Where inspiration thrives

‘Great teachers are the hallmark of a Cambridge degree, and Girton has always prided itself on offering a bespoke education in almost every University subject. As the subject range expanded, generous benefactions allowed more Fellowships to be established. As a result Girton became, and will always remain, a place where inspiration thrives across the board – in Science, Medicine and Engineering, Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts.’

Professor Susan J. Smith, Mistress

  • 1914

    A College at war

    1914

    A College at war

    Letter from the Mistress concerning the sighting of a zeppelin, 26 September 1915 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/21)

    Letter from the Mistress concerning the sighting of a zeppelin, 26 September 1915 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/21)

    Girton has never been cut off from society. The First World War had a major impact on life at Girton just as it did across the country. The whole College lived with the constant fear of a telegram reporting a lost father or brother. Food and coal were rationed; several members of the academic staff were absent undertaking war work; vegetables and pigs were raised in the gardens. Girton students and alumnae contributed to the war effort in many ways. In particular, former and current students raised money to support the Newnham and Girton Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, which cared for wounded soldiers close to the front. Many Girtonians undertook war work, including serving as doctors and nurses in Europe. The war also came close to home. In September 1915, a German zeppelin was seen over Girton, as reported in this letter from the Mistress to the College Council.

  • 1918

    Votes for women

    1918

    Votes for women

    Banner, made by students of Girton and Newnham Colleges, and carried at a women’s suffrage demonstration on 13 June 1908 (reproduced courtesy of Newnham College)

    Banner, made by students of Girton and Newnham Colleges, and carried at a women’s suffrage demonstration on 13 June 1908 (reproduced courtesy of Newnham College)

    Girton has always been at the forefront of political and social movements designed to improve the position of women in society. Barbara Bodichon (1827–1891) and Emily Davies (1830–1921), leading founders of the College, were key figures in the mid-19th century campaign for women’s suffrage before stepping aside to concentrate on Girton. After 1900 the British suffrage campaign gained new momentum. Large suffrage societies, both constitutionalist and more militant, made suffragism a genuine mass movement. Suffrage societies were founded in Girton and Newnham, and together students from both Colleges designed and worked on the Cambridge Alumnae Banner, carried in a 1908 suffrage demonstration. In 1918 women over 30 gained the national vote (provided that they were on the local government electoral register or married to men who were). Aged 88, Emily Davies was one of those able to vote for the first time. In 1928 women finally won the vote on the same basis as men, but they were still not allowed to receive their degrees from the University of Cambridge.

  • 1919

    Silver Jubilee

    1919

    Silver Jubilee

    Herbert Fisher, addressing the Silver Jubilee Garden Party, taken by Sport & General Press Agency Ltd, 1919 (archive reference: GCPH 12/3/1/7)

    Herbert Fisher, addressing the Silver Jubilee Garden Party, taken by Sport & General Press Agency Ltd, 1919 (archive reference: GCPH 12/3/1/7)

    On the weekend of July 26 and 27 1919, Girton celebrated its Silver Jubilee. In the 50 years since its foundation the number of students in residence had grown from five to 166. Celebrations began with a garden party attended by around 900 people, including 326 former students. The guests were entertained by music from a band of the Grenadier Guards and heard speeches from the Mistress, Katharine Jex-Blake (1860–1951), the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, the Chairman of Girton’s Council and the eminent historian, Member of Parliament, and President of the Board of Education, Herbert Fisher (1865–1940), who planted a tree to commemorate the 50-year milestone. That evening, a celebratory dinner in Hall was accompanied by further speeches. Perhaps the most memorable words of the night were spoken by 78-year old Hitchin pioneer and suffragist, Louisa Lumsden (1840–1935). On Sunday, more than 200 friends and former students spent a further day in the College, many attending a special service in Girton Chapel.

  • 1924

    Royal Charter

    1924

    Royal Charter

    The Girton key shields painted by Rev E E Dorling as used in the coat of arms designed by him, 1927 (archive reference: GCRF 6/1/26)

    The Girton key shields painted by Rev E E Dorling as used in the coat of arms designed by him, 1927 (archive reference: GCRF 6/1/26)

    On 21 August 1924 Girton was granted a Royal Charter. To reflect its new governing structure, the College applied for a coat of arms, which was granted in 1928. The design was chosen to represent the family coats of arms of the key founders and benefactors of the College. Because Emily Davies’ family had no coat of arms, the green and white colours of the Girton design were chosen to reflect her Welsh ancestry.  Barbara Bodichon is represented by the ermine roundels taken from her father’s family coat of arms (Smith). The cross dividing the shield into four is from the arms of Henry Tomkinson, while the red crescents are from the family arms of Henrietta, Lady Stanley of Alderley (Dillon).

