Somerville College

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1954.

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'Somerville College', A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, (London, 1954), pp. 343-347. British History Online [accessed 15 June 2024].

. "Somerville College", in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, (London, 1954) 343-347. British History Online, accessed June 15, 2024,

. "Somerville College", A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, (London, 1954). 343-347. British History Online. Web. 15 June 2024,

In this section


General History

The movement for the higher education of women at Oxford began with the creation of a voluntary Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women, intended to provide teaching for the special examinations for women which the University instituted in 1875 as part of its system of examinations for persons not members of the University. This Association, founded in 1878, was to begin work in October 1879, and at a meeting of 4 June 1878 a proposal was made to found a hall of residence for the accommodation of students coming to attend its lectures. The proposal to found a hall, which had already been raised independently of the new Association, was taken up by a number of sympathizers, but before the end of the year a disagreement among them on the question of religious observance made co-operation impossible. (fn. 1) As a result some of them, led by Dr. John Percival, President of Trinity College, and Professor Thomas Hill Green, seceded from the other supporters, and at a meeting of 7 Feb. 1879 decided to form a second hall, which should be undenominational in character. (fn. 2) These seceders founded what is now Somerville College.

A provisional committee, chosen at this meeting, submitted to a second meeting on 15 Feb. a draft pro posal for the organization of the hall, which was passed with amendments, and at a third meeting on 28 Feb. a committee of fourteen (later increased to sixteen) (fn. 3) was elected and Dr. Percival voted to the chair. At the same meeting the proposed hall was given the name of Somerville Hall in honour of the mathematician, Mary Somerville, on the motion of Mrs. Humphrey Ward. (fn. 4) On 3 May 1879 Miss Madeleine Shaw-Lefevre was appointed its first Principal.

Both the new halls opened on 13 Oct. 1879. Somerville had 12 students in residence, 8 of whom were assisted by exhibitions, none of which were in the first instance promised for more than three years. (fn. 5) But the demand for the facilities it offered was great, and its numbers rose steadily. By 1885 it had 30 students in residence; by 1895, 62; by the outbreak of the war in 1914, 101. In 1926, when the University under a new statute limited its numbers to 150 undergraduates, there were 134 on its books. Its maximum was increased to 160 in 1945 and to 180 in 1948.

This growth is attributable in part to the improved opportunities for women students offered by the increasingly liberal attitude of the University, but largely to the greater attractions offered by Somerville itself as it changed its status from that of a hall of residence to that of a college. The first rules of the hall state categorically that it has been formed 'for the reception of students coming from a distance to attend the lectures of the Oxford Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women'. In its only reference to tuition the Council states that it will 'undertake to arrange for the instruction in Holy Scripture of those Students who desire it, and also for private tuition in other subjects, should this be found necessary in addition to the instruction furnished by the Association'. By 1893, however, when the Association attempted, to restate this relationship, (fn. 6) the policy of Somerville was a flat denial of it. The following year it changed its style to Somerville College 'in the belief that it would not only improve the educational status of Somerville in the eyes of the public, but would be understood as implying the desire of the Governing Body to raise it above the level of a Hall of Residence'. (fn. 7)

The change in outlook had begun by an only halfconscious analogy with the colleges of the University. (fn. 8) In the time of the second Principal, Miss Agnes Maitland, the change became explicit. After a brush with the Association over the arrangement of the students' work, (fn. 9) she turned her attention to the appointment of college tutors to take over as much as possible of the honours teaching. By 1910, when the University recognized the presence of women students by the formation of the Delegacy for Women, there was no longer any doubt that the women's societies were independent academic bodies.

A parallel development had been taking place in the constitution of the society. The original constitution, like that of all the women's societies, was the result of that 19th-century invention, the joint-stock limited liability company. In 1881 the founders of the hall formed themselves into a joint-stock company, not intended for profit, under the Company Laws of 1862 and 1867. The Association of Somerville Hall was composed of ordinary members (subscribers of £1 1s. or more per annum), life members (subscribers of a sum of £25 or more, or of £5 5s. per annum for five years), and honorary members. They elected a council of 18 persons, to manage the company's affairs and submit an annual report to a general meeting.

