Somerville College, Oxford

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Somerville College
Somerville College Hall
Somerville College Hall
Somerville College Oxford Coat Of Arms (Motto).svg
Arms: Argent, three mullets in chevron reversed gules, between six crosses crosslet fitched sable.
LocationWoodstock Road, Oxford
Coordinates51°45′33″N 1°15′44″W / 51.759044°N 1.262272°W / 51.759044; -1.262272Coordinates: 51°45′33″N 1°15′44″W / 51.759044°N 1.262272°W / 51.759044; -1.262272
Full nameSomerville College in the University of Oxford
Latin nameCollegium de Somerville
MottoDonec rursus impleat orbem
(translated: Until it should fill the world again)
Named forMary Somerville
Previous namesSomerville Hall (1879–1894)
Sister collegeGirton College, Cambridge
PrincipalBaroness Royall of Blaisdon
Undergraduates437[1] (2020/2021)
Endowment£80.6 million (2018)[2]
Boat clubSomerville College Boat Club
Somerville College, Oxford is located in Oxford city centre
Somerville College, Oxford
Location in Oxford city centre

Somerville College is a constituent college of England's University of Oxford. Founded in 1879 as Somerville Hall, it was one of Oxford's first two women's colleges. Among its alumnae have been Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Dorothy Hodgkin, Iris Murdoch, Vera Brittain and Dorothy L. Sayers. It began taking men in 1994.[3]

Somerville has one of Oxford's largest college libraries and is known for varied architecture and a liberal tone,[4][5][6] originating with its founding social liberals as Oxford's first non-denominational college, unlike the Anglican Lady Margaret Hall, the other women's college opened that year.[7] In 1964 it was one of the first colleges to ceased locking up at night to stop students staying out late.[6][8] No gowns are worn at Formal Halls.

In 2021 it was recognised as a sanctuary campus by City of Sanctuary UK.[9] It is one of three Oxford colleges to offer undergraduates on-site accommodation throughout the course.[10] It stands near the Science Area, University Parks, Oxford University Press and Jericho, close to Green Templeton, St Anne's, Keble and St Benet's. Somerville has about 650 students,[1] over a third of them non-UK.[11] Over half the UK admissions are from state schools – close to the university average.[12] Its total net assets in 2018 were £225 million,[2] the seventh highest of an Oxford undergraduate college.

Its sister college at Cambridge is Girton, Britain's first residential college for women at degree level.



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 (the "Christ Church camp") founded Lady Margaret Hall, which opened its doors for students in 1879, the same year as Somerville did.[13]

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."[14] This committee was called the "Balliol camp" and had close ties to the Liberal Party.[15][16] This second committee included A. H. D. Acland, Thomas Hill Green, George William Kitchin, James Legge, Henry Nettleship, Walter Pater, Henry Francis Pelham, its chairman John Percival, Grace Prestwich, Eleanor Smith, A. G. Vernon Harcourt, and Mary Ward.[16] Other people who assisted in the founding were Anna Swanwick, Bertha Johnson, Charlotte Byron Green, and Owen Roberts.[citation needed]

The mathematician and scientist Mary Somerville, 1780–1872, after whom the college is named

This new effort resulted in the founding of Somerville Hall, named after the then recently deceased Scottish mathematician and renowned scientific writer Mary Somerville.[13] It was felt that the name would reflect the virtues of liberalism and academic success which the college wished to embody.[17] 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.[citation needed]

Madeleine Shaw-Lefevre was chosen as the first principal because, though not a well-known academic at the time, her background was felt to reflect the college's political stance.[18] Because of its status as both women's college and non-denominational institution, Somerville was widely regarded within Oxford as "an eccentric and somewhat alarming institution."[19]

Women's college[edit]

When opened, Somerville Hall had twelve students, ranging in age between 17 and 36.[20] The first 21 students from Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall attended lectures in rooms above a baker's shop on Little Clarendon Street.[21] Just two of the original 12 students admitted in 1879 remained in Oxford for three years, the period of residence required for male students to complete a bachelor's degree.[22]

