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Events

Ceremony for the Commemoration of Benefactors 2020

reflections of the stained glass window

This special ceremony - designed to be enjoyed by people of all faiths and of none  - is held annually at Girton College to recognise the wisdom and generosity of our Founders and Benefactors. Normally housed in a packed Chapel, this year’s event is witnessed and enacted by a handful of people who nevertheless represent the whole College community. It will be live-streamed and filmed to make a permanent record of the occasion.

The Chapel is a safe, quiet, contemplative space at the heart of the College that is open to all. Its walls are lined with myriad carved plaques and engraved stones, each with their own tribute to the vibrant figures who have shaped our history. In the silence before the ceremony starts, we bring to mind all those whose trust and confidence over the years has helped turn a tiny radical College for Women into a thriving permanent institution within the University of Cambridge.

The Ceremony

Introduction and Welcome    

The Mistress introduces the ceremony, reflecting on the generosity of spirit and scale of philanthropy that has built and sustained the College over the past 150 years. Girton started as a dream, a wild flight of imagination, a daring tilt toward the outrageous idea that women should have the same entitlements as men. Buying into that dream brought Girton to life, and as we enter our 151st year of operation during Black History Month, we look to the prolific American poet Langston Hughes to remind us how important it is to have a dream.

Dreams by Langston Hughes (1901-1967), read by the Mistress

The Choir:  Let All the World, set by Greta Tomlins (1912-1972)

First Reading, read by George Cowperthwaite, MCR President

Extract On the Progress of Electricity from an interview conducted with inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931), in 1869, the year Girton College was founded.

Reflection on the Life and Legacy of Alfred Yarrow 

Each year the ceremony for the Commemoration of Benefactors turns our attention to a single key figure, to remind us of the wide range of lively personalities whose gifts over the years have transformed the fortunes of the College. 

This year’s ceremony profiles Alfred Yarrow who is one of Girton’s major benefactors. He too was a profilic inventor; an engineer who recognised the importance of scientific research by women and men alike.

  • Dr Shaun Fitzgerald, Fellow in Engineering reflects on Yarrow’s life, work and philanthropy.
  • Dr John Wills, Hertha Ayrton Research Fellow, elected by the Yarrow Board, considers how this legacy has impacted on his own work.

Second Reading read by Members of the Girton College Chapel Choir

When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

This poem by acclaimed storyteller, autobiographer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou is about love, loss and renewal. We have chosen it to recognise that for every name read out in this ceremony there are families, perhaps generations of them, that mourn their loss. For some that loss is still very raw: a great tree has fallen in the forest.

Reflection on the Act of Remembrance (The Chaplain)

Recitation of Benefactors

The names of over 170 Founders and Benefactors are read by representatives of the College community: the Alumni, Honorary Fellows, Fellows, MCR, JCR, and staff. 

Reflective Silence

The Choir: O Lord, Hear My Prayer by Moses Hogan (1957-2003)

Final Word (The Mistress)

Organ Voluntary: The Fugue (sostenuto e legato) from Mendelssohn’s Sonata VI in D minor (Op 65, 1845). Played by Organ Scholar Emily Nott

The Foundation Dinner

It is traditional to follow the annual Ceremony for the Commemoration of Benefactors with the Foundation Dinner at which we thank those donors whose vision and generosity in the life of A Great Campaign – a campaign to grow the permanent endowment first established by Alfred Yarrow and his contemporaries -  has enabled the College to thrive.

We are very grateful to more than 1725 alumni who have so far made a gift during this Campaign (see The Great Campaign for more details). The permanent endowment of the College is vital to our continued operation especially at times of uncertainty.

Every gift makes a difference: together they have been, and will continue to be, transformational in our ability to support students and Fellows in the furtherance of learning and research. 

Alfred Yarrow (1842-1932) 

Exhibition

In 1913, Alfred Yarrow (1842–1932) offered Girton College £12,000 – half of the outstanding mortgage owed by the College. His condition was that the other half of the debt should be collected by the end of the year. Success was such that there was also enough to establish what became Girton’s permanent endowment.

Photograph of Alfred Yarrow, by an unknown photographer, circa 1915 (archive reference: GCPH 4/15/1).

