On 16 October 1869, the ‘College for Women’ opened at Benslow House in Hitchin, 30 miles south of Cambridge. This was a small-scale start in a rented property but the new College was born of an audacious vision. The goal was to create a permanent institution and in time to secure full membership of the University of Cambridge for the College and its students. This creation would shake the foundations of British higher education and have an impact across the world. As student numbers grew, and the Hitchin lease drew to an end, it was decided to move nearer to Cambridge for ease of integration into the life and work of the University. Various options were debated and in 1872 a site close to Girton village was secured. Here there was room for buildings and gardens and the potential for later growth.
In October 1873, the College, and its then 13 students, moved from Hitchin to Girton into a building designed by Alfred Waterhouse (and later augmented by both his son and his grandson). The new building could accommodate up to 21 students and three resident staff. Its three floors also included a dining hall (now Old Hall) and kitchens, reading room, reception room, three lecture rooms, a prayer room, entrance hall, and servants’ quarters. From the very beginning, Girton opened a door to the residential educational experience that is the hallmark of collegiate Cambridge.
Girton’s foundational aim was to enable women to gain university degrees. Victory at Cambridge was hard-won, only coming in 1948. In 1880, the first Cambridge campaign on the question was sparked by the examination success of a Girton mathematician. Although it did not bring Cambridge degrees for women, they were granted official permission to sit Cambridge University examinations. In 1887, when a Girton classicist outshone all her male peers in Tripos examinations, a committee was formed to promote women’s access to Cambridge degrees, but the goal remained elusive. An iconic moment in the struggle came on 21 May 1897. After 18 months of campaigning, the members of the University voted by 1,707 to 661 to reject a proposal to allow women to receive degrees. The pictured effigy was hung during the demonstrations that accompanied the voting and the victors rioted through the night. It was more than 20 years before the issue was again formally considered in Cambridge, and half a century before the tide turned.
Despite the University’s refusal in 1897 to grant degrees to women, in 1899 Girton embarked on a major new phase of building. By 1902, the College had constructed one of the largest dining halls in the University (serviced by new, larger kitchens), the only indoor swimming pool in a Cambridge College, and two new wings (Chapel and Woodlands) that added 49 sets of lecturers’ and students’ rooms. There was to be no turning back now.
Emily Davies (1830–1921) was a suffragist, immersed in the mid 19th-century women’s movement. Her vision for women’s education, and her uncompromising commitment to excellence, inspired the foundation of Girton College. From 1872 to 1875, she was the fourth Mistress of the College, but drove its agenda from the foundation to 1904. In contrast to some of her peers, Emily Davies was tenacious in her insistence that women should study the same courses and sit the same exams under the same timetable as Cambridge men. In late 1872 and early 1873 the first Girtonians took Tripos examinations (unofficially). All passed, proving Emily Davies’s conviction correct.
Hertha Ayrton (1854–1923), born Phoebe Sarah Marks, was among the most influential British women scientists. A Girton student from 1876 to 1881, she was the first woman elected to the Institution of Electrical Engineers (1899); the first to read her own paper to the Royal Society (1904); the first (1902) nominated for election to that society (though barred by virtue of marriage) and the first to be awarded its prestigious Hughes Medal (1906). Practical as well as scholarly, she made many important discoveries, including the connection between current length and pressure in the electric arc. She registered 26 different patents and invented the Ayrton Fan – over 140,000 of these were distributed to disperse gas from World War One trenches. Hertha Ayrton’s success was underwritten by the early generosity of Barbara Bodichon (1827–1891), which enabled her to study Mathematics at Girton despite family hardship after the death of her father. This philanthropic history is continued in Girton today, thanks to a 1925 gift from her friend Ottilie Hancock (d. 1929) to endow the Hertha Ayrton Science Fellowship.
Early visionaries such as Ethel Sargant (1863–1918) were an inspiration to future generations of students. Ethel Sargant came to Girton in 1881 to study Natural Sciences and went on to become an eminent botanist. Her best-known work concerned the anatomy of seedlings and the ancestry of angiosperms. Sargant was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1904 and was the first woman to serve on its council. In 1913 she was elected president of the Botany Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In the same year she was elected to an Honorary Fellowship at Girton.