Increasingly, however, as the college admitted more students, it became more formalized. Somerville appointed Lilla Haigh as its first in-house tutor in 1882,[23] and by the end of the 1890s female students were permitted to attend lectures in almost all colleges.[24] In 1891 it became the first women's hall to introduce entrance exams and in 1894 the first of the five women's halls of residence to adopt the title of college (changing its name to Somerville College),[25] the first of them to appoint its own teaching staff, and the first to build a library.[26] In Oxford legend it soon became known as the "bluestocking college", its excellent examination results refuting the widespread belief that women were incapable of high academic achievement.[26]

In the 1910s, Somerville became known for its support for the women's suffrage campaign.[27] In 1920, Oxford University allowed women to matriculate and therefore gain degrees.[28] From the college's inception, all female students had to be chaperoned when in the presence of male students. The practice was abolished in 1925, although male visitors to the college were still subject to a curfew.[29] In the same year the college was granted its charter.[citation needed]

Somerville College Library with hyacinths

The Mutual Admiration Society[edit]

The Mutual Admiration Society (MAS) was a literary society (or literary circle) of women who became friends at Somerville College.[30][31] Its members included Dorothy L. Sayers,[32][33] Muriel St Clare Byrne, Charis Frankenburg, Dorothy Rowe, and Amphilis Throckmorton Middlemore, among others.[34][31]

The society of the title was a real club. The members composed poetry and prose for each other's pleasure. Apart from Sayers, none of them were a household name, though all were notable. Mo Moulton argued in their Agatha Award-winning book, The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World For Women,[35] that each one lived a life worthy of attention.[36][37][38][39]

Years later, the writer Vera Brittain — a Somerville contemporary of the group, but not one of its members — recalled that the MAS “took themselves very seriously”.[40][41]

First World War[edit]

During the First World War, Somerville College together with the Examination Schools and other Oxford buildings were requisitioned by the War Office to create the Third Southern General Hospital, a facility for the Royal Army Medical Corps to treat military casualties.[42][43] For the duration of the war, Somerville students relocated to Oriel College.[27] Because many male students had left Oxford to enlist in the military, Somerville was able to rent St Mary Hall Quad which they bricked off from the rest of the college to segregate it from Oriel's remaining male students.[44] Many students and tutors were involved in work in World War I and some of them went to the Western Front in France.[citation needed]

Notable patients who stayed in Somerville include the war poets Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and R. E. Vernède. Sassoon arrived on 2 August 1916. Graves and Sassoon were both to reminisce of their time at Somerville Hospital: How unlike you to crib my idea of going to the Ladies' College at Oxford, Sassoon wrote to Graves in 1917, and called it very much like Paradise.[45] At Somerville College, Graves met his first love, a nurse and professional pianist called Marjorie. About his time at Somerville, he wrote: I enjoyed my stay at Somerville. The sun shone, and the discipline was easy.[46] Alfred Mills was received in the hospital in 1916 and officer Llewelyn Davies died at the college.[47]

Once the war ended, the return to normality between Oriel and Somerville was delayed, sparking both frustration and an incident in spring 1919 known as the "Oriel raid", in which male students made a hole in the wall dividing the sexes.[48] In July 1919 the principal (Emily Penrose) and fellows returned to Somerville.[citation needed] Alumna Vera Brittain wrote about the impact of the war in Oxford and paid tribute to the work of the principal, Miss Penrose, in her memoir Testament of Youth.

Admission of men[edit]

Starting in the 1970s, the traditionally all-male colleges in Oxford began to admit female students.[49] Since it was assumed that recruiting from a wider demographic would guarantee better students, there was pressure on single-sex colleges to change their policy to avoid falling down the rankings.[50] All-female colleges, like Somerville, found it increasingly difficult to attract good applicants and fell to the bottom of the intercollegiate academic rankings during the period.[51]

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.[52] Somerville became the second-to-last college (after St Hilda's) to become coeducational.[53] A 50 per cent male/female gender balance has been maintained to this day, though without formal quotas.[54][55]

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 (1996)[56]

Buildings and grounds[edit]

House seen from the Quad

The college and its main entrance, the Porters' Lodge, are located at the southern end of Woodstock Road, with Little Clarendon Street to the south, Walton Street to the west and the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter to the north. The front of the college runs between the Oxford Oratory and the Faculty of Philosophy. Somerville has buildings of various architectural styles, many of which bear the names of former principals of the college, located around one of Oxford's biggest quads. Five buildings are Grade II-listed.

