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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April 1916: The Court-Martial of a Conscientious Objector

“I can’t tell you how glad I am about the fine spirit of the imprisoned COs. I never feared that many of them would give way, but I hadn’t expected that they would actually have an effect like this on the outside world. I thought that was past influencing, for the time.” Leila Davies to Joseph Dalby

'Pied Pipings' 1915 In 1916, Leila Davies was in her third year at Somerville, reading English. Her younger brother Philip (known as Tal) had gone up to Queen’s in 1915; an active socialist, he was also a conscientious objector (CO), incarcerated in the Cowley Barracks in East Oxford, which was used for the detention of COs from April 1916.

The Military Service Act had become law in March 1916, making enlistment compulsory for single men aged between 18 and 41, with certain exemptions, one of which was a conscientious objection to combatant service. Many thousands of men did object, on religious, political or humanist grounds and although some were prepared to take on non-combatant military roles or civilian work in aid of the war effort, there were also ‘absolutists’ who refused to do anything in support of the conflict. Conscientious objectors had to put their case for exemption before a local tribunal; if their case was rejected and alternative service refused, they could be court-martialled and imprisoned.

Conscientious objectors were judged harshly by the general public, condemned as cowards undermining the war effort by evading their duty to king and country. Their supporters were similarly vilified. For those awaiting court-martial, contact with the outside world was closely controlled, with correspondence censored and visitor access severely restricted. It was through Leila Davies that Philip was able to seek advice from Joseph Dalby, a family friend and member of the No Conscription Fellowship, regarding his absolutist stance. In Leila’s letters, she described the details of her brother’s detention and the wider issues influencing COs, also her own fervent support for their beliefs: “It’s a privilege for Tal and you and the others to be of that fellowship. You’ll be glad of it all the rest of your lives, and we shall be glad of it for you…. But meanwhile you’re having the heavy end to bear, and you’re paying the penalty for all of us, you few, because you happen to be young and to be men…. I feel half ashamed to be at large, when the only place fit  for decent people of my convictions is prison.”

Academic work became an irritating distraction, as supporting her brother, and conscientious objection more widely, became the focus of Leila’s life. Letter to Joseph DalbyPhilip Davies considered the court-martial to be a foregone conclusion and decided to proceed without a solicitor or any witnesses. He was sentenced to 3 years in prison. On his release, he did not return to Oxford and, as with all conscientious objectors, was denied the right to vote for five years.

With thanks to Bridget Davies.

Visit for more family stories from the First World War.

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March 1916: Somervillians Sewing Shirts for Soldiers

During the academic year, students had comparatively few opportunities to do war work as scholarly and college pursuits took up most of their time.

The college meetings, held by the JCR, did provide a chance to muster volunteers for war work during the long vacation, such as the Board of Agriculture scheme to supply farm labourers, discussed at the meeting in March. The minutes also recorded the war work students were able to do during the academic year.

A number of Somervillians travelled to Didcot each week to help at the Military Supply Depot, unpacking cases of hardware and china; the Oxford letter noted that although the journey to and fro took up a large part of the time, much useful work was done. The Suffrage Society made bandages for the Scottish Women’s Federation Hospital and many students did what they could to assist the Somerville Section hospital, providing magazines and stamps for the comforts table and wheeling out recovering soldiers in their bath chairs.

Somervillians also set up a working party, which met every Saturday evening throughout the winter of 1915-16, to sew for the hospital patients. Such groups were a popular way in which women (in particular) could do part-time war work in combination with their other commitments. Many work parties were established in response to appeals by the Red Cross or the St John’s Ambulance Association, who needed clothing for wounded servicemen, such as pyjamas and dressing gowns, shirts and socks. Sewing parties would raise funds to purchase the necessary fabric and the Red Cross would supply the patterns.

The Somerville sewing party was funded from the Sunday collection, with a grant of £4 (worth over £350 today) put aside to buy material. They did not need all of it and at the college meeting held on 6th March, the students debated what to do with the left-over money, agreeing to use it to buy clothes for soldiers being discharged from Somerville Hospital.Minutes of the College Meeting 6 March 1916 The SSA Annual Report later revealed that the work party had been able to send a ‘substantial parcel of socks and shirts’ to the Matron – with the help of the College maids! Somervillians also knitted socks for Russian prisoners of war, in response to an appeal made to Miss Penrose for the students’ help.Knitting socks for Russian POWs

It had been decided that the funds from the Sunday collection should be used for Somerville Hospital, unless there was a special cause or the hospital did not need donations at that time. The collection was therefore put to a number of different uses included assisting a man left short of funds when the War Office miscalculated his pay, a contribution to the Serbian Relief Fund and a donation to the ‘Star and Garter building fund’, which was set up early in 1916 to pay for the conversion of an old hotel in Richmond into the first Star and Garter Home for Disabled Soldiers and Sailors.


