Adult education specialist and women’s literacy advocateLearn More
Born in Surrey in 1927, Lalage Bown grew up looking after her younger siblings while their parents lived and worked abroad. She came to Somerville in 1946 to study Modern History and went on to take postgraduate courses in adult education and economic development.
After graduation, Bown took up a role at the University College of the Goldcoast, Ghana teaching African literature and arts. She dedicated much of her career to establishing and expanding adult education programmes in Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria, with a particular focus on helping adult women learn to read and write. She also worked to effect the ‘Africanisation’ of the English curriculum in the university, publishing Two Centuries of African English in 1973.
In 1974, Bown became a Commonwealth Visiting Professor at Edinburgh University She left Africa in 1981 and became Head of the Department for Adult and Continuing Education at the University of Glasgow. In the 1990s, Bown authored a groundbreaking report on the impact of female literacy. Made an OBE in 1977, Bown has written widely on comparative adult education, community education, higher education (including student mobility), lifelong learning and adult literacy.
Lalage Bown on Somerville ‘Collegiate life always has its advantages, but the character of Somerville I think gives it the best of those advantages. One’s fellow students are exceptionally diverse. My small cohort of students back in 1945 included people from Denmark, France, Poland, Guyana and New Zealand.’
Lucy Banda Sichone
(1954-1998) – Human rights activist and educatorLearn More
Lucy Banda Sichone
Lucy Banda Sichone grew up in Zambia (then known as Northern Rhodesia) and came to Somerville in 1978 as Zambia’s first female Rhodes Scholar, studying PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). While she was at Oxford, her fiancé and her daughter remained in Zambia. During her second year at Somerville, she married her fiancé and had her second child before returning for her third and final year of study. Just as she finished her Finals, Banda Sichone received word that her husband had been killed in a car crash. Friends from Somerville helped her to buy mourning clothes and pack up her things before leaving. She wrote to Principal Daphne Park the following autumn, thanking her for all that had been done (‘It is not something I am likely to forget’).
Banda Sichone returned to Zambia and practised as a lawyer and public defender. She ran for a position with the United National Independence Party (UNIP), then Zambia’s ruling party and went on to serve as Secretary for Legal, Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs.
Founding the Zambian Civic Education Association in 1993 to provide civic education and legal aid, Banda Sichone taught citizens’ rights and represented Zambians in court pro bono. She also wrote a series of newspaper columns which were fiercely critical of government corruption and the abuse of power. Prosecuted by the state for her outspokenness, she was forced briefly into hiding. She died in 1998 at the age of 44, leaving behind four children and many foster children.
Did you know? Lucy Banda Sichone’s portrait was the first of a female Rhodes Scholar to hang in Milner Hall in Oxford’s Rhodes House. Speaking at the portrait’s unveiling, fellow Zambian Rhodes Scholar Sishuwa Sishuwa said, ‘Lucy was not an imposing figure, but she had an imposing mind. As a Zambian, I feel the gap left by Lucy Sichone to this day and her life is a challenge to my own… Lucy’s was a life lived well and in the service of others’.
Madeleine Shaw Lefevre
(1835-89) – Principal of Somerville 1879-89Learn More
Madeleine Shaw Lefevre
Madeleine Shaw Lefevre had strong connections to the Liberal political milieu that created Somerville (she was the niece of a former Speaker of the House of Commons, her brother was a Liberal Member of Parliament and her father was a former Vice-Chancellor of London University). From her appointment in 1879, she presided over Somerville Hall much as she would have done over a country house, overseeing the acquisition of premises, managing finances with scrupulous devotion and ensuring that students did not draw attention to themselves.
Shaw Lefevre’s policy of ‘steady, but unobtrusive infiltration’ set the perfect tone for Somerville’s early years, when its status was beset by considerable uncertainty and fluctuating student numbers. Elizabeth Wordsworth, the founding Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, said that the value of ‘such a figure-head to a recently formed women’s college, exposed as it was to the freest criticism from both friends and foes, can hardly be over-estimated.’ It was in large part thanks to Shaw Lefevre’s influence that Somerville settled so successfully into the Oxford environment, enabling her successors to negotiate full membership of the University for women students on the foundations that she had built.
