December 1918: Oxford after the war

In the months following the Armistice, the military presence in Oxford dwindled and civilian and academic life began to return to normal. Principal Emily Penrose’s immediate concern was the timely return of the Somerville site to the college. Once the 3rd Southern General Hospital had vacated the buildings in the spring of 1919, they had to be repaired and redecorated, the whole process taking twice as long as had been anticipated and allowed for in the lease of 1915. Oriel kindly permitted Somerville to remain in St Mary Hall until the end of the summer term, but returning ex-servicemen were not always pleased to find their rooms occupied, and furniture utilised, by female interlopers. On 19th June 1919, a crowd of revellers ‘celebrating a triumph on the river’, attempted to breach the brick wall built in 1915 to divide St Mary Hall Quad from the rest of Oriel. The pickaxe-wielding invaders were repelled, the hole guarded throughout the night by members of the SCR and the episode passed into college legend as ‘The Pickaxe Incident’.

Of the Somervillians who had interrupted their studies for national service, only two, Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, came back after the war had ended. Winifred Holtby [see July 1918 blog], away for just one year and closer in age to the rest of the JCR, resumed her student life with relative ease. For Vera Brittain, it was to prove much more difficult; age and tragic experience created an almost unbridgeable gap between her and her fellow students, most of whom had spent the previous four years at school.

Nationally, the war accelerated social and political change for women, with the extension of the franchise in 1918 and access to the professions via the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919. Similarly, in Oxford, the conflict had altered the position of, and attitudes to, academic women. Out of necessity, women had been asked to give lectures, admitted to read medicine, relied upon to support the functions of the University academically and financially in the absence of hundreds of male undergraduates and fellows. In Hilary Term 1920, Convocation voted to admit women to membership of the University. To many, this was the crowning achievement of Emily Penrose’s academic career. She had led the campaign for degrees using strategy and personal example. Thanks to her insistence that students should take degree courses and meet the residence and qualification requirements, over 300 Somervillians were eligible to graduate. Among the first to receive their degrees, in Michaelmas Term 1920, were Dorothy L. Sayers, Cicely Williams, Enid Starkie and Margaret Kennedy, as well as the five heads of the women’s houses (although, not fulfilling all the requirements themselves, they received their MAs by decree).

A century later, the impact of the Great War remains a subject of study and debate among historians. Somerville’s first college history, published in 1922, concluded:
“The ability shown by women in their response to war emergencies has prompted recognition from many unforeseen quarters….. [Somerville’s] record was one of efficient service which contributed, no doubt, in its infinitesimal way to victory. But war psychology is such that victory itself is not so much prized as the price we paid for it. …. the question that is apt to be asked about war service is not what was achieved, but what was given?”

November 1918: “So it has come at last! What a day this has been.”

‘The news of the Armistice reached Oxford soon after 11 am. This was the signal for an outburst of patriotic enthusiasm chiefly manifest in the ringing of the bells of Oxford, the display of the flags of the Allies from every available window (& thanks to the optimistic forethought of the Principal of Somerville the flags of St Mary Hall were among the first to decorate the High) and numerous gaily bedecked processions of townspeople, undergraduates and women students………’
Somerville College Log Book

‘The great event of my first term was the Armistice – the noise of rejoicing from crowds in the High was something the like of which I’d never heard. I was terrified and remained immured in my room, though several of my mates ventured forth, as I could see from my window on the quad.’
Reminiscences of Hilda Street

‘I didn’t have time to think what it meant – I was just caught up in a whirl of shouting, rejoicing people…..
In a little time I got in with a lot of Somerville people, and then more and more joined, and at the end of about half an hour the whole of college was parading in a body, like all the other colleges – Balliol had got hold of a 2-seater, on which I counted 20 people, with a man sitting on the bonnet playing the pipes in full blast! Of course the undergrads have all gone as mad a hatters. Chaperon rules were forgotten this morning! Girls and men marched together, laughing and shouting and waving all sorts and conditions of flags – it was tremendous fun, but all the time I didn’t know in the least what I was doing and what had happened. I’ve been sitting quietly in my room since lunch, thinking hard and trying to realise the glorious, wonderful meaning of it – and now I don’t want to shout or wave flags, it’s much too deep and solemn a joy. How can one be thankful enough.’
Letter home from Somerville student

