Refugees Scholars at Somerville

Helen Darbishire and an extract from one of her letters in support of Lotte Labowsky’s father

As with many primary sources, the Somerville Minutes of Council were created as an official record of the insitution yet they are inadvertently informative about the world outside the College walls. In the 1930s, they provide a valuable account of the response of British academia to the persecutions of the Nazi regime.

Hitler’s appointment as German Chancellor in January 1933 was soon followed by the dismissal of prominent Jewish professors. By May 1933 the Academic Assistance Council had been founded to help the persecuted seeking to leave Germany and an appeal was made to universities across Britain to assist with offers of work and sponsorship.

Somerville’s Principal, Helen Darbishire, was particularly active in Oxford’s refugee schemes. To augment College payments, she established a fund for the assistance of Dismissed German Women Scholars, appealing to the Association of Senior Members via that year’s ASM annual report.  The Council minutes of October 1933 note that the Principal and Fellows had already agreed to offer temporary appointments where possible and Frau Dr Margarete Bieber, the former Professor of Classical Archaeology at Gottingen University, was one of the first to benefit, being offered an Honorary Research Fellowship and hospitality for three terms. Dr Bieber was also employed to give a course of lectures, funded jointly by the women’s colleges.

The College assisted other refugee women scholars, ( Elise Baumgartel,
Kathe Bosse,  Leonie Zuntz, Gertrud Herzog Hauser and Lotte Labowsky) with offers of research grants, hospitality and employment, endeavouring to use the limited finances at its disposal to the greatest effect. When internment as an enemy alien threatened, Helen Darbishire’s testimonials were instrumental in securing Dr Labowsky’s continued liberty and obtaining the release of her father. Such scholars in turn benefitted Oxford and its Colleges by their contributions to academic and community life. Lotte Labowsky’s association with Somerville, as acting librarian, research fellow and additional fellow amongst other roles, was to continue until the end of her life in 1991 and beyond, with a major bequest to the College.

Birthday in Changi Prison

The recent film ‘The Railway Man’ tells the story of Eric Lomax, a British soldier captured by the Japanese in World War 2 and held in Changi Prison before being sent to work on the infamous Burma railway. As well as thousands of soldiers, around 3,000 civilians were incarcerated in Changi, including Somervillian Dr. Cicely Williams. One of the first women to be admitted to degrees in 1920, she completed her medical training at Kings College Hospital in London and went on to specialize in paediatrics and nutrition, working for the colonial medical service on the Gold Coast and in Malaya.  A proponent of breast feeding, she was an early critic of companies marketing tinned alternatives in developing countries (her talk ‘Milk and Murder’ to the Singapore Rotary Club predated the first international code on such practices by 40 years). Captured after the fall of Singapore in February 1942, she was incarcerated in Changi Prison for most of the war, with five months spent under arrest as a suspected spy, during which she was imprisoned by the Kempeitai (secret police) in a series of cramped and insanitary shared cages.

In Changi, her skills and expertise were invaluable; she later recalled “twenty babies were born, 20 breast fed and 20 survived – you can’t do better than that.” As well as doctor and dietician, she later became commandant of the women’s camp. These birthday cards were given to her by her fellow prisoners in 1944 and are now deposited in the Somerville College Archives, testimony to an extraordinary woman, to her strength and resilience and to that of her fellow prisoners.

Updating the Mary Somerville Online Catalogue

The first phase of this project is almost complete, with the catalogue of the collection amended and updated (in compliance with Bodleian guidelines) and the documents themselves curated and rehoused in archival-standard acid-free folders and boxes.

And what a fascinating collection it is! Containing a vast array of papers relating to all aspects of Mary Somerville’s life, work and family history, the collection ranges from personal correspondence and business papers to the hand-written manuscripts for her publications, as well as a considerable number of letters from Victorian ‘celebrities’ .

The collection also contains some unexpected and rare specimens, including a letter from George Washington to his ambassador in Paris in June 1793 (a gift to Mary Somerville from a friend and admirer), copies of family marriage contracts and bonds and letters from Mary Somerville’s scientific peers, including Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, John Herschel and Michael Faraday. One interesting item is a letter from the social reformer and feminist Josephine Butler inviting Mrs Somerville to add her name (along with Harriet Martineau and Florence Nightingale) in support of the foundation of a national ladies association. Undated but probably written in 1869, it show that despite having lived in Europe for over 30 years and approaching her 90th birthday, Mary Somerville was still highly regarded in Victorian society for her scholarship, her skills in communicating and popularizing science and her judgment and conduct as the epitome of female probity.

