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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the number of students who attended the College between October 1900 and June 1930. 1,625 arrived to study at undergraduate level and 12 to begin ‘graduate’ study.
the number of students in residence in October 1939: 53 first years; 62 second years, 65 third years, and three fourth years, and two Research Students. Another six students lived outside College: two fourth years and four Research Students.
the number of first years beginning Bachelor of Arts studies across this period who had parental addresses outside UK and Ireland (almost 5% of the total) – including 25 in India, four in South Africa and three in the USA.
the number of subjects in which Girton students passed at least one set of Tripos examinations in this period. The largest numbers passed in Modern and Medieval Languages (346), History (282), and Natural Sciences (272).
number of Egyptian Mummies in College.
the size of the Girton Fellowship in October 1929 – the Mistress, 13 ‘Staff Fellows’ and seven ‘Research Fellows’.
the minimum number of resident women Domestic Staff in October 1929. They ranged from the Head Housekeeper, Matron and Portress, to the pantry and scullery maids. Their wages varied from £18 to £140 a year. In addition, up to 18 women came into work on a daily basis, and 12 men and one ‘boy’ were employed – four to work in the College, eight and a ‘boy’ to work in the gardens.
the number of Research and Graduate Students who were members of the College in 1939–40. The largest cohort in this period were the ten Research and Graduate students of 1927–28, two of whom lived outside College.
the number of eggs produced by Girton hens in 1922–23.
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.