Three brilliant Adelaide girls

By Elizabeth Olsson, Chair, Law Society of SA Bulletin Committee 

20 October 2017

Mary Tension Woods (nee Kitson)                              Dorothy Somerville                                                              Sesca Zelling

Elizabeth Olsson looks at the remarkable lives of three pioneering women: Mary Kitson, Dorothy Somerville and Sesca Zelling.

One hundred years ago, on Saturday 20 October 1917, there was a significant gathering in the Supreme Court before Chief Justice Sir George Murray and Mr Justice Buchanan. The Governor’s wife, Lady Galway, joined the judges on the Bench and present in the packed public gallery were a war hero, Captain Blackburn VC and his wife, Dr Helen Mayo, several university lecturers, leading citizens, various lawyers and their wives, law students, students from the Convent of Mercy (St Aloysius) and a great many young women. The reason? The admission of the first female as a legal practitioner in South Australia.

That lawyer was 23 year old Mary Cecil Kitson, a brilliant ginger-haired student who had matriculated at age 16, dux of St Aloysius as well as head prefect. Born in Caltowie, Mary was the fourth child of John Kitson, a police inspector, and his wife Mary, both of whom encouraged their daughter to pursue her career.

Although the University of Adelaide had allowed women to study for degrees from 1881, few women had enrolled in law because they were not allowed to practice. That changed in 1911 when the Female Law Practitioners Act was proclaimed.  In 1912 Mary began her degree and in August 1914 was articled to Mr Thomas Slaney Poole of the firm Poole & Johnstone (the predecessor of modern day Mellor Olsson). Her Bachelor of Laws was conferred in December 1916, with the Observer recording “the somewhat singular admit a young lady as a bachelor of the University.”[i]

Mary spent 1917 completing her articles and after her admission, she was employed as managing clerk of the firm, with her first brief being in the Children’s Court. “I was shocked at what I saw” she recalled in 1950.[ii] “The Court was little more than an off-shoot of the Police Court, and frightened little children were treated as adult criminals, being called on to plead guilty or not before His Sovereign Majesty, and so forth. I got interested in child welfare right away, and that interest increased with the years.”

Outside of her work, Mary was involved in numerous activities. In 1918 the Adelaide University Magazine was established and Mary was the sub-editor for women law students. Representing the male law students was one Julian Gordon Tenison Woods, two years Mary’s junior, who was described as “widely popular, of taking manners and fluent in speech”. It was a meeting Mary would live to regret. An active member of the Women Graduates, Mary was also a founding member and Treasurer of the Adelaide Branch of the Lyceum Club in 1922, a Club that was to play a large role in the lives of the early women lawyers.

In 1919, Slaney Poole was appointed to the Supreme Court and Mary became a partner in the firm, now known as Johnstone, Ronald and Kitson. Her younger brother Augustine was articled to Mr Ronald at that time.

Having worked for several years in the law, in 1920 Mary applied to become a notary public. Her application was heard by her former principal, Mr Justice Slaney Poole, who refused her application. His Honour had no doubt that that Miss Kitson had the ability to take on the role of a notary public, but held that the Female Law Practitioners Actwas not sufficiently wide enough to give authority to appoint a woman to this role. Misinterpreting the Acts Interpretation Act 1915, he arrived at the conclusion that because it was a public office, the wording of “person” in the Public Notaries Act did not include women.[iii] Fortunately, Parliament acted swiftly and in 1921 the Sex Disqualification Act was passed allowing Mary to be appointed to that public office.

The year 1921 also saw the admission of the second female to the Bar, Aileen Constance Ingleby, the daughter of a KC. Aileen practised law for only a short year or two before becoming a reverend’s wife in Mannum. But her effect on the legal profession was great because, whilst playing in the University Hockey Team, she convinced her teammate, Dorothy Christine Somerville to also study law.

