Frances Lilian Fish

An enduring mystery
Why Nova Scotia’s first woman lawyer abandoned the legal profession

By Barry Cahill, Independent scholar

Frances Fish, Dalhousie Gazette

In October 1997, the National Association of Women and the Law held its twelfth biennial conference in Halifax, the theme of which was “Access to Justice for Women: The Changing Face of Inequality.” The event was hosted by the Nova Scotia Association of Women and the Law, which took advantage of the opportunity to inaugurate the biennial Frances Fish Women Lawyers’ Achievement Awards. The heroine of this initiative, which had originated with the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, was a decidedly ironic choice; Frances Fish, despite being the first woman called to the Bar of Nova Scotia, barely practised law at all before abandoning Nova Scotia for good and the practice of law for 15 years. One wonders what circumstances combined to produce this result.

Who was Frances Fish and why did she come to Nova Scotia, where she had neither relations nor roots? The middle of five sisters – two older brothers died young – Fish was born in the shire town of Newcastle (now merged in the city of Miramichi) in December 1888, the great-granddaughter of Mainers who had emigrated to northeastern New Brunswick after the War of 1812. Her father Charles Elijah Fish was a sawmill owner, quarryman and building contractor who did not have a head for business. Public service appealed more strongly to “Charley” Fish, who went into politics at the municipal, provincial and federal levels; over a period of 30 years he served in every capacity from MLA and mayor to magistrate and MP.

The early death of both sons meant that the entire hope of the family was vested in the five precocious and hardy daughters. Though neither Mr. Fish nor his wife (née Willard) were university graduates, the family believed in higher education aiming especially at the professions; among Fish’s brothers were an engineer and a physician. Frances and all her sisters were university educated. Three of them took their undergraduate degrees at the University of New Brunswick and one at the University of Manitoba. The youngest, Ruth Foster Fish Davidson, became a pioneer woman lawyer in North Carolina.

In October 1913, Frances Fish became a student-at-law, the first woman in New Brunswick to do so since Mabel French in 1902. Given that she held a BA from the University of New Brunswick, the preliminary examination was waived and studentship reduced from four years to three. Why law and why then? Fish was in the second year of her arts course at UNB when Ms. French, New Brunswick's first woman lawyer, became a barrister in November 1907. French left the province five years later and, in the intervening years, had had no successor.

The Campbellton lawyer who accepted Fish as a pupil, William Alder Trueman, was a prominent Methodist; no mainstream Christian church held more advanced views on the rights of women than the Methodists. Few lawyers in New Brunswick in 1913, Methodist or otherwise, however, would have been willing to take on a female student. Fish made no effort to attend law school, though the University of King’s College had been operating one in Saint John since 1892. For the first two years of her studentship, she continued to teach at the grammar school in Campbellton, which was against the spirit if not the letter of the regulations in New Brunswick. Law studentship was supposed to be full time, the student either working in her principal’s office or attending law school.

Perhaps in order to save money, or because she was still uncertain as to her future course, Fish deferred entering law school for two years. Deciding against King’s College School of Law (now the UNB Faculty of Law), she chose Dalhousie University. New Brunswick law students had been attending Dalhousie Law School since its foundation in 1883. Three Newcastle men had taken their degrees there, including Lord Beaverbrook’s elder brother, the last as recently as 1914; a fourth was in his final year when Fish entered. Though Dalhousie Law School had never had a woman student, the university had been graduating women since 1885.

It was probably decisive for Fish that in spring 1915, the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society had admitted its first woman articled clerk. There was no point taking a law degree if one could not be called to the Bar, which was the situation faced by Ms. French upon graduating BCL from the University of King’s College in 1905. So it was that in autumn 1915 Frances Fish came to Dalhousie Law School.

Midway through her third and final year, 1917-18, Fish was on campus on the morning of December 6, 1917, when the explosion of a munitions-laden steamer in Halifax Harbour destroyed a part of the city, killing or fatally injuring 2,000 people and doing significant damage to university buildings. There were injuries but no fatalities among staff and students. Fish was one of those walking wounded who sustained psychological damage rather than physical injury. Standing on the steps of the university library when the explosion occurred, she was knocked unconscious; when she came round she found a man’s severed head frozen to her leg. Fish suffered from post-traumatic stress – “nervous collapse” – as a result of this incident, which had a severe mental and emotional impact throughout her life. In light of this, it is doubtful whether she would have been well enough to join the 104 women students who helped provide emergency medical care to injured survivors of the disaster.

