Home Arts & culture ‘A castle of one’s own’. Pioneering education for Women

‘A castle of one’s own’. Pioneering education for Women

8 March 2017

Between 1885 and 1915 the King’s Ladies’ (later Women’s) Department nurtured many of the first women in England to gain a degree and to become academics. The University of London awarded degrees to women from the 1870s, whereas women could not graduate from Oxford until 1920, or from Cambridge until 1948.

The possession of a castle of one’s own is, perhaps, the first keen joy of College life

Lilian Faithfull, Head of King’s Ladies’ Department, 1894-1907

The early King’s women students included literary scholar and suffragette Edith Morley, the first woman professor at a British university; Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare scholar, professor and head of the department of English at Bedford College London, and Helen Fraser (Dame Helen Gwynne Vaughan), professor of botany at Birkbeck College London and also Commandant of the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) in World War 1 and Chief Controller of the Auxiliary Territorial Service in WW2.

Artist Vanessa Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf (then Vanessa and Virginia Stephen) studied at the Ladies’ Department between 1897 and 1901.

Virginia and Vanessa Wolf

Registrations for ‘Miss V Stephen’ (Virginia) and ‘Miss Stephen’ (Vanessa) from the King’s Ladies’ Department register.

As well as classes in English architecture, Latin and Italian, Vanessa studied life-drawing, still-life drawing and painting. This laid the foundations for her achievements as an artist and designer in the Bloomsbury Group, the Omega Workshop and at Charleston House, East Sussex — as celebrated in the first major retrospective exhibition of her work, at Dulwich Picture Gallery, 8 February-4 June 2017.

The Head of the Ladies’ Department from 1894 to 1907, Lilian Faithfull, was the first woman to become a Justice of the Peace in England. She described Vanessa and her fellow Art-school students as ‘a set of wild but very attractive students, many of them daughters of artists in and around Kensington’. Faithfull also wrote in the Ladies’ Department magazine of how, for women with their own room to study in, ‘The possession of a castle of one’s own is, perhaps, the first keen joy of College life’ – a phrase which perhaps inspired Virginia Woolf’s concept of A Room of One’s Own.

Lilian Faithfull

Lilian Faithfull, Vice Principal of King’s and Head of the Ladies’ Department, 1894-1907

In 1915, King’s College for Women divided when the Household & Social Science Department {later part of Queen Elizabeth College) opened at Kensington, while the other departments joined the male staff and students of King’s at the Strand Campus. The absence of men who were called up to WW1 gave women a new prominence in King’s life.

‘A room of one’s own’: a bed-sitting room at King’s Hall, for students of the Ladies’ Department.

Interested in reading about Virginia Woolf and her time at King’s? Find out more here: Educating Virginia Woolf

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