“Rather a tall person, in black” was Helen Gladstone’s typically diffident description of herself, which, according to one former student of hers, was “not at all suggestive of that vivid and compelling personality with its alert and vigorous carriage and striking distinction of features and expression”. In 1877 she began her studies at Newnham Hall (later renamed Newnham College); at 28, she was possibly the oldest of the twenty-five students there. At first she worried that she was neglecting her “home duties” by choosing to study, but told herself that her presence at Cambridge would help to break down prejudices about women’s higher education. “The fact of a daughter of Papa… being sent here ought to have a good influence”, she wrote.
William Gladstone, who would become Prime Minister for the second time in 1880, had long been against university education for women (he complained about the “invasion” of women students at Oxford), but he made an exception in Helen’s case; after all, his unmarried older daughter Mary was at home to look after her parents. Of the Gladstones’ seven surviving children, Helen was thought to resemble her father most, and at Newnham he often found his way into her thoughts and conversations: “certainly one could not be ten minutes in her company without knowing that he was her father”, a fellow student commented years later: ‘”Indeed I think one of the things that kept her such a very “unmarried” person was her ingrained attitude of daughter,” she recalled. “This went beyond her earthly father, through to God.”
Helen was deeply religious, and regularly attended services at Selwyn College – the Gladstones donated generously towards building the new chapel there – as Newnham had, from the outset, no religious affiliation. She had intended only to stay in Cambridge for a year, but ended up studying for three years, then took the higher local examination in political economy. After finishing her studies she became Secretary to the Principal, Nora Sidgwick, and in January 1882 she accepted the post of Vice-Principal of Newnham, with her father’s blessing.
Helen met Charles and Emma Darwin for the first time in Cambridge in 1880, introduced by Charles Darwin’s youngest son Horace and his wife Ida. They had moved to Cambridge after their marriage in January and were both active supporters of the new college at Newnham. When Charles and Emma came to visit them in August 1880 they were introduced to their new friend Helen Gladstone. They all got on famously, so much so that Helen was invited to the Darwins’ family home in Kent the following summer, and they all met again in Cambridge in October 1881.
Charles Darwin’s death six months later came as a shock. A week later, on Wednesday 26 April 1882, Helen Gladstone attended his funeral at Westminster Abbey. She went in the place of her father, who as Prime Minister was giving an important speech on the Irish question that day, as she explained to Ida. It was true that this was a time of crisis for the government: increasing political violence in Ireland had led to secret negotiations that, two weeks later, would see the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell released early from Kilmainham Gaol.
But there may have been other, more tactical reasons for Gladstone’s absence at Westminster Abbey. As a leading light in the Church of England, it might have been seen as inappropriate for him to attend the funeral of a great naturalist whose theory of natural evolution had nothing to do with God. Helen’s attendance at Darwin’s funeral was a personal expression of sorrow, and it was more sincere than her father’s would have been.
In 1886 Helen Gladstone was offered the post of Principal of the new Royal Holloway College for women in London. It was an acknowledgement of her contribution to women’s education, and Gladstone was deeply proud of his daughter. He wrote her a heartfelt letter urging her to accept the position. “Your life has a distinct purpose,” he told her. “After all we have heard and seen, there can be no doubt that you have upon you the marks of a distinct vocation. The call is from on high and I really do not think you have a right to overlook, or not to follow the marks of it.”
Helen was very touched by her father’s recognition of her work, and his growing respect for her much-loved college: Mr and Mrs Gladstone travelled to Newnham to plant a tree there in 1887. However, after much thought, Helen decided that her “home duties” had to take precedence over the offer of the London University principalship. Her sister Mary had recently married, so might be leaving Hawarden at any time. So Helen stayed on as Vice-Principal at Newnham for another ten years, with frequent trips back to care for her parents.
In 1896, just before she finally left Cambridge to move back permanently to her family home, Helen Gladstone did one last, significant thing. She asked her father to sign the official Memorial calling for women to be granted degrees “in some form” at Cambridge University. There is no evidence that Gladstone ever signed it, and the vote was heavily defeated in the Senate House in 1897 in any case. But for Helen Gladstone, it was perhaps enough that she felt that she could count on her father’s support, and the work that she had done at Newnham College for almost twenty years had meant something.
© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved.
Sources: Photograph of Helen Gladstone by Barraud; reproduced with permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London. ‘Gladstone, Helen (1849-1925), educationist’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Anne Isba, Gladstone and Women (Hambledon Continuum, 2006); Newnham College Roll ‘Letter’ Jan 1926; Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Pimlico, 2002); Emma Darwin’s diaries 242:44-7 and Ida Darwin’s Papers (Cambridge University Library); BBC Witness (9 mins, accessed 25/4/18). With thanks to the Manuscripts department at Cambridge University Library; Anne Thomson, Newnham College archivist and Elizabeth Stratton, Selwyn College archivist.