Steamboat Ladies: women at Cambridge & Dublin


Women undergraduates were first admitted to Ireland’s oldest university, Trinity College Dublin, in 1904. One of the most important episodes to raise Irish women’s academic reputation was the awarding of ad eundem gradum (an academic degree awarded by one university to an alumnus/alumna of another) to women who had studied at Cambridge and Oxford in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but had not been given degrees. Girton College was the UK’s first residential institution, offering university education for women from 1869, and Newnham was founded two years later. Oxford’s first women’s colleges were established in the 1870s.

But although women had been studying at degree level and succeeding in final year exams at both Oxford and Cambridge for over thirty years, they continued to be refused degrees at those universities. Trinity College Dublin needed money to build a hall of residence for its first women students, and a former Girton student suggested a good way of raising those funds might be to offer degrees to ‘Oxbridge’ women. So, for a small fee, over 700 former students, including distinguished headmistresses, teachers and academics, travelled to Dublin by special arrangement to be given their degrees at Trinity between 1904 and 1907. They were nicknamed the ‘Steamboat Ladies’ for the cheap ferry transport they used to to cross the Irish Sea from Holyhead.

Inviting these women to attend a formal graduation ceremony on the same terms as male students was a remarkable act of forward thinking on the part of Trinity. The scheme’s success took almost everyone by surprise, as Susan M. Parkes writes in her book A Danger to the Men? A History of Women in Trinity College Dublin 1904-2004 (Lilliput Press 2004). The Trinity Board had presumed only a handful of Irish women who had studied at Oxford and Cambridge would take up the offer, and were surprised when hundreds of women arranged to make the journey to Dublin. ‘These distinguished women of varying ages were the leaders of women’s secondary and higher education in Britain’, Parkes writes. ‘Trinity was honoured by their presence, and though the majority of the “Steamboat Ladies” probably never returned to Dublin, they remained proud holders of University of Dublin degrees’.

Steamboat ladies

Seeing so many distinguished professional women gathered together – among them lecturers, senior civil servants, medical doctors and journalists – proved inspirational to Trinity’s first generation of female students, who on regular occasions from December 1904 onwards watched the gown-and mortarboard-wearing Oxbridge pioneers proceed from the Provost’s house (where they had been given a good lunch) to the college’s gracious Front Square where they posed for photographs on the steps of the Dining Hall. 

The last ‘Steamboat Ladies’ ceremony took place in 1907, and the revenue generated enabled the purchase of Trinity’s hall of residence for women, ‘Trinity Hall’ in south Dublin. Its first Warden (who stayed in post for the next thirty-two years) was Elizabeth Margaret Cunningham, formerly a modern languages at Girton College in the 1890s. She was herself one of the original ‘Steamboat Ladies’, travelling back to Ireland from her post as a lecturer at Royal Holloway College London. In 1908 she gave up her promising academic career in England to return to Dublin and make Trinity Hall a welcoming place for TCD’s female students. She wanted them to have the chance to experience the atmosphere of encouragement and support that she had enjoyed while studying at Girton.   

Sixty years later, in 1968, Professor Barbara Wright (née Robinson) who completed her Ph.D. degree at Newnham College Cambridge in 1962) became one of the first four women to be elected to the Fellowship of Trinity College Dublin. To mark the occasion, Dame Ruth Cowen (then Principal of Newnham College Cambridge) gave Professor Wright a remarkable gift: one of the original graduation gowns worn by one of Newnham’s Steamboat Ladies. ‘I thought that was really moving that they wanted to mark the full accession of women to all stages in Trinity, in gratitude for what Trinity had done for them’, Wright said in a 2019 broadcast.  ‘These were very important women, in society, and in the world of learning, and it was extremely important that they should be recognised as such.’

It was wonderful to see this historic gown on display in last year’s Cambridge University Library exhibition ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’  (my review in the Times Literary Supplement is free to read here) As a TCD student in the early 1980s I was fortunate enough to be taught by Professor Wright and it was partly thanks to her inspiring teaching and encouragement that I came to Cambridge to study for my own Ph.D. in French Literature in 1985. It’s lovely that such historic, tangible connections exist between the first women at Trinity College Dublin and at Cambridge University.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

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