AS PART of the celebration of International Women’s Day today, the Iris De Freitas study room has been unveiled in the Hugh Owen Library. One of Aberystwyth University’s oldest alumni, De Freitas was the first woman to practice law in the West Indies, with the degree she earned here on the Welsh coast.
The chance discovery on eBay of a postcard featuring a portrait of a young black woman in university robes has led this university to honour one of its long-forgotten alumni.
Born in 1896, Iris de Freitas was the daughter of a merchant in British Guiana. She registered as a student at Aberystwyth University in 1919 after a short period studying in Toronto.
At Aberystwyth she studied botany, Latin and modern languages, law and jurisprudence, and lived in Alexandra Hall, the first purpose-built university hall of residence for female students in the UK. She also became Vice-President of the University’s Students’ Representative Council and the President of the Women’s Sectional Council.
Iris graduated with a BA in 1922, but continued her association with the University and qualified for the degree of LL.B in June 1927. In 1929 she was admitted as the first woman to practice law in the West Indies, and was the first female prosecutor of a murder trial there.
Tributes published in the Guyana Chronicle after her death in May 1989 described her as “a pioneer and frontrunner of women who dared enter the exclusively male legal profession”, and someone who “blazed the trail for women lawyers”.
Members of staff at Aberystwyth University have been piecing together her story after alumni stumbled across the postcard, described as a “Postcard of black woman wearing Aberystwyth gown 1922-23”, online in April 2015.
The reverse side of the postcard featured only the handwritten words “With love and in memory of an enjoyable session, Iris 1922-23”, and the photographer’s details HH Davies of Pier Street Aberystwyth. The postcard is now in the University’s archive.
Eva De Visscher, from the University’s Development and Alumni Relations Office, and one of the first people to be alerted to the postcard, said: “Ceredigion Archives and several alumni expressed an interest in the postcard but, in a wonderful gesture of social-media-conducted solidarity, decided not to bid against the University Archives.
“We are delighted with the outcome and what we have been able to learn about this remarkable woman and her time here in Aberystwyth. It is most appropriate that, on International Women’s Day, we celebrate her achievements and association with Aberystwyth University, and in so doing, the importance of making education available to everyone, regardless of gender, race or religion.”
More recently, researchers at Aberystwyth have been put in contact with various members of the de Freitas family in their quest to learn more about one of the University’s more distinguished yet unsung alumni.
The Iris de Freitas Room, a study room at the University’s Hugh Owen Library, was officially opened on Tuesday 8 March at 3.30pm.