Photograph of Alfred Yarrow, by an unknown photographer, circa 1915 (archive reference: GCPH 4/15/1).

The College debt

In 1899 the College undertook an ambitious and expensive building scheme – the new buildings were completed in 1902 and included the Dining Hall and kitchen block, Cloister corridor, the Chapel, the swimming pool, Chapel Wing, and Woodlands Wing. The 1903 College Report noted that ‘£54,306 had been paid out on account of the building, planting and drainage, furniture and other incidental expenses’. The outlay had been partly met by donations to the Capital Fund (contributions including the Swimming Bath Fund amounted to £15,124) and by a loan of £40,000 from the Prudential Assurance Company. This debt proved to be a serious handicap to the College and 10 years later the College still owed £24,000, which it was only able to reduce by about £1,500 a year. 

The offer of £12,000

The College Council minutes of 20 May 1913 records Alfred Yarrow’s offer. The College Secretary, Mary Clover (1876–1965, Administrative Staff 1901) read a letter from an un-named individual, on behalf of ‘a friend’ of that person, that had been received on 5 May 1913. That ‘friend’ wanted to know more about the College: how many of its students entered with ‘a view to earning their own living’, and what was the size of the debt? The intermediary claimed this person was interested in the degree to which the debt put pressure on admissions and what sum might be needed to allow an additional wing to be built. A second letter was received on 17 May and is transcribed in the minutes. The un-named person apparently recognised the importance of paying off the mortgage, and went on to propose to pay off that debt ‘to the value of £12,000, if the same amount can be raised by donations by the end of this year’. Miss Barnes, the author of the letters, gave permission for her name to be made known to the Council. Her friend remained anonymous. Council agreed to make every effort to collect that additional £12,000 by the end of December 1913.   

The anonymous offer, from the College Council minutes, 20 May 1913 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/20pt).

The anonymous offer, from the College Council minutes, 20 May 1913 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/20pt).

It was resolved ‘every effort should be made’ to raise the money, from the College Council minutes, 20 May 1913 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/20pt)

It was resolved ‘every effort should be made’ to raise the money, from the College Council minutes, 20 May 1913 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/20pt).

The drama behind the offer

However, the bland College Council minutes do not record the ‘drama’ behind the anonymous offer, nor the fact that the offer was nearly disregarded. Kathleen Peace (1904–1974, Administrative Staff 1933), Mary Clover’s successor as College Secretary, was keen to ensure that the true story was recorded and kept in the College Archive. So in 1957, together with Mary Clover, she put together a full account of the offer. It is from this account that we learn that initially the offer was not taken seriously, nor was it considered to be achievable. It was only due to Mary Clover and the timely intervention of Hugh Kerr Anderson (1865–1928), the Master of Caius, that the Council decided that ‘every effort should be made’ to raise the money. 

A note written by Kathleen Peace explaining how she wanted to ‘keep some of the drama’, 1957 (archive reference: GCAR 2/6/12pt).

A note written by Kathleen Peace explaining how she wanted to ‘keep some of the drama’, 1957 (archive reference: GCAR 2/6/12pt). She reveals that Muriel Bradbrook (1909–1993, Mistress 1968) took pleasure in the telling of this story for dramatic effect. 

Mary Clover’s account of the College Council meeting where the offer of £12,000 was received with ‘considerable doubt’, recorded by Kathleen Peace, 1957 (archive reference: GCAR 2/6/12pt)

Mary Clover’s account of the College Council meeting where the offer of £12,000 was received with ‘considerable doubt’, recorded by Kathleen Peace, 1957 (archive reference: GCAR 2/6/12pt).

