Principals and Tutors

tutors c1892

Between 1879 and 1920, 11 principals and more than 60 tutors held office in the four women’s colleges and Home-Students’ society.1 The MA awarded by decree to those in post in 1920 gave them the academic standing shared by all Oxford dons. The award shortly afterwards of the Hon DCL to the senior surviving college principals, Dame Emily Penrose and Dame Elizabeth Wordsworth (as they became), followed established practice for recognising distinction in heads of house. The women’s colleges were not yet self-governing academic communities like the Oxford men’s colleges, but for women dons a milestone on the way to inclusion in the university had been passed.  

They had got there by a process of evolution from modest beginnings. Colleges with tutors of their own were not part of the original plan for women’s higher education in Oxford. Teaching was arranged instead by the AEW and supplied mainly by male dons, in the form of lectures, classes and - for Honours work - ‘coachings’.  The early women’s halls were essentially hostels, founded and managed by committees. Their first principals, Madeleine Shaw Lefevre, Elizabeth Wordsworth and Annie Moberly, were not chosen – as their counterparts at Girton and Newnham had been – for their commitment to women’s education but for the social position and savoir faire they brought to the delicate task of managing relations with the Oxford community.2 Assistants appointed to help, as the halls expanded, with secretarial, housekeeping and chaperonage duties, were often former students and able to do some coaching as well.  At LMH and St Hugh’s these were at first called ‘vice-principals’, but Somerville appointed its first resident ‘tutor’, a historian Lilla Haigh whose brother was a Fellow of Hertford, in 1883. These early appointments were often short-term, the holders moving on to posts elsewhere, sometimes in schools or settlements, or back to home life.3 But under its second principal, Agnes Maitland - and not without conflict with the AEW - Somerville changed its name to ‘College’ and set about creating an academic staff of subject tutors, forcing the other societies to change course. Eleanor Lodge’s appointment as History tutor in 1895 launched LMH in the same direction: she was to become in 1913 the first woman invited to lecture by her Faculty, and in 1928 Oxford’s first woman D.Litt. In the early twentieth century, St Hugh’s appointed tutors (most of them non-resident) in History, English, French, German and Classics. Even the Society of Oxford Home-Students started to employ tutors of its own, as did St Hilda’s (the smallest of the halls and linked constitutionally to Cheltenham Ladies’ College by its founder Dorothea Beale). A first step towards university recognition of the standing of women academics came with the creation in 1910 of the Delegacy for Women Students, a committee on which both principals and tutors were represented and worked alongside university men. As principal of the Society for Oxford Home-Students (SOHS), now supervised by a subcommittee of the Delegacy for Women Students, Bertha Johnson became the first woman to hold a senior university appointment.

Almost all early principals and tutors were, in Virginia Woolf’s phrase, ‘the daughters of educated men’, and this no doubt smoothed their path in Oxford.4 They came (like most of their students) from ‘the professional and business classes with a tradition of culture’.5The only clear exception was Phoebe Sheavyn, a shopkeeper’s daughter and graduate of Aberystwyth, Somerville’s first resident English tutor (1894-1907).  A number belonged to Oxford academic families: dons’ daughters – Annie Rogers, Ruth and Violet Butler, Olwen and Myvanwy Rhys, Dorothy Lane Poole; or dons’ sisters - Clara Pater, Eleanor Lodge, Grace Hadow.  Mrs Johnson, mother (by the 1890s) of two undergraduates and wife of an influential History tutor, was the only married principal. But a number of dons’ wives had been Oxford students and/or tutors and a few academic wives continued to teach after marriage - Lettice Fisher, Elizabeth Wright and an LSE graduate Mary Stocks.  Noel Annan’s ‘intellectual aristocracy’ – families, much intermarried, who dominated nineteenth and twentieth-century intellectual and public life – is well represented, amongst principals especially.6 Madeleine Shaw Lefevre’s father was Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, her brother Liberal MP for Reading and sometime president of the Royal Historical Society. Emily Penrose, who had been principal of two London women’s colleges, Bedford and Royal Holloway, before her appointment as Somerville’s third principal, was related to Thomas Arnold of Rugby, granddaughter of the celebrated children’s writer ‘Mrs Markham’, and daughter of Francis Cranmer Penrose FRS, architect, art historian and Director of the British School at Athens. A long-serving Somerville vice-principal (1898-1929), Alice Bruce, was daughter of the founding President of the University of Wales Lord Aberdare, a former Home Secretary and president of several learned societies; her sister Rachel was married to the Oxford chemist A. G. Vernon-Harcourt. Three scholarly church dynasties supplied principals at the Anglican Halls. Elizabeth Wordsworth, great-niece of the poet, was the daughter of a headmaster-bishop and sister of an Oxford professor and future bishop. Her successor at LMH, the headmistress of a girls’ boarding school St Margaret’s Polmont, was Henrietta Jex-Blake, daughter of the Dean of Wells, niece of the medical pioneer Sophia Jex-Blake and sister of a future Mistress of Girton. Annie Moberly came from a similar learned clerical background and had acted (like Elizabeth Wordsworth) as her father’s personal secretary. Memories of St Hugh’s, in its early days in a house at 17, Norham Gardens, recall that ‘the library gained distinction from a couch and settee, very comfortable if somewhat service-worn, from the Bishop’s palace at Salisbury’.7

