Somerville Hall was founded in 1879 and named in honour of the Scottish mathematician and scientist Mary Somerville.
It was both humble in its origins and ambitious in its aims. There were just twelve students when it began but in singling out Mary Somerville, a public intellectual in an age against women pursuing academic careers, the founders made clear the hopes they had for the women who attended. It was also the first Oxford College to be non-denominational and it remains religiously non-aligned to this day.
In 1891 Somerville became the first of the women’s halls to adopt a qualifying exam for candidates. Three years later, in 1894, it became the first women’s hall to adopt the name of college, on the grounds that it would “not only improve the educational status of Somerville in the eyes of the public, but would be understood as implying the desire of Governing Body to raise it above the level of a hall of residence”.
Following the work of Somerville Principal Emily Penrose, in 1920 the University of Oxford granted women the right to matriculation and to all degrees, as well as to membership of Convocation and Congregation, faculties and faculty boards. Somerville presented its first candidates for matriculation and for degrees in October of that year.
The years that followed brought great scientists, novelists and politicians alike through Somerville’s doors: Vera Brittain, Dorothy Sayers, Dorothy Hodgkin, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher all studied at Somerville. In 1994 the College voted to accept men for the first time.
Today Somerville retains its founding commitment to including the excluded and the College continues to produce pioneers across all fields.
If you are interested in the history of the early years of women at Oxford University please visit our online resource, created in partnership with the four other former women’s colleges and the history faculty : https://www.firstwomenatoxford.ox.ac.uk/