This method of endowing new institutions had advantages when no rich donor could be found. As a form of governing anything but charitable institutions, it had, however, obvious inconveniences, since it depended on an enthusiasm hard to maintain when the institution became self-supporting and the foundation members had disappeared. This difficulty was met by a measure begun at Girton but followed by all the women's societies, whereby the joint-stock principle was retained, though without its original financial justification. This was the admission of past students of the college to membership at greatly reduced rates. At Somerville membership was in 1896 thrown open at a rate of 5s. a year to all past students who wished to apply and who possessed certificates issued by the council. The existence of an interested body of members was thus assured, but it could not be assured that they formed a body with much internal cohesion, or in touch with changing academic requirements. In consequence the development of the college depended on the policy and traditions of the elected council, and here, fortunately, there arose a force which had not been envisaged in the constitution. As the founders of the society ceased to direct its affairs, this direction began to fall into the hands of the Principal and tutors who were carrying on the work of the college, and were in touch with both the University and the past students.

They were not originally intended to be members of the governing body. The first Principal was not a member of the committee of 1879–81, which preceded the Association, and, though she was elected to the new council in 1881, there was no provision for her to sit on it ex officio. Nevertheless, she had attended committee meetings since 23 Sept. 1879, and there was never any of that opposition to her membership which had such unfortunate effects at Girton. (fn. 10) So far as the tutors were concerned their position developed more slowly. They were, in 1894, assured of honorary membership of the Association, (fn. 11) and it is dear that some of them early began to play a prominent part in the general meetings. It was not till 1903 that one of them was, at their joint request, elected to the council, (fn. 12) and until 1922 there were never more than two tutors on it. Their absence from its deliberations was imperfectly offset by increasing consultation of them as a body, but it was not till 1921 that the Articles of Association were amended to allow the creation of not less than six or more than nine official fellows with membership of council. (fn. 13)

Necessary as the change was, this element of collegiate organization fitted awkwardly into the framework of a joint-stock company, and was itself a sign of the need for a more normal college organization. The occasion for obtaining it soon came. The new relations between the University and the Women's Societies, which followed the admission of women to degrees, made it desirable that the Women's Societies should be bound by charters and statutes. A strong committee of council, considering the terms of the new incorporation, urged in 1924 that instead of incorporating the whole body of Somerville members they should incorporate that of the Principal and Council of Somerville College, by analogy with 'older academic foundations which have stood the test of time'. (fn. 14) The council was to consist of the Principal, the official and professorial fellows of the college, a nominee of the Hebdomadal Council from its own members, (fn. 15) six persons chosen by a reorganized Association of Senior Members, (fn. 16) and six persons elected by the council. Four life members were appointed by special provision in gratitude for their past services.

This new body came into being on 7 June 1926, and the taking over of the chair by the Principal, the growth of the number of official fellows (now ten), and the increasing use of devolution to a committee of the Principal and fellows, has brought the organization still more into line with Oxford traditions. The constitutional development is probably not yet complete.

Increase in size and development in constitution has not been accompanied by a comparable increase in endowment. Large contributions to the general funds of the college have been few, the largest being £25,000 granted in 1925 by the Trustees of the Cassel Fund, (fn. 17) and a sum of more than £13,000 received between 1921 and 1925 as a result of public appeals for the endowment of the Women's Societies. A larger number of gifts and endowments have been received for special purposes, but these also are small. In its earlier days the college was very poor, and during and after the 1914–18 war suffered severely from the rising prices and a burden of debt for building. The financial skill of the third Principal, Dame Emily Penrose, helped it to surmount these difficulties, and moreover a sum of about £48,000 was brought together (largely from the benefactions mentioned above) for general endowment. Increased expenditure, the purchase of land adjoining the college site, and the need to enlarge and improve accommodation has, however, depleted this fund, and it is still true, as in 1921, that more than 90 per cent, of the general expenditure must be met by students' fees. (fn. 18)


In June 1879 premises temporarily suitable for a hall of residence were found in Walton House, a St. John's property, leased to Captain Mostyn Owen. The remainder of the lease was purchased for £600 and the buildings were made ready for use at a cost of £700. The house itself could accommodate only seven of the twelve students who came up in the following October; rooms for four more were provided in the two cottages on the property, and one lived out. It was therefore necessary at once to consider the provision of further accommodation on a permanent site. The neighbourhood of St. Giles's was preferred mainly because of its convenience for the lectures of the A.E.W. then given in Alfred St. (Pusey St.). Of the various properties considered within the next two years, none offered greater possibilities of development than Walton House itself, if the freehold could be obtained. In 1881 St. John's consented to sell for £7,000. (fn. 19)

