Locked out of the Library

Stanley Library, Girton College: illustration in Girton College by E.E.Constance Jones (1913)

Last week, Cambridge University Library (the U.L.) unlocked its doors and welcomed its first visitors back into its reading rooms, book stacks and archives. ‘The library is made by its readers’, the UL Librarian Dr Jessica Gardner has generously said. She is only the second female in the history of the institution to hold this prestigious role; there will be unanticipated challenges for her and all UL staff, as the Covid-19 pandemic means that the reopened physical library will have to change. Time slots will need to be booked in advance, and certain library services and spaces will be limited, at least for the time being. These restrictions are, of course, necessary to protect the safety of library staff and users. This blogpost is about a time when, for less valid reasons, women were locked out of the library, and how one remarkable group tried to gain entry in 1891.

For many years the University Library was ‘a contested space’ for women at Cambridge, as Dr Jill Whitelock, Head of Special Collections at the University Library, puts it. She has been researching how the control of access to the UL, alongside the university’s lecture halls and laboratories, was bound up with the status of women at Cambridge between 1869 and 1923. She gave a fascinating talk, ‘Lock up your libraries’, as part of ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition and events earlier this year, and I am very grateful to her for alerting me to a remarkable letter that was sent to the University Library Syndicate in November 1891 (and for sending me a copy of it).

Nowadays, the UL is based in the spacious Gilbert Scott-designed building that opened in 1934 in the west of the city. For centuries before then, it was situated in the ‘Old Schools’ building, by the Senate House. The old library was ‘a chaotic but atmospheric medley of disparate rooms, uneven floors and dark places for which readers could borrow lamps to light their way,’ as Whitelock writes in a Special Collections blogpost (with some excellent photographs). Her research shows how there were women readers at the university library even before the women’s colleges were established. These included a ‘Miss Henslow’, one of the daughters of Professor Joseph Stevens Henslow who had taught Charles Darwin in the 1820s. This was probably Frances Harriet Hooker, who in 1851 married Darwin’s friend Joseph Hooker; her translation of Maout and Decaisnes’ A General System of Botany, Descriptive and Analytical from French into English was published in 1873 and can be consulted in the UL’s Rare Books Reading Room (MD.40.65).       

Girton College was founded in 1869, Newnham College two years later. That year, following a vote by the Syndicate, the first woman reader’s card was issued to Ella Bulley (later Ella S. Armitage), one of Newnham’s ‘first five’ students who lived in the college’s earliest premises, a gloomy rented house in Regent Street. She was 30 years old, and so was permitted a year-long card (all of the library’s readers then had to be over 21). Three years later she became Newnham’s first research student and, after her marriage to Rev. Armitage, she continued her work, teaching at Owens College, Manchester and publishing several books on medieval history. Her library card was preserved by the UL and was displayed in ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition of 2019-20, curated by Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin.  

(Ella Bulley, UL library card, 1871)

One of the other five students was Mary Paley Marshall (née Paley) who took charge of the small collection of books that students could borrow. She was, in effect, Newnham College’s first librarian. In 1874 she became the first of two women to take the Cambridge Tripos (final year exams) in Moral Sciences, along with Ella’s younger sister Amy, and was the college’s first resident lecturer.

By the 1880s, women at Cambridge seemed to be gaining ground. In 1881 women gained the right to take the Tripos exams on equal terms to male students (see my blogpost here), and in 1887 the University Library’s age restriction for readers was dropped, allowing women under 21 to use the library for the first time.

Coincidentally, this was also the year that a Cambridge female student made the national headlines. In 1887 Agnata Frances Ramsay (later Butler) of Girton College was the only student to be placed in the first class of the Classical Tripos. Three years later, Newnham College was in the spotlight when Philippa Fawcett, Millicent Fawcett’s daughter, outperformed all of the male students in the 1890 Mathematics Tripos. Their success in the two subjects that were traditionally considered as the preserve of men,Classics and Mathematics, caused a sensation. Women students had now proved that their intellectual ability was equal to that of their male counterparts, and conservative forces at the University became uneasy.

This was reflected in a tightening of the rules permitting access to the University Library. The hours that readers who were ‘non-members’ (i.e. women) could use it were reduced from 10 until 2pm (from 4pm previously), and in autumn 1891 it was proposed that a fee should be introduced. Non-members would be limited to use the library only from 10am until 2pm, and were restricted to certain areas. As Rita McWilliams-Tullberg points out in Women At Cambridge (1998), this restriction ‘was most hardly felt by the staffs of the women’s colleges who, whatever their degree of scholarship, could only use one of the world’s finest libraries on the same conditions as members of the general public’ (156).

By this time Girton and Newnham had been established for over twenty years, and their success as colleges had been proven by the excellent exam results of their students, as well as the research record of their lecturers and tutors, who could now only use the library on extremely limited terms. In November 1891, exactly twenty years after Ella Bulley’s reader’s card was issued, a letter was delivered to the University Library Syndicate. The letter asked for the new proposal to be reconsidered, and was signed by twenty-four women who described themselves as ‘former Students of Girton and Newnham Colleges who have obtained places in Various Triposes’. They were happy to pay the proposed fee, they said, but respectfully requested permission ‘to work in the Library with the same freedom as heretofore’, explaining politely that for ‘some of us who have morning engagements’ the reduced hours meant that it was now almost impossible for them to use the library for their research.


