The colleges and halls: Girton

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

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'The colleges and halls: Girton', A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959), pp. 490-493. British History Online [accessed 14 June 2024].

. "The colleges and halls: Girton", in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959) 490-493. British History Online, accessed June 14, 2024,

. "The colleges and halls: Girton", A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959). 490-493. British History Online. Web. 14 June 2024,

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Girton College lies about 2 miles north-west of Cambridge at the junction of the road from Girton village with the Huntingdon Road. In 1951 the College grounds extended over about 52 acres of gardens, playing fields, woodlands, and farm land. The buildings accommodated the Mistress, 19 resident fellows, about 280 students, and a few of the 40 graduates engaged on research. (fn. 1)

The idea that Cambridge might be the place for a college for women may have originated in 1862 when the secretary of the Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate was not unsympathetic to the idea of opening the examination to girls. (fn. 2) In the effort to get girls admitted to this examination Emily Davies took a leading part. She was also active in persuading the royal commission, set up in 1864 to investigate middle-class education, to extend its scope to include girls' schools. In 1867 she began an appeal among her friends to raise money to start a college for women. In the autumn of that year twelve of her friends accepted the invitation to form an executive committee. (fn. 3) A programme was produced, and it was decided to form a general committee, and a committee of Cambridge sympathizers. (fn. 4)

Girton College. Quarterly vert and argent a cross flory countercharged between in the first and fourth quarters a roundel ermine and in the second and third quarters a crescent gules. [Granted 1928]

One of the chief problems that confronted the executive committee was what kind of education should be given at the college. As early as 1867 a council had been set up to promote the higher education of women, and when in 1868 the University of Cambridge instituted a Women's Local Examination, later to become the Higher Local, an influential body of opinion thought that special courses of instruction should be provided in preparation for this examination. (fn. 5) This policy Emily Davies emphatically opposed. She wanted students at the proposed college to prepare for the recognized University examinations. That this would limit them to classics and mathematics and that those subjects as then studied at Cambridge were not the most educational of disciplines did not weigh with Emily Davies. The students must show themselves as good as the men in the same examinations. From the first Girton was to conform to all the academic requirements of the University.

The second problem that Emily Davies decided in a way that was to shape later tradition was where the College was to be situated. Emily Davies, though uncompromising in matters of curriculum, was most conciliatory in matters of social convention. To avoid any possibility of scandal she induced the executive committee, in spite of strong opposition, to hire Benslow House in Hitchin, 26 miles from Cambridge. It was very difficult to get supervisors, but when the College opened in the autumn of 1869 five Cambridge men came to lecture. (fn. 6) Most of them disapproved of the tripos syllabuses and the five students had to help each other. (fn. 7) The Mistress did not teach and there was no resident woman lecturer. Yet in 1870 all the students reached the standard of a pass in the classical part of the Previous Examination, and two in the mathematical. In 1872 Miss Woodhead reached the standard required to pass the Mathematical tripos, and Miss Cook and Miss Lumsden did the same in classics. 'Woodhead, Cook and Lumsden' went down in College tradition as the Girton pioneers and were the heroines of a College song to the tune of The British Grenadiers.

In 1872 the Hitchin lease was due to end and the house was already too small. (fn. 8) Some members of the Cambridge committee hoped that the College might be moved into Cambridge, but Emily Davies and some of the ladies on the executive committee opposed this vigorously on grounds of propriety. At last, as a compromise favoured by Mr. Tomkinson, who long served as treasurer of the College, it was decided to build on the present site, near enough for lecturers to reach the College, but far enough away to deter visits by undergraduates or roaming young M.A.s.

Girton College opened on its present site in October 1873. One wing was then built, the present Old Wing. There was also a small hall, enlarged in 1884, which served from 1901 as a library, and from 1932 as a lecture hall. (fn. 9) The architect was Alfred Waterhouse. It is notable that the later parts showed no alteration in scale.

For the first 79 years of its history one of Girton's main preoccupations was to gain admission to the University lectures and examinations. In 1873 Girton students were admitted to the lectures of 22 out of the 34 University professors, and between 1871 and 1878 to an increasing number of the intercollegiate lectures. (fn. 10) Many lectures were, however, still given at Girton; those by the few resident women lecturers in the morning, and the greater number, which were by Cambridge men, in the afternoon. (fn. 11) After Miss C. A. Scott of Girton had been placed equals to the eighth wrangler in 1880, the graces of 24 February 1881 allowed women to take the Previous and Tripos examinations. For many years the anniversary of the graces was celebrated at Girton by mild and informal domestic festivities.