Did you know? Shaw Lefevre was responsible for converting John Ruskin to the cause of women’s education. ‘I was told he was not much in favour of women’s colleges,’ she later recalled, ‘but I persuaded him to come and see Somerville… several of the students having joined us as we went along, he sat down in one of their rooms and discoursed to them in his delightful way while they gathered round him and literally sat at his feet.’
Lawyer, businesswoman and prominent diversity advocateLearn More
Margaret Casely-Hayford grew up in London and came to Somerville in 1980 to study Law. She was called to the Bar in 1983, working for City law firm Dentons for twenty years and becoming a partner. One of the first black British women to become a partner in a City law firm, Casely-Hayford was named Black British Business Person of the year in 2014.
During her term on the Board of NHS England, Casely-Hayford was one of the Directors who promoted and championed ‘NHS Citizen’, the listening structure for the National Health Service. She was Director of Legal Services for the John Lewis Partnership for nine years and spent four years on the Board of the British Retail Consortium. After chairing ActionAid UK, she was awarded a CBE in 2018 for charitable services. Now retired from executive roles, Casely-Hayford supports and advises organisations on governance and she also offers advice to young entrepreneurs and those, in particular women and BAME or LGTBQ+ people, who wish to embark upon board careers.
Casely-Hayford is a member of the Institute of Directors’ Governance Advisory Board and a Fellow of the Centre for Public Impact. She is Chair of the Advisory Board of the award-winning Ultra Education and is also Patron of the John Staples Society, a body created across the Leathersellers’ Federation of Schools to develop social mobility. Casely-Hayford supports Target Oxbridge, which helps talented black students to apply for and study at Oxford and Cambridge. She is the Chancellor of Coventry University and Chair of the Globe Theatre. She also a member of the Metropolitan Police Oversight Panel. Casely-Hayford is an Honorary Fellow of Somerville.
Margaret Casely-Hayford on Somerville ‘It gave me confidence and self-belief, and it also gave me a platform to be stronger in the cause of promoting women and diversity. I’ve always been a champion of equality, pretty much from the age of 11 onwards. Going to Somerville gave me greater strength to be able to champion what I believe.’
(1925-2013) – Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 1979-1990Learn More
Margaret Thatcher grew up in Lincolnshire and came to Somerville in 1943 to study Chemistry. After graduation, she worked briefly as a research chemist before training as a barrister. In 1959 she was elected MP for Finchley.
Thatcher became Secretary of State for Education and Science 1970-1974 under Edward Heath. The Conservatives were defeated in 1974 following which Thatcher replaced Heath as leader of the party. She became Prime Minister in 1979 when the Conservatives returned to power and she held office for three consecutive terms, resigning in 1990 following a leadership challenge by Michael Heseltine. A self-described conviction politician, Thatcher privatised state-owned industrites and utilities, reformed the trade unions, lowered taxes and reduced social welfare expenditure. Thatcher’s cuts to higher education led to her being the first Oxford-educated post-war prime minister who was not given an honorary doctorate by the University. Abroad, she cultivated relationships with the world’s leaders (with Ronald Reagan in the US in particular), resulting in an international profile and influence for the UK which has rarely been greater during peacetime. In 1992 took her seat in the House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.
The Margaret Thatcher Scholarship Trust (MTST) was set up at Somerville in 2013 and offers scholarships to foster academic excellence, supporting individuals to succeed and equipping them to excel in their chosen field.
Did you know? Thatcher remained in contact with Somerville and with her tutor (Nobel Prize-winner Dorothy Hodgkin). She reportedly said that she was prouder of becoming the first prime minister with a science degree than becoming the first female prime minister. In 1980, she sent an open letter to Somerville about her time at the college. ‘One last thought – or is it a feeling,’ she wrote. ‘I loved those years, I really did.’