Known to friends as Dumps, from a childhood nickname, Dorothy Somerville was born in 1897 in Unley and attended MLC (now Annesley College), where she was dux. Dorothy loved her school and was heavily involved in the Old Scholars for most of her life. Her mother, Susannah “Sesca” Lewin was an author and poet, having written “Songs of the South”. A brilliant student, Dorothy graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in 1919, winning the prizes for Latin and Greek. Tying for the David Murray scholarship in theory of law, Dorothy obtained her law degree in 1921 and undertook her articles with HT Ward at the firm of Fisher, Ward & Powers.

Although Mary Kitson had been practising for some four years, the Daily Herald reported “the spectacle of a lady conducting a case for a client” in the Adelaide Local Court when the then article clerk appeared for the plaintiff to recover a debt. Her words to the Bench “I appear for the plaintiff, your Honour” were recorded, as was the fact that she was successful.[iv]  Dorothy went on some five years later to be the first female barrister to appear in the Supreme Court, as junior to Mr L A Whitington before the Chief Justice in 1927. It was reported that she received a cordial welcome, although the Register printed Mary Kitson’s photo by mistake![v]

Her admission in July 1922 attracted much attention, with the headline in the Observer “Another Portia.”[vi] It also inspired an interview by the society writer for the Journal, Lady Kitty, describing her as having “wonderful brown eyes” and being an outdoor girl having “courage, determination, and general wholesomeness” who loved sports and gardening and wished to travel.[vii]

After her admission Dorothy became managing clerk of Isbister, Hayward, Magarey & Finlayson. In 1923, Mary’s firm changed composition when Stuart Ronald became a Magistrate and my grandfather Athol joined the partnership to create the firm Johnstone, Kitson and Olsson.

The novelty of three women advocates led to an article in the Mail in May 1923,[viii] from which the title of this article is taken. Each of them were asked “whether the law is a suitable career for girls to adopt?” Miss Kitson stated that the law “has a wide human interest all its own, and offers immense possibilities for social service.”  Miss Somerville “voiced her opinion in no uncertain way.” She advised against taking up the study “as a means of whiling away her leisure moments” remarking that it was a very difficult course and much harder once working in the law.

“Very few girls are fitted, either physically or temperamentally, to be lawyers. She who intends taking it up seriously should, above all things, have an exceptionally strong constitution, especially if she wishes to do Court work. She must be capable of taking a wide survey of the case under discussion, have a logical mind, and plenty of assurance, and must be able to inspire her clients with confidence - not the easiest thing in the world.”

Miss Ingleby opined that “A woman who intends to become a lawyer must have her emotions well under control and must not be squeamish.”

On 18 November 1924 a Notice appeared in the Register[ix] advising of the dissolution of the partnership of Johnstone, Kitson & Olsson because Miss Kitson was retiring from active practice. In reality, Mary was to be married to Gordon Tenison Woods and Percy Johnstone, a curmudgeonly bachelor whose own brief marriage had been a disaster, insisted that she leave because he felt that a married woman should not be in a partnership with a male other than her husband.

Mary and Gordon’s wedding on 15 December 1924 was a society event, described in detail in The Advertiser.[x] On return from her honeymoon, it was announced that for the first time in the history of the Commonwealth, a law firm comprised of a partnership solely of women would be formed by Mary and Dorothy from 15 April 1925 - to be called Kitson & Somerville, Solicitors and Notaries Public. Shortly afterwards Mary achieved another first, being the first woman in South Australia to re-subscribe to the roll in her married name (which was slightly odd as the new firm traded under her maiden name). The motion was moved by her husband, Gordon.

The Women’s Page of the Register was quick to report of “The Law and the Lady. A Visit to A Legal Firm”[xi] and the writer, Elizabeth Leigh, went into great detail about the decor of the office (shining neat with creamy buff walls, with polished cedar cupboards and flowers on the writing table - “quite the most charming of any I have seen”, in case you were wondering!).

