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- Elizabeth Lawson
Calvert [née Parker; second married name Lowry], Barbara Adamson, Lady Lowry (1926–2015), barrister and chair of industrial tribunals, was born on 30 April 1926 at 158 Woodsley Road, Leeds, one of three daughters of Albert Parker (1892–1980), research chemist, and his wife Lilian Maud, formerly Raby, née Midgeley (d. 1972). At the time of her birth the family was living at 11 Welburn Avenue, Leeds. In due course they moved to Northwood, north-west London, where her father worked as director of water pollution research and then director of fuel research for the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research; he was made a CBE in 1946.
Barbara later described herself as ‘an obstinate and difficult child’ (The Times, 29 July 2015). She began attending St Helen’s School in Northwood. It was a great regret to her that she did not inherit her mother’s beautiful singing voice. She wanted to have elocution lessons rather than singing lessons, and throughout her life loved English and especially poetry. From St Helen’s she went to the London School of Economics to read economics, graduating in 1947 with a BScEcon. On 3 April 1948 she married John Thornton Calvert (1907–1987), a successful civil engineer with John Taylor & Sons, specializing in sewers and drains. He was wise, wise, kind, and generous. Without his unfailing support she would never have achieved all that she did. They had a son, Paul, who became an orthopaedic surgeon, and a daughter, Sandy, who became a neonatologist. Barbara Calvert spent her twenties bringing them up and, as she described it, ‘feeding the ducks in all the London parks’ (ibid.). She was hankering after a career, and at a party, one of her husband’s colleagues suggested she try the law.
Calvert was called to the bar by the Middle Temple in 1959. She joined the chambers of John Platts-Mills, the left-wing QC, and built her reputation in family law. She was always busy and was said to have treated her clients like royalty. But she wanted to prove that she could do other work as well and began taking on personal injury cases and other work for trades unions. More than just a highly respected practitioner, she also achieved a number of trailblazing firsts in her career and was an inspiration to other women. She was compassionate and had a passion for justice.
Calvert became increasingly concerned about the number of young people who were unable to get a place in chambers from which to practise, and decided to do something about it. In 1974 she set up her own chambers to help those starting out, so becoming the first woman head of chambers. The same concern led her to support other groups of young barristers seeking to set up their own chambers, usually under the aegis of an established set. In 1977 she lobbied on behalf of six young barristers who wanted to set up their own chambers. The set was still going strong at the time of her death.
In 1975 Calvert was made a QC. Her career continued its upward momentum. She was the first woman QC to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the UK government was in breach of the convention by failing to give parents any legal right to apply for contact with their children in the care of a local authority. This successful challenge led to a change in the law. On 6 April 1978 she became the first woman QC to be elected a bencher of the Inns of Court of Northern Ireland. In 1982 she was elected a bencher of Middle Temple. None of her other achievements gave her as much pleasure as that. ‘Just 5ft tall with a penchant for dressing in emerald green or peacock blue, an irrepressible and engaging personality with forthright views … she was an especially striking and fondly regarded figure’, according to The Times (29 July 2015). She became a hugely popular bencher with the students and her fellow benchers, serving on several committees. She was elected reader in 2001, and her reading on the history of women at the bar inspired a generation of young women. She was particularly respected and admired for the advice and support she gave to other women barristers at the start of their careers.
From 1983 to 1985 Calvert served on the Matrimonial Rules Committee. She went on to become the first woman QC to be appointed a full-time chair of the industrial tribunals in 1986, having been a deputy since 1974. She also sat as a recorder and deputy High Court judge. She was appointed a freeman of the City of London in 1989, a liveryman of the Company of Arbitrators, and a member of the Company of Water Conservators.
After John Calvert’s death in 1987, some of Barbara Calvert’s sparkle seemed to leave her. It was restored when she met Robert Lynd Erskine (Robbie) Lowry, Baron Lowry of Crossgar (1919–1999), the former chief justice of Northern Ireland and a fellow bencher. They married in 1994 but their happiness was brought to an abrupt end by his death five years later. Calvert established a student scholarship in his memory at the Middle Temple.
In 1998 Calvert was presented by The Times’s Women’s Law Forum with a lifetime achievement award. She said in accepting it, aged seventy-two, and with four grandchildren and three step-grandchildren, that she hoped to have many more achievements to come. She did. In 2001 she became chair of the Grandparents’ Association, which worked on behalf of grandparents who were separated from their grandchildren, lobbying with energy and passion on their behalf.
In 2004 Calvert’s son Paul died of cancer when at the height of his career. Paul’s own son died a few years later, but these grievous losses did not quench Calvert’s spirit. She told her daughter, ‘Nothing is a problem unless you make it a problem’ (private information).
The people who knew Calvert tended not to remember her achievements. They remembered her energy and zest for life. She was fun to be with, and full of laughter. She was incredibly generous not only with her money and time. She also had great generosity of spirit. But her core was steel. She had firm principles, fierce loyalty, iron determination, courage, and great wisdom. She loved entertaining and her hospitality was legendary. She travelled extensively into her eighties, including to Peru, Japan, and China, despite replacement hips, each time saying she thought it would be her last trip. She died peacefully in her sleep of old age on 22 July 2015 at her flat in Lindsay Square, Westminster, and was survived by her daughter.
- The Times (29 July 2015); (17 Nov 2015)
- Daily Express (1 Aug 2015)
- The Guardian (12 Aug 2015)
- A. Hochhauser, The Middle Templar, 55 (Michaelmas 2015), 110–11
- biography, 27 June 2016, first100years.org.uk/barbara-calvert-qc-lady-lowry-the-pioneer-at-4-brick-court/, accessed 23 Aug 2018
- WW (2015)
- personal knowledge (2019)
- private information (2019)
- photograph, 1960, Zuma Press/Alamy
- photograph. 1972, ITV/Rex Features
- photograph, with Brian Connell, 1972, ITV/Rex Features
- Jones, photograph, 1975, Associated Newspapers/Rex Features [see illus.]
- photograph, 1979, PA Images
- obituary photographs