A second preoccupation was the manner in which the College was to be governed. In 1872, on the advice of James Bryce, the College had been incorporated as an association under the Board of Trade to borrow money for building. The articles of association provided for a governing body of not more than 30 members, of whom women were to form at least one-third. Vacancies were to be filled by co-option except for six representatives, three of whom were to be elected by the certificated students and three by the Senate of Cambridge University, which availed itself of its right after 1880. (fn. 12) This body appointed an executive committee with Emily Davies as secretary, and in the same year 1872 she also became Mistress. This dual position she retained until she resigned the mistress-ship in 1875; the powers of the Mistress were then defined and slightly increased, but she was still in a very different position from the Master of any other College in Cambridge. Resident lecturers were to be appointed on her nomination, and in her person she combined the duties later shared between directors of studies, junior bursar, and librarian. In the background was the executive committee and on that committee was the masterful Emily Davies. Fortunately, the new Mistress, Miss Bernard, was a woman of tact and sound judgement, and a critical stage in the development of the College administration was safely passed.

Between 1876 and 1932 the plan of the College, as originally conceived by Emily Davies, was completed. Between 1876 and 1877 a laboratory was added on the north-east, and part of Hospital Wing to the north-west at right angles to Old Wing. In 1879 were added the rest of Hospital Wing, and two lecture rooms known as The Taylor Knob. In 1884 Orchard Wing and the Stanley Library, and in 1887 Tower Wing, with the present main entrance were built, the last largely through the munificence of Jane Catherine Gamble. Between 1899 and 1902 were built the chapel and Chapel Wing, Woodlands Wing, and the dining-hall, all according to the designs of Paul Waterhouse, son of the original architect. The debt incurred by these additions was paid off in 1914, but war made any further extension impossible for a time. Not until 1932 was the College plan completed under Sir Giles Scott and Michael Waterhouse, grandson of the original architect, who added a New Wing and a library with room for about 75,000 volumes. Though the chapel was not built till 1902, services in the form of family prayers had been conducted from very early times, and from 1881 Mr. Cooke of King's College had come out to take services on Sunday evenings, which were said by Miss Bernard to have greatly improved the tone of the College.

One of the chief points of interest up to 1924 was the way in which the government of the College passed into the hands of the Mistress and the teachers and administrators who were eventually to become the fellows. In 1885, as a result of the efforts of past students, the Mistress, Elizabeth Welsh, was coopted as a member of the executive committee. (fn. 13) In 1903 the new Mistress, Constance Jones, was elected to the governing body also. Thereupon, in 1904, Emily Davies resigned from the executive committee and from her post as honorary secretary since she disapproved of paid officials of the College taking part in its government. On the same grounds she had opposed a suggestion in 1875 that the one resident lecturer, Miss Lumsden, should serve on the executive committee. Only after 1900 could the College afford to appoint resident women lecturers in any number and not till 1910 when there were still only six resident lecturers were they invited to elect representatives to the executive committee. (fn. 14) The early years of the century saw the administrators brought into closer touch with the College. In 1906 a resident bursar was appointed and in 1908 the secretary, Miss Clover, moved to Cambridge. Yet until the College was incorporated by charter in 1924 (fn. 15) the Mistress did not take the chair of the executive committee. Men such as Archdeacon Cunningham, Sir Hugh Andersson, Arthur Berry, and Dr. Giles served as chairman of that committee, and the College owes much to their generosity and wisdom. Under the charter of 1924 the governors of the College were to be the Mistress and staff fellows, some research fellows, six representatives of the certified students, some other persons, and three representatives of the Senate of the University of Cambridge. The governors were to appoint a council, the successor of the old executive committee which had borne this title since 1911. Here the Mistress was to be chairman, and the staff fellows were to form a majority. The process by which the College had become a self-governing society was at last almost complete.

The process by which the College became a full member of the University was not so rapid. The new University statutes of 1926 allowed women to be members of the University faculties and faculty boards, to hold University teaching posts, and to compete for University prizes, but it was not till 1948 that women were admitted to full membership of the University.

After 1882 research had gradually become an increasingly important part of University life, but Emily Davies wished rather to spread the benefits of University education as widely as possible than to support research. In 1896 the past students petitioned the executive committee to spend some money to encourage research, and in 1899 they themselves subscribed with that object in view. Scholarships had been generously endowed since the opening of the College, but research studentships and fellowships only began to appear after 1896. (fn. 16) By 1938 these numbered nine studentships and six fellowships. Sir Alfred Yarrow alone had given £10,000, all to be spent on fellowships for research in natural science between 1920 and 1940.

