(1849-1906) – Principal of Somerville 1889-1906Learn More
Agnes Maitland came to Somerville Hall as its second Principal in 1889. Her background was in domestic science: she had studied cookery at the domestic science training school in Liverpool 1880-1885, and she later acted as an examiner of teachers trained in the Northern Union Schools of Cookery.
Domestic economy for Maitland was not about cosiness, but about improving the conditions of life. Margery Fry (a student at Somerville and later its Principal), said of Maitland that ‘from first to last, education in all its grades appealed to her most strongly as a preparation for the conduct of affairs and for the business of ordinary life’. While at Somerville, Maitland continued with her public service work, pressing, for example, for more school inspectors. She was an experienced public speaker, and she also set about the task of regulating teaching more effectively, not least by ensuring that tutors were recruited on a longer-term basis. Under her principalship, Somerville more than doubled in size, growing from 35 students to 86, and Maitland urged all students to take the full degree course in their chosen subject, even though this was not a requirement at the time.
Did you know? Agnes Maitland’s published works included The Afternoon Tea Book (1887) and What Shall We Have for Breakfast? (1889).
Historian and archivist, Principal of Somerville 2010-2017Learn More
Alice Prochaska came to Somerville in 1965 to study Modern History. She also took her doctorate at Somerville before beginning her career as a curator, archivist and librarian. Prochaska has managed large staffs of scholars, librarians and archivists and her board-level experience includes government committees, the boards of learned societies and roles as a governor and trustee of university bodies.
Prochaska worked as Director of Special Collections at the British Library and director of the library at Yale University before returning to Somerville in 2010 to take up the principalship.
Energetically involved in fundraising for the college, her tenure saw Somerville’s endowment more than doubled. She also was instrumental in establishing the major new initiatives of the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development and the Margaret Thatcher Scholarship Trust, and was known for her particular focus on the wellbeing and academic progress of students and staff.
Prochaska is a Fellow and one-time Vice-President of the Royal Historical Society. She has been chair of the Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust and the Institute of Historical Research Trust and is a commissioner of the Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission, member of the General Federation of Trade Unions Education Trust, and adviser to the OP Jindal Global University and a number of other organisations in India. Her current scholarly interest focuses on the history of cultural restitution, and the relationship between national heritage and national identity, with a special interest in the period of the Second World War. Prochaska is an Honorary Fellow of Somerville.
Did you know? Alice Prochaska’s care for the welfare of college members led Somerville’s students to line up in front of the college library in her last term, holding up huge sheets of cardboard that spelled out ‘Thank you, Ali P’.
Economist and academicLearn More
Educated in Oxford, Alison Wolf came to Somerville in 1967 to study PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). She spent her early career after graduation in the United States as a policy analyst for the government, going on to work as a guest professor at the Institute of Education in London.
Wolf is the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London. She specialises in the relationship between education and the labour market. She has a particular interest in training and skills policy, universities, the medical workforce and gender issues. She is closely involved in policy debate and currently advises the government as an expert on skills policy. Her publications include The XX Factor: How Working Women Are Creating A New Society (Profile Books 2013), Does Education Matter? Myths about Education and Economic Growth (Penguin 2002) and Remaking Tertiary Education (Resolution Foundation 2016). Wolf is also a presenter for BBC Radio 4’s Analysis.
In 2011, Wolf completed The Wolf Review, a review of vocational education. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2012 she was appointed a crossbench life peer and took her seat in the House of Lords as Baroness Wolf of Dulwich.
She is a member of the House of Commons Advisory Committee for Education. Wolf is an Honorary Fellow of Somerville. She is also President of the Somerville Association and Chair of its Committee.
Alison Wolf on Somerville ‘Somerville was and is an Enlightenment endeavour… I came up to Somerville knowing nothing whatsoever about why it bore its name. What I did know was its reputation as the most intellectual of the women’s colleges, so going there meant you were aiming very high’.
Historian of late antiquity and ByzantiumLearn More
Averil Cameron grew up in North Staffordshire and came to Somerville in 1958 to study Literae Humaniores (Classics). She went on to do a PhD at Glasgow University and then taught classical languages and literature as an assistant lecturer at King’s College, London. In 1970, she was appointed Reader in ancient history. She also worked for brief periods in the US. Cameron was Professor Late Antiquity and Byzantine History at King’s College London, where she was also the first Director of the Centre for Hellenic Studies. In 1994, she became the first woman Warden of Keble College, Oxford.
