Ethel Watts (1895-1963)

Sector: Support Services (Accountancy)

In 1920 women were finally allowed to participate in the qualification programme to become a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW) as a result of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919.  Four years later, in January 1924, Ethel Watts became the first woman in Britain to pass all of these exams, the only woman among the 400 examinees.  On 6th February 1924, she was officially accepted as a member of the ICAEW, joining Mary Harris Smith, now 79 years old, whose application had been accepted four years.

In September of that year Ethel made her case in Good Housekeeping for a career in Chartered Accountancy:   

‘For the woman who is choosing her profession not only as a means of livelihood, but also as a means of education, Chartered Accountancy has many advantages to offer. It will bring her into close contact with the organisation of manufacture, distribution and exchange; it will give her a basis for a real understanding of the economic system as it actually exists; and it will provide her with a knowledge of men and affairs which is invaluable for anyone who is interested in social and political development.’

By 1924, Ethel was not just interested in social and political development, she was passionate about it.  Born in Bow and educated at Coburn School for Girls, in 1913 she gained a place at Bedford and Holloway College where she studied history. College records noted her ‘decided opinions’ and she was excused Chapel on account of her conscientious objection.  During the war she worked as an administrative assistant in the Ministry of Food which sparked her interest in business and she decided to study accountancy rather than law as she had been planning.  

To become the first woman to qualify as a Chartered Accountant, Ethel was dependent on the allyship of men, something to which she drew attention later in her career, when she was featured in a BBC radio programme in June 1941, ‘Pioneers of Progress’. She took that opportunity to pay tribute to another group of pioneers ‘not often mentioned and to whom all professional women owed a debt of gratitude: the men who took women into their offices and helped them train.

‘The professions were entirely masculine; the offices were entirely controlled by men. Looking back it seems a much more remarkable thing that our men colleagues, for no possible personal advantage, should have gone out of their way to help us and take us into their offices, than that we should have tried to get inside them. But that is the way of all progress. Some of the best workers always come from those who have nothing to gain.’

A rare photograph of Ethel Watts, 1937

After Ethel qualified as an accountant she worked for a couple of years at Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co, now KPMG.  She then briefly went into partnership with Miriam Homersham, who had trained at Deloitte, before setting up her own business, E. Watts & Co, in 1925, where she played her part in training up the next generation of women but her much-trumpeted success did not exactly open the floodgates. In 1949, the ICAEW had around 15,000 members and only 125 were women. It was at that point that Ethel, by then an experienced networker, founded the Women’s Dining Society for Chartered Accountants to reduce the sense of isolation.

The Junior Council of the LNSWS
Now London’s Marsham Street is best known as the headquarters of the Home Office but a century ago on the other side of the road stood an organisation with rather different attitudes towards women’s rights. The only signs now this was the epicentre of the British women’s movement are the two small metal name plates saying ‘Millicent Court’ on the doors of numbers 27 and 31. Nothing else indicates that between the wars this street was home to the London and National Society for Women’s Service (LNSWS), previously the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, which could trace its history back to 1866. In Women’s Service House could be found a library, a restaurant and a hall, as well as the Women’s Service Bureau, which offered free help to all women seeking advice and information on any subject connected with employment including prospects, training and wages conditions.

Ethel was 19 when the outbreak of war caused most of the women’s suffrage organisations to suspend their campaigning but she joined the Suffrage Committee at Royal Holloway and after the war began to engage in politics and the fight for gender equality. There was still much to do: expanding the franchise to all women as well as improving their economic position. In the mid 1920s, working women were up against pay inequality, the marriage bar, exclusion from most of the skilled industrial processes, the closure to women of nearly all the medical schools and ban on civil service promotions. 

In the summer of 1926, some LNSWS members decided it would make sense to bring together young professional and business women and students to dismantle these obstacles and the many others over which women still had to clamber in their pursuit of a career.  By the autumn, an Executive Committee formed and in the Chair of what was christened the Junior Council was Ethel.

