Somerville College was founded in 1879 as Somerville Hall and was, with Lady Margaret Hall (LMH), the first of the colleges for women. Somerville, unlike LMH, was non-denominational and took its name from Mary Somerville, the Scottish mathematician, scientist and advocate of women’s education. Her family befriended the new hall, allowing it to adopt their arms and motto.
The first Principal, Madeline Shaw Lefevre, did much to overcome the prejudice against higher education for women and her successor, Agnes Maitland, worked to improve Somerville’s academic reputation. In 1894 the Hall was renamed Somerville College. The tireless work of its third Principal, Emily Penrose, saw women admitted to degrees in 1920.
Located next to the Radcliffe Infirmary, the Somerville site was used as an auxiliary military hospital during the First World War. It also provided accommodation for medical staff in its West building (known as the ‘Isle of Man’) during World War Two. Somerville remained a women’s college until 1994 when men were admitted, despite a vociferous campaign of opposition by the JCR. There are now approximately 400 undergraduates and 100 graduate students at Somerville. Notable Somervillians include Dorothy Hodgkin, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Cornelia Sorabji, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Daphne Park, Vera Brittain, Shirley Williams, Winifred Holtby, Dorothy L. Sayers and Penelope Fitzgerald.
The college’s archives hold official records relating to Somerville’s foundation and administration, its members and its buildings. There are also log books, annual reports and personal reminiscences by staff and students to document life in Somerville, plus a large collection of photographs. The college is fortunate in possessing a number of special collections, including the John Stuart Mill library, the papers and watercolours of Egyptologist Amelia Edwards, the Percy Withers collection and correspondence of Vernon Lee, plus the Vera Brittain papers bequeathed to Somerville by her biographer and literary executor Paul Berry. It does not, however, have the papers of some of its most famous alumnae (such as Margaret Thatcher, Dorothy Hodgkin or the main Vera Brittain archive). Mary Somerville’s papers belong to the college and are kept at the Bodleian.
Researchers are welcome to visit the archives on Tuesdays, Wednesdays & Fridays by appointment; please email firstname.lastname@example.org with enquiries in the first instance.
Archivist: Dr Anne Manuel, College Librarian & Archivist
Katherine O'Donnell, Assistant Archivist
Opening hours: Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays 10am-5pm (by appointment only).
Address: Somerville College, Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6HD
Phone: 01865 270695
Pauline Adams, Somerville for Women (Oxford, 1996).
Anne Manuel (ed.), Breaking New Ground, a History of Somerville College as Seen Through its Buildings (2013).