Cameron has been Editor of the Journal of Roman Studies, President of the Roman Society and Chair of the Society for Byzantine Studies. She held a Leverhulme Emeritus Fellowship in the Faculty of Theology 2011-13 and from 2009-14 was President of FIEC (Fédération internationale des associations d’études classiques). She is Chair of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research, President of Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) and an Honorary Fellow of Somerville. She was made a Dame in the New Year’s Honours, 2006.
You can read a review of Dame Averil’s recent essay on the formation of her philosophy and subsequent scholarly journeys here.
Averil Cameron on Somerville ‘No one from my family or my school had gone to Oxford, but [a] teacher took me to a summer school in Greek led by John Pinsent of Liverpool University, and he told me I must go to Oxford and to Somerville College, so that is what I did. For all I knew about either, they might as well have been on the moon.’
Catherine Duleep Singh
(1871-1942) – Suffrage activistLearn More
Catherine Duleep Singh
Catherine Duleep Singh grew up in India until her father was deposed as ruler of the Punjab. He was offered sanctuary in England, and Duleep Singh and her sisters lived in Buckinghamshire and then in London. Catherine Duleep Singh and her sister Bamba both came to Somerville in 1890.
Along with her younger sister, Princess Sophie, Duleep Singh was an active suffragette. She joined the Esher and Moseley branch of the WPSU and continued to support the women’s movement long after the vote had been gained in 1918. Between the wars, Duleep Singh lived in Germany with her former governess Lina Schäfer, but in 1938 they were forced to flee back to England.
Did you know? Catherine Duleep Singh and Lina Schäfer used their house in Penn, Buckinghamshire to offer sanctuary to German-Jewish refugees before and during the Second World War.
(1866-1954) – Pioneering lawyer and activistLearn More
Cornelia Sorabji came to Somerville in 1889 to study Law. She was the first woman admitted to read Law at Oxford University and the first Indian woman to study at any British university. As a child growing up in India, Sorabji found herself moved by the life stories of the women who lived behind the ‘curtain’ of Purdah, whose enforced seclusion, often compounded by illiteracy, made them easy victims of legal fraud. When her mother asked her ‘What are you going to do for India when you grow up?’, she decided that the most practical way to help was to learn the law.
Sorabji began by studying English Literature at a branch of Bombay University (where the male students often shut the doors of lecture halls in her face). Coming top in her examinations there meant that she automatically gained an English Government Scholarship to study Law in the UK. When the administrators of the scholarship programme discovered she was a woman, though, Sorabji was denied the scholarship. The Principal of Somerville worked with others to right the wrong by raising the funds to allow her take up her place.
Sorabji took her examinations in 1892 and returned to India, working for women in Purdah offering legal representation and help in the spheres of health and education. Admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1922 and to the Bar in 1923, she was also finally admitted to the Allahabad High Court in 1923 when its ban on women lawyers was lifted. She retired in 1929 and chose to return to England, living in Finsbury Park. In 2012, Lady (now Baroness) Brenda Hal unveiled a bust of Sorabji in the Great Hall of Lincoln’s Inn.
In 2016, Somerville and the University of Oxford launched the Cornelia Sorabji Graduate Scholarship Programme for students who seek to lead change on their return to India.
Somervillian and Cornelia Sorabji Scholar Aradhana Cherupara Vadekkethil on Cornelia Sorabji: ‘Sorabji is an inspiration to me: that she could write so radically and bravely about the position of women in India right at the start of the twentieth century made me realise that social change starts with those difficult conversations we have with each other about things that might well make us uncomfortable.’
Did you know? Cornelia Sorabji was a close friend of the poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson and read his elegiac poem ‘Crossing the Bar’ at the poet’s funeral in Westminster Abbey.
(1921-2010) – Clandestine senior controller in MI6, Principal of Somerville 1980-89Learn More
Born and raised in the Congo, Daphne Park came to Somerville in 1940 to study Modern Languages. After graduation she turned down jobs in the Treasury and the Foreign Office, instead joining the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). It was during the selection process for FANY that Park was spotted by Special Operations Executive (SOE) and for the remainder of the War she trained operatives who were sent to support the Resistance in Europe. After the war, Park studied at Newnham College, Cambridge, taking a Certificate of Competent Knowledge in Russian in 1952.
Under diplomatic cover, Park rose through the ranks of MI6, eventually working as senior controller in Hanoi, Moscow, the Congo and Zambia – the highest position in MI6 of any woman up to that time. Her fearlessness was legendary, although she liked to convey the impression of being a grandmother rather than a spy. Indeed, her preferred modus operandi was to build relationships rather than engage in underhand dealings. Specifically, Daphne refused to bear weapons and famously countered an attack from an armed mob by getting out of her car, opening the bonnet and exclaiming, ‘Thank goodness you’ve come along – I think I have a problem with my carburettor.’ The men promptly laid down their weapons and offered their assistance.