As Woolf notes in Three Guineas, upper-middle-class daughters were still liable to be educated very differently from their brothers. Girls’ high schools and public boarding schools aspired to cater for the sisters of public schoolboys, but Oxford women academics were twice as likely as the average woman student to have been educated at home or at private schools.8 That did not necessarily mean that their education was neglected: home-schooled tutors included Annie Rogers, who achieved First Classes in the Oxford Examination for Women over 18 in Latin and Greek (1877) and Ancient History (1879), and the historian Cecilia Ady, daughter of the art historian and biographer Julia Cartwright, who won an entrance scholarship at St Hugh’s. The sheer variety of educational backgrounds among women principals is striking. Among the later appointments four had studied at Oxford but the rest had no exposure to university education beyond occasional extramural lecture courses in Oxford, London or – in Agnes Maitland’s case - Liverpool.  Bertha Johnson had trained at the Slade School of Art in London and exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy, while Henrietta Jex-Blake, an accomplished violinist, studied at the Leipzig conservatoire. Of the Oxford-educated principals, Winifred Moberly (appointed after the War at St Hilda’s) had taken classical moderations but no final examination. Emily Penrose, the first woman to get a First in classical Greats did not attempt moderations. She later regretted not taking the full degree course, but had come up with no Latin and only modern Greek (acquired while keeping house for her father in Athens).9 Miss Penrose was among those who took an ad eundem degree at Trinity College, Dublin under the temporary arrangements made there for qualified Oxford and Cambridge women in 1904 -7. Christine Burrows (St Hilda’s) and Eleanor Jourdain (St Hugh’s) both had Seconds in Modern History. The latter – founding headmistress of a select private school, Corran School, Watford, where there was provision for girls to ‘finish’ in Paris – went on to specialise in French and take a Ph.D at the Sorbonne. As for the tutors, all but a few had studied at Oxford (in some cases after taking degrees at other UK universities). Three classics tutors were imported from Girton or Newnham. Janet Spens came to LMH as English tutor with a degree from Glasgow, where she later took her D.Litt. Other specialists in English and Modern Languages who took doctorates were Edith Wardale (Zurich, 1892), Mildred Pope (Paris, 1904), and Phoebe Sheavyn (London, 1910). But in 1920 there were a few women dons who did not even qualify under the regulations for the Oxford MA by decree, whether because they were no longer in post as tutors or because they had taken the old Oxford Women’s examinations. Grace Hadow and Olwen Rhys were among those who decided nevertheless that it was worth earning their MA and sat for pass degree examinations wearing undergraduate gowns.