Fundraising

At its meeting of the 20 May 1913, the College Council established a Special Appeal Sub-Committee to organise the fundraising. The members of the Sub-Committee were: William Cunningham (1849–1918); Hugh Kerr Anderson; Lady Dorothy Howard (1881–1968, Girton 1901); and E E Constance Jones (1848–1922, Mistress 1903). The Sub-Committee threw themselves into fundraising. Almost immediately Rosalind, Countess of Carlisle (1845–1921), Lady Dorothy Howard’s mother, offered £4,000 on the understanding the remaining £8,000 was raised. This allowed the Sub-Committee to point out that raising the £8,000 would in fact attract a further £16,000, meaning any contribution was worth three times its value. This proved to be a ‘great lure’. Old Students, friends and supporters of the College were all written to. All the clerks of the City Livery Companies were approached, and the Drapers’, Grocers’, the Salters’, and the Skinners’ Companies all contributed. The Clothworkers’ Company offered to pay the last £500 if the rest of the amount had been raised. By the end of December 1913, the seemingly impossible had been achieved and the money had been raised. Indeed, the total of all the donations to the College exceeded the £12,000 that had been the target.

Appeal letter to the national newspapers, from the College Council minutes 14 October 1913 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/20pt)

Appeal letter to the national newspapers, from the College Council minutes 14 October 1913 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/20pt).

Appeal letter to the City Livery Companies, from the College Council minutes 14 October 1913 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/20pt)

Appeal letter to the City Livery Companies, from the College Council minutes 14 October 1913 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/20pt).

Claiming the £12,000

Throughout the fundraising effort Mary Clover sent regular reports to Miss Barnes. Initially these were acknowledged, but then occurred a long period of silence. Mary Clover discreetly decided to keep this to herself and eventually a letter arrived from Vancouver, where it appeared Miss Barnes and her friend were staying. In it Miss Barnes expressed her pleasure at the progress made, and informed Miss Clover that she was to go to a London office, where a Mr Nicholson would have instructions regarding the payment of the money. However, on Miss Clover’s arrival at the office, Mr Nicholson informed her that he had not received any instruction from Vancouver. At this point Miss Clover acknowledged that she was ‘a little worried’. Despite Mr Nicholson reassuring her that if the money had been promised he was sure it would be forthcoming, it began to seem a very real possibility that the anonymous offer was a hoax. She went to the Post Office to see if the post from Vancouver was due that day; as it was, she waited and called on Mr Nicholson again that evening. She was again disappointed; no instruction had been received. She returned to Cambridge and told no one about this alarming turn of events. However, a few days later, Mr Nicholson sent a telegram to say that £12,000 had been paid into the College’s bank account. Miss Clover chose not to share this news until she ascertained for certain that the money really was in the College’s bank account. 

Mary Clover’s account of obtaining the money, recorded by Kathleen Peace, 1957 (archive reference: GCAR 2/6/12pt).

Mary Clover’s account of obtaining the money, recorded by Kathleen Peace, 1957 (archive reference: GCAR 2/6/12pt).

 Image 9:  The College mortgage was paid off on 8 January 1914, from the College Council minutes, 3 Feb 1914 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/20pt).

The College mortgage was paid off on 8 January 1914, from the College Council minutes, 3 Feb 1914 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/20pt).

Alfred Yarrow (1842–1932)

Once the mortgage had been paid, Miss Clover wrote to Miss Barnes in Vancouver. In the reply received it was revealed that the anonymous donor was Alfred Yarrow; Miss Barnes, later Lady Yarrow, was his cousin. 

Alfred Yarrow was born in London, the only child in a family of modest means. When he died he was a very wealthy man. His fortune, made in engineering and ship-building, was due to his talent and inventiveness, and his ability to respond quickly to economic and political opportunity.  

From a young age Alfred showed an interest in mechanics and inventing small machines, which led to an engineering apprenticeship in Stepney. In 1865, he and his friend Robert Hedley opened a small engineering works called Yarrow and Hedley on the Isle of Dogs, east London. They began to design and construct steam river launches and, by the early 1870s, they ventured into building military ships, in particular high-speed torpedo ships. The partnership with Hedley dissolved in 1875 and Alfred continued the business under its new name of Yarrow and Co. By 1890, at least eleven Navies around the world had purchased Yarrow and Co’s ever evolving torpedo ships. In 1892, the company began to build a new class of vessel, the destroyer. Their first two destroyers were supplied to the Royal Navy. 

