Dr Philip Carter, senior lecturer at the Institute of Historical Research, remembers the nine women whose commitment to education made them pioneers in women’s higher education. 

At 2pm on 15 May 1869, the 17 examiners of the University of London (UoL) gathered at Somerset House on the Strand. Their task that afternoon was an unusual one: to assess and grade the University’s first ‘General Examination for Women’ which nine candidates had sat earlier that month.

The examiners (all men) awarded Honours to six of the nine women: Sarah Jane Moody, Eliza Orme, Louisa von Glehn, Kate Spiller, Isabella de Lancy West and Susannah Wood. The remaining three students – Marian Belcher, Hendilah Lawrence and Mary Baker Watson – did not pass the examination, though Belcher re-sat successfully in the following year. Regardless of these results, all nine were pioneers in women’s higher education.

In June 1868, the university’s Senate had voted to admit women to sit the ‘General Examination’, so becoming the world’s first British university to accept female candidates. 150 years on, UoL is celebrating the admission of its first nine women students, and the many thousands who have since followed.

In January of this year, it launched its ‘Leading Women’ campaign at Senate House. The campaign, which runs during 2018 and beyond, commemorates alumnae, celebrates contemporary female students, and champions the next generation – including those young women who’ve recently turned 18 and are heading to university in autumn 2018.

Women’s higher education in London dates from the late 1840s, with the foundation of Bedford College by the Unitarian benefactor, Elisabeth Jesser Reid. Bedford was initially a teaching institution independent of the University of London, which was then itself an examining (rather than teaching) institution, established in 1836. Over the next three decades, London University examinations were available only to male students.

Demands for women to sit examinations (and receive degrees) increased in the 1860s. After initial resistance a compromise was reached. In August 1868, the university announced that female students aged 17 or over would be admitted to sit a new kind of assessment: the ‘General Examination for Women’.

Candidates were required to pass at least six papers across a range of subjects: Latin, English Language, English History, Geography, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, two from Greek, French, German and Italian, and either Chemistry or Botany. The university ruled that the General Examination would not be ‘on the whole less difficult than the existing Matriculation Examination’ and indeed the first nine students faced a testing ordeal. Questions ranged from ‘extracting the square root of 384524.01’, to an ‘enumeration of the principal rivers in North America’, to an essay on the character of Queen Elizabeth.

However, unlike their male peers, on passing the General Examination successful women did not receive degree but a ‘Certificate of Proficiency’. It would be another decade before women were admitted to the university’s degree programme, with London again the first British institution to offer this option to female students. Thereafter the landscaped changed rapidly. Admission to London degrees was followed by the foundation of Westfield in 1882 and Royal Holloway in 1886, as women-only colleges. By 1895, 10 per cent of London undergraduates were women, rising to 30 per cent within five years.

Of the nine women who sat the first General Examination, several went on to distinguished careers. Louise Hume von Glehn (1850–1936) became a campaigner for working women and a writer of popular histories – published under her married name, Louise Hume Creighton. Eliza Orme (1848–1937) took a law degree, enjoyed a successful legal career and was active in the suffrage and prison reform movements. Known for her pragmatism, she later championed ‘sound-minded women who wear ordinary bonnets and carry medium-sized umbrellas.’

Given these women’s early commitment to education it is no surprise that at least five of the successful candidates went into teaching. Sarah Moody and her sisters established a preparatory school in Guildford, while Mary Baker Watson (1828–1901) worked as a governess and schoolmistress in Northamptonshire; Marian Belcher (1849–1898) became a successful headmistress of Bedford High School; and Susannah Wood – having later graduated BSc – taught mathematics in Cheltenham, Bath and Cambridge.

In 1891 Wood was appointed vice-principal of the Cambridge Training College for Women which later became Hughes Hall, Cambridge. Kate Spiller meanwhile returned to her native Bridgwater, in Somerset, where she too was an active member of her local School Board. Clearly proud of her achievement in the 1869 examinations, she gave her occupation in the 1871 census as ‘London Univ. undergraduate’.

Spiller was not the only candidate who travelled to London for the examinations: Susannah Wood came from Cheltenham and Sarah Moody journeyed from Hertfordshire. The potential hazards of metropolitan life did not go unnoticed. On hearing of the university’s plans, a Home Office official recommended that steps be taken ‘to prevent the excitement … which might arise from bringing these young persons up to London for examination’. A lady matron was duly on hand in case of emergency.

The Home Office need not have worried. The London Nine were characterised by an independent spirit and made their own way – professionally and personally – in adult life. Kate Spiller and Sarah Moody lived with their sisters into old age and – along with Eliza Orme and Susannah Wood – chose not to marry and to live ‘by their own means’.

Between 1869 and 1878, more than 250 women sat the General Examination, of whom 139 passed and 53 awarded Honours. They came from Bedford and other London colleges, as well as leading girls’ schools such as Cheltenham Ladies’ College and North London Collegiate. A further 40 successful candidates prepared with ‘private tuition’. During the 1870s, candidates arrived from across England, including schools in Bath, York, Liverpool, Bradford and Kendal.

Today their successors come to London from countries worldwide, or continue to study remotely. The University of London’s International programme has more than 50,000 students on its distance learning programmes.

Their achievements feature prominently in this year’s ‘Leading Women’ campaign in which talks, open-days, workshops and exhibitions champion today’s students and encourage others to follow them in the 2020s. But the campaign also reflects. The Leading Women website features a gallery of 150 notable London alumnae and staff active from the 1860s to the present day. They include Elisabeth Jesser Reid and Louise von Glehn, alongside other educational pioneers who drew inspiration from the original London Nine.

Dr Philip Carter is a senior lecturer at the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London

A version of this post appears in the 2018 issue of WC1E, the University of London magazine, which features more articles on the ‘Leading Women’ campaign.

Image: The plaque for Bedford College, in Bedford Square CC BY 3.0