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827–1891), artist, feminist, journalist and prominent campaigner for law reform and women’s rights was both a founder and a funder of the College. Unconventional, enthusiastic and charming, she was a long-standing friend of Emily Davies, and Girton’s largest early benefactor. She gave £1,000 to the initial fund, lent a further £5,000 in 1884, and then left the College £10,000 in her will in 1891. Though Barbara Bodichon’s generosity was crucial to Girton’s foundation and survival, her involvement went well beyond financial affairs. She took a particular interest in the health and comfort of the students and the decoration of the new buildings. Many of the paintings she donated still hang on the College’s walls today.
The first five students arrived in Hitchin in October 1869. They were (left to right in the photo) Emily Gibson, Sarah Woodhead, Isabella Townshend, Rachel Cook (seated) and Louisa Lumsden (seated). Three would become the first women to pass Tripos examinations, which they sat on exactly the same terms as men: Sarah in Mathematics and Louisa and Rachel in Classics. As they were not allowed to receive the Cambridge BA, Girton awarded them the College Degree Certificate.
Despite disappointment in successive Cambridge campaigns to persuade the University to grant women degrees, the Girton intellectual adventure thrived in subsequent decades. In 1880 Charlotte Angas Scott (1858–1931) achieved the eighth-highest results across the University in the Mathematical Tripos. 1887 saw a further landmark in the history of women’s education when Agnata Ramsay (1867–1931) was placed in the First Class of Part I of the Classical Tripos, above all the men who had sat those examinations. Other Girtonians went on to achieve similar success in different subjects.
The College’s pioneering spirit encouraged Girtonians to turn their hands to many things. In 1879 the Fire Brigade was founded by two students who had witnessed a nearby haystack go up in flames and realized the College would be vulnerable if a fire broke out. Before then, the only fire-precautions at Girton were three small fire engines kept on each corridor which no-one knew how to use. Trained by members of the London Fire Brigade, the Girton Fire Brigade was highly structured: a Head Captain was in overall charge, with a corps for each corridor, led by a Captain and Sub-Captain. In existence until 1932, the Fire Brigade was only called upon to put out one fire, in Girton village in 1918. However, its existence is testimony to the determination of Girton women to meet any challenges that confronted them.
The forerunner of the modern Fellowship was the Resident Girton Staff. The first appointee was Louisa Lumsden (1840–1935), Resident Tutor in Classics in 1873. This photograph shows the Resident Staff of 1890. Standing (left to rigth) are: Marie Anelay (1859–1929), Resident Lecturer in Natural Sciences; Katharine Jex-Blake (1860–1951), Resident Lecturer in Classics and future Mistress; Maud Daniel (1864–1899), Resident Lecturer in Classics; and Margaret Meyer (1862–1924), Resident Lecturer in Mathematics. Seated (left to right) are: Florence Ward (1852–1938), Vice-Mistress and Junior Bursar; Elizabeth Welsh (1843–1921), Mistress and Emily Constance Jones (1848–1922), Resident Lecturer in Moral Sciences and another future Mistress. Aged between 27 and 46, all had been Girton students. They lived alongside the students, a housekeeper, a cook, and 21 female college servants. As well as their lessons with the College Staff, students had classes and lectures in Girton given by male Lecturers and Professors who visited the College each day. By special arrangements made by the Mistress, a growing number also attended some lectures in Cambridge.
In June 1897, the College awarded its first official Research Studentship to the astronomer Mrs Annie Maunder (1868–1947). As Annie Russell, she had studied Mathematics at Girton from 1886 to 1889. Chosen from three candidates, Annie was not resident in Girton while holding the Pfeiffer Studentship, but used the £40 award to help complete a ‘systematic, photographic survey of the Milky Way’. In the late 1890s, former student Florence Durham (1873–1948) led a collection among past students to fund the first resident research studentship. In 1901 this was awarded to Frances Cave-Browne-Cave (1876–1965) who, from 1903 to 1936, was Girton’s long-serving Resident Lecturer in Mathematics. From 1904 onwards, the numbers of resident and non-resident research and graduate students would grow to become the talented Girton community of today.
In February 1880, a group of dedicated former students founded the ‘Girton College Association of Certificated Students’. Immediately popular, the GCACS was the forerunner of the Roll, (Girton’s alumni association). Its first Secretary was Gertrude Jackson (1858–1920), later resident Junior Bursar at the College. The Association kept Girtonians in touch with each other, increased their role in College affairs, and raised money for key causes, such as Research Studentships and enlarged sports facilities. In time, this would include the swimming pool. Regular meetings were organised in London and at College, together with sports matches between current and former students. In 1898 the first printed membership list was produced, with a bright blue cover and gold lettering.