A 2017 archaeological evaluation of the site shows that in the medieval period the area now occupied by Somerville lay in fields beyond the boundary of Oxford. There is evidence of 17th-century building and earthworks beneath the site, some of which almost certainly relates to the defensive network placed around the city by Royalists during the Civil War. There are also remains of some 19th-century buildings, including a stone-lined well.[57]

Walton House[edit]

House seen from the east

The original building of Somerville Hall, Walton House (commonly called House) was built in 1826 and purchased from St John's College in 1880 amid fears that the men's colleges might, in the future, repossess the site for their own purposes.[20] The house could only accommodate seven of the twelve students who came up to Oxford in the first year.[58] In 1881, Sir Thomas Graham Jackson was commissioned to build a new south wing which could accommodate eleven more students. In 1892, Walter Cave added a north wing and an extra storey. He also installed a gatehouse at the Woodstock Road entrance. In 1897/98, the Eleanor Smith Cottages were added, adjoining Walton House.[59]

Today House is home to only one or two students, and, until 2014, it housed the college bar. It also contains Green Hall, where guests to college are often greeted and in which prospective students are registered and wait for interviews; some of the college's paintings by Roger Fry are located here.[60] Most of the administration of college, and the academic pigeon-holes are in House, as is the Mary Somerville Room, a reception room featuring paintings by Mary Somerville, George Romney and George Frederic Watts.[60]


Park Building

Originally known as West, due to its location within the college, the idea of building a second self-contained hall was inspired by Newnham College, Cambridge. The building was designed by Harry Wilkinson Moore and built in two stages. The 1885–1887 phase saw the construction of rooms for 18 students with their own dining-room, sitting rooms and vice-principal. This was a deliberate policy aimed at replicating the family environment that the women students had left.[59] This arrangement had the effect of turning House and West into rivals.[61] The second building stage (1888–1894) created two sets of tutors' rooms, a further 19 rooms and the West Lodge (now Park Lodge).[58][62] In 2004 it was renamed Park in honour of Daphne Park, the principal from 1980 to 1989.[61]

Today there are over 60 student and fellows' rooms within the building, as well as a music room and a computer room. Park is a Grade II-listed building.[63]


The Grade II-listed library was designed by Basil Champneys in 1903 and opened by John Morley the following year. Specially for this opening, Demeter was written by Robert Bridges and performed for the first time. Somerville Library was the first purpose-built library in the women's colleges of the university. With some foresight it was designed to contain 60,000 volumes, although the college only possessed 6,000 when it was opened. It now holds around 120,000 items (95,000 on open shelves), making it one of the largest college libraries in the university.[64]

Amelia Edwards, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin and Vera Brittain have been notable benefactors to the library.[64] The library contains paintings by Mary Somerville, John Constable, Maud Sumner and Patrick George.[60]

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.[65]

The library dominates the north wing of the main quadrangle (having been designed to bring the college together) and is open 24 hours, with access to college-wide wifi, a group study room, and computing and printing facilities. It has been given 100% satisfaction according to several annual student surveys.[66]

Hall and Maitland[edit]

View of Hall and Maitland (right) from the quad

There was no hall large enough to seat the entire college until 1911, when Maitland Hall and Maitland, designed by Edmund Fisher in Queen Anne style and Edwardian Baroque, were opened by H. A. L. Fisher, the Vice-Chancellor of the University and Gilbert Murray.[67] Murray, whose translations of Greek drama were performed at Somerville in 1912 and 1946, supported Somerville in many ways, including endowing its first research fellowship. A fund was raised as a memorial to Miss Maitland, the principal of Somerville Hall (College from 1894) from 1889 to 1906, and this money was used to pay for the oak panelling in Hall. The panelling of the south wall was specially designed to frame the portrait of Mary Somerville by John Jackson.[68] 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 £4,000 and £1,400 respectively.[58] 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. In 1935, Morley Horder reconstructed the archway which connected Maitland Hall and the south wing of Walton House, creating the Reading Room off the main hall and, in 1947, André Gide gave a lecture which filled not only both of these rooms, but the staircase and the quadrangle outside.[67]

