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Alan Watson Seminar in Legal History - Dr Caroline Derry

Empty School Chairs


MacLaren Stuart, Old College and online


Mon 13 February 2023
17:00 - 19:00 (GMT)

Networks of influence, gender, class and lesbianism in Woods and Pirie v Cumming Gordon (1810-12)

The Court of Session defamation case Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie v Dame Helen Cumming Gordon lasted several years and its records extend over many hundreds of pages. The alleged defamation was an allegation that the pursuers, two schoolmistresses, were in a sexual relationship. The main sources of the allegation were identified as a half-Scots, half-Indian teenage pupil and a ‘malign domestic’. It was through the pupil’s grandmother Dame Helen that the accusations spread among parents and guardians, resulting in the school’s closure within days. The court hearings were conducted behind closed doors, and its mainly female witnesses described aspects of their private worlds usually unspoken in public.

The case is therefore a rich source of for histories of law, gender, race, empire and class and has attracted scholarly attention particularly from historians of sexuality. This talk will focus upon a slightly different aspect: the networks which emerge through the evidence. They show much about women’s agency and the complex webs of influence in Edinburgh society based upon class, age and gender. After considering the social networks of higher-class women, servants and pupils revealed by the case, the talk will consider the ways in which lesbianism was understood by, and posed a threat to, those networks.

About the speaker

Caroline Derry joined the Open University in April 2017. She is a senior lecturer in law, teaching subjects including criminal and evidence law. Her other roles include Law School EDI Champion.

Caroline qualified as a barrister, practising in criminal defence law, and as a solicitor in a large, central London legal aid practice. She then taught for fifteen years at London Metropolitan University, where she was a senior lecturer in criminal and evidence law and gender & law, and course leader for the LLB Law. She has been a visiting lecturer in criminal law at SOAS and at Paris Descartes (Masters in Common Law).

Caroline is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the HEA.

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