Locked out of the library, 1891

This week I’m delighted to be taking part in a panel discussion organized by St John’s College FemSoc on the theme of Women In Academia with University Librarian Dr Jessica Gardner and Professor Helen McCarthy, author of the prize-winning Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood (2020). As well as the history of women at Cambridge, wider issues to be discussed include the experiences of women in different professional settings and the importance of remembering histories to inform our future. For their support of my research this year I am personally grateful to the Women’s History Network, the national association for historians with a passion for women’s history. To mark the occasion I’m reposting my blog ‘Locked out of the library’ (below) about Cambridge University’s pioneering women scholars who were denied access to the University Library in the 1890s. I’m pleased to say it’s a welcoming space for all scholars and researchers today, both within the academy and beyond.

‘Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.’ Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)

For many years the University Library (known as the U.L.) 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 U.L., alongside the university’s lecture halls and laboratories, was bound up with the status of women at Cambridge between 1869 and 1923, and gave a fascinating talk, ‘Lock up your libraries’, as part of the ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition and events of 2019-20 (curated by Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin). I am very grateful to Dr Whitelock for alerting me to a remarkable letter that was sent to the University Library Syndicate in November 1891, and for sending me a photograph of it. My blogpost below is about some of the women who signed the 1891 letter; there is much more background in Whitelock’s excellent recent article ‘”Lock up your libraries”? Women readers at Cambridge University Library, 1855–1923’ now published in Library & Information History, (Volume 38 Issue 1, Page 1-22, ISSN 1758) and free to read online.

Nowadays, the U.L. is based in the striking Gilbert Scott-designed building that opened in 1934 in the west of the city (see Whitelock’s blogpost ‘The abandoned library’ here). Before 1934 the University’s library 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 ‘M. R. James and the ghosts of the old University Library’ here. It was chiefly a space for male academics and researchers, but Whitelock’s research shows that there were also women readers who used the university library for their research long before the first ‘ladies’ college’, Girton, was established in 1869. These included a ‘Miss Henslow’, one of the daughters of Professor Joseph Stevens Henslow who had taught Charles Darwin in the 1820s. Miss Henslow was probably Frances Harriet (later Mrs 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 U.L.’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 Newnham’s Ella Bulley (who would become renowned later as the scholar and archeologist Ella S. Armitage). In 1871 she was one of the ‘first five’ students who lived in the Newnham College’s earliest premises, a rented house in Regent Street. Because she was 30 when she began her studies, she was permitted a year-long card (all of the library’s readers then had to be over 21). Three years later, she would become Newnham’s first research student and, after her marriage to Reverend Elkanah Armitage, with whom she had two children, she continued her academic work, teaching at Owens College in Manchester (which became part of the University of Manchester) and publishing several books on medieval history. Her library card was preserved by the U.L. and was displayed in ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition of 2019-20.  

(Ella Bulley, U.L. library card, 1871)

One of the other five students was Mary Paley Marshall (then Mary 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 Bulley. A year later Paley Marshall became Newnham’s first resident lecturer, teaching Political Economy ‘from a philanthropic woman’s point of view’, as a former student, Winnie Seebohm wrote.

By the 1880s, women at Cambridge seemed to be gaining ground. In 1881 female students gained the right to take the Tripos exams on equal terms to the 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 woman 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. Cambridge women had now proved that their intellectual ability could be superior to that of their male counterparts, and conservative forces at the University were becoming uneasy that they would invade other, traditionally male, spaces.

This was reflected in a tightening of the rules permitting access to the University Library. The hours that readers who were University ‘non-members’ (which included women) could use the library 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 now be permitted 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 (revised edition 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’ (p. 156).

