Somerville College, Oxford

Colleges and halls of the University of Oxford
Somerville College
College name Somerville College
Motto Donec rursus impleat orbem
(translated: Until it should fill the world again)
Named after Mary Somerville
Previously named Somerville Hall (1879–1894)
Established 1879
Sister college Girton College, Cambridge
Principal Alice Prochaska
Undergraduates 408[1]
Graduates 163[2]
Location Woodstock Road, Oxford

Location of Somerville College within central OxfordCoordinates: 51°45′35″N 1°15′43″W / 51.759644°N 1.261872°W / 51.759644; -1.261872

Blazon Argent, three mullets in chevron reversed gules, between six crosses crosslet fitched sable.

Somerville College is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England. Founded in 1879 as Somerville Hall, it was one of the first women's colleges in Oxford. Today, around 50% of students are male. The first male students were admitted to the college in 1994.[3] The college is located at the southern end of Woodstock Road, with Little Clarendon Street to the south and Walton Street to the west.

Between 2006 and 2016, the financial endowment rose from £44.5 million[4] to £57.7 million.[5]



In June 1878, the Association for the Higher Education of Women was formed, aiming for the eventual creation of a college for women in Oxford. Some of the more prominent members of the association were George Granville Bradley, Master of University College, T. H. Green, a prominent liberal philosopher and Fellow of Balliol College, and Edward Stuart Talbot, Warden of Keble College. Talbot insisted on a specifically Anglican institution, which was unacceptable to most of the other members. The two parties eventually split, and Talbot's group founded Lady Margaret Hall.

Thus, in 1879, a second committee was formed to create a college "in which no distinction will be made between students on the ground of their belonging to different religious denominations." This second committee included John Percival, George William Kitchin, A. H. D. Acland, Thomas Hill Green, Mary Ward, William Sidgwick, Henry Nettleship, and A. G. Vernon Harcourt. This new effort resulted in the founding of Somerville Hall, named for the then recently deceased Scottish mathematician and renowned scientific writer Mary Somerville. She was admired by the founders of the college as a scholar, as well as for her religious and political views, including her conviction that women should have equality in terms of suffrage and access to education.

Mary Somerville, 1780 – 1872, after whom the College is named

World War One

During World War I the college was converted into a military hospital as Somerville Section of the 3rd Southern General Hospital. For the duration of the war, Somerville students relocated to Oriel College. Notable patients who stayed in Somerville include Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, who opens Siegfried's Progress with a reference to the college. Photographs of the college in this period can be found hanging in Hall, outside the pantry.

Women's college

When opened, Somerville Hall had twelve students, ranging in age between 17 and 36. In 1891 it became the first women's hall to introduce entrance exams. The hall was renamed Somerville College in 1894, becoming the first of the women's colleges to adopt this title. In 1920, Oxford University allowed women to matriculate and therefore gain degrees, and in 1925 Somerville's college charter was granted. During the principalship of Janet Vaughan, Somerville, along with the other women's colleges, became a full constituent college of Oxford University.

Admission of men

During the 1980s, there was much debate as to whether women's colleges should become mixed. Somerville remained a women's college until 1992, when its statutes were amended to permit male students and fellows; the first male fellows were appointed in 1993, and the first male students admitted in 1994[3] with an intake 50% male/female; a gender balance maintained to this day, though without formal quotas.

In the 1890s Somerville helped fashion the “New Woman”; a century later….the college has set itself the perhaps greater challenge of educating the "New Man."
Pauline Adams, Somerville for Women[6][7]

Buildings and grounds

The college and its main entrance, the Porters' Lodge, are located on Woodstock Road. The front of the college runs between St Aloysius Church and the Faculty of Philosophy. Somerville has buildings of various architectural styles, many of which bear the names of former principals of the college.