In ‘History of the Library’, vol. V, 1886-1900, UL classmark ULIB 6/5/5

It’s plain from the list of the signatories that their ‘morning engagements’ meant work: the letter is signed by lecturers and librarians, researchers and laboratory demonstrators, star students and scholars. They include the linguists Margaret Janson Tuke (Dame Margaret Tuke, D.B.E.), the Newnham lecturer who would later found Bedford College in 1907 (now merged with Royal Holloway, University of London) and Bertha Skeat, the first resident lecturer at the Cambridge Training College for Women Teachers (now Hughes Hall).

Scientists who signed the letter include Ida Freund, the first woman to become a chemistry lecturer in the UK; Dorothea F.M. Pertz, who had co-published papers on geotropism and heliotropism in plants with Francis Darwin; and the botanist and geneticist Edith Rebecca Saunders, who would work closely with Bateson after 1897. ‘Saunders had several years of independent research under her belt when she started to collaborate with William Bateson,’ writes Susannah Gibson in The Spirit of Inquiry (2019) ‘she was not a junior colleague, but very much his equal.’ Saunders conducted her groundbreaking plant experiments at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, and with Bateson co-founded the Genetics Society in 1919. Christine Alexander, librarian of Cambridge University’s Plant Sciences Department, has compiled a fascinating online collection about Saunders’ influential work.

The 1891 group also included Newnham’s famous recent graduate Philippa Fawcett (Mathematics tripos Parts 1 & II 1890-1) as well as one of the first women to sit for the Tripos almost 20 years previously, Mary Paley Marshall (Moral Sciences Tripos 1874). She had returned to lecturing in economics at Newnham after teaching male and female students at Bristol and Oxford Universities. The letter is also signed by two of her fellow Ladies’ Dining Society members and ‘sometime’ Newnham lecturers Ellen Wordsworth Darwin and Mary Ward; like Paley Marshall, they were active in promoting higher education and suffrage for women, and continued to research and write.

Most of these women are connected to Newnham College, but the letter is also signed by E.E. Constance Jones, who was then a lecturer in Moral Sciences at Girton College as well as its librarian, and would become Mistress of Girton from 1903 until 1916. One of the two women who organized the petition was economic historian Ellen A. Mc Arthur (Hist. Tripos 1885) who was a Girton lecturer and the first woman to receive the degree of ‘Doctor of Letters’ from the University of Dublin (see my ‘Steamboat ladies’ post). The other person who arranged the letter was the Newnham historian and lecturer Mary Bateson, a sister of William Bateson. Their mother Anna Bateson, and sister Anna, co-founded the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association in 1884, and Mary was also an active suffragist.  She became a Newnham Fellow in 1903, was instrumental in the foundation of the College’s first research fellowships, and worked closely with the legal historian F.W. Maitland.

The 1891 petition offers a snapshot of twenty-four extraordinary women from two Cambridge colleges who had studied, researched, taught and published during the previous twenty years. Ironically, their books were welcomed by the UL even if they were not – including Paley Marshall’s The Economics of Industry (1879), co-written with Alfred Marshall, and E.E. Constance Jones’s Elements of logic as a science of propositions (1890) – her An introduction to general logic would be acquired in 1892. These and many more of their books and scholarly papers can be consulted there today.

In 1891 these women had already achieved much – and would go on to do much more – but the tide had turned against Cambridge women who dared to excel, and their request for greater access to the library fell on deaf ears. The Syndicate’s policy became more, not less restrictive, and in May 1897, after thousands protested outside the Senate House against the vote to allow women degrees, the UL Librarian Francis Jenkinson confirmed that non-members’ access to the library would be limited until midday only.

Locked out of the University Library, staff and supporters of Girton and Newnham raised funds to build up their own magnificent college libraries, which today have around 100,000 books each. Tennyson, Ruskin and George Eliot were early supporters of Girton College Library, and there is more about the history of Newnham College’s library here.

In 1923, Cambridge women finally won the right to become readers on the same terms as the men. Two years later, Mary Paley Marshall, who had been Newnham’s first librarian over fifty years previously, co-founded the Marshall Library of Economics and worked there as librarian until her late eighties. On her death in 1944 she bequeathed £10,000 to the University “for the development and increased usefulness of the Marshall Library”. From the beginning it was equally useful, and accessible, to male and female readers.

Like the UK’s other major research libraries, the UL did not close during lockdown (see this excellent LRB article by Bodleian Librarian, Richard Ovenden). While the building was closed to protect staff and readers, Cambridge University Librarians shifted their work online, making many more collections available digitally and using their research skills to support researchers. The physical Library has begun to re-open safely this month thanks to the hard work put in during the past months by its staff, who continue to help readers to have ongoing access to the collections in all their forms.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, 19 August 2020. All rights reserved.



Girton College by E.E.Constance Jones (1913); available at the UL (Cam.c.913.2)

SOURCES: My thanks to Jill Whitelock and Carolyn Ferguson for their generous help. Any remaining errors are my own. Christine Alexander ‘My Colleague, Miss Saunders’; E. Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999); Susannah Gibson The Spirit of Inquiry (OUP, 2019) (see my TLS review here); Rita McWilliams-Tullberg Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1998); Jill Whitelock ‘M.R. James and the ghosts of the old University Library’, Cambridge University Library Special Collections blog https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=18923; more about Ellen McArthur in King’s College’s ‘Women At King’s’ online exhibition here: https://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/archive-centre/online-resources/online-exhibitions/women-at-kings

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