News & Events

Glimpses of Girton: Isabel Townshend, Emily Gibson and Rachel Cook

The ‘Girton Five’, the earliest group of students to study at the College when it was still in Hitchin, taken in 1869. Isabel Townshend stands on the far left and Emily Gibson on the far right; Rachel Cook is seated on the left (archive reference: GCPH 7/2/1/1).

Standing in pride of place on the mantelpiece in the Stanley Library is an ornate Regency bracket clock bearing the inscription:

‘To chime in remembrance of the first Girton student registered (Hitchen 1869)[1] Emily C. Townshend (née Gibson) and her chief friends: Rachel Scott (née Cooke)[2] and Isabel Townshend[3] (whose brother she married).The family clock was given by her children 1935.’

The mahogany and brass clock, made by John Bowen in London circa 1830, was donated to the College by the Townshend family.

The clock, with its plaque shown beneath, commemorating Emily Gibson, Isabel Townshend and Rachel Cook (archive reference: GCPH 11/2a/2)

Isabel Townshend, Rachel Cook and Emily Gibson, who are commemorated in the clock’s inscription, were part of the earliest group of students to study at the College, when it was still located at Benslow House in Hitchin. These students, sometimes known as the ‘Girton Five’, are shown in a formal photograph taken at Hitchin in 1869 (archive reference: GCPH 7/2/1/1).


Little is known of Isabel’s life before Girton, except that she grew up in Ireland. After winning a scholarship due to her excellence in essay writing, Isabel took a while to acclimatise to life at Girton. Emily Davies wrote in a letter dated 1870, and preserved in the Archive, that Isabel had not been very well when she arrived at the College in October but had improved so much that Isabel’s own family had commented on it (archive reference: GCPP Bodichon 1/40).

The first, second and third years at the College in 1871-2, taken at Benslow House in Hitchin. Rachel Cook is in the back row on the far left; Emily Gibson and Isabel Townshend sit second and third from the left in the middle row (archive reference: GCPH 10/1/5).

Isabel, Emily Gibson and Rachel Cook became friends at the College. They are pictured, along with members of the first, second and third years, in 1871 (archive reference: GCPH 10/1/5). Emily wrote a memoir later in her life in which she recalled that Isabel was deeply influenced by a ‘current of aestheticism’ and believed that ‘a beautiful combination  of colours, a delicate bit of decorative work seen and cared for in a reverent and appreciative spirit, could do more for us in the way of training and development than much steady grinding away at mathematics and classics’.[4] This may explain why Isabel left the College without sitting for the Tripos examination. Instead, Isabel’s appreciation of colour and beauty led her to study art in Rome after leaving Girton. Her self-portrait survives in the College (archive reference: GCPH 11/33/42). Sadly, Isabel died aged only thirty-four after contracting an illness in Italy.

Self-portrait by Isabel Townshend (archive reference: GCPH 11/33/42).

Emily Gibson was the earliest applicant to the College. Before Girton was even founded, she wrote in her diary in 1868, that she was ‘beginning to build castles about becoming, some day, a student at the ladies’ college’.[5] Despite leaving the College before taking the Tripos examination, Emily was an active student. A letter written by Emily Gibson to Barbara Bodichon described how she and other students acted scenes from Shakespeare at Benslow House, wearing men’s clothes to perform the male roles (archive reference: GCPP Bodichon 3/7).


Emily went on to marry Isabel’s brother, Chambrey Townshend, leading a long and active life. A few years before she passed away in 1934, J. E. Nutgens captured her likeness in a beautiful sketch, donated to the College and now held in the Archive (archive reference: GCRF 5/1/7).

Pencil drawing of Emily Townshend (née Gibson) by J. E. Nutgens, circa 1928 (archive reference: GCRF 5/1/7).

Rachel Cook, the third friend commemorated on the Stanley Library clock, grew up in Scotland. Illness prevented her from taking up her place at Girton until January 1870. Rachel went on to gain a second class in the Classical Tripos in 1873, the first woman to ever go in for the exam. Her achievement, along with successes in the Tripos examinations by her contemporaries, Sarah Woodhead and Louisa Lumsden, is remembered in the Girton Song:

But of all the Cambridge heroes
There’s none that can compare
With Woodhead, Cook and Lumsden
The Girton Pioneers.