  • 1913

    Eileen Power

    1913

    Eileen Power

    Eileen Power teaching in a classroom at Girton College taken by Bassano Ltd, 1919 (archive reference: GCPH 7/1/7)

    Eileen Power teaching in a classroom at Girton College taken by Bassano Ltd, 1919 (archive reference: GCPH 7/1/7)

    The medieval historian Eileen Power (1889–1940) was one of a series of remarkable historians who spent all or part of their careers at College in this period. Her predecessor and mentor, Ellen McArthur (1862–1927), was one of the first women to give Cambridge lectures in History attended by both men and women. One of Eileen Power’s successors as Girton Director of Studies was Helen Cam (1885–1968), who became the first woman full Professor at Harvard University when she took up the Zemurray Radcliffe Chair in 1948.

    A student and Research Student at the College, Eileen Power was appointed Director of Studies at Girton in 1913. She had a stellar academic career, including appointment as a Professor at the London School of Economics, where she helped to reshape the economic history courses. Her many highly acclaimed publications included influential works on women’s history. She also gave memorable BBC Schools Radio broadcasts and wrote a series of history books for children, spreading ideas of internationalism. In 1938–1939 Eileen Power delivered the prestigious Ford Lectures in English History at Oxford University.

  • 1914

    Medicine during the First World War

    1914

    Medicine during the First World War

    Girton and Newnham Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals about to embark on board ship at Liverpool, October 1915 (reproduced courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow [https://heritage.rcpsg.ac.uk/items/show/408] CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/])

    Girton and Newnham Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals about to embark on board ship at Liverpool, October 1915 (reproduced courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow [https://heritage.rcpsg.ac.uk/items/show/408] CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/])

    During the First World War, Girtonians made many significant contributions to the war effort, including caring for wounded soldiers in Britain and at the Front. One Girtonian war doctor was Mabel Hardie (1866–1916). Having studied Natural Sciences at Girton from 1887 to 1890, she trained as a doctor at Glasgow University, joined the suffrage movement and was jailed for taking part in its demonstrations. On the outbreak of war, Mabel Hardie joined the Girton and Newnham Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH), serving near Troyes, in northern France. The Unit moved to Salonica in Serbia, where it faced an outbreak of malaria. Around this time, however, illness forced Mabel to return to London where she died of breast cancer. Many hundreds of lives were saved by the courageous and talented women of the SWH. On 15 November 2014, as part of a national commemoration, the Last Post was played in Girton’s Stanley Library for Mabel Hardie as a representative of the fallen of World War One.

  • 1920

    Barbara Wootton

    1920

    Barbara Wootton

    Studio portrait of Barbara Wootton, taken by Elliott & Fry Ltd, circa 1924 (archive reference: GCPP Wootton 1/4/1 pt)

    Studio portrait of Barbara Wootton, taken by Elliott & Fry Ltd, circa 1924 (archive reference: GCPP Wootton 1/4/1 pt)

    Barbara Wootton (1897–1988) was one of the most extraordinary public intellectuals of the twentieth century and made major contributions to British political life. A student of Classics then Economics at Girton from 1915 to 1919, in her final year Barbara Wootton obtained the highest marks awarded thus far in Part II of the Economics Tripos. In 1920, while Director of Studies at Girton, she became the first woman to deliver Cambridge University lectures in Economics. Following her move into public life, key achievements of her later career include membership of four Royal Commissions, establishment of the successful campaign to rescue the recommendations of the 1942 Beveridge Report, helping to create the British welfare state and a period as a Governor of the BBC. In recognition of her public service, in 1958 Barbara Wootton was among the first cohort of ten men and four women given a life peerage, and in 1967 she became the first woman Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords.

  • 1926

    Kathleen Raine

    1926

    Kathleen Raine

    Detail of photograph, showing Kathleen Raine on Gwithian beach, Cornwall, 1924 (reproduced courtesy of Judith Rodden – archive reference: GCPP Raine 2)

    Detail of photograph, showing Kathleen Raine on Gwithian beach, Cornwall, 1924 (reproduced courtesy of Judith Rodden – archive reference: GCPP Raine 2)

    Kathleen Raine (1908–2003) celebrated for her meditative, lyrical writing, received the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry in 1992. She studied Natural Sciences at Girton from 1926 to 1929 (specialising in Psychology in her final year), and returned as a Research Fellow in 1955. As an undergraduate, Kathleen Raine had a major role in establishing an enduring tradition of poetry at Girton, and was one of two women student poets published in the new Cambridge magazine, Experiment. This was the prelude to a remarkable literary and poetic career, during which she published 17 collections of poems, and many works of prose. In later life she co-founded the journal Temenos and established the Temenos Academy. A sculpture of Kathleen Raine, originally designed for HRH Prince of Wales’ sculpture collection at Highgrove House, stands in the Fellows’ Drawing Room today, overseeing regular meetings of the thriving poetry society.