“As for practising at the Bar, neither of the two young Portias have bound themselves in any way, but will be guided by the needs of cases as they arise.” stated Miss Leigh. She went on

“they do believe that there is a special field for usefulness for the woman lawyer...Women seldom have — or had— much training in business affairs, and to put a clear statement of a case which they only partly understand to an acute-minded man whom they feel understands not at all, is more than many of them feel they can do. Their very dread of appearing irrelevant and muddle headed keeps them from the point, and they feel a real, if unnecessary, humiliation in the contrast of their own slowness and the keen comments of the man of law. Many of them, if they knew they could talk to a woman who would understand the workings of the feminine mind and listen not only without secret impatience, but with real sympathy, would be quicker to place their affairs in order.”

Miss Leigh hastened to assure her readers that neither of the lady lawyers were rampant, feminist militants, stating further that in South Australia “there has never been the slightest prejudice against women in practice.”

Tragedy struck Mary Tenison Woods in April 1927. Gordon had stolen over £500 from his trust account, submitted worthless cheques as repayment and lied about it. His own father had reported him to the Law Society. It was also found that the trust account was frequently in debt. When she discovered Gordon’s behaviour, Mary, who was then nine months pregnant, fled to Sydney in panic. On her arrival, after a long train journey, she immediately went into a traumatic labour, with her son, Julian Tenison Woods (called Mac), being born with cerebral palsy.

Gordon was struck off the roll in June 1927 and left for New Zealand, abandoning his wife and child. Ever the cad, his main excuse for his wrong doing was “domestic trouble” in April, such that “he was not able to give proper attention to his business.”[xii]

Returning to Adelaide as a single mother, Mary needed the financial security of paid employment. She left the partnership with Dorothy and joined the firm of Bennett, Campbell, Browne and Atkinson. Dorothy Somerville remained as a sole practitioner, practising in the Epworth Building, where she remained for the rest of her professional life.

Retaining her interest in sport, Dorothy became Honorary Solicitor to many sporting organisations, notably the SA Women’s Hockey Association from 1925-1974 and the Australian Croquet Council from 1948-1975. She served as Honorary Solicitor from 1925-1971 to the CWA (SA) and involved herself with Wanslea Inc (Emergency Homes for Children) and the Women’s Memorial Playing Fields.

Like Mary, she had been a Foundation Member of the Lyceum Club in Adelaide and she regularly attended social events there, later becoming an Honorary Life Member.

By 1929, 12 women had been admitted in South Australia but only nine were practising (plus one in London). Whilst some women felt that there was “an entire lack of hostility toward us” by the male practitioners, another held firm views:

"If women barristers had to rely upon men solicitors for briefs," she remarked, "they would starve. Their only hope would be in there being sufficient women solicitors to feed them. I do not think male solicitors would brief a woman barrister unless a client demanded it."[xiii]

Dorothy Somerville promoted the law as a vocation for girls. In 1931 she wrote:

“Progress in the profession depends of course, on personal ability and application. There is no prejudice against women lawyers, nor does there appear to be any branch of law which offers special scope to them.”[xiv]



During this time, Mary obtained Australia Council funding to investigate young delinquents in South Australia. Her report to the Delinquency Committee assisted in the creation of a specialist Children’s Court.

Upon obtaining a divorce from Gordon in 1933, Mary moved to Sydney to take up an editorial position with Butterworth and Company, undertaking writing, editing and teaching, work that she could undertake from home and care for her child. For the next fifteen years, she wrote many textbooks and taught for a time at Sydney University. In 1942, despite the War, Mary travelled to England to study child welfare there. On her return she chaired the Delinquency Committee of the Child Welfare Council. She was appalled at the conditions of the Gosford Boys Home and the Parramatta Girls Industrial School and receiving no response from government, she went to the newspapers, which led to significant reforms.

An invitation came for Mary from the ILO to travel to a child welfare conference in Montreal in 1945 but her permit to travel came too late, perhaps deliberately so, for her to attend. She was however able to travel to London for seven months the following year. During that time she reported to the Australian press about the first woman in the UK to preside as a Magistrate as well as her meetings with many other women who were pioneers in their fields. She also undertook broadcasting on the BBC and on her return, the ABC.

