The History of Lucy Cavendish College
Lucy Cavendish College was founded in 1965 but it may be said to have originated in 1950 when two women, Margaret Braithwaite and Kay Wood-Legh, met for lunch at Tony’s restaurant with the avowed intention of making the occasion a weekly event, and of inviting academic women to join them: women like themselves who for various reasons felt isolated from the mainstream of University life. Their first invitation was to Anna Bidder. Margaret Braithwaite was a philosopher, Kay Wood-Legh was a medieval historian, and Anna Bidder was a zoologist.
All three were graduates of Newnham College and all were teaching and doing research in the University but, not holding fellowships in either of the then women’s colleges, Girton and Newnham, they lacked the stimulation and support of collegiate life. Their weekly gatherings went some way to resolving their feelings of isolation and by the Lent term of 1951, several other women had joined the group.
Because lunch-time meetings were inconvenient for some, the group agreed to dine together instead of lunching. Although the group had originally met to provide some kind of corporate life for women who were not closely connected with a College, they felt strongly that a Third Foundation was needed to increase the number of undergraduate places for women in Cambridge and began to work towards this end.
In 1950 Cambridge had a lower proportion of women undergraduates than any other university in the country. The proportion of female to male undergraduates was just under 10%, compared to nearly 20% in Oxford and 23% nationally.
Interest in promoting a Third Foundation was not confined to members of the Dining Group. Running parallel with their activities was another group headed by Dame Myra Curtis, the retiring Principal of Newnham. The two groups were not without contact and collaboration began in May 1951 with the joint preparation of a memorandum suggesting how a new foundation could be constituted, but there was a fundamental difference in their approach.
The philosophy of the Dining Group was to start a women’s undergraduate college by having a strong academic nucleus and to gather students around it. This differed from the approach of the other group (who later went on to establish New Hall) where the concern was to make more places available quickly through collecting a number of students together and finding two or three senior members to look after them.
The year 1951-1952 was a period of intense activity for the Dining Group, transforming them from an informal gathering of individuals to a group with a distinct corporate identity: a trust fund was established, memoranda were drafted setting out their aims and proposals, minutes of meetings were recorded for the first time, discussions were held with representatives of the University, financial estimates were prepared, and letters were written to potential supporters. In a financial estimate prepared by the Dining Group in March 1952 it was noted that a capital sum of £52500 would be required to establish a Third Foundation. In actual fact Lucy Cavendish was founded in 1965 with just £3000 in the bank.
The trust fund was established with a generous gift of £2000 from George Parker Bidder III, a sum equivalent today of £47000. George Bidder was the father of Anna and he had great sympathy with the ‘Third Foundation’ project and wanted to make a capital gift so that the Dining Group could “put down a deposit for a house and so have real existence”. He made the gift anonymously so as not to embarrass his daughter.
With both the Dining Group and Dame Myra’s group lobbying the University for a third college for women, the Council of the Senate published a report in June 1952 recommending “a new autonomous foundation for women students should be set up with the restriction that the number of students should not, until further order, exceed 100”. To put this in context – in 1952/53 there were 7800 male undergraduates at Cambridge, whereas female undergraduates at Newnham and Girton were strictly limited by the University to 500.
The publication of this report was followed by a meeting in July 1952, chaired by Dame Myra Curtis and attended by Fellows of Girton and Newnham and members of the Dining Group, where the resolution was passed to establish an ‘Association to Promote a Third Foundation for Women in the University of Cambridge’. From this ‘Third Foundation Association’ emerged New Hall in 1954.
The original aim of the Dining Group to establish a new college for women undergraduates was thus taken over by the Third Foundation Association. However, the Dining Group continued in existence, and turned its attention to the increasing numbers of graduates, both research students and particularly senior members involved in teaching, who were not fellows of colleges, and thus somewhat isolated from collegiate life. They redefined their purpose and aim as:
“to have concern for the problems of academic women in Cambridge, and by providing practical assistance and the stimulus of regular social contact, to encourage academic achievement in teaching, learning and research”.
Increasing concern for these ‘non-fellows’ prompted the University to consider various initiatives from the mid-1950s onwards, culminating in a report published in 1963 which recommended the establishment of new collegiate societies for graduates. In November 1964 the Dining Group applied to the University for recognition as the Lucy Cavendish Collegiate Society, setting out in its Trust Deed to be:
“responsible for the care and discipline of:
a) research students working for higher degrees or diplomas; and
b) women, not necessarily so engaged, who wish to re-equip themselves for professional careers by advanced study, or by obtaining higher qualifications”.
Lucy Cavendish Collegiate Society was granted formal recognition as an ‘Approved Society’ on 31 July 1965, a new category of institution established in 1964, which gave the University the power to recognise “institutions of a less formal and more experimental character than is implied by an Approved Foundation”.
As if to underline the experimental nature of Lucy Cavendish, The Times reported on the 11 October 1965:
“As the new academic year at Cambridge begins, anyone who walks to the river down Silver Street may see outside one of the houses a notice that says ‘Lucy Cavendish College, Temporary Offices’. So it is that without towers or turrets, without chaplain or porters, without a building of its own or even a foundation grant, Britain’s first graduate college for women has quietly come into being”.
