At first glance Joan Parry does not look like a trail-blazer. A small, frail, white-haired figure, she is almost enveloped by the sturdy high-backed armchair in which she sits, nibbling a morsel of chocolate biscuit.
A uniformed carer explains the economia interview is today and she’d like to get Parry out of the chair and into a private lounge, away from the bustle of the main sitting room where her fellow residents are variously dozing, doing puzzles or watching television. She agrees, asking if she can take the biscuit with her.
But a trail-blazer she certainly was – and still is. At 100 years old, Parry is ICAEW’s oldest member. Born in Nottingham on 2 June 1916, she entered the profession when “girls just didn’t do that sort of thing”, and over a 65-year career became her employer’s first female partner, the first woman to chair the Nottinghamshire Society of Chartered Accountants and the founder of her own practice. She also became a famously feisty sparring partner of the local Inland Revenue commissioners. But Parry is matter-of-fact about her progress in what was very much a man’s world.
It was unusual for girls to do accountancy. I think perhaps sometimes they may have been careful not to mention to clients that they would send a girl
“When I left school most of my friends went into teaching, but I didn’t think I’d be any good at that and, anyway, I wanted to work in an office,” she says. “Although I wasn’t that good at maths, my mother encouraged me into accountancy and paid for my articles. There was never any question for her as to whether it was the “right job” for a girl. She was a strong-willed woman and she wouldn’t be taken for a fool.”
The same, I sense, is true of her daughter. When we were arranging the interview, she was fondly described by her family as a woman who “knows her own mind” and who “you have to catch on the right day”. But she smiles as she recalls highlights of her career – such as her first day in the job as a 16-year-old in 1932, only eight years after ICAEW had admitted its first female member by examination and the second female member, Ethel Watts. There is a spark of fire in Parry’s eyes when I ask what her first clients thought about being looked after by a teenage girl.
“Why should it make any difference?” she says, with more than a hint of steel. But she concedes: “It was unusual for girls to do accountancy. I think perhaps sometimes they may have been careful not to mention to clients that they would send a girl. Although no one refused to work with me. Not that I know of, anyway.”
Parry’s memory is forgivably hazy and she struggles with some names and dates. Yet she remembers being hugely influenced by Watts, and recalls with clarity her early days at Rogers, Son & Co in Cheapside, Nottingham. “I was articled to Mr ACW Rogers. The son was called Maurice, who” – she breaks into a laugh – “was a puzzle to Mr Rogers because he really struggled to pass his exams! I didn’t.” Parry spent five years there “but I hardly ever saw Mr Rogers. I was actually trained by Mr Spencer, who used to take me round to the different clients to see how their businesses worked. One morning in the week we visited laundries. You had to understand their business to understand their accounts.”
She broke new ground again by becoming the first female chair of the Nottingham Society of Chartered Accountants (a society that was formed in 1901 and now serves more than 3,000 members). Then, with articles complete, Parry applied for other jobs. “But no one was interested,” she says. “Most didn’t even reply.”
She managed to get a post with Alexis Jacob at Birmingham firm Jacob, Cavenagh & Skeet in 1938 and when war broke out, found herself suddenly very much in demand. “Lady accountants weren’t so popular when the men were about, but then the young men went to war and women could get any job they wanted. Then all those companies I’d written to suddenly wrote back offering me jobs. Of course,” she adds with a supremely satisfied grin, “I didn’t reply! I never felt I had to prove myself because I was a woman,” she maintains. “Either you could do the job or you couldn’t.”
She felt gender was no barrier, either, to serving her country. But while Parry’s brothers both joined up, her parents prevented her from doing so – a decision that clearly still rankles, nearly 80 years on. “I was extremely keen to do my bit. But they wouldn’t let me join up so I became a voluntary nurse and spent my Sundays treating injured soldiers in hospitals in Birmingham.”
If you do anything at all, it’s essential to be accurate. I’m 100 now, and I still pride myself on being right
During the week Parry, who lived in a Cadbury house in Bournville, to the south of Birmingham, specialised in tax work with Mr Jacob – with a dedication that almost cost her her life. “I was working late one night at home and when the air raid siren sounded I couldn’t be bothered to go to the shelter so I took my work to bed with me. Later that night I was woken by a brick falling on me!” Even that didn’t faze her. “I had to be presentable for the clients so first thing next morning I went to the manicurists to sort my nails out before I went to work.”
After the war Parry’s professionalism caught the attention of fellow accountant Samuel Whittle, who invited her to set up a practice with him – Whittle and Parry – in Corporation Street, Lincoln. In 1955, the pair were joined by London-based Herbert Brooke but within two years Whittle had departed and the firm’s name changed to Parry and Brooke. “He wanted to call it Brooke and Parry,” she recalls, “but I told him my father wouldn’t like that. I usually got what I wanted.”
She recalls Brooke as a somewhat distant figure who communicated with staff by leaving notes on their typewriters, while she was seen as the more engaging partner by the clients. “I actually don’t think he liked me that much,” Parry recalls of Brooke. “Or indeed anyone very much.”
Though successful, the partnership dissolved when Brooke returned to London – “he didn’t like Lincoln, either” – and Parry was invited to join Streets in Lincoln, where she remained until her retirement. There, too, she earned a reputation. “I went to the tax commissioners meetings to ask for extensions because no-one else wanted to,” she says. “But I enjoyed them. They threw out a lot of requests from other people but that was because they gave silly reasons and made ridiculous suggestions about when they could get it done.
"I always had proper reasons and argued my case. I can’t be the judge of whether I was any good at it,” – she gazes out of the window and smiles coyly – “but I did always get what I wanted.”
Her eyes light up when I ask for her favourite part of the job. “Tax work!” she beams. “I loved it. I enjoyed going round the countryside, meeting people, talking to them. I met a lot of very nice, country-living men.” But the novelty for her clients of meeting a female accountant never led to romance, as she explains. “I got to know some of them well but it was all about their work and their business. I was lucky, maybe – my mother didn’t put any pressure on me at all to find a man, or to get married. It’s been quite an interesting life and I could have got married, a couple of times – but I didn’t because, actually, I didn’t like them enough,” she smiles.
It’s clear that, as well as a century of memories, Parry retains the independence of spirit that forged such a successful career. As I prepare to leave the Lincoln retirement home so she can have her lunch, she thanks me for “being so nice” to her, adding: “I think if you make it clear what you want, people listen to you. And if you do anything at all, it’s essential to be accurate. I’m 100 now, and I still pride myself on being right.”