Her career was not without controversy, however. It is alleged that she claimed privately to have been involved in the 1961 abduction and murder of Patrice Lumumba during the Congo Crisis. The true nature of her work was publicly revealed only in 1993, when an edition of BBC’s Panorama named her as a senior MI6 officer.
As Principal of Somerville, Park oversaw the college’s first conversations about whether to admit men to the college. She also worked tirelessly for the College Appeal, raising much-needed funds by making frequent visits to the USA, the Gulf States and the Far East. A member of the British Library Board, Chair of the Legal Aid Advisory Committee and Governor of the BBC, Park was also a Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University. In 1990 she was created Baroness Park of Monmouth.
Did you know? Daphne Park’s first appearance in the Somerville records is as one of the undergraduates who volunteered to take part in a mock Blitz organised by the City Council to test Oxford’s preparedness, where her ‘realistic impersonation of a hysterical foreigner deprived of house, sense and all coherent speech had shown up some weak spots in the city organisation’.
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin
(1910-94) – Nobel Prize-winning scientistLearn More
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin grew up in Egypt and the Sudan and came to Somerville in 1928 to study Chemistry. In the fourth year of her degree she carried out a research project investigating the crystal structure of dimethyl thallium halides, which launched her career in crystallography. Hodgkin went on to doctoral study, returning to Oxford when Somerville offered her a research fellowship in Chemistry. She was appointed the college’s first Tutor in Chemistry in 1934.
During the Second World War, Hodgkin worked on solving the structure of penicillin, part of secret work to refine the use of antibiotics. She advanced the technique of X-ray crystallography to the point where she was able to use it to confirm the structure of vitamin B12. It was this part of her groundbreaking experimental work on protein crystallography that made her the sole recipient of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1964 (prompting the Daily Mail to run the headline ‘Oxford housewife wins Nobel’).
Hodgkin was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1947. She received the Royal Medal in 1956 and the Order of Merit in 1965. She is the first (and so far, the only) British woman to win a Nobel prize for science. She is also the only woman to date to win the Copley medal, the Royal Society’s oldest and most prestigious award, given for outstanding achievements in research in any branch of science.
Following a successful fundraising campaign, Somerville has now established a five-year science fellowship in Hodgkin’s name, with the aim of supporting early career women scientists.
Did you know? While she was a tutor at Somerville, Hodgkin was the recipient of the first ever maternity pay in Oxford (arranged by then Principal, Helen Darbishire). She went on to use a large part of her Nobel Prize money to fund the establishment of Somerville’s nursery.
Dorothy L. Sayers
(1893-1957) – Writer and Dante scholarLearn More
Dorothy L. Sayers
Born in Oxford, Sayers grew up in Huntingdonshire, in a village where her father was the rector (she later took several of her characters’ names from the gravestones of the local church). She went to boarding school in Salisbury and won the Gilchrist Scholarship to Somerville in 1912, studying Modern Languages and taking a First in French. After her studies, Sayers worked for the publisher Blackwells and then as a copywriter. Her first book of poetry was published in 1916.
Considered one of the chief writers of the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction, Sayers went on to publish 14 detective novels and short stories featuring the character Lord Peter Wimsey. In Gaudy Night (1953), Wimsey teamed up with Harriet Vane, writer of detective stories, working with him to investigate a series of poison pen letters circulating in Vane’s alma mater, Shrewsbury College (loosely based on Somerville, and described as having an architectural ‘style neither new nor old, but stretching out reconciling hands to past and present’). The sequel to Gaudy Night, Busman’s Honeymoon had originally been a play, co-written with fellow Somervillian Muriel St Clare Byrne. It was the play’s success which led Sayers to take up writing full-time, and her later plays included (for radio) The Man Born to Be King, which caused some controversy for its portrayal of the figure of Christ speaking in modern English. After the war, Sayers taught herself Old Italian and embarked on a scholarly translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. She died at the age of 64 whilst working on the third volume, Paradiso, and her translation included extensive notes setting out the theological meaning of what she called ‘a great Christian allegory’.
Did you know? Between 1922 and 1931, Dorothy L. Sayers was employed as a copywriter at S.H. Benson’s advertising agency, working on campaigns for Guinness and Colman’s Mustard. She created the slogan ‘Guinness is good for you’.