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February 1916: ‘Women Patrols’: moral guardians and prototype police

Among the many varieties of war work undertaken by Somervillians, a small number of former students chose to join the Women Patrols organised by the NUWW (National Union of Women Workers). Janet Gulliver was one; she had come up to Somerville in 1907, at the age of 20, to read mathematics and had started her career as a teacher in 1911. By February 1916, she was a volunteer with the Swansea ‘Woman Patrol’.Janet Gulliver

These patrols were one of two types of prototype police force, emerging early on in the war, staffed by women. At the start of the conflict, huge numbers of young women had been affected by ‘khaki fever’ and there was widespread concern that war-time conditions could lead to a decline in morality and undermine society. Older, middle-class women responded by organising volunteers to monitor the behaviour of young women fraternising with young men in public places.

The patrols’ volunteers included suffragists whilst the other force, the Women’s Police Service (WPS) was founded by suffragettes. The NUWW saw the role of the patrols as providing a ‘steadying influence’. The volunteers patrolled towns and cities, acting as a deterrent to immorality; they had no powers of arrest but could give evidence in court. To the volunteers, these patrols provided opportunities for women to combine patriotic and moral duties and to further the cause of feminism, as both the Women Patrols and the WPS demonstrated what women could do as part of a professional police force. Khaki fever diminished as the war lasted beyond its anticipated duration and there were more war-time roles available to women, but concerns over public morality continued, as did the patrols.

Other Somervillians who volunteered included English teacher Alice Stainer, a member of the Women’s Patrol in NottinghamAlice Stainer, Eveline Edmonds who lived in Putney, and Anita Miles, a part-time volunteer with the Cheltenham patrol. Theodora Powell was a member of the Godalming Women’s Patrol, an area with a massive Canadian military presence as huge army camps were established on the commons nearby to accommodate thousands of troops. Janet Gulliver, at 28, was younger than her fellow Somervillian volunteers but was probably still considerably older than many of the women and girls she would have policed in Swansea.

Reports by Women Patrols working in Oxford noted that Carfax, George Street and Cornmarket were popular meeting places for young men and girls, their conduct attributed to foolishness as well as immorality. Indecent behaviour and ‘actual immorality’ were recorded as taking place near the canal; Somerville students had long been forbidden from walking along the towpaths, suggesting that the area’s dubious reputation predated the outbreak of the war.

As hoped, the potential of women officers in the police force was recognised and when the war ended, the Metropolitan police developed its own women’s police service, recruiting the first supervisor from the NUWW, whilst the WPS, with its suffragette associations, was disbanded.


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January 1916: “No ‘Flaire’ for Nursing”; roles for women in the Voluntary Aid Detachments

A Military Hospital

By January 1916, Vera Brittain had been nursing for six months. After her initial Red Cross training at home in Buxton, she had been posted to the 1st London General Hospital in Camberwell as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse (VAD). The death of her fiancé, Roland Leighton, in December 1915, brought about a profound alteration in her attitude; having previously sought out all the most onerous tasks, “Camberwell, and its demands had come to seem unspeakably hateful” (Testament of Youth, Chapter VI). However, over the following weeks, she also came to realise that she could not return to Somerville after a year’s leave of absence, as she had originally planned, whilst all those she loved “were sacrificing everything that they cared for in the world”.

Vera Brittain was one of 90,000 volunteers who joined the Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachments during the First World War. Many of the women who volunteered became nurses and from February 1915, VADs were permitted to work in military hospitals, assisting the members of the Royal Army Medical Corps.  From September 1915, the VAD ‘general service’ section supplied women to replace men of fighting age working in military hospitals in non-medical roles, such as dispensers, stores staff, cooks and clerks. Auxiliary hospitals, established for the care of convalescents, were organised and staffed by the Red Cross, and work parties were set up to make bandages and hospital clothing. For women who were unable to undertake full-time war work, there were many part-time roles available.On Quartermasters

Somervillian volunteers included Alice Bruce, the Vice Principal, who was a member of the VAD Joint Committee and Selection Board, working at their London headquarters, Devonshire House, during the vacations.

Lilian Faithfull, the Principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, was also the Commandant of its VAD Hospital and Organiser of its War Workshop. Elizabeth PowellElizabeth Powell was the Commandant and Administrator of the Red Cross hospital based in her own house and Anne Muncaster became Commandant of the Cumberland VAD and was Quartermaster of the Worsley Hall Auxiliary Hospital as well as serving on the VAD Selection Board in Devonshire House. Her book On Quartermasters was hailed as a practical guide for those wishing to volunteer but with “no flaire for nursing” (SSA Annual Report, 1915).  Many other Somervillians served as VAD nurses and hospital workers such as clerks, orderlies and cooks, and as a consequence of their vacation work in VAD hospitals, at least two (Muriel Buckley and Florence Hodges) went on to medical school.

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December 1915: The ‘Chap. Rules’ Petition

Members of Somerville, concerned that the migration to Oriel would undermine the coherence and traditions of the college (see blog Oct 1915), had their fears realised when some of the students abandoned procedure (and potentially propriety) via a petition seeking a relaxation of the college’s chaperone rules.