The Archive holds copy of the song, copied out in September 1873 by Alice Betham – a student at the College – in book of songs and poems owned by Amy Mantle, also a contemporary student at Girton (archive reference: GCRF 7/1/8).

‘The Girton Pioneers’ song, written out in 1873 in a book of songs and poems owned by Amy Mantle, a student at Girton from 1873 to 1877 (archive reference: GCRF 7/1/8).

Rachel continued to be an activist in women’s education after leaving Girton, helping to set up the Manchester and Salford College for Women in the 1870s-80s. She was a prominent advocate for girls’ schools in Manchester throughout her life. Sadly, she passed away aged only fifty-seven in 1905.


The clock was restored to its original glory in 2011 by Gerald Dyke. Its set of nested bells chime out in the Stanley Library in daily remembrance of the Girton Pioneers.


Further reading:

  • Campion, Val, Pioneering Women: the Origins of Girton College in Hitchin (Hitchin, 2008).
  • Girton College Register, 1869-1946(Cambridge, 1948).
  • Sparks, Peter, ‘Pendulum’, The Year: The Annual Review of Girton College (2011-2012), pp. 17-20.
  • Townshend, Emily, Emily Townshend 1849-1934, Some Memories for her Friends (London, 1936).


Published: 22 March 2017

[1] The spelling in this quotation copies that used in the clock’s inscription, but ‘Hitchen’ is normally spelt as Hitchin.

[2] The spelling in this quotation copies that used in the clock’s inscription, but Rachel Cook’s surname is normally spelt without an ‘e’ in College records. As a result, the spelling ‘Cook’ will be used in this article.

[3] Some College records refer to Isabel as Isabella. However, the Archive holds a letter in which she signs her own name as ‘Isabel Townshend’ (archive reference: GCPP Davies 15/1/5/18).

[4] Emily Townshend, Emily Townshend 1849-1934, Some Memories For Her Friends (London, 1936), p. 47

[5] Emily Townshend, Emily Townshend 1849-1934, Some Memories For Her Friends (London, 1936), p. 26.

Ridding Reading Prize 2017


Artist in Residence, Yelena Popova with Ridding Reading Prize Winner for 2017, Sonnel David-Longe

The annual Ridding Reading Prize competition was held on 13 March 2017. The competition is a Girton tradition founded in honour of Caroline Mary Ridding, who won a scholarship to Girton to read Classics in 1883, and became a renowned Sanskrit and Pali scholar.

Prose and poetry readings were set for the contestants to prepare and read.

There were six competitors, two graduates and four undergraduates, reading a range of subjects in the Sciences and Arts: Sonnel David-Longe, Jessica Ginn, David Lawrence, Sheanna Patelmaster, Ruari Paterson-Achenbach and Scott Remer.

The competition was judged by a panel of Girton Fellows: Ms Judith Drinkwater, Dr Jill Jondorf, Dr Roland Randall and Dr Emma Weisblatt. We were delighted to welcome Ms Yelena Popova, Girton’s Artist in Residence for 2016-17, as the external adjudicator.

In the first round the contestants read an extract from Shadderby Neil Gaiman, and a sonnet, ‘Farewell!’, by William Shakespeare.

The judges selected three of the six contestants to proceed to round two.

In the second round, contestants read an extract from The Pursuit of Loveby Nancy Mitford and ‘A poetry reading at West Point’ by William Matthews. The contestants approached the former passage with relish, and communicated its humour and changing voices very effectively to the audience. All the readers of the Matthews poem engaged with the sense of place and tension running through the piece. The contestants also read an unseen poem, ‘A Blessing’ by James Wright, and the judges were impressed by the way that they conveyed the mingling of gentleness and wildness in the scene depicted.

The overall winner was Sonnel David-Longe, who consistently showed appreciation of and sensitivity to the language of the passages and poems, and riveted the audience with her readings.

The evening concluded with an excellent buffet meal kindly provided by the catering staff, and those assembled took the opportunity to discuss the readings and the different styles with which they had been presented. Thanks go to all those who assisted in making the evening a success, and especially to the competitors. Many congratulations go to the overall winner.