The job of a tutor was above all to teach, often over a wide range and - as one recalled - ‘usually for well over twenty hours a week’, mostly coaching in pairs but with a few classes and, during the War, lectures.10 A number of tutors did not research or publish, including Miss Rogers, who needed to support herself and for some years her widowed mother: she made a steady income, mostly coaching for classical pass exams and honour moderations.11 Nor were there opportunities in this generation for women scientists to combine research and teaching at Oxford.12 An early Somerville tutor (1885-7) with a First in Chemistry, Margaret McKillop, became a lecturer at Royal Holloway and later King’s College, London where she made a name for her part in developing the new applied discipline of ‘domestic science’.13 But so few women took Oxford’s Natural Sciences School before 1920 that one tutor, Jane Willis Kirkaldy, directed studies for science undergraduates at all five societies as well as tutoring in her own field, zoology. She was among the tutors who published student textbooks.14 In the humanities, women dons were better placed to take advantage of the late-Victorian growth of interest in original research. Eleanor Lodge, with advice from A. L. Smith and H. A. L. Fisher and a year’s leave from LMH, took courses at the École des Chartes and Écoles des Hautes Études in Paris: the publications that followed included an edition, in collaboration with Somerville's French tutor Mildred Pope, of The Life of the Black Prince by the Herald of Sir John Chandos (1910). A three-year Mary Somerville Research Fellowship before her appointment at LMH enabled Evelyn Jamison to lay the foundations of her work on medieval Sicilian history and art. Hilda Lorimer spent a sabbatical year with a studentship at the British School in Athens: the publications leading up to her 'majestic work' Homer and the Monuments (1950) start in 1912 with an article on ‘Dress in Homer’.15

The inclusion of senior women in Oxford academic life depended on support from male colleagues in their field. This was more readily given in some subjects than others. In Modern History, the most popular school for women, and English Language and Literature, where for many years they accounted for a majority of students, serious scholars could find mentors; even in classical studies, where there were few women students and an abundance of men dons, there was by the early twentieth century encouragement for those with academic ambitions from the Regius Professor of Greek Gilbert Murray and the ancient historian John Myres. The research seminar held in All Souls by the jurist and historian of English feudalism Paul Vinogradoff attracted medievalists – Ruth Butler (OHS) and Elizabeth Levett (St. Hilda’s) as well as Eleanor Lodge – and they had opportunities to publish in his Oxford Studies in Social and Legal History (1909-27). Cecilia Ady, recently described as ‘one of the founders of the school of Italian Renaissance studies that flourished in the UK…after her death’, was a pupil of Edward Armstrong.16 Her first monograph, The History of Milan under the Sforza (1907), came out in a series he edited. Helen Darbishire (Somerville), influenced by Ernest de Selincourt, Oxford’s first university lecturer in English Literature, began her work on Wordsworth with an edition published in 1914, later collaborating with him on the five-volume Clarendon edition of Wordsworth’s Poetical Works. But though women tutors outnumbered men dons in the new schools of English and Modern Languages, before the War only those with influential sponsors received invitations to give university lectures. Early in 1914 Janet Spens lectured on ‘the scapegoat in tragedy’, deputising for her friend from Glasgow days Gilbert Murray. Edith Wardale, star pupil of the Professor of Comparative Philology Joseph Wright, became in the same year the first woman to lecture for the Faculty Board of Medieval and Modern Languages.  But Mildred Pope, for many years the only Oxford specialist in Old French and in 1928 the first woman to be appointed as Reader, played no part in designing the syllabus of the Modern Languages School. As a student her tuition in Old French philology had been provided by correspondence with the Cambridge scholar Paget Toynbee, and she had no Oxford mentor.17 No woman was invited to examine for the Modern Languages School until 1922. 

Although Oxford was slow to open postgraduate degrees to women, diploma courses introduced at the turn of the century provided opportunities for two SOHS tutors in subjects new to the undergraduate curriculum. Nora Macmunn joined the Geography diploma course staff in 1906, becoming the university’s first woman demonstrator. Violet Butler, best known for her survey of Social Conditions in Oxford (1912), took the diploma in Economics and Political History before her appointment as Economics tutor.  The SOHS Law tutor appointed in 1920, Ivy Williams, who became England’s first woman barrister, had been allowed to take the BCL examinations by special arrangement.

