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150 Years at Girton

Black and white image of the first buildings on the Girton Site GCPH3-1-1FirstBuildingCirca1872

150 years ago this month, in October 1873, Girton College reached a very significant milestone in its young history. For the first time, students arriving for the new term were welcomed to Girton’s now historic main site. On, or close to, Saturday 18 October 1873, around 22 women moved into the first building to open here – what is now called Old Wing.

Girton’s pathbreaking foundation in 1869 rightly deserves great celebration, but the move into Old Wing was also an enormous achievement. It had been far from inevitable. Building Old Wing and preparing it for students took many months of planning, hard work, dedicated fundraising, and above all the generosity of Girton’s early supporters.

Choosing Girton

The College first opened in 1869 in Benslow House, Hitchin. After some debate, by spring 1871 it had been agreed that a permanent home should be commissioned and built a ‘short distance’ from Cambridge. Several locations were considered. However, by July 1871 news had arrived of some interesting plots of land close to Girton village. Overtures were first made to a Miss Cotton, but she declined to sell her land ‘for the purpose required’. Mr John Dennis, owner of 16 neighbouring acres was more amenable and his land was purchased early in 1872 for £1,900.

The masterplan

Oil Painting of Alfred Waterhouse
Alfred Waterhouse, 
by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
Oil on canvas, 1891 
NPG 6213

Even before the Girton land was chosen, discussions about a first new college building had begun with Emily Davies’ preferred architect for her College project, Alfred Waterhouse. Waterhouse began making drawings for a college building in summer 1871. The final plans, agreed in spring 1872, set out an ‘L’-shaped first building, with three floors. It included rooms for up to 21 students, sets of rooms for the Mistress and two resident lecturers, and two lecture rooms. A Dining Hall (now Old Hall), kitchen, and ground-floor service rooms were connected to rooms assigned to ‘servant accommodation’ and other domestic functions above.

This, however, was not the limit of Girton’s vision in 1872. These plans included the first two College extensions, which would be added between 1876 and 1879 – the western end of Old Wing, and then Hospital Wing: extra Girton corridors, already foreseen even before construction on Old Wing was begun!

By mid-April 1872, the plans for Old Wing had been put out to tender, and a builder chosen. Ground was broken that autumn. It is remarkable that only 12 months later the first students would move in!

Clockwise: 1) Front elevation of the College by Alfred Waterhouse, 1872. Archive reference: GCAR 2/3a/1/6/1/2. 2) Plan of the original building, with planned additions in red and blue, 1872. Archive reference: GCAR 2/3a/1/6/1/2. 3) Photograph of the Dining Hall (now Old Hall), circa 1873. Archive reference: GCPH 2/7/5/1. 4) Photograph of the original entrance hall and its fireplace, circa 1894. During the construction of the first building, and a little later of early tennis courts, a number of Roman and Anglo-Saxon antiquities were unearthed and subsequently displayed on this mantelpiece. In time these antiquities joined the Lawrence Room collection. Archive reference: GCPH 2/1/2a.

Garnering support

The combined cost of the Girton land and the first building was over £11,000 – by some calculations more than £680,000 today. A daunting total for a young College already close to its financial limits. But, through immense hard work and determination – above all on the part of Emily Davies – this challenge was met.

One element of the response was a loan. Careful requests were sent out, and by November 1872, 21 College supporters – 8 women and 14 men – had stepped forward to become guarantors of a loan of, in total, £5,000. Each underwrote amounts of between £50, and £500. Henrietta, Lady Stanley of Alderley was very generous, giving her surety for £500. Former College Mistress Emily Shirreff and leading College supporter Henry Tomkinson did the same. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson guaranteed £250; Catherine Salt, daughter-in-law of manufacturer and philanthropist Titus, £100. In time, more than half of these ‘guarantees’, originally due to be paid back, were turned into donations. This confidence of these guarantors in the College project, and in the plans for a new building, was crucial to the successful construction of Old Wing.

GCGB1-8-1pt- Deed Of Indemnity 6 Nov1872- colour
List of the names of the 21 loan guarantors taken from the Deed of Indemnity, 6 November 1872. Archive reference: GCGB 1/8/1pt.

But £5,000 was not enough! In March 1871, new fundraising efforts were launched, specifically mentioning building plans. Public meetings in cities across England; new prospectuses; individual letters of appeal; gatherings in donors’ homes to spur new support – all this and more had considerable success. Between early 1871 and the end of 1873, at least 228 individuals became new donors to the College. They joined 105 earlier ‘subscribers’ – people who had sent in contributions since 1867. All in all just over £6,600 was raised from 1871 to 1873 – a little over £400,000 today, and a remarkable total.

While larger donations were very important to the construction of Old Wing, so too were the remarkable number of smaller gifts donated in answer to the appeal for the new building. Of the 228 new College donors between 1871 and 1873, only 25 gave £50 or more in their first donation, and for most of the individuals who gave smaller amounts – and some who gave more – we know little about them other than their names.