Published: 20 March 2017

Glimpses of Girton - The Reception Room


The interior of the Reception Room, 1923 (archive reference: GCPH 10/4/7/5).

The Reception Room, with its vibrant Jacobean-style embroideries, is one of the most distinctive rooms in the College. The crewel work embroideries are based on the tree of life motif. Exotic animals such as a leopard, crocodile, kangaroo and emu gambol amongst animals more familiar in the British landscape such as deer, sheep and squirrels. Interwoven also are flowers which bloom in country gardens throughout England and Ireland, like carnations, clematis, and passion flowers. Hiding at the bottom of two of the panels is a small white terrier.

These exquisite embroideries were the work of Lady Julia Carew, who was also the mistress of the white terrier, Pepper. She was the wife of the third Baron Carew, whose family home was Castleboro, County Wexford in Ireland. Castleboro had been badly damaged by fire in the mid-nineteenth century and many paintings had been destroyed, so Lady Carew and her sister, Lady Cory, began to create embroidery panels to decorate the walls. They were both notable needlewomen and had been taught needlework at the Royal School of Art Needlework (RSAN). This school had been founded in order to restore ornamental embroidery to the position it once held in the decorative arts.


Lady Julia Carew at her embroidery frame, published in Needlecraft magazine, December 1906 (archive reference: GCAR 8/3/2).

In an interview with The Ladies’ Field magazine in 1920, Lady Carew recalled how she ‘found pleasure in Jacobean designs’ while studying at the RSAN[1]. She began by making picture panels and chair covers for her drawing room, eventually developing her skill until she was able to make the intricate panels that now adorn the walls of the Reception Room. In an earlier interview, published by Needlecraft magazine in  1906, Lady Carew explained that the RSAN provided her with the designs for her embroideries, but that she planned the execution, stitches and colours herself. In the interview, Lady Carew said her needlework gave her ‘repose and relief from the bustle and fatigue of everyday life’ and that she spent some time every day on her embroidery[2].

It is thought that the Girton panels were meant for the ballroom in Castleboro. However, due to the Irish War of Independence, the Carews left Castleboro and Lady Carew began to look for a new home for the embroideries. It was Lady Muriel Newton, a friend of Lady Carew, who suggested Girton as a possible recipient. Lady Newton was the cousin of Helen Marion Wodehouse, who was a student at Girton from 1898 to 1902 and who would later become Mistress. Lady Carew gifted the embroideries to Girton in 1922, but sadly died before they were installed.


The characteristic landscape embroidered by Lady Carew. Since this section was never mounted in the Reception Room and is held in the College Archive, it has retained its vibrancy of colour (archive reference: GCPH 2/2/8/2).

The Reception Room, also known as the ‘Carew Room’ or ‘Jacobean Room’, was officially opened on the 7th of March 1923. Lady Cowdray performed ‘the little informal ceremony’ as a tribute to her friend Lady Carew[3]. It was Lady Cowdray who paid for the embroideries to be mounted in oak frames made by Sir Edwin Cooper, father of an Old Girtonian. Lady Cowdray also financed the first restoration of the embroideries in 1932, carried out by the Cambridge Tapestry Company.


A sheep embroidered by Lady Carew. Since this section was never mounted in the Reception Room and is held in the College Archive, it has retained its vibrancy of colour (archive reference: GCPH 2/2/8/3).

Since its opening in 1923, the Reception Room has changed little and the embroideries have retained their beauty and charm. Lady Carew’s portrait, which she donated to the College and was painted by John Baldry, was moved from the Hall to hang over the fireplace in the Reception Room in 1928, where it remains to this day.


Further reading:

  • ‘Every Woman Should Embroider’, The Ladies’ Field (20 November 1920), pp. 324-325.
  • Hulse, Lynn, ‘The Best Embroideress in Society’, Girton College Annual Review (2011), pp. 24-29.
  • Hulse, Lynn, The Embroidered Furnishings of the Lethbridge Sisters, c. 1899-1922 (OE Publications, 2016).
  • Lady Julia Carew in the Hurd Library (2012), website:
  • ‘The Needlecraft of Lady Carew and Mrs Clifford Cory’, Needlecraft (December, 1906), pp. 12-14.
  • Portrait of Lady Julia Carew, by John Baldry (1921), available on the Art UK website,
  • Richardson, Joan, 'The Origin of the Carews', Genealogists' Magazine 26, no. 7 (September, 1999), pp. 245-49.


