In 1930 a new phase of expansion began in Girton – a signal of the College’s continuing confidence despite the University’s ongoing opposition to awarding degrees to women. Central to the project was a new and larger library, later named after its principal benefactor, Thomas McMorran (fl.1890s–1930s). This beautiful building, with its spectacular arched ceiling, continues to be the focal point of today’s library. The new College buildings also included New Wing, with additional accommodation for 27 students and four members of the resident staff, a soundproofed music room, and the Fellows’ Dining and Drawing Rooms. It is fitting that today Girton’s library – one of the largest and most comprehensive College libraries in the University – houses the Girton Archive and Special Collections. These include material on the history of the College, and on its engagement with wider campaigns for women’s education, the suffrage movement and feminism.
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In 1939, once again Girton prepared to operate under wartime conditions. Corridor windows were painted dark blue and blackout curtains were hung in student rooms. In time many Girtonians took a two-year degree under War Emergency Regulations, and a Red Cross detachment was formed in the College. Many students and Fellows postponed study and research to help the war effort, providing valuable work that spanned the civil service, military, medical and scientific appointments and counter-intelligence. For example, recent student and future Classics Fellow, Alison Duke (1915–2005), worked in Greece helping refugees, while Eva Hartree (1873–1947), a student in the 1890s and the first woman Mayor of Cambridge, helped support Jewish refugees in the city. One of the many bound by the Official Secrets Act, who rarely spoke of the war, was brilliant mathematician Mary Cartwright (1900-1998), Mistress of Girton from 1949 to 1968. Despite her important scientific contributions, above all to the effectiveness of radar, she modestly reported that her most useful war work had been packing parachutes for men sent into enemy territory.
On 21 October 1948 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the late Queen Mother (1900–2002), became the first woman to receive a degree from the University of Cambridge. The first students of Girton and Newnham graduated the following November. Both of these ceremonies were made possible through Cambridge University finally, and unanimously, voting to grant degrees to women on 6 December 1947. Although Girton’s foundation had helped to stimulate the national campaign for full equality of access to higher education, Cambridge was the last British University to grant them degrees. This important breakthrough is celebrated at the annual College Feast.
More reform lay ahead – for example it wasn’t until 1956 that women and men could take their examinations in the same room. In the meantime, Girton received a supplemental Royal Charter in 1954 which gave it the same form of government as the men’s Colleges. The next step would be progress towards other forms of widening participation at Cambridge.
The Girton community relies upon the hard work of its administrators. In the early decades these were a small number of the resident staff – women like Gertrude Jackson (1858–1920), resident Junior Bursar from 1891 to 1898, and Mary Clover (1876–1965), devoted College Secretary from 1903 to 1933. From 1927 to 1964, resident Fellow Kathleen Peace (1904–1974), dealt ‘with practically everything administrative’, including admissions paperwork, from the hub of the Girton ‘College Office’.
1950 saw a key moment in the emergence of the modern administrative structure, when Marjorie Docking (1926–2013), already secretary to Kathleen Peace, became secretary to the Mistress and was asked to establish and run the first ‘Tutorial Office’. In 1964, Marjorie Docking went on to establish the separate Girton Admissions Office, which she ran until her retirement in March 1986. From these origins, the modern Girton administration, with its dedicated staff members, grew. 2004 would witness the unification of the Tutorial and Admissions offices under the leadership of Angela Stratford, who is still in post.
Dorothy Wrinch (1894–1976) was a mathematician and pioneering theoretical biologist. Her work included proposing the first-ever model for protein structure – the cyclol hypothesis – in 1936. The model proved controversial and was ultimately shown to be incorrect, but her methodology was pioneering and influential. Dorothy’s ground-breaking work and subsequent collaborations laid the foundations for discovering important clues to the drivers of protein folding – a question that remains at the forefront of biological research today.
Dorothy Wrinch entered Girton in 1913 on a scholarship to read Mathematics, where she excelled academically, achieving the status of a Wrangler. In 1920 she was elected Girton’s first Yarrow Research Fellow. She became the first woman in Cambridge to teach Mathematics to men and, in 1929, was the first woman to receive an Oxford Doctorate of Science (DSc). A friend of Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), she was a formidable philosopher of science, as well as a contributor to the work of Harold Jeffreys (1891–1989) on scientific inference. Most of all, though, she made a difference to scientific understanding of life itself, and to present-day research in molecular biology.
During the Second World War more than a dozen Girtonians worked at Bletchley Park, the top-secret British code-breaking establishment. Some paused their degrees to join the war-effort, others were recruited as graduates. The Official Secrets Act silenced Bletchley memories for many years, but in later life Girtonians would recall their work and lives in the Bletchley huts. Some were machine operators, setting and re-setting keys on replica German ‘enigma’ machines; others listened to enemy radio broadcasts, tapping out jumbles of words and starting the deciphering; others focussed on decoding and analysis. Discussing work outside your hut was forbidden. Some recalled periods of boredom, others fascinating work spliced by fear that a small error could risk lives. A canteen meal – subject to rationing – was eaten on a rota governed by coloured tickets and billets, sometimes in neighbouring villages, were visited only to sleep – hard to get used to in daylight. Clothes might be washed before work, and left to dry on office radiators, and there were even on-base hairdressers and baths to maximise efficiency.
