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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October 1916: Settling in for the Duration

The Fritillary December 1916

 “Another year finds us still scattered, and Somerville’s hospital work still as urgently needed. We at present occupy Micklem Hall, Sheldonian House, three houses in King Edward Street, and one in Oriel Street, besides St Mary Hall. Our numbers, however, have not diminished at all: this Term there are 107 students in residence.” The Fritillary, December 1916

October 1916 saw the beginning of another academic year. Most of Vera Brittain’s contemporaries were entering their third and final year, preparing for Schools and occupying the various offices of the JCR. However, the report in The Fritillary is inaccurate in claiming that student numbers were undiminished; 20 per cent of 1914’s intake had swapped academe for war work and in total, one third of that year’s matriculants had already left, having completed shorter courses or abandoned their studies. There continued to be a small but steady loss of students to war service, a matter increasingly of concern to Emily Penrose and to H.A.L. Fisher, the former President of the Somerville, who was soon to become President of the Board of Education in Lloyd George’s government.

New freshers arrived, uncertain if they would ever experience college life actually in Somerville College and quickly learned to adapt to their disjointed community. Amongst their number was Enid Starkie, French scholar, pianist and free-spirited Irishwoman, who appears to have circumvented the inconvenience of living out by ignoring the rules which restricted her. Although women students were forbidden to be out alone after dinner, a fellow student would later recall how:

 “Miss Starkie told us that she had a bath every night in quad, and then walked home to Teddy Street, where she lives, lightly but elegantly attired in her nightdress and an overcoat!…. If the Pen heard, there’d be the most unholiest row that ever was. We’re not allowed even to cross Oriel Street without a hat on.” Enid Starkie from the 1917 College photograph

The Boat Club and Hockey Club both benefitted from an influx of enthusiastic new members as did the debating societies, those attending Parliament showing ‘keen interest and marked ability’ and at Tub Thumpers ‘the First Year, of whom great things are hoped, particularly distinguished themselves’.

The members of Sister Susie resumed their weekly sewing meetings and were joined by the Suffrage Society producing bandages. As before, the shirts and other garments made in the college went to patients at the Somerville Section hospital.

At the October college meeting, the students also voted in favour of using some of their funds to make a grant for folk dancing: English country dancing was enjoying a revival at this time and dancing classes had been well attended the previous year. Despite separations and regulations, college life continued.


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September 1916: Medical Advances and Traditional Remedies

Unique among Somervillians who volunteered to help the war effort was Muriel Reynolds, who had come up to read modern languages in 1901. She spent the early part of the war in Bristol, teaching Belgian refugees and working for the Red Cross but she also lived in Okehampton and is the only Somervillian on record as having been a herb and moss collector.

The vast number of casualties sustained in the First World War led to advances in the diagnosis and treatment of wounds, such as the use of x-rays, systems of triage and the introduction of blood transfusions. However, natural remedies also had their place in the medical arsenal particularly against sepsis in the era before antibiotics. Wounds were extremely susceptible to infection due to the muddy conditions of the trenches. Medics therefore turned to traditional herbs with antiseptic properties, such as calendula (or marigolds), rosemary, sage and lavender. They were used in dressings and treatments for wounds and in the preparation of disinfectants for cleaning wards.

Sphagnum moss was another natural resource and an effective alternative to cotton wool, which had to be imported and was also required for the manufacture of munitions. Sphagnum moss was exceptionally absorbent and naturally antiseptic and these properties were noticed by army surgeon Charles Walker Cathcart in Edinburgh, who used it in the manufacture of dressings from 1914. In February 1916, sphagnum moss was officially approved for military medical use and surgical dressings made in Edinburgh were supplied to service hospitals at home and abroad. Such was the demand that in September 1916, moss collection was publicised and promoted across the country. Dublin became another major centre of dressings production, with a smaller site established on Dartmoor near Princetown.

Volunteers such as Muriel Reynolds would collect the moss, roughly clean it, partly dry it and pack it into sacks to be taken to the depot, before it was fully cleaned, dried and transformed into dressings. One source in the college archives describes her war service as ‘land work’; we are fortunate that the Somerville Association of Senior Members compiled a comprehensive list of its members and the national service each undertook, to reveal this fascinating aspect of the war effort.

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August 1916: Siegfried Sassoon at the 3rd Southern General

“At the beginning of August 1916 I found myself deposited at No. 3 General Service Hospital, which was in Somerville College, Oxford.

To be lying in a little white-walled room, looking through the open window on to a College lawn, was for the first few days very much like Paradise.”