[1] ‘Every Woman Should Embroider’, The Ladies’ Field (20 November 1920), pp. 324-325, at p. 324.

[2] ‘The Needlecraft of Lady Carew and Mrs Clifford Cory’, Needlecraft (December, 1906), pp. 12-14, at p. 12.

[3] Letter to Bertha Phillpotts from Lady Cowdray, 31st October 1922 (archive reference: GCAR 2/6/17/3(pt)).


Published: 23 February 2017

Glimpses of Girton - 'The Dentist' by William Bowyer


Portrait: ‘The Dentist’ by William Bowyer (RA Hon. RP Hon. NEAC RWS, 1927-2015), 1975 (oil on canvas)


This portrait was added to the People’s Portraits exhibition in September 2016. It was unveiled at the annual People’s Portraits reception and the College was delighted that Jason Bowyer (son of William Bowyer), Vera Bowyer (William’s widow) and Laura Cumming (the Observer’s art critic) were all present.


Jason Bowyer, himself a member of The Royal Society of Portrait Painters, spoke to the audience. He talked warmly of his father and of his love of painting. He touched first on his father’s career, saying that William saw portraiture as a way to describe his feelings about people he knew and admired. He painted family, neighbours and friends, and his great mentors and former teachers, Ruskin Spear RA and Carel Weight RA, were the major influence on his painting. In the early 1980s, after early retirement from teaching, William received a number of commissions and he was delighted to have works purchased by the National Portrait Gallery, including a painting of the great West Indian batsman, Viv Richards. William himself played cricket well into his 70s.


Jason then focussed on the Dentist. He explained that William did not catalogue or document his paintings, and he did not have a CV - he just wanted to paint. As a result, the identity of the Dentist was unknown until Jason went online appealing for information. A former lodger of the Dentist identified him as Claude Walker, who had a dental practice in Chiswick High Street close to where William had his studio.


It is not known where the two met but it is likely that William encountered Claude in the local newsagent or even in the pub and had persuaded him to sit for his portrait. Claude probably only had four or five sittings for his portrait.


William painted him on a red ground with patches of green and would have slowly built up the portrait. William painted Claude in his studio; Jason explained that, for those who knew William’s studio, a few familiar objects are reflected in Claude’s glasses.


The pose is quite formal, perhaps even professional, with the white table placed in front of Claude. The design of the portrait is important, including the visual device of Claude’s head being just off centre. Jason explained that portrait painters are always trying to capture ‘that moment’, so William painting Claude with his mouth slightly open might have been more of a gesture, or Claude might have been just about to speak. The result is a gentleness and thoughtfulness, perhaps even a tentativeness, about him.


We believe Claude died in the 1980s. Sadly we have no record of what Claude thought about having his portrait painted. However, I think the whole audience were delighted when Laura Cumming named Claude as one of her favourite portraits of the exhibition.


The People’s Portraits exhibition is open to the public 9am-5pm daily – for information please visit:


Published: 31 January 2017

Girton College's National Jane Martin Poetry Prize opens for 2017

Girton College is delighted to invite entries for the 2017 Jane Martin Poetry Prize.  Now in its seventh year, the national prize for young poets is a key part of the College’s support for poetry and will be of interest to all those who are serious about literary excellence.

The competition will be judged by experts drawn from across the literary world and academia. We are thrilled that this year the panel will be led by Grevel Lindop and Malcolm Guite. The winner will receive a cash prize of £700 and will have an opportunity to give a reading at a celebratory event at Girton College, at which the prize will be awarded. There will also be a second prize of £300 cash.

The competition opens on 26th January 2017 and closes at noon on 17th March 2017. Please find the 2017 information pack and entry rules here.

Click here to enter the 2017 Jane Martin Poetry Prize.