Many consider Joan Robinson (1903-1983) to be the most important woman in the history of economic thought, and certainly unlucky not to have been the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize (in Economic Sciences). Although she is often remembered as the originator of the theory of imperfect competition, she quickly rejected this work and immersed herself in the Keynesian ‘revolution’ of the 1930s, becoming one of its central figures. Her book, The Accumulation of Capital (1956), triggered one of the most acrimonious debates in the history of the discipline.
A controversial figure, she secured a number of public accolades, including appointment as the first economist on the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1948. A student at Girton from 1922 to 1925, and a Lecturer in the University from 1937, Joan Robinson was appointed a University Professor, and an Honorary Fellow of Girton, in 1965. Her name lives on in College through the Joan Robinson Economics Society and the Joan Robinson Research Fellowship in Heterodox Economics.
Everyone has heard of the TV series Doctor Who. However, it is doubtful whether more than a handful of viewers watching more than 800 episodes over 36 seasons could name the person who mixed its pioneering electronic soundtrack. That person was Delia Derbyshire (1937–2001) who came to Girton in 1956 where she studied Mathematics and then Music (both medieval and modern). Shortly after graduating she joined the BBC and in 1962 was, at her own request, assigned to the Radiophonic Workshop. There, after her 1963 success with Doctor Who, she spent 11 years creating original soundtracks for almost 200 radio and television programmes. She is one of the earliest and most influential electronic sound synthesists, with a prodigious output that has shaped the industry. Recently, her work has experienced something of a renaissance, and in 2017 she was awarded a posthumous honorary doctorate from Coventry University in her home town.
The death in 1932 of Sir Alfred Yarrow (1842–1932) closed one of the most critical philanthropic chapters in the history of the College.
In 1914 this wealthy engineer and shipbuilder gave Girton £12,000 which, together with other benefactions, cleared the College’s debts and allowed the creation of the ‘Endowment Fund’ – a further step on the long road to financial sustainability. In recognition of his generosity, Girton created the Yarrow Fellowship.
In 1919, spurred on in part by his experiences in the war, Alfred Yarrow made a further large donation of £10,000 to be used over the coming 20 years to support research in Mathematics and the Physical and Natural Sciences. This generous gift enabled the College to establish the Yarrow Scientific Research Fellowships, held between 1920 and 1940 by 11 talented women. Amongst these were Frances Hamer (1894–1980), a chemist and pioneer of colour photography, parasitologist Ann Bishop (1899–1990) who was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1959, and Marthe Vogt (1903–1994) pharmacologist and neurochemist who became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1952.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, with its accompanying hardship and unemployment, avid political discussions took place in Girton and across Cambridge. In College, a student committee chose the newspapers available in the Reading Room. By the end of the decade several new subscriptions appeared, including the Manchester Guardian, the Scotsman, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Worker, joining traditional subscriptions such as The Times, the Nation and Punch. Political discussion also occurred in the long-standing College Debating Society and in political societies of various hues. The Girton Socialist Society welcomed regular visiting Lecturers, including an economic advisor to the Russian Co-operative Movement who delivered a lantern-slide talk on Russia, and a representative of the Railway Clerks’ Association who spoke on ‘the Railway Situation’. Helen Cam (1885–1968) talked on ‘Why I am a Socialist’. It was, however, compassion as well as politics that inspired the student members of that society to provide food and drink at Girton Corner for unemployed marchers making their way towards London in 1934.
Girton is distinctive for its warm welcome and ingrained ethic of care. In this spirit, during the Second World War, the College welcomed groups of new residents who were either escaping danger or working for the war effort. In 1939–1940, Girton gave a new home to 56 women students and two staff evacuated from Queen Mary College in London until they found more spacious accommodation in Cambridge. Many Girtonians shared rooms to make space for the visitors and, in 2006, some Queen Mary evacuees came back to Girton for a reunion.
In 1939 the Girton College Refugee Fund was established, which would help three Czech and German student refugees to attend College. It also supported the war-time residence of Dr Elsbeth Jaffé (1889–1971), a scholar from Germany. The Grange, a house in the College grounds, was occupied by the army during some of these years, and from 1943 Girton also provided a home for a small number of women of the Voluntary Aid Detachment [VADs].