‘Then came Armistice Day on 11th November 1918 in the midst of a frightful epidemic of influenza which mowed us down in Skimmery…..’
Vera Farnell, A Somervillian Looks Back (1948)

‘The Treasurer announced that he would not renew the Insurance against damage by aircraft.’
Council Minutes, 12th November 1918

October 1918: War and Peace

The Somerville Council met twice in October 1918, an extraordinary meeting on the 8th, primarily to discuss Miss Lorimer’s leave of absence and again on October 22nd to conduct college business and the issues which had arisen over the summer vacation. The minutes of these meetings reveal the mixture of academic administration and wartime exigencies under consideration.

In October 1918, there were 109 students in residence. The Gilchrist Educational Trust decided to renew its three-year scholarship and those receiving other awards, offered by the college and the Girls’ Public Day School Trust, were noted. The Shaw Lefevre Scholarship was reallocated as the original recipient was leaving the college in January 1919 to be married. The minutes recorded discussions about the recruitment of academic staff (a temporary Classics tutor and replacement History tutor) and the reassignment of administrative duties. A request that the college take on a member of staff to liaise with Catholic schools and assist Catholic students was turned down, as it was inconsistent with the spirit of Somerville’s Articles of Association (the college was non-denominational from foundation and for many years did not even have a chapel).Council minutes 22 October 1918

The minutes also included an agreement to reduce the fees for a Belgian applicant, should she qualify for a place at college, on the grounds that she was a refugee. The Council further agreed to help in the education of Russian refugees, if necessary at reduced fees, if the Education Committee for Russia could recommend a suitable applicant. Council minutes 22 October 1918The Council voted to remit the fees of a Miss Hollwey, who could not return to the college for the Michaelmas term, being unable to make the crossing from Ireland due to the submarine risks. A War Bonus was granted to ’all salaried Officers of the College’ for the 1917-18 academic year ‘in consideration of the great depreciation in the value of money’ with plans to make a similar grant in 1918-19. 

The student originally awarded the Shaw Lefevre Scholarship, Marie Turner, left Somerville as planned at the end of the year. She had already had four terms’ absence from college on war work (in the Women’s Land Army) yet had still achieved a Second in the Classics first examination in Hilary Term 1918, the term after her return. In Michaelmas Term 1920, she matriculated and sat the necessary additional examinations to enable her to qualify for a degree, taking her BA in Trinity Term 1921. Like Charis Barnett (see blog February 1918), she was granted the equivalent of two terms residence on the basis of her military service, enabling her to meet the degree requirements. There is no record of her marriage in the college register.

September 1918: Lorimer of the F.O.

Hilda Lorimer, Somerville’s Classics Tutor, was renowned as a scholar of Homeric archaeology. She had travelled extensively in Greece before the war and in 1917 she spent six months as an orderly with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, in the Salonika campaign. Hilda Lorimer 1917

Her expert assistance was sought by the Foreign Office during the Long Vacation of 1918, to produce a series of handbooks on Greece and the Balkans. By the end of September, Miss Lorimer’s time with the F.O. was coming to an end and the F.O. approached Somerville’s Council to second her full-time to the Historical Section. The letter of request, written on 4 October, resulted in an extraordinary meeting of the Council a few days later, to discuss arrangements for Miss Lorimer’s absence and cover for her teaching commitments. Her services at the F.O. were requested for the duration of the war and, whilst the tide seemed to have turned in the conflict, the end of hostilities was not yet in sight.

The Handbooks of the Historical Section, Foreign Office was a series of over 150 booklets prepared on different countries and regions of the world, in anticipation of the post-war peace conference. Preparation of the handbooks began in 1917 and their purpose was to provide information for delegates involved in the negotiations. The Near East series of 14 pamphlets covered the social, political and economic conditions in the region which included the Balkan states, Turkey, Greece, Albania, Romania and Bulgaria. Many of the handbooks were subsequently made available to the public in 1920. Hilda Lorimer worked on The Slovenes and The Yugoslav Movement.

