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Women Property Shapers - Irene Barclay

Posted on 28 October 2019

We continue to celebrate the lives of women who have made a significant contribution to the world of property. In this edition we feature Irene Barclay who in 1922, following the passage of the Sex Disqualification Removal Act 1919 exactly a century ago, became the first woman in Britain to qualify as a chartered surveyor.

The 1919 Act stated that "a person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation, or for admission to any incorporated society (whether incorporated by Royal Charter or otherwise)."

This opened up the Civil Service, the law and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors to the 50% of the population previously excluded on the grounds that a woman was not legally a "person" – as had been decided by the Court of Appeal in the 1914 case of Bebb v the Law Society.

At the time of her qualification, Irene was working for the Crown Estate as a housing manager for its housing estates near Regent's Park. She studied at the University College of Estate Management, which was also established in 1919.

Referring to her studies, she said in her memoirs: "We were the only girls in a crowd of young men and I remember that the lecturer who dealt with drainage and sanitation was acutely embarrassed, poor man."

Irene was closely followed by Evelyn Perry who qualified in 1923, and they went on to form their own partnership, Barclay and Perry Chartered Surveyors. Their female-led firm was ground breaking in a male dominated profession.

Irene is best known for her work as secretary of the St Pancras Housing Association for which she worked tirelessly for half a century. Her practice managed the association's properties from 1924 until her retirement in 1972. Founded in Somers Town in 1924 by the Anglican priest Basil Jellicoe, the association's aim was to improve housing conditions in the St Pancras area.

Her pioneering social and housing surveys in the 1920s drew attention to the plight of slum dwellers in Somers Town, Pimlico, North Kensington and parts of Edinburgh.

Beyond her work for the association, Irene Barclay played a leading role in the foundation of several housing associations between the world wars, including Kensington Housing Trust, Stepney Housing Trust, Isle of Dogs Housing Trust and Bethnal Green Housing Association.

Irene is regarded as one of the key social reformers of the 20th century for her work improving housing conditions. In 1966 she was awarded an OBE in recognition of her work. She is also commemorated in the Somers Town Mural in Camden.

Carrie de Silva, Principal Lecturer at Harper Adams University, commented in the RICS Building Control Journal, Sept/Oct 2017:

"In the decades of mass slum clearance, Irene and Evelyn broke new ground with their surveys… unique in the extent of their internal surveying and engagement with residents, as opposed to the more cursory, external surveys conducted for councils. This not only gained tenants' support but provided depth to discussions of housing need… After the war, Irene continued to campaign for better housing and joined a number of public boards, expressing the hope that she had been chosen on the strength of her skills as a surveyor and not as a token woman."

On her retirement in 1973, she went to live in Canada where she died in 1989.

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