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.