A guide to the Special Collections

Last updated: July 2019

The rare or special collections of published material complement the manuscript holdings in Girton’s archives in providing insights to the lives and scholarship of their previous owners, in addition to their intrinsic value as scholarly texts. Of particular note are the following: Mary Somerville’s collection of mathematical books (bequeathed to Girton); Henriette Bibas’ collection of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French texts; Jane Catherine Gamble’s nineteenth-century library of general interest, illustrating the reading patterns of women of her generation; Mary Frere’s collection of Hebrew and Samaritan texts and manuscripts; Helen Blackburn’s library on the struggle for women’s labour and social rights, and for women’s suffrage; the Travel collection, which includes many antiquarian and rare books on travel; the Lorimer Classics collection; and a significant collection of rare books, since in many cases antiquarian books or manuscripts have been donated as individual treasures rather than as discrete collections.

Book of Hours, Use of Rome, in Latin, with additions in French and Dutch, illuminated manuscript on vellum. Hainault [1460?]. Full page miniature (fol. 127v) showing David in prayer.

Early benefactors were concerned to ensure that Girton’s collections at least rival those in the older, male colleges. In the early days, therefore, we received copies of their own work from, for example, George Eliot, Charles Darwin, and John Ruskin, while Mrs Morris gave copies of her husband William’s published works.

Helen BlackburnThe Blackburn Collection was bequeathed to Girton College, Cambridge, by Helen Blackburn in 1903. The collection was formed by her in memory of Lydia Becker and Caroline Ashurst Biggs and consists of books, pamphlets, periodicals and newspaper cuttings which relate to the worldwide position of women during the nineteenth century. It contains works in Dutch, French, German and Italian, in addition to works in English. The collection was arranged by Helen Blackburn in a mahogany boockcase of her own design¹ and each book contains a bookplate to the memory of Becker and Biggs designed by Edith Mendham and printed by the Women’s Printing Society. A condition of the bequest was that the books should always be kept together. A.B. Blackburn, writing to the College Bursar in February 1903 includes in his letter the following extract from his sister’s will,

“I bequeath the ‘Memorial Library’ of books on women’s questions to Girton College Cambridge and direct that my executors deliver the bookcases and all the contents thereof free of charge to the person acting as Bursar for the time being, with the understanding that the books may be kept together whether additions be made to the Library or not”²

It is clear that those who worked with Helen Blackburn regarded her Library as an important resource for future students interested in women’s questions. Lilias Ashworth Hallet undertook to complete the binding of a portion of pamphlets remaining unbound at the time of Helen Blackburn’s death because she felt that such documents were worth careful preservation. In her letter to the Bursar, outlining her proposals she writes,

“There are also annual reports of the various chief Women’s Suffrage Committees and I incline to think these worth binding, for they have lists of all the early workers and early subscriptions and I believe that these will be of lasting interest. There will always be a few women who will look back through the years with interest and gratitude to the struggles of the early workers.”³

The collection has been kept in accordance with Helen Blackburn’s wishes and, with the exception of a few additions, remains in its original state.

¹ The Englishwoman’s Review, CCLVII (15 April 1903), p. 80.
² A.B. Blackburn to M. Pickton, 24 February [1903]. Girton College Archive, reference GCAC 4/6/3/1 (pt)
³ Lilias Ashworth Hallett to M. Pickton, 3 April 1903. Girton College Archive, reference GCAC 4/6/3/3 (pt)

Barbara Bodichon“Who was Barbara Bodichon? She was many things: artist, law reformer, pamphleteer, journalist, co-founder of Girton College, intrepid traveller, the red-haired charismatic leader of the Langham Place group, Florence Nightingale’s first cousin and George Eliot’s closest friend. It was her unusual political education and acumen that enabled her to assume the leadership role of the Langham Place group, the inspiration and focal point of feminist agitation in England for thirty years”.¹

The Bodichon Library was acquired in two parts. The first, a collection of 395 volumes from the Scalands (Sussex) Library of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891), was acquired in 1954 through Mr H.W. Pratley, Halls Bookshop, Tunbridge Wells, who offered them to Girton for £200 rather than have them go en bloc to America. They were purchased by the Librarian, Helen McMorran and presented to the Library². Letters concerning the purchase are filed with the Bodichon Papers in the College archives. Scalands was the country home of Barbara Bodichon which she designed herself in the 1850s. After her death it was occupied by the Leigh Smith family until 1953 when it was given up owing to its inconvenience and general inaccessibility. After that date, it stood empty and was partially destroyed by fire in 1955³.

