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Introducing the College ‘Feast’

Great Hall - table set for formal dinner

The Feast: What is it All About?

Girton’s College ‘Feast’ commemorates the first admission of women to degrees by the University of Cambridge in 1948, marking the achievement, after eighty long years, of Girton’s foundational aim. However, the feast is only partly a tribute to our path-breaking role as the UK’s first residential institution for the higher education of women. It is also a celebration of the fact that today’s final year students – men and women alike, from increasingly diverse backgrounds within and beyond the UK – will be eligible to graduate. In solidarity, nevertheless, with those of our predecessors who were denied full admission to the University, gowns are not worn for this occasion.

The first Feast occurred on 18 May 1948. The College flag was in full flight as it has been on every occasion since. It will fly this year too, even though the Feast will, for the first time ever, be in June and not in May.

In 1948, so the College Archives say, our founder Emily Davies’ portrait looked out – over tables glistening with white damask, strewn with sprigs of laurel, set with sparkling glass and cutlery, and laden with bowls of fresh flowers – as the ‘cheerful feasters’ made their way into the dining hall. This year, all being well, we will make for a giant marquee instead, leaving Emily’s portrait behind but keeping the spirit of Girton firmly in our midst.

A Very Girton Cocktail: The Bas-bleu 

The College Feast usually begins with subject drinks hosted by Directors of Studies: a moment to reflect on the intellectual adventure at the heart of College life. Arrangements may be a little different this year, but aperitifs will still feature! We always offer drinks with and without alcohol, so what better way to start the Feast than with a sip of the ‘Bas-bleu’ – a prize-winning cocktail and mocktail invented especially for Girton. It contains within it the story of the first five pioneering students – those ‘bluestockings’ who dared to embark on a voyage of discovery at ‘The College for Women’ on 16 October 1869. In this video, our Secretary to Council, Dr Caroline Shenton, picks up the narrative as she explains how to create one very special aperitif…

The Chapel Choir

Girton College Choir singing

The members of Girton’s Chapel Choir are all fine ambassadors for the College, with a string of first-rate recordings to their credit and (in normal times) an ambitious touring schedule. No special event in College is complete without an appearance by this 25-strong mixed-voice ensemble, and the Feast is no exception. As a Grace for the 2021 College Feast some members of the Choir – overseen by Gareth Wilson, Director of Chapel Music – have made a new recording under lockdown conditions of ‘He prayeth best who loveth best’, by the Welsh pianist, composer and mezz-soprano Morfydd Owen (1891-1918). The video includes contemporary (turn of the 20th century) images of the College featuring some of those early women who excelled in their studies but never did receive their degree.

Degrees for Women 70 Years On

At the College Feast in May 2018, we toasted the 70th anniversary of the very first admission of women to degrees at Cambridge University. The successful vote took place in December 1947, and in October 1948, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mother) became the first woman ever to receive a degree from Cambridge University. Not long afterwards, Her Majesty became Girton’s first elected Visitor. She was succeeded in 2004 by the Rt Hon the Baroness Hale of Richmond who Presided at the 2018 Feast and will be present for some of this year’s celebrations too.

To set the mood for ‘Feast2021’ here is a glimpse of the 2018 Feast, with its invitation to all Girton students to ‘share the past and shape the future’ of our remarkable institution. View the 2018 programme.

Share the past; shape our future

The slide show is accompanied by the Chapel Choir, with Queen Victoria’s Consort, performing Ethel Smyth's (1910) March of the Women, set to words by Cicely Hamilton.

First performed in January 1911 by the Suffrage Choir, it soon became the anthem of their campaign. It happens that 2018 marked not only the anniversary of degrees for women but also the centenary of the first votes for women – an achievement in which Girton’s founders and members were centrally involved. So, the time seemed right to perform ‘The March’ at the 2018 College Feast. It may never have been sung in Hall before, possibly because Girton’s members leaned more to the suffragists than the suffragettes. Nevertheless, it has become popular in College in recent years, the version posted here having featured in the ‘Girton Kaleidoscope’ during our 150th Anniversary Festival in July 2019 (you can view the whole performance via our YouTube Channel).

A Delicious Dinner!

