Thursday, December 28, 2017

History of Edith Sheppard

The obituaries in December 2017 included Ernest Revell, retired University of Toronto professor of Near Eastern Studies and published watercolour artist.

He is memorable to me as a child of Edith Sheppard, an early Canadian woman lawyer (called to the bar 1925) who practised for several years with the prominent Toronto firm of McCarthy & McCarthy, and whom we "discovered" during my research in the history of that firm, as noted in the 2005  history of McCarthy Tetrault.

A biography of Edith Sheppard which was commissioned by the Dictionary of Canadian Biography -- but which the DCB has so far declined to publish -- has long lain among my own archives of lost projects. For those who may be interested, I have included the unedited text below the jump:

Sheppard, Edith Mary Peckham, lawyer; born 3 August 1900 at Brulé Lake, Ontario, daughter of Charles Henry Sheppard and Ellen Frances Stocking; married 14 June 1929 at Bombay, India, to Captain Alfred John Revell of the Indian Army, and they had two children; died 16 November 1934, Bangalore, India.[1]

Edith Sheppard’s grandfather William John SHEPPARD [1852-1934] built the family fortune as general manager and president of the Georgian Bay Lumber Company, the dominant firm in the Georgian Bay pine timber trade during the height of its prosperity. After the timber industry moved on, the company closed its mill at Waubaushene, Ontario, in 1920, but diversified investments provided substantial wealth for the family, including Edith’s father Charles, who had run the business with his father and brothers and retired to Aurora as its operations on Georgian Bay wound down.[2]
The Sheppard family was committed to education for women (“My father… thinks it is criminal negligence on the part of parents to let their daughters grow up without knowing how to do anything.”).[3] After a childhood at Waubaushene and in company lumber camps, Edith Sheppard attended Havergal School and the University of Toronto (B.A., 1921).  Her university yearbook predicted her future as “ready for anything under the sun,”[4] and she became part of a surge of women into law that had begun during the First World War. Eleven women had become lawyers in Ontario between 1897 (see Clara Brett Martin*) and 1918; by 1933 there would be 66 more. Accepted into the three-year law program administered by the Law Society of Upper Canada at Osgoode Hall Law School, Sheppard simultaneously articled with Leighton McCarthy* [died 1952] of the Toronto law firm McCarthy & McCarthy. [5] After her call to the bar in January 1925, the forty-third woman lawyer in Ontario, she remained with the firm as a salaried lawyer, one of the first women to practise in a prominent corporate law firm in a major Canadian city.[6]
Like many male law students, Edith Sheppard had found her position through family and business connections, for the Georgian Bay Lumber Company had been a client of the McCarthy law firm since the lumber company’s incorporation in 1871. She also benefited from the liberal attitude of Leighton McCarthy, senior partner at McCarthy & McCarthy from 1916 until the 1940s. In an era when most Canadian law firms had no women lawyers, McCarthy accepted Sheppard and eventually several more women (lawyers Marian Darte, June Ryan, and Jean Oldrieve, and law student Gretta Wong*) into his firm. McCarthy said in 1928 that Sheppard had been “the best student we ever had.”[7]
Despite her father’s suggestion that she open her own practice, Sheppard concluded that as a woman practising alone she would “never get a client from now until doomsday,” whereas at the McCarthy firm she was able to do challenging legal work that she enjoyed “immensely,” despite some clients (“poor old fogies”) who were shocked to encounter a woman lawyer. Much of her work was for the firm’s principal client, Canada Life Assurance Company, of which Leighton McCarthy was then Vice-President and General Counsel. She also handled legal matters for the Sheppard family companies.[8] 
At the McCarthy firm, which in 1925 had eight lawyers, four law students, and a staff of ten, Sheppard observed the hierarchy of mostly male lawyers and students and mostly female stenographers (“not the young flapperish sort, but girls from nice families whose fathers have died and who have to earn their living”). Leighton McCarthy’s practice involved high-level political and business dealings, such as facilitating the industrial developments of American aluminum baron Arthur Vining Davis at Arvida on the Saguenay River in Quebec (“They are going to build a town of 40 or 50 thousand… funny to have an industry like that spring up in the forest solitudes.”).  His partner and cousin D. Lally McCarthy,*[died 1963] the firm’s senior litigator, shared courtroom gossip and fuelled Sheppard’s doubts about the impartiality of the Ontario courts. Future firm leader (and Senator) Salter Hayden*[died 1985] struck her as “full of his own importance.” Under his leadership in the 1950s, there would be no women lawyers at McCarthy & McCarthy.
Sheppard was a member of the Women’s Law Association of Ontario and active in a community of young professional women in Toronto, including her sister Margaret, a chemist at the Banting Institute, and her law school friend Vera Parsons,*[died 1973] one of the first Canadian women lawyers to build a criminal defence practice. Like many of her circle, Sheppard accepted that for women marriage and employment remained largely incompatible. In 1927 a WLAO survey estimated about half of Ontario’s women lawyers, most of whom had qualified since 1918, had given up active practice “for matrimony.” In 1928, when Edith Sheppard became engaged to an Englishman whom she had met on a European holiday, she gave up her legal career “to be a married woman,” resigning from McCarthy & McCarthy in the spring of 1929 and letting her Law Society membership lapse.[9]
In May 1929, Edith Sheppard sailed to India. Her fiancé, Captain Alfred John Revell, was an officer of the 1st Madras Pioneers (later the Sappers and Pioneers Regiment) of the Indian Army. They were married at Bombay in June 1929 and lived in Bangalore, where he was stationed. In India, Edith Sheppard Revell bore two children, both of whom later had academic careers in Canada. But health problems that had necessitated several leaves from her law practice in Toronto recurred in India, and she died in Bangalore in 1934 after an appendectomy.[10]
Christopher Moore

