This podcast explores the life and impact of Dame Elizabeth Wordsworth, the founding principal of Lady Margaret Hall and founder of St Hugh’s College. Both Colleges were open to female students at a time when women had limited opportunities to pursue higher education.
Born in 1840, Elizabeth was the great-niece of the poet William Wordsworth and the daughter of Christopher Wordsworth, an English bishop who was headmaster of Harrow School between 1836-44. Elizabeth never received a formal education, though she spent a year at a boarding-school in Brighton at the age of 17. Nevertheless she read widely, borrowing books from her brothers and becoming educated in both ancient and modern languages, English Literature, and history, as well as more typically feminine accomplishments such as drawing and singing. Her brother studied at Oxford and it was through him that she became familiar with the city and university. He would go on to become Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture and later Bishop of Salisbury.
Lady Margaret Hall, often referred to as LMH, was the first college for women, founded in 1878 by Anglican bishop Edward Stuart Talbot and his wife Lavinia Talbot. They named the college after Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII. Elizabeth was invited to become its founding principal. Her biographer Georgina Battiscombe has called her a “reluctant pioneer”. She suggests Elizabeth cared little for the emancipation of women, though was interested in individual girls’ education. When Elizabeth began at LMH there were only eight students and she would later recall that this set up enabled her to get to know them as individuals. Indeed, she remained an active and engaged principal and even founded St Hugh’s College for those women who were unable to afford the fees of LMH.
Elizabeth believed that examinations were a valuable way to stimulate academic study but was ambivalent about whether women should receive degrees. While she felt that undertaking academic work was an achievement in itself, she was also keen to see the degree question settled. In a letter to a friend, she wrote “Certainly let us have the B.A. whenever we can get it”.
Outside of their studies, Elizabeth encouraged her students to take up physical exercise, which she felt had a positive influence on both mind and body. She advocated both swimming and boating as leisure activities. At the age of 60 she took up tricycling, a hobby soon adopted by some of her students. In the late Victorian period, the bicycle was often seen as a symbol of female emancipation, enabling women to travel without a chaperone.
Elizabeth is often remembered as a religious woman, who encouraged her students’ faith by promoting chapel services and weekly Bible classes. She later reflected that woman would be “an imperfectly-developed being” without religion.
Her students remembered her as an inspirational if somewhat peculiar woman. Gertrude Bell – who would later become an important traveller and imperial policy-maker – described her as “absent-minded” and as putting forward “extraordinary theories”. “Much as I like her,” Bell wrote, “I think she is a little mad”. However, another early student – Edith Pearson – suggested that Elizabeth had only an “haphazard concern for the students’ well-being”. In addition to her role with the Colleges, Elizabeth was a prolific writer, producing biographies, plays and religious articles. She wrote two novels under the pseudonym Grant Lloyd and also lectured on women’s education. She died in 1932.
Both LMH and St Hugh’s remained women-only Colleges for around a century – a testament to their enduring value as bastions of women’s education.
Battiscombe, Georgina, Reluctant pioneer: The life of Elizabeth Wordsworth (London: Constable and Co, 1978).
Hartley, Cathy, A Historical Dictionary of British Women, 2nd edition (London: Routledge, 2013).
Mangan, J.A. (ed.), A Sport-loving Society: Victorian and Edwardian Middle-class England at Play (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2006).
Wordsworth, Elizabeth, Glimpses of the past (London: A.R. Mowbray and Co, 1912).
Inge Schuiten is studying for the Advanced Diploma in Local History at the Department for Continuing Education, University of Oxford.