Girton College, Cambridge

Girton College is one of the 31 constituent colleges of the University of Cambridge. Now mixed, it was England's first residential women's college, established in 1869 by Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon.

The main site is in the village of Girton, about 2.5 miles (4 km) northwest of the centre of Cambridge, the university town. There is an accommodation annexe, known as Wolfson Court, situated in the western suburbs, next to the Centre for Mathematical Sciences and the University Library.

In 1977 the first male Fellows arrived, and male undergraduates have been admitted since 1979. As of 2010, the college's net assets were valued at £104.5 million, including £49 million of endowment. In 2009-2010, the college had 674 full time undergraduates and postgraduates.

1869 to 1979: Pioneering for women's education

The wish to improve women's education developed from the early feminist movement in the 1860s: Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon met through their activism at the Society for the Employment of Women and the Englishwoman's Review. They shared the aim of securing women's admission to university. In 1862, they met to determine whether girls could be admitted at Oxford or Cambridge to sit the Senior and Junior Local Examinations. A committee was set up to that effect, and in 1865, with the help of Henry Tomkinson, ninety-one girls entered the Cambridge Local Examination. This first concession to women's educational rights met relatively little resistance, as admission to the examination did not imply residence of women at the university site.

In 1869, Henry Sidgwick helped institute the Examinations for Women, designed to be more challenging than the Poll examinations, but easier than the Tripos examinations - an idea heavily opposed by Emily Davies, as she demanded admittance to the Tripos examinations.

The college was established on 16 October 1869 under the name of College for Women at Benslow House, Hitchin, a convenient distance from Cambridge and London. It was thought to be less 'risky' and controversial to locate the college away from Cambridge in the beginning. In July and October 1869, entrance examinations were held in London, to which 21 candidates came; 16 passed. The first term started on 16 October 1869, when five students began their studies. The first group of students to sit the Tripos exams were known as The Pioneers.

In 1871, with £7000 raised, land for building was to be bought either at Hitchin or near Cambridge. By 1872, sixteen acres of land from the present site were purchased near the village of Girton. The college was then renamed Girton College, and opened at the new location in October 1873. The buildings had cost £12,000, and consisted of a single block which comprised the east half of Old Wing. At the time, thirteen students were admitted.

In 1876, Old Wing was completed, and Taylor's Knob, the college laboratory and half of Hospital Wing built. In 1884, Hospital Wing was completed, and Orchard Wing, Stanley Library and Old Kitchens added. At that time, Girton had 80 students. By 1902, Tower, Chapel and Woodlands Wing as well as the Chapel and the Hall were finished, which allowed the college to accommodate 180 students.

In 1921, a committee was appointed to draft a charter for the college. By summer 1923, under the conduct of the Master of Emmanuel College, the committee completed the task, and on 21 August 1924 the King granted the charter to "the Mistress and Governors of Girton College" as a Body Corporate.

Girton was not officially a college yet, nor were its members part of the University. Girton and Newnham were classed as "recognised institutions for the higher education for women", not colleges of the university. On 27 April 1948, women were admitted to full membership of the University of Cambridge, and Girton College received the status of a college of the university.

1979 to present: Pioneering for gender equality

The college became mixed in 1977 with the arrival of the first male Fellows, followed by the admission of male undergraduates in 1979. Numerically and geographically, Girton is now one of the largest Colleges in Cambridge. However, the geographical separation means that the majority of people socialise within the College to a greater extent than at most other colleges, which is said to create a distinctive, even cosy, atmosphere that is well-renowned throughout the University. Girton also houses an Egyptian mummy named "Hermione", and is the only Cambridge college to have its own indoor heated swimming pool.

Main site

The initial and defining parts of the college were designed by Alfred Waterhouse: The architect built the main site with the Old Wing, the Hospital Wing, the Orchard Wing, the Stanley library and Old Kitchens between 1873 and 1886, as well as the parapetted gatehouse tower in 1886/1887. The red brick design (English bond) is typical of Victorian architecture, and is enhanced by black mortar courses and terracotta details to the eaves, windows and doorways. The roofs are steeply pitched with crested tiles. In 1913, the site consisted of 33 acres.