  • 1902

    The College Chapel

    1902

    The College Chapel

    Chapel with Chapel Wing to the right, before the Hyphen and the McMorran Library were built, taken by the Central Press, 1930 (archive reference: GCPH 3/9/3)

    Chapel with Chapel Wing to the right, before the Hyphen and the McMorran Library were built, taken by the Central Press, 1930 (archive reference: GCPH 3/9/3)

    Girton Chapel was opened and held its first service in 1902, led by Anglican clergymen, including John Llewelyn Davies (1826–1916), brother of Emily Davies (1830–1921). The decision to build a chapel was controversial. Construction only went ahead after the death of Henrietta, Lady Stanley of Alderley (1807–1895). Religious worship in Girton was not new, however. From its earliest days, although attendance was not compulsory for students or staff, daily prayers were led by the Mistress, and visiting preachers were welcomed for Sunday services. From the 1870s onwards, a rich tradition of student prayer groups and religious volunteering also developed, gathering significant numbers of students. Today the Chapel continues the tradition of visiting preachers but is open to those of all faiths and none. Its services are enriched by the voices of Girton’s first-rate choir.

  • 1911

    Hermione

    1911

    Hermione

    Hermione Grammatike, taken circa 1997 (archive reference: GCPH 11/26/2/6)

    Hermione Grammatike, taken circa 1997 (archive reference: GCPH 11/26/2/6)

    Over the years, Girton has assembled a collection of fascinating historical objects to enrich College life. Some of these are now housed in the Lawrence Room, the College museum. In 1911, Girton welcomed its most extraordinary resident – Hermione, a first-century AD Roman portrait mummy. Bearing the inscription ‘Hermione Grammatike’ (‘Hermione, teacher’ or ‘literary lady’) the mummy was acquired through subscriptions and fundraising among students, staff and College friends. Now kept in environmentally appropriate conditions, Hermione is one of the few female Egyptian mummies who has a name and the only one with a known profession.  She is an important part of the College community, reminding us that for millennia women have played an important role as teachers and helped to create the world we know today.

  • 1928

    The first Founders’ Memorial Lecture

    1928

    The first Founders’ Memorial Lecture

    Sir Joseph John Thomson, by Bassano Ltd 1936 ©National Portrait Gallery, London [https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw69468/Sir-Joseph-John-Thomson?LinkID=mp04489&search=sas&sText=Joseph+John+Thomson&role=sit&rNo=5]. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/legalcode]

    Sir Joseph John Thomson, by Bassano Ltd 1936 ©National Portrait Gallery, London [https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw69468/Sir-Joseph-John-Thomson?LinkID=mp04489&search=sas&sText=Joseph+John+Thomson&role=sit&rNo=5]. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/legalcode]

    At 5pm on Saturday 3 March 1928, Sir J J Thomson (1856–1940), Nobel Prize-winner in Physics, and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, delivered the first Girton Founders’ Memorial Lecture, ‘Beyond the Electron’, to an audience of 400 in the Dining Hall. The event was reported in the Telegraph national newspaper. It was the first in what has become Girton’s major and ongoing public lecture series, and was made possible by an endowment gift of £500. Despite her initial wish for anonymity, several Girtonians knew the donor was former student Amy Lawrence (1872-1934).  ‘Ever since (I heard) … the thrilling news I have been inwardly purring’, one wrote to Amy: ‘There is nothing, I believe, which could have been better for the College at this juncture, and the gift is simply delightful.’

  • 1928

    Virginia Woolf visits Girton and Newham

    1928

    Virginia Woolf visits Girton and Newham

    Virginia Woolf, by George Charles Beresford, 1902 ©National Portrait Gallery, London [https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw08081/Virginia-Woolf?LinkID=mp04923&search=sas&sText=Virginia+Woolf&OConly=true&wPage=0&role=sit&rNo=1]. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/legalcode]

    Virginia Woolf, by George Charles Beresford, 1902 ©National Portrait Gallery, London [https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw08081/Virginia-Woolf?LinkID=mp04923&search=sas&sText=Virginia+Woolf&OConly=true&wPage=0&role=sit&rNo=1]. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/legalcode]

    Since its inception Girton has often hosted important women writers and cultural figures. In  October 1928, Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) was invited by the students of Newnham and Girton to visit and give talks at each College. At Girton, accompanied by Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962), she was the guest of a student Society, ODTAA (One Damn Thing After Another) and spoke to a group of its members in the Reception Room. Some remembered Virginia as goddess-like, others recalled her sensitive hands and untidy grey bob. The redrafted paper she read at the Colleges was subsequently published as A Room of One’s Own, one of the 20th Century’s most influential reflections on gender politics.

