Somerville College - The First World War

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Muriel sat two sets of exams for entry to Somerville College: firstly, the ‘Entrance Exam’ in June 1913, and then, secondly, ‘Responsions’ in September 1913.  ‘Responsions’ were qualifying exams to ensure that students were at a certain standard in Latin, Greek and Mathematics before starting their courses.  She must have passed these exams because she went up to Somerville for the Hilary Term – beginning in January 1914 – having been accepted to read English.  She was to enjoy just seven months of ‘peace’ before Britain entered the First World War.

By Oxford University standards, Somerville was a very young college when Muriel joined it.  All-male colleges had been in existence for centuries – for example, Balliol College was founded in 1263.  The history of Somerville begins in 1878, when a committee was formed to establish a single Hall of Residence for women in Oxford.  It soon became evident, however, that some of the committee were in favour of a Hall under Church control whilst others desired an undenominational approach.  As a result, two Halls were opened in October 1879: Lady Margaret Hall, which was under Church control, and Mary Somerville Hall – named after a distinguished scientist, Mary Somerville, whose family kindly allowed their arms to be borne by the Hall.


The period from the establishment of Somerville as a Hall of Residence to the year when Muriel arrived was one of significant expansion: buildings were extended and new ones added; College status was achieved in 1894; and student numbers increased from just twelve private students at the start to one hundred and eleven by 1914.  Even so, it would be another six years before women could be granted proper degree status, despite the fact that they were already studying to degree level and taking the same examinations as the men.


Oxford University’s Long [summer] Vacation would have been well under way when Great Britain entered the First World War, on 4th August 1914; and so most undergraduates and many fellows were away from Oxford during the rush to enlist in August and September 1914.  Over the remaining months of 1914 most current undergraduates joined up.  By the beginning of the academic year 1915/16, approximately half the scholars of most colleges were listed as away on military service, and by 1918 virtually all were in uniform.


Oxford University housed approximately three thousand undergraduates and about a hundred postgraduate students before the war.  Somerville College’s contribution to that total amounted to one hundred and eleven.  In 1915 that total of approximately three thousand had been reduced by two thirds, and, in 1916, five hundred and fifty students were on the books.  In 1917 only about 15 percent of the pre-war population was in residence, and this had reduced to just 12 percent in 1918.


Although female students were not eligible to join up to fight, there were plenty of opportunities available for them to do war work, and during the course of the War a total of sixteen female students from Somerville College suspended or abandoned their studies for war work - seven electing to do this in 1914.


But the outgoing flood of students was met by an incoming flood of soldiers.  For the first time since the 1640s Oxford became a military camp.  The fourth battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry was billeted in various colleges from 5th August 1914 until barracks were ready for them in Cowley, and in November New College took in two hundred members of the seventh service battalion of the same regiment.  Then in December 1914 it was decided to found a School of Instruction for young officers at Oxford, which started work in January 1915, and by March of the following year about three thousand young officers had passed through it.  That School was then superseded by two Officer Cadet Battalions in which candidates for commissions, many of whom had served in the ranks, underwent a complete course of training lasting at first for four months and then, as the system developed, for seven months.  The strength of each battalion was about seven hundred and fifty, and they were quartered by Companies in the following Colleges: New College, Keble, Wadham, Hertford, Magdalen, Trinity, Balliol, St. John’s, and Worcester.


In 1915 a School of Military Aeronautics was formed at Oxford.  This began by training young officers, but after a little time was changed into a Cadet School, for the training of about a thousand cadets.  The cadets and mechanics were housed in the following Colleges: Christ Church, Queen’s, Brasenose, Exeter, Lincoln, Jesus, Corpus Christi, and Pembroke; they had their aerodrome at Port Meadow and a camp in the University Parks.  Certain of the scientific departments of the University were almost wholly devoted to their needs.


Oxford in wartime was also a centre of treatment for disabled and wounded soldiers.  The Oxford Examination Schools, which were late nineteenth century buildings designed to house the University’s examinations, were converted into a military hospital and housed both British and German wounded men; later in the war, additional beds were found in University College and Masonic Hall.  In April 1915, the decision was made to use Somerville College as a Military Hospital for the duration of the war.  Initially, both officers and men were accommodated at Somerville, but, during the first year of occupation, the College was converted into a hospital for officers alone, a role for which it proved most suitable, helped considerably by its close proximity to the Radcliffe Infirmary.  Siegfried Sassoon convalesced at Somerville.

The following two photographs show Somerville College in its role as a Military Hospital.  They are shown with the kind permission of Somerville College.

A Recovery Ward - Somerville Hospital

Officers Dining Room - Somerville Hospital

Somerville’s students were found alternative accommodation, and when they came up for the summer term of 1914 the move to their wartime home, the Rhodes block and the St Mary Hall Quadrangle of Oriel College, had been completed.  Muriel lived in St Mary Hall Quadrangle, and she would have spent a significant part of her student life living and working at Oriel.


Soldiers were thus to be found billeted all over the town, and a constant stream of the wounded would also have served to remind Muriel and her fellow undergraduates of the carnage taking place across the Channel.  Not surprisingly, Somerville students took the greatest interest in what they would have regarded as their own hospital, and it is inconceivable that Muriel would not have become involved in the business of helping to make the lives of those damaged men as comfortable as possible during their stay in the Somerville buildings.  Many of the casualties housed there were Oxford men – dons, graduates, undergraduates and prospective undergraduates.


In an interview with Alex Hamilton, for the Guardian Newspaper, in May 1981, Muriel recalled her student days at Oxford in World War One - of a university almost cleared of young men except the invalids and the shortsighted, like Aldous Huxley, “sitting beside me looking like a young god, though his photographs give you no idea of him,” - of giving tea to these few, the condition being that a woman friend plus a don must also be present!