House (1879) and Hostel (1898)

House from the Quad

The original building of Somerville Hall (originally called Walton House) was purchased from St John's College in 1879. The house could only accommodate 7 of the 12 students who came up to Oxford in the first year.[8] Today House is home to some students. It also contains Green Hall, where guests to College are often greeted and in which prospective students are registered and wait for interviews. Until 2014, it housed the college bar. Most of the administration of college and academic pigeon holes are located in House. A staircase from Green Hall leads up to Hall. Somerville's dining hall is one of very few in Oxford to contain portraits only of women.

Hostel is a small block between House and Darbishire; it houses 10 students over three floors. The Bursary is on the ground floor.[9]

Park (1886–1895) and Holtby (c.1956)

Somerville College, Oxford – Main Quad, looking westwards, from left to right Penrose, Wolfson, Park, Holtby

Originally known as West, due to its location within the college, the project to build a second self-contained hall was an attempt to imitate Newnham College. The building was designed by H. C. Moore and built in two stages. The 1886-7 phase saw the construction of rooms for 18 students with their own dining-room and sitting rooms. The second created two sets of tutors' rooms and the West Lodge.[8] It was renamed Park in honour of Daphne Park, the Principal from 1980–1989. There are over 60 student rooms and Fellows' rooms within the building. There is a music room and the main Junior Common Room (JCR) with the Terrace bar behind Vaughan as the other main meeting place for students. Holtby is situated above the library extension, adjacent to Park. It has 10 rooms for undergraduates and is named for alumna Winifred Holtby.[10]

Library (1903)

The Library

Designed by Basil Champneys and opened by John Morley, Somerville College Library was the first purpose-built library amongst the women's colleges of the university. As such it was designed to serve readers beyond the membership of the college and to contain 60,000 volumes despite the college only possessing 6000 in 1903. The building now contains around 120,000 items and is one of the largest undergraduate college libraries in the university.

The library dominates the north wing of the main quadrangle and is open 24 hours, with wifi access which is college-wide, a group study room, and many computers.

Amelia Edwards, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin and Vera Brittain are notable benefactors to the library.[11]

The John Stuart Mill room contains what was Mill's personal library in London at the time of his death, with significant annotations in many of the books.[12]

Maitland (1910–11) and Hall (1912–1913)

View of Hall from the quad

Until 1911, there was no hall large enough to seat the entire college. The buildings were designed by Edmund Fisher and were opened by the Vice-Chancellor of the university. A fund was raised as a memorial to Miss Maitland, the principal of Somerville Hall (College from 1894) from 1889 to 1906. This money was used to pay for the oak panelling in Hall. The buildings were constructed on the site of an adjoining building gifted to Somerville by E. J. Forester in 1897 and bought from University and Balliol Colleges for £4000 and £1,400.[8] There was difficulty in the construction of the buildings, which is now thought to have been the result of the outer limit of the Oxford city fortifications running under the site.

Hall and Maitland form the East face of the main quad. The Senior Common Room is situated on the ground floor. The first floor is occupied by the pantry and the hall, in which Formal Hall (called guest night) is held weekly during term time.

High Table in Hall

Maitland houses few students, being mainly occupied by Fellows' offices and the college IT office. The building is named after Principal Agnes Maitland, and is to the south of Hall.[9]

Penrose (1927)

The Penrose block was designed by Harold Rogers and is situated at the south western end of the main quadrangle on the site of 119 and 119A Walton Street.[8] Penrose houses mainly first year accommodation, with around 30 rooms.[9] Some fellows' rooms are located in Penrose. The building was refurbished in 2014, with carpets replacing the formerly bare wooden floorboards, and new furniture. Penrose is named for Dame Emily Penrose, the third principal of the college.

The western wall of Penrose and the northern wall of Vaughan form two faces of the fellows' garden, which is distinct from the main quad and separated from it by a hedge and a wall.

Darbishire (1934)

Darbishire quad

Originally called the East Quadrangle and opened by Lord Halifax, Darbishire was renamed in honour of the principal of the college during its construction, Helen Darbishire.