There were, moreover, other difficulties affecting Fish’s personal life. Did she at the last moment break off her engagement to a fellow law student – or did he? Her professional life was also complicated. Was she denied a place in the law firm where she had worked while in law school and where she publicly announced she would be practising? Was she unable or unwilling to go into practice on her own? Did she no longer want to be a lawyer or to practise law, preferring rather to marry if she could have done so? Did she shake the dust of Halifax off her feet because the lawyer with whom she completed her studentship did not invite her to join his firm, instead offering a place to a newly called male lawyer? Had life in post-disaster Halifax become intolerable for a single-woman professional who had spent her entire life in a small town in northeastern New Brunswick? These are all possibilities.

More generally, was Fish’s experience typical or atypical of early women lawyers in Nova Scotia? Did it speak to her personal situation or, in a broader context, to that of other early women lawyers? Did the dearth of professional women undermine her resolve? There were few others except schoolteachers, nurses, Roman Catholic religious, social workers and one or two physicians.

All of that lay in the future on May 9, 1918 – a red-letter day in the life of Frances Fish, when she became the first woman to graduate LLB from Dalhousie University. The law office in which she worked while a student-at-law, May through September 1918, was that of Robert F. Yeoman, a sole practitioner who was solicitor to the Halifax Relief Commission. (The commission was a federal public body established in January 1918 to take charge of disaster recovery.) Like Fish, Yeoman was a native of Newcastle and a fellow Dalhousie law graduate who had been called to the Nova Scotia Bar in 1915. They also shared politics, both being staunch Conservatives.

Fish’s Bar admission in September 1918 was front-page news in Halifax: According to the caption accompanying her photograph in the Evening Mail of September 12 (“THE FIRST WOMAN TO BE ADMITTED TO THE BAR OF NOVA SCOTIA”):

Miss Frances Lilian Fish, who was on Tuesday [the 10th] admitted to the Bar of Nova Scotia and who is the first woman to be so admitted in this province and who will practise in the law offices of MacLean, Paton, Burchell and Ralston, is from Newcastle, N.B. She is a graduate of the Dalhousie Law School, having graduated at the spring convocation with distinction. Her college record throughout has been a very fine one. Having taken her BA at the University of New Brunswick, she went to Chicago, receiving her MA in Greek from the University of Chicago. Returning to Canada, she came to Halifax, and entered Dalhousie. While born in the sister province of New Brunswick, she proposes to make this province her home, and has made a host of friends here, who wish her all possible success in the practice of her profession.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this announcement is that Fish would practise with MacLean, Paton, Burchell and Ralston (today’s Burchells LLP), the newest of the ‘big four’ downtown Halifax law firms, established in 1912 by Alexander Kenneth MacLean, Liberal MP for Halifax and Nova Scotia’s former attorney general. When Fish was called to the Bar, MacLean, having run as a unionist in the federal election of December 1917, was minister without portfolio responsible for postwar reconstruction and Nova Scotia’s representative in the Union Government of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden.  

The Halifax Bar as Fish found it when called was small and homogeneous. Comprising about 75 lawyers, it was dominated by the direct antecedents of the four firms that still dominate it today: Stewart McKelvey, McInnes Cooper, Cox & Palmer – and Burchells. Most lawyers were sole practitioners, while some worked in two- or three-member partnerships. No firm had more than six lawyers. The notion of a woman who was a barrister was a novelty in Great War Halifax. It was one thing for a woman to be called to the Bar – that camel could be swallowed; quite another for a woman lawyer to be accepted as a practitioner on the same terms as men.

Of the other first women lawyers, both called in May 1919, Caroline McInnes would be restricted to routine solicitorial work in the elite firm headed by her father Hector, while Emelyn MacKenzie, though practising briefly in the same firm, never became an associate and soon emigrated to the United States. The fourth woman graduate of Dalhousie Law School, Marjorie Claudine McDougall (LLB 1921), was denied admission to the Bar when her clandestine marriage became known. The fifth, Mary Olive Maddin (LLB 1924), daughter of a prominent lawyer, practised law briefly before marrying. All five had a hard road to hoe, but none harder than Fish.