Most of the books are stamped with Barbara Bodichon’s address (either Scalands Gate or 5 Blandford Square) and many contain inscriptions from contemporaries. Loose leaf letters, notes and miscellanea have been transferred to the archives, as have the volume of autograph letters and the album of photographs which formed part of the original collection. The inscriptions and inserts in the books are described in the Accessions Register Vol. 1954-1964.

The second tranche of some 42 volumes was bought from the antiquarian booksellers, Bernard Quaritch, in 2005. Quaritch had written to the Librarian to offer them for sale to Girton in the first instance. These were books which were passed to Barbara Bodichon’s nephew, Philip Leigh-Smith, a diplomat who spent part of his career in Russia. They were later passed to a friend of his, and eventually found their way somehow into a small bookshop in a remote part of northern Croatia. A dealer listed them at a German book fair to which the representative from Quaritch had gone, and he then travelled to the bookshop to inspect them. He selected out those books which were directly connected to Barbara Bodichon, as opposed to those belonging to her nephew, and brought them back. The asking price was £7,500.

The books include copies of works by Barbara Bodichon and her husband Eugène. The books are almost all inscribed in some way and many are annotated. The inscriptions and annotations are richly illuminating in both re-affirming and adding to the knowledge we already have of Barbara Bodichon’s various friends and connections in the artistic, literary and political worlds of the mid-nineteenth century. The last eight of the books show the strong link between the Bodichon/Leigh-Smith and Parkes/Belloc families. The purchase was financed by funds from Friends of the Library and one or two private donations.

¹ Pam Hirsch, in Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: Feminist, Artist and Rebel.
² Library Committee Minutes 3 Nov 1954.
³ Helen McMorran to [Philip Leigh Smith], Aug 1955. Girton College Archives.

Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872) occupies an important place in the history of nineteenth-century science. A profound mathematician, she became a leading scientific author, celebrated for the clarity and focus of her writing. She was a pioneering advocate of education and votes for women. She was made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society and the American Philosophical Society. Her mathematical library was presented to Girton College by her daughters. It comprises copies of her own work together with works by the leading scientists and philosophers of her day. Many are personally-inscribed presentation copies from luminaries such as Michael Faraday and Sir John Herschel.

Books from the scientific library of Mary Somerville (1780 -1872) were presented to Girton College by her daughters, Martha and Mary Somerville in May 1873. There is no extant correspondence about the gift but it can be assumed from the Executive Committee minutes1 that the Misses Somerville wrote to Emily Davies offering the books to the ‘College for Women’. Whether or not this was done at their late mother’s behest is not clear, but seems probable. Mrs Somerville came to Cambridge with her husband in 1834 when they were invited by Dr Whewell to visit the University. On that occasion, Mary Somerville may have been the first woman to occupy a set of rooms at Trinity College.2

The only contemporary documentation about the gift is a list of the books “to be sent from Naples”, Mrs Somerville’s residence in the later part of her life, and instructions for assembly of the “ebonised bookcase” dated 14 Jan 1870. The Somerville Collection was, until recently, housed in its original bookcase in the corridor outside the Library, but was moved into the special collections repository in 2005. The College was conscious of the value of the books and the great honour which had been conferred by the gift.3

In the early thirties, there was some thought of integrating Mrs Somerville’s books with the rest of the College Library but this suggestion was strongly opposed by Barbara Stephen and they remain a discrete collection4. The collection includes a copy of Mechanism of the Heavens (1831) the book, commissioned by Lord Brougham for The Society for Diffusing Useful Knowledge, which brought Mary Somerville recognition.5

Note: Two letters inserted in the books have been transferred to the Archives.
The College also owns a bust of Mary Somerville, presented by Frances Power Cobbe, a portrait by Samuel Laurence, presented by Lady Stanley of Alderley, and a bronze relief by J E Davis, presented by Helen Darbyshire.

