St. Hilda's 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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'St. Hilda's College', in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, ed. H E Salter, Mary D Lobel( London, 1954), British History Online [accessed 18 July 2024].

'St. Hilda's College', in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford. Edited by H E Salter, Mary D Lobel( London, 1954), British History Online, accessed July 18, 2024,

"St. Hilda's College". A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford. Ed. H E Salter, Mary D Lobel(London, 1954), , British History Online. Web. 18 July 2024.


In 1886 Miss Dorothea Beale, LL.D., Principal of the Ladies' College, Cheltenham, one of the foremost educators of her day, wanting to make it possible for her younger teachers and older students to avail themselves of the new opportunities of higher education for women at Oxford, bought 3 acres of land on the Banbury Road and had plans drawn for building a college. In 1893 she wrote: (fn. 1) 'Then circumstances … made me feel the time was not ripe. … This summer it seemed as if the chief impediments were removed: a house was offered to me suitable for a small College in a very beautiful situation and I decided to buy it and open in the autumn.' This was Cowley House (in Cowley Place), the nucleus of which had been built by Dr. Humphrey Sibthorp, Sherardian Professor of Botany in the University, between 1775—when he had bought for £500 the site (fn. 2) 'called Sharpes Close, a Ham of meadow ground in Milham', 'the waters and fishings in the River called Milham from the East Bridge to Christ Church Walks', with 4 acres of arable land in Cowley Fields—and 1783, when his house is referred to as 'newly erected'. It had been built in mottled brick round a staircase in the Adam style, bought from (fn. 3) 'a country house of the Bertie family in Oxfordshire', and a special feature of Cowley House was its mantelpieces of various origins. The site was an interesting and convenient one. A mill of the Templars of Cowley had stood there by the east branch of the river Cherwell, (fn. 4) down which ran the boundary of the franchise of the town. Close by, and possibly in the grounds of what is now St. Hilda's South, were St. Edmund's Well of great healing fame in the 13th century, and one of the bridges over the two branches of the Cherwell by which Wolsey caused the stone from Headington quarries and gravel from near St. Edmund's Well to be brought for his 'Cardinal College'. (fn. 5) It was conveniently near the Physic Garden laid out in 1622–32, especially when the professor's house there was demolished shortly after 1772, to make room for the new East Bridge approach. Probably the house was chiefly occupied by John Sibthorp, Professor of Botany, 1784–96. Sir Benjamin Brodie, the last Aldrichian and first Waynflete Professor of Chemistry, bought Cowley House and stables (fn. 6) in 1862 and added a north wing, outer hall, and porch designed by Mr. Woodward (architect of the University Science Museum) and decorated with sculptured capitals by O'Shea of Dublin. Miss Beale bought the house unaltered (but not the stables) from Dr. Gilbert Child, the next owner, in Feb. 1893, for £5,000.

The Council of the Association for the Education of Women in Oxford was then undergoing reorganization and was placing its Home-Students, as a definite body, under the principalship of Mrs. Arthur Johnson. To Miss Beale's request for the admission of her students to registration the Council agreed (1894), but required St. Hilda's to be placed on probation under Mrs. Johnson's supervision, in order that 'it should be given the opportunity of putting itself on a level with the existing Halls', and formal recognition of this was given on 25 Nov. 1896. (fn. 7) It was then entitled to be called St. Hilda's Hall and was represented on the Association Council by its Principal and Dr. J. B. Moyle. Meanwhile the house had been formally opened on 6 Nov. 1893 by Dr. Stubbs, Bishop of Oxford. It was to be 'conducted according to the principles of the Church of England, without restrictions upon the liberty of members of other denominations'. In the founder's own words: 'I want none to go for the sake of a pleasant life … none, merely for self-culture … but that they may do better service … for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man's estate.' (fn. 8) She named her house after St. Hilda of Whitby as the first great educator in England, and because, in her houses, St. Hilda 'had laid chief stress on peace and love'.

The house had accommodation for thirteen students: it began with seven. Though then mainly intended for pupils of the Cheltenham Ladies' College, one of the first seven had been educated elsewhere and by 1904 there had been forty non-Cheltonians. Miss Beale appointed in 1893 as the first Principal Mrs. Esther Elizabeth Burrows, who had previously taken charge of some pupils attending her college. Miss Beale took a keen personal interest, and interested her numerous friends, in the progress of the small community, which she financed wholly herself for the first four years. 'We do not want any contributions to the general fund of St. Hilda's', she wrote, 'but we should not refuse assistance in the form of scholarships, exhibitions or loans for those who need help—and especially should we be grateful for contributions to the Library. I have laid its foundations with money earned by a contribution to the Spectator and the first books bought are Jowett's Plato and Hutton's Essays. I specially desire a good library of poetry, philosophy and theology.' (fn. 9) Several friends helped to start this, but for the academic needs of the first students, modern history preponderated.