Between 1906 and 1908, Alfred moved his entire ship-building business to Scotstoun, west Glasgow.  He retired from active oversight of Yarrow and Co in 1913, but when WWI was declared he immediately returned. 29 new destroyers were built for the Royal Navy during WWI, but Yarrow’s war efforts were much more wide ranging. He manufactured artificial limbs for wounded soldiers, developed a treatment for trench foot, designed a camouflage veil to protect soldiers from snipers, and invented a life jacket, amongst other things. In 1916, he was created Baron Yarrow of Homestead in recognition of his war services. 

For more information about Alfred Yarrow see:

  • Alfred Yarrow: his life and work. Compiled by Eleanor C Barnes (Lady Yarrow). (London: E. Arnold and Co., 1923) 
  • Yarrow and Company Ltd, 1865–1977, A Borthwick, (and others) (R MacLehose & Co, University of Glasgow Printers, 1977)  
  • Alfred Yarrow’s obituary, published by the Royal Society: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsbm.1932.0003
  • ‘Sir Alfred Fernadez Yarrow’ in, Ships and Shipbuilders: Pioneers of Design and Construction, F M Walker (Seaforth Publishing, 2010)

Alfred Yarrow as a philanthropist

From the 1880s onwards, Alfred Yarrow became a noted philanthropist. Some of the institutions he gave money to included: a convalescent for children in Broadstairs, Kent; the London Hospital; the Institution of Civil Engineers; the Nurses’ Training Home in Govan, Glasgow; the Barnett Homestead in Hampstead, London; the Girls’ Domestic Economy School in Chislehurst, Kent; and the Royal Society. In 1926, he endowed the Eric Yarrow Lectureship in Assyriology at Cambridge University in memory of his son, killed in WWI.

His second wife (the former Miss Barnes) wrote in her biography of Alfred that he was always a champion of women, and that he favoured schemes that would allow them to have ‘power and influence  in life’. He had a particular interest in education and wanted women to be able to pursue careers. She also claimed that Alfred visited Girton before making his offer in 1913, although no record of this visit has been found in the College Archive. It is possible that Emily Davies (1830–1921, one of the College’s key founders) was the initial intermediary between Yarrow and Girton. This is suggested by the reference in the first letter to the degree to which the debt is ‘putting pressure on admissions’ and the idea that a donation might allow the construction of ‘an additional wing’ at Girton. That ‘extra wing’ and increasing undergraduate numbers, remained Emily Davies’ goals, even after her 1904 resignation from an active role in College governance. 

Photograph of Alfred Yarrow showing him multiple times, by an unknown photographer, circa 1915 (archive reference: GCPH 4/15/2).

Photograph of Alfred Yarrow showing him multiple times, by an unknown photographer, circa 1915 (archive reference: GCPH 4/15/2). 

The Endowment Fund

As fundraising began in 1913, there was also immediately discussion in Girton about College priorities once the debt had been paid off. At the Council meeting of October 14 it was proposed, and almost unanimously agreed, that: ‘any income set free by the repayment of the mortgage shall be devoted to the improvement of the position of the Staff and to objects such as the provision of Scholarships, Fellowships and Studentships’. By a lesser majority it was also agreed that it was ‘undesirable’ that new building work would be undertaken, until the cost of that could be ‘defrayed without incurring a new loan’. This reveals that there was a battle was going on among College supporters over whether and when to build a further wing. Emily Davies ardently desired an extension, but others in College saw the urgent need to improve salaries and the opportunities for research. 

So once the debt had been paid off, the excess money raised was used to establish the first Endowment Fund. The interest on this fund was used to increase Staff salaries, scholarships and studentships for graduates, and efforts were made to lower the amounts of teaching College Staff had to undertake, and to give them more time for ‘research and reading’. The fund was also used to establish three new ‘Fellowships’ (what would today be termed Research Studentships) in the College. Each was worth £150 a year for three years, and they were named after Lady Carlisle, Alfred Yarrow, and earlier benefactors, the Pfieffer family. The first two Yarrow Research Fellows appointed in 1914 were Caroline Skeel (1872–1951, Research Fellow 1914), historian, and Ellen Delf (1883–1980 Research Fellow 1914), biologist.

