Somerville College 1879 – 1921

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This was Muriel’s first book, and it was published by the Oxford University Press in 1922.  Muriel co-authored this book with Catherine Hope Mansfield, and it appears that Muriel was responsible for collecting the material for the book, whilst Catherine wrote the text.

In 1878, a committee was formed to establish a single Hall of Residence for women in Oxford, but it soon became evident 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 Committee, or Council as it later became known, formed to administer the Hall comprised nineteen individuals: distinguished then and afterwards in a variety of spheres and possessing at least one characteristic in common – a generous belief in the intellectual capacity of women.  There were nine men and ten women on this Committee, including Miss Madeleine Shaw Lefevre, who was the first Principal of the Hall and a friend of Ruskin.  He, like many men at that time, was hostile towards the concept of a University Hall of Residence for women, but Miss Lefevre won him over, and he then became an ardent supporter of the project.  This is but one example of Miss Lefevre’s talent for overcoming prejudice to the higher education of women.

The first home for the Hall was Walton Manor, built in 1826, which was situated between Woodstock Road and Walton Street.  It was initially leased, but, a few years later, the Hall purchased the freehold.


The period from the establishment of Somerville to the outbreak of the First World War was to be one of significant expansion: student numbers increased from just twelve private students at the start to one hundred by 1914; the number of lectures available increased dramatically; sports facilities were added; and much building work was completed to enable this growth in student numbers and facilities to be accommodated.


College expansion began with the addition of a wing to the house in 1881 – the ‘Jackson Wing’ – named after the architect who designed it.  Then, in 1885, a new ‘West’ building was begun – designed to provide more students' rooms, large dining and drawing rooms, lecture rooms and library accommodation – and part of it was opened in 1887.

In 1889, Miss Madeleine Shaw Lefevre retired as Principal after ten successful years in office, and Miss Maitland was appointed in her place.  Miss Maitland’s qualities, which included insuperable optimism, proved to be just the right mix for the major challenges she had to face during her tenure of office, which ended in 1906.  One of her cherished ideas was to develop Somerville from a Hall of Residence into a real College, and this was achieved in 1894.

In 1896, the constitution of Somerville was changed to enable old students, under certain conditions, to become members of the College – thereby affording them the privilege of electing not only the President but also three members annually of the Council.  Miss Maitland’s influence over educational organisation included the introduction of tutorial staff, the development of the internal tutorial system and the provision of opportunities for research – including the first Research Fellowship open to women at Oxford.  She was also actively involved in planning new buildings and accommodation.  A Gymnasium was built in 1890; a Gatehouse was built in 1893; the ‘West’ building was completed in 1894; and, in 1895, the old house was reconstructed to include, amongst other changes, a new ‘North Wing’ and a redesigned front and entrance.


In 1897, the stable and coach house were pulled down and replaced with the ‘Eleanor Smith Cottage’ – subsequently called the ‘Hostel’.  The cottages were left untouched, whilst the freeholds of three houses in Woodstock Road, known as the ‘East Houses’ were acquired largely due to the generosity of old students.  Perhaps Miss Maitland’s most significant achievement, with regard to College expansion, was to oversee the addition of a new library building – needed to house the increasingly large collection of valuable books and works of art.  She threw herself wholeheartedly into the task of raising the money necessary, and the new building was opened in 1904.  Miss Maitland died in 1906, and Miss Penrose was appointed to be the next Principal.


The last major extension to the College prior to the outbreak of the First World War was the addition of ‘Maitland Hall’, which was opened in 1913 and named in tribute to Miss Maitland.  This new building, linked to the Jackson Wing, provided accommodation for a dining hall, rooms for tutors and students, a central kitchen, domestic offices, a new senior common room, and a private dining room.  The cost of Maitland Hall was borne by the members of the College and its friends – the major part of the money being raised through the issue of debenture shares.


In April 1915, the decision was made to use the Somerville buildings as a Military Hospital for the duration of the war, and, as a result, students came up for the Summer Term of that year to find that the move to their war-time home – the Rhodes block and the St Mary Hall quadrangle of Oriel College – had been completed.  As there was only sufficient accommodation in the quadrangle for the Principal, five staff, forty-eight students and six maids, the remainder were scattered in various lodgings as nearly adjoining St Mary Hall as possible.  The daily life of the College was surprisingly little altered, and College traditions and life quickly adapted to the new surroundings. 