These many smaller donations added up, and all the gifts, large and small, were crucial. Despite some very tight margins, together they allowed the College to move to its new site at Girton.

Building work was fast, but almost not fast enough. In mid-September 1873 Emily Davies was staying in Old Wing, still under construction around her! She asked Alfred Waterhouse to ‘get more men put on’ the building. Progress duly sped up, but even when the first students arrived that October, work was noisily on-going across Old Wing; open ditches and tools lay all around; and ground-floor windows and door frames were still being fitted.

GCAR4-1-1pt- Printed Appeal For Contributions To Building Fund-May1871
Printed appeal for contributions to building fund, May 1871. Archive Reference: GCAR4-1

Who were these early, hardy residents?

Emily Davies was the Mistress; former student Louisa Lumsden, was Girton’s first resident College Tutor. Then there were 14 students, spread between years 1 and 4, and the remaining residents were the Housekeeper, Mrs Hammond; a Cook; and around four young women with the title ‘maid’, who lived in shared rooms above the kitchen.

First Year Photo of new students in 1873
First year photograph 1873.
Archive reference: GCPH 10/1/9

The first Old Wing students of 1873 were soon joined and replaced by other young women keen to pursue a university education. Between October 1873, and Spring 1877, when the first extension of Old Wing was completed, a total of 45 Girton students spent Cambridge terms in the new College building. This was a very impressive group. It included five future Girton Resident Lecturers, two of whom became Girton Mistresses; the first Head of another women’s College; seven future Headmistresses; many long-serving schoolteachers; at least one future qualified doctor; and several mathematicians and scientists.

One early resident was Constance Maynard, who started her studies at Hitchin, then spent two years in Old Wing. Passionately interested in religion, above all through her Anglican faith, she was the first Girtonian to take the Moral Sciences Tripos. After some years as a school-teacher, in 1882 Constance was one of the founders, and the inaugural Mistress, of Westfield College, London, established to help young women prepare for London University degree examinations. Constance Maynard held this post for over 30 years.

Photograph of Constance Jones
Constance Jones, c 1900
Archive reference: GCPH 5/7/4.

The new students of Michaelmas 1875 included Constance Jones (as E. E. Constance Jones was known). Henry Sidgwick thought Constance Jones one of his best students, and she was duly awarded First Class marks, also in the Moral Sciences Tripos. After some time away from College engaged in personal academic study, in 1884 Constance returned to Girton to begin over 30 years as Resident Lecturer in Moral Sciences. In 1903 she became College Mistress. Constance was a widely respected writer on philosophical logic and ethics, and the first woman to present a paper at the famous Cambridge Moral Sciences Club. In 1913, the University of Wales awarded her an honorary D.Litt.

Photograph of Hertha Ayrton
Hertha Ayrton, J Russell & Sons 1910.
Archive reference: GCPH 7/3/3/2.

In October 1876, the new student arrivals at Old Wing included two more exceptional young women. Phoebe Sarah Marks, better known after marriage as Hertha Ayrton, read Mathematics. After leaving College, Hertha became a most distinguished and influential scientist. She was the first woman elected to the Institution of Electrical Engineers; the first to read her own paper to the Royal Society; and the first nominated for election to that body – even though she was subsequently deemed ineligible because she was married. In 1906, Hertha received the Society’s prestigious Hughes Medal for original discoveries in the Physical Sciences. Among her ground-breaking inventions was the Ayrton fan, which saved many lives in the trenches of World War One. Truly, an exceptional Girtonian.

Photograph of Charlotte Angas Scott circa 1885.
Charlotte Angas Scott c.1885.
Archive reference: GCPH 6/2/118.

Another extraordinary talent in the intake of 1876 was Charlotte Angas Scott, who, in 1880, won the great distinction of First Class marks in the Mathematical Tripos. Had she been a man, Charlotte would have been named Eighth Wrangler. Although forbidden, as a woman, from graduating, and hence from receiving this formal honour, Charlotte’s accomplishment was celebrated in Old Wing when her fellow students lifted her aloft and cheered her into dinner, then in Old Hall. Charlotte was immediately made Girton Resident Lecturer in Mathematics. Then, in 1885, Charlotte was appointed the only woman among the first Faculty members at the new Bryn Mawr College in the United States. Charlotte Angas Scott became a scholar of great distinction, the first woman to join what became the American Mathematical Society, and an inspiration to a generation of women mathematicians.

Constance Jones; Hertha Ayrton; Charlotte Angas Scott – extraordinary to think these eminent scholars, and so many other talented and energetic young women were among the earliest student residents of Old Wing. This, of course, was exactly what Emily Davies and those generous Old Wing donors and supporters had dreamt of when they imagined a new College building here at Girton: rooms and corridors humming with life and energy and purpose.


The ‘marking roll’ for the week beginning 18 October 1873
The ‘marking roll’ for the week beginning 18 October 1873. This book shows the students signing each day to show their attendance and Cambridge residence. Archive reference: GCAC 2/2/3pt.

Edited from the text written by Dr Hazel Mills for the Commemoration of Benefactors Ceremony, October 2023.