In order to qualify for recognition by the A.E.W. a council of ten members was formed on 5 July 1897 preparatory to the incorporation of the Hall under the Companies' Acts of 1862–90 (fn. 10) as an Association 'not for purposes of profit' and the Rev. J. R. Magrath, D.D., Provost of The Queen's College, became its first chairman. Of this body four councillors represented the Cheltenham Ladies' College, including its chairman (then Dr. Magrath) and Principal (then Miss Beale, for life) ex officio and the representative on its council of the University of Oxford. Miss Beale still retained the chief interest in its finances.

After minor alterations a south wing was added to the Hall in 1897–8 (supervised by a London architect, Mr. P. Day), which included a larger dining-room and raised the students' accommodation to 28 rooms in all, 20 being the required minimum.

In 1901 Miss Beale, desiring to place the future of the Hall on a sounder financial footing, procured the dissolution of the Incorporated Association and in its place brought about an amalgamation of the Hall with St. Hilda's College, Cheltenham, henceforth known jointly as St. Hilda's Incorporated College, though the Oxford member retained locally its old name. (St. Hilda's College, Cheltenham, was financially independent of the Ladies' College which, however, provided the education of its students.) To this joint college Miss Beale presented the freehold property at Oxford, and the arrangement materially assisted the growth of the Hall. Its council had virtual control of local matters, but functioned under the Court of the Incorporated College in finance. In this year Dr. Paget, Bishop of Oxford, consented to become the Visitor of the Hall.

After Miss Beale's death in 1906 the legacy of £1,000 left by her to the college was by consent used to add, in 1909, a second south wing (in brick) to the Hall. This was designed by Mr. W. E. Mills. It consisted of a semi-basement library panelled in oak, dated 1909 and bearing the original badge of the Hall, and of rooms for a tutor and thirteen more students.

When the Delegacy for Women Students was instituted by the University in 1911, St. Hilda's was one of the five Societies which it recognized, and in 1920 the Hall was admitted to the privileges of the Statute (Tit. XXIII) giving to women the right of membership of the University.

The large influx of students to Oxford after the war of 1914–18, when the numbers rose from 49 to 70, led to plans for further extension on the northern site of the stables, bought from Magdalen College in 1915, to replace temporary hostels. But before this could be carried out it was found possible to purchase in 1921 (for £17,500) the leasehold of Cherwell Hall, a training college belonging to the Church Education Corporation. The lease for 99 years had been granted by Christ Church in 1876 to Mr. (later Dr.) A. G. Vernon Harcourt, Lee's Reader in Chemistry, who three years later had built there Cowley Grange, designed as a private house, in light brick with stone facings, by Mr. Wilkinson, an architect who planned it to the four points of the compass. (fn. 11) A wing had been added including a library when it became a training college. This house was now called St. Hilda's South. Structural alterations enlarged its library into a dining-hall, and additions, including new kitchens, were completed by Mr. Harrison of Oxford by 1925 at a cost of about £13,000. The money was partly raised by the issue of mortgage stock taken up by friends and old students, and helped by college funds and by the share of St. Hilda's from a joint Appeal for the Women's Colleges at Oxford, to which H.M. Queen Mary generously contributed.

The earlier building became known as Old Hall, and the two buildings together now accommodated about 100 students.

Arising from an offer by Dame Elizabeth Wordsworth of £50 if £500 could be raised, a temporary chapel was also built, to the design of Mr. F. E. Howard, in the grounds of St. Hilda's South. On 31 Oct. 1925 the chapel was consecrated by the then Visitor of the college and a former chairman of council, Dr. H. H. Williams, Bishop of Carlisle, and the new building was formally opened by Viscount Cave, Chancellor of the University.

About the same time, in accordance with the requirements of the University, St. Hilda's Incorporated College was dissolved and on 13 Mar. 1926 the Hall was incorporated, by Royal Charter, under the name of the Principal and Council of St. Hilda's College.

Four representatives of the Cheltenham Ladies' College still sat on its council, but on the revision of its Statutes nine years later the two ex-officio members ceased to function. The council of the college now consists of twenty-four members, including official fellows, professorial and research fellows under certain conditions, one member elected directly by the Hebdomadal Council, two by the Council of the Cheltenham Ladies' College, and the remainder elected, half by the council itself and half by the Senior Members' Association. This body, established in 1926, includes—besides members of council and graduates on the books of the college—members of the Old Students' Association which, formerly constituted in 1906, had been represented on the council since 1908.

The latest addition to the college premises has been the Burrows Building, named after the two first principals. This was added in brick in 1934, on the site of the stables to the north of Old Hall by Sir Edwin Cooper as architect.

The cost of the building, about £20,000, was raised by loan. It consists of a fine library on the ground floor, with a gallery which, with a stackroom in the basement, will hold some 25,000 books. The library is panelled in oak and was furnished mainly by gifts from old students and friends. Above it are 20 rooms, so that the college can house 114 students and an increased number of tutors. Three houses in Iffley Road were acquired in 1945 and 1946 for use as hostels. The maximum number permitted by the University was raised in 1948 to 180, but the College has not sufficient accommodation to house this number at present.