The year 1950 brought significant accolades and challenges, Mary was awarded an OBE for her work with the Child Welfare Council and she was appointed as chief of the Status of Women Commission in the Human Rights division of the United Nations, working with five women lawyers of differing nationalities. Mary agonised over accepting the position because it would mean leaving Mac, then 23, in Sydney. Restricting her term to 12 months, Mary left for Lake Success, New York in June 1950.

She was to remain in her new position until 1958. During this time, she travelled the world undertaking the Commission’s work, promoting issues such as ownership of matrimonial property, joint guardianship of children, right to independent employment and equal wages. Two Conventions were adopted during her time - one granting protection of women’s full political rights and the second that marriage should not affect the nationality of a wife. By the end of her term at the UN, Mary was almost 65 and Mac, 30. She decided to return to Sydney and after taking Mac on a world trip, she settled in Ryde close to Mac’s care facility.

Awarded a CBE for public service in 1959, Mary wrote two further books for Butterworths before settling into retirement. She never remarried, because as a devout Catholic, she felt that she could not do so whilst Gordon was still alive. Mary Tenison Woods died on 18 October 1971, she was 77.



After Mary’s move to Sydney, Dorothy became the most senior female member of the profession, a position that she held for 59 years. The steady trickle of female lawyers continued, with two admitted in both 1930 and 1933, four in both 1934 and 1935. These included Beryl Linn, Vivienne Judell and Roma Mitchell in 1934 and Marjorie Frick and Jean Gilmore in 1935. During those years it was a tradition for the majority of the female lawyers and law students to gather at the Lyceum Club for an annual dinner and bridge, presided over by the elder stateswoman, Dorothy Somerville. It was a way to introduce students to practitioners and offers of articles were known to be made after such occasions.

At that time women were not allowed to lunch in hotels. So every Thursday Roma Mitchell, Vivienne Judell, Jean Gilmore, Chris Walker and Beryl Linn would join Dorothy in her office for the Thursday Girls lunch. This enabled them to provide support to each other. In 1937, the Girls were joined by Dorothy’s niece, Sesca Ross Anderson, who was serving her articles with her Aunt Dumps. In taking on Sesca as her article clerk, another first was achieved, Dorothy Somerville was the first female practitioner in Australia to take on a female article clerk. As the new girl, Sesca was christened by the ladies to be their Girl Friday!




Born in 1918, Sesca, like her mother and aunt before her, attended MLC, where she was awarded the Old Scholars’ Prize for qualities of leadership and contribution to the life of the school, being made Head Prefect in 1936, and excelled in sport. Like her Aunt Dumps, Sesca was dux of the school and she topped the State in Leaving Botany in 1934.

Obtaining her law degree in 1941, Sesca was the 35th woman to be admitted to the Bar in South Australia - it had taken 24 years to reach that number.

After her graduation, Sesca retained her interest in her school and university, serving as President of the Old Scholars’ Association, President of the Women Graduates Association, President of the Australian Federation of University Women and, a member of the Council of St Ann's College. She was the third woman to be appointed to the Council of the University of Adelaide

Commencing in 1942, Sesca was a prosecuting officer for the Deputy Commonwealth Crown Solicitor until 1947, when she became the first female Secretary of the Law Society of South Australia. In his annual report of 1948, the Society’s President Mr D. Bruce Ross, noted that “Miss Anderson is our first woman secretary and I have an idea that some members of the Council were a little doubtful whether a woman - however competent - could cope with the manifold and ever increasing duties of that office. Miss Anderson has set at rest all such doubts…”[xv]

Sesca held that office for three years and during that time she was heavily involved in the running of the Legal Assistance Scheme. Although she resigned in 1950 upon her marriage to Howard Zelling, she soon returned to the job when her successor left, filling the vacancy until another person could be appointed.

After her marriage, Sesca shared an office with her husband, where she practised primarily in wills and estates, and conveyancing. She was known to be meticulous and thorough in her work.

