July 1918: The Long View

In July 1918, Winifred Holtby was beginning her national service having enlisted in Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Like Vera Brittain three years earlier, she had found it impossible to continue her studies at Somerville but her enlistment in the QMAAC had to be done surreptitiously, under cover of a visit to relatives in London. The Principal of Somerville, Emily Penrose, was concerned at the loss of students to war work and in June had once again addressed the college on National Service. On 3rd July 1918, she explained her concerns more fully, to an audience of candidates in Oxford to take Responsions (a qualifying examination for degree courses).

The War Office authorities had visited the heads of the women’s houses to inform them of an imminent national recruiting campaign for the QMAAC. Asked to address prospective candidates on the subject, Emily Penrose relayed not just the facts of the recruitment drive but also the opinion of the women’s colleges. The QMAAC was looking to recruit 15,000 women to work as cooks, waitresses and clerks. There was also a demand for 30,000 women to work the land. The call to national service was not new, having faced students since the beginning of the war, and Emily Penrose explained the college perspective.

Emily Penrose's address to Responsions candidates, 3rd July 1918To students in the middle of their courses, she urged, “Take the long view. Ought [you] to do it at the risk that next year or the year after there may be a shortage of fully trained servants of the State that cannot then be supplied? Is it best to give the State half-trained [servants] now or fully trained [servants] then? You cannot do both.” She went on to note that the shortage of trained men was worsening with every year, the immediate need only to be met by those who were already studying, and an Oxford training could not be improvised.
To candidates ready to begin, she stated the importance for the country that a certain number of ‘the most highly gifted women’ should start their training each year. The duty of these gifted women, having obtained a place at a college, was to take up the training and, once qualified, use it to serve their country.
The more difficult problem was for those candidates who did not gain a place or pass the qualifying examination. How to pull their weight during the national crisis? Penrose thought it ‘doubtful whether it is justifiable to spend another year in waiting for a place at a university’.

One of Emily Penrose’s greatest gifts was her ability to take the long view but she was not of the war generation. For many women who were, the logic of Penrose’s arguments could not compete with their visceral response to the national crisis, which rendered the safety and comfort of college life ‘insupportable’.

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June 1918: The Somerville Section Album


“The Principal was authorised to have a few photographs taken of Somerville College as at present used.” Council minutes, 4 June 1918

In June 1918, Somerville commissioned a photographer to record the college in its wartime role as a hospital.

The resulting Somerville Section, 3rd Southern General album contained 12 views of the college, and there were additional images issued as postcards. Some of the photographs capture the detail of life as a patient in a military hospital, others appear to be conventional views of college buildings but on closer inspection, patients recuperating in the shade of the college gardens can be seen. The apparently quiet quad, photographed from another angle, is shown to contain tents and it was the use of tents as well as the conversion of large rooms into wards which increased the hospital accommodation to over 250 beds, the college having housed fewer than half that number of students before the war.


Once the war had ended, it took many months for the War Office to vacate the site and make the necessary repairs before handing it back to the college. A year after these photographs were taken, in June 1919, Somerville was able to return to the Woodstock Road and a new generation of students took up residence.

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May 1918: the Business Girls’ Club

Somerville had many thriving societies before and during the First World War – sporting, debating, artistic and philanthropic, including the WUS (Women’s University Settlement) and a college branch of the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association).

From 1887, students had volunteered for welfare work with the WUS, alongside students from Cambridge and London, helping women and children in Southwark. The WEA (Worker’s Educational Association) was a national organisation founded in 1903 to provide continuing education for working men and women. The WEA worked in partnership with universities and Oxford helped devise a system of tutorial classes, introduced in 1907, and hosted a summer school in 1911. Somerville had long had an ‘unofficial’ WEA society and in March 1918, it was proposed that membership of the University branch be considered, as this would give more scope for real work.

College Meeting minutes 24 May 1918_1At the college meeting on 24th May 1918, the JCR discussed a scheme for a Business Girls’ Club. Although national, the WEA based its provision on local requirements, rather than follow a fixed curriculum, and it had been perceived that shop girls in Oxford ‘badly needed organised education’. Throughout the country, shop staff were subject to poor working conditions. The hours were long (often over 80 hours a week) and holidays were limited. Many unmarried staff ‘lived in’ and even if the living conditions were reasonable (and in many cases they were not), they were subject to strict discipline and very little privacy.

