Women have always influenced domestic design through their involvement with homes, schools, hospitals and gardens.
But it wasn’t until 1898 that the first professional female architect, Ethel Charles, was recognised by the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Take a closer look at the significant contribution made by women to the field of English architecture over the past 400 years.
Who was the first woman architect?
Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham (1632 to 1705) is usually hailed as the first known woman architect. She designed her home, the 1670s Weston Park in Staffordshire.
She also produced the earliest architectural drawings known to be by a woman, for the rebuilding of St Andrew’s church in Weston-under-Lizard.
Previously, Lady Anne Clifford (1590 to 1676) is the first woman recorded to have had hands-on involvement in re-shaping buildings.
Her earliest known work includes restoring the Church of St Michael in Appleby-in-Westmorland, Cumbria. She also designed changes to one of her family seats, Brougham Castle.
Pioneering women in architecture
Jane and Mary Parminter
Jane (1750 to 1811) and Mary Parminter (1767 to 1849) were cousins who built their rural retreat A la Ronde near Exmouth in Devon in 1798. The pair had travelled extensively across Europe, and their passion for eclectic design is reflected in the building.
The cottage’s central octagon shape is thought to have been modelled on the 6th-century basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. The site features rustic details like intricate shell and feather wall patterns and hidden grottoes.
Mary Townley (1753 to 1839) was a cousin and pupil of artist Sir Joshua Reynolds.
She designed several houses, including her own in 1792, Townley House Mansion in Ramsgate, where the Townley family subsequently lived and received many distinguished visitors.
Sarah Losh (1785 to 1853) was an expert linguist, member of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society and friend to poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1839 she funded and designed the rebuilding of the Church of St Mary in Wreay, Cumbria.
Having travelled extensively, Losh based the church’s design on a Roman basilica. This simple building form contrasted with the popular English Gothic style. The inside of the church is embellished with ornate symbolic carvings, making for a unique and imaginative space.
The first women architects to be recognised
Ethel and Bessie Charles
In 1898, Ethel Charles became the first woman to enter the Royal Institute of British Architects, followed by her sister Bessie Charles in 1900.
However, like many women designers of the period, the sisters could not obtain commissions for large-scale projects that continued to be reserved for men.
As a result, they focused on domestic architecture, often commissioned by female clients and modest housing projects such as labourers’ cottages.
The Architectural Association in London began to admit women in 1917. One of the first women to study there was Elizabeth Scott (1898–1972), who paved the way for many aspiring women architects.
Scott was the great-niece of architect George Gilbert Scott (who designed St Pancras Station). She was also the second cousin of Giles Gilbert Scott (designer of Battersea Power Station).
In 1928, just four years after getting her diploma, Scott won a high-profile competition to rebuild the burnt-out Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon. This was a huge step forward for women in architecture.
Scott hired women on her projects and worked with the Fawcett Society to promote wider acceptance of women in professions they were not typically associated with. She disliked being labelled a ‘female architect’ rather than simply an ‘architect’.
Women architects with listed buildings
The 1930s saw a body of pioneering independent single women who were at least equal to their male counterparts. These included Elisabeth Benjamin, Mary Crowley, (Margaret) Justin Blanco White, Norah Aiton and Betty Scott.
Other women architects have been jointly credited for major projects alongside men.
Norah Aiton and Betty Scott
After meeting as students at the Architectural Association in the mid-1920s, Norah Aiton (1904 to 1989) and Betty Scott (1904 to 1983) practised together, firstly gaining commissions from their families.
In 1931 they designed the steel-framed Aiton Works in Derby, home to Aiton and Co, owned by Norah’s father. It was the first industrial building of the Modern Movement in Britain and one of the first designed by a female partnership.
Elisabeth Benjamin (1908 to 1999) began her training at the Architectural Association in 1927. She spent a year as a student assistant to architect Edwin Lutyens.
Benjamin designed East Wall in Buckinghamshire in 1936, an accomplished design in the modern international style of the 1930s. It’s one of only three houses she created and the best surviving example.
Alison Smithson (1928 to 1993) designed several buildings with her husband Peter, including the Economist Building in Piccadilly, the Garden Building at St Hilda’s College in Oxford, Smithdon High School in Norfolk, Sugden House in Watford, and buildings at the University of Bath.
Brenda Walker was the job architect for 22 Avenue Road in Leicester, a private house built in 1953 to 1954 with Fello Atkinson as a partner in charge.
Betty Cadbury-Brown (1922 to 2002), with her husband H T Cadbury-Brown, designed their own home, 3 Church Walk in Aldeburgh, in 1963 to 1964.
Mary Medd (nee Crowley) (1907 to 2005) designed three houses at Orchard Road, Tewin, in 1936, and Burleigh School in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire in 1946 to 1947.
With her husband, David Medd, she designed 5 Pennyfathers Lane in Harmer Green in 1952, St Crispin’s School in Wokingham in 1953 and Woodside School in Amersham in 1957.
Sadie Speight (1906 to 1992) designed the 1938 house Brackenfell in Brampton, Cumbria, with her husband, Leslie Martin.
Born in Iraq in 1950, Zaha Hadid (1950 to 2016) studied mathematics at the American University in Beirut before moving to London in 1972 to attend the Architectural Association School.
She founded Zaha Hadid Architects in 1979, and the firm’s first major project was the Vitra Fire Station in Germany. They also designed the distinctive London Aquatics Centre, a diving and swimming facility built for the 2012 London Olympics. It is now open to the public.
In 2004, Hadid was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize (considered the Nobel Prize of Architecture). She was made a Dame in 2012 for architecture services and, in 2015, became the first and only woman to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects.
We did not have space to feature all the buildings by women architects in England. If you’d like to share more of these gems with readers, let us know about them in the comments.
This is lovely to see. My PhD on women architects in NSW noted several Australian women architects who worked in the UK in the 1920s and 1930s, and may have some information for you relevant to this theme. It is online at:
(Dr) Bronwyn Hanna
Thanks for posting on this very interesting subject and raising awareness of the significant contribution women have made to the world of heritage architecture despite often not being able to attain recognition as ‘architect’.
hanks for posting on this very interesting subject and raising awareness of the significant contribution women have made to the world of heritage architecture despite often not being able to attain recognition as ‘architect’.
This is a great introduction into women’s involvement with architecture throughout the centuries. My current phd research is looking into female architectural patronage in 18th century Britain. As expected, I have discovered many examples of elite women who shaped their homes and gardens both architecturally and aesthetically. So glad to see that others are interested in this subject!
Very good article. In my home town of Grand Rapids, MI, there is a Frank Lloyd Wright house; but about a block from it is another house built by a woman who was his only female student. I’d like to know more about her.
I suspect you mean the David M. Amberg House, and Marion L. Mahony.
Most of Royal Shakespeare Theatre was rebuilt some 15 years ago. Your photograph shows that newer building looking onto the River Avon. Sorry, I don’t want to detract from Elizabeth Scott’s achievements in1928. How to update/ remodel her theatre design was a complex and difficult decision
Going to A La Ronde was my birthday treat a few years ago! Love it.