Between the wars, women’s business networks fell into two broad categories.  Either they connected women within professions, like the Women’s Engineering Society or the Women’s Advertising Club of London; or they brought together women across professions like the Women’s Provisional Club or the Soroptimists. These cross-professional networks tended to be set up along the lines of the Rotary Clubs accepting only one woman from a particular profession which meant they remained on the smaller side: the Women’s Provisional Club numbered only 81 in 1938 when it had been going for fourteen years and although the Soroptimists was large at the national level, a local branch would rarely number more than 100.  One thing all these clubs had in common was that membership was restricted to women. 

The Junior Council took a different approach. All that was required to be a member was belief in its objective, to strive for equal economic opportunities and freedom for women in the pursuit of their work.  At its first AGM in 1927, it already had 175 members.  By 1933, the last year Ethel was Chair of the Executive Committee, it had over 640 members, making it one of the largest network of business women (and some men) in the country.  Around 10% of the members were students at one of the universities, medical schools, architecture colleges or schools of art, keen to access support as they entered the world of work. 

A huge range of professions were represented. It brought together women working for commercial enterprises like Lever Brothers and ICI with women in the public sector, the arts, sciences and academia. Members included the MP Irene Ward, Hilda Lyon, who invented the ‘Lyon Shape’, a streamlined design used in airships and submarines, Elen Elaine Austin, a climate specialist at the Met Office, social work pioneer Eileen Younghusband and the sculptor Audrey Blackman.  The monthly drinks party always had a good turnout and there were events throughout the year.   A highlight in 1930 was a joint event with Dame Ethel Smyth and Virginia Woolf where they shared their own experiences of forging their careers in music and literature.

Dame Ethel Mary Smyth by John Singer Sargent, 1901 (c) National Portrait Gallery
Irene Mary Bewick Ward, later Baroness Ward of North Tyneside by Bassano Ltd, 25 November 1931
(c) National Portrait Gallery

Other women called on to talk about their careers were Caroline Haslett and Edith Beesley. There was a strong campaigning element: ahead of the 1928 General Election members of the Junior Council approached candidates in 50 constituencies, arranging interviews, press campaigns and deputations, an informal forerunner of the Women’s Equality Party. There was also a strong social element, with swimming and walking clubs, a debating society, even an orchestra and an amateur dramatics group.

Fellow committee members during Ethel’s seven years as Chair included Elisabeth Scott, Venetia Stephenson, the first female barrister to act as defence in a murder case at the Old Bailey and Josephine Collier, a distinguished ear, nose and throat surgeon.   The Junior Council became a bit of a family affair for Ethel.  Her sister Gladys, a journalist, became a member in 1929, joining Ethel on the Committee in 1931. Her husband, Oliver Tobin, whom she had met through the local Labour party in Stepney became a member in 1930, soon after their marriage. He changed his surname to Watts-Tobin while Ethel continued to work under her maiden name. Their son, Richard Watts-Tobin, went on to become a prize-winning physicist who in the early 1960s worked with Francis Crick on deciphering the genetic code.

Although only the annual reports and membership lists survive, they show women helping and supporting one another.  The appointment of Elisabeth Scott as the architect of the new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford in 1928 was celebrated with a dinner where Ethel made the toast, sharing her hope that in the future Elisabeth would be known as a ‘gifted architect’ and not a ‘gifted woman architect’.  Nancy Astor hosted a dinner in December 1930 in honour of the Junior Council, where everyone was excited to meet Amy Johnson.  A lower profile example of the network in action is the case of Marjorie Towers, co-founder of a public relations company that still exists today.  She spoke at a meeting in 1931 on ‘careers in publicity’ and one has to assume that fellow member Miss Graham, one of Alice Head‘s sub-editors at Good Housekeeping, was in the audience because two months later, in January 1932, the magazine ran a feature by Marjorie on the same topic.  

Equal treatment, equal pay, equal status
In 1929, Ethel joined the Executive Committee of the LNSWS and in 1934 gave up her responsibilities on the Junior Council to became Chair of its parent organisation, a post she held until her death. When she started the Advisory Council, which represented Industry, Commerce, the Professions, Politics, Publicity and Training, included Hilda Matheson, Margaret Partridge and Constance Hoster as well as Leonard Woolf and the composer Sir Henry Wood.

