of the 1909, she was advertising for a pupil.

Ethel was regularly called on to speak about women in business. She was a ‘crisp and lively’ speaker, ‘lucid and humorous, never failing to drive home her points with incisive good humour.’ The WFL organised a celebration of John Stuart Mill in May 1910 where Ethel was one of a diverse set of speakers, on a platform with, among others the artist Walter Crane, the journalist Frank Rutter and Lala Lajpat Raj, who went on play a pivotal role in Indian independence. The following month, the Women’s Institute held a conference on ‘Women Accountants: Their Prospects and Opportunities’, where Ethel gave the opening address. ‘It was made clear from Mrs Purdie’s opening remarks that women accountants are now gradually obtaining a more assured professional position as their value has come to be recognised and as many societies and private persons have utilised the services of trained women’. (The Queen reported that Ethel Gradwell was in the Chair for this event, but it was far more likely to have been Cecil Gradwell.)

The Women’s Tax Resistance League (WTRL)
‘No taxation without representation’ was not a new slogan: militant feminists in the 1880s, including Henrietta Müller, had used the same tactic to draw attention to women’s rights. However, with the formation of the Women’s Freedom League it was reinvigorated and in 1909, Louisa Garrett Anderson met with other members of the Women’s Freedom League to establish a separate organisation, the Women’s Tax Resistance League, to pursue the agenda of protest via non-payment of taxes. Margaret Kineton Parkes took on the role of secretary and on Monday 13th June, a core group, including Ethel, came together in an elegant Montagu Square drawing room to discuss their their agenda. The hostess, Clara Skipwith, née Vickers, and the Chair of the meeting, Adele Meyer, were connected through their experience of being painted by John Singer Sargent.

The Misses Vickers by John Singer Sargent (1884) showing Clara Vickers, later Clara Skipwith, on the right, who was later involved in the Women's Tax Resistance League
The Misses Vickers by John Singer Sargent (1884), Museums Sheffield

Clara is sitting on the right.

Mrs Carl Meyer and her Children by John Singer Sargent (1896). Adele Meyer was involved in the suffrage movement and supported the Women's Tax Resistance League.
Mrs Carl Meyer and her Children by John Singer Sargent (1896), Tate Galleries

Joining Ethel to speak were Alice Abadam and Anne Cobden Sanderson and among the other guests were Adeline Chapman, Dr Kate Haslam and two founders of the Actresses’ Franchise League, Adeline Bourne and Decima Moore. The Women’s Tax Resistance League marched as a separate group in the Great Parade the following Saturday. Initially Ethel’s office was used as the organisation’s correspondence address but it later established its own headquarters nearby at 10 Talbot House, St Martin’s Lane. Later supporters included Lena Ashwell, Louise Jopling and Louisa Thomson Price. Propaganda material was provided by the Suffrage Atelier.

Women's Tax Resistance League banner. c.1910.
Women’s Tax Resistance League banner, c. 1910

Women who refused to pay their taxes had their property seized by bailiffs, which were then sold at public auction. This created an opportunity for them to gather with fellow suffragists to march in processions, sometimes with a band, to the auction houses and make speeches about their campaign, while their property was often re-purchased by friends. In 1911, the WTLR supported the census boycott so unsurprisingly Ethel does not appear on the roll that year and neither do her two sons, who must have been with her as they weren’t at her parents’ house either, where her husband spent the night.

Ethel’s high profile stance made her popular within the suffrage movement but also attracted hostility. In March 1912, after putting a sign in her Craven House office advertising her ‘Women Taxpayer’s Agency’, her landlords and (male) fellow-tenants demanded that she take out the word ‘women’ as this was ‘offensive and objectionable’: they didn’t want to hear women ‘shouting that they paid taxes’. Ethel moved over the road to Hampden House and reinstated her sign. She continued to wage her battles, taking cases to court and sometimes winning.

As a married woman running her own business, Ethel experienced first hand the stupidities of the tax system. Forms were sent by the Inland Revenue to her husband to fill in on her behalf, describing him as his wife’s trustee, agent, receiver or guardian. She resolutely refused to give him the information he would have needed to fill in the return, a position fully supported by her husband, who was often threatened with imprisonment himself as result. In 1912, Mark Wills, the husband of a doctor, Elizabeth Wilks, had gone to prison for two weeks when his wife had adopted the same stance so the risk Frank was taking was a genuine one. In 1914, Frank was at her side when she went to court at the end of a fourteen-month campaign to recover tax she felt was due and conducted her own case.

