I am beginning to think that the North of England has incurred the wrath of the gods. In 2020 our annual joint dinner with the Northern Circuit was cancelled as a result of the Covid Pandemic. In 2021, the dinner in Liverpool was struck by a great storm that meant that many of us from the North East were unable to brave the crossing of the Pennines. In 2022, we decided to play it safe and so organised the dinner in Newcastle, the least accessible city in England and then the RMT called a train strike. These obstacles aside a very convivial evening was enjoyed. Master Simon Medland rallied the troops with a rousing speech, and Master Paul Darling kept the London end up by attending and delivering a personal address in which he spoke of his affection for the North Eastern Circuit and the Newcastle Bar in particular.
It was appropriate that a joint dinner of the Northern and North Eastern Circuit Societies was held in Newcastle. On Tuesday 29 February 1876 the first meeting of the North Eastern Circuit was held in Durham. Resolutions were proposed for the establishment and governance of the new Circuit, and then on Wednesday 8 March 1876 the first Grand Court of the Circuit affirmed those resolutions in the City of Newcastle Upon Tyne.
The North Eastern has always been a progressive Circuit. On Wednesday 5 December 1923 a special court was held in the robing room at Leeds. At that special Court, Alice Horsman became the first woman to be elected to the Circuit. She was followed shortly afterwards by Helena Normanton.
Admission to the Circuit did not entitle either entrant to dine at a Bar Mess. The records of the Circuit reveal that the Circuit was adamant that women should not be permitted to dine in the mess. One Burnard expressed the view that ‘some control was obviously desirable over women, but he did not wish to see Circuit mess reduced to the level of a mixed dinner party’. Waugh, the records reveal, expressed similar views but in stronger language.
Quite incredibly it was not until 1957 that women attended a social gathering of the North Eastern Circuit. I am delighted to see that it was held in Middle Temple Hall.
It was in Newcastle that for the first time, women were permitted to dine in the Mess held at the Royal Station Hotel on Thursday 11 March 1965. The vote to admit them had been hotly contested and had carried by just three votes. In the 1980s, the Circuit elected its first female Circuit Junior. Later in the same decade, the first non-white junior. The 1990s saw our first female leader and the 2010s our first non-white leader a middle templar Master Sangster. In 2022, the North Eastern Circuit elected the first black Circuit leader in England and Wales, Jason Pitter KC.
Against that background it was wonderful to see so many student members of the Inn attending the Newcastle dinner who reflected the modern and diverse profession that we can now (at last) begin to claim to be.
I have set out some of this detail to shamelessly promote the recently published history of the North Eastern Circuit. This wonderful work has a strong Middle Temple connection, having been written by the Remembrancer of the North Eastern Circuit HH Robert Taylor – a keen and still very active (in his 80s) Middle Templar. A copy is to be presented by the Circuit to the Inn Library.
One final observation, we were all delighted that Parliament recently elected Master Charlotte Worsley as a Bencher. It was a clean sweep for exceptional women at the last election parliament which was entirely appropriate on International Women’s Day!
Master Richard Wright is Head of Chambers at the largest multi-disciplinary set on the North Eastern Circuit, Park Square Barristers and has recently completed a three year term as Leader of the North Eastern Circuit. Having taken silk in 2013, he is consistently recognised in legal directories in the highest bands and noted as being a ‘masterful silk’. He is Chair of the Middle Temple North Eastern Circuit Society.