As The Times article suggests, the first premises were a modest two rooms on the ground floor of 20 Silver Street. One of the rooms was kept for the secretary, Sharon Lowes, and the Tutor and Secretary to the Governing Body, Dr Kate Bertram, mainly used the other, with filing accommodation for the President, Dr Anna Bidder. Each of the rooms was furnished with a desk, two chairs, a filing cabinet, a telephone and a metal wastepaper basket, which legend says was frequently upended to provide for additional seating. The College remained at Silver Street, courtesy of the University, until June 1966 when it moved into two 18th-century cottages in Northampton Street, nos.17-18.
The 10-year lease of the Northampton Street buildings was given, through the University, by Magdalene College. The ground floor contained the George Bidder Room, parlour and kitchen, while the upper three rooms in one provided small offices for the President, Tutor and Secretary, and the other had three residential rooms that were rented out to graduate students at £5 [per week] inclusive of hot water and central heating. The College moved to its present site in Lady Margaret Road in 1970, into College House. However, it retained the premises in Northampton Street for student accommodation for a number of years.
By 1970 the College had 10 graduate students but under the terms of its recognition it was an ‘experimental graduate college’ and so was not permitted to take undergraduates. However, in October 1970, Lucy Cavendish accepted the first of a new category of students: women wishing to read for the degree of Bachelor of Education. Cambridge University had been the last in the country to accept the concept of an all-graduate teaching profession. In 1970 following the recommendation of the Robbins Report, the University had agreed that the 3-year trained certificated teachers within the area of the Cambridge Institute of Education who had been accepted by a Cambridge College of their choice could read for a 4th-year B.Ed. degree. Two students were admitted in the first year, Joyce Dobbie and Joan Hillier, with Joyce being the first Lucy student to gain a first class degree (in 1971). The system came to an end in 1978, but altogether Lucy Cavendish admitted 73 of these B.Ed. students.
In the meantime, following publication in late-1969 of a national report ‘University Development in the 1970s’, it became government policy that there should be a doubling of student numbers in universities from 225,000 (in 1970) to a total of 450,000 by 1981. Consequently, in June 1971 the University amended its Statutes, so that Approved Societies were no longer to be restricted to graduates only, and Lucy Cavendish was enabled to admit up to 50 mature (over 25 years of age) and affiliated students as undergraduates to read for a Cambridge first degree.
In October 1972 Lucy Cavendish welcomed its first intake of undergraduates. There were twenty of them, varying in age from 25 to 36, and from diverse backgrounds and occupations, including secretaries, housewives, teachers, and an actress. As the UCCA (Universities Central Council for Admissions) handbook had as yet no information about Lucy Cavendish, most had learnt of the College through personal contacts, but also from publicity in newspaper articles or on radio. It is said that one such applicant was ironing in an army station in Germany and heard of Lucy Cavendish on BBC Radio Woman’s Hour. She was determined to apply for admission as soon as she was posted back to England.
The College was limited to having no more than 50 undergraduates at any one time but this restriction was eventually removed in 1988, and in 1990 it was granted approval from the University to reduce the age limit for the admission of mature students from 25 to 21.
The status of the College as an ‘Approved Society’ was a position that was not to be envied. It meant that the College could be abolished by the relatively simple process of a Grace of the Council of the Senate and it was not eligible for financial assistance from the Colleges Fund. The College was therefore anxious to take the next step and become an ‘Approved Foundation’. In so doing it had to assure the University that:
• It was financially viable;
• it had achieved a sound level of academic standing;
• it was capable of teaching the mainline subjects; and
• it had agreed sensible Statutes and Ordinances for our governance.
Lucy Cavendish became an Approved Foundation in 1984 under the presidency of Lady Bowden, now Phyllis Hetzel. It was perhaps the most momentous event in Lucy’s history thus far and the recollections of Phyllis Hetzel reveal that the final outcome was by no means certain. She wrote:
“There were no clearly defined rules about the proofs needed. The College had to work these out on its own and provide convincing evidence that they had been met. It had been a long process with a touch and go finale. The affirmative vote in the Council was by a majority of one, after their third deliberation. At last, five years of strenuous effort had met with success".
Approved Foundation status meant that the University had assumed some responsibility for Lucy Cavendish’s survival: it was now eligible for financial assistance from the Colleges Fund, and could only be abolished after the Chancellor of the University had ordered a special enquiry by a committee under an independent chairman.
Twelve years later, in 1996, the College Trustees submitted a request that the College should be granted the status of a full College of the University, and thus become entirely self-governing. On 22 July 1997, Her Majesty the Queen approved the grant of a Charter of Incorporation to Lucy Cavendish College. As noted in Varsity, there was a neat little symmetry to this approval: the decision to admit Lucy Cavendish as a College of the University came 50 years after women were granted full membership of the University, and 100 years after it voted overwhelmingly to refuse them admission.
Since its foundation, the College has been committed to widening women’s participation in higher education, often through innovative means. In 1996 it established the Centre for Women & Leadership, the first of its kind in the UK. It brought to the College senior women from a wide range of disciplines and professions and promoted dialogue about issues relating to women and leadership on a national and international level. In October 1999 a research study carried out by the Centre for Women & Leadership in partnership with the Public Policy Institute at Harvard, investigated the impact of family-friendly work policies on the ethos and morale of staff and managers, and on the productivity and profitability of the companies.
Responding to the Government’s initiatives to expand Britain’s pool of doctors and to recruit a greater number of mature students into medicine, Lucy Cavendish helped set up the Cambridge Graduate Course in Medicine. Launched in September 2001, it is designed to train graduates from any discipline to become doctors in just four years.