This year marks 150 years since Cambridge University opened its doors to women for the first time. Girton College‘s founder Emily Davies was clear that ‘the College is intended to be a dependency, a living branch of Cambridge.’ In October 1869, however, its connections to the University were still uncertain. Davies herself insisted that her college should be based at Hitchin, far enough away to keep her students safe from the unwanted attention of male students.
There was another, equally significant event for women’s education at Cambridge that year. In December 1869, what historian Rita Mc Williams-Tullberg has described as ‘a momentous meeting’ took place in the Brookside drawing-room of Millicent Fawcett and her professor husband Henry Fawcett. The Cambridge Higher Local Examination for Women had come into being not long before, primarily to establish standards for women over eighteen who wanted to become teachers or governesses. But the Fawcetts and a small group of supporters of women’s university education, including Henry Sidgwick, wanted to take it further. They decided that the Higher Local Examination should be used as a stepping stone for women to attend lectures in the town itself, and within a few months of this meeting, Cambridge’s first series of Lectures for Women began. This blogpost is about one of the first women who passed that entrance examination in 1871, and found herself staying in Cambridge for longer than she or anyone else expected.
Mary Paley was the great-granddaughter of the eighteenth-century theologian and philosopher William Paley. She grew up in a rose-covered rectory in the village of Ufford in Northamptonshire, about forty miles north of Cambridge. Her father, the Reverend Thomas Paley, was a strict Evangelical clergyman whose powerful sermons shook the little church and baffled the congregation, as Mary wrote in her memoir What I Remember. Her mother Judith, by contrast, was ‘full of initiative and always bright and amusing’. Summers at the rectory were idyllic for Mary and her brother and sister, who spent happy days playing croquet and rounders in the garden and looking after their Shetland pony, rabbits and hens. Visitors came to stay for weeks on end and there were outings to Scarborough and Hunstanton. Winters were dull, especially after their brother was sent off to boarding school. The muddy country roads around the rectory were impassable and there were few interesting people to see. Their bright German governess left when Mary was thirteen, and she and her sister were expected to fill their time with Sunday school teaching and keeping their mother company in visiting the poor and sick.
Fortunately for Mary, her father had an unusual attitude to learning. Reverend Paley did not see why his daughters’ education should stop at age thirteen or be limited to certain subjects. ‘We had a father who took part in work and play and who was interested in electricity and photography’, Mary recalled. He even entertained the whole village occasionally with his scientific demonstrations. At home in the evenings he read aloud to his children everything from The Arabian Nights, Gulliver’s Travels and the Iliad to Shakespeare and Walter Scott, ‘those fireside bulwarks of the old-fashioned home evenings’ as F.M. Mayor wrote in The Rector’s Daughter, a wonderful evocation of a similar Victorian upbringing published in 1924.* Reverend Paley’s strong religious principles meant that there were limits, however. He disapproved of the novels of Charles Dickens and once threw his Mary and her sister’s beloved dolls into the fire: ‘he said we were making them into idols and we never had any more.’
When her sister left home to get married, Mary’s own duties seemed duller than ever. To give his bright daughter something to do, and perhaps dissuade her from marrying an army officer, Reverend Paley encouraged her to enter for the Cambridge Higher Local Examination. He set about coaching Mary in divinity and mathematics and they studied Potts’ Euclid’s Elements of Geometry together. Although she wept over the ‘Conic Sections’ paper, Mary passed the examination with distinction in the summer of 1871, and was awarded a small scholarship to attend the University’s Lectures for Women on condition that she resided in Cambridge.
At the time, the idea that single women might live apart from their parents and attend lectures was, as Mary said herself, ‘an outrageous proceeding’. Fortunately for her, her father had met Anne Jemima Clough, whom Henry Sidgwick had asked to take charge of the house at 74 Regent Street near the centre of Cambridge (later it moved to Newnham and, like Girton, became a college). Mary would be one of five students living there. Reverend Paley’s admiration for Miss Clough’s commitment to women’s higher education and his pride in his daughter’s achievements helped him to overcome his misgivings, and he gave Mary permission to leave home.
In her memoir Mary described how she came to Cambridge for ‘general cultivation’ and only expected to stay for three terms. She chose to study Latin, History, Literature and Logic, which Reverend Paley thought of as ‘such a safe subject’. But if he thought that his daughter would be unchanged by a Cambridge education he was mistaken. In her first term Mary obediently attended evangelical services and taught at St Giles’s Sunday school, as her father wished. But soon, she said, ‘Mill’s Inductive Logic and Ecce Homo and Herbert Spencer and the general tone of thought gradually undermined my old beliefs.’ Nothing was ever the same again for Mary, or for the generations of women who have followed her to gain a Cambridge education.
In 1874 Mary Paley was one of the first two women to take Cambridge University’s Moral Sciences Tripos (final examinations) in Political Economy, Politics and Philosophy, and she became the university’s first residential woman lecturer in economics at Newnham College in 1875. In 1924, as Mary Paley Marshall, she co-founded the University’s Marshall Library of Economics where she also worked until she was 87.
Rita McWilliams Tullberg, Women at Cambridge: a men’s university, though of a mixed type (1975); Mary Paley Marshall, What I Remember (1947); F.M. Mayor, The Rector’s Daughter (Virago Modern Classics, 1924, reissued by Virago in 1987)
- The Rector’s Daughter one of the ‘overlooked classics’ recommended by Susan Hill in The Novel Cure (2013). Flora Macdonald Mayor’s character, coincidentally also called Mary, is the unmarried 35-year-old daughter of elderly Canon Jocelyn, a clergyman in a small East Anglian village. The fictional Mary did not sit for Cambridge’s Higher Local Examination or marry, so there was no escape from her rector’s daughter’s duties: “On the whole she was happy. She did not question the destiny life brought her. People spoke pityingly of her, but she did not feel she required pity.” F.M. Mayor herself attended Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1890s where she read History. It is likely that she met Mary Paley Marshall while she was there.