(1874-1958) – Social reformer, Principal of Somerville 1926-1931Learn More
Born in London into a Quaker family, and home schooled until she was 17, Margery Fry came to Somerville in 1892 to study Mathematics (although, in accordance with her family’s wishes, she never took any examinations).
Fry was librarian of Somerville from 1899 until 1904, when she left to become Warden of the women’s residence at Birmingham University. She worked for the Friends’ (Quakers’) War Victims Relief Committee in France 1914-18 and in 1918 she joined the Labour Party. She was elected Somerville’s fourth Principal in 1926, and was responsible for remodelling parts of the college, including the installation of the striking green and blue mosaic tiles on the ground floor of House. Fry referred to Somerville’s ‘students’ (where others still insisted on the more old-fashioned term ‘undergraduates’) and she herself was described by one Somervillian as ‘direct, vigorous and sincere’.
After her time at Somerville, Fry went on to lead the cause for prison reform. In 1918, she became secretary of the Penal Reform League, which merged with the Howard Association in 1921 to form the Howard League for Penal Reform. In 1921 she was appointed a magistrate (one of the first women magistrates in Britain) and in 1922 she became education adviser to Holloway Prison. She was known for her opposition for the death penalty and her support for compensation for victims of crime.
Did you know? Margery Fry’s brother was Roger Eliot Fry, artist and founder of the Omega Workshops and one of the Bloomsbury Group. Margery Fry once suggested to a group of Somerville students that when at home they should decorate their parents’ fireplaces in gold paint.
(1780-1872) – Scientist and polymathLearn More
The Scottish astronomer, mathematician and geographer Mary Somerville’s interest in science was first kindled as a child by the natural world. During her adolescence, Somerville became an omnivorous autodidact, teaching herself Latin and Greek and seizing on chance encounters with family members and friends to acquire new books (including Euclid’s Elements). As a young woman, Somerville would rise early to play the piano, paint during the day then stay up late to study Euclid and algebra.
Somerville’s first marriage was not a happy one, primarily because her husband did not support her academic interests. When he died in 1807, she returned home to Scotland, where she promptly resumed her studies. It was at this time that she first read Isaac Newton’s Principia, which influenced her profoundly. With the encouragement of John Playfair, professor of natural philosophy at University of Edinburgh, she started to solve mathematical problems posed in the mathematical journal of the Military College at Marlow, leading to her first public recognition after her solution to a diophantine problem was awarded a silver medal in 1811.
In 1812, she married Dr William Somerville, who supported and greatly aided her studies. A move to London in 1819 led to a role as private tutor to Ada Lovelace and the two women attended the scientific gatherings where they met Charles Babbage. Somerville College owns a letter from Babbage to Somerville inviting her to view his ‘Calculating Engine’, an offer which Somerville frequently took him up on.
Mary Somerville was the author of five books. She published the first, The Mechanism of the Heavens, when she was 51. The second, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, ran to nine editions and sold over 15,000 copies and established her reputation in elite science. Her third book, Physical Geography, was the most popular of all her books, but her fourth book, Molecular and Microscopic Science, while also a popular success, led Somerville to wonder whether she should not have focused solely on mathematics, which she considered her natural inclination.
From 1833 onwards, the Somerville family spent much of their time in Italy, where Somerville continued to write and engage in current scientific debates. In 1868, four years before her death aged 91, she was the first person to sign John Stuart Mill’s unsuccessful petition for female suffrage. A mathematician to the last, she spent the day before her death revising a paper on quaternions.
In 1879, just seven years after Somerville’s death, Mary Ward’s suggestion of the name ‘Somerville’ for the as-yet unnamed non-denominational hall, was universally accepted by its founders.
Did you know? The gender-neutral term ‘scientist’ (as opposed to natural philosopher or man of science) was coined specifically to describe Mary Somerville by the philosopher William Whewell in 1834.