In the decades before the war, the poor pay and conditions of shop workers had led to increased union membership and legislative reform (one union activist Margaret Bondfield went on to become the first female cabinet minister in 1929). With the school leaving age at 12, education for most of the workforce was severely curtailed and with it, their options. The WEA planned to provide winter lecturers and teaching, and asked the Somerville branch to prepare the way so that they could get to know some of the girls. Miss Bell of the YWCA had been consulted and had suggested river and tennis parties in the evenings, especially on Thursdays (early closing day in shops).College Meeting minutes 24 May 1918_2

The affiliation of Somerville’s WEA with the University Branch could simply have been pragmatic or perhaps, in part, reflected an increasing acceptance within the University of the women’s colleges. Another minute from the meeting suggests the college was growing in confidence, as it was proposed that ‘the College adopt a uniform and distinctive blazer’ and a dark blue blazer with the Somerville coat of arms on the pocket was agreed upon.

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April 1918: Conflicting Calls of Duty

In April 1918, Vera Brittain returned from France to London.

She had been posted to the No. 24 General Hospital at Étaples in August 1917. It was close to the front and frantically busy and by April 1918 the German spring offensive meant every experienced VAD working there was a vital resource. However, the years of worry and shortages on the home front had taken their toll on Mr and Mrs Brittain: Vera’s mother had had a nervous collapse and entered a nursing home while her father had moved into a hotel. Mr Brittain wrote to demand that their only daughter fulfil her filial duty and return to help her parents.

To leave Étaples meant breaking her contract with the Red Cross, and the possibility of no future postings overseas. Writing of her return to London in Testament of Youth, Brittain recorded feeling a traitor to her patients and fellow nurses as she began to contemplate returning to university before the end of the war. A temporary leave of absence had been her original plan and the Somerville Council minutes of 15 June 1915 recorded her intention to suspend her studies for just one year. However, in the months following the death of her fiancé Roland Leighton, she realised that she could not give up nursing until the war had ended. In March 1916, Brittain had visited Somerville to discuss extending her leave of absence from college with the Principal Emily Penrose.Somerville Council Minutes, 15 June 1915

In April 1918, altered circumstances again led Vera Brittain to consider returning to Somerville. In a meeting on 7 May 1918, the college Council resolved that she should “receive for the next two years the exhibition which had previously been suspended for three years.” A letter from her brother Edward, written on 24th May, reflected her misgivings about this course of action. “I quite expected you would find Oxford rather an annoying and unsatisfactory place just now, but I think you are doing the best thing to go up again in October as one must think a bit of the future when you are in a position to be able to do so.” Somerville Council Minutes, 7 May 1918Whether proximity to her parents or the repercussions of her broken contract had inspired this change of course, a resumption of her studies was under consideration. However, by early June, she had determined to return to nursing and offered to resign her exhibition. The college decided to extend her leave of absence for another year. Somerville Council Minutes, 4 June 1918

On 15 June 1918, Vera Brittain’s brother Edward was killed in Italy. She resumed nursing that September in London and it was not until Trinity Term 1919 that she recommenced her academic life at Somerville. The following term, she was joined by the only other Somervillian to return to college from active service after the war’s end, Winifred Holtby.

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March 1918: Votes and Degrees

“… all women who have been admitted to and passed the final examination, and kept the period of residence necessary for a man to obtain a degree at a University, are entitled, provided they have attained the age of 30 years, to be registered as Parliamentary Electors for the University.”
Letter from the Vice-Chancellor, University of Oxford, published in the University Gazette, 13 March 1918

Five weeks after the Representation of the People Act became law, the University Gazette published a letter from Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor. In it, he addressed the curious anomaly, which the Act had created for women at Oxford: their right to vote had been recognised by Parliament but seemingly not by the University.

