May 2019 sees the 150th anniversary of the first examination sat by women students at a British university. Dr Philip Carter, of the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), considers the challenges and the questions they faced. Over the week of 37 May, the IHR will be tweeting questions from each of the papers they sat. See how you get on.

One hundred and fifty years ago, at 1pm on Monday 3 May 1869, nine students sat ready to begin an examination. This, however, was no ordinary examination and these no ordinary students. Rather they were pioneers: the first women to sit a university examination in Britain —the University of London’s newly inaugurated ‘General Examination for Women’.

The examination

The exam they faced on 3 May was the first in a week-long ordeal of 14 papers, ranging from algebra to English history, modern languages to botany. They began with four hours of Latin translation, grammar and composition. Tuesday was French, then Greek, German and Italian. The mid-way point proved the most punishing: 3 hours of arithmetic and algebra on Wednesday morning followed by two papers on geometry and geography after lunch. On Thursday students tackled English literature and history before finishing the week, with natural philosophy, chemistry and botany.

The first examination sat by women at a British university, on 3 May 1869: two papers of Latin translation, grammar and composition

To say that the examination required good general knowledge is to put it mildly. Questions included: ‘How is Ammonia Solution prepared in a state of purity?’,  ‘What are the functions of the Roots and Leaves of Plants’, ‘How may we most conveniently classify English Irregular Verbs?’ and ‘What is the meaning of a Roman Provincia, and list those extant at the death of Julius Caesar’.

If you managed those then please: ‘Enumerate the principal rivers in North America, and the principal Islands of the West Indies’, ‘Explain the different modes of Dehiscence of Capsules’, and ‘Obtain the continued product of x+y+z, x+y-z, x-y+z, y+z-x’.

The results

Two weeks later the university’s examiners (all men) gathered to collate their marks. We know the identity of the students thanks to a one-page mark sheet now in the University archive. Six of the ‘London Nine’— Sarah Jane Moody, Eliza Orme, Louisa von Glehn, Kate Spiller, Isabella de Lancy West and Susannah Wood were awarded ‘honours’. The remaining three students —Marian Belcher, Hendilah Lawrence and Mary Baker Watson did not pass the exam, though Belcher re-sat successfully in the following year. Their story is the subject of an earlier Talking Humanities post.

The examiners’ mark sheet from the first General Examination for Women, held at the University of London, and agreed on 15 May 1869. Of the nine candidates, 6 were awarded Honours (‘H’) and 3 failed the examination.

The General Examination ran for ten years and was taken by more than 250 women, of whom 139 passed and 53 awarded Honours. However, despite its rigours, those who passed the exam received only a ‘Certificate of Proficiency’. Such discrepancies did not go unnoticed. At the London’s annual awards ceremony in May 1873, Robert Lowe, the university’s MP, declared both his ‘pleasure to see women coming forward to compete’ and regret ‘that they were not permitted to measure themselves with men in the whole curriculum.’ Reported in The Times, Lowe’s call was met with ‘Cheers’; as were the names of the seven women who passed that year’s General Examination among them the formidable Jane Harrison (18501928) whose individual achievements met with further cheering.

It was another five years before women were admitted to the University’s degree programme (1878), with London once more the first British institution to offer this option to female students. Thereafter the landscape 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.

A decade of the ‘General Examination for Women’

In the late 1860s and 1870s London was an examining rather than a teaching institution, and students were not required to reside in London to take exams. Candidates, including from the original ‘London Nine’, were therefore located across the country. Kate Spiller, for example, travelled from her native Bridgwater, in Somerset, while 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.

Of the 139 students who’d passed the Examination by 1878, half were pupils of the country’s two leading girls’ schools, Cheltenham Ladies’ College and North London Collegiate. Others came from London’s Bedford College, with a handful of candidates being sent from schools in Bath, Bradford, Bristol, Kendal, Liverpool, Northampton and York. Forty of the successful candidates had prepared simply with ‘private tuition’ or were self-taught. The list of those who navigated the General Examination also includes eight pairs of sisters.


Page listing some of the 139 women who passed the General Examination for Women between 1869 and 1878, taken from the University of London Calendar for 1879

Having completed the General Examination, many students returned in subsequent years to sit even harder papers in single subjects. Some returned on multiple occasions, among them the historian Alice Gardner (1854-1927) who passed a further seven ‘special certificates’ in mechanical and moral philosophy, English, political economy, French, German and Greek between 1873 and 1878. Though latterly a student at Cambridge, Gardner continued to travel to London annually as Cambridge refused to admit women to examinations until 1882 and to full degrees before 1948.

One hundred and fifty years on from the first General Examination for Women we’ll soon be entering another exam season. If you’re sitting (or marking) papers in 2019 revise well, work hard and good luck. And maybe also pause to remember the ambition, intelligence and bravery of the first ‘London Nine’ who changed the course of women’s higher education over five days in May 1869.

Now it’s your turn

Try your hand at sample questions from the first General Examination of May 1869: no cheating, no conferring, no calculators, no take-home, no Wikipedia.

  1. Latin Classic: ‘Trace the history of the Tribunate of the Plebs’
  2. Latin Grammar and Composition: ‘Write down the Comparatives and Superlatives of durus, dulcis, sapiens, acer, similis, magnus, parvus, multus’
  3. French: ‘Ce souvenir s’est retrouvé tout entire. Write this sentence, replacing ce souvenir by cette reminiscence. State the rule concerning the word tout, according as it is used adjectively or adverbially. Give a few examples’
  4. Greek: ‘What views were held in the Homeric age about the state of the Dead, and the efficacy of Blood-offerings in propitiating them?’
  5. German: ‘Translate into German: “The reign of Frederick Barbarossa was the most brilliant in the history of the German Empire”’
  6. Italian: ‘Give the perfect tenses and part participles of the following verbs: leggere, piangere, scrivere, dare, udire’
  7. Arithmetic and algebra: ‘Extract the square root of 384524.01’ 
  8. Geometry: ‘On the sides of an equilateral triangle ABC equilateral triangles BCD, CAE, ABF are described, all external. Show that the figure DEF is another equilateral triangle’
  9. Geography: ‘Take one of the chief rivers of Europe, and describe its course, naming the countries it traverses, the sea it enters and the chief towns on either bank’
  10. English Language: ‘Given a dozen prefixes used in English; and state the force of each’
  11. English History: ‘Name in their order, with dates, the Invasions of Britain previous to the eleventh century’
  12. Natural Philosophy: ‘Describe a Lever; and state the ratio of the Power to the Weight in equilibrium’
  13. Chemistry: ‘Name the elements contained in the following substances: Water, Air, Silica, Ammonia, Common Salt, Carbonic Acid, Marsh Gas, Diamonds, and the Flame of a Wax Candle’
  14. Botany: ‘Explain the terms Thalamifloral, Calycifloral, and Corollofloral’

Dr Philip Carter works at the Institute of Historical Research at the School of Advanced Study, and is studying the early decades of women’s education at the University of London.

Cover image: (©University of London)