(1851-1920) – Educationalist and social activistLearn More
Mary Ward was closely involved in the negotiations surrounding the foundation of Somerville Hall. She was the person who originally suggested that Somerville should be named for Scottish scientist Mary Somerville. The choice was deliberate: to keep the naming of the new establishment well away from the religious figures for whom other such halls and college had been named.
Ward was also a novelist, and her strong Victorian values made her work very popular (it was said that Julia Stephen recommended to her daughters Virginia (later Woolf) and Vanessa (later Bell) that they should take Mrs Ward as one of their role models of femininity. Her aim in ensuring that Somerville came into existence was what she called the ‘equalisation’ for women. She was Somerville Hall’s first secretary and her cousin was Emily Penrose, who would go on to become Somerville’s third Principal.
However, Ward was far from holding the suffragist sympathies shared by so many Somervillians at that time. She did not advocate ‘votes for women’, and in 1909, she wrote an article in the Times explaining that she felt legal, financial, military and international problems were ones that only men could solve. She went on to become the founding member of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League and to create and edit The Anti-Suffrage Review.
Did you know? Mary Ward’s passion for educational work lives on today, with the London adult education centre, the Mary Ward Centre, named for her.
Onora O’Neill was educated in Germany and London before coming to Somerville in 1959. She began by studying Modern History, but soon changed to PPP (Philosophy, Psychology and Physiology). After graduating, O’Neill went on to complete a doctorate at Harvard under the supervision of John Rawls.
During the 1970s, O’Neill taught at Barnard College, the women’s college in Columbia University, New York. She returned to Britain in 1977 and took up a post at the University of Essex as Professor of Philosophy. In 1992 she became Principal of Newnham College Cambridge, a post she held until 2006. O’Neill remains a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Cambridge. She lectures and writes on justice and ethics, and in particular on the work of Immanuel Kant.
O’Neill was President of the British Academy in 1988-9 and chaired the Nuffield Foundation from 1998 to 2010. As Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve, she took her seat as a crossbench member of the House of Lords in 1999. She has served on the House of Lords Select Committees on Stem Cell Research, BBC Charter Review, Genomic Medicine and Nanotechnology and Food. From 2012 to 2016, O’Neill chaired the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In 2017, she won the Holberg Prize for her ‘distinguished and influential role in the field of philosophy and for shedding light on pressing intellectual and ethical questions of our time’. O’Neill is an Honorary Fellow of Somerville.
Did you know? Onora O’Neill changed subjects at Somerville after her history tutor, Barbara Harvey, sent her to see the renowned philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe. ‘Barbara sent me to Elizabeth Anscombe, who interviewed me very nicely about causality,’ O’Neill recalls. ‘I wrote something on it and Anscombe apparently wrote a one-liner back to Miss Harvery which said “this girl is hungry for philosophy”. So I was allowed to change.’
(1916-2000) – Booker Prize-winning writerLearn More
Penelope Fitzgerald was born into a literary family where ‘everyone was publishing, or about to publish something’, and her mother was a Somervillian. In 1935, Fitzgerald came to Somerville too, to study English. She was a brilliant student, graduating with a congratulatory First and gaining the accolade ‘Woman of the Year’ in the Isis (her First was so impressive that her exam scripts were kept by her tutor, though they are now sadly lost).
After Oxford, Fitzgerald worked for the BBC and established and edited a literary magazine. Her path to literary greatness, though, was neither smooth nor straight. In 1942, she married Desmond Fitzgerald, whose time serving in the Western Desert (where he was decorated for bravery) saw him return to civilian life an alcoholic. A difficult, penurious period followed, with frequent spells of precarious living, including homelessness, a houseboat that sank twice and drudge work for Fitzgerald at an Oxbridge crammer.
