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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May 1917: The view from the home front

The Somerville JCR held two meetings in May 1917. The subjects under discussion included the usual items of college business such as the river rules, the storage of bicycles, noise in the quad and a vote on taking a college photograph. Issues reflecting the wider concerns of the civilian population were also under consideration and highlight the effects of the war on the home front after almost three years of conflict.

Rationing and shortages were discussed; waste paper was to be saved (in sacks being provided for each landing) and volunteers were instructed in how to sort it once it had been transferred to the depot at St Aldates. It was decided, after some debate, to display cards issued by the Food Controller guaranteeing the observance of the voluntary ration order in the college. It was felt that, whilst it would make no difference to the behaviour of those in the college, it might set a good example to people passing by! (No doubt, the notoriously bad food served in Somerville at this time would have discouraged over-indulgence by anyone in the college).

Over the previous year, measures had been introduced to address the shortage of teachers; for example, women teachers, formerly banned from continuing in the profession once they married, had been allowed to return to the classroom. In the wake of HAL Fisher’s appeal to women students to complete their studies (see February 2017 blog), a scheme had been launched to survey university women, identifying those prepared to consider teaching as a career on leaving college. State-aided schools were particularly in need of staff and it was felt that the information provided by the survey “would be of the greatest value to the Board of Education“. The college would distribute forms for students to complete, whilst a teaching agency offered to visit Somerville and interview potential recruits. Other works schemes looking for student volunteers included a land workers scheme and a forestry party to work in the summer vacation.

College Meeting minutes 3 May 1917The minutes also included an appeal for information “for a national museum of women’s war-work“. Two months previously, the War Cabinet had approved a plan for a museum to commemorate all aspects of the war. A National War Museum Committee was set up to collect information and artefacts from the battlefields and the home front, from combatants and civilians (including women) and the resulting collection would form the Imperial War Museum. All members of college, past and present, were asked to describe their national service, with the Principal Emily Penrose undertaking to recount college activities such as the Somerville hospital and refugee relief.

After almost three years of war, there was much to record.

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April 1917: Miss Lorimer takes a Leave of Absence

Hilda Lorimer was Somerville’s Tutor in Classics (and subsequently Tutor in Classical Archaeology).

A Scotswoman from Dundee, she became a fellow in 1896, having taken a 1st in Classics at Girton College, Cambridge. In 1914-15, she taught Vera Brittain, who wrote in Testament of Youth of Hilda Lorimer’s kindness and of her seeming desire to do more than just teach during the war. As the war progressed, Hilda Lorimer combined her scholarly duties with a number of practical national service roles, the most notable of which was also a statement of her commitment to women’s suffrage – the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH).

Council Minutes 11 May 1915The Somerville Council minutes record that as early as May 1915, Hilda Lorimer was intending to take a sabbatical and volunteer in Serbia. Her plans were postponed due to ‘uncertainties in the Balkans’ and she instead spent the college vacations engaged in practical pursuits such as working on the land and in a munitions canteen. Council Minutes 15 June 1915She also helped Belgian refugees, most memorably as a participant in the survival training camp set up at Shenberrow in August 1915, organised by the OWSSWS (the Oxford Women Students’ Society for Women’s Suffrage). Council Minutes 29 February 1916In 1916 Hilda Lorimer took part-time employment in the Translations Department of the Admiralty and it was in April 1917 that she was finally able to take a 5 month leave of absence from Somerville and set out for Salonika (Thessaloniki), joining the Girton & Newnham Unit of the SWH as an orderly.

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals was one of the many voluntary organisations established at the beginning of the war but it differed crucially from most of the others, as its aims were two-fold from the outset: contributing to the war effort and promoting women’s rights. Having had their offer to assist the Army rejected by the War Office (Dr Elsie Inglis, one of the SWH’s founders, was told to ‘go home and sit still’), the SWH instead set up medical units in France, Belgium and Serbia, organised and staffed by women. Funded by the two women’s colleges in Cambridge, the Girton and Newnham Unit was based in a field hospital at Salonika. In addition to the wounded from the Serbian campaign, it treated large numbers of malaria patients. Council Minutes 30 Jan 1917Support staff at the SWH were expected to fund themselves and the Council minutes of 30 January 1917 indicate that the college was willing to provide Hilda Lorimer with financial assistance if needed.

Hilda Lorimer returned to Somerville in September 1917 and resumed her teaching duties at the college in the Michaelmas term. In 1918, she began writing on Slovenia and Yugoslavia for the Foreign Office and she went on to contribute papers on Yugoslavia and on Serbian history to the Nations of Today series, edited by John Buchan and published in 1923-4.

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March 1917: The Fritillary’s Literary Alumnae

The college meeting in March was held, in part, to elect junior members of Somerville to various offices, such as the O.S.D.S. (Oxford Students Debating Society) Rep., Fiction Librarian and Junior Bicycle Secretary. The Senior Student also asked for nominations for a Fritillary representative from the 2nd year and elected to post was Miss Kennedy.