Girtonians listed in the 2017 New Year’s Honours List

It gives us great pleasure to congratulate our alumni on receiving recognition in the New Year's Honours List as follows:

Companion of Honour (CH): The Right Honourable Baroness (Helen) Mary WARNOCK DBE (past Mistress). For services to charity and Children with Special Educational Needs.

Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE): Mr Stephen Neville BATES (1990 History), Chief Executive, Bioindustry Association. For services to Innovation.

Army Awards: Promotions in and Appointments to the Military Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire

As Officers: Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Charles Rule HEYWOOD (1988 Engineering), Royal Tank Regiment.


For more information, please visit:

New Year's Honours list 2017

The Military Division of the New Years Honours list 2017


Published: 23 January 2017


*To update us on your news, please contact the Development Office, email: JLIB_HTML_CLOAKING , or tel.: 01223 766672.

All the World’s a Stage


What do you get when you cross two geographers with a theatre company? The Mistress, Professor Susan J. Smith, and Supernumerary Fellow, Dr Mia Gray, have teamed up with Menagerie Theatre Company to bring you The Great Austerity Debate, a forum theatre event which shares questions and seeks fresh ideas about austerity’s effects on people, policies and places. Is austerity inevitable? Is it fair? What are the alternatives?

We start with a hard-hitting performanc e of an original play, followed by an interactive session when you get to give your responses, ideas and answers. It will be entertaining, sparky and unpredictable. Come along and join in!  See the flyer for times and dates [alt pdf]

The Great Austerity Debate is a year-long collaboration between Dr Gray, Professor Smith and Menagerie Theatre Company. We created a forum theatre piece, A Life in the Week of Megan K., which tours to non-theatre venues in Cambridge, Great Yarmouth, County Durham, Norwich and London.  Each venue chooses to host a performance for very specific reasons and it is through their interest and goodwill that the events are taking place. We tour to a church hall, a community centre, a former miners’ reading room, a university lecture theatre and a trade union office. As in all forum theatre pieces, we involve the audience as “spect-actors” or creative participants, helping to solve problems to the play’s thorny questions.  he performances are largely free and the project will be documented on film.

Gray and Smith’s research and questions inspired the content and narrative of the piece and the performances themselves will even form part of their ongoing work.

For more information, visit:


Published: 2 November 2016

Glimpses of Girton: Florence Nightingale's copy of 'The subjection of women' by J.S. Mill

It is no surprise that Girton College Library owns several editions of J.S. Mill's The subjection of women, first published in 1869, the year the College was founded. However, our only copy of the first edition is special also because of its original owner – Florence Nightingale – and the way its provenance is linked to so much of the College's history.

The book was given to the College in February 1947, the year before women were finally admitted as full members of the University of Cambridge, by one of Florence Nightingale's second cousins, Rosalind Nash. She wrote to the then Librarian, Helen McMorran:

"Dear Miss MacMorran,

I had this copy of The Subjection of Women as one of some books left me by Florence Nightingale & I should like it to go to the College library, please. The few pencil marks are no doubt her own, also the turned down leaves."

alt alt
Title page


The inscription “From the author” on the half-title may or may not have been written by J.S. Mill himself but certainly he and Florence Nightingale knew each other and corresponded. Letters survive from one to the other, discussing their writings and the question of the position of women. On the death of J.S. Mill in 1873, she wrote to a friend:

"He was always urging me to publish. He used to say, with the passion which he put into everything he did say: “I have no patience with people who will not publish because they think the world is not ripe enough for their ideas: that is only conceit or cowardice. If anybody has thought out any thing which he conceives to be truth, in Heaven’s name let him say it !”1

J.S. Mill was also well-known to Emily Davies, Girton's founder, through their work to promote women's rights. It was to J.S. Mill that Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett had presented the 1866 women's suffrage petition, and Emily Davies' letters in the College Archive include several to his step-daughter, Helen Taylor2.

Florence Nightingale's extended family included links to both Girton and Newnham Colleges. One cousin was Barbara Bodichon3. One of her second cousins (and Rosalind Nash's sister) was Barbara Shore Smith, later Lady Stephen4. Rosalind once wrote of her sister, Lady Stephen:

“Accompanying the critical judgement was always a deep and real kindness, and the knowledge that kindness comes first. In both these ways she was like Florence Nightingale.”

