Eleanor Rathbone – An Independent Woman

This past weekend welcomed the launch of the exhibition ‘Eleanor Rathbone – An Independent Woman: Suffragist, Politician & Social Reformer at the Victoria Gallery and Museum, University of Liverpool. This exhibition is drawn from the extensive Rathbone Papers held here in Special Collections and Archives.  

RPXIV.3.96. Eleanor Rathbone in 1910.

Eleanor Rathbone (1872 – 1946) was one of the most remarkable British women of the 20th century. Born into a prominent Liverpool family, she spent her career fighting against injustices and trying to make life better for those in need. This new exhibition uses documents from Eleanor’s own archive to tell the story of her life as a Suffragist, politician and ground-breaking social reformer. Her portrait by Sir James Gunn, which usually hangs in Portcullis House, Westminster, is on display in Liverpool for the first time as part of the exhibition.

Eleanor joined the Liverpool Women’s Suffrage Society in 1896 and was at the forefront of the national suffrage movement.

Her research on the working conditions at Liverpool Docks and its impact on families started a life-long campaign for a family allowance. Eleanor was elected Councillor for Liverpool’s Granby Ward in 1909, standing as an Independent rather than aligning with a political party. She held her seat for twenty-six years.

In 1929 Eleanor was elected MP for the Combined English Universities, again standing as an Independent. During the Spanish Civil War and Second World War she worked passionately on behalf of refugees. Just months before her death in 1946, after decades of campaigning, the Family Allowances Act was passed.

The exhibition is open to view Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Victoria Gallery & Museum, Ashton Street, Liverpool L69 3DR. For general enquiries on visiting the Victoria Gallery and Museum, telephone 0151 794 2348 or email vgmrecep@liv.ac.uk. For further information about the exhibition contact Dr Amanda Draper, Curator of Art & Exhibitions at amanda.draper@liverpool.ac.uk.

For enquiries regarding the Rathbone papers or to book an appointment, please contact scastaff@liverpool.ac.uk.

Explore Your Archive: Women in Higher Education

Archive Discovered ImageAs part of the 2015 Explore Your Archive campaign, this post delves into the University Archive to focus on the formative years of the University of Liverpool. In particular, we examine a series of records documenting the experiences of the earliest women students and staff to enter higher education here during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The University of Liverpool was part of the vanguard for progressive gender equality in nineteenth century higher education, and the evidence is available in the University Archive. Provisions for female education, hitherto sparsely availably, were incorporated in the federal Victoria University’s Charter from the beginning.

Women’s Access to Education

Established in 1881, the federal University from which Liverpool would later emerge admitted both male and female students from its opening session in 1882. In his comprehensive history of the University, Thomas Kelly remarks on the “important and surprising feature [of] the high proportion of female students’, being about two-fifths of the total number of day students in the first session, and over half in the second and third sessions (1882-4)”[1].

Liverpool obtained its Charter as an independent provincial university in 1903. Convocation was carried over from the original Charter, but the education of women was now extended to all faculties, without the previous exclusion from the Faculty of Medicine. The first female medical student was Phoebe Mildred Powell from Knotty Ash, who is listed in the Register of Undergraduates[2] as matriculating on October 27 1905, aged 19. After completing her initial studies in 1911, she became a Doctor of Medicine in 1912.

The amended Charter of 1903 also confirmed that women were not only eligible to take up any place as students, but also as members of staff. The first female staff members were Miss S. Dorothea Pease, appointed Mistress of Method in 1899, and her successor in 1902, Miss C. C. Graveson[3]. Miss Pease was also the Warden of University Hall from 1899 to 1900.

Women’s Accommodation

Although early provision of student residences at Liverpool was minimal, one of the earliest available Halls was in fact a residence for female students. University Hall – initially home to just five residents when opened in 1899 – was originally situated on Edge Lane, but was relocated in 1904 to nearby Holly Road, Fairfield. Within the Archive is a collection of materials pertaining to the Hall, including publications from the students’ University Hall Association, plans for building redevelopments, correspondence regarding operations and finance, student membership of the Association, Committee Minutes and – most interestingly – the press coverage of the Hall’s building extension in 1927.

As noted above, the female student population grew healthily along with the newly-independent University of Liverpool, and by the end of the 1920s the accommodation at University Hall needed to expand. In the inaugural publication of the Magazine of the University Hall Association at Whitsuntide 1927, contributors Nancy Nixon, a senior student, and Marian Poppleton, a fourth-year representative, noted the swelling ranks of the Hall (now housing almost 130, rather than a meagre five) and what this meant for the mark made on the wider University by its female cohort:

“[W]e intend to hold our own at the University. In games and swimming, we have already done so, and we have moreover won the Silver Cup this year in the University Competition in choral singing”. […] As it is our boast that we can rival any residential Hall in existence, we have a high standard to maintain.”[4]

Extension plans for the Hall came to fruition in November 1927, with the extension being officially opened by Sir Oliver and Lady Lodge on 11 November. Photographs from the occasion held in the University Archive show Sir Oliver being presented with a Louis XV snuffbox by MP and former Treasurer of the University Hugh Rathbone, and Miss Emma Holt, one of the many female benefactors of the scheme.

Sir Oliver Lodge at the 1927 University House Opening Ceremony

Sir Oliver Lodge at the 1927 University House extension unvieling. (Archive reference P8/4).

Sir Oliver’s impassioned address to his student audience was reported in the Liverpool Post and Mercury the following day, and clippings have been retained in the University archive alongside the photographs. Lodge spoke of his belief in female enfranchisement and access to opportunities:

“[Women] are taking their place in the work of the world, and they are entitled to share in such responsibility as is common to citizenhood.”

The Archive holds further evidence that, even aside from the occasional visiting dignitaries, life in Hall for these women was not without excitement: “The year was not without its thrills,” reports student Kathleen Wheelock, in her précis of the 1925-6 academic year. “We had a great scare one night, when a man was found under a fresher’s bed […]!”[5]

The 1926-7 cohort of University Hall residents.

The 1926-7 cohort of University Hall residents. (Archive reference P489.)

This archive comprises an array of record types, formats, ages and topics. A little exploration can take you a long way into history, be that history institutional, cultural, social or personal.

Here we have explored a mere snippet of those histories documented in the University Archive. More information about the University Archive and its arrangement can be found online at the SC&A website. What might you discover?

[1]Kelly, Thomas. For Advancement of Learning. The University of Liverpool 1881-1981. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (p. 58).

[2] Archive reference S2012.

[3] Kelly (p. 116).

[4] Archive reference P8/6 (p. 9).

[5] Archive reference P8/6 (p. 7).