Caroline Skeel, taken from the first year photograph by an unknown photographer, 1891 (archive reference: GCPH 11/4a/36/29)

Caroline Skeel, taken from the first year photograph by an unknown photographer, 1891 (archive reference: GCPH 11/4a/36/29).

Ellen Delf, taken from the first year photograph by an unknown photographer, 1902 (archive reference: GCPH 11/4a/36/42)

Ellen Delf, taken from the first year photograph by an unknown photographer, 1902 (archive reference: GCPH 11/4a/36/42).

Yarrow Scientific Research Fellowships and Studentships

Alfred Yarrow continued his interest in the College.  In 1919, he made a further donation to the College of £10,000, to be used over the coming 20 years to encourage research in ‘Mathematical, Physical and Natural Sciences’. This second significant donation was probably stimulated by Alfred’s experiences in business and during WWI, and his views on political economy. His aim was ‘to develop, as rapidly as possible, Scientific Research, because on the development of research depends progress in industries and in consequence, employment’. In November 1919, Sir Alfred attended the College Council meeting and heard his offer discussed in detail. On 2 December, the Yarrow bequest was gratefully accepted. By the following January, two flyers had been printed giving details of the Yarrow Scientific Research Fellowship and the Yarrow Scientific Research Studentship. The Fellowship was to be worth £300 a year for three years. The Studentship was to be worth £150, although a 1940 report makes it clear that the studentships paid between £100 and £150 a year and were restricted to members of Girton and Newnham Colleges. Each studentship was tenable for one to three years by an annual renewal, allowing the holder to take a Cambridge PhD. By 1940, 22 studentships had been awarded. 

Yarrow Scientific Research Fellowship, insert from the College Council minutes, 27 Jan 1920 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/22pt)

Yarrow Scientific Research Fellowship, insert from the College Council minutes, 27 Jan 1920 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/22pt).

Yarrow Scientific Research Studentship, insert from the College Council minutes, 27 Jan 1920 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/22pt)

Yarrow Scientific Research Studentship, insert from the College Council minutes, 27 Jan 1920 (archive reference: GCGB 2/1/22pt)


Alfred Yarrow wrote an article for The Woman Engineer journal, which appeared in the September 1920 issue. In the article he refers to ‘a research scholarship’ at Girton. The front cover of this issue includes a photograph of women making artificial limbs in Yarrow’s Glasgow works. 

This journal has been digitised and is available from the Institute of Engineering and Technology’s website (the September 1920 issue is available in volume I).


Yarrow Scientific Research Fellows 

Over the following 20 years (1920–1940), Yarrow’s gift enabled the College to appoint and support 11 successive Yarrow Scientific Research Fellows. These talented women were:

  • 1920–23:  Dorothy Wrinch (1894–1976), a mathematician and theoretical biologist. While holding the Fellowship, she was the first woman in Cambridge to teach mathematics to men.
  • 1921–24:  Frances Hamer (1894–1980), a pioneering research chemist 
  • 1924–27:  Marjorie Chandler (1897–1983), a paleobotanist
  • 1926–29:  Mary Taylor (1898–1984), a mathematician 
  • 1928–31: Leonore Brecher (1886–1942), a zoologist
  • 1929–32:  Rosalind Young (1900–1992), a mathematician
  • 1930–34:  Mary Cartwright (1900–1998, Mistress 1949), a mathematician 
  • 1932–37:  Ann Bishop (1899–1990), a biologist
  • 1934–38:  Olga Taussky (1906–1995), a mathematician
  • 1935–38:  Elizabeth Kara-Michailova (1897–1968), a physicist 
  • 1937–40:  Marthe Vogt (1903–1994), a pharmacologist.
Dorothy Wrinch, the first Yarrow Scientific Research Fellow, taken from the first year photograph by Mason & Co, 1913 (archive reference: GCPH 11/4a/36/54b)

Dorothy Wrinch, the first Yarrow Scientific Research Fellow, taken from the first year photograph by Mason & Co, 1913 (archive reference: GCPH 11/4a/36/54b).


Exhibition by Hazel Mills, College Historian, and Hannah Westall, Archivist
The facts recorded in this exhibition are correct to our best current knowledge.