In 1951 Sesca, Howard and Roma Mitchell attended the jubilee of the Commonwealth Legal Conference in Sydney. Upon arriving at the venue for the convention dinner, they were told that although they had paid for the function, it was a male only affair and they could not enter. Undeterred, they entered and found their seats. A male delegate at her table told Sesca that she looked like a woman in a men’s bathing house. Despite this, both women remained at the dinner.

Sesca had joined the Law Society in 1942 and between 1955 to 1963, she was a member of the Society’s Council. From 1946 to 1957, she was the Convenor of the National Council of Women Standing Committee for laws and suffrage, also serving as Australian Vice-President from 1954-1957 and President of the South Australian chapter from 1957-1960. In 1970 she was made a Life Vice-President of the SA branch.

For 22 years Sesca was a Trustee of the National Council of Women War Memorial Fund, commencing in 1954. Other service was with the Marriage Guidance Council and the YWCA.

In recognition of her service to women and the community, Sesca was awarded an OBE in 1960.

In 1962, Sesca was appointed a Trustee of the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden and was Chair at the time of her death.

Over the years, she and Howard took on several article clerks, who they adopted as their “children”, closely following their careers.

When Howard Zelling was made a judge in 1969, Sesca did not wish to risk any criticism of conflict of interest and wound up her practice, although she continued to renew her practising certificate until 1994.



Sesca remained close to her Aunt Dumps, who continued to practise in Pirie Street, walking daily from the Brighton train to her office, sporting her trademark big red hat. Dorothy was awarded an AM in 1986 by the Queen on the Royal Yacht Britannia. The story was that when asked a question by Her Majesty, Dorothy was so overcome by the occasion that she replied “Yes, Your Honour!”

Retiring in 1991, at the age of 94, Dorothy Somerville died the following year, aged 95. She had been a legal practitioner for 69 years!

Sesca continued to be active in her many interests and in 1993 she was made an Honorary Member of the Law Society. She had been appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1945 and at her death, was the longest-serving woman member of the Royal Association of Justices.

Howard Zelling died in November 2001. He and Sesca had been married for almost 52 years. They were not separated long however - Sesca died only 16 days later, aged 83.

All three of these extraordinary ladies lead brilliant and accomplished lives in the legal profession. But it was not without significant sacrifice and hardship on their part, facing very real personal and professional obstacles that seem quite outrageous to a modern female practitioner. It is because of their courage and determination that they can truly be called legal trailblazers.

[i] “Woman’s Onward March” The Observer Saturday 16 December 1916, page 33

[ii] “Job of world rank for Australian woman lawyer”, Australian Women’s Weekly, Saturday 10 June 1950 page 25

[iii] “Women as Public Notaries” The Register Wednesday 22 December 1920, page 6

[iv] “A Lady Barrister”, The Daily Herald, Thursday 9 February 1922, page 2

[v] “Miss Dorothy Somerville”, The Register, Tuesday 18 October 1927, page 4

[vi] “Another Portia” The Observer,  Saturday 29 July 1922, page 12

[vii] “Lady Kitty’s Letter” The Journal. Saturday 29 July 1922, page 16

[viii] “At the Bar, Law as a Career for Women. Three Brilliant Adelaide Girls” The Mail, Saturday 19 May 1923 page 2

[ix] The Register Tuesday 18 November 1924, page 2(5)

[x] “Weddings, Wood-Kitson” The Advertiser, Monday 19 December 1924, page 12

[xi] “The Law and the Lady. A visit to a legal firm” The Register, Tuesday 28 April 1925, page 4

[xii] “Struck of the Roll” The News, Tuesday 21 June 1927, page 1

[xiii] “Women at the Bar. Way Made Smooth for Them in Adelaide” The News Thursday 7 February 1929, page 9

[xiv] “Vocations for Girls. Law” The Advertiser, Tuesday 8 December 1931, page 14

[xv] President’s Address, Report of the Council and Financial Statement for the Year ending 30th June 1948, The Law Society of SA, page 2