Madeleine Shaw Lefevre

(1835-89) – Principal of Somerville 1879-89

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.’

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