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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