Girton village website

Focus on Girton College

Girton College was founded as the College for Women in 1869, based at Hitchin, and moved to its present site in Girton, two-and-a-half miles from the centre of Cambridge, in 1873. Originally only five brave women were enrolled as students, increasing to fifteen by the time of the move to Girton. 'Brave' because at that time access to higher education was largely closed to women, and the bold aim of the moving spirit behind the college, Miss Emily Davies, was none less than the admission of women to the Cambridge degree examinations. Among reasons behind the choice of this relatively distant site were both modesty and peacefulness. Emily Davies would, perhaps, have preferred to stay in Hitchin, far away from the distractions and temptations of the university town, with those willing to teach the pioneers making the journey there by train. But in the days of horse-drawn transport, when bicycling was considered rather daring for women, Girton may have seemed remote enough.

The college was at first not recognized by the University, and teaching was carried out by enlightened male supporters of the cause. It was only in 1881 that women were officially allowed to sit examinations, and then they only received a certificate, not a degree. But the women were not kicking their heels waiting for male approval. In 1880, Miss Charlotte Angas Scott of Girton achieved (unofficially, of course) a first-class pass in mathematics. In 1885 she became the first professor of mathematics at the newly founded women's college of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. And many other early Girton students went on to pioneer opportunities for women, both in education and in working for women's suffrage. But it was a long struggle. It was not until 1948 that women were admitted to full membership of Cambridge University, giving them not only degrees at last, but also a voice in the running of the University, and opening to them the full range of academic and administrative opportunities.

The design of the oldest buildings in the college was by Alfred Waterhouse, inspired by his Assize Courts in Manchester, which Miss Davies thought 'beautiful', and later buildings continued in a similar style. Innovative was the decision to base the rooms along corridors rather than the familiar staircase pattern of the older Cambridge colleges. In 1969 an additional site at Wolfson Court in Clarkson Road (off Grange Road) was developed, which now houses mainly graduate students. In 2006, the new Girton College Library and Archive was one of two buildings in the East of England to be given a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) award, which cited its successful integration of a thoroughly modern building into the prevailing Neo-gothic architecture.

Girton College's first building, 1873, set in treeless farmland.
Photo courtesy the Mistress and Fellows, Girton College.

Historically the college has enjoyed a mutually supportive relationship with Girton village. In the nineteenth century, the college made donations to the church and the village school, and Girton students taught in the Sunday School and in a village Night School. Many of the domestic staff of the college came from the village, and in the 1890s the college helped found the Wellbrook Laundry, originally to serve the women's colleges of Girton and Newnham and the newly founded Cambridge Training College for Women, now Hughes Hall. This provided employment and training for village women (women's employment was a big concern of these early feminists); it was a significant local employer, at one stage rivalling Chivers' jam factory in Histon, and was still there in the 1980s. It also used the very latest electric lighting and machinery. The college in fact acted as a 'magnet' for modern amenities such as gas, electricity, and mains water and drainage, which, once they had reached as far as the college, could relatively easily be extended into the village.

In the present day, many Girton residents will have enjoyed walking in the college grounds, which extend to 50 acres. In autumn, one may pick up windfalls from beneath the trees in the Old Orchard, which is now an important historical resource for old species as well as a valuable habitat for insects and plants. An ongoing tree-planting and replacement scheme is in operation, and it is hard to believe that the site was treeless agricultural land before the college arrived. The Head Groundsman, Mr Steve Whiting, is happy for visitors to walk around the periphery of the sports fields but not across the middle! The public are also welcome to visit the Royal Society of Portrait Painters millennium exhibition, 'People's Portraits', representing people from all walks of life and now housed in Girton College. (Tel. 01223 764821; disabled access and school parties welcome, telephone in advance. )

In the 1970s Girton took the radical, modernizing step of admitting men. This was largely a question of survival, as the present Mistress, the distinguished anthropologist Dame Marilyn Strathern, freely admits. Once the men's colleges became coresidential, many of the brightest female students would inevitably start applying for admission to them, so the college needed to broaden its applicant base. Now, the college population is roughly evenly balanced between men and women at all levels, including Fellows. There had never been any suggestion that male members should occupy separate quarters, so from the beginning the men were completely integrated into college life, sharing corridors and bathrooms with the women. What would Miss Davies have thought?

Girton main entrance today

Not all students can be housed in college rooms for the entire duration of their course, although the majority of undergraduates live in. There are also college-owned houses in Girton Road and Huntingdon Road offering overspill accommodation, as well as the Wolfson Court site. Girton currently has about 480 undergraduates, 230 graduate students, and the 100+ Fellows. Although like all Cambridge colleges, Girton aims to be broad-based in what it offers to students, it has particularly outstanding records in Law and English, and is also one of a minority of colleges to admit Veterinary students. The opportunity to mix with people from different disciplines is seen as an important aspect of what university education has to offer, so there are no plans for the college to start specializing in a restricted range of subjects. As an active encourager of applicants from diverse backgrounds, the college rates as one of the best in Cambridge on a 'value-added' index, setting student aspirations at the highest level and encouraged by an outstanding teaching staff.

Diversity is evident when one looks at the achievements of former Girton students. It is not only in academics and education that Girton alumni have shone, but also in politics (such as the social theorist Barbara Wootton, who was the first woman to sit on the Woolsack as Deputy Speaker in the House of Lords), literature (the poet Kathleen Raine , the novelist Rosamond Lehmann), and even electronic music (Delia Derbyshire, a pioneer in the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop in 1962, arranged the famous Dr Who theme as an electronic piece from Ron Grainger's score).

Girton College occupies a particularly important place in women's history. Indeed, Girton College's Archive collection is recognized as a most important resource in Britain on women's access to higher education. So was anything lost when the college became coresidential? Perhaps some may lament a loss of diversity within higher education, but Girton's male members are as proud of its history as anyone else. And we must also acknowledge that it was only with the help and support of some very enlightened men that women were able to gain access to university education in the first place.

The site that once seemed discreetly distant from the wicked city of Cambridge now no longer seems so, as the University and town have spread up the Huntingdon Road towards Girton (just as Girton village has crept towards Huntingdon Road). Indeed, perhaps because of its situation, the college boasts a unique community spirit, and truly offers the essence of what Emily Davies dreamed of: full access to everything the University has to offer, with at the same time the freedom to escape from those pressures within its beautiful grounds.

Girton College, Cambridge, CB3 0JG
Telephone: 01223 338999
Fax: 01223 338896

"Focus on Girton" is a series of occasional articles on the public service, commercial, charitable and other organisations of Girton for the information of local residents. Articles are written independently by members of the Editorial Team of Girton Parish News, with the consent and cooperation of the organisation concerned. They do not in themselves represent an endorsement of the products or services of the organisation. No connection exists between the publication of an article and any advertising in the GPN, and the article does not form part of any marketing or other promotional activity on the part of the organisation.