The quad was the culmination of a long-standing project to absorb Woodstock Road properties above St Aloysius Church. In 1920, three houses, 29, 31 and 33, were purchased by the college from the vicar of St Giles' Church, Oxford, for the sum of £1,300. The three properties were constructed by in 1859 and had been rented by the college prior to their purchase. The adjoining 'Waggon and Horses' was purchased from St John's College, Oxford, in 1923. These buildings were demolished between 1932 and 1933 together with the old Gate House.

Morley Horder was commissioned to build a quadrangle which would fill the space left by the demolished structures. The porters' lodge and a council room, the New Council Room, were constructed at the entrance to the quad, which housed undergraduate and fellows' rooms.[8]

The archway leading to Hall was reconstructed in 1938. Today Darbishire contains around 50 student rooms mixed with tutors' offices, the college archive and medical room.[10] The offices of the Global Ocean Commission, co-chaired by José María Figueres, Trevor Manuel and David Miliband, were situated in Darbishire as part of a partnership with Somerville, from 2012 to 2016, when the organisation completed its work.[13]

Chapel (1935)

The Chapel

Built largely with funds provided by alumna Emily Georgiana Kemp, Somerville Chapel reflects the undenominational principle on which the college was founded in 1879. No religious texts were used for admission and undenominational Christian prayers were said in college.

The chapel does not have a chaplain, but a 'Chapel Director' which is in keeping with its undenominational tradition. The chapel provides opportunities for Christian worship in addition to hosting speakers with a multi-faith range of religious perspectives.[14] The chapel also has an excellent mixed-voice choir, which tours and produces occasional CDs.[15]

Vaughan & Margery Fry and Elizabeth Nuffield House (1958–1966)

Designed by Sir Philip Dowson and constructed between 1958 and 1966, Vaughan and Margery Fry and Elizabeth Nuffield House (commonly shortened to Margery Fry) are both named for former principals of the college, whilst Elizabeth Nuffield was an important proponent of women's education and along with her husband Lord Nuffield a financial benefactor of the college. Constructed in the same architectural style, with an exterior concrete frame standing away from the walls of the interior edifice, the two buildings sit atop a podium containing shops and an arcaded walkway on Little Clarendon Street. Vaughan is the larger of the two, with 11 rows to its concrete frame compared to the 8 of Margery Fry.[16]

Margery Fry serves as the centre of the post graduate student community at Somerville and contains 24 graduate rooms. Other accommodation for graduate students is provided in buildings adjacent to the College.

Vaughan contains around 60 undergraduate rooms, which are smaller than those of Margery Fry and house first year students exclusively. Vaughan was refurbished in 2013, with new bathroom facilities, including, for the first time, sinks. Beneath the two buildings, a tunnel provides access to Somerville from Little Clarendon Street.[10]

Wolfson (c.1967)

Wolfson building

Sir Philip Dowson was commissioned to design a building at the back of the college, to house undergraduates and offices for fellows. Wolfson is, in common with Dowson's other work in Somerville, constructed largely of glass and concrete. It is grade II listed.[16] A four-storey building, with five bays of each floor, Wolfson boasts impressive views of Walton Street from the rear and Somerville's main quadrangle from the front.[10]

Wolfson is named for the building's principle benefactor Sir Isaac Wolfson.

The ground floor of the building contains the Flora Anderson Hall or FAH and the Brittain-Williams Room, named for the college's most famous mother-daughter alumnae. The room was opened on 29 November 2013 by Baroness Shirley Williams during an event which saw her unveil a portrait of herself, which now hangs in the room.[17] The FAH is used for lectures and events. Notably it hosts college parties known as bops.

Margaret Thatcher Centre and Dorothy Hodgkin Quadrangle (1990)

Named for the alumna-Prime Minister, the MTC comprises a lobby, lecture room and ante room used for many meetings, with disabled access. The lecture room enjoys AV facilities and can accommodate 60 seated patrons. The venue is used for certain term time events and is popular with conferences.[18] A bust of Margaret Thatcher stands in the lobby, and the meeting room contains portraits of Somerville's two prime-minister alumnae, Margaret Thatcher by Michael Noakes and Indira Gandhi by Sanjay Bhattacharyya.

