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Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas

(Elected 2003)


Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas first became involved with Birkbeck as its Corporation of London Governor. She was appointed Chair of Governors at Birkbeck in 1999, the first woman to hold this post, and presided over a period of rapid development of both teaching and research resources and College facilities. In 2003 Dame Judith became the first female Provost at King’s College, Cambridge.

‘Birkbeck has always had a very special mission to give working people the chance to have the very best higher education,’ she says. ‘This central mission has become increasingly important because people often don’t have jobs for life: they have to change and develop new skills.’

Trained as a lawyer, Dame Judith began her career in 1970 as a lecturer of law at the University of Otago, New Zealand. In 1973 she moved to the UK and joined the University of Southampton. She went on to King’s College, London (1976–89), where she was Sub Dean and Director of the Anglo-French law degree – the first joint degree in Europe.

Dame Judith then held a number of commercial posts focusing on employment law, while at the same time serving as a member of many committees of the Corporation of London. She spent seven years as Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee, representing the interests of the financial industry to the UK and European governments. This effectively made Dame Judith the leader of the Corporation of London, the body which governs the financial district. She stepped down from this post in January 2003, but remains as Deputy.

Since 2000 Dame Judith has held the post of City and Business Advisor to the Mayor of London and is currently Vice Chair of the London Development Agency, where she is responsible for the development of both local and international business economies. ‘Parallel to this,’ she says, ‘I am looking at the skills of the people, so that Londoners who are currently unable to get work are sufficiently skilled to be employed.’

Appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2002 for services to the City of London, Dame Judith became Chairman of the Royal Opera House in August 2003 – again the first woman in the role – and currently divides her working week between London and Cambridge.


Judith Mayhew's beginnings bring together the new and the old in a way that presages much in her later life. Brought up in an academic environment, by a mother who was both a forceful and resourceful headmistress and a radical influence on educational policy, she attended Otago High School for Girls. Founded in 1870, this is the oldest girl's school in the southern hemisphere, and the sixth oldest girls' school in the world. Another of its alumni, Ethel Benjamin, was the first woman to be admitted as a student of law at the University of Otago (where Judith Mayhew was to follow her), and became in 1897 the first woman in the British Empire to qualify and practise as a barrister and solicitor. As Judith Mayhew herself has observed, it was the colonies and not the mother country which produced the first women lawyers in the English speaking world, When, like Judith Mayhew after her, Ethel Benjamin moved to England in 1907, she found that she could not fully practise law, and indeed would not be able to do so until a change of legislation in 1919, so turned instead to banking and the commercial world. No doubt it was partly the sense of some of the parallels between Ethel Benjamin's life and her own that prompted Judith Mayhew to make a television film about her.

So Judith Mayhew is a late product of a radical feminist tradition that is well-established in New Zealand. She took pleasure in pointing out recently in an interview with BBC Online that ‘New Zealand is led by women. The prime minister is a woman, the chief justice is a woman, the governor general a woman, the chief executive of the largest company is a woman...’

From 1967-70, Judith Mayhew studied law at the University of Otago, New Zealand's oldest university. The motto of the University of Otago is 'Sapere Aude', ‘Dare to Be Wise’. Neither commodity has been lacking in Dame Judith's career, which has been marked by the audacity that comes with a certain style of bold innocence. Joining the tide of reverse colonisers who have been so crucial in the rejuvenation of Britain in the last few decades, the 22-year old Judith Mayhew left her home in Dunedin to take up a lectureship in law at the University of Southampton, bringing with her, as I can recall her telling audiences from this very lectern, only a box of books and a box of records. She has said that her explosive success in the old country has come in large part from 'not knowing that I shouldn't do things. I arrived in England at 22 as an immigrant with no family or networks. There's something about being an immigrant that frees you up from the constraints of the society that you enter.'

She moved to King's College London in 1976, where she became Sub-Dean and set up with the Sorbonne in Paris the Anglo-French law degree, which was the first joint law degree in Europe. She left King's in 1989, and occupied a number of positions in commercial institutions focussing on employment law, and establishing an interest in skills, training and the relation between education and employment that have burnt steadily through her life.

In 1997, she became Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee of the Corporation of London, a position which made her in effect the leader of City, overseeing a square mile producing in excess of £30 billion a year and with the lives and livelihoods of more than a quarter of a million people in her care: rather more, in fact, like running a medium-sized country than presiding over a postal district. Judith Mayhew brought a scorching vigour to this, the most ancient of British institutions. One of her promptest innovations was to abolish the annual ceremony of marking the boundaries of the borough by suspending a small boy over the Thames (that's how the ceremony was performed, you understand, not how she abolished it). She drove through electoral reforms which gave the businesses who occupy the city and generate so much of its wealth more of a voice in its affairs. There were some who thought that such a programme of reform was recklessly precipitate, coming, as it did, hard on the heels of a similar electoral change scarcely a hundred years before, the merest wink of time in the life of the City of London. Nevertheless, she was not to be deflected, for she never is, and her four years of effort in this area won through.

