Women Scientists c 1890

St Hilda’s Hall

In 1889 Miss Dorothea Beale, Principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, wrote to the Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women in Oxford (AEW) to tell them that she intended to open a house for women to study in Oxford. It would be named after St Hilda (614-680), head of Whitby Abbey, and was intended to offer her best scholars and younger tutors at Cheltenham Ladies College a base to avail themselves of the new intellectual opportunities Oxford offered without pressing examination on them. 

The new institution would invite young women who had:

(1) Passed degree examinations from London but wished to live in Oxford for a time attending lectures and using libraries and laboratories;

(2) Passed the Cambridge Higher Locals (open to women since 1865) and wished to study for a year without the burden of examinations;

(3) Or, passed no examinations but wanted to attend the AEW lectures. 

The proposal was met with opposition by the AEW and the Halls alike as they were worried about the impact of an institution outside their sphere of influence. They argued that such an institution would damage the interests of the Association by:

‘lowering the standard of work, & tolerating or encouraging dilettantism’ and ‘by making it easy for “students” to come up to Oxford under less rigid rules … thus introducing a class of students who would add considerably to the difficulty of keeping up a standard of good manners’1 

While Miss Beale was told that her plan for a new women’s hall was not acceptable, she refused to be defeated and in November 1892, she purchased a Georgian building in a serene plot on the Cowley Road for £5000. The house became known as Old Hall (now Hall building) and from 1893 welcomed its first seven students. While the AEW did eventually offer support for the foundation of St Hilda’s in 1893, it insisted on the establishment of a formal financial and administrative structure first.

While St Hilda’s was initially intended to be a house for pupils of Cheltenham Ladies College, by 1904 it had welcomed some forty students who had not been educated at Cheltenham. In 1893, Miss Beale appointed Mrs Esther Elizabeth Burrows as the first Principal. She was succeeded in 1910 by her daughter, Christine, who went on to become the Principal of the Society of Home Students in 1921. During these early years, there were profound structural changes to governance. In 1897, the Hall became an incorporated company with its own governing council. In 1901, St Hilda's Oxford was amalgamated with another Beale project, St Hilda's Cheltenham, to form St Hilda's Incorporated College. In 1910, when the University formally acknowledged the existence of female students in Oxford by forming the Delegacy for Women Students, St. Hilda's became a recognised society for women students.

[1] Quote provided by LMH archivist Oliver Mahony from LMH archives.