The Walton House property comprised three leaseholds, lots 175, 176, and 177 of the St. Giles's Inclosure Award of 1832. Lot 175 had been awarded to St. John's and their tenant Thomas Ensworth, an alderman of the city of Oxford, who had built the house upon an inclosed piece of land, included in this allotment, leased from St. John's in 1826. (fn. 20) The rest of the property had formed part of the common fields of St. Giles's parish. (fn. 21) Davis's map of 1797 shows some inclosures bordering the Woodstock Rd., with open pasture beyond. The Survey of 1772 makes it clear that there were no houses immediately south of the infirmary. (fn. 22) Lot 176 was leased by Thomas Ensworth in 1832 from Lincoln College, who sold the freehold to St. John's in 1864. Captain Owen acquired both leaseholds in 1859 and added to them the third, lot 177, a freehold of St. John's. (fn. 23)

The whole property purchased in 1881 measured 2 acres, 2 roods, 25 perches. It is well shown in the 10 in. Ordnance Survey of 1879. It was bounded on the west by Walton St., where was the main entrance and lodge, and on the north by the Radcliffe Infirmary. A carriage drive led from the house past a coach-house and two cottages to a gate in St. Giles's Rd. West (Woodstock Rd.). The rest of the boundary to the east was formed by freeholds of the vicar of St. Giles's, St. John's, and the church of St. Aloysius; and to the south by University College property. (fn. 23) To the east and south there were possibilities of expansion, but for the time the original site was sufficient for the needs of the hall.

The uncertain future of women in Oxford, and the absence of endowment, made any systematic planning of the site and buildings impossible. In the first years two architects were employed to carry out two different plans for providing residential accommodation. The first was an adaptation of the original house. In 1881 T. G. Jackson designed a new wing projecting from the SE. corner. It provided twelve new rooms with a favourable south aspect, later to be blocked by other buildings. (fn. 24) In 1985 Walter Lane designed a NE. extension to balance the Jackson wing, and at the same time considerable changes were made in the structure of the house; the roof was raised to make five rooms in the attics and the east frontage was brought forward. (fn. 25) The same architect built the Woodstock Rd. Gatehouse in 1892, (fn. 26) and the hostel, a small block on the site of the old coach-house, in 1898. (fn. 27) The latter was intended as part of a future building to be called the Eleanor Smith Cottages, but the plan was never completed. Meanwhile the alternative policy of building a second self-contained hall with its own administration had also been pursued in imitation of Newnham. The west building, set at the NW. end of the site and designed by H. C. Moore, was built in two stages. The first, in 1886–7, gave accommodation for eighteen students with their own dining-room and drawingrooms; (fn. 28) the second, which included two sets of tutors' rooms and a lodge at the Walton St. Gate, was completed in 1895. (fn. 29) A gymnasium projecting from the NE. corner of West was built in 1890 at the cost of Miss E. J. Forster. (fn. 30) It was converted into a lectureroom in 1922. (fn. 31)

By the end of the century seventy-six students could be accommodated within the walls, but there were still no distinctively collegiate buildings. The purpose and scale of the buildings of the next period, 1900–14, reflect the change of status from hall to college; their completion was made possible by the initiative and generosity of early generations of old students. Plans for a library were first discussed in 1899, and an appeal for funds was launched in commemoration of the coming of age of the college. The building, designed by Basil Champneys, was completed in 1903 and opened by John Morley in 1904. (fn. 32) It was set against the north boundary wall and connected by a short cloister at either end with the west block and the house. The library itself was on the first floor above a row of students' rooms and a loggia. The oak shelving has been gradually extended to accommodate about 26,000 volumes; a gallery was added in 1924 in accordance with the original plan. (fn. 33) Part of the cost of this building was provided from the Pfeiffer bequest, commemorated in the name Pfeiffer Library.

