Obituary: Ethel May Houston, Bletchley Park veteran, solicitor, Law Society Council member, entertaining hostess
Ethel Houston was exactly the type of young woman sought after for some of the Second World War’s most intellectually demanding and secretive work.
An apprentice lawyer who had gone to university at just 16, she was non-conformist, feisty and a fiercely independent thinker.
The product of a mother, who as a missionary had been stoned out of a Spanish village, and a father who rescued the young evangelist, she had a pedigree ideally suited to life in a role that demanded resilience, ingenuity and determination. Little wonder the woman who became crusader in her own right – she was the one of the first female senior partners in a Scottish law firm – was recruited for the codebreaking operation at Bletchley Park that encompassed some of the country’s most inventive minds.
Miss Houston, who was subsequently honoured with an OBE for her contribution to the legal world, worked in Hut 6 under the command of Gordon Welchman, one of the first recruits to Bletchley, the Government Code and Cypher School.
There Welchman, a brilliant mathematician, improved Alan Turing’s Bombe machine, a giant forerunner of today’s computers, and relied on a band of very bright but discreet young women to help unscramble the German Enigma code, a complicated encryption that changed daily. Hut 6 worked on breaking the German Army and Air Force codes and Miss Houston, whose service spanned the final year of the war in Europe, was involved in compiling lists of messages used in composing the Bombe menus.
After the war Miss Houston returned to her studies and training in Edinburgh where she had begun her education in 1931. The daughter of adventurous parents – her mother Ethel was only 22 when she left a comfortable life in London to work as a missionary in Spain’s Galicia – she was born in Albacete, the main city of Castilla – La Mancha, five years after her parents met during the stoning incident in Piedralaves near Avila.
The couple had married in Madrid and worked as missionaries in Albacete until coming to Edinburgh where their elder daughter Ethel attended James Gillespie’s High School for Girls. She had a younger sister Louise and elder brother James, who had fallen two years behind at school due to ill health. When he was sent to the capital’s Skerry’s College to catch up, her father decided that she too, though just 16, should cram in two years of school work to keep pace. She did so – in just three months – and passed Edinburgh University’s preliminary exams, meaning both brother and sister could go to university together.
Miss Houston graduated with an MA in 1943, with medals in Roman Law and Jurisprudence, and applied to study for a Bachelor of Laws in tandem with the customary apprenticeship in a legal office.
Her family knew Edinburgh solicitor Peter Manson, who had gone into partnership with his uncle William Balfour, but she did not want to make any presumption that a job would be open to her there and attempted, unsuccessfully, to secure work elsewhere.
Women were generally not welcome on the Edinburgh legal scene at that time but when Balfour and Manson subsequently offered her an apprenticeship she accepted, joining in October 1943.
Just four months later she was called up for military service. Universities were a fertile hunting ground for the Army seeking the best young brains and Edinburgh had already alerted them to such talented graduates. As a result Miss Houston was posted to Bletchley Park.
She was demobbed just as the war in Europe was drawing to a close and returned to her law studies at Edinburgh and her work at Balfour and Manson. She graduated and qualified as a solicitor in 1947 and, to her astonishment, just two years later broke through the glass ceiling becoming a salaried partner.
She also went on to become one of the first two women to join the Law Society’s Council, on which she served between 1975 and 1981, blazing a trail for many young women who have since followed her lead. Around the same time she was one of two women elected to serve on the Royal Commission on Legal Services in Scotland and, in the mid-1980s, also sat on the Commission for Racial Equality.
Well known within the profession, she was also well respected personally and a woman with an irrepressible personality who just loved life and engaging with people. Passionate about Scotland, she was an avid walker – so zealous that others fought to keep up with her seemingly effortless pace – and bought a woodland as an investment for her old age.
An imaginative cook and entertaining hostess, she would rise well before dawn and do some work at the office in Frederick Street before returning to serve breakfast to house guests.
She also drove a sports car and, at one stage, decided that wearing a crash helmet while behind the wheel would be a sound strategy for mitigating risk. On another occasion she advised a client, who had broken her arm in a fall at Miss Houston’s own home, to sue her solicitor and promptly made the necessary arrangements for another partner to represent her client, thus ensuring the client could pursue a claim.
Though a spirited proponent of the law, she believed that only the minimum information should be supplied to those in authority – such as the police officer who stopped her for driving with too many passengers in her car.
But she was also compassionate and worked quietly for the benefit of others. She was one of the first to invite her office staff to care for their children at work, long before most employers recognised the word daycare. The partners of her firm, now known as Balfour+Manson, also had a long tradition of serving the Edinburgh Legal Dispensary, established in 1900 to give free advice to the poor. She too worked there in the evenings and also, privately, provided housing and employment to young people who sought her assistance.
Miss Houston, who was awarded honorary membership of the Law Society in 2009, is survived by her brother James, nephew Christopher and nieces Lydele, Claire and Penny.