Mary Harris Smith (1844-1934)

Sector: Support Services (Accounting)

‘All things come to those who wait’, said Mary Harris Smith when interviewed in 1895 about the challenges she faced in gaining professional accreditation. At that point she was aged 51. Fortunately for Mary, she was in good health and had a lot of patience because it took another 25 years for her to make history in 1920 when she became the first female member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. This, though, is only half the story, for the total period between her starting work her accountancy career and being officially accepted into its most august professional body was over 50 years.

Mary Harris Smith in ‘The Vote’ 8/2/1924
With thanks to the British Newspaper Archive

Born in 1844, Mary did not go to university but studied accountancy under James Haddon, a mathematics teacher at Kings College School in London. She was one of the first women to take advantage of the training schemes offered by the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW), which aimed to give women other employment options aside from the defaults of dressmaking, nursing and teaching. Her father was the managing partner in a private bank in the West End and one of his close friends was an accountant for a large marine insurance company. Through them, Mary gained practical work experience that enabled her to secure jobs in commercial enterprises.

Mary was following in a small trail of footsteps: in the 1861 census, 34 women stated their profession to be ‘accountant’ and 274 described themselves as a commercial clerk. However, there is no record that any of them were running their own business. This was the new path Mary decided to forge in 1887, when she had been working for around 25 years. Now membership of a professional body became more important and in 1888, aged 44, she made an application to the Society of Accountants and Auditors Incorporated (SAA), founded just three years earlier. She wrote:

‘It is my wish to place my time and experience at the disposal of those who have started undertakings for the interest and benefit of women… Women with capital are starting commercial enterprises.. and these undertakings require financial schemes as well as capital to start them, also the advice of a clear headed, experienced person to keep them going; and I think you will agree with me that when the capitalist is a woman and the employees are women and the whole undertaking is for the welfare of women, it cannot be wrong that the employment should be extended as far as possible in the same direction even to the appointment of a woman accountant.’

The minutes recorded that her application was met with laughter. Mary’s next three attempts in 1889, 1890 and 1891 were also all unsuccessful. Mary gave up on the SAA and turned her attention to the Institute of Chartered Accountants. By now it was clear that it was her gender rather than her competence that was the issue. Even The Accountant magazine conceded that ‘she appears universally to be regarded as a successful practitioner’. The ICA offered the excuse that their charter used the word ‘he’ and ‘him’ and these could not be viewed to be equivalent with ‘she’ and ‘her’, so women could not be admitted. The reality was the decision-makers just didn’t think women should be doing the job. In 1895, Charles Fitch-Kemp, president of the ICA stated that: ‘the time has not yet arrived, nor is it in the early future, when the admission of women as members of the Institute can with advantage be conceded.’

SPEW took up Mary’s cause but to no avail. Then, not content with refusing to acknowledge her professionalism, the ICA and SAA joined forces to agitate for a parliamentary Bill that would make it a punishable offence for anyone to keep practising as accountant who was not a member of an official accountancy body. ‘Surely this kind of illiberality is not what is required to bring the profession of accountant and auditor into..better esteem with the public’, opined the Westminster Gazette. For once MPs seemed to agree and none of these Bills made it to a second reading.

Like many other women entering a profession during this period, women and women-led businesses were important clients. Mary became the auditor for SPEW. Lady Henry Somerset, founder of the British Women’s Temperance Association and the new owner of Henrietta Müller‘s Women’s Penny Paper, now called The Woman’s Signal, employed Mary to audit both organisations’ accounts. Later in her career the Soroptimists became a client. Plenty of men hired Mary, too. Her clients included publishers, hotels and estate agencies, private enterprises and limited companies. She took on all aspects of financial management, including liquidation and receivership and particularly enjoyed ‘unravelling neglected accounts and restoring order and good form out of chaos and confusion’. She was a member of the London Chamber of Commerce and took on numerous pupils and articled clerks. In 1906 she moved her office from Victoria Street in Westminster to Telegraph Street in the City to be nearer to more of her clients.

In 1909, Ethel Ayres Purdie was accepted into the London Association Accountants and Mary could have applied to them but she was determined to gain entry to the ICA. It was the Sex Disqualification Removal Act of 1919 that finally opened the way to Mary being granted the official status for which she yearned. The Society of Incorporated Accountants folded first, making her an honorary member in 1919 and in 1920, aged 75, she was officially welcomed into the ICA. In November 1920, Harry Gordon Selfridge hosted a Thanksgiving Dinner for a slate of distinguished British women, among them Millicent Fawcett, Lady Rhondda and Constance Spry‘s patron, Lady Aberdeen. Mary was one of the guests, her trailblazer status assured. I wonder if at some point during that evening she thought about the motto that hung on her office wall for many years:

‘None cease to rise, but those who cease to climb’

Mary retired from business in the late 1920s and died in 1934. Her tenacity in securing equal rights for women in the profession of accountancy has rightly given her a special place in the history of women in business.

You can read more about the work done by the ICAEW to commemorate Mary Harris Smith’s achievements and tell the stories of other pioneering women in the accountancy profession here.

Update: 9/6/2022: Mary Harris Smith now appears on the City of Women London map, which re-imagines the London Underground map, replacing the names of stations with those of women and non-binary people who have shaped the city.

Sources include: The Queen 14/7/1888; 13/7/1889; The Woman’s Signal 25/10/1894; Westminster Gazette 18/4/1895; The Woman’s Signal 1/8/1895; Illustrated London News 26/5/1906; Pall Mall Gazette 4/12/1919; Common Cause 16/4/1920; The Times 26/11/1920

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