Somerville's dining hall is the only Oxford dining hall where all the portraits show women. They are painted by Michael Noakes, Herbert James Gunn, George Percy Jacomb-Hood, William Coldstream, John Whittall, Francis Helps, Claude Rogers, Humphrey Ocean, Thomas Leveritt and Richard Twose.[60]

Hall and Maitland form the east face of the main quad and are Grade II-listed buildings. 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.[citation needed]

Maitland now 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.[69]


The Penrose block was designed by Harold Rogers in 1925 and its first students were installed in 1927. A row of poplars had to be removed in 1926 for the construction to take place at the south-western end of the main quadrangle on the site of 119 and 119A Walton Street.[58][70] It was refurbished in 2014, with carpets replacing the bare wooden floorboards, and new furniture. Penrose is named after Dame Emily Penrose, the third principal of the college. It contains mainly first-year accommodation, with around 30 rooms.[69]


Darbishire Quad

Darbishire Quad was the culmination of a long-standing project to absorb Woodstock Road properties above the Oxford Oratory. 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 in 1859 and had been rented by the college prior to their purchase. The adjoining Waggon and Horses pub was purchased from St John's College, in 1923. These buildings were demolished between 1932 and 1933 together with the old Gate House.[citation needed]

Morley Horder was commissioned to build a quadrangle which would fill the space left by the demolished structures, using a loan of £12,000 from Christ Church. The porters' lodge and New Council Room were constructed at the entrance to the quad, which housed undergraduates and fellows.[58] The coat of arms of Somerville and those of co-founder John Percival, first principal Madeleine Shaw-Lefevre and Helen Darbishire were carved by Edmund Ware inside the quadrangle. The archway leading to Hall was reconstructed in 1938.[citation needed]

Originally this was called the East Quadrangle. It was opened in June 1934 by Lord Halifax, who called it "a notable addition to buildings of varying styles" (varii generis aedificiia additamentum nobile) in the Creweian Oration during the Encaenia. Darbishire was renamed in 1962 in honour of the principal of the college during its construction, Helen Darbishire.[5]

Today Darbishire contains some 50 student rooms, along with tutors' offices, the college archive and a medical room.[71] 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.[citation needed]

Darbishire Quad is described on the opening page of Gaudy Night by alumna Dorothy L. Sayers. The clock was donated by alumna Eleanor Rathbone.[72]


Somerville College Chapel with Vaughan on the right

Built largely with funds provided by alumna Emily Georgiana Kemp in 1935, Somerville Chapel reflects the non-denominational principle on which the college was founded in 1879. No religious tests were used for admission and non-denominational Christian prayers were said in college.[73]

Instead of a chaplain, there is 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.[74] The chapel also has an excellent mixed-voice choir, the Choir of Somerville College, which tours and produces occasional CDs.[75]

Hostel and Holtby[edit]

Hostel is a small block between House and Darbishire, completed in 1950 by Geddes Hyslop.[76] It houses 10 students over three floors. The Bursary is on the ground floor.[69]

Holtby, designed in 1951 and completed in 1956 by Hyslop,[76] is situated above the library extension, adjacent to Park. It has ten rooms for undergraduates and is named after alumna Winifred Holtby.[71]

Vaughan and Margery Fry & Elizabeth Nuffield House[edit]

Designed by Sir Philip Dowson between 1958 and 1966, Vaughan and Margery Fry & 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. Margery Fry was opened in 1964 by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Vaughan was opened in 1966. 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 in Little Clarendon Street.[citation needed]

Vaughan is the larger of the two, with eleven rows to its concrete frame compared to the eight of Margery Fry.[77] It is a Grade II-listed building and contains around 60 undergraduate rooms, which are smaller than those of Margery Fry and house exclusively first-year students, along with the junior deans.[78] 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.[71]

