December 1878

A Question of Denomination

A group of dons and individuals including Edward Talbot of Keble and the campaigner Mary Ward (pictured) propose establishing a “Ladies’ Hall” in Oxford. However, a small non-denominationalist group resist its mandatory Anglicanism and elect to form their own hall, leaving Talbot et al to establish Lady Margaret Hall.

February 1879

Somerville Hall is Founded

The new, non-denominational hall is established and, at the suggestion of Mary Ward, named after the scientist, writer and campaigner Mary Somerville. The first twelve students of Somerville are not, however, permitted to attend lectures or to take degrees. Madeleine Shaw Lefevre is elected as Somerville’s first Principal.

April 1880

Space to Grow

1880 Walton House (then and now known simply as ‘House') is purchased from St John’s College, giving Somerville the freedom to enlarge and extend. Lectures in Chemistry are opened to women.


First Steps towards Equality

Lectures in several subjects are opened to women. Many comical accounts of the impact made by the arrival of women ensue, including one in which several men attending Dean Kitchin’s lectures at Christ Church are so terrified by the entrance of women that they run away.

April 1884

Exams for Women Students

Oxford University examinations are opened to women. Somerville undergraduates hold a nocturnal celebration in the gardens with ‘invisible dancers carrying Chinese lanterns’ singing ‘In spite of all temptations to avoid examinations / We will do them if we can’. John Ruskin, opponent of women’s colleges, visits Somerville and is converted into a supporter and benefactor.


'A Genius for Administration'

Agnes Maitland is appointed Principal. Maitland looks to raise the academic standards of Somerville. During her Principalship (1889-1906), the number of students grows from thirty-five to eighty-six, the first research fellowship is established and the library is built.


Arrival of a True Original

Cornelia Sorabji arrives at Somerville. She is the first Indian woman admitted to a British university and the first woman to read Law at Oxford. 127 years later, in 2016, Somerville and the University of Oxford launch the Cornelia Sorabji Graduate Scholarship Programme for students seeking to lead change on their return to India.


From Hall to College

Somerville Hall is renamed Somerville College on the grounds that this would 'not only improve the educational status of Somerville in the eyes of the public, but would be understood as implying the raise it above the level of a Hall of Residence.'