The Dorothy Hodgkin Quad houses mainly finalists and some second year students. The Quadrangle is above the MTC and designed around self-contained flats of two and four bedrooms with communal kitchens. DHQ is named for Somerville's Nobel Prize winning laureate.[10]

Radcliffe Observatory Quarter (2011)

ROQ East from outside College

ROQ East and West flank the north side of Somerville and overlook the site of the university's principal development, the Blavatnik School of Government. The ROQ buildings have won 4 awards for their architect Niall McLaughlin. The project was also awarded Oxford City Council's David Steel Sustainable Building Award, being commended for its balancing of Somervillian collegiate heritage with the need for energy efficiency to be a consideration for the new building. Energy efficiency measures include renewable technologies such as solar thermal energy and ground source heat pumps.[19]

The buildings house 68 students and all rooms are en-suite. There are a number of rooms and facilities specifically designed to help those with disabilities, including lifts and adjoining carer rooms. The buildings were made possible by donations of over £2.7 million from over 1000 alumni and friends of the college, and by a significant loan.[10] There is now an unimpeded view of the Observatory.

'The Terrace' (2013)

The most recent construction in Somerville, the college bar in Vaughan replaces the bar in House. The bar is housed in a mainly glass structure, with seating in the college colours of red and black. Doombar is served at £2.50 a pint and the pool table costs 50p per frame.[20]

Student life

In 2011 student satisfaction was rated in some categories as the highest in the university.[21] Central to the college is its large quad, onto which most accommodation blocks back; it is often filled with students in summer. It is also one of the only Oxbridge colleges, where students (as opposed to just fellows) can walk on the grass.

Trinitas Horribilis 2015

During Trinity term 2015, Somerville was subject to national media coverage as a result of the efforts of principal Alice Prochaska to tackle 'a rise in "excessively harassing and intimidating behaviour" towards female students.'[22] The Daily Telegraph quoted Prochaska as describing 'numerous reports of groping at college parties, rape jokes overheard in communal areas'.[23] The principal wrote in The Guardian of measures taken to address harassment and she expressed her hope that 'a spasm of nastiness among a small minority of students here has been nipped in the bud by the open condemnation of the majority.'[24]

Triennial Ball

Once every three years Somerville hosts a ball which is organised with Jesus College, Oxford. The last ball was held in May 2016 and the next ball will be held in 2019.

Academic reputation

Norrington Table since 2006

Before men were admitted to the college, and under the principalship of Barbara Craig, Somerville established a position at, or near the head of the Norrington Table.[25] Currently, by academic performance, Somerville is in the lower half of Oxford University colleges. For the academic year 2013/14, the college came 27th out of 30 in the Norrington Table, which lists the University's 29 undergraduate colleges in order of their students' examination performances. Between 2009 and 2013 Somerville performed progressively less well, falling 10 places from 19th to 29th over the course of the 4 years.[26]


The Choir of Somerville College is mixed voice and is led by the Director of Chapel Music, Benjamin Goodson.[27] In conjunction with the organ scholars, the choir is central to the musical life of the college.

There are regular concerts and cathedral visits as well as recitals featuring soloists from the choir. In recent years the choir has undertaken tours of Germany (2005 and 2009), Italy (2010) and the USA (2014).[28] The choir sings every Sunday during term time at the evening service. The organ of the college chapel is a traditionally voiced instrument by Harrison & Harrison.[29]

Somerville offers up to five Choral Exhibitions each year to applicants reading any subject. College Organ Scholars are guaranteed rooms in college for the duration of their course.

The college choir has released two CDs on the Stone Records label, "Requiem Aeternam" (2012)[30] and "Advent Calendar" (2013).[31]

University Challenge

Somerville has recently enjoyed success on University Challenge disproportionate to the college's size. The college has won the competition once, triumphing in the University Challenge 2001–02 series and beating Imperial College, London by 200 points to 185. Most recently, the college team reached the final of the University Challenge 2013–14 series, losing in the final to Trinity College, Cambridge, with a score of 134 to 240.[32]


Somerville has a gym situated beneath Vaughan, with treadmills, cross-trainers and weights. Somerville shares a sports ground with Wadham College and St. Hugh's College, on Marston Ferry Road. There are teams in men's and women's football, rugby (with Corpus Christi), mixed lacrosse, croquet and cricket.

