decorated initial 'T'The University has a very good record here. Women students could attend classes at Birkbeck from 1830, and in 1832 two brave souls signed up for some lectures on electricity at London University — as University College was then known (Harte, The Admission of Women 5). The date from which women were really welcomed at University College is sometimes given as 1848 (e.g. Ackroyd 512), but their presence is not actually recorded until over a hundred schoolmistresses and the like attended lectures on animal physiology in 1861-2. The true breakthrough here came in the later '60s through the efforts of Henry Morley, a lecturer in English who came over from King's in 1865, because his Unitarian beliefs prevented him from becoming a Professor at that still strongly Anglican establishment. Morley conducted a concerted campaign to get women admitted to his new place of work on a regular basis. He was the right man at the right time, for this was a period when the tide was obviously turning. The Slade School of Fine Art opened in 1871, with both men and women attending most of the classes; and the London School of Medicine for Women was set up in 1874. To trace the process at University College briefly: a decision to offer "Tuesday Evening Lectures" in the college "adapted to a general audience, including ladies" (Harte, The Admission of Women 8) was followed by the gradual integration of a "Ladies' Educational Association" with regular college classes, and mixed classes were at last established in October 1878.

Twenty-first century women graduates on the way to their graduation ceremony at Royal Holloway, University of London. [Photograph by the author; click on the image to enlarge it.]

Meanwhile, King's had already been contributing very usefully to the provision of higher education for women, largely through the efforts and inspiration of F.D. Maurice, Professor of English Literature and History there since 1840, and Professor of Theology from 1846-1853. Along with other members of staff at King's, he had founded Queen's College in Harley Street, mainly for the education of future governesses, in 1846. Amongst its early pupils were those two future girls' school principals, the pioneering and redoubtable Miss Buss and Miss Beale. From the start, the Anglican Queen's College was open to girls and women from the age of twelve, and it was destined to become what it is now — a very fine public school for girls. King's people also actively supported the non-denominational Bedford College, a new establishment for women in Bedford Square, founded by the social reformer Elizabeth Jesser Reid in 1849. Dickens sent one of his daughters for art lessons there. This too took younger pupils, but it developed differently from Queen's College, becoming a fully-fledged women's college in 1900. Later (in 1985) it would merge with another women's establishment, Royal Holloway College, to make one of the major constituent colleges of today's university. In the early years, many King's Professors taught at both Queen's College and Bedford College in their spare time; a number of University College Professors also taught at Bedford College.

At last, in 1878, not only could women students take their places alongside men at University College, but the battle for women's rights within the university as a whole was finally won: its examinations were opened to women. However long the process may seem, the University of London was still the first in the country to grant degrees to women, and when these bluestockinged trailblazers actually appeared in the Convocation of 1882, Punch celebrated with a verse entitled "Girl Graduates." The concluding stanza provides a fitting memento of the occasion:

Thus Woman wins. Haul down your flag,
    Oh, stern misogynist, before her.
However much a man may brag
    Of independence, he'll adore her.
Traditions of the bygone days
    Are cast aside, old rules are undone;
In Convocation Woman sways
    The University of London. [qtd in Harte, The University of London 127]

Cambridge University opened its examinations to women in 1881, and Oxford in 1884, though again it took longer for their respective students actually to receive degrees if they passed.*

Lord Leighton's design for the opening tableau of the Tale of Troy, a fund-raising effort 1883 and 1886 for the Ladies' Department of King's College London. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

To return to King's: as soon as women were allowed to take degrees, it began offering lectures for them, under its own auspices, in Kensington (a much more genteel location than the theatre-studded Strand). A Department for the Higher Education of Women was set up in 1881, royal assent for it being received in 1882. It obviously had tremendous support from the establishment: fund-raising performances of the Tale of Troy in 1883 and 1886 had an opening tableau designed by Lord Leighton, and cast members included the Beerbohm Trees (the couple played Hector and Helen), Tennyson's younger son Lionel (in the 1883 production), and Mrs Andrew Lang and Mrs Bram Stoker (Marsh 19). The Ladies' Department of King's eventually grew into an independent college of the university, under the new name of Queen Elizabeth College. Men were also admitted to it in 1953, and in 1985 the college was incorporated back into King's.

Although mixed classes were held at University College from 1878, women still had a separate Common Room there (in fact, the Common Rooms were not desegregated until 1969 [Harte and North 144]), and many in those days still considered women-only establishments more appropriate. Royal Holloway, mentioned above, was founded by the wealthy philanthropist Thomas Holloway and his wife Jane in Egham in 1879. This too was admitted as a part of the University in 1900 (along with Bedford College and the recently founded London School of Economics). Yet another women's college was Westfield College, founded in 1882, and granted its charter in 1932. Together with St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College and the London Hospital Medical College, this merged with Queen Mary College only quite recently-in 1995.

In one sense, then, it was not surprising that by 1900 as many as thirty percent of the university's graduates were women. Yet, in another sense, it was. Around this time, for example, Mrs Humphrey Ward was still urging people to educate their daughters properly: "For Heaven's sake, why do we leave our children's minds empty like this?" (368) exclaims a friend of Laura Fountain's father in Helbeck of Bannisdale (1898). After all, this thirty percent still only represented a small proportion of the female population in the appropriate age group. Of course, this was partly because, right up until the founding of new universities like East Anglia, Sussex and Warwick in the 1960s, and the conversion of old "Polytechnics" into universities in the early 1990s, university education continued to be the preserve of the privileged few of both sexes.

To complete the story, slowly but surely the need for women-only establishments disappeared. About twelve years after Queen Elizabeth College started admitting men, both Bedford and Royal Holloway followed suit. That was in 1965, twenty years before Bedford moved out of its own campus (by then in Regent's Park) to merge with Royal Holloway in its splendid Victorian premises in Egham.

* Note: There is a wonderful account of Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the prominent Suffragist Millicent Fawcett, and niece of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, hearing at the Senate of Cambridge University that she has achieved the highest marks in the Finals Tripos: "There was a great and prolonged cheering; many of the men turned towards Philippa, who was sitting in the gallery with Miss Clough, and waved their hats.... She was, of course, tremendously delighted." Though covered with glory, she cannot actually be named "Senior Wrangler," because the accolade must go to the highest-scoring male student. Nor can she even claim to have a degree, only to have the passed the degree examinations, not quite the same thing (Kenyon 74-75).


Ackroyd, Peter. London, The Biography. London: Vintage, 2000.

Harte, Negley. The Admission of Women to University College, London: A Centenary Lecture. London: University College London, 1979.

_____. The University of London, 1836-1986. London: Athlone Press, 1986.

Harte, Negley, and John North. The World of University College, 1828-2004. 3rd ed. London: University College, 2004.

Hearnshaw, F.J.C. The Centenary History of King's College, London, 1828-1928. London: Harrap, 1929.

Kenyon, Olga, ed. 800 Years of Women's Letters. Stroud: Sutton, 1994.

(The excerpt here is taken from Ray Strachey's Millicent Fawcett. (1931)).

Marsh, Neville. The History of Queen Elizabeth College: One Hundred Years of University Education in Kensington. London: King's College, 1986.

Ward, Mrs Humphrey. Helbeck of Bannisdale. London: Smith, Elder, and Co, 1898.

See also individual college websites.

Last modified 23 November 2019