Helen Darbishire

(1881-1961) – Literary scholar, Principal of Somerville 1931-1945

Helen Darbishire was born in Oxford and came to Somerville in 1900 to study English. She became a visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway College, returning to Somerville in 1908 to take up the position of tutor in English. Her work as a literary scholar focussed on Wordsworth and Milton and she was appointed a University Lecturer at Oxford, later becoming the first woman to be chair of the faculty board of English at Oxford. In 1925-6 she held a visiting professorship at Wellesley College.

Darbishire was elected Principal of Somerville in 1931, resigning her University lectureship but continuing to teach and lecture. While some had been concerned that she might be too academic to make a success of the principalship, she in fact brought a much-needed eye for detail, a warmth of personality and a zest for new projects that proved energising. Her tenure saw the expansion of the college, with major building works (one as a result of an endowment from Winifred Holtby) and the recruitment of tutors including Dorothy Hodgkin (who would go on to win a Nobel Prize for Chemistry).

Darbishire was a trustee of Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s home in Grasmere, and in 1943 she became Chair of Dove Cottage, working to make it a study centre. In later life, she moved to the Lake District.

Did you know? Helen Darbishire had no difficulty at all in maintaining her academic research alongside her Principalian duties: when an item of college business required urgent attention, a messenger would take the necessary documents to Darbishire’s customary seat in the Bodleian.

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