Crucially, by now Girton and Newnham’s academic success had been proven not only by the excellent exam results of their students, but also by the research record of their lecturers and tutors, who had published books and academic papers. Regardless of their achievements, they could now only use the library on extremely limited terms. In November 1891, twenty years after Ella Bulley’s reader’s card was issued, a petition in the form of a letter was delivered to the University Library Syndicate. The letter politely asked for the new library rules 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 respectfully requested permission ‘to work in the Library with the same freedom as heretofore’, explaining politely that for those who had ‘morning engagements’ (that is, teaching students) the reduced hours meant that it would now be 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

The letter was signed by twenty-four women lecturers and librarians, researchers and laboratory demonstrators, star students and scholars from the first twenty years of Girton and Newnham. They include the linguists Margaret Janson Tuke (Dame Margaret Tuke, D.B.E.), the Newnham lecturer who would later head 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, who was 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 worked closely with the biologist William Bateson. ‘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 most famous student, 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 was now back in Cambridge after some years teaching male and female students at Oxford and the newly founded Bristol University, where 30 years later she would be awarded an honorary doctorate for her contribution (see post here). The letter is also signed by two of her fellow Ladies’ Dining Society members and ‘sometime’ (i.e. previous) 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. The letter is also signed by E.E. Constance Jones, then a lecturer in Moral Sciences at Girton, who would become Girton College Mistress (head) from 1903 until 1916.

The two women who organized the 1891 petition One was the Girton economic historian Ellen A. Mc Arthur (History Tripos 1885), who would become the first woman to receive an honorary ad eundam doctorate from the University of Dublin, based on her academic publications (see my ‘Steamboat Ladies’ post here). The other person was the Newnham historian and lecturer Mary Bateson (History Tripos 1887) a sister of William Bateson. Her mother Anna Bateson and sister Anna, had co-founded the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association in 1884, and Mary was also an active suffragist as well as a serious scholar.  She worked closely with the legal historian F.W. Maitland and was instrumental in the foundation of Newnham’s first research fellowship in 1903. As Dockray Miller writes, Mary Bateson ‘firmly believed, twenty-five years before Virginia Woolf addressed the faculty and students of Newnham College about the necessity of “a room of one’s own,” that women could not pursue serious scholarship without the financial and professional support of an academic institution.’

The 1891 petition offers a snapshot of twenty-four extraordinary women who had studied, researched, taught and published at Cambridge during the past twenty years. It is ironic that their books were welcomed by the U.L. even though 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). (Jones’s An introduction to general logic would be acquired in 1892; W. Cunningham and Ellen A. McArthur’s Outlines of English Industrial History in 1895; Mary Bateson’s Mediaeval England, 1066-1350 in 1903) . These and many more of their books and scholarly papers can still be consulted there today.

In 1891 these women had already achieved much – and would go on to do much more – but it was a period when the tide had turned against Cambridge women who dared to excel. Their request for greater access to the library fell on deaf ears, and the Syndicate’s policy became more, not less restrictive. In May 1897, after thousands gathered outside the Senate House to protest against the vote to allow women the title of degrees, the U.L. Librarian Francis Jenkinson confirmed that non-members’ access to the library would be limited yet again, until midday only.

So, locked out of the University Library as they were, 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, George Eliot and many others were early supporters of Girton College’s Stanley Library, and Newnham College’s beautiful Yates Thompson Library, see below. It was not until 1923 that Cambridge women students finally won the right to become readers at the U.L. on the same terms as the men.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

Yates Thompson Library, Newnham College (photo: Ann Kennedy Smith, 2022)


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

SOURCES: My thanks to Jill Whitelock and to 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); Mary Dockray Miller, ‘Mary Bateson (1865-1906): Scholar and Suffragist’ in Women Medievalists and the Academy, edited by Jane Chance (Wisconsin, 2005); Susannah Gibson, The Spirit of Inquiry (OUP, 2019) (see my TLS review here); Rita McWilliams-Tullberg Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1975; revised edition 1998); Jill Whitelock, ‘”Lock up your libraries”? Women readers at Cambridge University Library, 1855–1923’ in Library & Information History, Volume 38 Issue 1, Page 1-22, ISSN 1758-3489 (available online Apr 2022)

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