Girton College boasts of being founded on “values of equality and diversity,” welcoming “students of all backgrounds” but did you know the college’s origin in Hitchin?
Girton was created with the aim of enabling women to gain university degrees and only won this long fight in 1948, though the idea was first proposed in 1880. The first woman to be honoured with a degree from the University of Cambridge was Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, on October 21 1948.
Emily Davis and Barbara Bodichon established the college, after meeting via their activism with the ‘Englishwoman’s Review’ and the ‘Society for the Employment of Women’, inspired by the early feminism movement arguing for the improvement of women’s education. On October 16 1869, ‘College For Women’ was opened in Benslow House, Hitchin. The location was chosen due to the convenience of being halfway between London and Cambridge. Sixteen candidates passed the entrance examination, five students started in the first term and three students unofficially sat Cambridge’s Tripos exams. These three women were Louisa Lumsden, Sarah Woodhead and Rachel Scott.
Louisa Lumsden became a tutor at Girton, the first headmistress of St Leonards School where she introduced lacrosse and was asked to become president of the ‘Aberdeen Suffrage Association’, an invitation she accepted.
Sarah Woodhead earnt the equivalent of Senior Optime in mathematics and was the only one of the three women to earn an honorary degree in mathematics. She went on to work as Head of Mathematics at Manchester High School for Girls.
Rachel Scott joined the governing body of both the Manchester Girls’ High School and the Withington Girls School, later creating a home-based university-level teaching space, which in 1883 was incorporated into Owens College.
In October 1873, Girton College moved from Hitchin to Cambridge, to increase integration into the rest of Cambridge and have more space. Benslow House is now a nursing home and the Benslow district is known today for Pinehill Feild, Pinehill Private Hospital, St Andrews’ CofE primary school and the Benslow Music Trust.