Dramatic performances of all kinds, from charades and sketches to plays and ‘musical interludes’, have always been an important part of Girton life. The 1950s witnessed some innovations within this tradition. The 1953 Staff Party was entertained by the pantomime Dick Whittington, written and produced by members of the College, with its charming heroine, Girtonella. Early English operas, staged under the guidance of Girton’s Director of Studies in Music from 1948 to 1968, Jill Vlasto (1916–1968), delighted audiences. Continuing innovative work begun in the 1940s, there were productions of Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1950) and Landi’s Il Sant’ Alessio (1952). Another highpoint was the 1953 performance by the College English Club of Mrs Inchbald’s Lover’s Vows, loosely adapted from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: ‘The greatest applause of the evening was for Miss Bradbrook’s (1909–1993) entry, as Lady Bertram come to see the play’. Miss Bradbrook had insisted on making her own dress, and the audience wished that ‘more dons would appear on the stage with feathers in their hair’.
As the Girton community prepared for war, the gardens were once again turned over to growing vegetables and keeping pigs. The College worked hard to become self-sufficient in vegetables. Crops included onions, carrots, lettuce, cauliflower, celery and tomatoes. Although mushroom production proved difficult, there was a surplus of other produce which was canned or sold. Students recalled the production of vast numbers of potatoes (over 19 tons in 1941–1942) that seemed to move rapidly from turf to plate.
Residents handed in their ration books which the College used to provide the regulated amounts of food stuffs such as sugar, butter and jam. Butter, meat and milk were in short supply, and students were given NAMCO, a cocoa substitute, to make their evening drink. Across College, domestic and garden staff numbers became very depleted. Remaining male gardeners were often absent with the Home Guard. By 1941 students had to clean their own rooms and were asked to volunteer in the kitchens and gardens or join fire-watching rotas.
Girton has always been richly served by the commitment of its Fellows. This period in particular saw the appointment of a number of women who supported and inspired students over many decades. These included eminent Shakespearean scholar Muriel Bradbrook (1909–1993), for over 60 years from 1932, successively a Research Fellow, Lecturer, Fellow, Mistress and Life Fellow of the College. French scholar Alison Fairlie (1917–1993) joined Girton as a Lecturer in 1944 and was subsequently Fellow, Director of Studies, and Life Fellow until her death – a total of 49 years. Another distinctive career was that of classicist Alison Duke (1915–2005), Girton’s first Senior Tutor. Appointed Acting Assistant Tutor in 1946, she too was a remarkably long-serving Girton Fellow. For close to six decades, she held the posts of Tutor, Fellow, Lecturer, Director of Studies, and Life Fellow as well as officially becoming the first Senior Tutor in 1968. She was one of the architects of the modern tutorial system in the College.
One of the most important offices in any College is that of Bursar. In 1946, Girton appointed a new Bursar who was University Lecturer and Girton Director of Studies in Economics, Marjorie Tappan Hollond (1895–1977). Born and educated in the USA, she was first appointed Girton Director of Studies and Lecturer in Economics in 1923. Bursar until 1963, she steered College finances in a period of great significance, following the 1948 admission of women to the University. She oversaw the adjustment of College accounting procedures to harmonise with university practice, and took a key role in drafting the revised College Statutes of 1954. The University also recognised her financial talents – she was a member of the Financial Board from 1951 to 1962. Marjorie Tappan Hollond was a colourful character, remembered for her wit, elegance, and striking appearance. She had a passion for Bentley cars, travel and the art and culture of Russia and China. Married in 1929 to a Fellow of Trinity, she remained resident in College until retirement.
the number of students who came to Girton between October 1930 and June 1960. Of these, 2,606 arrived to begin undergraduate study, and 169 joined as Research and Graduate Students.
the number of Girton students in October 1959: 94 first years; 108 second years, 98 third years, and 32 fourth years Graduate and Research Students combined. Not all the last group were resident in College.
the number of students beginning undergraduate courses in this period born outside the UK and Ireland (13% of the total).
the number of subjects in which Girton students passed at least one set of Tripos examinations in this period. Students also sat University exams in Agriculture, Architecture and Estate Management. Among the 94 new first years in October 1959, the largest subject group were those studying Natural Sciences (23, including six medical students). Next came the 14 in Modern Languages, and ten each in Classics, History and Geography.
the number of Research and Graduate Students at Girton in 1959–60. Not all of them lived in College.
the number of Girton Fellows in 1959–60. These included 17 Official Fellows, seven Research Fellows and one Professorial Fellow.
the minimum number of resident women domestic staff in Girton in October 1939 – this was the largest number ever in the history of the College. That year, up to 18 women came in to work on a daily basis, and 13 men and one ‘boy’ were employed – five to work in the College and the remaining eight plus the ‘boy’ to work in the gardens. After 1939 the resident domestic staff was considerably smaller.
large logs of firewood provided from the College gardens in 1936–37.
acres in the Girton Estate (gardens and grounds) circa 1940. They included a sewage farm, pig farm, stables, 14 acres of fruit and vegetable production, greenhouses, games fields and courts, ‘pleasure grounds' and cut flower nurseries.
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)
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.