Category Archives: Women

A flying woman

Letter from the Viceroy of India to the 6th Earl of Clarendon, 1932

Letter from the Viceroy of India to the 6th Earl of Clarendon, 1932 [click to enlarge]

My dear Bertie

writes the Viceroy of India to his friend the 6th Earl of Clarendon in a letter of 15 March 1932:

Thanks so much for your letter, & the personal one enclosed. My poor boy has had a very rough time, & the girl appears to have gone mad about this pilot. […] it will be hard for him to start again all alone. I really thought my two young people were the happiest couple in the world.

When I read an opener like that I lean in for the whole story: please continue, Viceroy! But that, sadly, is all he divulges about the girl or her pilot.

Luckily, it was not difficult to find out more.

The ‘poor boy’ was the Viceroy’s son, Inigo Freeman-Thomas, and the girl was Maxine “Blossom” Miles. And she, it turns out, led an absolutely fascinating life.

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Centenary of the first woman to receive an honorary degree

It’s often said that the first woman to receive an honorary degree from the University was Queen Mary. She received a Doctorate of Civil Law (DCL) by diploma on 11 March 1921. A degree by diploma is similar to an honorary degree, in that it’s conferred without the recipient having to study or sit any exams. The difference is that degrees by diploma are for royalty and heads of state only.

The first woman to receive an honorary degree proper was Charlotte Byron Green who received an honorary Master of Arts (MA) on 14 June 1921. Honoured for her work as a longstanding campaigner for women’s education in Oxford, Charlotte had been a founder member of the Association for the Education of Women (or AEW) which had promoted women’s education in Oxford since 1878. She had connections with Somerville and St Anne’s Colleges, as well as with the city of Oxford, having trained as a district nurse at the Radcliffe Infirmary.

Charlotte was shortly followed by the second female recipient, Elizabeth Wordsworth, former Principal of Lady Margaret Hall and founder of St Hugh’s College (both women-only colleges at that time) who received her honorary MA on 25 October 1921. She was also honoured for her work promoting women’s education in Oxford.

It’s interesting to note that neither Charlotte nor Elizabeth received their degrees at Encaenia, and both were awarded the lesser honorary degree of MA (rather that the doctorates usually conferred at Encaenia). The two ceremonies appear to have been held with very little fanfare and no documentation from either survives in the University Archives. The only record is the decision made on 30 May 1921 by Hebdomadal Council, the University’s executive body, to confer the degrees on Charlotte and Elizabeth.

Given their ground-breaking nature, it’s perhaps surprising that more was not made of these events at the time. Although the University was finally acknowledging the achievements of these women in their long fight for equal academic opportunity (both were elderly by this time: Charlotte, 78, and Elizabeth, 81), there was maybe an irony in honouring them for achieving something which the University had spent so many years resisting.

In the new few years Charlotte and Elizabeth were followed by more eminent women receiving honorary MAs, nearly all of whom were honoured as campaigners for women’s education. The first honorary doctorate was not conferred on a woman until 1925 when Harvard astronomer, Annie Jump Cannon, received an honorary Doctor of Science (DSc).

 

The search is over…

Haggis the dog, Papers of the Earls of Clarendon (2nd creation), c. 1932

Haggis the dog, from the papers of the Earls of Clarendon (2nd creation), c. 1937

…I think I’ve found history’s cutest dog.

This is Haggis, in a photograph sent by an unknown friend to Verena Villiers, the Countess of Clarendon, in the 1930s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These papers, of the Earls of Clarendon of the second creation, are currently being catalogued and will be available to readers in 2022.

Princess Alexandra’s Irish poplin dress

Royal marketing from William Fry & Co., Irish poplin manufacturers, March 1863

Royal marketing from William Fry & Co., Irish poplin manufacturers, March 1863 [click to enlarge]

This fabric sample and leaflet, a lovely slice of Victorian marketing ephemera, can be found in the papers of Katharine Villiers, Countess of Clarendon (1810-1874).

The Irish poplin fabric, a pale violet- or mauve-coloured blend of silk and wool, hand-woven in Dublin by Wm. Fry & Co., was made into a travelling dress worn by eighteen-year old Princess Alexandra of Denmark on the 7th of March 1863, the day of her arrival at Gravesend Pier and first journey into London. Three days later, at Windsor Castle, Alexandra was to marry the Prince of Wales, Bertie, who eventually became King Edward VII, so the reception for her was grand, the crowds enormous, and press interest high.