On Lady Stephen's death, the then Mistress, K.T. Butler, said in her obituary in the Girton Review of Easter 1945:

“Girton has lost one of the best friends it ever had… . Only those who knew her personally and who were at Girton between the outbreak of the last war and of this will ever fully know how much the College owes to her.”

Numerous passages have been marked in this copy of The subjection of women, generally either with a single line in the margin (more common in the first half of the book) or by turning down the corner of the page (more common in the second half of the book).


p.147 (passage marked and “bravo”, written in margin)
"Marriage is the only bondage known to our law. There remain no legal slaves, except the mistress of every house."

Mill, John Stuart, 1806-1873.
The subjection of women / by John Stuart Mill.
London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1869.

Gamble Collection 393.1 M61



  1. Cook, Edward, The life of Florence Nightingale,London: Macmillan, 1913. 2 volumes

  2. Girton College Archive, Cambridge, Personal Papers of Sarah Emily Davies, GCPP Davies -

  3. Girton College Archive, Cambridge, Personal Papers of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, GCPP Bodichon –

  4. Girton College Archive, Canbridge, Personal Papers of Barbara Stephen, GCPP Stephen –

Published: 16 December 2016

Richard Cleary (10 December 1946 – 3 October 2016)


Richard Cleary, Porter at Wolfson Court for 23 years, died suddenly at home earlier this month. It was an indication of the level of warmth people felt towards Richard when the mourners at his funeral yesterday were moved into a larger chapel to accommodate all those who had come to pay their respects. Moving tributes were given by Richard’s son Paul and by Maureen Hackett, Warden of Wolfson Court, on behalf of colleagues of over two decades. Known for his calm, soft-spoken nature, interesting conversations, and dapper suits he will be missed by family, friends, colleagues and students alike.

Richard is survived by his wife Stella, children Paul and Alisa, and grandchildren Cecily, Sofia and Max.


Published: 25 October 2016

3 Girton students selected for the 2016 Varsity matches at Twickenham


Congratulations to Alice Elgar (VetMed 2015) and replacements Jacqueline Bramley (VetSci 2013) and Chris Bell (History 2016), who have been selected to play in the Varsity Matches for the Women's and Men’s Cambridge Rugby squads at Twickenham, on Thursday 8 December!

The Women’s match kicks off at 11:30 am and the Men’s match kicks off at 2:30 pm. If you are unable to support the light blues at Twickenham, you can watch it live on the BBC here:, or live on YouTube here:, or via the red button on your TV.

For more information, visit:


Published: 8 December 2016

Glimpses of Girton - Fire rattle


Girton College Fire Brigade rattle, 1901 (archive reference: GCAS 9/6/4).

The Girton College Fire Brigade rattle was used as a fire alarm and an alert to practice. Its deafening noise is immortalised in the chorus of the Fire Brigade Song, written by Ethel Sanders in 1887 and sung to the tune of John Peel:

The roar of the rattle brought me from my bed,

And the tramp of the men as past me they sped;

For the subs. loud “alarm” would awaken the dead,

Or bring me from my books in the morning.

Grizel Blair (Girton College 1899-1901, later Mrs Gatheral) was, in 1901, Head Captain of Girton College Fire Brigade. The fire rattle pictured above (archive reference: GCAS 9/6/4) was presented to her by her officers in the May (summer) Term of 1901. The rattle saw further service as part of the World War II alarm equipment of the American College for Girls in Constantinople, where Grizel Gatheral was a teacher. It was then displayed at Hitchin for some time before being donated in 1969 by Grizel’s daughter Olivia to Girton College, where it is housed in the Archive.

A second rattle, which had probably been in the possession of Jack Hames, an undergraduate at Queens’ College in the late 1930s and early 1940s, was donated to the archives in 2015.

‘Fire Brigade Officers 1901’ taken by Mason & Basèbé, 1901. Grizel Blair, Head Captain (Girton 1899) is pictured holding the fire rattle (archive reference: GCPH 10/2/41).

‘Fire Brigade Officers 1901’ taken by Mason & Basèbé, 1901. Grizel Blair, Head Captain (Girton 1899) is pictured holding the fire rattle (archive reference: GCPH 10/2/41).