Somerville cricket team won Cuppers for the 2014/15 season.[33]


Somerville formed a rowing team in 1921.[34] The college competes in both of the annual university bumps races, Torpids and Summer Eights.


Name Birth Death Principal Between Notes
Madeleine Shaw-Lefèvre 1835 1914 1879–1889 First Principal of Somerville Hall
Agnes Catherine Maitland 1850 1906 1889–1906 Second Principal of Somerville Hall, and first Principal of Somerville College, from 1894; introduced the tutorial system to Somerville
Emily Penrose 1858 1942 1906–1926 Classical scholar
Margery Fry 1874 1958 1926–1930 Social reformer
Helen Darbishire 1881 1961 1930–1945 Literary scholar
Janet Vaughan 1899 1993 1945–1967 Haematologist and radiobiologist
Barbara Craig 1916 2005 1967–1980 Classical archaeologist
Daphne Park, Baroness Park of Monmouth 1921 2010 1980–1989 Spy
Catherine Pestell 1933 2014 1989–1991 Civil servant and diplomat
No Principal As the statutes of the College did not permit the Principal to marry, Miss Pestell resigned, married and was re-elected as Principal; however there was a two-week period when the College had no Principal.
Catherine Hughes (née Pestell) 1933 2014 1991–1996
Fiona Caldicott 1941 1996–2010 First woman to be President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (1993–96) and its first woman Dean (1990–93)
Alice Prochaska 1947 2010– Involved with the design of the first National Curriculum for history

Notable alumni

Somerville alumnae have achieved an impressive number of “firsts” – the most distinguishable being that of the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher. Also the first, and only, British woman to win a Nobel prize in science Dorothy Hodgkin; the highest ranking female officer of her time in the British intelligence services (the Queen of Spies) Daphne Park; and also the first woman to lead the world’s largest democracy Indira Gandhi, who was Prime Minister of India for much of the 1970s.