The handbooks were not updated before publication in 1920, as explained in the introduction by G. W. Prothero, the former Director of the Historical Section; cost, time and the difficulty of providing an accurate and up to date account of an area in a state of flux post-war meant they were made available as originally produced. Hilda Lorimer subsequently contributed to Yugoslavia and The History of Serbia up to 1914, two volumes in the Nations of Today series, edited by John Buchan (author of the Thirty Nine Steps), which were published in 1923.

August 1918: All quiet on the Oxford front

By August 1918, the tide of the war was turning, with the launch of an Allied offensive in Flanders and the last Zeppelin raid on England on August 5th.
Meanwhile, rationing and shortages permitting, life carried on in Somerville. The 1918 SSA Annual Report was being prepared for publication, albeit in a shortened version and thanks to the foresight of the Treasurer, who had arranged a supply of paper with the printers beforehand sufficient for 24 pages. The 1918 issue was described as supplementary to the 1917 report.

The issue did include a further list of Association members and their occupations, with some unusual entries.

Mary LeysMary Leys was an officer in the recently formed WRAF.
Hilda Lorimer was working for the Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office. Her sister Florence, who had read Classics at Somerville, was working at the British Museum as secretary to Sir Aurel Stein on the Indian Archaeological Survey of Srinagar, Kashmir. (Her next job, which she took up in 1925, was a buyer in the oriental carpet department of Peter Jones and John Lewis).
Dorothy TownshendDorothy Townsend was a journalist. Audrey Priestman was Head of the Machinery Census of Textile Trades of Great Britain. Hilda Skinner was working for a firm of Average Adjusters in the City and Frances Lupton’s entry was ‘Autumn 1918, to train as a solicitor’. Frances Lupton

Women were employed in many professions previously reserved for men. Some, like the Civil Service, depended on them but there were considerable shortcomings in the haphazard nature of their employment – most had temporary posts and there were no proper systems of recruitment, promotion or training. Support for the work of these women was not universal, with accusations of inefficiency in the press prompting the Federation of University Women to send a memorandum to the Committee on the staffing of Government offices addressing this issue.

The Machinery of Government Committee, established by the Ministry of Reconstruction in July 1917, published its report at the end of the 1918. It found that the experience of the previous four years had resolved any doubts on women’s suitability as civil servants and included the statement:
“the absence of any substantial recourse to the services of women in the administrative staffs of Departments, and still more in their Intelligence branches …… has in the past deprived the public service of a vast store of knowledge, experience and fresh ideas, some of which would, for particular purposes, have been far more valuable and relevant than those of even the ablest of the men in the Civil Service.”
A year later, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of December 1919 became law, the first legislation to enable women to enter the professions. It particularly addressed women in the law and in the civil service, although provisos in the act meant restrictions remained in place for several decades more.

July 1918: The Long View

In July 1918, Winifred Holtby was beginning her national service having enlisted in Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Like Vera Brittain three years earlier, she had found it impossible to continue her studies at Somerville but her enlistment in the QMAAC had to be done surreptitiously, under cover of a visit to relatives in London. The Principal of Somerville, Emily Penrose, was concerned at the loss of students to war work and in June had once again addressed the college on National Service. On 3rd July 1918, she explained her concerns more fully, to an audience of candidates in Oxford to take Responsions (a qualifying examination for degree courses).

The War Office authorities had visited the heads of the women’s houses to inform them of an imminent national recruiting campaign for the QMAAC. Asked to address prospective candidates on the subject, Emily Penrose relayed not just the facts of the recruitment drive but also the opinion of the women’s colleges. The QMAAC was looking to recruit 15,000 women to work as cooks, waitresses and clerks. There was also a demand for 30,000 women to work the land. The call to national service was not new, having faced students since the beginning of the war, and Emily Penrose explained the college perspective.

