It’s still shocking to think that while Cambridge was one of the first universities to offer women residential university education (Girton College opened its doors in 1869, Newnham in 1871) it was the last UK university to award them degrees, in 1948. Women students, lecturers, postgraduate scholars and scientists were denied not only Cambridge degrees but also research funding and scholarships, and had only restricted access to the University Library for many years.
Recently I was pleased to give a talk to the Cambridge Archivists’ Group highlighting the work of two campaigning historians, Mary Bateson at Newnham and Ellen McArthur at Girton from the late 19th to the early 20th century. I discussed how they not only succeeded in their own academic research and campaigned for the title of degrees to be awarded to women in 1897, they also actively promoted women’s scholarship at Cambridge and left legacies that continue today.
My thanks to the group for inviting me; below is a link to their excellent blogpost about my talk.
In 1950, Florence Ada Keynes published her memoir, Gathering Up the Threads: A study in family biography. It paints a memorable picture of her time as one of the first students at Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1870s, when she recalls being amused by the names of ‘Greef’, ‘Sadd’ and ‘Pain’ over the shops in King’s Parade, Cambridge (see Rayner’s watercolour from the early 1900s, above).
As part of my research into the early years of women at Cambridge, I was looking through Newnham College’s account books from the 1880s when the name ‘Greef’ caught my eye. There was a carefully written note of a payment made to ‘L. Greef, painter’, and I assumed that this referred to a man. After some further research into Greef’s college account books dating bak to 1798 held at Cambridge University Library (see below), I discovered that Louisa Greef was a woman. She took charge of a long-established family business that had provided plumbing and glazing to the men’s colleges for over a hundred years, and she successfully took it in a new direction.
Louisa was born Louisa Headdey in Cambridge in 1829, the fourth and youngest child of William Headdey, a butler at Clare Hall (now Clare College) and Elizabeth Headdey (1807-1887). She married Robert Greef at All Saints’ Church in 1863 and moved into his family home at 4 King’s Parade. There, the Greefs’ home and business was situated between John Swan, a retired bootmaker and his wife, and Mary Careless, a bedmaker with her five student lodgers. The Greefs had a cook and a housemaid, and three undergraduate lodgers. Louisa’s mother Elizabeth Headdey who was living with them was listed as an ‘assistant’. Robert Greef ran the long-established family business that provided plumbing and window glazing services to the colleges.
A year later Robert and Louisa’s only child, Louisa Ellen Greef, was born, but sadly she died just a few weeks later. The family grave is in Mill Road Cemetery, and there is more information about the Greefs on this excellent website. In the 1871 census Robert Greef was listed as a ‘Plumber Master employing 10 men’. In 1872 the couple were joined by Louisa’s 17 year old nephew Arthur Headdey (the son of Louisa’s brother William) who came to work for them as a trainee accountant, and his younger cousin Henry Edward Fuller (born 1858) the son of Louisa’s sister Elizabeth. He started working for the firm as an apprentice plumber.
In 1876 Robert died aged 43, and Louisa, aged 47, took charge. It was not unknown for a widow to take over the family business in this way. After Robert’s father died in 1838, his mother Ann run the business while bringing up three children, and Louisa’s sister Elizabeth Fuller, also a widow, had been running her husband’s bakery and brewery business at 45 Sidney Street since 1869. Her older son was now working as a college cook and her daughter Annie was a music governess.
With the help of her two nephews, Louisa soon expanded the business. According to the 1881 she employed thirty men, meaning that within five years, the company’s size had tripled. This was largely thanks to her decision to move into the area of painting and decorating, to cater for the growing demands of colleges and domestic customers in the new family houses springing up around Cambridge. Among them was the Keynes’s house in the new development of Harvey Road. Louisa was ambitious: ‘L.Greef, Plumber, Glazier, Plain & Decorative Painter and Paperhanger’ was advertised in Spalding’s Almanack stating that they provide window glazing for ‘Public and Private Buildings’, and in 1882 hers was one of three companies to tender a quotation to refurbish the Guildhall (now demolished). Unfortunately for her, the contract went to F. R. Leach instead.
But there was plenty of work to go around for both firms in the busily expanding Cambridge of the 1880s, and Leach and Greef worked together on a decorating and bathroom refitting job for Trinity Hall in 1882. Soon afterwards Louisa Greef’s firm took on new work at Newnham College. They had been employed there since the mid 1870s as a plumber and glazer, but from Michaelmas term 1885, L.Greef was referred to as ‘painter-plumber’, having taken over the painting and decorating work previously carried out by F.R. Leach.
It may have been that the Leach firm had become too expensive for Newnham, who had to manage their finances very carefully in the early years. The Vice-Principal and mathematician Eleanor Sidgwick, in charge of the accounts, called this ‘chasing twopences’. As I turned over the pages of the Newnham College account books, I thought about how hard Eleanor Sidgwick, Anne Clough and Helen Gladstone worked to expand the college during those years. Did they also want to support a decorating company run by a professional, independent woman? It is possible.
In 1891 Louisa handed over the management of her business to her nephew Henry Fuller, the former plumber. She continued to live at King’s Parade while Henry managed the business, and his commitment to the firm (and to his aunt Louisa) can be seen by the fact that he later changed his surname to Greef. Louisa had a long and, it seems, happy retirement, living with her two unmarried nieces, Annie and Alice Fuller. She died in 1913.