Princess Alexandra, it was reported, ordered (or simply received – accounts vary) the fabric as one of her wedding presents. It was woven in a colour that Queen Victoria apparently particularly liked, which was a smart diplomatic move but also a fun reminder that Queen Victoria, who is mostly remembered for her mourning black, actually had favourite colours. (What the reporters did not mention, for some reason, is that the British court was still in official mourning for Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, who had died in 1861, and all court ladies were restricted to wearing lilac, grey or…mauve.)

Princess Alexandra’s dress was a publicity triumph for the poplin manufacturer Wm. Fry & Co, and the company did not hesitate to capitalise. Their marketing leaflet proudly highlights their exhibition medals and also includes extracts from 14 different newspapers that covered the princess’s arrival and mentioned her poplin dress in glowing terms. And with this leaflet came a beautiful, and beautifully well-preserved, fabric sample: ‘Part of the Original Piece of Irish Poplin Worn by the Princess of Wales’.

It’s one thing to read about the dress, and another to be able to see that the fabric, which looks very plain at first glance, has a changeable quality when viewed from different angles, so it shimmers as it moves, a little like iridescent shot silk. You can see its lustre in Henry Nelson O’Neil’s (accurate!) oil painting which commemorated Princess Alexandra’s arrival at Gravesend. A style leader for the rest of her life, the painting also records Alexandra’s purple velvet mantle, the Russian sable around her neck, and her white silk bonnet trimmed with lilies and blush roses.

The princess’s travelling dress certainly needed a lot of poplin: 1863 was a high-point for the bell-shaped, hooped crinoline of the type illustrated here in a painting of Alexandra’s sister, so the yardage was impressive. On the back of the fabric sample sent to the Countess of Clarendon is jotted the cost of the 14 yards required for a full dress: £5 12s. A quick conversion via the National Archives reveals that that amounted to 27 day’s wages for a skilled tradesman in 1860, or the cost of one cow.

Most importantly, however, one of the news extracts included in the manufacturer’s leaflet is a 9th of March report by the Freeman (probably the Freeman’s Journal of Dublin) which notes:

As each working man gazes to-night upon the illuminations in honor of the marriage of the Prince, he will remember that the first public act of the Princess was one that will make the produce of the Irish loom ‘the fashion’ at court […] and will circulate thousands of pounds as wages amongst the artizans of Dublin

The choice of this fabric was not just a diplomatic triumph for Princess Alexandra, but a decision that would boost an entire industry: this single dress worn by one young woman had the potential to change the fates and fortunes of hundreds.

These papers, of the Earls of Clarendon of the second creation, are currently being catalogued and will be available to readers in 2022.

Dame Hermione Lee archive now available

Photograph portrait of Professor Dame Hermione Lee, by John Cairns (2020)

Professor Dame Hermione Lee, by John Cairns (2020) (reproduced with permission)

The archive of British academic and biographer Professor Dame Hermione Lee is now available at the Weston Library, comprising the working correspondence and papers of a notable author, academic, and public intellectual, including literary papers, academic and scholarly papers, and papers relating to Lee’s journalism, public lecturing and broadcasting work.

Hermione Lee studied English Literature here at Oxford University and then taught at the College of William and Mary, the University of Liverpool, and the University of York before, in 1998, returning to Oxford, where for ten years she was the Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature, as well as the first female professorial fellow of New College. Between 2008 and 2017, Lee served as the president of Wolfson College, Oxford (founding the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing), and is now Emeritus Professor of English Literature. In 2013 she was made Dame for her services to literary scholarship.

Hermione Lee is a major figure in the academic study of life-writing and the archive reflects her teaching life as both a university academic and public lecturer and speaker, including research notes and lecture texts in her principle teaching areas of American literature, post-colonial and Commonwealth literature and 19th-21st-century biography.

To the wider public, Lee is perhaps best known for her broadcasting and biographies. The archive contains extensive research material and drafts for her award-winning biographies of Virginia Woolf (1996), Edith Wharton (2006) and Penelope Fitzgerald (2013). It also includes research and drafts for her biographies of Elizabeth Bowen (1981) and Willa Cather (1989); her OUP Very Short Introduction to Biography (2009); her collection of essays on life-writing, Body Parts (2005); as well as research and drafts for scholarly articles and essays and for Lee’s decades-long career as a book reviewer and literary journalist.

