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Orme, Elizafree

  • Leslie Howsam

Orme, Eliza (1848–1937), social activist and lawyer, was born on 25 December 1848 at 16 Regent Villas, Avenue Road, London, the seventh of eight children of Charles Orme (c.1807–1893), distiller, of Southwark, and his wife, Eliza (1816–1892), eldest daughter of the Revd Edward Andrews of Walworth and eldest sister of Emily Patmore. She attended Bedford College for Women and entered University College, London, in 1871, where she studied law and political economy, winning in 1876 first prize in Roman law and the Hume scholarship in jurisprudence. Among her mentors were John Elliot Cairnes (1823–1875), W. Leonard Courtney (1850–1928), and W. A. Hunter (1844–1898), from whom she learned an attachment to laissez-faire economics and Liberal political principles. She went to Lincoln's Inn in 1873, to read in the chambers of Savill Vaizey, but as a woman was refused admittance to the ranks of conveyancers under the bar.

In 1888, when Orme earned the degree of LLB from the University of London, she was already established in the Chancery Lane office out of which, from 1875 until about 1904, she conducted a prosperous business, ‘devilling’ for lawyers as a conveyancer and patent agent. She became a public figure, writing and lecturing about feminist and other contemporary issues. She was a member of the London National Society for Women's Suffrage and of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, and was a founding member of the Women's Liberal Federation (WLF) in 1887, editing their Women's Gazette and Weekly News from 1889 to 1891. When the WLF split in 1892 she joined the Women's National Liberal Federation (WNLF), and later wrote the life of the founder (Lady Fry of Darlington, 1898). The WNLF disagreed with the WLF policy of giving priority to women's suffrage in the face of opposition from the Liberal Party. In Orme's words, 'the great Liberal organization … was not available for the promotion of reforms about which Liberals are in disagreement, and which are in fact not part of an accepted party programme' (E. Orme, Lady Fry of Darlington, 1898). In 1892 she was chosen over Beatrice Potter to be senior lady assistant commissioner to the royal commission on labour, supervising the work of three junior investigators and herself examining women's work in Ireland, in the Black Country iron industry, and in London public houses. She opposed protective labour legislation for women workers and her reports demonstrate a conviction that women should not be excluded from any workplace, even the blacksmith's shop. In 1894 she was a member of the departmental committee on prison conditions, examining the situations of female prison staff and inmates. She stated her views in the Fortnightly Review: 'The real fact is that women, instead of being reformed by prison treatment, are dragged down by it, and that our system, planned carefully, with the best intentions, is really calculated to manufacture habitual criminals and drunkards' (Fortnightly Review, 69, 1898, 790–96).

Orme remained unmarried, living with her parents until their deaths and then with her sister Beatrice at Tulse Hill from the early 1890s. No portrait or personal papers have survived, and little is known about her private life, but she was regarded as a formidable person by Beatrice and Sidney Webb, George Gissing, and George Bernard Shaw. In an article in The Examiner (1 August 1874) she was critical of what she called 'strong-minded women', who went in for stridency and useless eccentricity, preferring the 'sound-minded women … who can take a journey by railway without an escort, who can stand by a friend through a surgical operation, and who yet wear ordinary bonnets and carry medium-sized umbrellas'. A distinctly pragmatic attitude coloured her approach to women's issues: writing in 1897 about the need for higher education and independent careers, rather than charity, for unmarried women she debunked 'the fallacy of supposing a woman keeps other women in employment by living economically on a small income instead of earning and spending a larger one' (E. Orme, How poor ladies live: a reply, Nineteenth Century, 41, 1897, 613–19). Eliza Orme died of old age and heart failure on 22 June 1937 at Fenstanton, Christchurch Road, Streatham, in London.


  • L. Howsam, ‘“Sound-minded women”: Eliza Orme and the study and practice of law in late-Victorian England’, Atlantis, 15/1 (1989), 44–55
  • Law Journal (12 Dec 1903), 620
  • Englishwoman's Review (1873–1904)
  • C. Hirschfield, ‘Liberal women's organizations and the war against the Boers, 1899–1902’, Albion, 14 (1982), 27–49
  • The Post Office directory (1851–1935)
  • Royal blue book (1851–1902) [annuals]
  • Court Directory (1851–1902)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.

Wealth at Death

£787 15s. 8d.: probate, 8 Nov 1937, CGPLA Eng. & Wales