Another luxury for which Emily Davies was reluctant to spare money was the development of the pleasure grounds which were to become one of the chief attractions of the College. Here again private generosity did what the College as such could not afford to do. From 1880 Miss Metcalfe, who was a member of the executive committee, collected sums from old students to beautify the grounds. Miss Bernard helped the project, and Miss Welsh, as the first garden steward and later as Mistress, did much to beautify the garden, a tradition most ably continued by other subsequent fellows of the College, and particularly by one Mistress, Katherine Butler.

Apart from its gradual entrance into the University, the achievement of self-government and the development of the buildings and gardens, the College continued steadily to promote sound learning. Under the mistress-ship of Katharine Jex-Blake (1916–22) classical studies flourished conspicuously. Dame Bertha Philpotts (1922–5), sat on the Statutory Commission of 1923. Edith Helen Major (1925–31), did much to prepare the way for the full admission of women to the University, and Helen M. Wodehouse (1931–42), helped to get rid of social restrictions and conventions which had become anachronistic and inappropriate. K. Butler (1942–9) guided the College during much of the Second World War, and had the satisfaction of seeing the College a full member of the University, and of receiving Queen Elizabeth, consort of King George VI, when in October 1948 she came to tea at Girton after having received the honorary degree of LL.D. In 1949 Dr. Mary Cartwright, F.R.S., succeeded Miss Butler as Mistress.

Among eminent Girtonians may be mentioned: Miss Alford, Dame Adelaide Anderson, Mrs. Montagu Butler, Mrs. C. P. Scott, Professor Lilian Knowles, Dame Louisa Lumsden, Miss Constance Maynard, Dame Bertha Newall, Professor Eileen Power, Professor Susan Stebbing.

Mistresses of Girton

Mrs. Charlotte Manning: Oct. 1869.

Emily Shirreff: Jan. 1870.

Mrs. Annie Austin: Oct. 1870.

Sarah Emily Davies: Oct. 1872.

Marianne Frances Bernard (Mrs. P. W. Latham): Oct. 1875.

Elizabeth Welsh: 25 Mar. 1885.

Emily Elizabeth Constance Jones: Mar. 1903.

Katharine Jex-Blake: Apr. 1916.

Bertha Surtees Phillpotts (Dame Bertha Newall, D.B.E.): 1922.

Edith Helen Major: 1 Oct. 1925.

Helen Marion Wodehouse: 1 Oct. 1931.

Kathleen Teresa Blake Butler: 1942.

Mary Lucy Cartwright: 1949.


  • 1. Girton Coll., Camb., a pamphlet published for intending students, 1951.
  • 2. B. Stephen, Emily Davies and Girton Coll. (1927), 84. All facts for which no other specific reference is given are derived from this work.
  • 3. For their names see B. Stephen, Girton Coll. 1869–1932 (1933), 18.
  • 4. E. E. Constance Jones, Girton Coll. (1913), 16, 56–57.
  • 5. See the article on Newnham Coll., below, p. 493.
  • 6. Girton Coll. Rept., Nov. 1869.
  • 7. L. I. Lumsden, 'The Ancient History of Girton Coll.', The Girton Rev., Michaelmas Term, 1907.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Jones, Girton Coll. 39–40, 43 gives further details about the rooms; all subsequent references to the buildings are based on this book and those of Lady Stephen.
  • 10. Girton Coll., Origin and Growth of Clubs, 25; a privately printed pamphlet: a copy is in Girton Libr.
  • 11. An Interior View of Girton Coll., reprinted from an American journal, 1876; Life at Girton Coll. by a Girton student 1882. Copies of both these pamphlets are in the Girton Coll. Libr. For the names of lecturers see the Girton Coll. Rept. for each year.
  • 12. Memorandum and Articles of Association and Bye Laws 1872.
  • 13. This was after the election of Miss Welsh, who had been strongly championed by Emily Davies against Miss Lumsden: Minutes of the Executive Committee, July 1884– Mar. 1885. Evidence of earlier friction was a communication from Miss Lumsden to the executive committee considered at a meeting 5 Mar. 1875. The minutes are in the possession of the Sec. of Girton Coll.
  • 14. Already in 1902 the 'staff' had formed a Combination Room Club. See the 'Minute Books of the Club', now in the possession of the Sec. of the Club.
  • 15. Girton Coll. Camb. Chart. and Statutes, 21 Aug. 1924.
  • 16. See the early numbers of the Girton Coll. Repts. Generous gifts were received from various private individuals, from the Trustees of the Gilchrist Educational Fund, and from City Companies such as the Goldsmiths, Skinners, and Drapers. In 1921 the Countess of Carlisle bequeathed £20,000 for scholarships. For the research studentships, fellowships, scholarships, and exhibitions see Girton Coll. Camb., a pamphlet for intending students.