Dons – women no less than men – were often enjoyed as college ‘characters’ and known by nicknames.  Hilda Lorimer, an ornithologist and a Scot, was ‘the Lorrie Bird’ or ‘Highland Hilda’. Mildred Pope was ‘the Pontiff’ to Vera Farnell’s generation; in her pupil Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night she was the model for the scholarly Miss Lydgate, ‘a very great and very rare person’.18 But in student reminiscences dons are ‘frequently described as shy, aloof, distant, even cold’; there are memories of their kindness to pupils and intellectual brilliance, but also of disconcerting eccentricities in dress and behaviour.19 Stereotypes of the ‘otherworldly academic woman’ may colour these memories: the pupil, for example, who wrote of Olwen Rhys ‘to make a bed or a cup of tea were tasks outside her experience’ was clearly not aware that she was had (like several other tutors) seen war service in European hospitals, refugee hostels and canteens.20 It is doubtless true that some were not good teachers, had no small-talk, or dressed oddly. But what counts as eccentricity may change with the times. Some of the oddest surviving photographic images are of formal occasions where senior women, not yet able to wear academic dress, appear in elaborately decorated hats.21 An episode that seemed less eccentric to contemporaries than it does to later generations was the Versailles ‘adventure’ written up by Annie Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, who believed they had seen ghosts of Marie Antoinette and figures of her time at the Petit Trianon.22  

In auto/biographical accounts and college publications, academic women of these years stand out for their active extra-curricular interest in social and community work of various descriptions. Bertha Johnson was Headington’s first woman poor-law guardian (Home-Students sometimes accompanied her on workhouse visits), vice-president of the Oxford Charity Organization Society and after 1903 a co-opted member of the county council’s education committee. Agnes Maitland published cookery books designed to improve the diet of working-class families: before coming to Oxford she had worked as (among other things) examiner and inspector of Liverpool elementary schools for the National Union of Schools of Domestic Economy. LMH’s first three vice-principals all went on to do social work. Edith Pearson, as Head of the LMH Settlement (1902-10), chaired the Lambeth COS and was involved in designing and teaching the training course for social workers pioneered by the School of Sociology (later amalgamated with the LSE).23 The first two secretaries of Barnett House, Oxford’s centre for social work training from 1914, were Violet Butler and Grace Hadow. The latter took the lead in establishing Women’s Institutes in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire and became Vice-President of the National Federation of WIs, 1918-40.24 Lettice Fisher founded the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child in 1918 and chaired it until 1949: she had begun work for infant welfare as a young history tutor in Edwardian Oxford.  Janet Spens and Eleanor Lodge, dedicated scholars as they were, found the time to organise an Oxford Association for the Improvement of National Education in 1917; supported by most of the women tutors and some men dons, its main function was to put on university lectures and classes for local elementary schoolteachers.25 

The First World War drew academic women further into public work. For Emily Penrose this included organizing National Registration (under the 1915 Act) in Oxford, and service on both the Royal Commission on Higher Education in Wales and the Asquith Commission on Oxford and Cambridge. But in the pre-war suffrage movement most women principals and tutors took an active part and none of them opposed it.26 As one LMH student (1899-1902) recalled:

In a discussion on women’s suffrage – a long time before it arrived – Miss Wordsworth said ‘It is bound to come, and a good thing too - and the longer it takes about it the better’.  The idea being that in the meantime we might be educating ourselves up to political responsibility.27

As the agitation reached its peak, LMH hosted Oxford’s branch of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage and St Hilda’s lent its gardens and Somerville (despite protests from some members of its governing council) its gymnasium for constitutional suffragist society meetings. Tutors from all colleges participated in the big London suffragist marches of 1908-11, in which university women were represented alongside other women’s trades and professions.28 Among those who joined the Suffrage Pilgrimage in the summer of 1913, Eleanor Lodge was reported as walking ‘every step of the way’ from Oxford to Hyde Park.29 Early historians of the women’s colleges chose to draw a veil over this episode. Oxford supporters of women’s higher education were conspicuously divided over women’s suffrage, with Somerville’s first secretary Mrs Humphry Ward and the Chancellor Lord Curzon (who had prompted renewed discussions on opening the BA degree) heading anti-suffrage societies. And even keen suffragists suspected (rightly or wrongly) at the time that the vote had not, after all, been won primarily by agitation. Vera Brittain quotes Annie Rogers’ comment in the Oxford Magazine (Jan 30 1920), ‘The War had made a peaceful change in the status of women which seemed incredible six years ago’.30   