Margery Fry serves as the centre of the postgraduate student community at Somerville and contains 24 graduate rooms. Other accommodation for graduate students is provided in buildings adjacent to the college.[citation needed]


Wolfson building

Sir Philip Dowson was commissioned to design a building at the back of the college, to house undergraduates and offices for fellows and Wolfson is, in common with his other work in Somerville, constructed largely of glass and concrete; it is also a Grade II-listed building.[77] A four-storey building, with five bays on each floor, Wolfson boasts impressive views of Walton Street from the rear and Somerville's main quadrangle from the front.[71] Wolfson is named for the building's principal benefactor Sir Isaac Wolfson and was opened in 1967 by Principal Barbara Craig, with Harold Macmillan, Dorothy Hodgkin and Lord Wolfson all giving speeches.[79]

The ground floor contains the Flora Anderson Hall (FAH) and the Brittain-Williams Room, named after the college's most famous mother-daughter alumnae. The room was designed in 2012 by the architect Niall McLaughlin and opened on 29 November 2013 by alumna Baroness Shirley Williams, during an event that included her unveiling a portrait of herself, which now hangs in the room.[80] The FAH is used for lectures and events, notably college parties (or bops) and mock exams, known as Collections.[citation needed]

Margaret Thatcher Centre and Dorothy Hodgkin Quadrangle[edit]

Named after the alumna-Prime Minister, the MTC comprises a lecture room, ante room and lobby used for meetings, conferences and other internal college events: the lecture room has full AV facilities and can accommodate 60 seated patrons.[81] 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.[citation needed]

The Dorothy Hodgkin Quad (DHQ) was conceived in 1985, completed in 1991 and is named after Somerville's Nobel Prize-winner.[82][71] The quadrangle is above the MTC and designed around self-contained flats of two and four bedrooms with communal kitchens, and houses mainly finalists and some second-year students.[citation needed]

Architect Geoffrey Beard's scheme was submitted to the Oxford City Council in 1986 and the energies of Sir Geoffrey Leigh and alumna and former principal Baroness Daphne Park brought support from around the world. The buildings were opened in 1991 by Margaret Thatcher, Dorothy Hodgkin, Principal Catherine Hughes and College Visitor Baron Roy Jenkins.[83]

St Paul's Nursery[edit]

Somerville College was the first Oxford college to provide a nursery for the children of Fellows and staff and is still one of the few colleges to do so. Alumna Dorothy Hodgkin donated much of her Nobel Prize money to the project.[84] St Paul's Nursery is also open to families who are not connected with the college and cares for 16 children between the ages of three months and five years.[85]

Radcliffe Observatory Quarter[edit]

ROQ East from outside the college

ROQ East and West flank the north side of Somerville and overlook the site of the university's new Blavatnik School of Government and Mathematical Institute. Completed in 2011, the ROQ buildings were the first new buildings in the university's Radcliffe Observatory Quarter and have won four 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 Somerville's collegiate heritage with the need for energy efficiency. Energy-efficiency measures include renewable technologies such as solar thermal energy and ground source heat pumps.[86]

The buildings house 68 students, all in en-suite rooms, and there are a number of rooms and facilities 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 1,000 alumni and friends of the college, and by a significant loan.[71] There is now an unimpeded view of the Radcliffe Observatory.

The Terrace[edit]

The bar and café of the college, called The Terrace, opened in 2013 (replacing the old bar in House) and is attached to the Vaughan building. It is housed in a mainly glass structure, with seating in the college colours of red and black. It also has an open-air terrace, looking down on Little Clarendon Street. The Terrace has the usual pool table and bar facilities and also serves the college drink, "Stone-cold Jane Austen", which consists of blue VK, Southern Comfort, and Magners cider,[87] as well as the "College Triple" and the non-alcoholic "Somerville Sunset".

