Somerville Hall was founded by social liberals in 1879, in response to a growing demand to provide an Oxford education for women. It also offered a counter to the Anglican Lady Margaret Hall, which opened in the same year.
Its founders named the Hall in honour of the Scottish mathematician and scientist Mary Somerville (1780 to 1872), and the Somerville family arms and motto (the notoriously untranslatable "Donec rursus impleat orbem") were adopted. Over the years, the Somerville family presented the Hall with many family mementoes, a number of Mary’s own paintings and an important collection of personal and scientific papers (now in the Bodleian Library).
The choice of name was significant. The College’s founders admired Mary Somerville both as a remarkable scholar and for her religious and political views. She was a self-taught science writer, wife, mother of five children, and polymath. In 1868, she was the first person to sign John Stuart Mill’s petition to Parliament in support of women’s suffrage. Having been denied formal educational opportunities herself, Somerville was a fervent advocate of access to education for other women.
Mary Somerville published her first book, The Mechanism of the Heavens, in 1831. In 1834 she published her best-known book, On the Connection of the Physical Sciences, which brought the achievements of great contemporary scientists to the attention of a wider public. In 1835 she became one of the first women members of the Royal Astronomical Society, and in 1869, she was awarded the Victoria Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. All of this, when the very idea of women in science was widely frowned upon.
Somerville Hall had its beginnings in the autumn of 1879 in Walton House. Its first Principal was Madeleine Shaw-Lefevre, sister of a Liberal MP, and daughter of Sir John Shaw Lefevre, a former Vice-Chancellor of London University. There were a mere twelve students, ranging in age between 17 and 36. According to Miss Shaw Lefevre’s diary “for the first few years two cows and a pig formed part of the establishment, but these were later replaced by a pony and a donkey which might be seen disporting themselves in the field, adding to the picturesque and homely character of the place”.
Miss Shaw Lefevre envisaged her role as Principal lasting no more than a year. In fact, she remained ten years in post, presiding over Somerville Hall at a time when one of the greatest challenges was to convince the public that a college education was not actually harmful to women. Her major achievement was to surmount prejudice to women’s higher education, in both Oxford and the wider world. She was also largely responsible for “the wise establishment of precedents in the conduct of life in a women’s college”, according to her obituary in the Times Educational Supplement.