The University of Oxford was a Parliamentary constituency and, since 1604, had elected two representatives to the House of Commons. Eligibility to vote depended not on the geographical location of the constituent, but on being a graduate and, despite decades of careful campaigning and measured reasoning, women were not eligible to take degrees.

However, one of the consequences of the war was the recognition of the women’s colleges and their vital role in providing academic and financial continuity for the University. In 1914, around 3000 men were undergraduates at Oxford; by 1918, there were fewer than 400 in residence. A generation of Oxford men had enlisted, many soon after the outbreak of the war, and the departure of so many students, as well as younger academics, affected the University’s ability to function and fund itself.

The women’s colleges helped sustain academic life at Oxford. Their gradual integration, at first through necessity, proved the suitability of women as members of the University. In 1915, the first women had been invited to lecture, in 1916 the study of medicine had been opened up to female students and, in 1917, the University took financial responsibility for women’s examinations. With the extension of the franchise – to women over 30, owning property or graduates in a university constituency – the exclusion of women from membership of the University of Oxford was increasingly difficult to justify.

Emily Penrose and Gilbert Murray
By September 1918, 163 Somervillians had registered as Parliamentary electors and women’s membership of the University was again under consideration. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 provided a legal basis for such a change, with a clause permitting the ancient universities to matriculate women without further legislation. The statute admitting women to membership of the University of Oxford was passed in Hilary Term 1920 and women were at last eligible to matriculate, graduate and sit on faculty boards. Thanks to Emily Penrose, who had worked to ensure Somervillians took the degree course and met all the other criteria, the first women to graduate, in the autumn of 1920, included 114 former students of Somerville College.

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February 1918: Leading the Way

On 6 February 1918, the Representation of the People Act extended the right to vote to all men aged over 21 and, for the first time, to some women. To qualify, the women had to be over 30, own property or be graduates voting in a University constituency. The effects of the Act would be rapid and profound for women at Oxford.

In Somerville, college life continued. The Hall Notices section of The Fritillary included Emily Penrose’s OBE, the Social Studies Circle, debates in Parliament and the achievements of the Hockey and Boat Clubs. Unusually, there was also an announcement of marriage, as on 19 February, Charis Barnett married Lieutenant Sydney Frankenburg.
Charis Barnett had come up to Somerville in 1912 to read English (see February 1914 blog). She had left Somerville for the summer vacation of 1914 and had not returned, deciding instead to train in midwifery before serving under the Friends’ War Victims Relief Committee at Samoens and later in Chalons-sur-Marne.Charis Barnett in 1913

She did not return to Somerville after the war, nor did the majority of Somervillians who gave up their studies, even if originally intending national service to be of limited duration. However, Charis Frankenburg did not let the premature end to her university career scupper her academic aspirations entirely and in 1921 she matriculated and received an MA.

To be eligible for a degree, students had to meet various requirements including one of residence (residing for a stipulated number of weeks per term within a stipulated distance of Carfax). As hundreds of male students returned to Oxford to resume their studies in the year following the Armistice, the University decided to recognise their special circumstances and allow military service to count towards their residence.


Unique among Somerville students and probably Oxford women more widely, Charis Frankenburg was allowed to count her war service in a similar manner; the college register records that in Michaelmas Term 1920, she was ‘granted permission to reckon her Military Service as equivalent to 3 terms’ residence and to supplicate for the degree of BA without passing any further examinations’. To have her war service included was feat enough, to receive a BA without taking finals was extraordinary and this might explain why the register records that, rather than a BA, she received an MA in 1921, essentially an honorary degree. After the war, Charis Frankenburg went on to become a leading campaigner on maternity and infant welfare and, in 1926, co-founded one of the first birth control clinics in the country, in Salford.

Having led the way, women a generation later would benefit from the precedent set by Charis Frankenburg and from the assimilation of the women’s colleges into the University after the admission of women to degrees. Post World War 2, war service was widely recognised and accepted as part of the matriculation requirements for entrants applying to Somerville as well as for students who wanted to claim a BA, having taken the shortened (2 year) war-time degree.