Founded in 1878, the Girton College Fire Brigade was a disciplined and enthusiastic society, running well-attended weekly practices for over fifty years. The diary entry of Sarah Mason (Girton 1878-80) for 3 December 1878 (archive reference: GCPP Tebbutt 2/4) records the meeting at which the formation of the Fire Brigade was proposed, after two students had witnessed a haystack fire near College and realised that Girton would be vulnerable in the event of a fire. At the time, oil lamps and candles presented a major fire hazard, and the only fire precautions were three small fire engines on each corridor, which no one knew how to use.

The Brigade was always student run, although junior lecturers were also eligible to join. It was initially organised with the assistance of Captain Shaw, the then Captain of the London Fire Brigade, who is immortalised in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe.The Brigade was highly structured, run by the Head Captain, with a corps for each corridor led by a Captain and Sub-Captain. Immediate training was provided by Captain Shaw and his men, who continued to test the members of the Brigade in an annual inspection. Training included Captain Shaw’s rope-knot which allowed a ‘senseless body’ to be lowered from an upper floor window; also ladder climbing in the gymnasium and passing buckets of water along a human chain.

The Fire Brigade was only ever called on to put out one fire, in Girton Village in 1918. In 1932, it ceased to exist; presumably better links to professional teams in Cambridge meant it was no longer necessary.


Published: 19 October 2016

Glimpses of Girton: ‘cocked-hat lamp’


LR.1005: Lamp

This pretty object is an oil lamp, obviously for static use since it has no handle and could not be carried easily without spilling the oil, as the front of the reservoir is not enclosed.


The first thing that excited me about this is that it comes from Carthage (in what is now Tunisia). To non-classicists like me, Carthage is to Rome as the Cavaliers were to the Roundheads: in the words of 1066 and All That, ‘Wrong but Wromantic’ versus ‘Right but Repulsive’. Both Carthaginian legend and Carthaginian history are engaging. Legend or history: Dido, seeking to found a new city in North Africa, was offered a piece of land the size of an oxhide; she had the hide cut into narrow strips and used these to outline the perimeter of the city. Legend or, rather, pure fiction: Dido’s doomed love-affair with Aeneas, narrated by Virgil in Book 4 of the Aeneid and celebrated by Purcell in his opera Dido and Aeneas with its famous Lament. As for history – what figure in ancient history is more exciting than Hannibal, commander-in-chief of the Carthaginian armies in the late 3rd and early 2nd centuries BCE? Even his name is pleasingly strange, like those of his father, Hamilcar Barca, and his brothers Mago and Hasdrubal, and no exploit of the time is more amazing than his crossing of the Alps with elephants in 218 BCE.


It is quite likely that Dido was a historical figure, and that she founded Carthage in the last quarter of the eighth century BCE. Our lamp is dated to the first millennium BCE, so it could have been made in the lifetime of either Dido (early in the millennium) or Hannibal (towards its end). Who knows? Take your pick!


However, there is something else about this lamp which intrigues me. According to the catalogue it is a ‘cocked-hat lamp’, but online I could not find any ‘cocked-hat lamps’ quite like this. Usually they seem to have had two folds, providing one wick-rest, whereas this one has three folds, giving slots for two wicks. When I first saw this lamp, I loved its shape but longed to ‘unfold’ it to discover the shape of the piece of clay it was made from. I have worked out a good way of finding this out, which goes like this: roll out a flat slab of pastry or Play-Doh; wrap it round the lamp; trim the edges so that it exactly covers the lamp; unwrap it, and you will now know the shape of the clay. Unfortunately I do not think the Curator will let me do this, so I have had to fall back on methods of inquiry which do not involve taking the lamp out of the display case. At first glance I had thought that the lamp was made from a circle of clay, but then I realised that the top flap, between the two wick-rests, would not fit into a circle but would require a lobe extending beyond the circle, so I tried cutting a circle of paper with a bell-shaped extension on one side. This produced a promising result, but paper, being two-dimensional, could not form the graceful bowl of the oil reservoir. Time to switch to Play-Doh.


Now I was really on the right track, and though Dido or Hannibal might have been startled by the bright blue colour of my copy of the Carthaginian lamp (see below), I do not think the shape would have offended them.