In 1885, Elizabeth Welsh (1843–1921) was appointed the sixth Mistress of the College, the first former student of Girton to hold the post. All the early Mistresses faced the daily challenge of sustaining the young College and its educational ideals. It was during Miss Welsh’s tenure that Girton faced the crushing defeat of the 1897 Cambridge vote on women’s degrees. But this did not diminish her reputation in the eyes of Girtonians, who remembered her as a kindly and hardworking adviser and the host of memorable parties. She helped to landscape the gardens, and reputedly wrote the best College songs.
Girton was created by the hard work and generosity of a campaigning group of women and men. Particularly important were Henry Tomkinson (1831–1906), and Henrietta, Lady Stanley of Alderley (1807–1895); in time both would be immortalised in the College coat of arms. Lady Stanley, a wealthy widow, was passionate in her support, and left her mark on key elements of the estate. Among her gifts, she funded the first College ‘chemical laboratory’ in 1877, and gave £1,000 towards the first Library, named after her in 1895. Here, students are at work in the Stanley Library. Henry Tomkinson was a wise and trusted friend to Emily Davies, Treasurer of the College from 1869 to 1875, and its loyal supporter until his death. A former Cambridge ‘Wrangler’ (a top student in mathematics) he brought financial acumen and many useful contacts to the cause.
From the College’s earliest days, sport was an important part of student life. At Benslow House, students took part in gymnastics, played ‘Fives’ in the gardens, and went swimming in a local pool. Gymnastics continued at Girton under a pioneering gymnastics teacher, Martina Bergman-Österberg (1849–1915). Sports clubs and teams quickly emerged, with lawn tennis an early favourite. Tennis was first played outside the Dining Hall and later in Emily Davies Court, as seen here. By 1900 there were Girton clubs for tennis, hockey, lacrosse, golf, racquets, bicycling and cricket, and the students eagerly awaited the opening of the new indoor swimming pool.
the number of students who attended the College between October 1869 and June 1900.
the number of students who entered the College for Women in October 1869. They were joined in that first term by the 41-year old daughter of the first Mistress, who had sat the entrance examination but did not prepare for any University exams while at the College.
the number of students in residence in October 1899: 41 first years; 38 second years, 31 third years, and two fourth years.
the number of students of this period born outside the UK and Ireland (8% of the total). They had been born in 18 countries.
the number of subjects in which Girton students passed at least one set of Tripos examinations in this period. The largest numbers passed in Classics (143), Mathematics (136), History (77), and Natural Sciences (64).
the number of ‘Advanced Students’ who were members of College in this period, (precursors of today’s Research and Graduate Students). They included the first two official Research Students, neither of whom lived in College. This number would grow if it included fourth year students who had already qualified for the Cambridge Bachelor of Arts, but returned to take an additional Tripos.
the number of the Resident ‘College Staff’ in October 1899: the Mistress, Junior Bursar, Librarian and five Resident Lecturers. Most had both educational and administrative duties. The number in October 1869 was one (the first Mistress, Mrs Charlotte Manning).
close to the maximum number of women on the resident domestic staff, October 1899 – including housekeeper, matron, cook and maids. This had grown from two in October 1869 – a cook and one ‘housemaid’. The number of men on the domestic staff increased from two in 1869 (a gardener and a ‘boy’), to at least nine: three daily ‘housemen’, a ‘houseboy’ and four men and one ‘boy’ employed in the garden.
the number of College swans – a pair given to Girton in 1885 by the Fellows of St John’s and Emmanuel Colleges, and named John and Emma.
In 2019 we are celebrating 150 years of Girton’s pioneering spirit and its ambitious plans for the future. An important aspect of this occasion is hearing from Girtonians about your story and experience; your route to Girton, your experiences while here, and the influence your time at College has had on you since leaving. Your recollections will add a richness and depth to the College’s records that is invaluable for telling the story of Girton. This project will recognise everyone’s unique life experiences, provide an opportunity for any Girtonian to have their voice heard, and provide a series of new insights and perspectives that will influence how Girton is remembered by future generations. Please scroll or click on the next story below.