On the face of it there was no reason for Fish to be offered a place in a firm where she had not been a student-at-law, despite her having had an informal connection with Burchells during her law school days. Fish may well have had great expectations, fuelled in part perhaps by the absence of the firm’s junior partner, James Layton Ralston, on active service overseas. In fact there was no vacancy, the partners having already taken into the firm a young lawyer called to the Bar in 1910 without a law degree – Francis David Smith. It would have been next to impossible for a newly called woman lawyer, especially one without family connections, to have been granted an associateship in one of the major downtown law firms.

In July 1918 the Halifax Relief Commission set up a legal department and appointed its solicitor, Yeoman, to head it. Though she was not yet a barrister, Fish accompanied Yeoman as part of her studentship. Established by federal Order in Council in January 1918 to take charge of recovery after the Explosion, the Commission was authorized to engage professional staff such as lawyers. Retained outside counsel such as Yeoman proved inadequate to meet the continual demand for legal services, especially given the Commission’s power of expropriation. An in-house legal department soon became a necessity. Though Fish was never on the Commission’s payroll, the Halifax city directory for 1918-19 – the only edition in which she appears – describes her as “barrister, Halifax Relief Commission.” It is not known why or when Fish ceased to be Yeoman’s assistant or whether she left the legal department voluntarily. What is known is that Yeoman replaced her with Gordon McLaren Daley (called in 1917), whom Yeoman afterwards took into his firm.

Almost no records of the Commission’s legal department survive, but the work that Daley is known to have been doing in February 1920 is probably a good guide to what Fish was doing earlier, namely, interviewing “several property owners at their homes with a view to purchasing the same for street and other purposes; also wrote letters, interviewed parties and conferred with Pickings & Roland [engineers]. In addition to this there were a great many services rendered in a minor way, such as answering telephone enquiries ...”

On the face of it, there was nothing unusual about a woman professional such as Fish working for the Halifax Relief Commission. Several women professionals did so, including some, like the famed social worker, Jane Barnes Wisdom; in 1919 a woman – Carol Ratchford – even became the Commission’s chief administrative officer. But the scales of law were not balanced with regard to working women lawyers; the culture of the legal profession ran all the other way. One also wonders whether having to immerse herself deeply in the experience of Explosion survivors did not prove too much for Fish, psychologically. She was, after all, a victim herself who had been severely traumatized. It cannot be ruled out that she suffered what used to be called a nervous breakdown.

An indication that Fish had quietly left town by June 1919 lies in the historic appointment that month of the first women as commissioners of oaths. Fish was not among them, though the other two women lawyers, McInnes and MacKenzie, were. It is inconceivable that Fish would not have been similarly appointed, had she still been in Halifax. Fish’s legal career in Halifax was over almost as soon as it had begun, though she maintained her membership in the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that A. K. MacLean, founder and head of the firm she announced she would join, found her employment in Ottawa with the Department of Finance, of which he was acting minister in 1918. After the return of the federal Liberals to power in 1921, Fish went to work for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which opened its Canadian head office at Ottawa in 1924.

She could not practise law in Ontario because the Law Society of Upper Canada did not permit the interjurisdictional exchange of barristers; nor did Fish make any effort to be called to the Ontario Bar, which by then had several woman members. While in Ottawa, Fish endeavoured to cover her tracks – almost to the point of suggesting or implying that she was a lawyer in Ontario. As late as July 1921, one of the Newcastle newspapers was reporting that Miss Fish of Halifax was at home visiting her father the mayor.

After a decade in Ottawa, Fish joined her eldest sister and mother in Montreal, where she had great difficulty finding work but was eventually taken on as a legal secretary by Charles Hazlitt Cahan (Lord Beaverbrook’s former lawyer), a Conservative MP and Cabinet minister. On the death of her father in 1933, Fish returned to Newcastle, where she had not lived for nearly 20 years, and was called to the Bar of New Brunswick in 1934. Thereafter she practised law until months before her death in October 1975.

She did not revisit Nova Scotia until 1958, and then only to attend the 75th anniversary celebration of Dalhousie Law School. Her memories of attending law school were no doubt happier than her memories of attempting to practise law in Halifax.

BARRY CAHILL is writing a history of the Halifax Relief Commission.