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Institutional Archives

Access and learning for all (part 2)

8 June 2015
Photograph of a Chemistry Laboratory, c.1899, showing female students being educated alongside their male counterparts.
Photograph of a Chemistry Laboratory, c.1899, showing female students being educated alongside their male counterparts.

“Female students shall be admitted to attend any of the courses of instruction…”

By Siân Collins

Following on from our blog post last week about equal opportunities for all social classes at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (later Cardiff University), this time we look at how female students were welcomed and encouraged from the opening in 1883.

In October 1921 male undergraduates in Cambridge celebrated the latest refusal of the University to allow women to be awarded degrees by battering and partially destroying the bronze gates that stood as a memorial to female-only Newnham College’s first Principal, Anne Jemima Clough. In stark contrast, and nearly forty years earlier, the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (Cardiff University’s forerunner) announced in the Western Mail that women “ought to be permitted – nay, encouraged – to seek all the advantages of education equally with men”. UCSWM’s founding Charter stated unequivocally that “female students shall be admitted to attend any of the courses of instruction established in the College”.

In the conventions of the day this was a bold and audacious move. Yet there is no sense within the early minutes or articles written for the local press of particular trepidation. There is also no record of argument or dissent within the College – unlike Owens College in Manchester. Owens’ charter was changed to allow women to be admitted around the time of the founding of UCSWM but, despite the clear intent of their members, there was still some strong disagreement. On 16 April 1877 they had passed a motion against the principle of mixed education, “believing that it would be opposed to the true educational interest of students of either sex, and out of harmony with the sentiments and usages of society”[1]. Despite their differences, Owens became the second University in the UK to admit women.

UCSWM seemed to be prepared for objections to their plans to offer educational equality for women. In an article printed in the Western Mail in October 1883 they pre-empted the argument that “the family is the province in which [women] should shine”, by pointing out that in the 1881 census there were one million more women than men in England and Wales. The writer of the article reasoned that “a large number of women are thrown on the world to earn their bread by their own exertions” and therefore needed to be educated to do so successfully. As an educational establishment without degree awarding powers, the College had to choose which University’s exams its students would work towards. The University of London would not have been selected had it not been one of only two Universities at the time that awarded degrees to women.

At the end of the first academic year the Principal of the College, John Viriamu Jones, declared that the acceptance of women on an equal footing was a success. He urged the College Council to provide a comfortable, reputable hall of residence for women in order to increase the numbers in future years. The Council was overwhelmingly keen to go along with this suggestion. A property was purchased and fitted out within weeks, leading to an immediate doubling of the number of women attending the College from 15 (of 102 full-time students) in 1883 to 33 (of 117) in 1884. The residence was named Aberdare Hall after Lord and Lady Aberdare, who were enthusiastic supporters of the new College. Although a different property was bought and extended in later years, “Aberdare Hall” still exists today as an all-female hall of residence at Cardiff University.

UCSWM’s proactive and determined encouragement of women’s education, as recorded in local press articles and the College’s Charter and early minutes, is remarkable. In Great Britain in the 1880s there were ten degree awarding Universities – but, as mentioned previously, only two of them awarded degrees to women. Durham and the Scottish Universities admitted women from the 1890s, with Oxford coming into line in 1920. Interestingly, Cambridge – the scene of gate destroying celebrations in 1921 – stuck fast to its principles and held out until 1948.

Given their attitude both to the education of all classes of society (discussed in this earlier blog post) and to providing education for women, it is clear that the University’s founders firmly believed in the spirit and the practice of providing education for all.


Notable women in the early years of the College:

Maria Dawson, who studied at UCSWM, was the first student to be awarded a University of Wales degree in 1895. She went on to receive a doctorate in 1901.

Dr Mary “Eppynt” Phillips was the first woman who attended pre-clinical courses in UCSWM to qualify as a doctor. She worked in Calais, Malta and Serbia for Scottish Women’s Hospitals during the First World War, treating the ill and wounded from the Belgian, French and Serbian armies.

Hettie Millicent Hughes was an Associate Professor from 1904 (the first female Professor in the UK) and Professor of Education (Women) from 1910. Millicent married Professor John Stuart MacKenzie, Professor of Philosophy, in 1898, and was given permission by the College Council to continue in her role after her marriage.  [An earlier post on this site gives more information about Millicent.]



This article is based on one that was published in Blas, the Cardiff University staff magazine, in March 2015.


[1] Mabel Phythian Tylecote, The Education of Women at Manchester University, 1883-1933