‘Designs by a Woman for Women’: The House that Jean Built in 1932, by Morag Cross

Where are all the female architects? Scotland’s first professional woman architect was Edith Burnet Hughes, who established her practice in 1920. But eighty-seven years ago, another such, albeit amateur, designer was being promoted as an attraction at the second annual Scottish Ideal Home Exhibition. This was a publicity showcase for builders and home-furnishers, staged at the cavernous Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. The event, sponsored by the Daily Mail in October 1932, featured ‘The House that Jean Built’, so-called to emphasise its feminine contrast to the usual male-designed ‘houses that Jack built’.

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Edith Burnett Hughes, Dates t.b.c.



Edith (Edma) Burnet was born at 6 West Circus Place, Edinburgh, on 7 July 1888. She was the daughter of George Wardlaw Burnet, advocate, and Mary Crudelius, grand-daughter of John Burnet Senior and niece of Sir John Burnet. She was brought up in Aberdeen where her father had been appointed Sheriff-substitute for the Counties Aberdeen, Kincardine and Banff. He died in 1901 as a result of a cycling mishap and his family was cared for by John James Burnet as their only surviving uncle. Edith left school in December 1906 and went to Paris to attend lectures at the Sorbonne and study art and architecture. From there she went to Dresden to study German and Art in October 1909, and spent some time with John James and Jean Burnet, whom she arranged to meet in Leipzig. In September 1911 she moved on to Florence to study Italian and Art, extending her studies to Perugia, Siena and Assisi in 1912.

In 1911 (RIBA paper) or 1912 (information provided by EBH at a much later date) she entered Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen to study garden design, but in quickly transferred to the architecture course, gaining the diploma in June 1914. In August she submitted a competition design for the government buildings in Ottawa in association with her tutor and future husband T Harold Hughes and AG Bryett, and in September 1915 was appointed lecturer in the history of art and architecture at Gray's School of Art and at the Normal School. Later she was assistant lecturer in design, a post she retained until 1918. From 1914-15 she assisted in the offices of Jenkins & Marr and of W J Devlin.

In 1916 she won first prize for a war memorial design submitted to the Civic Arts Association, and in the same year she received her first commission, the Rutherford Memorial. Marriage to Hughes followed on 3 September 1918 at the West Parish Church, Aberdeen. They had three daughters: Dr Moira Baskerville (married surname Campbell); Frances Heather (married name Lomax, architect) and Edith Audrey (Mrs Douglas Scott).

In 1919 Hughes became a partner in John Burnet & Son's Glasgow office, but incompatibility with Norman Aitken Dick and a serious theft of clients' funds caused Hughes to withdraw and accept a teaching post at Glasgow School of Art in 1920. After an unsuccessful attempt to join Burnet's London office - there was no separate female lavatory and Burnet was perhaps wary of having Hughes in the London office - she set up practice in Glasgow in 1920, belatedly taking the qualifying exam in July 1927. She specialised in domestic architecture, and particularly in kitchen design. She is considered Britain's first practising woman architect.

Edith was nominated for admittance as an Associate of the RIBA in September 1927 by several Academicians, John James Burnet, John Alfred Gotch and John Begg. At that date there had never been a female member and the Council took counsel's opinion. When he said she could be elected, they took opinion from a second counsel who pronounced in the negative as desired. Although Josephine Haswell Miller was elected in 1938, Edith was not nominated again. It should be noted that the RIBA Kalendar of 1950-51 records that she was elected ARIBA in 1927.

In February 1939 Hughes was invited to speak at the Aberdeen Soroptimists' annual dinner in Aberdeen. She expressed the opinion that the city lagged very far behind in its lack of suitable accommodation for working and professional women and others who was doomed to lodgings.

After the Second World War Hughes was based mainly in Oxford, having resigned as head of Glasgow School of Architecture. Edith then set up house in Royal Circus, Edinburgh, becoming architect to St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Lansdowne House School and John Watson's School. She was elected Honourary Fellow of the RIAS in 1968, having failed to admite her earlier in her career as she was female (following legal advice). After her health failed she lived with her physician daughter at Tirranmuir, Kippen. She died of cerebral thrombosis following a bad attack of pneumonia on 28 August 1971 at the age of 83 at 18 Park Terrace, Stirling.