Girton's first library, the Stanley library, was established in 1884 with a donation from Lady Stanley of Alderley. It was considered to be luxurious and comfortable, as it contained stained-glass windows, leather furniture and a large chimney. Books were gathered mostly through donations. By 1932 the collection had become so large that a new library was opened. Designed by Michael Waterhouse, son of Paul Waterhouse and grandson of Alfred Waterhouse and Giles Gilbert Scott, the new library consists of an upper reading room, crafted in oak, and a ground floor, in which the book collections are held. An annexe containing archives was added in 1967. The Duke building, a modern library extension offering IT facilities and a reading room, was openend in 2005. Named after Alison Duke, a fellow and major donor, the building was designed by Allies and Morrison. It won a national RIBA award in 2006, a SCONUL Library Design Award in 2007, and a Civic Trust Award in 2007.


The construction of the Chapel was completed in 1901, and has seating for about 200. In 1910 came a fine Harrison & Harrison organ.


When the land was bought, trees were planted on bare land. Today, the gardens of Girton are large compared to those of other Cambridge colleges. They became a preoccupation for the college in 1875 when Miss Davies handed over the responsibility for developing the gardens to Miss Bernard. At the time, the college land was almost completely lacking in trees. A pond, which originated from excavations for the construction of the Stanley library and the Orchard Wing, dates from 1884. A 1983 report of the college ornithologists' society found sixty species of birds, and a moth report from 1986 recorded over 100 species. The Fellows' garden was redesigned in 1992 and hosts a green theatre. Outdoor plays are no longer performed in the Fellows' garden because of noise from the A14. A rare breed of black squirrels can sometimes be seen in Girton.

Lawrence room

In 1934, the Lawrence room on the college main site was dedicated to be the college museum. Named after Girton natural scientist Amy Lawrence, it houses an Anglo-Saxon, an Eyptian and a Mediterranean collection. Before the establishment of the Lawrence room in 1934, antiquities had been stored in and around the college library. Donations allowed for refurbishments in 1946, 1961, 1991 and 2008. In 2010/11, Lawrence room is opened once a week to visitors. The exhibitions are free of charge.

The Anglo-Saxon collection stems from excavations on the college main site made during construction work in 1881 and 1886, when an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, presumably from the fifth and sixth century AD, was discovered. Most findings, such as domestic utensils and personal items, were long held in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. Some were only returned to the college as late as in 2008.

The highlight of the Egyptian collection consists of a portrait mummy bearing the inscription Hermionê Grammatikê (translation: 'Hermione the literary lady' or 'Hermione the language teacher'). It is one of the most widely reproduced and famous portrait mummies. Dating from the first century AD, it was discovered in the Roman cemetery of Hawara by the archeologist Flinders Petrie in 1911. 'Hermione' is thought to be an 18- to 25-year-old girl from a wealthy background. Petrie and his wife Hilda wanted the mummy to go to a women's college due to its inscription. Funds were gathered, and in 1911 'Hermione' moved to Girton college, where she has remained since then. The Egyptian collection also holds four mummified baby crocodiles, which were thought to bring favour of Sobek, the ancient god of fertility and water. They were presented to the college by Afred Waterhouse senior, the father of architect Alfred Waterhouse.

The Mediterranean collection offers both Classical and pre-Classical material. A collection of Greek Tanagra figurines, which date to the fourth and third century BC, form the most remarkable pieces of this collection.

Wolfson Court

Wolfson Court is an annexe to Girton College built on a three acre site. It was funded by the 1969 Centenary Appeal, and designed in 1971 by Cambridge architects David Roberts and Geoffrey Clarke. It has its own catering and accommodation facilities (106 single student rooms). Queen Elizabeth Court, which is linked to the main building and comprises two blocks of three linked houses (36 large single student rooms), was built for the purpose of graduate accommodation in 1992. It is frequently used as a location for conferences. The site also contains a nursery, operated by Kids Unlimited.