The Fritillary was the magazine of the women’s colleges at Oxford, jointly produced and open to students, who could submit literary efforts such as short stories, comic and dramatic sketches and poems as well as reports on the various societies and clubs. There was a section called Hall Notices where each college or hall recorded the key events of that term – debates and sporting matches, suffrage meetings and the achievements of notable college members (Marya Czaplicka’s expedition to Siberia and Dr Dorothea Maude’s service in a field hospital in Belgium were both recorded in the December 1914 edition).

First published in 1894, The Fritillary illuminated those elements of student life seldom found in the official college records. For some of the contributors, pieces in the magazine marked the pinnacle of their literary achievements (editorial policy was strict; editors such as Una Ellis-Fermor preferred not to publish at all rather than include sub-standard submissions). For others, The Fritillary provided an outlet for their budding talents.Dorothy L. Sayers

Johannis Fell by Margaret KennedyThe Miss Kennedy elected in March 1917 was Margaret Kennedy, a second year Modern Historian and she contributed several pieces to the next edition of the magazine, published in June 1917. Within just a few years, she had achieved great critical and popular success as a writer, with her second novel The Constant Nymph, published in 1924. She went on to write over a dozen novels, plus novellas, plays, short stories and screenplays and adapted The Constant Nymph for the stage.

Vera BrittainMargaret Kennedy became one of the most celebrated writers of the interwar period but she was not the only literary figure emerging from Somerville at this time. In the decade from 1912 to 1922, an astonishingly varied and prolific group of authors attended the college. Named ‘The Somerville School of Novelists’ by Vera Brittain, their number included Vera Brittain herself, Dorothy L. Sayers, Doreen Wallace, Doreen WallaceWinifred Holtby, Hilda Reid and Sylvia Thompson as well as Margaret Kennedy, and contributions by many of them can be found within the pages of The Fritillary.

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February 1917: Conflict and Continuity: war work for University women

Throughout the Great War, the number of Somerville students officially pursuing war work remained comparatively small. However, these were students, such as Vera Brittain, who had taken a leave of absence, most intending to return after a term, a year or at the end of hostilities. Still more students chose to leave college entirely, unable to continue their studies when so many of their contemporaries had been killed or wounded. One such was Margaret Philp, who left Oxford abruptly in 1916; her local regiment, the Gordons, had been ‘wiped out’ in action and she could not stand to take her degree in such terrible circumstances.

The Principal, Emily Penrose, was concerned at the number of students willing to abandon their academic careers altogether in favour of national service. The college and its members had striven to contribute to the war effort in any way possible. For Emily Penrose, that meant in addition to – and not instead of – academic pursuits. The country would require university educated men and women in the future. In completing their courses, students would be putting the needs of the nation above those of the individual. The recently appointed President of the Board of Education, H.A.L. Fisher, shared this point of view and was willing to do so publicly.

Fisher, the historian and fellow (and future Warden) of New College, Oxford, had long been a supporter of education for women and of Somerville College in particular. He had professional and personal links with the college. He became a member of Somerville’s Council in 1900 and served as its President from 1910 to 1913. His wife, Lettice Ilbert, the historian and social worker, was a Somervillian.

Report on University women and war work in the Oxford MagazineIn December 1916, Fisher became a Member of Parliament and the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, appointed him President of the Board of Education. In a letter to Emily Penrose, published in the Times on 8th February, Fisher emphasised the importance of university-educated women to the war effort and to the future. He addressed students in person the following month, at the Sheldonian Theatre, and the Oxford Magazine carried further articles on the value of University women to the nation and to Oxford.

It is difficult to assess the impact, if any, of Fisher’s intervention; students continued to abandon their studies almost to the end of the war. One of the last to do this was Winifred Holtby in June 1918; having taken her first year examinations, she got permission to go to London, ostensibly to visit a relative, instead using the opportunity to enlist in the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps. For many of the ‘war generation’, their duty lay outside academia.

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January 1917: Bed-making and Tea Parties; the students economise

By January 1917, the war was taking its toll on the home front. Shortages of food, fuel and staff were resulting in higher costs, at a time when money was also in short supply. Morale was low and for Vera Brittain, stationed at this time in Malta, letters received from home depicted a country struggling but determined to carry on.

At the college meeting of January 24th, Somerville students devised two novel ways to ‘do their bit’ – making their own beds and forgoing extravagant tea parties.

At the start of the war, Somerville’s domestic staff included 24 maids who lived in, with 10 daily women in addition; by January 1917, the number of maids had halved and the daily women numbered 7, falling to 6 half way through Hilary Term. Whilst the number of maids did not diminish at the time of the move to St Mary Hall in April 1915, their numbers plummeted six months later at the start of the following academic year and the revised living arrangements (and resulting shortage of accommodation) no doubt contributed to this. A number of (mostly) long-serving maids remained with the college but some, such as May Drew [see blog June 1915] chose to leave, wanting to undertake war work.

The minutes of the college meeting record the difficulty of replacing maids who had left; the students’ solution was to relieve the pressure on the remaining staff, and save the cost of the wage, by asking junior members to make their own beds. The motion – ‘to make our own beds for the present ‘– was carried.