A hall large enough to hold the whole college was the second urgent requirement. Debenture shares at 3½ per cent, were issued in 1911 and were largely subscribed by members of the college. The fund raised as a memorial to Miss Maitland was set aside to pay for the oak panelling, and in 1912 it was possible to begin the building. (fn. 34) The position chosen for the hall and block of rooms was south of the house and facing west. It stood partly on the original site and partly on the east end of an adjoining freehold presented to the college by Miss E. J. Forster in 1897. This property was made up of two strips purchased from University College and Balliol for £4,000 and £1,400 respectively. The University College property comprised a number of cottages in Radcliffe Row, earlier known as Cock's Row, and extended west to 119 and 119A Walton St.; the Balliol strip on the farther side of Radcliffe Row was let as a rope-walk. (fn. 35) Permission to close the right of way through Radcliffe Row was given by the City council in 1903, in view of the possible use of this site for the Library. (fn. 36) The cottages were pulled down and the site laid out as a garden in 1905. (fn. 37) The rope-walk tenant was not disturbed until 1911, when the Maitland buildings were decided upon. (fn. 38) The foundations of the new building presented unexpected difficulty and expense because of the existence of deep pits filled with loose gravel and rubble. De Gomme's plan of the fortifications of Oxford in 1644 shows that the outer lines of defence crossed the Somerville site at this corner. (fn. 39) It seems probable that the pits formed part of the entrenchments, but this possibility was not explored at the time. The new building was connected with the Jackson wing by an archway over which a wide staircase led to the hall. Below the hall were senior common rooms and kitchens. The Maitland block to the south accommodated eighteen students and two tutors. The buildings were designed by Edmund Fisher and were opened by the Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Heberden, in 1911. (fn. 40)

Since the 1914–18 war the main additions have been Penrose, the East quadrangle, and the chapel. The Penrose block, designed by Mr. Harold Rogers, was built in 1927 at the SW. end of the garden and on the site of 119 and 119A Walton St. (fn. 41) The East quadrangle, opened by Lord Halifax, the Visitor, in 1934, was the fulfilment of a long-planned intention, which is shown in the gradual absorption of the Woodstock Road properties between the Gate House and St. Aloysius Church. The freehold of the three houses, 29, 31, and 33 Woodstock Road, was purchased from the vicar of St. Giles's in 1920 for £1,300. The lease of no. 29 had been acquired in 1891 and no. 31 in 1905, and both houses had been adapted in part for students' use. The lease of no. 33 could not be obtained until 1930. This St. Giles property was an old inclosure in 1832. The three houses, first known as 1, 2, and 3 Dover Terrace, were built by Captain Owen in 1859. The adjoining property of the 'Waggon and Horses' was purchased from St. John's in 1923. (fn. 42) These four houses were demolished in 1932–3, together with the Gate House and the two cottages, whose condition was reported to be unsafe. The architect of the new quadrangle was Mr. Morley Horder, who had already designed two smaller additions to the college, a reading-room and fellows' set, filling the gap between the hall and Maitland, and a sanatorium adjoining the Penrose building to the South. (fn. 43) The east building included a council room in addition to fellows' and undergraduates' rooms. A reconstruction of the archway leading to the hall, considered to be necessary to complete the plan of the East quadrangle, was carried out in 1938. (fn. 44) The chapel was offered to the college in 1932 by an anonymous donor and was dedicated in 1935. The position chosen for it was at right angles to Maitland on the site of the Radcliffe Row and rope-walk properties. The architect was Mr. Courtenay Theobald, who also designed a case for the organ. (fn. 45) In 1930 the college purchased the lease and freehold of Bedford House, a private school for boys, built by the Rev. J. H. Thorogood in 1875, a St. John's property adjoining 119 and 119A Walton St. The building was taken into use with only slight alterations as a lecture room. It was enlarged in 1939. (fn. 46)

Date of election Principals
3 May 1879 Madeleine Shaw-Lefevre
18 May 1889 Agnes Maitland
22 Oct. 1906 Dame Emily Penrose
15 Jan. 1926 Sara Margery Fry
11 Nov. 1930 Helen Darbishire
6 Feb. 1945 Janet Maria Vaughan