Within the university the War had indeed seen some positive developments for academic women - opportunities to lecture, new collegiate buildings for St Hugh’s.  But they still faced in some quarters influential opposition. Joan Evans, recently appointed as librarian at St Hugh’s, wrote to her mother in November 1919:

‘The V[ice] C[hancellor] confessed to a friend the other day that he prayed daily that women might not be admitted to the degree, and on being asked for his formula, replied: ‘Lord, if it must be, let it not be in my time’.31  

The women’s colleges still, moreover, had features that undermined the status of principals and tutors. They lacked endowment – the Anglican colleges especially.   Poverty meant low pay and inadequate pension arrangements; and it created incentives, when the demand for places increased after 1920, to expand student numbers beyond what some university men thought acceptable. Women principals had responsibilities for discipline that in men’s colleges were devolved to deans and porters: vestiges of the Victorian convention that it was for ladies to monitor relations between the sexes. Tutors had by the early twentieth century won the right to be represented on college governing councils and formed an intercollegiate Society of Oxford Women Tutors, but they did not have the influence or statutory rights of college Fellows. Conflicts over discipline and governance were already emerging in 1919, with a suggestion that tutors might strike against the burden of chaperonage requirements.32 In 1923-4 a full-blown ‘Row’ erupted at St Hugh’s: the sacking by the Principal of a tutor, the resignation of colleagues and a boycott on teaching for St Hugh’s by tutors in other colleges.33 Constitutional change did follow, bringing governance of the women’s colleges closer to the Oxford norm. But so did another traumatic conflict in 1926-7, described in the press as ‘Sex War at Oxford’, when the university imposed a quota on the admission of women students and a ceiling on the ratio of women to men of one to four.34 A further three decades would pass before women’s colleges were given back the freedom to determine their own numbers and finally (1959) recognised as ‘colleges of the university’.


[1] Three of these tutors became principals of women’s colleges in the inter-war years: Eleanor Lodge at Westfield College, London; Grace Hadow at the Society of Oxford Home Students; Helen Darbishire at Somerville.  Two became professors: Elizabeth Levett at King’s College, London and Mildred Pope at Manchester.

[2] V. Farnell. A Somervillian Looks Back (Oxford, 1948), pp 8-9; G. Battiscombe, Reluctant Pioneer. A Life of Elizabeth Wordsworth (London, 1978), pp 66-76; L. Schwartz, A Serious Endeavour. Gender, Education and Community at St Hugh’s, 1886-2011 (London, 2011), pp20-6. For St Hilda’s first principal, a widow known for her ‘gracious’ personality who had presided over a Cheltenham Ladies’ College boarding house, see M. E. Rayner, ‘Burrows, Esther Elizabeth (1847-1935), college head’ in ODNB and The Centenary History of St Hilda’s College, Oxford (1993).  Mrs Burrows’ daughter Christine succeeded her.  On Cambridge, see A. B. Murphy & D. Raftery (eds), Emily Davies Collected Letters, 1861-1875 (Charlottesville and London, 2004) and G. Sutherland, Faith, Duty and the Power of Mind.  The Cloughs and their Circle, 1820-1960 (Cambridge, 2006).

[3] F. Perrone, ‘Women Academics in England, 1870-1930’, History of Universities xii (1993), p.350.

[4] V. Woolf, Three Guineas (London, 1938), pp 6-9.

[5] H. Deneke, Grace Hadow (London, 1946), p. 27.

[6] N. Annan, ‘The intellectual aristocracy’, in The Dons. Mentors, Eccentrics and Geniuses (London, 1999), pp 304-41.

[7] E. E. W[ardale], ‘Some Early Reminiscences of St Hugh’s College’, St Hugh’s Chronicle, 1931, p. 10.

[8]  Perrone, ‘Women Academics’, p.348.

[9] ‘ “I believe we have suffered less from having no degrees than from the fancy courses which most of us have taken”, she wrote to Miss Maitland … when invited to give evidence to the committee considering the question of admitting women to degrees.’  P. Adams, Somerville for Women (Oxford, 1996), p. 75. See also Adams, ‘Penrose, Dame Emily (1858-1914), college head’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [ODNB].

[10] E.C. Lodge, Terms and Vacations, (Oxford, 1938) p. 108.