Catherine Hughes Building[edit]

Named after Somerville's late principal from 1989 to 1996, the Catherine Hughes Building was completed in October 2019 and provides 68 additional bedrooms. The new building, designed by Niall McLaughlin Architects, includes en suite bathrooms, kitchens and accessible rooms on every floor and a new communal study area for graduate students.[57]

The red-brick building has a frontage onto Walton Street and additional access from the college gardens, aligning with key levels on the adjacent Penrose Building. The bedrooms are arranged in clusters with kitchens and circulation spaces forming social focal points.[citation needed]

The building's construction has given Somerville sufficient accommodation to be one of the three Oxford colleges which can allow all students applying from 2017 to live in college for the entirety of their three or four-year undergraduate degree courses.[88][10]


Park Lawn, Somerville College, Oxford.jpg

Somerville is one of the few Oxford colleges where students may walk on the grass. An unassuming frontage opens onto a vast green space looked after by two gardeners.[89][90] The original site consisted of a paddock, an orchard and a vegetable garden and was bounded by large trees. It was home to a donkey, two cows, a pony and a pig.[59] The paddock was soon transformed into tennis courts, where huge tents were erected during World War I. During World War II, large water tanks were dug in the Main Quad and in Darbishire Quad, in case of firebombing, and the lawns were dug up and planted with vegetables.[70]

In the Main, or Library, Quad there is a cedar planted by Harold Macmillan in 1976, after an old cedar was victim of a winter storm. Another tree, a Picea likiangensis (var. rubescens), was planted in 2007 on the chapel lawn, providing Somerville with an outdoor Christmas tree.[70] The library border of lavender and Agapanthus references the bluestocking reputation of Somerville, and the tory blue Ceratostigma willmottianum is planted outside the Margaret Thatcher Centre. The garden outside the Thatcher Centre, now dedicated to Lisa Minoprio, was originally designed by the former director of the Oxford Botanic Garden and Lecturer in Plant Sciences Timothy Walker, and retains yellow and blue as the thematic colours.[citation needed]

There are nods to Somerville's long-standing links with India, the most notable being a large specimen of the Indian horse chestnut, Aesculus indica, planted on the Library lawn in 2019. Features of interest include a narrow bed of low growing Mediterranean plants in front of Wolfson in a modernist style, a varied selection of mature trees in the Library Quad, and large herbaceous borders containing the emblematic Somerville thistles (Echinops).[90][91][92]

The annual summer and winter bedding plants in Darbishire Quad, the beds outside the SCR, and in pots around site have traditionally been in the Victorian style which reflects the era of the inception of the college. However, this is evolving due to a change in garden management in late 2019, with the aims of following more environmentally friendly growing principles and developing a more contemporary style. The western wall of Penrose and the northern wall of Vaughan form a secluded area, historically known as the Fellows' Garden (currently in a transitional phase), which is distinct from the main quad and separated from it by a hedge and a wall, and which were previously kitchen gardens. This walled garden is home to a sundial, commissioned in 1926 and commemorating first principal Madeleine Shaw-Lefevre, and a garden roller which was a gift from the parents of tutor Rose Sidgwick.[93][94]

In 1962, Henry Moore lent his work Falling Warrior to the college and Barbara Hepworth lent Core shortly afterwards. There are also permanent sculptures by Wendy Taylor, Friedrich Werthmann and Somervillian Polly Ionides. The most striking sculpture on site is Taylor's Triad (1971), which is situated on the Chapel Lawn in front of Maitland building.[citation needed]

Student life[edit]

Somerville College in snow

In 2011 student satisfaction was rated in some categories as the highest in the university.[95] Central to the college is its large quad, onto which most accommodation blocks back; it is often filled with students in summer. Somerville is one of the few Oxford colleges where students (as opposed to just fellows) may walk on the grass.[78] Somerville is sometimes nicknamed The Ville. Formal Halls take place on some Tuesdays and Fridays about six times a term.[96] No gowns are worn and the grace is Benedictus benedicat. The college song is 'Omnes laetae nunc sodales'.[97]


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, in Marston Ferry Road. There are clubs and teams in men's and women's football, rugby (with Corpus Christi), mixed lacrosse, cricket, swimming, hockey, netball, basketball, pool, water polo, tennis, squash, badminton, cycling and croquet.[98][99]