Emily Penrose's address to Responsions candidates, 3rd July 1918To students in the middle of their courses, she urged, “Take the long view. Ought [you] to do it at the risk that next year or the year after there may be a shortage of fully trained servants of the State that cannot then be supplied? Is it best to give the State half-trained [servants] now or fully trained [servants] then? You cannot do both.” She went on to note that the shortage of trained men was worsening with every year, the immediate need only to be met by those who were already studying, and an Oxford training could not be improvised.
To candidates ready to begin, she stated the importance for the country that a certain number of ‘the most highly gifted women’ should start their training each year. The duty of these gifted women, having obtained a place at a college, was to take up the training and, once qualified, use it to serve their country.
The more difficult problem was for those candidates who did not gain a place or pass the qualifying examination. How to pull their weight during the national crisis? Penrose thought it ‘doubtful whether it is justifiable to spend another year in waiting for a place at a university’.

One of Emily Penrose’s greatest gifts was her ability to take the long view but she was not of the war generation. For many women who were, the logic of Penrose’s arguments could not compete with their visceral response to the national crisis, which rendered the safety and comfort of college life ‘insupportable’.

June 1918: The Somerville Section Album

“The Principal was authorised to have a few photographs taken of Somerville College as at present used.” Council minutes, 4 June 1918

In June 1918, Somerville commissioned a photographer to record the college in its wartime role as a hospital.

The resulting Somerville Section, 3rd Southern General album contained 12 views of the college, and there were additional images issued as postcards. Some of the photographs capture the detail of life as a patient in a military hospital, others appear to be conventional views of college buildings but on closer inspection, patients recuperating in the shade of the college gardens can be seen. The apparently quiet quad, photographed from another angle, is shown to contain tents and it was the use of tents as well as the conversion of large rooms into wards which increased the hospital accommodation to over 250 beds, the college having housed fewer than half that number of students before the war.

Once the war had ended, it took many months for the War Office to vacate the site and make the necessary repairs before handing it back to the college. A year after these photographs were taken, in June 1919, Somerville was able to return to the Woodstock Road and a new generation of students took up residence.

May 1918: the Business Girls’ Club

Somerville had many thriving societies before and during the First World War – sporting, debating, artistic and philanthropic, including the WUS (Women’s University Settlement) and a college branch of the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association).

From 1887, students had volunteered for welfare work with the WUS, alongside students from Cambridge and London, helping women and children in Southwark. The WEA (Worker’s Educational Association) was a national organisation founded in 1903 to provide continuing education for working men and women. The WEA worked in partnership with universities and Oxford helped devise a system of tutorial classes, introduced in 1907, and hosted a summer school in 1911. Somerville had long had an ‘unofficial’ WEA society and in March 1918, it was proposed that membership of the University branch be considered, as this would give more scope for real work.

College Meeting minutes 24 May 1918_1At the college meeting on 24th May 1918, the JCR discussed a scheme for a Business Girls’ Club. Although national, the WEA based its provision on local requirements, rather than follow a fixed curriculum, and it had been perceived that shop girls in Oxford ‘badly needed organised education’. Throughout the country, shop staff were subject to poor working conditions. The hours were long (often over 80 hours a week) and holidays were limited. Many unmarried staff ‘lived in’ and even if the living conditions were reasonable (and in many cases they were not), they were subject to strict discipline and very little privacy.

In the decades before the war, the poor pay and conditions of shop workers had led to increased union membership and legislative reform (one union activist Margaret Bondfield went on to become the first female cabinet minister in 1929). With the school leaving age at 12, education for most of the workforce was severely curtailed and with it, their options. The WEA planned to provide winter lecturers and teaching, and asked the Somerville branch to prepare the way so that they could get to know some of the girls. Miss Bell of the YWCA had been consulted and had suggested river and tennis parties in the evenings, especially on Thursdays (early closing day in shops).College Meeting minutes 24 May 1918_2

The affiliation of Somerville’s WEA with the University Branch could simply have been pragmatic or perhaps, in part, reflected an increasing acceptance within the University of the women’s colleges. Another minute from the meeting suggests the college was growing in confidence, as it was proposed that ‘the College adopt a uniform and distinctive blazer’ and a dark blue blazer with the Somerville coat of arms on the pocket was agreed upon.

April 1918: Conflicting Calls of Duty

In April 1918, Vera Brittain returned from France to London.

