Girton College was founded in 1869. It was the first residential establishment in Britain to provide full-time study at degree level for women.

Its origins can be traced back to 1866 when Emily Davies and others interested in the higher education of women initiated a campaign to found, by public subscription, a college for women, ‘designed to hold, in relation to girls’ schools and home teaching, a position analogous to that occupied by the Universities towards the public schools for boys’.

The idea of founding a residential college for women at one of the older universities emerged from the national movement towards the emancipation of women in the mid-nineteenth century and was closely linked with the reform of education in schools and universities. In particular, the foundation of Girton was associated with the admission of girls to Local Examinations and the inclusion of girls’ schools in the schools inquiry commission (the Taunton commission), set up in December 1864.

A leading figure in both these campaigns was Emily Davies whose energy, determination and vigour was instrumental in the realisation of Girton College. Other key figures, who are commemorated in the College coat of arms were Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Lady Stanley of Alderley and Henry Tomkinson.

Emily Davies by Rudolf Lehmann, 1880. Reproduction with kind permission from The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College, Cambridge.

On 16 October 1869, the College was opened at Benslow House, Hitchin under the name of 'The College for Women'. In 1872 part of the present site, on the edge of Cambridge, was purchased and the College was renamed Girton College. The removal to new buildings, designed by Sir Alfred Waterhouse, took place in October 1873.

Also in 1872 an association was formed to ‘erect, maintain and conduct a college for the higher education of women’ and ‘to take such steps as from time to time may be thought expedient and effectual to obtain for the students of the College admission to examinations for degrees of the University of Cambridge, and generally to place the College in connection with that university’. However, it was not until 1948 that women were admitted to full membership of the University and Girton College received the status of a college of the University.

Until 1881 the position of women students was particularly fragile as they had to rely on the personal goodwill of University men to enter examinations and have them marked. Repeated applications to the University Senate for full admission failed, women had no formal right of admission to University lectures and laboratories until 1921. The first women were appointed to University lectureships in 1926. In August 1924 a Royal Charter was granted, constituting ‘The Mistress and Governors of Girton College’ as a corporate body. In 1954 a Supplemental Charter changed the title of the Body Corporate to ‘The Mistress, Fellows and Scholars of Girton College’ and constituted the Mistress and all actual Fellows of the College, Bye-Fellows excepted, being graduates, as the Governing Body of the College.

Men have been Fellows since 1976 and in 1979, 110 years after its foundation, Girton enrolled its first male undergraduates.

Davies, Sarah Emily, 1830-1921, pioneer for women's education

Sarah Emily Davies (always known as Emily), 1830-1921, was a pioneer and a leader in the campaign for women's education. Her papers reflect the work which she and her contemporaries accomplished for women in both educational and political fields and, in particular, her role in the foundation and early years of Girton College, Cambridge.

Emily Davies was born in Southampton on 22 April 1830, the daughter of the evangelical Anglican clergyman, John Davies. She spent most of her youth in Gateshead, Co. Durham, where her father was Rector of St Mary's Church from 1839 until his death in 1861. However, visits to her brother, a clergyman in London, drew her into the Langham Place Group network and led her to examine the lives of women in Gateshead and to found a branch of the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women in the North East.

After her father's death she moved to London in 1862 which brought her into closer contact with friends such as Elizabeth Garrett (Anderson) and Barbara Leigh Smith (Bodichon) and enabled her to play a more active role in the women's movement. She immediately became involved with campaigns to improve women's education, including those to admit women to University of London degrees, to admit girls to the Cambridge Local Examinations and for the inclusion of girls' schools in the Schools Enquiry Commission. These campaigns led to other activities; she was a founder of the Kensington Society and of the London Association of Schoolmistresses and she was one of the first women to be elected to the London School Board. She was also active in the campaign for women's suffrage.

Although her early successes were in securing improved secondary education for girls, Emily Davies' central concern was the provision of higher education for women, and it is for this that she is best remembered. Her vision to establish a college 'designed to hold in relation to girls' schools and home teaching a position analogous to that occupied by the universities towards public schools for boys' provided the first opportunity in the country for women to receive a university education on exactly the same terms as men and led to the foundation of Girton College in 1869.

Apart from periods of residence at Girton College, Emily Davies continued to live in London until her death, and after her retirement from Girton resumed her involvement in the suffrage movement. Throughout her life she was an active and vigorous committee woman. She published extensively on educational and suffrage issues and she was for a period editor of both the English Woman's Journal and the Victoria Magazine.

Bodichon, Barbara Leigh Smith, 1827-1891, nee Smith, artist and women's activist

Barbara Bodichon by Samuel Laurence. Reproduced with kind permission from The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College, Cambridge.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891) was the eldest child of the liaison between Anne Longden and Benjamin Leigh Smith, MP for Norwich, 1838 and 1841-1847. Born in Sussex, her childhood was spent between family homes in Hastings and London. From an early age she travelled widely, including an unchaperoned European tour with Bessie Parkes in 1850, and made a first trip to Algiers, which was influential in her life and art, in 1856. She was a cousin of Florence Nightingale and a friend of, amongst others, George Eliot, Emily Davies and Bessie Parkes. In 1857 she married a French doctor, Eugene Bodichon, a resident of Algeria, and for many years thereafter divided each year between Algeria and Britain.

Barbara Bodichon was an artist, a prolific painter of landscapes, her principal exhibitions taking place between 1850 and 1872 at the Royal Academy, the Society of Female Artists and the French Gallery, Pall Mall and other galleries. A leader of the campaigns for women’s work, suffrage, legal rights and education, she founded Portman Hall School and published 'A Brief Summary of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women' in 1854, published 'Women and Work' in 1857 and, with Bessie Parkes, founded the English Woman's Journal in 1858. She was also instrumental in the foundation of Girton College in 1869.

Girton College Blue Plaque

On 30 June 2019 a blue plaque was awarded to commemorate the founding and founders of the college. The plaque was unveiled by The Rt Hon Baroness Hale of Richmond, President of the Supreme Court of the UK, as part of celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the college. The plaque was kindly sponsored by Girton College. This was also the first blue plaque to be put up in South Cambridgeshire District and marked the expansion of the blue plaque scheme beyond the boundaries of the city of Cambridge.

The plaque is located on the entrance tower to Girton College (Tower Drive), Cambridge, CB3 0JG.