Shortages and the increasing cost of living were also topics under consideration. The Senior Student voiced concern at the ‘extreme inadvisability of giving elaborate and expensive teas or parties of any sort’. The first year appeared to be particularly culpable in this and the Senior Student pointed out that this was neither wanted or expected of them.College Meeting Minutes 24th January 1917

At this time, food supplies were increasingly under threat, as merchant ships, carrying imported provisions from the USA and Canada, were subjected to a campaign of attack by German submarines. Britain was growing much more food than it had prior to the war, but by the end of 1917, food would be in such short supply that rationing would be introduced, with sugar one of the first items to be restricted. Not noted for its sophisticated cuisine, the food in Somerville was to deteriorate markedly, with a monotonous reliance on boiled beetroot (at dinner one evening, Swiss student Thilo Bugnion was heard above the hubbub, enquiring ‘What ees this bloodee stuff?’). Hot, non-alcoholic beverages and tea-time treats were not only the bedrock of student socialising but were a vital supplement to the college food provision. Such tea parties would be sorely missed.

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December 1916: Saving for the Nation

By December 1916, the war had been underway for almost two and a half years. The cost to the countries involved was unprecedented, both in terms of the casualties and losses sustained and in terms of the money needed to finance the participants’ military machines.

Despite its huge wealth, with gold reserves and the resources of the Empire to call on, Britain’s finances were severely depleted. In an attempt to raise funds from the public, National War Savings Committees were established in April 1916 in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Their aim was to encourage small savers, not usually regarded as a source of finance, to lend their money to the government. War Savings Associations were set up locally and posters extolling the patriotism of saving encouraged people to make their money serve their country. Some of these posters were aimed specifically at women and working men.

Kathleen WatsonSomerville formed its own War Savings Association, with Miss Penrose as the Secretary and Miss Lorimer as the Treasurer. At the College Meeting on 7 December Somerville’s Senior Student, Kathleen Watson, exhibited a specimen ‘War Savings Christmas Card’. Such cards were marked with a grid inside, into which the sender or recipient could stick sixpenny savings stamps. Once completed, the cards held 31 stamps worth 15 shillings & 6d (77.5 p). The card could then be exchanged for a war savings certificate (or, if incomplete, paid into the owner’s War Savings Account) and after 5 years the certificate could be redeemed for £1.Minutes of the College Meeting, 7th December 1916

The Fritillary December 1916; the Somerville War Savings AssociationThe Senior Student suggested the cards would be a convenient way for students to accumulate their subscriptions during the vacation; in that month’s edition of The Fritillary, the War Savings Association was described as flourishing, with over 80 members and having already purchased several certificates. Miss Penrose had also been invited to address the students of St Hugh’s on the aims and administration of the Association and St Hugh’s had formed its own committee.

The Oxford Letter a few months later, in the 1917 Somerville Students Association annual report, suggests that for some the initial enthusiasm might have waned:

“The Somerville War Savings Association flourishes……. The domestic staff have shown a keenness which might well be emulated by some of the slacker student members.”

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November 1916: Somerville’s Parliament debates Universal Suffrage

Somerville’s Parliament, in its debates, endeavoured to examine the issues under consideration by the national Parliament, Eglantyne Jebb - the Speaker ofalthough limited to just two meetings per term and with far fewer members in attendance. Violet Hodgson - the Prime MinisterThe meeting held in November 1916 produced a fierce debate on ‘a measure for the introduction of Universal Suffrage in Great Britain’. Dorothy Wadham - the Leader of the OppositionThe choice of subject was no doubt inspired by the Conference on Electoral Reform, then in session and chaired by the Speaker of the House of Commons. It was reviewing changes to the franchise for male voters, the residence requirements denying the vote to many of the menDorothy Spencer - a very able Opponent away on active service, and considering the introduction of limited voting rights for women.Ursula Webb - supporting the measure


Somervillians had long supported the cause of women’s suffrage – with a few notable exceptions such as Mrs. Humphry Ward, one of the college’s founding members. Eighty per cent of the students were members of the Somerville Women’s Suffrage Society in 1910; in 1911 the women’s colleges combined to form the Oxford Women Student’s Society for Women’s Suffrage (OWSSWS) and their campaigning drew national attention. Even Emily Penrose, usually so cautious over any actions which could derail the progress towards degrees for women, permitted the Suffrage Society to hold their meetings in Somerville in the years immediately preceding the war (losing scholarship funding and  college supporters in the process).The Fritillary June 1914

During the war, the activities of the Suffrage Society extended beyond rolling bandages on a Sunday evening. Most notable, perhaps, was Shenberrow Camp, the survival training camp for Belgian relief workers (see August 1915 blog).  The OWSSWS also participated in the relief work and fundraising organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies across the country.The Fritillary March 1916

At the University of Oxford, the war had resulted in a greater reliance on the contribution of women, both academically and financially. Nationally, the inclusion of women in the workforce and their vital war work had a similarly positive effect, persuading people of their fitness to vote. It therefore seems somewhat ironic that, at a time when public opinion was changing to support the extension of the franchise, Somerville’s Parliament voted against universal suffrage, by a small majority!

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