[11] Bodl. Dep.c.488, AEW Cash Book, Nov 1909.  Payments are recorded in that year to 82 tutors, of whom 30 were women:  Miss Rogers is the highest earner.

[12] On research openings for women scientists see J. Howarth, ‘Oxford for Arts. The Natural Sciences, 1880-1914’ in M. G. Brock & M. C. Curthoys (eds), History of the University of Oxford, vol vii, Nineteenth-Century Oxford (Oxford, 2000), pp 469-70.

[13] M. Pottle, ‘McKillop (nee Seward), Margaret (1864-1829), scientist and university teacher’, ODNB.

[14] J. W. Kirkaldy, & I. M. Drummond, An Introduction to the Study of Biology (1907).  Other examples of well- regarded textbooks are B. A. Lees, The Central Period of the Middle Ages (1909) and E. E. Wardale, An Old English Grammar (1922).

[15] H. Waterhouse, ‘Lorimer, (Elizabeth) Hilda Lockhart (1873-1954), classical scholar’, ODNB. B.G Khol, Ady, Cecilia Mary (1881-1958), hidtorian, ODNB.

16ODNB. B.G Khol, Ady, Cecilia Mary (1881-1958), hidtorian, ODNB

[17] P. E. Bennett, ‘Pope, Mildred Katherine (1872-1956), French scholar’, ODNB.

[18] Farnell, A Somervillian, p. 24; Adams, Somerville, p.186; D. L. Sayers, Gaudy Night (London, 2016; first published 1935), p. 544.

[19] J. Robinson, Bluestockings. The Remarkable History of the First Women to Fight for an Education (London, 2010), pp 150-2.

[20] A. V. John, Rocking the Boat.  Welsh Women Who Championed Equality, 1840-1990 (Cardigan, 2018), pp 218-19, 233-4.

[21] See, for example, the frontispiece to Gemma Bailey (ed.), Lady Margaret Hall.  A Short History (London, 1923), showing Miss Wordsworth, Mrs Johnson and LMH’s Treasurer Charlotte Toynbee in 1909.

[22] C.A.E.Moberly & E.F.Jourdain, An Adventure (London, 1955: first published 1911).  For a range of perspectives on this story, see L. Iremonger, The Ghosts of Versailles (London, 1957); J. Evans, ‘An end to An adventure: solving the mystery of the Trianon’, Encounter, 47/4 (1976); L..Schwartz, ‘Enchanted Modernity, Anglicanism and the Occult in Early Twentieth-Century Oxford: Annie Moberly, Eleanor Jourdain and their “Adventure”’, Cultural and Social History, 14/3 (2017).

[23] K. B. Beauman, Women and the Settlement Movement (1996), pp 112-4, 116-8; the LMH Brown Book for 1915 reports Pearson’s account of this work at the college Gaudy.

[24] Deneke, Hadow, pp 168-80.

[25] Brown Book, 1918, pp 42-4; Lodge, Terms and Vacations, pp 113-4.

[26] Historians have tended to underestimate the solidarity that developed among Oxford academic women for women’s suffrage.  See J. Howarth, ‘ “In Oxford…but not of Oxford”. The Women’s Colleges’, in Brock & Curthoys, Nineteenth-Century Oxford, pp 300-07; Adams, Somerville, pp 78-81; Schwartz, A Serious Endeavour, pp 35-42.

[27] LMH Archive, Wordsworth MSS Box 7, Enid M. G. Routh to E. M. Jamison, 14 Sept 1937.

[28] L. Tickner, The Spectacle of Women.  Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907-14 (London, 1987), pp 81-6, 114.

[29] Oxford Chronicle, 1 Aug, 1913, p. 7.

[30] Brittain, The Women at Oxford (London, 1960), p. 151.

[31] J. Evans, Prelude and Fugue. An Autobiography (London, 1964), p. 114.

[32] Correspondence between M. Pope and E. Jourdain, Feb 1919; Somerville College Archive.

[33] R. Trickett, ‘The Row’, in P. Griffin (ed.), St Hugh’s: One Hundred Years of Women’s Education in Oxford (London, 1986), pp 48-61.

[34] J. Howarth, ’Women’ in B. H. Harrison (ed.), The History of the University of Oxford, vol viii, The Twentieth Century (Oxford, 1994).