Like many other suffrage organisations, the WTLR stopped campaigning when war broke out. Ethel took over the management of enquiries on tax issues from members of the WTLR from Margaret Kineton Parkes, who was busy working for the Women’s Emergency Corps, starting to charge a small fee for a service that had previously been free. She had already further expanded her business services to include buying and selling stocks and shares and putting in place a range of insurances and annuities as well as mortgage loans. She kept her business running throughout the war, continued to advocate for accountancy as a career for women and was appointed auditor for the Women’s Auxiliary Force. With her sons too young to be called up and her husband too old, her family came through the war unscathed.

Post war activities
With women awarded the vote, the Society of Incorporated Accountants and Auditors agreed to admit women on the same terms as men and with the passing of the Sex Disqualification Removal Act in 1919, the Institute of Chartered Accountants also bowed to the inevitable.

The end of the war saw the dissolution of the WTRL but Ethel continued to campaign for changing the legal status of married women, particularly in the context of tax, publishing books and pamphlets, writing newspaper columns and making speeches. She was furious that the Income Tax Act of 1918, passed after women had been given the vote, still lumped together under the heading of incapacitated people ‘any infant, lunatic, married woman, idiot or insane person’, reflecting that it was no wonder young women thought themselves fools if they decided to marry.

In March 1919 she considered standing in the London County Council elections, and was supported by the London Unit of the National Federation of Women Teachers and the Women’s Freedom League, but in the end withdrew. In April she represented the Women’s Freedom League as a witness before the Royal Commission on Income Tax and ‘made a great her clear and witty presentment of the absurdities and injustices of the legal and financial side of women’s disabilities’ but no changes to the law were forthcoming.

She maintained a high profile through the early 1920s and other women were following her into accountancy. By 1922, The Vote reckoned that forty women who were now members of the three organisations, the vast majority in the London Association of Accountants, with many more women in the process of completing their qualifications. There was much for her to be proud of.

But on 26th March 1923, allegedly plagued by insomnia and scared that she was losing her mental powers, which would be affect her ability to work, Ethel jumped in front of a train at Covent Garden Underground railway station. She had clearly been struggling with her mental health for some time: an earlier suicide attempt that same month at Arsenal station had been foiled by other travellers. Her death clearly came as huge shock to women who knew her and wrote of her ‘cheery personality’. It was a sad and abrupt end to a life so much of which had been spent fighting for others.

Ethel’s business was taken over by another (unnamed) woman and for a long time her name disappeared from the suffrage annals. The London Association of Accountants is now the Association of Chartered Certificated Accountants and rightly celebrates its role in opening up accountancy to women. As The Vote said back in 1923, ‘our debt of gratitude to the pioneer women who have opened new professions to their sex must never be forgotten by the ordered ranks who follow them.’

That said, celebrations of the past must be balanced with acknowledgement of the present. Research by Catalyst in 2020 showed that in the UK, women now make up 57% of the accounting profession. However, as in most industries, they remain hugely under-represented at senior levels in accounting: in 2019, women made up 42% of managers in the big four accounting firms in the UK and only 17% of partners. It is now nearly 125 years since women in the UK were first given accredited status and there is still much to be done if Ethel’s ambition of gender equality is to be achieved.

Sources include: Votes for Women 17/12/1908; Women’s Franchise 2/1/1908; 29/4/1909; 20/5/1909; 27/5/1909; Votes for Women 11/6/1909; Women’s Franchise 1/7/1909; 19/8/1909; The Vote 18/11/1909; Common Cause 24/3/1910; 14/4/1910; The Queen 4/6/1910; The Vote 30/3/1912; Daily Mirror 20/5/1914; Church League for Women’s Suffrage 1/10/1915; The Vote 27/6/1919; The Vote 3/3/1922; 4/5/1923

‘Ethel Ayres Purdie: Critical practitioner and suffragist’ by Stephen Walker (2011) Critical Perspectives on Accounting, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 79-101.

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