Somerville’s 1903 library has been reopened this term after a summer refurbishment in which the Upper Library was re-carpeted, the stonework and brickwork cleaned and repaired, and new stone tiles laid right across the 100-year old roof.

The library was built in 1903, at a time when the university itself admitted only men and the Bodleian Library was less accessible to women readers than to their male counterparts. It was one of the first College libraries in Oxford to be built with students – not fellows – in mind.

The result was Basil Champney’s elegant Renaissance loggia, a judicious marriage of brick and stone which spans much of the north side of the College quad.

The ground floor of the library formerly housed undergraduates, among them Indira Gandhi (née Nehru), who would go on to become the first female prime minister of India.

Somerville College Library houses several special collections, among them the John Stuart Mill collection, comprising some 2000 books that belonged to Mill and which contain interesting marginalia by both Mill and his father the philosopher James Mill. The College also owns a number of letters Mill wrote to Mary Somerville concerning his petition to Parliament for women to be given the vote. Mary Somerville was the first signatory to Mill’s petition.

Mill’s personal collection is housed in the library’s John Stuart Mill Room, and includes works by Aristotle, Macauley and Voltaire.

Building on paper

The opening of the library comes just a month before publication of Breaking New Ground, which charts the architectural story of Somerville College, from its unlikely founding in 1879 to the building projects of the 21st century, notably the forthcoming Oxford-India Centre.

The book has been edited by Anne Manuel, College Librarian and Archivist, and features photographs of all the major College buildings, as it explores the relationships between the respective Principals and the evolution of Somerville’s built environment. Above all, it tells the story of the College through the construction of the site itself, a process that has rarely paused for breath through Somerville’s history.

“It’s been very good to work with a range of people who love Somerville and its buildings,” says Manuel. “I’ve learnt an enormous amount and it’s been gratifying to see how consistently the College has invested in supporting its students over the past 113 years.”

As the book’s title implies, Somerville College has a strong reputation as a pioneering College. Not only were some of the university’s first female degree holders Somervillians, but the College was founded, unusually for its time, as a non-denominational College. It was home to the first female prime ministers of both India and the United Kingdom, and its pioneering personality persists with the establishment of the inter-disciplinary Oxford-India Centre, which will house the Indira Gandhi Centre for Sustainable Development.

“I hope the book is able to let a wide group of people know that these buildings have personal links to different individuals through Somerville’s history,” says Manuel. “Through the book, all students can get a glimpse of the College’s pioneering past.”

The book will retail at £12 a copy (or £20 for 2) and will be available from the beginning of November. Details of how to order Breaking New Ground will appear on this website shortly, but to pre-order please email your request to anne.manuel@some.ox.ac.uk

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