Lee first came to prominence as a journalist and commentator as the presenter of Channel 4’s flagship literary discussion programme Book Four from the day Channel 4 launched in 1982. She has since presented numerous TV and radio programmes for broadcasters including the BBC, some in partnership with her friend, the author Julian Barnes. The archive will be a useful resource for those interested in the history of literary programming in the UK, not least because it contains multiple shooting scripts.

Another feature of the archive is Lee’s meticulous research for that ephemeral book festival phenomenon: the public interview and round table discussion. It includes preparatory material for a series of encounters with Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, as well as authors including Margaret Atwood, Ben Okri, Joyce Carol Oates, John McGahern, Anita Desai and Salman Rushdie.

This extensive working archive of an academic, biographer and broadcaster is now available to readers in the Weston Library.

Cataloguing was generously funded by the Wolfson Foundation.

Sir Stafford Cripps

Black and white portrait of Sir Stafford Cripps, c. 1947 [Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO)] [Creative Commons CCO 1.0]

Sir Stafford Cripps by Yousuf Karsh, c. 1943 [Dutch National Archives] [Creative Commons CCO 1.0]

Today is the 132nd anniversary of the birth of the extraordinary British politician Sir Stafford Cripps, whose archive, and that of his wife Dame Isobel Cripps, has been made available online*.

Sir Richard Stafford Cripps (1889–1952), politician and lawyer, was the youngest child of successful barrister, Conservative MP and Labour cabinet minister Charles Cripps.

Stafford received a staunchly Christian but undogmatic education. His strong faith would be a feature of his life and work until he died. He studied chemistry at university and met his future wife Isobel Swithinbank while campaigning for his father in the 1910 general election. They married on 12 July 1911, and had four children. Cripps was called to the bar in 1913, and during World War I used his chemistry training to run a munitions factory in Queensferry. In 1916, aged only 27, this work caused a physical breakdown which sidelined him for the rest of the war. He was affected by ill-health his entire life.

Cripps was made Britain’s youngest king’s counsel in 1927 and in 1929, he joined Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government as solicitor-general, and was knighted. In January 1931, he won a by-election at Bristol East (which later became Bristol South East), where he remained an MP for the next 29 years.

His politics swung significantly to the left and he became a prominent member and then chairman of the newly formed Socialist League, and highly critical of the Labour Party. In 1939, this led to Cripps being expelled from Labour.

The Second World War changed everything.

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Female blacksmiths and natural daughters

Today I discovered exactly how compulsive family history research can be when I went down a census rabbit hole after finding records of what appeared to be a female blacksmith in the Bodleian’s archival collections.

The Bodleian holds the Barham family papers which came here with the extensive Clarendon family archive thanks to Lady Katherine, the Countess of Clarendon (1810-1874), who married the 4th Earl after the death of her first husband John Foster Barham, a Member of Parliament for the rotten borough of Stockbridge in Hampshire and the son of Joseph Foster Barham, a prominent Pembrokeshire landowner who also owned substantial numbers of slaves in Jamaica. [You can find slave inventories and estate accounts in the Barham Family Papers.]

Top half of a bill for blacksmithing costs owed by William Barham to Mary Hulbert, 1834, Clarendon Archive (Earls of the 2nd Creation), Bodleian Libraries

Top half of a bill for blacksmithing costs owed by William Barham to Mary Hulbert, 1834, Clarendon Archive (Earls of the 2nd Creation), Bodleian Libraries [click to enlarge]

The portion of 4th Earl of Clarendon’s papers which I am currently cataloguing, however, includes some additional Barham-related letters and papers such as this tantalising invoice of payments owed by William Barham, Lady Katharine’s brother-in-law, to Mary Hulbert, blacksmith. The invoice is a long list of work completed between April and November 1834, totalling £3 1s 1d, and is marked as unpaid.

Having learned five years ago that a woman smith worked on Blenheim Palace in 1708, I was particularly interested in the identity of this blacksmith: Mary Hulbert.

A plain search for Mary Hulbert on Ancestry produced a haystack’s worth of results, but I took a punt on the Stockbridge connection, and found that there was, indeed, a Mary Hulbert listed in the 1841 census in Stockbridge and that the Hulbert family included a blacksmith. But disappointing my hopes that she would be labelled a blacksmith in her own right, that blacksmith was her husband, George. And in fact, I soon found lower down the small stack of William Barham’s invoices (which include a bill for two nights away from home that tots up the cost of a bed, half a pint of best brandy, another bottle of brandy, and a bottle of gin) yet another 1834 blacksmith’s invoice, this one from…George Hulbert, also unpaid.