Siegfried Sassoon, Siegfried’s Journey (1945).

In August 1916 Siegfried Sassoon became a patient at the Somerville Section of the 3rd Southern General. Transferred from the battlefields of the Somme, his transit label recording his condition as PUO (Pyrexia of Unknown Origin, a sort of gastric fever more commonly called trench fever), Sassoon was one of several hundred patients to pass through Somerville during its four years as a hospital.

A ward in HouseInitially used for all ranks, the Somerville Section was designated as ‘officers only’ during 1916 because the buildings  offered a large number of single-occupancy rooms. As a college, the site had been able to accommodate over 100 students plus fellows; as a hospital, the dining and junior common rooms located in House and West were converted into wards. Even so, more beds were needed and tents were pitched on the lawn in the main quad, increasing the hospital’s capacity to around 260.

With the change to officers only, the hall, which had been converted into a ward in April 1915, reverted to use as a dining room and the SCR (Senior Common Room) was set aside for billiards.SCR as billiard room

The grounds provided a tranquil setting for patients recuperating from their injuries and illnesses.Somerville Section, view in the grounds in front of House In the calm and quiet of the college, Sassoon began to write again and once fit enough he was able to visit the Ashmolean Museum and take a canoe out on the River Cherwell.

Nurses 'Mac', Hutchings & McDougallThe irony of men residing in the ‘Ladies’ College’ was appreciated by many of the patients, including Sassoon. Others, years later, delighted in claiming they had been ‘up’ at Somerville and the College is fortunate to have a number of photographs and postcards as mementoes of the patients who were in residence.Maitland postcard


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July 1916: Emerging Medical Therapies: the Almeric Paget Massage Corps

In July 1916, Helen Waters, a former English student at Somerville, joined the Almeric Paget Massage Corps (APMC), having undergone training in ‘Massage and Medical Electricity’. The APMC was one of the many voluntary schemes, established at the outbreak of hostilities, which went on to be recognised officially and eventually incorporated into the country’s response to the national emergency. 1916 was a pivotal year in the APMC’s transition from voluntary scheme to official service and by that December, it had become known as the Almeric Paget Military Massage Corps.

Physiotherapy was a comparatively new form of medical treatment before 1914 but at the outbreak of war, Almeric Paget, the MP for Cambridge, and his wife, offered to establish and run a therapeutic massage service, providing 50 volunteer masseuses to help rehabilitate wounded servicemen, without any cost to the Government. The first masseuses were deployed in military hospitals in September 1914; such was the demand that over 100 had been recruited by the end of the year and the Pagets had set up an out-patients’ clinic.

The changing nature of combat in the First World War, combined with developments in military technology, were reflected in the damage inflicted on the combatants. Trench warfare, machine guns and heavy artillery bombardments produced catastrophic injuries with high levels of loss of limb and, due to the muddy conditions, such severe risks of infection that, even if not lost, it was often necessary to sacrifice a damaged limb in order to save the patient. Once repatriated, injured servicemen could convalesce in military hospitals where massage and electrical therapy (stimulating the muscles with small shocks) became widely employed to aid recuperation. The success of the Paget’s clinic attracted the attention of the Royal Army Medical Corps and in 1916, the Pagets were offered a grant to run the massage departments in the large convalescent camps and military hospitals. By the beginning of 1917, the Corps had 1200 masseuses and its Military Masseuses were being sent to serve overseas.

Emily KempOther Somervillians who worked in medical massage included Emily Kemp, one of Somerville’s earliest students and an intrepid traveller: she spent the whole war in France assisting the French army by organising two hospitals, running a canteen for soldiers in Verdun and, from 1916, working for 18 months as a masseuse in the French Military Hospital in Paris. Juliet Ogilvie also worked as a masseuse in military hospitals from 1915, as did Jane Worthington, who had been a nursing sister in civilian life.Jane Worthington

The requirements of war resulted in advances in other areas of treatment and technology, including skin grafts and artificial limbs. Among the staff photographed for the 3rd Southern General Hospital’s souvenir album at the end of the war, the masseuses can be seen in their plain white aprons, one possibly wearing the insignia of the Almeric Paget Military Massage Corps.


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June 1916: Fees and degrees; advances for women at Oxford

1916's Going Down PlayBy June 1916, almost two years of wartime had altered the relationship between the women’s colleges and the University more profoundly than the years of pre-war lobbying and gentle persuasion. ‘A Mess of Pottage’, the Going Down Play performed that June in the quad at St Mary Hall, was based upon the university’s war-time poverty and the consequent advantages of giving degrees to women.The Somerville Log Book

Enlistment and conscription had reduced the male student population to a quarter of its pre-war size with some of the colleges accommodating servicemen in place of undergraduates. The men’s colleges were hard-pressed financially, as the income from fees diminished. The women’s colleges became the preservers of scholastic life in Oxford, providing academic continuity via the cycle of matriculation, education and examination and generating much needed income from student fees.