Fitzgerald was 58 when she published her first book, a biography of Edward Burne-Jones. She said she wrote her first novel, The Golden Child, to amuse her husband during the last years of his life. After his death, Fitzgerald experienced a late and intense flowering of creativity, publishing her first five novels between 1977 and 1982. Offshore, inspired by her life on the embattled houseboat, won the Booker Prize in 1975. 1995 saw the publication of what is often regarded as her masterpiece, The Blue Flower, about the eighteenth-century German poet and philosopher Novalis. Acclaimed as one of the best historical novels ever written, it won the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1999, Fitzgerald was awarded the Golden PEN Award from English PEN for ‘a Lifetime’s Distinguished Service to Literature’. She died the following year. In 2013, her posthumous reputation was cemented by the publication of Hermione Lee’s biography.
Did you know? Fellow Booker Prize-winner Julian Barnes says that he has reread the first scene of The Blue Flower(which begins in the middle of washday), many times, ‘always trying to find its secret, but never succeeding’.
Sam Gyimah was born in Beaconsfield in 1976. After his family returned to Ghana he was educated at Achimota Secondary School, before coming back to England for the last two years of his school education. Gyimah came to Somerville in 1995 to study PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) and during his studies was elected President of the Oxford Union. After graduating, he worked at Goldman Sachs, and in 2005 was voted CBI Entrepreneur of the Future.
In 2010, Gyimah was elected Member of Parliament for Surrey East and in 2012 he was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. In 2013 he was appointed a Government Whip, and in 2014 he became Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education. He was also appointed to a second ministerial post at the Cabinet Office, with responsibility for Constitutional Affairs. In 2018 he became Minister for Universities, Technology, Science and Innovation.
Gyimah rebelled against the government in 2019 when it moved to block a no-deal Brexit. He had the Conservative whip removed and subsequently joined the Liberal Democrats. He is currently a board member of Oxford University Innovation, a technology transfer and consultancy company which manages the research and development of University spin-offs. He has also re-joined Goldman Sachs as a non-executive director of Goldman Sachs International and Goldman Sachs International Bank.
Sam Gyimah on Somerville During his studies, Gyimah began to struggle financially and found that he could not afford to pay his rent. He was approached by Somerville’s Bursar and offered help: ‘So they converted my entire rent for while I was there into a loan which I subsequently paid when I graduated. Since then I’ve been involved with the college helping raise bursary funds for disadvantaged students.’
(1930-2021) – Politician and academicLearn More
Shirley Williams (Catlin) grew up in London. Her mother was the writer and Somervillian Vera Brittain. Williams came to Somerville in 1948 to read PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) and was the first woman Chair of the Oxford Labour Club. After graduation, she won a Fulbright scholarship to Columbia University in New York, later returning to the UK to work as a journalist, and then as General Secretary of the Fabian Society.
Williams’ political career took off when she was elected Labour MP for the constituency of Hitchin in 1964, and she rose to become shadow Home Secretary in 1971. When Labour returned to power in 1974, she was promoted to Cabinet, becoming Secretary of State for Education and Science in 1976. She lost her seat in 1979. With the Labour party becoming increasingly left wing, she joined with fellow senior labour MPs Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981. In the same year following a by-election, she became the country’s first SDP MP. Following a split in the SDP in 1987, the majority of its members voted in favour of a merger with the Liberals which become the foundation of the Liberal Democrat party. In 1993 she took her seat in the House of Lords as Baroness Williams of Crosby and was leader of the Liberal Democrats in that House from 2001 to 2004. Williams was the only British member of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) and was advisor to Prime Minister Gordon Brown on nuclear proliferation from 2007-2010.
Alongside her political career, Williams also worked as an academic. In 1987, she became Professor of Elective Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She also served on the Senior Advisory Committee of Harvard’s Institute of Politics and was involved in the development of emerging democracies in Eastern Europe.
Shirley Williams on Somerville ‘An Oxford education is, at its best, a fine training for the mind, but a Somerville education brings something else over and above that: a tenacity and persistence that gets things done… For me, the lessons of a childhood shared with a great Somervillian, and of a life lived and shaped by Somerville, are these: think, write and read, always; live and work vividly, and bring your mind to bear on everything, from the tiniest practical problem to the widest social issue; respect the views of others, and of the past, but don’t let that stop you being awkward when you need to be. Argue for what you believe, and do it well.’