The growth of the college must also be measured by that of its tutorial and administrative body. In common with the other women's societies its students were at first assigned to tutors of the Association for the Education of Women, several of whom were tutors of the men's colleges. Among these must be mentioned Mr. Edward Armstrong, history tutor and later Provost of The Queen's College, who not only helped generations of its history students, but was a most valued member of St. Hilda's Council for 30 years and its chairman 1910–15. The first tutor appointed was in Modern History in 1896, the first English tutor in 1908, in Classics in 1918, since when five more tutors have been added. Of administrative officers the first Vice-Principal was appointed in 1898, after the recognition of St. Hilda's as a hall, and the first bursar in 1902. Up to the present time (1950), there have been four Principals of the hall and college:

Mrs. Esther Elizabeth Burrows, August 1893–July 1910.

Miss Christine Mary Elizabeth Burrows, August 1910–July 1919.

Miss Winifred Horsbrugh Moberly, August 1919–March 1928.

Miss Julia de Lacy Mann, April 1928–.

Financially the college has greatly benefited by the Government grant of £1,000 per annum for ten years, given in 1921 on the recommendation of the Universities' Commission: this was renewed in 1931 as an annually diminishing grant and has now ceased. It has chiefly been used for the augmentation of salaries and for the payment of a proportion of pensions, under the University scheme.

The college has received endowments amounting to about £50,000 in all from its Founder, who gave the freehold and buildings of Old Hall, with a bequest of £500; from the estates of Sir Ernest Cassel and the Reverend J. Gamble, and from some of its own members. In addition the following open endowed scholarships have been given or founded from legacies:—a Harrison scholarship of £80 (now of £50) given by a former student, a Beilby scholarship of £70 left by the late Lady Beilby, a Richardson Evans scholarship of £35 and a Marion Hewitt scholarship of £65, both given as bequests of former students, and a scholarship of £30 from funds set aside by the council in memory of Miss W. H. Moberly. The Old Students' Association gives annually two scholarships of £40. Open scholarships and exhibitions are also given from college funds. Three close scholarships, each of £50, are given once in every three years, one from college funds to candidates from Cheltenham Ladies' College in memory of Miss Dorothea Beale, and one from funds collected in memory of Miss Lilian Blake, late Principal of Hove Lea School, Hove, to candidates from private schools.

In the early days money for such purposes was collected yearly by Miss A. M. Andrews of Cheltenham, friend and councillor of the Hall since its beginning.

There is so far only the nucleus of a fund for endowment of research, amounting to about £300, in memory of Miss A. E. Levett, Vice-Principal and History Tutor (1910–23), collected from old pupils and friends.

The college possesses (1950) seven portraits in oils, one in pastels, and three in crayons. They are of (1) Miss Beale, the founder, a copy by Mrs. Everett (1931) of that by Mr. J. J. Shannon, R.A., at the Cheltenham Ladies' College (1903); (2) Mrs. Burrows (1928), (3) Miss Burrows (1928), and (4) Miss Moberly (1929), all by Miss Catherine Ouless; (5) Mr. E. Armstrong by Mr. C. G. Anderson in 1922, the gift of his wife, and (6) Miss Levett by Mr. J. St. H. Lander, R.O.I., in 1924; (7) Miss Mann (1948) by Mr. Peter Grinham. The pastel portrait is of Mrs. Burrows (1900) by Frl. Mund, the drawings of Mr. E. Armstrong by Mr. A. Norris (1917), Miss Burrows (1919), and Miss A. M. Andrews (1932) by Mr. L. L. Brooke.


  • 1. Chelt. Ladies' Coll. Magazine, no. xxvii, p. 129 (1893).
  • 2. MS. deeds in possession of St. Hilda's College, Oxford.
  • 3. Conversations with Mrs. Huxley, daughter of Sir B. Brodie, also with Rev. L. Tuckwell, whose father owned Cowley House 1842–62, and with Dr. Child 1893.
  • 4. Cartulary of Hosp. of S. John Bapt. (O.H.S. 1914), pp. 2–4, and Hurst's Ox. Topography (O.H.S. 1899) quoting Hutten's Perambulation (1625–30), p. 207.
  • 5. Wood, City of Oxford, i, 288 and 295 (ed. Clark, O.H.S. 1889). The bridge may be seen in a map of Cowley of 1605 reproduced in Moivat's Maps of Oxfordshire.
  • 6. (a) See memorandum of 1862 by Sir B. Brodie as owner on back of indenture of 1841 in possession of St. Hilda's College; (b) notes of conversation with his daughter Mrs. Huxley, 1937.
  • 7. A.E.W. Reports 1892–3, 1896–7, and Council Minutes.
  • 8. C.L.C. Magazine, Spring 1893, article by Miss Beale on St. Hilda's, Oxford, p. 130.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Minutes of Council of St. Hilda's 1895 and 1896 and Minutes of A.E.W. Council, 25 Nov. and 2 Dec. 1896.
  • 11. Notes of conversation with Miss M. Vernon Harcourt, 1937.