Student life
Sport, music and societies
  • Badminton
  • Cricket
  • Cross country
  • Football
  • Hockey
  • Lacrosse
  • Netball
  • Rowing (Girton College Boat Club)
  • Rugby
  • Squash
  • Swimming
  • Table tennis
  • Tennis
  • Volleyball
  • Waterpolo

The college has its own sports pitches for cricket, football, hockey, lacrosse, netball and volleyball. It furthermore provides outdoor tennis and indoor squash courts, as well as an indoor heated swimming pool.

The college has a strong history of music, which is supported by the university's Chairman of the Faculty Board of Music, also Director of Studies in Music at Girton. In the last decade, the college has consistently been within the top three colleges for music in the university. In 2005, the highest ever first-class honours in the music Tripos was attained by a Girtonian. The student-run and fellow-led Girton College Music Society hosts weekly concerts in term time, as well as termly orchestral concerts. The college provides four practice grand pianos (including a Steinway Model B), a double-manual harpsichord and two organs. The chapel's organ is a four-manual, crafted by the Swiss firm St. Martin and acquired in 2002. All undergraduate music students are provided with a practice piano in their room for the duration of their course.

The chapel choir has 28 members and sings Choral Evensong (Sunday) and Compline (Tuesday) in the college chapel every week. It has given well-received performances in Cambridge, other parts of the UK and internationally, such as in Sardinia, Japan and the USA. In summer 2011, the choir performed in Manchester, Angers and Paris. The choir has released six CDs: All in a Garden Green (1995), Cantique (1998), O Porta Caeli (2000), The Ages of Elizabeth (2002), Volume 17 of The Complete New English Hymnal (2004), Res Miranda (2005) and Feast Celestial (2009). Girton grants two undergraduate organ scholarships for ₤300 per annum and 20 choral scholarships for ₤100 per annum each.

Admitting undergraduate students studying all subjects except for the Education Tripos, the college hosts a variety of student-run societies which cater for a wide range of interests. Five subjects have their own society: Biology, History, Economics (Joan Robinson society), Medicine and Law. There is furthermore the Art society, the Film society and the Girton Amateur Dramatic Society (GADS) which produces up to two plays per year. Finally, Girton Amnesty and the Orchestra on the Hill serves students with specific interest in human rights and music, respectively.


It is customary for Cambridge colleges to provide accommodation for the first three year undergraduate students. Girton, along with Newnham College, are the only colleges to charge the same fee for undergraduate accommodation on their premises. The main site offers 348 rooms, rented for the entire year (38 or 39 weeks, depending on the term dates). The weekly rent for the undergraduate cohort of 2010/11 will be £103.25. The rooms range in quality grades from A (the lowest) to F (the highest). Every year, a ballot is organised by the JCR to determine room distribution. To first years, rooms are allocated randomly.

Rooms in the main site and in Wolfson court are arranged along corridors, which makes it possible to walk from one location in the building to another without going outside. Some of the rooms originally designed as sets by Alfred Waterhouse were later separated to accommodate more students.

Most undergraduate students live in the main site, and second and third years have the option of living at Wolfson court, or at one of the college houses: The college owns six houses along Girton road, another one located opposite the college on Huntingdon Road called The Gate and one house located on the college grounds, called The Grange. These houses are available for second and third year undergraduates.

Graduate students have the option of either living in Wolfson court or in one of the seven graduate houses the college owns. They are located on Huntingdon Road, Chesterton Road, Albert Street, Thornton Road and Park Parade, all in central Cambridge. Furthermore, there are four flats available at Cockcroft place in Clarkson road. One house on Huntingdon Road is used to accommodate research fellows.