Both the Somerville cricket and netball team won Cuppers for the 2014/15 season.[98][100] The swimming team won Cuppers for the 2015/2016 season.[101]


Rowing blade design of Somerville College Boat Club

Somerville formed a rowing team in 1921.[102] The college competes in both of the annual university bumps races, Torpids and Summer Eights. The women are the most successful women's rowing team at the University of Oxford, having won the title Head of the River eight times in Summer Eights and five times in Torpids. The club shares the award-winning University College Boathouse on The Isis with St Peter's College, University College and Wolfson College.[citation needed]


The Choir of Somerville College is mixed voice and led by the Director of Chapel Music, Will Dawes.[103] In conjunction with the organ scholars, the choir is central to the musical life at the college.[citation needed]

There are regular concerts and cathedral visits as well as recitals featuring soloists from the choir. In recent years the choir has toured Germany (2005 and 2009), Italy (2010) and the United States (2014 and 2016).[104] The choir sings every term-time Sunday at the evening service. The organ of the college chapel is a traditionally voiced instrument by Harrison & Harrison.[105]

Somerville offers up to five Choral Exhibitions each year to applicants reading any subject.[citation needed]

The college choir has released two CDs on the Stone Records label, "Requiem Aeternam" (2012)[106] and "Advent Calendar" (2013).[107]

Triennial Ball[edit]

Once every three years, Somerville hosts a ball jointly with Jesus College, Oxford. The last, for 1500 people, was held in May 2019 and the next ball will come in 2022.[108]

However, the 2013 ball, The Last Ball, was mired in controversy reported in national news. The organisers had intended to display a live nurse shark as entertainment. Permission for the shark was initially granted by the principal Alice Prochaska, but was subsequently revoked following student protests. The ball was widely condemned for poor organisation, examples of which included a lack of canapés and the presence of only one food stand, serving pork; the vegetarian options were said to run out quickly and revellers were reportedly set on fire by the pork rôtisserie. The Guardian reported "The ball descended into farce with guests questioning what the organisers had done with the money paid by 1,000 guests."[109][110][111][112]

Academic reputation[edit]

Somerville's Position in the Norrington Table since 2006

Before men were admitted Somerville, under the principalship of Barbara Craig, established a position at or near the head of the Norrington Table.[113] Currently Somerville is in the lower half of the university's colleges for academic achievement. For the academic year 2018/19, it came 21st out of 30 in the Norrington Table, which lists the university's undergraduate colleges in order of their students' examination performances.[114] The college has been recognized as a University College of Sanctuary by the UK charity City of Sanctuary, and offers a fully-funded postgraduate Sanctuary scholarship.[115]

University Challenge[edit]

Somerville has had recent success disproportionate to its size on the TV quiz show University Challenge. It has won the competition once, triumphing in the University Challenge 2001–02 series by beating Imperial College, London by 200 points to 185. Croatian quizzer Dorjana Širola was one of the contestants.[116] 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 135 to 240.[117]


Somerville College plays a major role in the relations between Oxford and India.[118][119] Cornelia Sorabji, born in the Bombay Presidency of British India, became the first Indian woman to study at any British university, when she came to Somerville in 1889 to read Law,[120] while Indira Gandhi, India's first female prime minister, read Modern History at the college in 1937. Radhabai Subbarayan, the first woman member of the Indian Council of States (Rajya Sabha) studied at Somerville College as well,[121] and so did princess Bamba Sutherland, the last surviving member of the family that had ruled the Sikh Empire in the Punjab, and her sister Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh.[122] Other alumni with links to India include Moon Moon Sen,[123] Agnes de Selincourt,[124] Smit Singh,[125] Gurmehar Kaur,[126] Hilda Stewart Reid and Utsa Patnaik.[119] Former principal Barbara Craig (1967–1980) and fellow Aditi Lahiri were born in Kolkata.[citation needed]

Sonia Gandhi visited Somerville in 2002 and presented a portrait of her late mother-in-law to her alma mater. Indira Gandhi received an honorary degree from the college in 1971.[127]