[Names in the text are marked with asterisks 1) if the individuals have been included in a published DCB volume or 2) they might be considered for inclusion in forthcoming volumes.]

Manuscript Sources:

Professor and Mrs. E.J. Revell were most helpful in sharing documents and their knowledge of his mother.

Law Society of Upper Canada, Membership Records, Edith Sheppard file and Crossing the Bar Exhibition Files.

University of Toronto Archives, Department of Graduate Records, Edith Mary Peckham Sheppard File.

McCarthy Tétrault archives (Toronto): Partnership Agreements 1928.  Oral History Videotape Interview with Beverley Matthews, August 1995.  Edith Sheppard File (holds copies of excerpts from Edith Sheppard’s unpublished letters and diary entries, 1925-29, originals in the possession of the Revell family).

Women’s Law Association of Ontario, Scrapbooks 1919-34

Published Sources:

James T. Angus, A Deo Victoria: The Story of the Georgian Bay Lumber Company 1871-1942. Thunder Bay: Severn Publications, 1990.

Constance Backhouse, “Gretta Wong Grant: Canada’s First Chinese-Canadian Female Lawyer,” 15 Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice (1996), pp. 3-46.

Abby Bushby, “The Early Years: Sources of an Enduring Tradition, 1919-1950,” Toronto: The Women’s Law Association of Ontario, 2000 (available at

Christopher Moore, McCarthy Tétrault: Building Canada’s Premier Law Firm 1855-2005, Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2005.


[1] Birth date, parentage, place and date of marriage, and place and date of death are from UT Archives, Department of Graduate Records, Edith Mary Peckham Sheppard file, except the birth place, which was supplied by the family.

[2] On the GBLC and the Sheppard family background, see Angus, A Deo Victoria: The Story of the Georgian Bay Lumber Company 1871-1942.

[3] This and all other quotations are from unpublished letters of Edith Sheppard held by her family, copies in McCarthy Tétrault Archives, Toronto. This quotation, ES to A.J. Revell, 21 September 1925.

[4] 1921 yearbook quotation from UT Archives, Edith Sheppard File.

[5] Bushby, “The Early Years.” Law Society of Upper Canada Archives (LSUCA), Member files: Sheppard, Edith Mary Peckham (admitted 1921, articled to L.G. McCarthy, earned honours in first and third year, called to the bar January 1925).

[6] LSUCA, Crossing the Bar Exhibition Files, “"Women Members of the Law Society of Upper Canada, 1897-1959."  McCarthy Tétrault Archives, McCarthy & McCarthy Partnership Agreement, 31 May 1926 (E. Sheppard is listed among the employed lawyers entitled to have their names on firm stationary and advertisements, but her name does not appear on any surviving firm letterhead 1925-29, nor in the firm business cards published annually in the Canadian Lawyers List.)

[7] Angus, A Deo Victoria: The Story of the Georgian Bay Lumber Company 1871-1942. Leighton McCarthy’s comment quoted in Sheppard Letters, ES to AJR, Feb 28, 1929. McCarthy’s attitude to women lawyers is noted in Moore, McCarthy Tétrault and Backhouse, “Gretta Wong Grant.”

[8] Sheppard Letters, ES to AJR, 21 September 1925, and passim.

[9] WLAO comments on marriage among women lawyers, Bushby, “The Early Years.” Sheppard comment in Letters, ES to AJR, 29 January 1929.

[10] Revell’s career: The Indian Army List, 1929. Edith Sheppard’s file at University of Toronto Archives, Department of Graduate Records, has newspaper clippings of the Sheppard-Revell marriage announcement, the births of her children, and her obituary notice.

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