She had been posted to the No. 24 General Hospital at Étaples in August 1917. It was close to the front and frantically busy and by April 1918 the German spring offensive meant every experienced VAD working there was a vital resource. However, the years of worry and shortages on the home front had taken their toll on Mr and Mrs Brittain: Vera’s mother had had a nervous collapse and entered a nursing home while her father had moved into a hotel. Mr Brittain wrote to demand that their only daughter fulfil her filial duty and return to help her parents.

To leave Étaples meant breaking her contract with the Red Cross, and the possibility of no future postings overseas. Writing of her return to London in Testament of Youth, Brittain recorded feeling a traitor to her patients and fellow nurses as she began to contemplate returning to university before the end of the war. A temporary leave of absence had been her original plan and the Somerville Council minutes of 15 June 1915 recorded her intention to suspend her studies for just one year. However, in the months following the death of her fiancé Roland Leighton, she realised that she could not give up nursing until the war had ended. In March 1916, Brittain had visited Somerville to discuss extending her leave of absence from college with the Principal Emily Penrose.Somerville Council Minutes, 15 June 1915

In April 1918, altered circumstances again led Vera Brittain to consider returning to Somerville. In a meeting on 7 May 1918, the college Council resolved that she should “receive for the next two years the exhibition which had previously been suspended for three years.” A letter from her brother Edward, written on 24th May, reflected her misgivings about this course of action. “I quite expected you would find Oxford rather an annoying and unsatisfactory place just now, but I think you are doing the best thing to go up again in October as one must think a bit of the future when you are in a position to be able to do so.” Somerville Council Minutes, 7 May 1918Whether proximity to her parents or the repercussions of her broken contract had inspired this change of course, a resumption of her studies was under consideration. However, by early June, she had determined to return to nursing and offered to resign her exhibition. The college decided to extend her leave of absence for another year. Somerville Council Minutes, 4 June 1918

On 15 June 1918, Vera Brittain’s brother Edward was killed in Italy. She resumed nursing that September in London and it was not until Trinity Term 1919 that she recommenced her academic life at Somerville. The following term, she was joined by the only other Somervillian to return to college from active service after the war’s end, Winifred Holtby.

March 1918: Votes and Degrees

“… all women who have been admitted to and passed the final examination, and kept the period of residence necessary for a man to obtain a degree at a University, are entitled, provided they have attained the age of 30 years, to be registered as Parliamentary Electors for the University.”
Letter from the Vice-Chancellor, University of Oxford, published in the University Gazette, 13 March 1918

Five weeks after the Representation of the People Act became law, the University Gazette published a letter from Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor. In it, he addressed the curious anomaly, which the Act had created for women at Oxford: their right to vote had been recognised by Parliament but seemingly not by the University.

The University of Oxford was a Parliamentary constituency and, since 1604, had elected two representatives to the House of Commons. Eligibility to vote depended not on the geographical location of the constituent, but on being a graduate and, despite decades of careful campaigning and measured reasoning, women were not eligible to take degrees.

However, one of the consequences of the war was the recognition of the women’s colleges and their vital role in providing academic and financial continuity for the University. In 1914, around 3000 men were undergraduates at Oxford; by 1918, there were fewer than 400 in residence. A generation of Oxford men had enlisted, many soon after the outbreak of the war, and the departure of so many students, as well as younger academics, affected the University’s ability to function and fund itself.

The women’s colleges helped sustain academic life at Oxford. Their gradual integration, at first through necessity, proved the suitability of women as members of the University. In 1915, the first women had been invited to lecture, in 1916 the study of medicine had been opened up to female students and, in 1917, the University took financial responsibility for women’s examinations. With the extension of the franchise – to women over 30, owning property or graduates in a university constituency – the exclusion of women from membership of the University of Oxford was increasingly difficult to justify.

Emily Penrose and Gilbert Murray
By September 1918, 163 Somervillians had registered as Parliamentary electors and women’s membership of the University was again under consideration. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 provided a legal basis for such a change, with a clause permitting the ancient universities to matriculate women without further legislation. The statute admitting women to membership of the University of Oxford was passed in Hilary Term 1920 and women were at last eligible to matriculate, graduate and sit on faculty boards. Thanks to Emily Penrose, who had worked to ensure Somervillians took the degree course and met all the other criteria, the first women to graduate, in the autumn of 1920, included 114 former students of Somerville College.