This increasing reliance on the women’s colleges led to their closer integration with the University. Women had first been invited to give University lectures in 1915; by 1916 Miss Penrose was one of six Oxford academics to sit on the Royal Commission on university education in Wales, and, that June, the admission of women to the 1st Bachelor of Medicine examination at Oxford was under consideration and being discussed by Somerville’s Council.

Comparatively few women trained as doctors before 1914 but by 1916 there was a shortage of qualified medics both at home and in the armed forces and the War Office was employing women doctors as Civil Medical Practitioners and as civilian officers abroad. At Oxford, women could study a science (physiology, for example) but they were not permitted to take the Bachelor of Medicine (BM) examination. Once they had finished their Oxford course, they had to train as doctors elsewhere, such as the London School of Medicine for Women at the Royal Free Hospital or the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women.

Allowing women to study medicine would assist the country, the university and the women’s colleges, who lost talented students and staff (including Somerville’s librarian Madeline Giles) forced to train elsewhere. Access to facilities and the teaching of human anatomy appear to have been particular issues but the women’s colleges held a joint conference that summer to find solutions.

Dorothy CrookIn October 1916, the Faculty of Medicine opened the 1st BM Katharine Hodgkinsonexamination to women. The Clothworkers’ Company, which funded a number of scholarships, provided a dissecting room for the special use of women students in the Department of Human Anatomy, solving the problem of facilities. Of the first four women to graduate in medicine, two were at Somerville (Dorothy Crook and Katharine Hodgkinson).

Janet VaughanThey were soon followed by two of the college’s, and the country’s, most notable medics – Cicely Williams, Cicely Williamsthe pioneering paediatrician and nutritionist, who matriculated in 1917 and Janet Vaughan, the haematologist and future Principal of Somerville, who came up in 1919.

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May 1916: Somerville’s Parliament Debates Conscription for Women

In May 1916, a second Military Service Act extended conscription to married men. Inspired by this, on 31st May 1916, Somerville’s Parliament considered a bill to conscript women, so that more men could be released to the armed forces and women more efficiently organised to replace them.

It was proposed that women between the ages of 18 and 38 should be called up, using the National Register as the basis of the conscription. Those passed medically fit would either be considered for roles in agriculture or munitions, or for lighter duties. Women would be allowed to state what sort of work they preferred but the needs of the nation would be paramount and deployment would be organised through labour exchanges.Parliament Statute Book

A vigorous discussion conducted entirely by first years ensued, the motion being ‘violently’ opposed on the basis that conscription was unnecessary as women had already risen nobly to the cause.Fritillary

The records of Somervillian war work would appear to support this view-point. In the early years of the war particularly, much of the recruitment and organisation of the female workforce was in the hands of the women themselves. This enabled many to incorporate some form of national service with their other duties and the majority of Somerville’s fellows took this approach, as did many students.

For women with children, family responsibilities were not always easy to integrate with full-time war work. As with the Military Service Act, the proposed ‘Women’s Service Act’ was to have exemptions to conscription, including married women and widows with children, school teachers and medical students. The employment of domestic staff would also be limited to ‘1/2 in each household’. Even without conscription, some Somervillians recorded ‘care of young children’ or ‘care of family releasing other labour’ as their war-time occupation. Whether this was by choice or forced upon them by the departure of domestic staff is unknown!

Rosa Hughes The male labour shortage opened up many more professions to women, ostensibly for the duration of the war although the long-term effect was to defeat the argument that women were unsuited to or incapable of such work. Some Somervillians were specifically appointed as ‘substitutes for men’, mostly those who had taken up teaching roles in boys’ schools. Others took over family concerns – Rosa Hughes running a printing works and Vera Bowers taking on the management of the family estate and colliery. A significant number of Somervillians were members of the civil service, some such as Henrietta Escreet (one of HM Inspector of Factories and Workshops) continuing in their pre-war roles, others joining the Treasury, the Board of Customs and Excise, the War Office and the War Trade Intelligence Department (Ministry of Blockade).

The debated ‘Women’s Service Act’ was eventually passed by a majority of 25 to 14 but the question of which should take priority for Somerville students, war work or scholarship, continued to be a subject of concern and discussion for senior and junior members of the college throughout the rest of the war.

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