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Senate House Library

London Ladies: Residents of College Hall


Written by
Dr Amara Thornton, Research Fellow, Institute of Classical Studies

In this guest blog, Dr Amara Thornton, Research Fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies, writes about the remarkable women of College Hall, whose lives you can trace in the Beyond Notability project

I first encountered the remarkable College Hall archive some years ago, when I was researching the Egyptologist, lecturer and author Mary Brodrick. A former College Hall resident, Brodrick remained, to be somewhat flippant about it, a superfan. In a sense the Hall was the making of her. It provided her with a home away from home, a professional address, and a support network that she maintained for the rest of her life. She is one of the Hall’s ‘notables’ – indeed she featured in Senate House Library’s Rights for Women Exhibition in 2018 (and you can see her again for the next little bit in the Women’s History Month display at Senate House Library).


Three photographs and a pamphlet with the title 'Retrospect and Prospect, 'Farewell and all hail!'" by Mary Brodrick

In October 2021 I took up my post as Research Fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies; I am Co-Investigator on a 3-year AHRC funded project “Beyond Notability: Re-Evaluating Women’s Work in Archaeology, History and Heritage 1870-1950”. As part of this project, I’m working with the rest of the team on an openly-accessible database of women whose activities in archaeology, history, and heritage we are chasing in the archives of the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Royal Archaeological Institute, the Victoria County History, the Royal Historical Society and more. A few of the 600 odd women we have in our database (to date) were College Hall residents. Mary Brodrick is among them, and you can find out a bit more about her life and career in our entry.

The ethos behind Beyond Notability is to look beyond the ‘pioneers’ to reveal wider networks of women. That’s why records of an organisation like College Hall are so useful – they show us individuals within a community. One Brodrick’s near contemporaries at the Hall was Louisa Macdonald, a classical archaeologist who also features in our database. She resided there with her sister Isabella, a medical student. The College Hall archive includes Louisa Macdonald’s typewritten reflections on life at the Hall in this early period (CH 8/6/7). Having moved there from another student residence (where comings and goings were not nearly so well-monitored), she noted, “our views of student Life were distinctly Bohemian and independent”. Initially, she remembered, “the College Hall was only a convenience. […] the lure of London, the lectures, the churches, the theatres, the museums, everything that was happening had so much personal appeal that Espirit de Corps, corporate responsibility really barely occurred to us.” Eventually, though, they settled down and developed their “Espirit de Corps”.

Three photographs, a letter and a book with the title 'Educated Working Women'

This Corps, then, was composed of women being educated at a range of other institutions in Bloomsbury, chiefly, though not exclusively, University College London, where Louisa was taking classes, and which included the Slade School of Fine Art (one of these artists, Jessie Mothersole, is in our database). There were also students from the London School of Medicine for Women, where her sister Isabella studied, from Bedford College, and from the Female School of Art. And during Mary Brodrick’s residence in the Hall, which began in October 1888, there were international students. In 1889 dental student Truda Merteens from Niemeguen, Netherlands, stayed at the Hall while taking a practical dentistry course at the National Dental Hospital in Great Portland Street, after which she returned to Holland.  Literature student Ida Nikolaevitch, from Serbia, stayed a bit longer - the Hall’s Annual Report for the 1889-90 session noted that Nikolaevitch “has come over to study English Language and Literature with the special view of acquainting herself with the institutions of this country”. Medical student Rukhmabai, who entered in April 1890, had several years earlier been a child bride at the centre of a series of court cases in India.

I could go on – there are many histories to share from the archive. But the point I want to end with is this: the College Hall archive is not only useful for individual biographies. Its value lies in the histories of the “Corps” it represents, as a collective.