  • 1904

    Steamboat Ladies

    1904

    Steamboat Ladies

    Former students of Girton and Newnham collecting degrees at Trinity College Dublin, taken by Lafayette, Dublin, circa 1904-1906 (archive reference: GCPH 13/52)

    Former students of Girton and Newnham collecting degrees at Trinity College Dublin, taken by Lafayette, Dublin, circa 1904-1906 (archive reference: GCPH 13/52)

    From 1904 to 1907, 315 Girtonians received degrees, but not from Cambridge University. In those years, Trinity College Dublin granted women who had met the requirements for degrees from Oxford and Cambridge the right to receive Dublin degrees. Those who took up this offer paid £10.3s for the privilege plus the cost of hiring academic dress. Dublin put this money towards building a Hall of Residence for its own women students. The Oxford and Cambridge women were known as ‘the Steamboat Ladies’ because most travelled to Ireland by the Holyhead ferry. Pictured here is a group of Cambridge women on the steps of the Trinity College Dining Hall. It includes: Eleanor Allen (1867–1929), at this time Bursar of Girton; Mary Clover (1876–1965), College Secretary; Margaret Meyer (1862–1924), Resident Lecturer in Mathematics; and Katharine Jex-Blake (1860–1951), a future Mistress of Girton.

  • 1908

    Resident domestic staff

    1908

    Resident domestic staff

    The domestic staff taken by Starr & Rignall, circa 1907-1908 (archive reference: GCPH 8/1/7)

    The domestic staff taken by Starr & Rignall, circa 1907-1908 (archive reference: GCPH 8/1/7)

    The daily life of a College like Girton is powerfully shaped and supported by the work of its domestic staff. In its early decades the College employed an expanding number of resident women to carry out many domestic tasks. Pictured here are some of the domestic staff of 1908, together with one of the young boys employed to run errands and clean the College laboratory. Most of these women lived in shared rooms above the scullery (now the College Kitchens) and in ‘Top Boots’. They included a housekeeper and her assistant, a portress, three cooks, a linen maid, and groups of kitchen, pantry, parlour and house maids. Men were employed as garden and maintenance staff, but none of these lived in the main College buildings.

  • 1910

    The first Fellow

    1910

    The first Fellow

     Portrait of Eugenie Strong by Constance Phillott, 1890 (archive reference: GCPH 11/33/33)

    Portrait of Eugenie Strong by Constance Phillott, 1890 (archive reference: GCPH 11/33/33)

    By 1910, original academic research had grown in importance across the University. In that year, Girton appointed its first Fellow – Eugénie Strong (1860–1943), who would today be called a Senior Research Fellow. The underlying goal was to develop Girton’s identity as an institution supporting research, both for its own sake and to enhance the learning environment. Eugénie Strong was a renowned archaeologist and art historian. She had read for the Classical Tripos at Girton from 1879 to 1882, and in 1909 had been appointed Assistant Director of the British School at Rome, where she welcomed and corresponded with scholars from around the world. In the course of her career, Eugénie received many honours. She was appointed a Commander of the British Empire in 1927 and in 1938 she was awarded the Serena medal for Italian studies by the British Academy. She received honorary degrees from the universities of St Andrews and Manchester.

  • 1920

    Another defeat

    1920

    Another defeat

    Portrait of Katharine Jex-Blake by Herman G Herkomer, not dated (archive reference: GCPH 11/33/63)

    Portrait of Katharine Jex-Blake by Herman G Herkomer, not dated (archive reference: GCPH 11/33/63)

    Katharine Jex-Blake (1860–1951) was the eighth Mistress of Girton, and a celebrated classicist long remembered as a fierce but inspiring teacher. Mistress from 1916 to 1922, she presided over Girton’s Silver Jubilee and was an able, financially astute administrator. She was also remembered for her sense of humour and her ‘uncanny knowledge of things she could not possibly know’ about the students. After steering College through the final throes of the First World War, she had to endure the disappointment of 1920 when the University voted once again to deny women membership. Although titular degrees were granted in 1921, these came without the associated privileges, such as participation in University government. Adding insult to injury, the combined number of undergraduates at the two women’s colleges, Girton and Newnham, was capped at 500 (under 10% of the Cambridge total). Nevertheless, Katharine Jex-Blake is remembered as a strong Mistress who pointed the College firmly towards a new phase of institutional development.

Your story, Girton’s story

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.