Dr Jondorf's copy of the Carthaginian lamp

Written by Dr Gillian Jondorf, Life Fellow.

Published: 24 November 2016

Tucker-Price Research Fellow wins RAEng Engineers Trust Young Engineer of the Year competition


Congratulations to Dr Sabesan (Tucker-Price Research Fellow) for winning the RAEng Engineers Trust Young Engineer of the Year competition and for also receiving the Sir George Macfarlane Medal, for excellence in the early stage of his career at the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) Awards Dinner on Thursday 23 June 2016.

This prestigious award from RAE is given to five recipients, who are early career engineers, whose achievements are recognised as outstanding and have made a major impact in their respective fields.

Dr Sabesan is internationally recognised for his work on research and innovation in RFID Tag tracking over a wide area.


For more information, please visit:


Published: 20 July 2016

Graduate Student appointed UN Young Leader for Sustainable Development Goals


Congratulations to graduate student, Samar Samir Mezghanni, on being selected as a United Nations Young Leader for Sustainable Development Goal. The announcement was made in New York on 19 September 2016.

Samar is one of 17 Young Leaders to be selected out of a pool of 18,000 nominations from 186 countries. This recognition was awarded for their leadership and contribution to the achievements of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes a set of 17 Goals to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030.

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Published:  07 November 2016

On this day in history: 7 June 1866 - Women's suffrage petition

On 7 June 1866, a women’s suffrage petition was presented to Parliament. Supported by 1499 signatures, it requested that women who met the property qualifications required of men should be able to vote in parliamentary elections. Prominent in the group who organised the petition were Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon, who three years later would be central to the foundation of Girton College.

As Parliament discussed a new Reform Bill in the spring of 1866, a group of women gathered to work on the suffrage petition. Meeting in Elizabeth Garrett's London drawing room, they included Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, Bessie Rayner Parkers, Jessie Boucherett, Elizabeth Garrett, Jane Crow and Helen Taylor. From May to June 1866 they sent petition sheets to their contacts; signatures were collected from the length and breadth of the country and beyond, 300 of them almost single-handedly by Elizabeth Wolstenholme in Manchester.  The covering letter explained:

On the day itself, Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett took the petition to the House of Commons to give to the MP for Westminster John Stuart Mill. Mill was the foremost public intellectual of the day, and it was his 1865 promise to support women’s suffrage if elected to Parliament that had prompted the creation of the petition. In her Family Chronicle Emily Davies wrote that, as the petition was large and conspicuous, they asked an apple seller to hide it behind her stall.[2] This event is commemorated in the 1910 painting by Bertha Newcombe.[3]

At the suggestion of Emily Davies, printed copies of the petition were circulated to the press, to members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords, and others ‘in case they take notice’.[4]  Two of these printed copies are held in Girton College’s collections - the images below shows Emily’s copy, with some of the addresses annotated in her hand.[5]


[4] Letter from Emily Davies to Helen Taylor, 18 July 1866, held at LSE

[5] Held in the Blackburn Collection and in the personal papers of Emily Davies  – Girton College Archive reference: GCPP Davies 17/51

This petition was the first in a long line of such petitions which attracted increasingly large number of signatures in support of votes for women. In the early 1870s suffrage petitions regularly attracted between 300,000 and 400,000 signatures per year, and the final years of the Edwardian suffrage campaign saw a concerted push to collect petitions in order to rebut antisuffragist charges that women did not really want the vote. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act enfranchised women rate-payers over the age of 30 but it was not until 1928 that the vote was extended to all women over the age of 21.


Further reading:

[1]Extract of a letter from Barbara Bodichon to Mrs Maudie, 18th May 1866 – Girton College Archive reference: GCPP Bodichon 4/1 (

[2]Family Chronicle, An account of family and other matters written by Davies for her nephew Theodore in 1905 – Girton College Archive reference: GCPP Davies 1/1 (

[4]Letter from Emily Davies to Helen Taylor, 18 July 1866, held at LSE

[5] Held in the Blackburn Collection and in the personal papers of Emily Davies  – Girton College Archive reference: GCPP Davies 17/51


Published: 07 June 2016