Queensland was the first Australian State to initiate women serving on juries. The relevant bill was passed in 1924, although those interested had to formally indicate their desire to participate and were not actively encouraged to do so.
However, in 1942 an appeal went out in Brisbane for women to put their names forward. With so many men serving in WWII it was becoming difficult to find enough jurors to cover Supreme Court cases. One woman who rallied to the cause was housewife Nellie Bishop of Monro Street, Kelvin Grove. She admitted later that she had registered ‘in a weak moment’, although she did believe in women playing their part in the judicial system.
As time went by Mrs Bishop forgot the whole thing. She had a son in the AIF, and was busy in her role of Secretary of the Women’s Auxillary at her local Returned Servicemen’s League,
It was not until March 1945 that the call came.
When Mr Dendle, the Supreme Court Bailiff, knocked on the door and served a summons on her, Nellie thought he was from Manpower. She imagined being sent off to drive a truck or produce ammunition. She sharply told him that she was too old, and couldn’t be sent anywhere. Even when she realized who Dendle was, she tried to convince him that it would be her husband, he was after, not her.
Anyway, off she went in her best hat. It was the first time she had ever been in a courtroom and she was very nervous. It hadn’t occurred to her that she would be the only woman among 45 prospective male jurors. When the baliff mistakenly called our ‘Mr Bishop?’, she didn’t respond, more from nerves and confusion than irritation.
The first case on the agenda was that of 46 year old George Ebbage, a taxi driver charged with stealing cigarettes and bedsheets from the American Red Cross.
To her shock, Nellie she was not challenged either by the defence or prosecution lawyers. Dan Casey, the defence lawyer, was the first in Brisbane not to challenge a female juror, such was the prejudice of the day.
And thus it was that Nellie took her place with several other male jurers to decide Mr Ebbage’s fate. He testified that he took three American sailors to a Brisbane hotel late on the night in question and found the cigarettes and sheets in the boot of his taxi next morning. On the theory of ‘finders keepers’ he said he put the goods under his house in a tea chest.
However, his story was judged totally implausible and he was ‘sent down’. Mrs Bishop said she found finding someone guilty very upsetting. When she told her husband about the experience he grinned and said, ‘Serves you right!’
The next two trials on the list were murder trials and Nellie was so horrified at the prospect that after she was challenged she collapsed in her seat with relief. She said later that capital cases were too much responsibility for her. She was beginning to wonder whether blithely putting her name forward had been the right thing to do. However, she did still think that women should have a place on juries when women were involved.
Following her collapse she was excused from further appearance for the rest of the Supreme Court sittings. Nevertheless, her place in Queensland history was assured. She went home, took her hat off and made a cup of tea.
In due course, notification of the Jury Fee arrived from the Sherriff’s Office. Not nearly as much as the men received of course. The rate was nine shillings and one penny per day for women, sixteen shillings and two pennies for men.
Not quite equal pay.
The kindly Mrs Bishop said she would donate her fee to a fund for discharged prisoners. For a shy, retiring person the attention she received in the press was almost as stressful as her courtroom experience. Letters of congratulations arrived at Monro Street, including one from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Nellie was definitely not of the same ilk as the dedicated activists within the Temperance Movement, but I would have been happy for her to sit in judgement on me.