The chaperone rules had evolved gradually during the first three decades of Somerville’s existence. As female students were granted admittance to the same lectures as the men, it became necessary to have chaperones accompany them and chaperones were obligatory until 1893 for groups of women attending lectures. It was not until the outbreak of the Great War that female students were allowed to attend lectures independently.

Emily Penrose on becoming Principal was acutely aware that the future of women at the University of Oxford depended on the conduct, both actual and perceived, of current students, writing in 1907, “We are anxious that new students…. realise how completely the reputation of the College passes into their hands. We have many privileges but no rights.” In 1907, even visits to brothers were chaperoned and by the time Vera Brittain went to Somerville, just seven years later, the ‘chap. rules’ still prevented her from visiting her brother Edward in his rooms and she had to clear her room of female friends should he drop by unexpectedly (he was in Oxford on an Officer Training Corps course for part of the Michaelmas term 1914).

In December 1915, some members of the JCR petitioned the College for a temporary relaxation of the rule for receiving gentlemen visitors – still chaperoned but allowed if the student had a separate sitting room. Whilst the content of the petition was of concern to senior members, the manner of its delivery was the JCR’s objection. Junior members of college held regular meetings, usually three per term, at which information could be communicated and requests reiterated – subjects such as noise reduction, the use of collected funds, war work or the need to economise over coal or electricity consumption were all noted in the minutes. Such meetings were also meant to be the channel through which students communicated with the College and were particularly useful in the light of Somerville’s fractured accommodation during the war. However, the minutes reveal the Senior Student’s frustration as notices were ignored, opportunities to vote on issues via the various college notice boards squandered (and drawing pins appropriated for unofficial use).

The petition circumvented procedure altogether, as it was sent directly to the Council without being passed first by the college meeting.

Council referred it to the Senior Student and at the next college meeting the matter was raised and an apology to Miss Penrose tabled. In February 1916, having gone through the proper channels, the petition was considered at Council and passed – only for the duration of the college’s residence at St Mary Hall. Miss Penrose and the Council were not prepared to allow a short-term gain to undermine their long-term aim, the admittance of women to membership of the university.


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November 1915: The ‘Munitionettes’: Women in the Munitions Industry

Ethel KerrIn November 1915, Ethel Kerr began her training at Armstrong-Whitworth’s in Newcastle to become a munitions worker or ‘munitionette’. She was one of a number of Somervillians, and hundreds of thousands of women, employed in munitions factories as a result of the Shell Crisis of 1915.

The inability of manufacturers to supply enough artillery ammunition led to Government intervention in the industry, with the creation of the Ministry of Munitions. The Munitions of War Act was also passed; under the Act, working conditions were closely controlled and wages regulated. The factories were forced to employ women, initially to supplement the remaining male workforce. Within two years, 80 per cent of munitions workers were women, receiving half the wage paid to their male counterparts.

Few women would have had any prior experience or instruction to equip them for such work. Ethel Kerr had read modern languages from 1896 to 1900 and had previously volunteered for the S & SFA (Soldiers & Sailors Family Association). However, she quickly progressed; after her initial training, she moved to the Woolwich Arsenal and in February 1916 she was appointed the Assistant Works Manager at the Scottish Filling Factory in Georgetown, Paisley. Dorothy Lyall had studied history and in 1915, she went to work in the Fuze Division of the Woolwich Arsenal, initially as a Fuze Examiner, then Forewoman and subsequently as the Deputy Assistant Inspector of Gun Ammunition.

Dorothy Arning, in contrast, was a chemist. A contemporary of Dorothy L. Sayers and Charis Barnett, on the completion of her 4 years at Somerville, she went to work at the No.21 National Filling Factory in Coventry where she became an Assistant Loading Chemist.

The hazards of working with such toxic materials required medical checks and a (rudimentary) workers welfare service and Nora Kessler, another Somerville historian, was employed as the Assistant Supervisor of the Women’s Welfare Department at National Ordnance Factory No. 2 in Hunslet in Leeds.

There are also records of Somervillians combining part-time work for munitions factories with their other commitments. Ursula Hopkyns, who was a training college lecturer, helped at the Army Ordnance Depot in Didcot in Oxfordshire during vacations. Eleanor PowellEleanor Powell, Somerville’s former Tutor in Modern History, spent six months working a Sunday shift in munitions during 1916, in addition to her committee work with the S & SFA, War Pensions Committee and Women’s University Settlement (WUS). Edel Moore combined her duties as head teacher with the role of agent for recruiting women munition workers in her district.

Ruth HuttonWomen were also employed at the Ministry of Munitions. Juliet Ogilvie was a personal assistant in the Hours of Labour Section of the Ministry of Munitions from 1915 to 1917 before moving to the Canteens for Munitions Factories Department. Ruth Hutton joined the Ministry of Munitions after working at the War Trade Intelligence Department and Kathleen GardinerKathleen Gardiner, a Somerville historian, joined the Ministry’s Record Department in 1917 to research its history.

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