There is no doubt that women students at that time must have been aware that they were under a certain pressure to give up what they were doing to help the war effort by, for example, working on the land, nursing or working as Government clerks.  The Somerville College Principal, Emily Penrose, was, however, under no doubt that the country would require university educated men and women in the future, and that by completing their courses, students would be putting the needs of the nation above those of the individual.    Miss Penrose was supported in this view by the British Board of Education, and it would appear that Muriel, together with the vast majority of her fellow undergraduates, chose to follow that advice.


Soon after settling in at Somerville, Muriel became a member of the Mutual Admiration Society (MAS).  The MAS had been formed two years earlier, on 6th November 1912, by a group of first year students, including Dorothy L Sayers, who gathered together in one of the student’s rooms, sharing hot cocoa and toasted marshmallows, “to read aloud our literary efforts and to receive and deliver criticism.”  They brought stories, poems, essays, plays, and fables, and they received far more than merely criticism.  In the firelight, over economical treats, they created a space in which they could grow beyond the limitations of Edwardian girlhood and become complex, creative adults with a radically capacious notion of what it might mean to be both human and female.  It was Dorothy L Sayers, who coined the name for the group - arguing that, if they didn’t give themselves that title, the rest of the College would.  From its inception, the MAS achieved a certain notoriety, and membership was sought even by senior years.  Election to the MAS was decided by the members on the merit of an original entry in prose or verse.  A comment made by a member on Muriel St Clare Byrne, when she was admitted in May 1914, was “An awfully nice child who writes quite good stuff”!


Whilst the female students at Somerville were not discouraged from such informal activities as the MAS, which just involved women, the rules with regard to members of the opposite sex were more than a little restrictive.  Thus, when Muriel was at Somerville, female students had to be chaperoned when entertaining men!  Until 1893, female students were not even allowed to attend lectures without a chaperon, but, by 1921, the rules had been relaxed to the extent that female students could entertain men at Somerville in a public and authorised way; such as at dances, tea-parties, tennis-parties, and at meetings or debates.


It is hard to comprehend now that, as Britain entered the First World War, young women at Oxford University required chaperones, were expected to be conservative in their dress and behaviour, were excluded from the award of degree status, and faced the prospect of very limited career options at the end of their studies.  At the time, however, spirited and determined young women, like Muriel St Clare Byrne and Dorothy L Sayers, must have relished the fact that they were being offered academic opportunities at Oxford University that fifty years earlier were unheard of.


The MAS effectively ceased as a student Society at Somerville in 1915 due to factors such as the disruption created by the First World War and the departure of several founder members - including Dorothy L Sayers - either as a result of completing their studies or wishing to volunteer for war work.  Nevertheless, many of the members of the MAS kept in contact throughout their lives and continued to share their work and to offer criticism to one another.  At a meeting many years later, one of the members of the MAS suggested that the initials now stood for ‘Middle Aged Spread’!


Perhaps the most notable relationship between members of the MAS is that between Muriel and Dorothy L Sayers - who became life-long friends and work colleagues - to the extent that Muriel was Dorothy’s executor after her untimely death in 1957.


How then did Muriel spend her time as a Somerville student?  The late Professor Kathleen Tillotson, a distinguished scholar, recalled that, whilst she was an undergraduate at Somerville in the 1920s, she discovered that Muriel had been one of Somerville’s stars and the College’s historian, and that she studied devotedly Muriel’s lucid instructions on Elizabethan handwriting.  Tangible proof of Muriel’s interest in Somerville’s history was the publication, in 1922, of a delightful little book entitled Somerville College 1879-1921, of which she was the co-author with a fellow Somervillian, Catherine Hope Mansfield.


The Somerville College Archive has a considerable collection of Muriel’s papers and memorabilia – amongst which is a little gem of an album containing some delightful photographs of Muriel and Dorothy as well as others depicting the college buildings of that time.


The end of the war brought some truly shocking statistics for just Oxford University alone.   Of the fourteen thousand, seven hundred and ninety-two members of the University who had served in the War, two thousand, seven hundred and sixteen had been killed - 18.36 percent.  However, this overall total masks the fact that it was among the younger, junior officers that the slaughter had been the greatest - i.e. those who were still undergraduates - and in this group the percentage killed rose to a high of 28.66 percent.  Small wonder then that, in the early post-war period, Oxford University was a shadow if its former self.


On a much needed positive note, the integration of women into Oxford University moved forward during the War, and fewer voices were raised openly against granting women degrees.  The result of a continuing post-war debate about the status of women was that on 17th February 1920, fifteen months after the armistice, the ‘women’s statute’ was passed - thereby enabling women to be awarded full degrees.  It is interesting to note that, in reaching this state of acceptance for women, Oxford still lagged well behind University College, London, where women had been eligible for degree status since 1878; and that, by 1914, London had well over a thousand internal women students.  Nevertheless, Cambridge University was outstandingly slow to accept the status of women; and it would drag its feet until December 1947, well after the Second World War, before following Oxford’s lead!


To put these degree restrictions into context, it is helpful to remember that it was not until 1918 that the Representation of the People Act granted all British men over 21 the civil right to vote.  Unfortunately, women were not given the same rights as men, because this 1918 Act limited suffrage to women who were over 30 and who also met certain property qualifications.  Universal suffrage for British women over 21 was not granted until 1928.


Returning then to the specific case of Muriel St Clare Byrne, who had finished her course of study at Somerville for a degree in English in the Trinity term of 1917, we find that she had to wait until the latter part of 1920 before she received her Class II degree.


Nevertheless, with her degree studies completed by the summer of 1917, the chapter on Muriel’s life as a student had thus run its course, and as a young woman of twenty-two she was now on the threshold of what was to be a remarkable career.

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