Heritage and symbolism
Notable members

The college applied for a coat-of-arms derived from the arms of its founders and benefactors: Mr H.R. Tomkinson, Madame Bodichon (née Leigh Smith), Henriette Maria, Lady Stanley of Alderley (daughter of the 13th Viscount Dillon), and Miss Emily Davies who did not have arms and was instead represented by the Welsh colours, vert and argent. The Rev. E.E. Dorling submitted a great variety of designs to the council, however the task was not easy. "A patch-work of elaborate charges and many colours was to be avoided. Mr Tomkinson's fascinating martlets and Lady Stanley's lion had to be abandoned with regret, as was also a design of green and silver chequers which would have given more prominence to Miss Davies."

Finally in 1928 the design was accepted by all and the College was granted the following:

The college gown has the standard pattern of an undergraduate gown at the University of Cambridge, with the sleeves sewn up for a length of eight inches from the shoulder. The proper dress of the gown and cap was observed at the first honorary degree to a woman, given to the Queen, an LL.D. on 21 October 1948. As academic dress, gowns were adopted with little changes (the sleeves had to be closed so that even in the summer, when women wear short-sleeved dresses their bare shoulders do not show), and square caps were chosen as head-dress. However, to remember the time when women were not allowed to obtain degrees of the University of Cambridge, no gowns are worn during the college feast, when students in their final year are celebrated.

Girton College has a traditional two-word grace and a more recent full grace, both in Latin. On regular formal occasions, such as Formal Halls, the two-word graces are spoken, Benedictus benedicat (May the blessed one give blessing) at the start of the meal, and Benedictus benedicatur (May praise be given to the blessed one) at the end of the meal. There is evidence that the two-word grace was used in 1926, and it is thought the two-word grace was used from the foundation of the college onwards.

The words and the music of the full grace were composed in 1950 by Alison Duke and Jill Vlasto respectively. The grace came after the admission of women to full membership of the university so as to bring Girton in line with the other colleges. It is used on the most formal occasions, such as the Foundation Dinner, and it is sung once a year at the College Feast, which all final year students attend.

Full grace (in Latin):

Full grace (English translation):

Girtonians are known for their chant of We are Girton - super Girton! No one likes us, but we don't care!, in imitation of the Millwall fans' famous song: No one likes us, we don't care. The reference to no one likes us is supposedly due to the relative distance of Girton in comparison to many of the other colleges.

In popular culture
  • In the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Utopia, Limited, a principal character, Princess Zara, is returning from her studies at Girton, and her entrance is heralded by a song called "Oh, maiden rich in Girton lore".
  • In the earlier Gilbert and Sullivan opera Princess Ida, the princess founds a women's university, and the subject of women's education in the Victorian era is broadly explored and parodied.
  • In the Ian McEwan novel Atonement, Cecilia's time at Girton is mentioned several times.
  • In the P. G. Wodehouse novel The Inimitable Jeeves, Bertie Wooster accidentally gets engaged to a Girtonian.
  • In Agatha Christie's short story The Case of the Missing Will, Hercule Poirot receives an unusual request for help from a Miss Violet Marsh, an alumna of Girton.
  • In the Maisie Dobbs mystery series by Jacqueline Winspear the heroine has attended Girton before and after World War I as well as several of the other women.
Eponymous institutions
  • Girton Grammar School, Bendigo, Victoria, Australia
  • Girton Hall, University of California, Berkeley
People's Portraits

Since 2002, Girton college houses the millennial exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, entitled People's Portraits. The exhibition, aimed at showing 'ordinary' British people at the verge of the 21st century, toured Britain in 2000. Girton then won the bid to house the collection, to which new works are added annually. All pictures were created by members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. The collection currently holds 45 paintings, and artists include Anthony Morris, Daphne Todd, June Mendoza and Alastair Adams, the current president of the Society. Being one of the largest and thus most diverse colleges in Cambridge, the fact that People's Portraits are houses by Girton college is thought to represent the college ethos of community and interest in art.

Building Activity

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