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 Somerville’s students took the degree course and met all the other criteria, the first women to graduate, in October 1920, included over 300 members 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 future 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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September 1917: Rev. Constance Coltman

In September 1917, Constance Coltman became the first British woman to be ordained in one of the mainstream Protestant churches, when she became a Congregationalist minister.

Constance Todd’s father, George, was a headmaster and her mother Emily had been among the first women in England to study medicine (although she did not practice). Constance was awarded an exhibition to read Modern History at Somerville in 1908; her choice of college may have been influenced by her religion, as the family were Presbyterians. Somerville College had been established as a non-denominational college for women in Oxford, an alternative to Lady Margaret Hall, which was affiliated to the Anglican Church. Many of Somerville’s founding Council members were Liberals and the college’s students often came from similar political or religious backgrounds.

Tutor's report for Constance ToddBy the second term of her course, Constance Todd’s tutor had noted her student’s interest in the ‘social and philosophical aspects of history’. There are no records to illustrate Constance Todd’s religious thinking during her students days, but two years after completing her studies at Somerville, she had gained a place at Mansfield College, a theological training college for nonconformist ministers at Oxford. The Presbyterian Church did not admit women as ministers; Mansfield was particularly associated with the Congregationalists and she had the support of its principal, Dr W.B. Selbie. At Mansfield, she did well on her course, was accepted by the other students, and met her future husband, Claud Coltman.

Constance Todd completed her studies at Mansfield in 1916 and, with her fiancé, became a member of the Kings Weigh House congregation in London. In 1917, they were asked to take charge of its mission in the East End. On September 17th, the day before they married, she and Claud were ordained, although Constance was not formally recognised as a minister by the Congregational Union of England and Wales until October 1917.

Constance Coltman was a suffragist and a life-long pacifist. Her entry in the 1917 list of Somervillian war work recorded her connection with pacifist organisations. In her joint ministries with her husband, she worked to support women in her parishes and in the Christian ministry more widely. In 1927, she was elected President of the Fellowship of Women Ministers and she was a founder member of the Society for the Ministry of Women, an interdenominational society set up in 1930. Her connection with Oxford did not end in 1916; in 1924, the Coltmans commenced a joint ministry on the Cowley Road in Oxford and in 1942 their daughter Mary Mansfield Coltman came up to Somerville to read PPE.

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August 1917: “Miss Sorabji’s Work in India”

“Of all the varying forms of war-work on which members of the SSA are engaged perhaps none is more valuable or more interesting than Miss Sorabji’s.” SSA Annual Report 1917 Cornelia Sorabji was a student at Somerville between 1889 and … Continue reading

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July 1917: Transportation and the long vacation

In July 1917, Somerville College held its first Vacation Term.

There were (and are) strict rules governing residence for students at Oxford, rules with which Somervillians complied (even though they had yet to be admitted as members of the University). One rule was that students had to leave college at the end of term. Before the war, many academics spent the  summer break travelling abroad for their research and the empty college buildings, then as now, were given over to summer schools and conferences. Emily Penrose, on becoming Principal of Somerville in 1907, made not having to remain in Oxford during vacations a condition of her acceptance. However, by the summer of 1917, it had become a necessity for some students to extend their residence in college, due to the difficulties of rail travel.

Rail was the primary method of long-distance transport at this time; the previous seventy years had seen private railway companies create a vast, intersecting network of main lines, branch-lines and stations, crossing the country and providing cheap, reliable transport for the masses. Many students depended upon trains to travel to and from Oxford. There were porters to help with heavy trunks or baggage could be sent as advance luggage, delivered door to door, for a fee.College porter with luggage c.1935

The importance of the rail system in the event of war had long been recognised. The Railway Executive Committee (REC) was established in 1912, so that the government could assume control of the railways should hostilities commence and, on 4th August 1914, the REC took over from the private companies. The War Office depended on the rail network to move troops and supplies around the country and to the ports. Once across the Channel, railways brought men and equipment as close to the front as conditions and infrastructure would allow and hospital trains were deployed to take the wounded home.

The upsurge in military traffic coincided with the loss of large numbers of the railway workforce, as men enlisted. As with other industries, women took on many of the roles (apart from those of engine driver and fireman). The engineering works were also operating at maximum capacity; rolling stock, locomotives and equipment were needed in Britain and by the French. The French and German forces relied even more than the British on trains for transport, having built light railways to cover the distance from the railheads and supply depots to the front lines. The British Army relied on road vehicles, both motorised and horse-drawn (see July 1915 blog) and did not construct its own light rail network until 1917.

Domestic freight traffic also increased as submarine attacks on merchant vessels made it unsafe to transport vital supplies by sea, with huge quantities of steam coal being carried by rail from Wales to Scotland to fuel the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow.

With so many demands on the railways, it is unsurprising that train travel for civilian passengers became ‘difficult’.ASM Annual Report 1917

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June 1917: Bertha Phillpotts, the inadvertent civil servant

Somerville was the first women’s college in Oxford to attract research funding, with an endowment from Rosalind, Countess of Carlisle in 1912. The Icelandic scholar Bertha Phillpotts, of Girton College Cambridge, became the first Lady Carlisle Research Fellow in 1913. Originally appointed for five years, her tenure ended prematurely in 1917, due to the intervention of Lady Carlisle herself.

Early in the war, Bertha’s brother Owen, a diplomat, had been posted to the British Legation in Stockholm. Sweden was a neutral country and in 1916, Bertha Phillpotts visited her brother, in part for her own academic research, in part to assist him, as he was struggling to ‘settle’ both professionally and domestically (Owen was clever but chaotic). Bertha Phillpotts took on an unofficial (and initially unpaid) clerical position at the legation, also working as the head of mission’s private secretary.

Writing to Emily Penrose in May 1916, Bertha Phillpotts obviously intended her visit to Stockholm to be temporary and not for the duration of the war. She would help at the legation until the Foreign Office could send a replacement while continuing her research, realising that a longer sojourn in Stockholm could mean the end of her fellowship. By October, the situation with her brother had not improved; in particular, she had problems retaining domestic staff (Bertha mentioned the old ‘pro-German gossip’, a possible reference to an incident in 1915 when some sensitive documents, lost by Owen, were published in a pro-German newspaper). She continued her research and hoped to return to Oxford by the following Trinity Term.

Wishing to assist by suspending the fellowship until Bertha Phillpotts could return, Somerville sought approval for this scheme from Lady Carlisle. Rosalind Carlisle’s response, in May 1917, was the opposite of the college’s position. She thought suspension of the fellowship, particularly so soon after its establishment, was contrary to the terms of the foundation and did not agree with Somerville that this followed a precedent set by male academics. Lady Carlisle believed men had no choice when called to national service whereas women did. Suspension was against the spirit of the fellowship and might pander to women who perhaps lacked steadfastness in their academic pursuits. Her opinion, once sought, could not be ignored and it was with great regret that Somerville’s Council accepted Bertha Phillpotts’ resignation on 5 June 1917.Council Minutes 5 June 1917

Bertha Phillpotts spent the rest of the war as a civil servant in Sweden, employed as Private Secretary to the Head of the Legation, and received an OBE in 1918. After the war, she returned to academia and in 1922 she was elected Mistress of Girton. On her untimely death in 1932, Somerville’s Council recorded:

“Her tenure of the Fellowship was broken into by the European War, but during her three years in residence she made a memorable contribution to the life of the College by her brilliant intellect, her passionate devotion to her studies and her vital personality. The College laments the loss of a distinguished Scholar and true friend.”

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