See also Former students of Somerville College, Oxford

Name Birth Death Notable for
Manel Abeysekera 1933 Sri Lanka's first woman career diplomat
Alyson Bailes 1949 Former British ambassador and Director of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Vera Brittain 1893 1970 Writer and pacifist, author of Testament of Youth.
A. S. Byatt 1936 Novelist, poet and Booker Prize winner
Averil Cameron 1940 Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine History and former Warden of Keble College
Cicely Corbett Fisher 1885 1959 Suffragist and workers' rights activist
Kay Davies 1951 Human geneticist
Susie Dent 1967 Dictionary Corner
Philippa Foot 1920 2010 Philosopher and ethicist
Margaret Forster 1938 2016 Author
Cindy Gallop 1960 Advertising consultant, founder and former chair of the US branch of advertising firm Bartle Bogle Hegarty
Indira Gandhi 1917 1984 Prime Minister of India
Maggie Gee 1948 Author
Victoria Glendinning 1937 Biographer and novelist
Helen Goodman 1958 Labour politician
Celia Green 1935 Philosopher and author
Judith Green 1961 English medieval historian, Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at the University of Edinburgh
Nia Griffith 1956 Labour politician
Sam Gyimah 1976 Conservative MP for East Surrey
Joanna Haigh 1954 Physicist, professor of atmospheric physics at Imperial College London
Rita Harradence 1915 2012 Biochemist who synthesised penicillamine
Dorothy Hodgkin 1910 1994 Nobel Prize winner for her discovery of the structure of Vitamin B12
Winifred Holtby 1898 1935 Novelist and journalist, author of South Riding.
Ethel Hurlbatt 1866 1934 Principal of Bedford College, London and former warden of Royal Victoria College, Montreal
Sarah Ioannides 1972 Music director and conductor
Margaret Jay, Baroness Jay of Paddington 1939 Labour Party politician and life peer
Kathleen Kenyon 1906 1978 Archaeologist of Neolithic culture in the Fertile Crescent. Former Principal of St Hugh's College, Oxford
Emma Kirkby 1949 Soprano and early music specialist
Akua Kuenyehia 1947 Judge at the International Criminal Court
Frances Lincoln 1945 2001 Publisher
Genevieve Lloyd 1941 Philosopher and feminist
Rose Macaulay 1881 1958 Writer
Kara Miller 1977 Writer and director, Breakthrough Brits award winner
Peter Morris (playwright) 1973 Playwright
Anne Mueller 1930 2000 Civil servant
Iris Murdoch 1919 1999 Author and philosopher
Kathleen Ollerenshaw 1912 2014 Mathematician
Onora O'Neill 1941 Kantian philosopher and member of the House of Lords[35]
Daphne Park, Baroness Park of Monmouth 1921 2010 Spy
Catherine Powell 1967 Businesswoman and President of Disneyland Paris
Lucy Powell 1974 Labour politician, Shadow Secretary of State for Education
Alice Prochaska 1947 Principal of Somerville College, historian, librarian and museum curator
Esther Rantzen 1940 Journalist and television presenter, founder of Childline
Eleanor Rathbone 1872 1946 Independent MP and social reformer
Michèle Roberts 1949 Writer
Tessa Ross 1961 BAFTA award winning film executive
Emma Georgina Rothschild 1948 Economic historian
Dorothy L. Sayers 1893 1957 Author of the Lord Peter Wimsey books and translator of Dante's Divina Commedia.
Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Baroness Neville-Rolfe 1953 Politician, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Intellectual Property at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Matthew Skelton 1971 Children's writer
Frances Stewart 1940 Development economist
Cornelia Sorabji 1866 1954 First female Indian barrister, social reformer, and writer
Hilary Spurling 1940 Writer, journalist and biographer
Rachel Sylvester 1969 Political Journalist, at The Times
Margaret Thatcher 1925 2013 Conservative Party Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 1979–90 and life peer
Shriti Vadera, Baroness Vadera 1962 British investment banker and Labour politician
Eirene White, Baroness White 1909 1999 British Labour politician and journalist
Kate Williams 1974 Historian, author, television personality
Shirley Williams, Baroness Williams of Crosby 1930 Liberal Democrats politician and life peer, one of the gang of four founders of the SDP.
Olive Willis 1877 1964 Founder of Downe House
Audrey Withers 1905 2001 Editor of Vogue[36]
Julia Yeomans 1954 Theoretical physicist
Fasi Zaka 1976 TV personality, critic, journalist


  1. "Undergraduate numbers". University of Oxford.
  2. "Graduate numbers". University of Oxford.
  3. 1 2 History of Somerville College, Oxford
  4. "Oxford College Endowment Incomes, 1973–2006". Archived from the original on 2012-05-27. (updated July 2007)
  5. "Financial Statements of the Oxford Colleges (2014–15) | University of Oxford". Retrieved 2016-06-08.
  6. Somerville for Women: an Oxford College 1879–1993, Pauline Adams (Oxford University Press, 1996) ISBN 0-19-920179-X.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5
  9. 1 2 3
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6
  12. "John Stuart Mill Collection — Somerville College Oxford". Retrieved 2016-06-08.
  15. "Home". The Choir of Somerville College, Oxford. Retrieved 2016-06-08.
  16. 1 2
  21. Somerville soars in satisfaction survey
  22. Somerville College principal warns of sexual harassment, BBC News, 15 May 2015
  23. Oxford chief warns of worrying culture of sexual harassment and groping, Daily Telegraph, 14 May 2015
  24. How we are fighting sexist laddism and abuse at Somerville College, Oxford, Alice Prochaska, The Guardian, 15 May 2015
  36. Drusilla Beyfus, 'Withers [married names Stewart, Kennett], (Elizabeth) Audrey (1905–2001), magazine editor' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2005)


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