  • 1. Lady Margaret Hall, a Short History, pp. 20–2, 31–2.
  • 2. College Archives: General Meetings, Minutes.
  • 3. To consist of equal numbers of men and women: ibid.
  • 4. The name was apparently suggested by her husband. See College Archives: Council Minutes, vol. iii, p. 205, letter from Humphrey Ward to Miss E. Penrose, 2 Mar. 1924.: 'May I also claim on my own account a special interest in your college? I believe I first suggested its name. In or about 1870 I had been to Naples and had spent one evening with Miss [sic] Somerville and had been much impressed by her; so that when the question arose, what woman distinguished in science or letters should give her name to the new "Hall", as it then was, I was able to speak of her from personal knowledge.'
  • 5. Report, 1879. One of them was awarded from a sum given by the Clothworkers' Company, which has continued and increased its grants, and one of their representatives still sits on Somerville Council as a mark of gratitude for their support.
  • 6. 'It is assumed that the Councils of the Halls, acting in concert, delegate their responsibility for providing and working a system of education for their students to the Association': Reply to Professor Pelham's Suggestions [1893].
  • 7. Report, 1894.
  • 8. Even the first Principal had begun to assume some responsibility for the arrangement of students' work, and as early as 1882 the first resident tutor was appointed. This development seems largely due to the fact that the tutorial system of instruction was adopted to an extent that had not been expected by the Association. Cf. A.E.W. Correspondence, Miss Shaw-Lefevre to Miss Maitland: 'I always tried to keep these [arrangements for private tuition] as much as possible in my own hands.... I certainly think that the students should look to their Hall for guidance and advice on educational matters and that the Association should be regarded as an august and independent body not to be lightly applied to.'
  • 9. College Archives; A.E.W. Correspondence.
  • 10. B. Stephen, Emily Davies and Girton College, 1927.
  • 11. Council Minutes, vol. i, pp. 227–8, 29 Oct. 1896.
  • 12. Ibid, i, 401, 27 Oct. 1902, General Meeting Minutes, 5 Dec. 1903.
  • 13. Ibid, iii, 8.
  • 14. Ibid, iii, 237.
  • 15. Such a representative had sat on the old Council since 1893: ibid, i, 209.
  • 16. This was to consist of all existing members of the former Association, all graduates who keep their names on the books of the University and college, and all members of council and officials of the college chosen by council, and all other persons whom the council may elect on the recommendation of the Association.
  • 17. The college had been enjoying the interest on this since 1919.
  • 18. Somerville Special Appeal, 1921.
  • 19. Minutes of Council, 19 June 1879, 24 Jan. 1880, 25 June 1880; Council Reports, i, ii.
  • 20. St. John's Rental.
  • 21. St. Giles's Inclosure Award, 1832.
  • 22. Surveys and Tokens, ed. Salter (O.H.S.).
  • 23. College Leases.
  • 24. Minutes of Council, 16 July 1881.
  • 25. Ibid., 11 Mar. 1895.
  • 26. Ibid., 14 May 1892.
  • 27. Ibid., 4 Mar. 1898.
  • 28. Ibid., 11 June 1885.
  • 29. Ibid., 18 May, 30 Oct. 1895.
  • 30. Ibid., 10 May 1890.
  • 31. Ibid., 9 May 1922.
  • 32. Ibid., 4 Feb. 1901, et seq.; Minutes of Building Committee, Council Report and S.S.A. Report, 1903–4.
  • 33. Library Committee, Minutes, 1910.
  • 34. Minutes of Council, 8 Mar. 1910, 16 May, 24 Oct. 1911, 22 Oct. 1912.
  • 35. Ibid., 15 Mar. 1897; College leases.
  • 36. Ibid., 3 Mar. 1902, 11 May 1903.
  • 37. Council Report, 1904–5; S.S.A. Report in 1906.
  • 38. Minutes of Council, 16 May 1911.
  • 39. See Lattey, Parsons, Philip, 'A Contemporary Map of the Defences of Oxford in 1644', in Oxoniensia, vol. i, 1936.
  • 40. Council Reports, 1910–11, 1911–12, 1912–13; S.S.A. Reports, 1912, 1913.
  • 41. Council Reports, 1926–7; Minutes of Council, 20 Oct., 3 Nov., and 15 Dec. 1925.
  • 42. College Leases and Evidences, Minutes of Council, 14 Mar. 1891, 15 May 1905, 4 May 1920, 23 Oct. 1923.
  • 43. Minutes of Council, 7 and 23 June 1932; Council Reports, 1930–1, 1932–3.
  • 44. Council Report, 1933–4, 1938–9.
  • 45. Minutes of Council, 4 June 1932 et seq.; Council Report, 1935–6, 1936–7.
  • 46. College Leases and Evidences; Minutes of Council, Oct. 1930.