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January 1918: Miss Emily Penrose, OBE

On 1st January 1918, the Principal of Somerville College Emily Penrose was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). She received it in recognition of her work on the National Register, undertaken in 1915 with, it was reported in the press, unique efficiency (see August 1915 blog). In organising the registration in Oxford, Emily Penrose had used the abilities which characterised her academic career and helped achieve the admission of women to degrees at Oxford.

Emily Penrose had been a student at Somerville College from 1889 to 1892, the first woman to achieve a First in Greats (Classics). Appointed Principal in 1907, she did comparatively little teaching, instead employing her very considerable intellect and administrative skills to improve the standing of women in academia, beginning with her own college. Under her leadership, Somerville became the first of the women’s colleges in Oxford to introduce an entrance examination. Students were encouraged to take degree courses, and observe all other associated qualifications; as a result, over 300 former Somerville students were eligible to receive degrees when women were admitted in October 1920. Somerville was the first of the Oxford women’s colleges to attract an endowment for a research fellowship, awarded in 1913 to Bertha Phillpotts (who also received an OBE in 1918; see June 1917 blog). Emily Penrose OBE

The beginning of 1918 ushered in a period of momentous change for the country and for women. As the Great War entered its final months, the contributions of those who had served the nation on all fronts and in all capacities began to be recognised. Acts of Parliament in 1918 and 1919 extended the franchise to include some women for the first time and removed the gender bar to the professions. Via a statute in 1920, the University of Oxford admitted women to degrees, a decision which was the culmination of years of work by many people. It was also made in recognition of the role played by the women’s colleges in sustaining the University through the war and reflected the political changes occurring nationally. It was felt that the terms of the statute owed much to Emily Penrose.

On her retirement in 1926, Emily Penrose became the second women to receive an honorary DCL (Doctor of Civil Law) from the University of Oxford – the first recipient being Queen Mary in 1921 – and in 1927 she was made a DBE (Dame of the British Empire) for services to education. The Medievalist Helen Waddell expressed the view of many Somervillians when she wrote “we feel it was you who made it inevitable that women should be recognised by the University”.

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December 1917: The Oxford Bed

In the Michaelmas term of 1917, Somervillians began fundraising for the New Hospital for Women. By this stage of the war, medical provision for the civilian population was under severe strain, as military requirements took precedent in the deployment of resources and personnel. Since the beginning of the century, attempts had been made to address issues of mother and child health and infant mortality across the country; in Oxford, Somervillian Lettice Fisher was one of the founders of Infant Welfare Association. However, these funds were not destined for a local hospital but were part of a campaign to help the New Hospital for Women in London by endowing, with the other women’s colleges, an Oxford Bed.

Founded in 1866, the New Hospital for Women was pioneering in its treatment of women by women. Its founder, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, had also co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women, one of the few schools where Somerville students were able pursue medical studies in the pre-war period (Dr Dorothea Maude completed her training there in 1909; see January 1915 blog.) By 1917, the hospital was in ‘great need of financial support’ and, with the death of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in December 1917, such fundraising was regarded as a tribute to her memory. The women’s colleges were to appeal to all members, past and present, and the aim was to raise £1000 to provide a permanent endowment.SSA Annual Report 1918

It took over 30 months to reach the target amount, with students suggesting novel ways to raise funds such as donating 5 shillings each as a Christmas present to the hospital, arranging an ‘Intercollegiate Entertainment’ and donating the Sunday collections to the Oxford Bed. College Meeting minutes 24 May 1918Money was in short supply and there were many other causes in need of support, including the War Savings Association, the Russian Famine Fund and, after the Armistice, the Starving Europe Fund and an appeal to assist the University of Vienna.

The minutes of the college meeting held on 16th June 1920 recorded that the £1000 target for the New Hospital for Women fund had, at last, been reached and a letter of thanks was read. Thirteen months later, the Radcliffe Infirmary opened the first hospital for women in Oxford, a maternity hospital situated on Museum Road.

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November 1917: Entertaining the Troops

Regular readers of this blog will know how much it owes to the Somerville Students’ Association (SSA) annual reports of the period and, in particular, to the list of members and their war work, which was included in the report published in November 1917.
The original list was compiled for what would become the Imperial War Museum (see May 1917 blog). It recorded the range of work undertaken by this diverse group of women, linked by their membership of the college.

