Tuesday, 9 August 2011


Oxford can be a strange place. The University is, without a doubt, famous and draws many people to visit it's streets each year,* but it's identity is very much in the hands of the person describing it. Is it town or gown? Is it a place of great learning, or an old market town that has grown with the years? It is many things to many people.
I have always been conscious of the University part of the town, although until I went away to University, the colleges always seemed to be separate from me. I never went in them - indeed I hardly ever wanted to. They were just courtyards with briefly glimpsed gardens and I was quite content with that. I gradually started to move inside the warm stone of the outer walls: A series of concerts at The Queen's College, the literary festival at Christ Church, showing visitors Merton, but it wasn't until 2009 that the two sides of Oxford finally merged into each other. In 2009, I went to work for Somerville College.

The history of Oxford colleges is long and complicated. Balliol, Merton and University College were the first founded (and dispute amongst themselves over which came first) and thus a long tradition was established, finishing with Kellogg in 1990 (although Green and Templeton merged in 2008). Quite a few colleges have rivalries - I was told during my induction that the rivalry between Balliol and Trinity (who stand back to back) is particularly intense, and there are frequent proofs of this in the university papers and other little battles (apparently Balliol's tortoise, who was born the year Queen Victoria died, was stolen by Trinity at one point ....)

So, leaving these fascinating rivalries to one side, I shall take you back to a time when Oxford as a place of education was the haunt only of men. It wasn't that long ago, either. In the early 1870s, the wives of the dons** (and their daughters, and indeed women's suffrage campaigners as a whole) were getting restless. They wanted the chance to study the things their husbands taught, and believed themselves perfectly capable of study (contrary to popular opinion at the time). Things came to a head, after almost a decade of classes and public lectures, in 1878 when the proposal to form a permanent hall of study for women was agreed and Lady Margaret Hall (LMH) came into existence.

Yes, I know, this doesn't seem to have anything to do with the college I intended talking about, but believe me, the reference to LMH is entirely relevant to the way in which Somerville came to exist, because out of LMH's restrictions, we were born. LMH (named after Lady Margaret Beaufort (Henry VII's mother)) was opened to the daughters of Protestant families only. A group of men and women (including T.H. Green and Mary Ward (Thomas Arnold's daughter)), who had long since campaigned for women to be allowed to study at Oxford, were opposed to this restriction, believing that if education was to be offered to women in the first place, there ought to be no restrictions placed on eligibility. To this end, in 1879, with the spirit of non-denominationalism and openness being the driving force behind its inception, Somerville was founded and moved into a property on the Woodstock Road.

The name of the college is an interesting choice, as rather than choosing a religious link (Trinity, St John's, Jesus) or powerful benefactor (Balliol, Wadham, Merton), the college was named after a renowned female scientist, who had died in 1872, Mary Somerville. An ideal role model for the higher education of women, Mary had taught herself science from her brother's textbooks, her father believing that the female frame was not robust enough to cope with the demands of learning. She proved him wrong, without a doubt, and was so well respected that her book 'The Mechanics of the Heavens' was used as a textbook in Cambridge 50 years before the college was even thought of.

The life of of an Oxford female undergraduate was not without its trials. Although officially allowed to attend the University, they were only permitted to attend lectures when accompanied by a another female student or chaperone. It was not until 1920 that women were permitted to actually take the degree for which they had studied so hard. Another restriction has actually served Somerville quite well: for when women were first admitted to the University, they were not permitted to use the facility of the Bodleian at all (whether they had chaperones or not). This meant that the college was required to make its own arrangements and the library is now the second largest, with over 120,000 titles. It's also stunningly beautiful, which helps!

When one thinks of Oxford colleges, the immediate images that come to mind involve cloisters, students in black gowns, Morse and Harry Potter. If you were to stop the average person on the street, they might term the place 'stuffy'. This is an image that Somerville works hard to refute. Openness is one of the predominant characteristics of the College - not for us the secret cloisters known only to the special few, or the grass so revered it is not to be stepped on. Somerville's lawns once played host to tennis games and a donkey, and are now the ideal place in Summer for tutorials. Like many colleges, the site was requisitioned during both wars, and soldiers (including Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves) recuperated beneath the shady trees on the main quad. Our location has been considered awkward (although not being bang in the centre has its positives, being therefore less on the tourist trail) but it complements our ethos, as whilst we are rich in history, we also rub shoulders with the vibrant communities of Jericho and Little Clarendon Street. Cardinal Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins preached on our doorstep (we are, ironically for our non-denominational standpoint, next door to the Catholic church) whilst our back gate leads directly to the bohemian bookshops and cinema that help keep a studious soul fresh and lively.