This was a period in which, as a financial centre, London confirmed itself as a truly world city, with a particular genius, like Judith Mayhew herself, for mediating between the old world and the new. The UK remains for the time being apart from the euro zone; but, from the very beginning of trading in the euro in 1999, the City of London established itself quickly as what she described in a lecture as 'the undisputed financial gateway for the euro to and from the European countries, as well as outwards to the rest of the world'. Her period of office also saw dramatic changes in the technologies through which trading and financial business were conducted, technologies that created huge new opportunities and generated new risks, for example of security, a matter in which she has taken a keen interest.

As leader of the Corporation of London, she served as part of Mayor Livingstone’s London Cabinet, and became a powerful proponent for the cause, not just of the City, but of London as a whole. She took a particular interest in the city's infrastructure, arguing that, although London ought to expect to subsidise other regions of the UK, its capacity to continue generating this revenue depends upon desperately-needed infrastructure reforms, especially in transport, the educational system, housing and policing. She is Vice Chair of the London Development Agency, which is the capital's economic development body. Working with the Mayor and in partnership with businesses and other organisations, it encourages economic development and regeneration for the capital. She was also determined to improve the cultural environment of the city; she allocated more money to the Barbican Arts Centre than it had seen in 20 years, funding a £38 million scheme of refurbishment.

Though she has been the most vigorous proponent of the claims and interests of the City of London, the grim anomaly that the richest square mile in the world goes cheek by jowl with some of the poorest areas in the UK did not escape her, and she has also driven forward projects of regeneration and renewal in these impoverished areas, in particular pioneering education projects for immigrant women.

In 2000, she was appointed special law advisor to Clifford Chance, the world's biggest law firm. Here, her role was to develop a strategy for community affairs, for example by providing free advocacy for Children's Tribunals and encouraging the involvement of property and banking lawyers as governors and trustees for institutions in the community.

Though robust and decisive, there is little of the haka in her management style, always preferring, as she does, to win antagonists round than to beat them down. She stepped down from her role as leader of the City in January 2003, but remains Deputy Chairman.

Nevertheless, simply maintaining Judith Mayhew's diary must still be a job to make a strong man or woman quail. She is active on a dizzying number of boards and councils. In 2003, she was appointed Chairman of the Board of the Royal Opera House. She is a board and council member of Imperial College, of the British Museum Development Trust and also a trustee of the Natural History Museum. She is also Deputy Chair of the Public Private Partnerships Programme (4Ps).

In the 2002 Queen’s Birthday honours list, she was appointed a Dame Commander of the British Empire for services to the City of London. And, just last month, she was presented by Prince Edward with the New Zealander of the Year award, which recognises the outstanding contribution that a New Zealand or British national has made in presenting a positive image of New Zealand in the UK.

Judith Mayhew's involvement with Birkbeck began when she took up a position as Corporation of London governor, which allowed us to reaffirm and deepen our links with the City of London where we had our beginnings. She subsequently became our first female Chairman of Governors in 1999, a position she retained until 2003. She steered us through a white-knuckle ride of rapid expansion, in student numbers, curriculum, research activity and physical estate. I am sure she will have viewed the opening of our new building development, which occupied so much of her time, with particular satisfaction. And she also devoted many hours to attending these ceremonies. I sat next to her on many occasions on this platform, and her delight in the achievements of our students, especially those from overseas, made the air positively fizz. I was also often the beneficiary of her expert, whispered appraisals of the graduands' footwear, as they passed before us.

When she took up the position as Provost of King’s College, Cambridge in October last year, she was the first woman to occupy the role, and the first non-Kingsman for centuries; she also incidentally became de facto the first woman Senior Fellow at Eton. Having listened as a girl in Dunedin to the service of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast from King's College Chapel, it must have been an intoxicating moment to find herself reading one of those lessons as Provost. Judith Mayhew will sometimes admit to a certain satisfaction in storming the citadels of British life. Given the recent high visibility of the New Zealand landscape in a certain sequence of films, one is tempted to compare the glory of the girl from Otago to the triumph of the hobbit in the halls of Mordor.

Having begun life as an academic, she has closed the circle, at least for the time being, with her appointment at King's. The particular nature of Birkbeck, mediating as we do between the worlds of work and academic study that she has herself traversed, means that we can take pride in being an important way-station in her journey. I certainly take great pride, and a deal of personal pleasure, in concluding this oration by formally welcoming this woman of wisdom and daring, Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas, as a Fellow of Birkbeck College.