“Mr. Leach is a man who has a great deal of taste & people send all over England for him to do their houses.” Maud Darwin (UL, DAR 251: 778)
I’m giving an online talk for the David Parr House on 28 April 2022 about the Leach firm’s domestic commissions in Cambridge in the 1880s and 1890s (more details and booking here). After the university permitted its academics to marry, the late Victorian saw substantial family homes springing up around Cambridge in areas including Grange Road, Madingley Road, St Paul’s Road, Brooklands Avenue and the De Freville Estate. The Arts and Crafts movement had also begun to catch the public imagination, and the ‘university brides’ and other women who made their homes in the town wanted their houses to be both artistically beautiful and up-to-date, with modern drainage, heating and lighting.
Since the late 1860s the Cambridge-based ‘artworkman’ Frederick Leach had become well known for his work in decorating churches, grand houses and civic buildings all over England. In 1867 Leach worked with the Gothic Revival architect G.F. Bodley and the stained glass artist Charles Eamer Kempe at St John the Baptist, Tuebrook in Liverpool. In his book Kempe: The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe (Lutterworth, 2018), Adrian Barlow describes this work as ‘one of the greatest schemes of painted decoration in any nineteenth-century British church’ (you can read about Kempe’s pelicans in Adrian’s excellent blog here).
In Frederick Leach, A Cambridge Artworkman and his Firm(Casita Press, 2021) Shelley Lockwood describes how although Leach continued to work with William Morris and others, he also wanted to expand his business closer to home, and to tap into the growing interest in home decoration. In 1880 he opened a fashionable shop and showroom, to be run by his sister Isabella Simpson Leach, at 3 St Mary’s Passage. It was an elegant showroom that showcased finely crafted tiles, paperhangings, cabinetwork and picture frames; the ‘Leach Simpson’ business card pictured above gives an idea of the range of items for sale.
In my talk on 28 April I’ll be exploring the stories of some of the fascinating women behind Leach’s domestic commissions, including Maud Darwin, Caroline Jebb, Ida Darwin and Kathleen Lyttelton. Louisa Greef, a Cambridge-born woman who ran a successful decorating business at the time will also feature. She took over Leach’s work at Newnham College, and went on to become his rival for larger commissions in Cambridge too.
You can find out more about the talk, including booking details, by scrolling down the David Parr House website here.
‘The Rector’s Daughterbelongs to the finest English tradition of novel writing. It is like a bitter Cranford… Mary Jocelyn’s ‘nothing’ is a full and rich state of being.’ Sylvia Lund, Time and Tide, 18 July 1924
When F.M. (Flora Macdonald) Mayor’s second novel, The Rector’s Daughter, was published by the Hogarth Press in 1924, the Woolfs were surprised to have a bestseller on their hands. ‘Lytton Strachey, my sister and Duncan Grant have all been reading it with great interest’, Virginia Woolf wrote. E.M. Forster described it as ‘a very great achievement’, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic praised it. The Rector’s Daughter was a runner-up for the 1925 ‘Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse’, a literary prize for a work ‘calculated to reveal to French readers the true spirit and character of England’ (Forster’s A Passage to India won that year instead). Then, for almost fifty years, F.M. Mayor’s novel was out of print and apparently forgotten, although reading it during the Blitz did give the English novelist Rosamond Lehmann some comfort: ‘In its quiet and personal way The Rector’s Daughter is a piece of history’, she wrote in 1941.
But it’s not exactly a neglected twentieth-century classic. After Penguin Books reissued it in their Modern Classics series in 1973, The Rector’s Daughter hasn’t been out of print for the last fifty years. In 1987 the new publishers on the block, Virago, took it over and reissued it in their own highly successful Virago Modern Classics series, with its distinctive bottle green spines, and it was reprinted in 1999, 2008 (twice) and 2009 (three times). The Rector’s Daughter has the rare distinction during the same period of being one the few novels that merited new editions as a Penguin Twentieth Century Classic (1992) and a Penguin Modern Classic (2001). Even so, in 2010 BBC Radio 4 ‘Book at Bedtime’ described it as ‘an unfairly neglected classic’ when it was read in ten episodes by Juliet Stevenson (it’s still available on BBC Sounds, and well worth listening to). In 2021 The Rector’s Daughter was reissued by Persephone Books in an elegant new edition with a biographical foreword by Flora’s great-niece, Victoria Gray, who in 1992 wrote a radio play based on the book with her late husband, the dramatist Simon Gray.
Yet, for all this, The Rector’s Daughter is still a novel that seems to exist just below the literary radar, much loved by its readers, but also, somehow, not widely read. Little has been written by scholars about this or F.M. Mayor’s other works, perhaps because she produced so few in her lifetime (a collection of her ghost stories, said to be admired by M.R. James, was published posthumously). Her two other novels, The Third Miss Symons (1913) and The Squire’s Daughter (1929), were also reissued by Virago Modern Classics in the 1980s. Sybil Oldfield’s Spinsters of this Parish: the life and times of F.M. Mayor and Mary Sheepshanks(Virago, 1984) is a well-researched dual biography that provides a fascinating social context for Mayor’s life and unsuccessful attempt to make a living as an actress. The chapter on her four years at Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1890s is particularly revealing, including the revelation that Mayor and her former tutor, Mary Bateson, remained close friends until Bateson’s early death in 1906.
Flora Mayor’s lifelong poor health made her unable to fulfil much of her literary promise, sadly. However, she was a successful author with a three-book contract with Constable when she died of pneumonia in 1932, aged fifty-nine. In a recent piece for The Times, the writer D.J. Taylor describes The Rector’s Daughter as ‘one of those curious novels in which a cauldron of suppressed emotion and unrequited love boils away behind a landscape in which, for all practical purposes, hardly anything happens’ and says that as a novelist, F.M. Mayor ranks with Jane Austen and George Eliot.
I would agree, and The Rector’s Daughter is Mayor’s masterpiece. My essay on it will be published in a forthcoming issue of Slightly Foxed.
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.
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.
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 inThe 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.
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)