In 2012, the college and Oxford University announced the creation of a £19-million Indira Gandhi Centre for Sustainable Development.[119][128] India provided £3 million and the university and college £5.5 million.[129] The name was later changed to the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development (OICSD).[127] The OICSD carries out research on sustainable development challenges facing India and provides scholarships for outstanding Indian students.[130] The centre now hosts 12 India scholars.[131] A new building is planned in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, adjacent to the college's ROQ accommodation.[119][132][133]

Somerville's choir was in 2018 the first Oxford college choir to tour India.[134]

People associated with Somerville[edit]


Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1979–1990)
Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India (1966–77 and 1980–1984)

Somervillians include Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi, Nobel Prize winning scientist Dorothy Hodgkin, television personalities Esther Rantzen and Susie Dent, reformer Cornelia Sorabji, writers Marjorie Boulton, A. S. Byatt, Vera Brittain, Susan Cooper, Penelope Fitzgerald, Winifred Holtby, Nicole Krauss, Iris Murdoch and Dorothy L. Sayers, politicians Shirley Williams, Margaret Jay and Sam Gyimah, Princess Bamba Sutherland and her sister, biologist Marian Dawkins, philosophers G. E. M. Anscombe, Patricia Churchland, Philippa Foot and Mary Midgley, psychologist Anne Treisman, archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon, actress Moon Moon Sen, soprano Emma Kirkby, banker Baroness Vadera and numerous (women's rights) activists.

Somerville alumnae have achieved an impressive number of "firsts", both (inter)nationally and at the University of Oxford. Arguably the most prominent of these are: the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher; the first, and only, British woman to win a Nobel Prize in science Dorothy Hodgkin and the first woman to lead the world's largest democracy Indira Gandhi, who was Prime Minister of India for much of the 1970s.

Somerville has educated at least 28 Dames, 17 heads of Oxford colleges, 11 life peers, ten MP's, four Olympic rowers,[135] three of The 50 greatest British writers since 1945,[136] two prime ministers, two princesses, a queen consort, and a Nobel laureate.

Former students of Somerville belong to an alumni group, the Somerville Association, which was originally founded in 1888.[137]


Notable fellows of Somerville College (excluding alumni) include philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe, biochemist Louise Johnson, classical archaeologist Margarete Bieber, Egyptologist Käthe Bosse-Griffiths, classicists Edith Hall and Lotte Labowsky, author Alan Hollinghurst, astronomer Chris Lintott, International Federation of University Women founder Rose Sidgwick, botanist Timothy Walker and philologist Anna Morpurgo Davies.


Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, the current principal

The first principal of Somerville Hall was Madeleine Shaw-Lefèvre (1879–1889). The first principal of Somerville College was Agnes Catherine Maitland (1889–1906), when in 1894 it became the first of the five women's halls to adopt the title of college, the first to appoint its own teaching staff, the first to set an entrance examination, and the first to build a library. She was succeeded by the classical scholar Emily Penrose (1906–1926), who set up in 1903 the Mary Somerville Research Fellowship offering women in Oxford opportunities for research.

The current principal is Janet Royall, Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, who took up the appointment in August 2017, succeeding Alice Prochaska.[138] To date seven principals have been alumnae of Somerville, two of St Hilda's College.

Coat of arms and motto[edit]

Like all Oxford colleges, Somerville has a variety of symbols and colours which are associated with it. The college's colours, which feature on the college scarf and on the blades of its boats, are red and black. The combination was originally adopted in the 1890s.[25] Its flag has the shield from the arms on a yellow background.[139]

The two colours also feature in the college's coat of arms, which depicts three mullets in chevron reversed gules, between six crosses crosslet fitched sable. The college's motto, Donec rursus impleat orbem, was originally that of the family of Mary Somerville.[25] Her family befriended the new hall, allowing it to adopt their arms and motto.[140] The Latin motto itself is described as "baffling" as, although it translates as "Until It Should Fill the World Again", what the subject of the sentence ("it") is left unspecified.[25] The crest, which is often omitted, is a hand grasping a crescent and occasionally a helmet with mantling is added.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]