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‘Of Oxford … chiefly North’: Women in Oxford

A brief history of women in Oxford and their experiences studying. Oxford is a place ...

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19th CenturyGender & SexualityOxfordResearch & Opinion

‘Of Oxford … chiefly North’: Women in Oxford

A brief history of women in Oxford and their experiences studying. Oxford is a place ...

return to all posts

19th CenturyGender & SexualityOxfordResearch & Opinion

A brief history of women in Oxford and their experiences studying.

Oxford is a place of contrast and division: town and gown, industry and ivory towers, poverty and privilege. In the expansion and reform of the nineteenth century, another division – that of men and women – was imbedded in the growing landscape of town and university. Accordingly, when the first women students took up residence at Lady Margaret Hall, Sommerville and St Hugh’s between 1879 and 1886 they spoke of their Oxford: that is ‘Of Oxford … chiefly North’.[1]

In the mid-nineteenth century, Oxford was a semi-rural market town, home to a near-monastic, indisputably masculine university. A century later, Vera Brittain depicted a lively place, in which the bicycles that jostled cars on busy streets were ridden as often by young women as by young men.[2] What had happened in these hundreds years to so radically change the make-up and sociability of this ancient place? Learn more about those left out of tradditional Oxford narratives on our Hidden Histories tour.

View of St. Hugh's College from the gardens, showing a vibrant green lawn leading up to a red brick stone building.
St Hugh’s College, viewed from the gardens. The college moved to its current location in 1913. It remained, however, comfortably in North Oxford, a stone’s throw away from its first home on Norham Road.

The answer lies in the suburbs. In the mid-nineteenth century the town was expanding and North Oxford emerged as a middle class suburb on the edge of the university town. In physical terms, I am referring to the streets north of South Parks Road and where St Giles divides into Banbury and Woodstock. It was there that the first women’s colleges set up home in 1879. Somerville, behind its high, fortress-like walls, suggested a cloistered, guarded community, whilst LMH was secluded away in what was practically the last house in Oxford: ‘[b]eyond’, recollected former student Janet Courtney, ‘were only water-meadows and the Cherwell and the fields stretching to Marston.’[3] The growth of North Oxford in the preceding decades would be key to the success of these colleges as suburban expansion influenced the cultural and social life of town and university.

Before the 1870s, “Ladies” were a rare thing in the social circles of university society. By the 1880s, however, they had begun to appear at open lectures and inter-collegiate debates. These women were teachers, independent householders, the daughters of dignitaries and young women on cultural visits. After 1879, women students slowly appeared on the scene, ‘existing’, as Courtney put it, ‘on sufferance, domiciled in one of the two then existing “Halls of residence”’, or else enrolled at The Society for Home Students’. By the mid-80s these women collectively formed a distinct section of university society, much to the ire of those ‘[c]elibate Fellows of the older persuasion [who] shook their heads in Senior Common Rooms over the college port, deploring the innovation’.[4]

This innovation was centred around North Oxford. By 1881 women outnumbered men in North Oxford three to one. Women of independent means made up a third of all household heads and twenty per cent of all households were comprised of solely female occupants.[5] This was compounded by a servant population that doubled the number of householders and was, overwhelmingly, young and female. This signalled a change in Oxford society, whilst situating this new section of society firmly on the edges of town. Thus, on the periphery of this ancient place flourished an altogether more feminine space.

A picture looking out a window above a long line of students in their graduation gowns.
Students gather in the centre of Oxford, waiting to matriculate. Until 1920, this was a purely male spectacle and a privilege denied to the women studying at Oxford. These women were members of Lady Margaret Hall (1879), Somerville (1879), St Hugh’s (1886), St Hilda’s (1893) and The Society for Home Students (1879), later St Anne’s. Until 1920, they did not, however, belong to Oxford.

This was influenced by university reform. In the 1870s Oxford’s attitude towards women was changing. This change came not in the context of admission – no, women were not allowed degrees until 1920 – but in the context of marriage. Until the 1870s, the life of a college don was a celibate one. Mandell Creighton was a Fellow of Merton during this period: a college which, in his words, had a reputation as ‘the most advanced and maddest College in Oxford’. As the celibacy rule relaxed and was eventually scrapped in 1877, Creighton joked to his fiancée of the coming ‘spectacle of all its Fellows rushing headlong into matrimony’.[6] Wives, however, did not belong in the confines of college walls and so the dons and their newfound domesticity set up home in North Oxford. This reinforced a growing distinction between male town and feminine suburb.

Not all were quite so excited about this change as Merton’s marriage-happy fellows. Charles Oman returned to Oxford in 1881 to take up a fellowship at All Souls. He had been away for some time and had fond memories of his undergraduate days. By 1881, he explained, ‘‘North Oxford’ had already come into existence’. When he returned, he found the new ‘sight of girls en masse, in their best frocks, conversational, restless, sometimes a little skittish… a terror’.[7] In his absence Oman felt a shift in society had come over the town, one characterised by an unexpected and unwelcome femininity. His impression of this new Oxford was akin to finding a skittish herd of horses running wild around a formerly well-kept paddock.

Lilian Faithfull, by kind permission of the Cheltenham Ladies’ College Archives

For the first women students, this sense of belonging to North Oxford was integral to their experience of university life. In The Fritillary, the joint magazine of the women’s colleges, a student wrote a poem in 1895 on ‘a Species of Chaperon now Extinct’. The poem was a tongue-in-cheek lament which began with a recognition of their Oxford, that is to say, ‘Of Oxford – chiefly North’.[8] On the periphery of university life, the women’s colleges developed their own networks, cultural traditions and fostered independent intellectual communities.[9] Lilian Faithful, a student at Somerville in the 1880s, explained, they ‘saw little of the undergraduates [by which she meant the men]… I do not think that we cared. They were not to us an important part of Oxford… [and] did not constitute Oxford life as we conceived it’.[10] Settled on the periphery, women students lived in a different social world: a world not singly created by, but inextricable from, the gendered character of the suburban space.

This marked an uncomfortable division in university life that maintained the character of an exclusively male university and strengthened the separatism of the women’s colleges. Such spatial experiences linger in memory. In 1956, ninety-three year old Elizabeth Wright recalled going into a bookshop in the town centre back in her student days. On requesting a map of the town the bookseller haughtily informed her: ‘We have only maps of Oxford. You would want the suburbs’.[11]

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Written by Jo Young


[1] ‘To a Species of Chaperon now Extinct’, The Fritillary, No. 4 (March, 1895), p. 52.

[2] Vera Brittain, The Women at Oxford: A Fragment of History (London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd, 1960), p. 21.

[3] Janet E. Courtney, An Oxford Portrait Gallery (London: Chapman & Hall, 1931), p. 228.

[4] Courtney, An Oxford Portrait Gallery, p. 213.

[5] Tanis Hinchcliffe, North Oxford (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 168–69.

[6] Quoted in Brittain, p. 41. This quotation comes from a letter written by Mandell Creighton to his then fiancée, the later Louise Creighton.

[7] Charles Oman, Memories of Victorian Oxford and of Some Early Years (London: Methuen, 1942), p. 137.

[8] ‘To a Species of Chaperon now Extinct’, The Fritillary, No. 4 (March, 1895), p. 52.

[9] See, for example, Vicinus, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850-1920, pp. 121–62.

[10] Lilian M. Faithfull, In the House of My Pilgrimage (London: Chatto & Windus, 1924), pp. 61–62.

[11] Quoted in Brittain, The Women at Oxford, p. 71.