Blue Plaque for Mrs Humphry Ward

Blue Plaque re Mrs Humphry WardOn Saturday 28th April 2012, one of the founders of Somerville College and its first Secretary of Council, Mary Ward (also known as Mrs Humphry Ward) was honoured in Oxford with a Blue Plaque on the house in North Oxford where she lived from 1872-1881.  Somerville Principal, Dr Alice Prochaska, spoke to the assembled company about Mary Ward’s contribution to the development of higher education for women and presented the current owners of the house with two portraits of Mary Ward.   Amongst the people at the ceremony were three great-grandsons of Mary Ward and two great-great granddaughters. 

Rose Macaulay as a caterpillar in 1903

In 1903 several students in their final year at Somerville got together to entertain their colleagues in College  with a ‘Going-Down Play’.  Dressed as an animal that they considered most closely resembled their nature, they appeared on stage whilst a master of ceremonies read out a verse or two describing the manner and customs of the creature.  Happily for posterity, an enterprising and artistic student captured the proceedings in watercolour and pen sketches which were pasted into a scrap book along with the appropriate verses.  The writer Rose Macaulay protrayed herself as a caterpillar   and pictured here are the sketches and verses that capture her at that time. 

The caterpillar is a long and wriggly creature often found in the garden.  It has been conjectured that this animal feeds upon leaves and grass but the shyness of its habits in this matter have hitherto defeated the attempts of the most scientific enquirers to discover the kind and quantity of its food.  One fact alone is certain ; the caterpillar is not carnivorous. It has been known upon one occasion to consume a whole banana but this can only be taken as an exceptional case for the animal eat (sic) nothing during the 24 hours preceding and following this phenomenal meal.

Evelyn Irons – War correspondent and Tennis Captain

Evelyn IronsReading about the recent untimely death of foreign correspondent Marie Colvin in war-torn Syria I was reminded of Somervillian Evelyn Irons .  Both women were fearless in their  determination to report from war zones and both were very often reported to be the first journalists into a war zone and the last to leave. Irons was a student at Somerville between 1918 and 1921 and a keen tennis player, captaining the University team in 1920.  She went on to become a journalist particularly a war correspondent during the Second World War, working for papers in New York and London.  In 1945 she won the Croix de Guerre for her work in France. She was one of the first reporters to reach liberated Paris and also one of the first to reach Hitler’s Berchtesgaden retreat.   Despite her fearless reporting, she is perhaps better known for being the lover of Vita Sackville-West for a short time in the 1930s.  Irons survived her wartime experiences, and lived until two months before her 100th birthday.  She died in New York in 2000.

Music in the Snow

In this snap from c 1924, four Somerville students are captured in the snowy grounds of Somerville, playing musical instruments, singing carols and in one case, smoking a cigarette! The photo was given to the College in 1980 by one of the girls, Edith Standen (1923) though we cannot be sure which one she is. As ever, if anyone has any information that might help us identify the carollers, please do leave a comment or get in touchgirls-in-snow-compressed

Opening of Darbishire (East as was)

As the opening of the new ROQ buildings grows nearer, it seems appropriate to show the opening ceremony of a Somerville building from years gone by.  This is an informal snap taken at the 1935 opening of the East Quadrangle (now know as Darbishire).  The ceremony took place at the Gaudy for that year, when Dorothy L Sayers happened to be Chairman of the Somerville Association.  She can be glimpsed, third from the right,  turning round to talk to someone in the back row.  DLS immortalised this particular Gaudy in her novel Gaudy Night written the following year,  which was set in  fictional Shrewsbury College – a thinly disguised Somerville!

Maude Clarke

Maude Clarke was a tutor in history at Somerville from 1919 till her early death in 1935.  A noted medievalist in a still largely male academic world, she published important and sometimes controversial work on fourteenth century England with a particular focus on constitutional history.  We have eight of her publications in the College library but many more books that she gave the College during her sixteen year career at Somerville and on her death.  One of her first pupils when she arrived at Somerville was Vera Brittain who based one of the characters in her first novel Dark Tide on Maude Clarke.   

Maude Clarke was highly respected by colleagues and students for her charm, wisdom and clarity.  She was particularly valued for her contributions to college governance and administration where she combined a sense of due process with a skilful tact and diplomacy.

Maude Clarke’s study in East Quad (now Darbishire) c 1934

Mrs Humphry Ward


Mary Ward (also known as Mrs Humphry Ward) was a well-known novelist in the late nineteenth century who was instrumental in the foundation of Somerville in 1879.  She was the first secretary of the Somerville Council (a position jointly held with Mrs Vernon Harcourt) and worked tirelessly, preparing for the arrival of new students.  It was Mary Ward who suggested that the new institution should be named after the renowned mathematician and astronomer, Mary Somerville. Although enthusiastic about education for women, she was less keen on the idea of votes for women and campaigned against suffrage in the early 20th Century , much to the dismay of many at Somerville.