Cambridge University made very slow progress in acknowledging the place of women in higher education and within its own work. Although two colleges for women, Newnham and Girton, were established by 1875, it was only by slow steps that women were allowed to attend University lectures, sit the exams, and teach within the University. Votes on admitting women to membership went against change. Finally, in 1947 the vote went the other way, and girls were no longer merely students of their respective colleges but also undergraduates of the University of Cambridge.

There was then some pressure to expand the number of places for women, and in 1952 the Third Foundation Association was launched, soon changed its name to the New Hall Association, and set about organising and fund-raising for a new women’s college. As the latter can be a long process, the Association decided to take immediate action to make a start, even though on a limited scale. By April 1953 an Accommodation Sub-committee was visiting a large number of houses, looking for one suitable to become the first home of New Hall. Rosemary Murray, who in due course became the first President of New Hall, and the first woman Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, says in her book, “The making of a College”:

“The Hermitage was a large house in Silver Street owned by St. John’s College and rented to Miss Craigoe who used it as a Guest House. It first came to the attention of the Committee in April 1953 but was turned down as being rather smaller than was desirable and probably needing considerable expense to be put in working order. The price being asked for the sale of the remainder of the lease was also high. However, by negotiating for not only the lease but also for the furniture and equipment, much of which was suitable for housing undergraduates, agreement was reached with Miss Craigoe, and in September 1953 the remainder of the lease (till 1958), together with almost the whole of the contents of the house, was acquired.”

The house had been given its name from the siting there of a medieval hermitage. It was the hermit’s responsibility to collect money from travellers to repair the causeway that led to the small bridges over the river. The later history of the house is mentioned in Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece.

In 1954 the first 16 students were admitted, with Miss Murray as Tutor and one Fellow. The students were selected from those who had narrowly missed admission to Girton or Newnham Colleges that year. The intake for the following year was admitted through an entrance examination unique amongst the Colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, in that it consisted of a single three hour paper, during which candidates wrote three essays in answer to questions designed to test “logical thought and power of expression”. 415 candidates competing for 15 places took the first paper. At this time there were ten times as many men as women undergraduates in the University, and the number of women was limited by statute.

For the first ten years the students and their Tutors lived in the borrowed buildings in Silver Street, while money was raised for the College’s own permanent buildings. By 1962, thanks to the generosity of members of the Darwin family who gave their family home, the Orchard, the College had its site. In 1965, New Hall was able to move to its permanent home on Castle Hill in strikingly modern buildings by Chamberlain, Powell, Bon (of the Barbican). In 1972 the College received its Royal Charter and became a full college of the University, while Rosemary Murray became its President. She was now eligible for election as Vice-Chancellor, and was elected at once, serving from 1975-77. In 1991 the College building was listed Grade II* by English Heritage, in the top 5% of English buildings, and at about the same time, under its second president, Dr Valerie Pearl, the College opened its Art Collection, the largest collection of works by women artists in the UK. In 1994, as a result of an Agreement with the Kaetsu Foundation of Tokyo, with which it has a continuing relationship, the College acquired fine new student accommodation and other facilities. In 2008 alumna Ros Edwards and her husband gave the college £30 million, and the name (‘temporary’ for over 50 years) was changed to Murray Edwards College.