Somerville has always been a welcoming place, and in 1994 it finally opened its doors to men. Admittedly rather late in this aspect of Oxford history (the first women were admitted to previously all male colleges in 1974, and LMH celebrated its centenary by going co-educational), we made up for it by admitting pretty much equal numbers of men and women from the beginning. Being told on the potential pitfalls men could bring, the college was advised that men would eat more food and break more furniture. Perhaps that's why the bike shed was turned into a gym!

Like any other college, we are proud of our students and alumni, always wanting to know where they are, and what they've done. Ever since the college's inception it has produced ground breaking and pioneering women who have helped prepare the way for their successors. Cornelia Sorabji was not only the first female barrister in India, but she was also the first woman to read Law at Oxford (although admitted to read English, she impressed the dons and managed to persuade them to let her change her course); Dorothy Hodgkin (student and later tutor) became the first British woman to win the Nobel prize for science; Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher became the first female prime ministers of their respective countries; Philippa Foot (Philosophy Fellow) was instrumental in setting up Oxfam; Shirley Williams followed in her mother's footsteps and honed her keen intellect within our walls.

Our artistic talent is prestigious too, for we can boast of many fine writers, including Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Forster, Dorothy L. Sayers, Penelope Fitzgerald, Matthew Skelton and Kate Williams. Our male alumni are beginning to make a name for themselves, and already we can talk of an MP in Surrey East, an HR manager of Innocent Drinks, a playwright and a past winner of University challenge (who is also the first male student to have become a Somerville Fellow).

Much of my information comes from a book written by our former librarian (and Somervillian) Pauline Adams, 'Somerville for Women'. It's a truly rich source, and coupled with her trademark wit, makes for lively and interesting reading. On the rare occasions when the office is quiet enough for me to dip in to it, I have found some great pieces of information, which occasionally get dropped into the tours I do. For instance, it took four years for the chapel to be agreed upon and built, because the alumna who gave the money wanted it to be called Christ's House, which went against our non-denominational outlook, and once that was sorted out, there were further discussions on where it would be, and who would build it. Somervillians have never been known for being easy!

I could ramble on in this way for ages, sharing stories of the past, which have become an inspiration for the present. Every day I learn of new alumni to boast about (like the woman who was ordained in 1917 and became a congregational minister in the East End) or another story which fires my imagination (Dame Janet Vaughan (then Principal of College) requesting all the students here to have wine at dinner when Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister). Everything I learn helps to prove what a truly inspirational place Somerville is, and makes me want to share it with a wider audience.

*It is heavy tourist season at the moment .... you can tell, because the people that actually live here are walking in the road, the pavement being monopolised by a sea of well meaning, but very slow walking persons who stop every few seconds to take a photo. I shouldn't criticise - I do the same in Florence.
** That's tutors to those not familiar with Oxford jargon


Dark Puss said...

You are absolutely right about the tourist traffic jams! I was in Oxford yesterday, visiting an academic in the Department of Materials and progress from the Station to Parks Road was slow.

oxford-reader said...

Well yes, tourists are a nightmare, but that wasn't what I was hoping people would focus on ..... and you probably walked past Somerville, if you went up Little Clarendon Street!

missdarcyslibrary said...

What a fascinating article on Oxford! I've just discovered your blog and there could have been no better way to win me over than your descriptions of Somerville! I visited Cambridge for the first time in February (I live in Paris so these things take a little time to organise)and it was love at first sight. Because of my research on Rosamond Lehmann, who attended Girton, Cambridge has my allegiance, but you've definitely made me want to rush across the Channel and visit Oxford too! I look forward to following your blog!

oxford-reader said...

I'm so glad the post has inspired you - precisely what I meant it to do! You should really come and see Somerville Florence. Many of Rosamond Lehmann's contemporaries studied here, and it's a wonderful place to just 'be'.