Meanwhile, the Somerville buildings had been rapidly adapted to their new role as a Military Hospital.  Initially, both officers and men were accommodated at Somerville, but, during the first year, 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.  Records compiled by the Somerville Students Association (SSA), now kept at the War Museum in London, provide a detailed account of the great variety of work undertaken by SSA members during the First World War.  Many examples of medical work, both overseas and at home, work on the land, factory work, administrative work, and welfare work, all feature in these fascinating records.  Beyond all this specific war-work, Somerville helped in that most difficult task, the preservation of educational life.  Somervillians took the place of men in boys’ schools, and a large number carried on in the teaching profession, in spite of the lure of much better paid war-work outside.  Whilst many students felt the strong appeal of emergency work outside, a very large majority stuck to their course at College, believing that to qualify themselves for the teaching profession was the best way to serve national needs.  Whilst it was a difficult task to preserve the life and continuity of students’ careers at such a time, the Principal, Miss Penrose, and the several members of staff, who remained at their posts throughout the War, succeeded in maintaining a high standard of work and results.


In July 1919, after several months of restorative work, the Somerville buildings were handed back to the College.


On the 11th May 1920, a University Statute was passed, which provided that women may be matriculated and admitted to all degrees, except those in Theology, under the same conditions as regards standing, examinations, courses of study, and periods of residence as men.  This Statute came into force on the 7th October of that year.  Whilst this major event might have seemed to have come about with startling suddenness to the outside world, the process to reach this outcome had started as far back as 1884, when a University statute provided that, for the purpose of the examination of women, some of the examinations of the Degree of Bachelor of Arts could be used.  Thus, despite the fact that women were then able to take the same examination as the men in the Final Honour Schools of the University, they were not being awarded the label of a degree.  By 1894, all the examinations qualifying for the Bachelor of Arts Degree had been opened to women, and admission to all other University Examinations followed.  From then on, students at Somerville were positively urged to take the full degree course if they possibly could, with the result that, by the time degree status was granted, Somerville had about three hundred students, who qualified for it.


The first women’s degree ceremony in Oxford took place on the 14th of October 1920.


This beautifully written history concludes with a look at Somerville College life: how it had changed over the first forty-two years of its existence; the influence that it had on its students; and the benefits it had given them.  The social life of the College changed completely during the period of this history – largely in conformity with the general emancipation of women that had taken place.  For example, in the early years, no women students could appear without their attendant chaperon at lectures – a requirement that lasted until 1893.  By 1921, the women students could entertain the men at Somerville in a public and authorised way at dances, tea-parties, tennis-parties, and at meetings or debates.  Dress codes changed significantly too, and, by 1921, the short gown and soft square black cap of academic dress were the order of the day.  With the growth in student numbers, so too came the development of a variety of Societies: literary, philosophical, historical, debating, and, to a lesser degree, musical, artistic and dramatic – all providing opportunities to encourage student development.


Thus, Somerville, as with all the women’s Colleges that came into existence over this period in history, provided the first opportunities for women to enjoy three years together in a collegiate environment designed to enable them to develop a high standard of academic ability as well as to interact socially with their peers – something that the men-only Colleges had been doing for centuries.  Career opportunities for women also changed significantly over these forty-two years.  In the early days, the majority of Somerville’s students had little option but to enter the teaching profession, but, by 1921, many more opportunities for Somervillians presented themselves: such as careers in Medicine, the Law, the Civil Service, Administration, Welfare, and Parliament.


Whatever the life they led after attending Somerville, there is no doubt that all Somervillians, from the first to join in 1879 to those graduating in 1921, owed an enormous debt to the selfless and untiring efforts of those enlightened and determined individuals who had faced up to the challenges of bringing an Oxford University education to women.  Of these many challenges, that associated with funding continued to loom large.  Unlike the men’s Colleges, that all had large endowments or foundations, Somerville had practically none.  That this, like all the other challenges, was overcome, is due in no small part to the fact that Somerville had the greatest names of Oxford University among its founders and continued to have a large proportion of them among its friends.


The book contains eight Illustrations: a portrait of Mary Somerville by the artist John Jackson together with seven sketches of the college buildings by the artist Εdmund Hort New.  The image above of 'Somerville Hall formerly Walton House' is one of Edmund Hort New's sketches.


At the end of the book, there are three appendices together with the ‘College Song’:


Appendix I contains: ‘Chronological Lists of Members of Council, Officers of the College, and Resident Staff’.


Appendix II is headed: ‘Provision for Research’, and it contains details of the ‘Mary Somerville Research Fellowship’, the ‘Lady Carlisle Research Fellowship’, and the ‘Mary Ewart Fund’.


Appendix III contains details of ‘Scholarships and Exhibitions’.


The College Song, sung to the Welsh Air, comprises three verses in Latin.

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