If we are lucky, the Feast this year will be real – the first major College event that has not been wholly online since March 2020. It will not be packed into hampers, like the spectacular Matriculation Dinner, nor delivered for ‘do-it-yourself’ dining like the inventive Halfway Celebration home-cook meal-kit.

Feast 2021 will, we hope, be in person – albeit socially-distanced, subject to Government guidelines, and of course only for those who feel comfortable to attend. Our Catering team is already planning the menu, while front of house are fine-tuning their Fitbit's (you would be surprised how many miles are walked to bring this event to life). Practically every department in College is springing into action: we thank all these colleagues in advance for the professional skills and generous spirit they bring to the table. 

No Feast is complete, however, without The Speeches, which this year will be many, varied and hopefully delivered in person in the marquee. Here, in the meantime, is a glimpse back to last year when the Mistress, one of only a handful of people on-site during lockdown, secured the help of a very special guest to deliver this still-relevant message to final year students as part of our first, possibly only, FeastOnline.

2020 Speech

The College Songs

After the first College Feast, so the story goes, some student revellers and senior members climbed to the top of the Tower and, by light of moon and torch, sang a medley of College songs. This tradition – singing the songs, not climbing to the top of the Tower – has endured. 

The original songbook underlines the monumental struggles that Girton - as an institution, and in the shape of the individuals who make it what it is - has engaged in over the years in the interests of excellence, inclusion and an ethic of care. So there are items like the ‘The song of degrees’, describing the prejudices the early women students faced, and others like ‘The search for an examiner’ that remind us how difficult it was to get anyone from the University to recognise our predecessors’ achievements. 

One of the best-known College songs is ‘The Girton Pioneers’, written in 1873 by ‘several students at Hitchin’ in tribute to three of Girton’s earliest students Rachel Cook, Louisa Lumsden and Sarah Woodhead - the first three women ever to sit the Cambridge tripos (unofficially of course). View the words (PDF) and below they are sung by the Chapel Choir, to a selection of highlights from Girton’s 150th anniversary celebrations in 2019 – which many of this year’s graduands will remember.

We will always have 2019!

Over the years, the song book has expanded to embrace almost every aspect of the history and life of the College: sports (the golfing song, the cricket song, the swimming song, and the hockey song); student societies and institutions (including the fire brigade and the pig club); and new buildings, though it should be noted that space remains for anyone wishing to come forward with the Ash Court Chant, the Swirles Court Serenade, the Duck Pond polka or similar. In the meantime, here are two more classics from the Chapel Choir. It is still not clear whether it will be safe to sing them together this year; but that need not stop you from downloading the words and singing along in the privacy of your own home. 

Ye Gracious Senate - Girton College Chapel Choir

‘Ye Gracious Senate’ (view words - PDF) was written by botanist and OG Ethel Sargent in 1884. Sung to the tune of ‘The Vicar of Bray’. It marks the moment in 1881 when women, having so far only been allowed to sit the Tripos by vague courtesy of the examiners, finally – thanks to the influence of an important petition demanding it, as well as the spectacular success of a Girton mathematician (C. A. Scott) – had the right to enter university exams. Miss Scott, by the way, was almost caught by the tumbling chimney of 1881 that is mentioned in the Mistress's speech.

The Hockey Song - Girton College Chapel Choir

‘The Hockey Song’ (view words - PDF) was written by M. E. Barwell in 1894, four years after the Girton Hockey club was established. It refers to the Girton v. Newnham hockey match - a most important feature in the College sporting calendar for many years. The song is sung to the tune Wot Cher, the words, a play on a popular British music hall comedy: the fact that Girton wins has nothing to do with it featuring so centrally in our celebrations…

Thank-you and Good Night!

Why not wind down with this ‘lockdown’ performance by the Gir-ten of Jock McKenzie’s bluesy-dowoppy ‘Creature’s Comfort’, created especially for Feast Online 2020 – the first, and let’s hope last, time we have been unable to get together to celebrate all that our Feast represents.

The Gir-ten play ‘Creature’s Comfort’

This is not, of course, the only example of Girton’s fabulous musicians taking their very considerable talents online. If the night is yet young where you are, please feel free to keep listening, by browsing the musical feast that is stored in our online events archive.