Teaching, nursing and welfare work in its many forms were the occupations most widely undertaken by members of the SSA. With huge numbers of women employed in munitions manufacturing, factories recruited Lady Superintendents and the Ministry employed welfare officers (Hilda Walton, Somerville’s former domestic bursar, was appointed Senior Welfare Officer Extra Mural by the Ministry of Munitions in 1917). Many, if not most of those on the list, changed roles as the war went on or did multiple jobs, for example teachers who worked in canteens or on the land during the long vacations.

The list also includes small but fascinating references to some of the more unusual forms of war work undertaken by women. SSA members were occupied in moss gathering, the woman patrols, as a ‘Lady Guide to overseas troops’, one was a factory carpenter and another the Corrector of the Press (at the Ebor Press in York). Perhaps most enterprising of all, a former English student called Augusta Cullis spent the war as an ambulance driver and, at the time the 1917 report went to press, was in France organising a touring concert party for the Soldiers’ Rest Camps.


Mildred Augusta Cullis came up to Somerville in January 1904. On completing her studies in 1906, she trained as a teacher and pursued this career until the outbreak of war. In 1914, she enrolled as an ambulance driver with the French Army, driving in Amiens and Salonica.

The 1917 SSA annual report included a notice that she and a friend had initiated ‘special work’, welcomed by the authorities, to tour the hospitals and rest camps in three cars, giving concerts and providing instruction in handicrafts. The aim was to amuse and occupy the men, relieving the boredom and depression afflicting the French soldiers and there was an appeal for donations towards the cost of the cars.

We do not know if the fundraising was successful but the records show Augusta Cullis later returned to driving ambulances and, from 1918, worked in a bookshop for troops set up in Abbeville. After the war, she resumed teaching, working in HMP Holloway before becoming Resident Tutor at Bedford College, having changed her first names from Mildred Augusta to Mary Aeldrin.

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October 1917: Winifred Holtby arrives at Somerville

By October 1917, Vera Brittain was nursing at the No.24 General Hospital at Étaples and her future friend and fellow author, Winifred Holtby, was settling in as a new student at Somerville College.

Winifred HoltbyWinifred Holtby came up to Oxford to read history at the age of nineteen, having spent a year working in a private nursing home in London. She arrived as Somerville commenced its third year ‘in exile’ from the Woodstock Road site. There had been intense debates and public pronouncements on the merits of university education for women vs war work earlier in the year and that Michaelmas term saw the return of Hilda Lorimer (the Classics tutor) to teaching after 6 months service with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Salonika.

Students, in small numbers, were still leaving to take up war work, such as Marjorie Coney who was permitted to suspend her History exhibition for a year while she served with the Women’s Volunteer Reserve Forage Guard Section. At the October college meeting, the JCR discussed the usual college business, including Sister Susie, the allocation of the Sunday collection and proposed topics of debate in Parliament. The minutes also reflected the changing role of women outside academe: social work was under consideration. The 1917 list of national service recorded welfare work undertaken by Somervillians in factories, in families, with children and with soldiers’ wives. The term encompassed a variety of roles, with social work also recorded as an occupation. For Somerville students interested in this emerging profession, the Social Service Committee was making a small social studies library available. The October minutes also record that Eglantyne Jebb, the college Tutor in English (and cousin of the founder of Save the Children), was appealing for workers to help with the large number of children attending a play centre outside school hours in St Ebbe’s, then a very poor part of Oxford.

Winifred Holtby was not the only Somervillian of future note to come up in 1917. Novelists Hilda Reid and Constance Savery were her contemporaries, as was medic Cicely Williams, Cicely Williams at the Sheldonianthe pioneering paediatrician and nutritionist. Winifred Holtby was one of three students to suspend their studies the following academic year. For one, this was due to financial difficulties ‘consequent on her father being a prisoner of war’, for another no reason has been found. For Winifred Holtby, it was so that she could enlist with the WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps), an experience which would help create the first bond of friendship between her and her fellow student and tutorial partner, Vera Brittain.

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