Ethel was alert to bias in all its forms.  Discussions on unconscious bias in recruitment often include the example of the Boston Symphony Orchestra which in 1952 tried to eliminate bias by asking auditioning musicians to play behind a screen. It didn’t make much difference.  It was only when they asked everyone to take their shoes off that recruitment became more balanced. It turned out that the tell-tale tapping of heels across the floor had still been influencing these ‘blind’ decisions.

Ethel identified a similar flaw in the accountancy exam process.  In theory anonymous, with candidates given a number, in fact the accountancy bodies separated out the men from the women, putting the women first and then numbering the seats. If you were marking a paper from candidate no 9, the odds were strongly in favour of the candidate being female.  Ethel wrote to her former boss and mentor, Sir Harry Peat, (son of the ‘P’ in KPMG) to express her concerns but although he replied, he did not take her concerns particularly seriously, suggesting she drop it. If she really had to pursue, and the fear was that men would be unduly distracted by being seated next to a woman, perhaps the women could do their exams wearing veils? When this issue was finally resolved is not recorded.

Also high on the list of Ethels’ priorities was equal pay. Equal pay had been on the agenda of the feminists groups for decades but was given additional impetus by the contribution of women in the Second World War. Ethel had a great deal of influence on the ICAEW’s contribution to a Government survey of equal pay after the war and was heavily involved in the wider five-year Equal Pay Campaign that started in 1951. It was triggered by an ill-judged statement by Labour Chancellor Hugh Gaitskill in 1951 that equal pay would be bad for the economy, driving up prices and increasing demands on public spending (because all the number of women working in the public sector).

Jill Craigie’s 1951 short film, ‘To Be A Woman’, made to promote this campaign alas includes no footage of Ethel but she was a key contributor. She represented the Fawcett Society at high-profile meetings with Rab Butler in 1954 and the Secretary of State for Education in 1955. Her name is one of four that appears on the first page of a petition of over 80,000 names that was delivered to the Houses of Parliament by a cross-party group of four women MPs in March 1954, seen here below (from L-R Dr Edith Summerskill, Patricia Ford, Barbara Castle and Irene Ward).

Embed from Getty Images

There was an agreement to adopt a phased approach to equalising public sector pay in 1955 and the campaign was disbanded in 1956. Ethel lived to see equal pay legislation covering the Civil Service in 1961 but not the landmark Equal Pay Act of 1970 and I suspect she would be depressed to see that gender pay gap reporting was still required five decades on from that.

Although Ethel did some audit work, notably for a number of women’s organisations, her main area of expertise was tax and she took on the baton from another accountant, Ethel Ayres Purdie, in fighting for married women to have independent tax status. This was one goal she was not able to achieve before her sudden death on 19th November 1963. The many women who had worked alongside Ethel over the previous forty years across her many pursuits mourned the loss of a brilliant, kind, charming and elegant woman, who had devoted so much energy to improve the circumstance of other women.

It was not until 1990 that British married women finally achieving full independent taxation status and for a long time Ethel’s contributions to gender equality were largely forgotten. However,  as organisations do more to celebrate their history and seek out lost stories, it is great to see that slowly changing. In 2017, as part of its International Women’s Day celebrations, KPMG made a short film about her, which included an interview with her daughter-in law and when the ICAEW celebrated 100 years of admitting women, more light was shone on her achievements.  Perhaps one day she might even get a nod on the website of the Fawcett Society itself. 


In 1957, the Fawcett Library was founded to safeguard the collection of 10,000 books and bound periodicals that had been built up by the LNSWS over the previous century. Ethel was a trustee. This collection now forms the core of the London School of Economics’ Women’s Library collection so it is fitting that Ethel’s papers are also to be found in the LSE Women’s Library. The records of the Junior Council form also form part of the Women’s Rights Collection in the LSE Digital Library.

If you are interested in the work of Jill Craigie, there was a documentary made about her life and work last year, Independent Miss Craigie.


Other sources include: Western Daily Press 10/1/1924; The Vote 8/2/1924; The Vote 8/1/1926; The Woman’s Leader 30/3/1928; 27/12/1929; Daily News 21/10/31; Bradford Observer 6/2/1954; Wiltshire Times 19/2/1955; The Times 27/11/1963.

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