(1872-1946) – Politician and social reformerLearn More
Eleanor Rathbone was born into a noted Liverpool family of social activists. She only received formal schooling for a year before coming to Somerville in 1893 to study Literae Humaniores (Classics). In 1897, Rathbone became the Honorary Secretary of the Liverpool Women’s Suffrage Society Executive and in 1919, when Milicent Fawcett retired, Rathbone took over the presidency of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (previously the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies).
Rathbone was the first woman to be elected to Liverpool City Council, representing Granby ward from 1909 to 1934. In 1922, she stood as an Independent at Liverpool East Toxteth and was defeated by the sitting Unionist MP. She was elected to Parliament as an Independent in 1929 representing the Combined English Universities (and becoming the first in a long line of Somervillians to enter Parliament) and remained an MP until her death.
She campaigned for Family Allowances (introduced in 1945, and later called Child Benefit), ensuring in particular that they were paid directly to women. Rathbone was also the Founding Chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Refugees, which she established following the Munich settlement and Kristallnacht. The committee became the vehicle for challenging officials and ministers to ‘break with the fatal policy’ of quotas and voluntary financial support in order to welcome Jewish and political refugees from Czechoslovakia, and was instrumental in moving the British government to welcome Jewish and political refugees from Czechoslovakia, and subsequently all of Nazi occupied Europe. Among these was the German Jewish Classicist Lotte Labowsky, who studied at Somerville and latterly became a Fellow of the College. In 1942, Rathbone also put pressure on the government to publicise evidence of the Holocaust.
Did you know? Eleanor Rathbone was one of the founding members of a Somerville student society which called itself ‘The Associated Prigs’. It met on Sunday evenings for ‘collective talk on social subjects’, covering topics including factory legislation and how criminals should be punished.
Prize-winning authorLearn More
Born in Edinburgh, Elspeth Barker came to Somerville in 1958 to study Literae Humaniores (Classics).
Barker’s first novel O Caledonia was published in 1991 and won four awards, including the David Higham Prize and the Angel Fiction Prize. It was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize. She was a feature writer and reviewer for the Independent on Sunday, Guardian, Sunday Times, Observer, LRB and TLS, Harpers & Queen, Scotland on Sunday, Country Living and Vogue
In 2012 she published Dog Days, a collection of her journalism.
Barker taught creative writing in the UK, Europe and the US and was Visiting Professor of Fiction at Kansas University. She was a judge for the McKitterick and Sagittarius prizes. She also wrote for The Literary Review. She died on April 21st 2022, and her obituary was published in the Times.
Did you know? In 2017, writer Ali Smith called O Caledonia ‘A sparky, funny work of genius about class, romanticism, social tradition and literary tradition.’
(1858-1942) – Principal of Somerville 1907-1926Learn More
Emily Penrose went to school in London before moving to Athens with her family. She came to Somerville in 1889 to study Literae Humaniores (Classics), learning Latin and ancient Greek from scratch. At the time she was studying, the first examinations in her degree (Honour Moderations) were not open to women, so Penrose moved straight on to Finals without taking any other examinations. In 1892 she became the first woman to achieve First class honours in the subject, although Oxford did not yet allow women to take degrees.
On finishing her studies, Penrose was offered a combined post as tutor, librarian and secretary by the then Principal, Agnes Maitland. Penrose did not accept the post, moving instead to London and working as a lecturer for a time before being appointed Principal of Bedford College in 1893. In 1904, she was also appointed to the post of Professor of Ancient History there (though at no extra stipend). In 1898 she moved to Royal Holloway College, and she returned to Somerville as Principal in 1907.
Under Penrose’s leadership, Somerville began to admit only women who would read for full degree courses even though they could not yet take the actual degree. In 1908 she introduced an entrance examination for the college. She was also responsible for the appointment of more tutors, and for their integration into Somerville’s governing Council. During the First World War, she oversaw Somerville’s temporary move to Oriel College. Penrose was involved in establishing a group to work towards the admission of women to full membership of the University, and she was instrumental in ensuring that in 1920 the University of Oxford granted women the right to matriculation and to all degrees. She also worked for the cause of education outside Oxford, serving on the Advisory Committee on University Grants (the body which advised on the distribution of funding to British universities) and as the only female member of the Royal Commission on University Education in Wales in 1916. On her retirement in 1926, Penrose became the second women to receive an honorary Doctorate of Civil Law (DCL) from Oxford (the first had been Queen Mary in 1921) and in 1927 she was made a Dame of the British Empire (DBE) for services to education.
Did you know? One Somervillian, the medievalist Helen Waddell, expressed the view of many when she said to Penrose, ‘We feel it was you who made it inevitable that women should be recognised by the University.’