This was a useful reminder to always check related records before going down rabbit holes, but I was still curious about Mary Hulbert of Stockbridge, who, assuming she was the Mary Hulbert named on this invoice, was at the very least involved in her husband’s business. In fact, given that the jobs and dates on the two blacksmithing bills are different, it remains possible that Mary really was doing work on her own account, and more of it and at a greater value than George, whose bill only lists jobs on 29 May and 7 June 1834 worth the comparatively small sum of 4s 11d.

Interestingly, birth and marriage records show that Mary was 16 years older than her husband: he was 22 when they married in 1822, and she was 38. I wondered if perhaps Mary’s father had been a blacksmith and George Hulbert his apprentice, but in fact, no, a quick and dirty search suggests that her father Thomas Young was a maltster, while a 1784 Hampshire directory lists another George Hulbert as a blacksmith in Stockbridge, so it looks like smithing was the Hulbert family trade.

Although it seemed more than likely at this point, I still couldn’t be certain that the Mary and George Hulbert sending bills to William Barham were the Stockbridge Hulberts. I thought it would be worthwhile to have a look at William Barham’s records to see if he had a direct connection with the town, given that he himself was never Stockbridge’s MP.

And that’s where things got intriguing.

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New catalogue – Oxford Women in Computing: An Oral History project

The catalogue of the Oxford Women in Computing oral history project is now available online.

This oral history project captures the experiences of 10 pioneering women who were active in computing research, teaching and service provision between the 1950s and 1990s, not only in Oxford, but at national and international levels. The rationale for the project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, through grants held by Professor Ursula Martin, was that women had participated in very early stages of computing; aside from a few exceptions their stories had not been captured – or indeed told. Among the interviewees are Eleanor Dodson, methods developer for Protein Crystallography and former research technician for Dorothy Hodgkin and Linda Hayes, former Head of User Services at the Oxford University Computing Service – now University of Oxford IT services. Leonor Barroca left Portugal in 1982 as a qualified electrical engineer to follow a boyfriend to Oxford – later that year she was one of three women on the university’s MSc in Computing course. Leonor also worked briefly as a COBOL (common business-oriented language) programmer for the Bodleian Libraries.

Themes throughout the interviews, which were conducted in 2018 by author and broadcaster Georgina Ferry, include:

  • career opportunities and early interests in computing
  • gender splits in computing
  • the origins and development of computing teaching and research in Oxford
  • development of the University of Oxford’s Computing Service and the commercial software house the Numerical Algorithms Group (NAG).

The Oxford Women in Computing oral histories serve as a source for insight into nearly half a century of women’s involvement in computing at Oxford and beyond.  The collection will particularly be of use to those interested in gender studies and the history of computing.

The interviews can be listened to online though University of Oxford podcasts here.

Communications programmer Esther White in the early days of the University of Oxford’s Computing Service. © University of Oxford

 

 

New catalogues: Papers of A.J. Ayer and Papers of Ruth Pitter (or: Everything is connected)

At first sight, they don’t have much in common: A.J. Ayer (1910-1989),  a philosopher known for his promotion of logical positivism and close association with humanist ideas who  enjoyed socialising at clubs in London and New York, and at college dinners in Oxford, and Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a poet deeply rooted in natural mysticism and spirituality, who preferred a much more reclusive life in a Buckinghamshire village.

However,  Ayer and Pitter have a connection, not only through the fact that their respective papers both share an archival home in the Bodleian’s special collections.

Both were regular contributors to the BBC talk show The Brains Trust in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and they actually met and talked, at least once, as this letter from the papers of Ruth Pitter confirms:

‘Fan mail’ received by Ruth Pitter after her appearance on The Brains Trust of 28 May 1957, with retrospective comment by Pitter.  MS. 7154/3.

The ‘other prof’ whose name Ruth Pitter could not remember when annotating her correspondence in the 1970s must have been Julian Huxley, an evolutionary biologist and zoologist (John Betjeman, the poet, writer and broadcaster, completed the Brains Trust panel for that episode of the programme).

