23rd September 2020

A blue plaque for the world’s first female chartered accountant, Mary Harris Smith

One hundred years after Mary Harris Smith became the world’s first female chartered accountant, a blue plaque has been placed on the offices in London where she worked.

It is placed on the City of London Magistrates’ Court, very near to the site of Harris Smith’s office (since demolished), on the corner of Queen Victoria Street and Bucklersbury.

Mary Harris Smith’s  interest in accounting developed when she assisted her father with bookkeeping work that he brought home. At the age of 16 she studied mathematics with a master of King’s College School and revealed considerable ability.

She was one of the early attendees of the bookkeeping classes established by the Society
for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW) in 1860. She was then employed as an accountant to a mercantile firm in the City for nine years and was subsequently appointed accountant to the Royal School of Art Needlework. Her competence resulted in requests from other organisations to audit their accounts.

In 1887 Mary Harris Smith decided to set up her own accounting firm in Westminster. This venture into the masculine world of public accounting practice was a radical step. The prospects for a woman practitioner were such that on her letterheads, business cards and audit reports Miss Mary Harris Smith identified herself as ‘M. Harris Smith, Accountant and Auditor’.

By contrast, when advertising her services in women’s periodicals, she emphasised her status as a ‘lady accountant’, building a successful practice as an accountant for women and being heavily involved in a professional and personal capacity with organisations devoted to the advancement of women. These included the Parliamentary Committee for Women’s Suffrage, the Society for the Return of Women as Poor Law Guardians, the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, the National Union of Women Workers, the Gentlewoman’s Employment Club, and the Soroptimist Club.

As Stephen P Walker writes:

“It was the experience of the First World War, when numerous women entered accounting firms as substitute labour, as well as the Representation of the People Act 1918 and the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act 1919, that altered the position of the accountancy bodies on the admission of women. In early 1919 the SAA [Society of [Incorporated] Accountants and Auditors], to which Mary Harris Smith had first applied in 1887, altered its memorandum of association to admit women. She renewed her application for membership only to discover that the society now
had limited power to admit persons who had not passed its examinations. However, in November 1919 she was admitted as an honorary member in recognition of her status as the first female practising accountant. The rules of the ICAEW [Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales] did permit admission without
examination, and in May 1920, at the age of seventy-five, Mary Harris Smith became a fellow of the institute and the first woman chartered accountant.

When she was finally admitted to the ICAEW, Harris Smith was lauded for having successfully challenged a male professional monopoly. Although she was often portrayed as a persistent and lone campaigner, her efforts to enter the accountancy profession were motivated not only by personal ambition but also by the wider aim of
securing the admission of women to the accountancy profession on equal terms with men. She was a constitutional suffragist, whose campaign drew on the support of the women’s organizations she audited, and leading liberal feminists such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Emily Davies, supportive MPs, as well as friends in the City of London.”

Mary Harris Smith is featured in Virginia Rounding’s research paper, commissioned for the Celebrating City Women project.