On March 8th 2016 the former Lily Newton Room on Level E of the Hugh Owen Library was renamed the Iris de Freitas room. But who was Iris de Freitas and why was the room named after her?
Our story starts with two emails, both received on April 21st 2015. One from Helen Palmer, the Ceredigion County Archivist and the second from Dr Eva De Visscher, from the Development and Alumni Relations Office (DARO), following a Facebook post from an alumni. Received less than two hours apart, these emails told of a postcard that had been spotted on a popular online auction website. It was a postcard with a photographic portrait of a young black woman. On the reverse there was a handwritten note which read “With love and in memory of an enjoyable session, Iris 1922-23”. The only other information on the card was the name and address of the photographer, one H.H. Davies of Pier Street in Aberystwyth.
This young woman turned out to be Iris de Freitas, not only the Vice-President of the Students’ Representative Council and the President of the Women’s Sectional Council but a woman who became the first female lawyer in the Caribbean.
Yet on the day that we bought that postcard (without even having to dip into DARO’s newly-established Archives Acquisition Fund) we knew none of this. Our research would follow Iris from British Guiana and back to the Caribbean via Toronto and Aberystwyth, teasing out information, piece by piece, from that lone sentence on the back of a 94-year old postcard.
But how did we begin to piece the story together? It started with the robes. The robes that the young woman in the picture was wearing, and particularly the crest on the ‘scarf’, are distinctive and marked her out as a possible President of a society, the Joint Debates Union (a fact spotted by one of our eagle-eyed former students who posted the picture on the University’s Alumni Facebook page).
Luck was also on our side in that the inscription on the back of the postcard was dated. This allowed us to examine the University’s collections to help determine who the young woman in the photograph was.
Our first port of call was The Dragon, The Magazine of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. In Volume XLV from November 1922 we spotted not only a picture of Iris but the very same picture that was on the postcard. But it was the caption under the photograph that gave us our first proof as to her identity. It reads: “Miss Iris De Freitas B.A. Vice-President S.R.C.” So not the Literary and Debating Society or Joint Debates Union, as first thought, but certainly presidential!
Once we had confirmed that she was a student, we hoped that a student record card would be held in the University archive. Again our luck held. Student record card No. 8004 shows us that Iris De Freitas of 1 Lombard Street, Georgetown, Demerara, enrolled at Aberystwyth in 1919 to study the Arts. We made an educated guess that if she studied here in Aberystwyth then it was likely that she would have lived here too. Once again, the archive did not let us down. Her application for accommodation in Alexandra Hall revealed more information about her. Iris was born on the 29th October 1896 and her father was M. G. de Freitas, a Merchant in British Guiana. Yet the most intriguing item on her accommodation application was that the last school she attended was the University of Toronto, which she left on the 5th December 1918.
The University of Toronto were able to provide us with some basic information about her time there. She arrived in September of 1918 and withdrew in December of the same year, arriving in Aberystwyth, as we have seen, in the first month of 1919. Her reasons for going to Toronto and subsequently leaving after only three months, remain, for the moment, a mystery.
Pleased though we were with what we found out about Iris and her University career, it is her activities subsequent to her time here at Aberystwyth that really excited us. Thanks to the work of Joan Brathwaite and her book Women and the Law, which includes a section on “Some Firsts for Women in the Law”, we know that on the 18th September 1929 Iris was admitted as the first woman to practice law in the Caribbean. Not only that, but research conducted by Drs. Susan and Brian Davies using a variety of online sources revealed, among other things, that Iris was the first female prosecutor of a murder trial in the Caribbean, and that she had followed her brother, Stanley, into the legal profession.
Obviously we were delighted with these findings and this led to the decision to honour Iris by naming a room in the Hugh Owen Library after her. We hope, though, that Iris’s story does not end there. We have little information on her life and career from 1929 to her death in 1989 but recent contact with various members of the extended de Freitas family is already proving to be a fruitful avenue for further information on one of our most ground-breaking and distinguished alumna.