Which questions the Brains Trust discussed in May 1957 we do not know, but any queries about religion, divinity, spirituality, nature and evolution, morals and family values would have sparked a lively debate between Pitter who, inspired by C.S. Lewis’s religious broadcasts and writings, had joined the Anglican Church in the 1940s, on one side, and Ayer and Huxley, both staunch rationalists and secular humanists, on the other.

Ruth Pitter donated her extensive correspondence with C.S. Lewis to the Bodleian Library, and around the same time started sorting and extensively annotating her own papers with view to bequeathing them to the Bodleian. The archive comprises literary papers and other material relating to Ruth Pitter’s career as a poet (c.1903-1983 and some posthumous material), as well as personal correspondence with an emphasis on literary and social letters (1911-c.1988) and personal and financial papers (1897-1988), including material relating to Pitter’s decorative painting business Deane & Forester. Also included are photographs (c.1884-1981), prints, drawings, engravings and watercolours (c.1900-1989), audio recordings of interviews with, and songs and poems by, Ruth Pitter (1981-1987 and n.d.), and material relating to Ruth Pitter which was collected by her friend Mary Thomas (1897-1998).

A.J. Ayer’s papers arrived at the Bodleian in 2004, donated by his son Nick. The material comprises personal and professional correspondence and papers, as well as papers – mainly manuscript and typescript versions – relating to A.J. Ayer’s books, essays, lectures, articles and other (published) works. While the material spans Ayer’s academic and professional life from c.1930 to 1989 and includes some posthumous material, there is an emphasis on material from the late 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s.

For both collections, online catalogues are now available: Papers of A.J. Ayer and the Papers of Ruth Pitter.

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The Natasha Spender archive is now available

Programme for a piano recital by Natasha Litvin (later Spender) in 1944, from MS. 6647/54The archive of Natasha Spender, concert pianist, academic, and wife of the poet Stephen Spender, is now available.

Natasha Spender, Lady Spender, née Litvin (or Evans), was born on 18 April 1919, the illegitimate daughter of Ray Litvin and Edwin Evans, who was a well-respected (but married) Times music critic.

Ray Litvin (d. 1977) was from a family of Lithuanian Jewish refugees and grew up in Glasgow. She became an actress and was by 1915 a regular with Lilian Baylis’s Old Vic theatre company but in 1926 her career was crushed when she caught typhoid fever and became profoundly deaf.

Young Natasha, who had been fostered out during her early years, went on to spend her holidays with the wealthy and very musical family of George Booth (son of the social reformer Charles Booth) and his wife Margaret at their home Funtington House in West Sussex. A gifted pianist, Natasha trained at the Royal College of Music and following graduation, studied with the musician and composer Clifford Curzon and the pianist Franz Osborn before starting her professional career. During the war, she gave concerts for ENSA and in 1943 she, along with the actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft and the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, founded the Apollo Society which presented poetry with a musical accompaniment. She appeared often on television and radio including as the soloist in the very first concert televised by the BBC. She also gave recitals in the UK and abroad, including a concert for former prisoners in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In the 1960s Natasha made a move into academia after earning a degree in psychology and from 1970 to 1984 she taught music psychology and visual perception at the Royal College of Art. She later contributed to the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Natasha met the poet Stephen Spender in 1940 at a lunch party hosted by Horizon, a literary journal that Stephen was co-editing at the time. They married in 1941. For decades, the Spenders were central figures in the London (and international) literary scene, with Stephen Spender’s career as a writer, professor, lecturer, editor and delegate taking them all over the world, with long periods in America.

In the 1950s, Natasha became friends with the terminally alcoholic, noir author Raymond Chandler, who fell in love with her. The exact nature of their relationship became an ongoing source of speculation among his biographers. This, along with controversies over unauthorized biographies and interpretations of Stephen Spender’s life led to Natasha fighting hard for the rights of biographical subjects and particularly for her husband’s reputation. Following Stephen Spender’s death in 1995, Natasha founded the Stephen Spender Memorial Trust, which continues to promote poetry in translation, and she collaborated first with John Sutherland on an official biography of her husband (published in 2004) and then with Lara Feigel on an updated edition of Spender’s journals (published in 2012). Natasha also published articles about friends and associates, including Dame Edith Sitwell and Raymond Chandler, and her archive includes an unfinished memoir covering the early years of her life and marriage. She died on 21 October 2010 at the age of 91.

The papers will be of interest to readers researching the history of early twentieth century theatre and performance, the academic field of visual perception, and the literary circle of Stephen Spender.