Ethel Mary Charles (25 Mar 1871– Apr 1962) was the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1898. She was born in Calcutta, Bengal India.
Ethel and her sister Bessie were articled to Sir Ernest George and Peto, the architectural practice of Ernest George and Harold Peto. In 1893, they both attempted to continue their training by attending the Architectural Association School of Architecture but were refused entry. Ethel completed part of the course offered by the Bartlett School of Architecture, receiving distinctions. Drawings in the RIBA Collection document her travels through England, France and Italy. After her apprenticeship with Ernest George, she became an assistant to Walter Cave, studying Gothic and domestic architecture.
In June 1898, she passed the RIBA examinations for associate membership. RIBA President at the time, Professor George Aitchison, welcomed Ethel and W. Hilton Nash. Nevertheless, her admission was opposed by a minority of members. Despite this initial opposition, she was finally granted membership with 51 voting in favor and 16 against. In 1902 she made a representation to the Architectural Association for women to be accepted as practicing architects. However, the Association would not admit any women until 1917.
Ethel and Bessie Charles worked and practiced together, building houses on Gyllyngyvase Terrace, Falmouth (1907). Unable to obtain commissions for large-scale projects which continued to be reserved for men, Ethel Charles was forced to concentrate on modest housing projects such as laborers' cottages, often working with her sister, the second woman to become a member of RIBA. Charles stated publicly that the best opportunities for architects were in commercial commissions but the only reference to her work on large-scale designs is an untraced prize-winning church in Germany in 1905. The same year she was awarded the RIBA Silver Medal.
Ethel Charles' orthographic projections of laborers' cottages from 1895 are presented by RIBA as an example of how the Old English style began to evolve towards the Arts and Crafts and Garden City movements. RIBA celebrated Charles as a pioneer woman architect in 2017.