The Censor of Women Students

Lucy Ashcroft, Censor of Women Students at Reading, was mentioned in previous posts about Women’s Sculling and women and boat racing. These references prompted an enquiry about the role of the Censor.

My source of information about colleges and universities outside Reading is Carol Dyhouse’s ‘No distinction of sex‘, a history of women in British universities. Dyhouse points out that:

University authorities were in loco parentis, and felt that women needed special protection and chaperonage that could only be discharged by a woman. The 1880s and 1890s were, after all, decades in which controversy still raged over the potentially deleterious effects of intellectual exertion on women’s minds and physiology.’ (p. 59)

Essentially, the Censor was responsible for the welfare of women students, but the title varied between institutions:

  • Tutor (or Senior Tutor) to Women Students
  • Lady Superintendent
  • Lady Tutor
  • Dean of Women Students
  • Advisor (or General Advisor) to Women Students

Details of the role varied too. There were issues about whether the person appointed should be an academic and the extent to which they should be involved in academic matters. Sometimes the duties led to conflict – responsibilities such as the acceptance or rejection of applicants could have unpleasant consequences.

There was scepticism about the usefulness of the position in some quarters, but it was robustly championed by the Headmistresses’ Association, at least partly to appease parents who were anxious about their daughters going on to higher education.

Edith Morley mentions the role as a career opportunity for women in her edited volume of 1914, ‘Women workers in seven professions.’ In one of the chapters she authored herself, ‘Women at the universities and university teaching as a profession,‘ she classifies it as an administrative post but insists strongly that it should be filled by an academic:

This post [Dean or Tutor of Women Students] is usually  and should always be held by a woman of senior academic standing, whose position in the class-room or laboratory commands as much respect as her authority outside. The Dean or Tutor is responsible for the welfare and discipline of all women students, and is nowadays usually a member of the Senate or academic governing body.’ (p. 17)

CENSORS AT READING: MARY BOLAM

Reading had both a Censor of Discipline (male) and a Censor of Women Students (female). As far as I have been able to discover, the first mention of the latter is in a late notice inserted into the Reading College Calendar for 1901-2 after it had been printed:

Late insert in the Calendar of 1901-2 announcing the appointment of Mary Bolam.

Mary Bolam was Censor from 1901 to 1911. From the outset, her address is given as St Andrew’s Hostel and it seems that her position of Censor was inextricably linked with that of Warden. She remained Warden of St Andrew’s until she retired in 1927. In his memoir, Childs recalls that:

Beginning in 1890 with two or three students in private rooms, she [Mary Bolam] lived to preside for many years over one of the largest and best appointed women’s halls to be found in any English university, old or new.‘ (p. 182).

She was clearly a dynamic force, described by Childs as ‘the merciless enemy of the slovenly‘. And Childs devotes a glowing testimonial of nearly a page and a half to Mary Bolam’s personality, skill and effectiveness: 

She had organising genius, strong will, clear purpose, north-country toughness under trial and benevolence of heart.‘ (p. 182).

The image below showing Bolam and Childs in 1901 is an enlarged section of the photo of the Education Department from Professor Barnard’s book of 1949 that was shown in full in my earlier post about the ‘Criticism Lesson’.

Mary Bolam (left) in 1901 seated with W. M. Childs, Vice-Principal of Reading College and the University’s first Vice-Chancellor.

Mary Bolam is also praised in Holt’s history of the University of Reading, though not quite as effusively. He reports that she had been ‘the doyenne of the women wardens‘ (p. 64), that ‘her own students adored her‘ and that ‘She was indefatigable and she was a Tartar’ (p. 65).

Her status was undoubtedly enhanced by being a graduate and having teaching responsibilities. Successive editions of the Calendar record teaching duties in Geography, ‘Preliminary Studies’ and in Primary Education (she had previously been an assistant at Cheltenham Ladies College under Dorothea Beale). Holt notes her membership of Senate as the first ‘statutory woman’ (p. 275). 

LUCY ASHCROFT

I am not sure exactly when Lucy Ashcroft succeeded Mary Bolam as Censor. She is not described as such in the Calendar until 1913-14, several years after Bolam had relinquished the role. 

Like Bolam, Ashcroft was a graduate with teaching experience in schools. She first appears in the College Calendar of 1907-08 as Assistant Lecturer in Mathematics. A brief profile (including her address) can be found in the Student Handbook of 1908-09:

Lucy Ashcroft’s qualifications and experience published in the Student Handbook of 1908-9, p. 70

Given her experience of teaching mathematics in schools, it is not surprising that the Calendar of 1913-14 lists her not only as Censor of Women Students but also Lecturer in Secondary Education, following in the steps of Caroline Herford, the first holder of that position. Between 1921 and 1922 Ashcroft was also acting Warden of Wessex Hall. 

Lucy Ashcroft is mentioned by name in Reading’s Charter of Incorporation (1926). The position of Censor entailed membership of the University Court. She remained in post until she retired in 1942.

The above has focused on women censors at Reading. My next contribution will be about the male Censor of Discipline, Herbert Knapman.

POST SCRIPT

According to the Ashcroft family,  Lucy was the aunt of the actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft (1907-1991) – my thanks to Sharon Maxwell for this information.

SOURCES

Barnard, H. C. (Ed.). (1949). The Education Department through fifty years. University of Reading.

Childs, W. M. (1933). Making a university: an account of the university movement at Reading. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.

Dyhouse, C. (1995). No distinction of sex? Women in British universities, 1870-1939. London: UCL Press.

Holt, J. C. (1977). The University of Reading: the first fifty years. Reading: University of Reading Press.

Morley, E. J. (2014). Women at the universities and university teaching as a profession. In E. J. Morley (Ed.), Women workers in seven professions: a survey of their economic conditions and prospects (pp. 11-24). London: Routledge. [Edited for the Studies Committee of the Fabian Women’s Group].

Reading College. Calendar, 1901-02.

University College Reading, Calendars, 1902-3 to 1913-14, and 1921-22.

University College Reading, Student Handbook, 1908-09.

University of Reading. Charter of Incorporation, 17 March 1926. 

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