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A History of Somerville College, Oxford

From its founding in 1879, Somerville College has been encased by an inspiring history. Founded for women who were once refused entry to an Oxford education, or those whose diverse beliefs went against the religious establishments which were once so pertinent, today it endorses an open, liberal education for all.

With former students including two prime ministers, the only British woman to have won a Nobel Prize for science, as well as pioneers across literature, mathematics and the public service, it’s a college dedicated to helping their students achieve their full potential.

Explore the rich history of Somerville College from its founding until now, and discover some of its most notable alumni, who have gone on to make huge contributions to the world.

A few interesting facts about Somerville College, Oxford

  • The College is named in honour of the Scottish mathematician and scientist, Mary Somerville

  • It has an impressive alumnae, including Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Dorothy Hodgkin

  • Somerville College, Oxford is home to one of the largest libraries in Oxford

  • It is one of the few colleges in Oxford that allow students to walk on its grass

  • The college was one of the first to abandon the policy on locking its front gates at night to stop students from staying out late


A Short Introduction to Somerville College, Oxford

Conveniently nestled between the popular streets of Jericho and the open spaces of the University Parks sits Somerville College – one of the University of Oxford colleges which is famed for its progressive, liberal atmosphere.

Somerville College is home to around 650 students, of whom around a third are international. It’s one of only three colleges in Oxford to provide on-site accommodation for all of its students throughout their undergraduate courses.

The Founding of Somerville College, Oxford

Up until the late 19th century, higher education in Oxford, and across much of the world, was only available to men. However, in 1878, the first plans to eradicate the gender gap in education began.

In June of that year, the Association for the Higher Education of Women was formed, with the ambition of creating a college to educate women in Oxford. Some of the most prominent members of the association included; the Master of University College, George Granville Bradley; the Warden of Keble College, Edward Stuart Talbot; and T. H. Green, a distinguished liberal philosopher at the time.

Unfortunately, despite their dreams of helping the greater good, the association disagreed on some fundamental principles. One of its prominent members, Talbot, insisted that the educational institution had to be strictly Anglican, which most of the other members disagreed with. Eventually, this led to the two parties splitting, with Talbot going on to have founded Lady Margaret Hall, which opened its doors in 1878, just a few months before Somerville College.

In 1879, a second committee, led by T.H. Green was formed. The founding principles were simple and yet ground-breaking, with the aim to create a college:

“in which no distinction will be made between students on the ground of their belonging to different religious denominations.” (source: Her Oxford, Judy G. Batson)

The efforts of this second committee resulted in the founding of Somerville Hall, which was named after the then recently deceased famous mathematician and renowned scientific writer, Mary Somerville. The members of the second committee greatly admired Mary Somerville’s work as a scholar, as well as for her political views – including her belief that women should have equality in terms of suffrage and access to education.

While forging her path in the world of mathematics and science, Mary Somerville also worked tirelessly to balance home life with her career. She was twice married and mother to five children, while also being a talented landscape artist – with some of her paintings on display in the college today.

With her hard work ethic and passion for change, it was believed that by naming the institution after her, the college would reflect her virtues of liberalism and academic success. As a result, the ground-breaking origins of Somerville College inspired an ethos of openness, inclusiveness, and a willingness to question the status quo that have continued to inspire the college ever since.


The Early Years

When Somerville College was founded, there were just twelve students, with their ages ranging between 17 and 36 years-old. Lectures were understandably small, and were held in rooms above the local bakery on Little Clarendon Street in Oxford.

Only two of the original twelve students that began in 1879 remained in Oxford for the full three years of the study, which was the period of residence required to complete a bachelor’s degree. However, as the college continued to admit more students, it also became more formalised and had a higher retention rate of students.

This growth and expansion included being the first women’s hall to appoint its own teaching staff (1894); the first to build a library (1903); the first to introduce entrance examinations (1891), and, in 1894, the first of the five women’s halls in Oxford to adopt the title of ‘college,’ officially changing its name to Somerville College.

The impressive development of Somerville College and its excellent examination results meant it soon became recognised in Oxford as the “bluestocking college,” refuting the widespread belief that women were incapable of attaining high academic achievements.

Throughout the 1910s, Somerville College continued to fight for equality of the sexes, becoming an avid support for the women’s suffrage movement. Alongside their efforts for women’s suffrage, the college’s continued efforts to strive for gender equality were successful in a number of ways:

  • In 1920, the University of Oxford allowed women to matriculate and therefore gain degrees – Vera Brittain, one of the first women to have matriculated in 1920, described the atmosphere as ‘tense with the consciousness of a dream fulfilled.’

  • In 1925, the practice of female students having to be chaperoned when in the presence of male students was abolished.

  • Also in 1925, Somerville College was granted its charter to become an official university college.

Somerville College, Oxford During WWI

During the First World War, Somerville College played an integral role. Along with the Examination Schools and other notable Oxford buildings, Somerville College was converted into the Third Southern General Hospital, a facility used by the Royal Army Medical Corps to treat casualties.

For the duration of the war, students at Somerville College were relocated to the nearby Oriel College, which is also in Oxford. Because many of the male students at Oriel College left to enlist in the military, Somerville College was able to rent St Mary Hall Quad (part of Oriel College) which was bricked off from the rest of the college to separate it from Oriel’s remaining male students.

In July 1919, a few months after the war ended, Somerville’s principal, Emily Penrose, and the students returned to Somerville College.


The Admission of Men to Somerville College, Oxford

With the impressive pool of students appearing at all-female colleges across Oxford, it became widely understood that admitting students from a wider range of backgrounds could produce better students. As such, pressure grew on single-sex colleges to change their policy and avoid falling down the rankings.

Starting in the 1970s, the traditionally all-male colleges in Oxford began to admit female students. These colleges included Brasenose, Hertford, St Catherine’s, Wadham, and Jesus College.

Somerville College remained an all-female college until 1992, when its statutes were amended to permit male students and fellows to attend. The first male fellows were then appointed in 1993, with the first cohort of male undergraduates having been granted admission in 1994.

Today, Somerville College continues to strive for equality and diversity across their employment and student admissions, with reports published each year.

Famous Alumni of Somerville College, Oxford

Somerville College has produced many notable female alumni – which are more commonly referred to as ‘Somervillians.’ These include:

  • Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
  • Marjorie Bolton, British author and poet
  • Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India
  • Dorothy Hodgkin, Nobel Prize winning scientist
  • A. S. Byatt, English novelist, poet, and Booker Prize winner
  • Philippa Foot, Philosopher and one of the founders of contemporary virtue ethics
  • Esther Rantzen, TV personality
  • Baroness Shriti Vadera, British investment banker and politician

You can see the full list of Somerville College’s alumni on their website.


Discover Somerville College this summer

With its beautiful gardens and ideally-situated location, Somerville College is a popular destination for undergraduate students. As such, it’s one of the accommodation options available for our 16-17 year-old students in Oxford.

You too can experience Somerville College this summer on our socially distant, COVID-safe courses.

Apply now

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Discover the inspiring history of Somerville College, Oxford, and learn about some of its famous alumni who have gone on to make momentous impact in the world.

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