1 Minutes of meeting 19 May 1873, Executive Committee Minutes Vol.3 p108 Girton College Archives.
2 M L Cartwright to the Editor of The Times, n.d. Misc Corr. File Girton College Archives.
3 Minutes of meeting 19 May 1873 (as above).
4 Letters from Barbara Stephen to H I McMorran [1933] Library correspondence Girton College Archives.
5 ‘A self educated women’ Times Educational Supplement 25 Nov 1922 Obituaries Girton College Archives.

The Girton Review, Lent Term 1913: ‘An interesting collection of about 200 Hebrew books (including some Samaritan MSS… .) was made to the college Library last summer under the will of the late Miss Mary Frere. Several of the volumes are valuable editions with beautiful bindings…[The bequest also includes] some Jewish marriage certificates of mediaeval times having borders rich in symbolic illumination’.

From The Girton Review, December 1885: ‘A very generous bequest has been recently made to the College by Miss Gamble. Divested of the exaggerations which, as is usual in such cases, attend our ignorance of facts, the bequest is yet most munificent, being to the amount of about £18,000 … together with a number of books. Among the books of general interest there are many old favourites and those who have regretted the predominance in the library of unserviceable modern bindings may relieve their eyes with the harmonious browns and business-like blacks of these recent additions… The principal books are: complete editions of Shakespeare, Swift and Addison; Johnson’s Lives of the Poets; Hakluyt’s Voyages; Bell’s British Theatre… a valuable copy of Bewick’s Birds (1st edition); Darwin’s Botanic Gardens; Rossetti’s Dante…’ etc.

The Girton Review, Easter Term 1954 announces the death of ‘Miss H.L. Lorimer, Honorary Fellow of Somerville College since 1941 and of Girton College since 1951. She lived and worked for most of her life in Oxford, but she retained a lasting affection for her first college, Girton, to which she has bequeathed her magnificent classical library – one of the most valuable bequests that the Girton library has ever had’.

Marie Adrienne Henriette Bibas, 1884 – 1965; Fellow and Life Fellow. Her obituary in The Girton Review, Michaelmas Term, 1965 states: ’Her power to ignore or to eliminate or to resist the substitutes for truths which offer themselves perhaps gave her the precision with which she moved in both her languages‘. This collection comprises rare editions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French literature.

‘Her picture of the life of her time is a historical document… Her books have been my friends for sixty years; and even those who have not read them may be grateful for the ideal of strong, sane, and unselfish life set before the generations who preceded them, and who learnt to work with courage, but without fever, knowing they were parts of a whole that could not fail’.

(C.M. Ridding in The Girton Review, 1934)

Ethel FeganThis collection has been nurtured by several generations of Girton Librarians and various benefactors, but it owes its foundation to Ethel Fegan, and contains the large part of her own collection of books on bibliography and the library profession.

Ethel Sophia Fegan (“Fegs”) 1877 – 1975. Fellow, Librarian and Registrar of the Roll 1918 – 1930. Lady Superintendent of Education for Nigerian Government 1930 – 35, and educational and leprosy relief worker in West Africa. Honorary Fellow from 1948. Professor Muriel Bradbrook wrote:

[She] was the most celebrated Librarian when she came in 1918. She [had been] the Librarian of Cheltenham Ladies’ College. She published The Cheltenham Classification which was a standard work; and she helped Pollard and Redgrave with the Short Title Catalogue (1926) a monument to all librarians.

Littler Reading Room opening hours

Monday to Thursday

9.30am - 4.45pm (closed for an hour for lunch)
Closed at weekends, Christmas, Easter, and for 2 weeks in the summer

Further information about the Archive

Hannah Westall
Archivist and Curator
t: +44 (0) 1223 338897

Further information about the Special Collections

Jenny Blackhurst
t: +44 (0) 1223 338970