I consider myself most fortunate to have attended Girton College and I have many happy memories. A special one was when, in the Queen's Coronation year, the Queen Salote of Tonga visited Girton and, as she arrived in the dining room for lunch, a number of us stood up and sang the Tongan National Anthem; I recollect her saying that it was the first time she had heard it sung outside Tonga.Sheila Lesley (1950)
Hearing the portress dictating a telegram of condolence to the Queen Mother on the death of the King. Listening to the Coronation service on the radio in my room. Supervisions with Miss Fairlie " what is the first thing any moderately intelligent person would notice in this poem, Miss Holloway??" long silence ...Early morning outings on the Cam. Cycling down to Mill Street in high heels, long coat, gown flapping. Serving in Hall (once a term) trying not to spill soup.Anne Oldroyd (Holloway, 1951)
Well I loved being at Cambridge and having my own room in Girton where I made lifelong friendships. This is how the said friendship began - in those days (1959) we dined every day in Hall and there were 1/3 bottles of milk to take away. Crossing the orchard to the Grange in October twilight with said new friend we saw domes of white ash over smouldering bonfires where trimmings from the orchard trees had burnt. Wordlessly we fetched saucepan etc from the kitchen and heated our after-dinner milky coffee on the glowing embers. The coffee was tepid and full of smuts but of such are enduring friendships made....Sally Guthrie (Weltman, 1959)
The whole experience was life changing. I suspect there have been very few students at Girton who came from a less privileged background then mine. When I told one of my fellow students in the early weeks that my father was a bricklayer and I lived in a council house her response was "oh, you wouldn't tell!!" I'm not sure what she expected, but I realised she meant it as a compliment and we're still friends 56 years later.Girtonian, 1960
As a fresher from Malta in 1964, I found rituals like having to wear my gown to hall and supervisions, amusing and enjoyable in their theatrical pointlessness. I remember climbing out of a ground-floor friend's window at about 11pm, screaming in excitement, the first time I saw it snow, since it doesn't snow at all in Malta. My friend and I were called up to our tutor's the day after - she wasn't amused, but let us off. Gowns were meant to be worn after dusk outside the college too, and I wish I'd had mine on to roll about in. I'd probably have been cold and soaked through even with it on, but this memory is still one of the happiest of my life. My best friends in Girton are still my best friends today, 52 years later. I also recall the day I received my M.A. degree, I'd forgotten to bring proper shoes for the ceremony, so Miss Duke lent me hers and watched from the balcony in my boots.Maria Grech Ganado (Gando, 1964)
I believe it may have come to be a cliché, but this is a true story, and memorable not only because it occurred in my first week at Girton in 1969. I was following another student along the corridor on the way to Hall one day, at a distance of about 3 metres. She was wearing denim trousers and her gown. The then Mistress, Professor Muriel Bradbrook, entered the corridor and proceeded to walk beside me. Observing the girl in front, she said "We're not so much blue stocking these days as blue jean."Lizzie Emery (Crick, 1969)
My most memorable experience was the Three Day Week when the electricity was on at different times of the day in town and in Girton and we planned our days from Girton to libraries and back so we might enjoy as much light and heat as possible. In the evenings we would congregate in rooms with gas fires to keep warm and talk and drink coffee by candlelight.Martha Wooldridge (1970)
I enjoyed rowing as captain of the college Boat Club. I arranged for 4 pre-owned oars to be painted in Girton colours for the May Bumps in 1975 and ordered rowing scarves, which were unavailable in College colours when I arrived at Girton, partly green and partly red. I have good memories of the late chaplain Colin Slee who ended up at Southwark Cathedral, coaching us on cold mornings. Another memory was my interview with Lady Jeffreys - she seemed so gracious, when as a terrified candidate for a place at Girton I turned up in the interview room. It was at my interview I met Ursula Martin - now Prof Ursula Martin, CBE - and we've remained friends.Angela Hey (1972)
Arriving at Girton felt like the first time that I belonged, that I had found my tribe. Even now, when I am lost or struggling to believe in myself, I remember that time in my life and it feels like the rock and foundation of my identity, and it helps me to remember what I can achieve.Clare Allen (Murray, 1989)
It has been an enlightening experience for me! Coming from a post communist country in transition (2001), it was a wonderful first touch of 'western life' and 'the best standard of education'! I cherish in my memory the time in Girton. Regardless of my immense worry due to the demands of the LLM, hospitality at Girton made my days beautiful. I have great memories in all the interactions with Girton College - from the Porters' Lodge (always helpful for everything I asked), to graduate studies coordinator office, great room and facilities at the graduate building, great meals at the graduate building. Thank you for the wonderful time!Luljeta Ikonomi (2001)
Memories, photographs and material which are collected for this project – such as the recollections featured above – will be held permanently in the College’s Archive and may be published on this page, on the College website or in other electronic or print formats, now or at a later date. Please, however, be thoughtful if revealing information about others that they may wish to keep private, especially around the topics of health, religion, family, sex, and politics.