Edith Morley: the ‘Professorship Battle’ (part two)

Whiteknights plaque
Plaque at the entrance to the Edith Morley Building, Whiteknights.

On learning that Edith Morley had become Professor of English Language in 1908 (see my previous post) one might have thought that it was the end of the story. Far from it – and this time she didn’t just threaten to leave, she actually submitted a formal letter of resignation!

1911-12: A risky attempt at renegotiation

By 1911 the appointment of a Professor of English Literature was imminent. A Mr J. E. V. Crofts had recently been appointed Lecturer in English Language and Literature and, according to Childs’s handwritten notes, this new appointment would ease his workload.

In the meantime it is apparent that there had been attempts by Morley to renegotiate her position in the light of the impending appointment. The evidence for this is contained in a typed ‘private’ letter from Childs to Morley of 4th June 1912. In it, he stresses that he is not prepared to consider any change to their previously agreed arrangements, including the wording of her title. He wants her to stay but the half-time arrangement on a salary of £300 will not change. There is no prospect of the money increasing for a half-time contract and there is no chance of her becoming full time. Apparently she has told him that she had ‘prospects elsewhere’.

Further correspondence (Morley to Childs, 4th & 17th June 1912) shows that Morley is still deeply unhappy with the title of Professor of English Language. She has taken advice from elsewhere, however, and will agree to the title even though she regards it as anomalous (in her reminiscences, she refers to English Language as, ‘the branch of my subject in which I was not and had no intention of becoming a specialist’). Furthermore, she will keep to their agreement of 1908 even though her being half-time would compromise the equality of the two professorships.

Up to this point, I have had nothing but admiration for Edith Morley and her achievements, as must be clear to anyone who has read the many references to her in this blog. Nevertheless, even I have to concede that she committed a serious tactical error in a letter of 17th June by including the following statements that, in my opinion, clearly conflict with the 1908 protocol:

‘If the post is given to a man, however promising, whose achievement is at present small, while in standing, teaching & other experience he is much junior to myself, I cannot accept his “authority in (literature) matters which concern us both”, but shall have to resign at once. I do not demand impossibilities, but the field is limited, & everything depends on the candidate selected.’

This apparent attempt to impose conditions on the new appointment did not go down well. In a letter of 18th June, Childs reminds her of their earlier agreement and points out that the College Council has a free hand to appoint any suitable candidate. He complains, ‘You raise fresh difficulties or prospects of difficulties at every turn.’ He feels unable to proceed with a previous arrangement that she is now trying to change and must be free to propose a new settlement.

Realising she has gone too far, Morley penned a retraction on 19th June: ‘My letter seems to have conveyed exactly the opposite impression from that which was intended.’ She insists that she intends to make the conditions of 1908 workable and wants Childs to give up the idea of replacing the old agreement.

The following day (20th June), she again writes that she is happy with the conditions of 1908 and wants this letter substituted for the one of the 17th. Nevertheless, Childs insists on forwarding both sets of correspondence to the Finance Committee.

The dean intervenes

On the same day (20th June 1912), Professor W. G. de Burgh, Dean of the Faculty of Letters, sent out a memo in which he claimed that Morley lacked the qualities necessary to lead such an important department and recommended a revision of the 1908 agreement, something he had never been happy with.

Her recent letters to Childs simply demonstrated her lack of judgement and discretion. He believes she could retain her title but should be unequivocally subordinate to the new Professor. Otherwise there was a danger that she might assume an albeit unofficial leadership of the women members of the College!

Professor W. G. de Burgh, Dean of the Faculty of Letters from 1926 to 1934 (University of Reading Special Collections)
June 1912: The finance Committee’s verdict

The Finance Committee issued its report on 21st June 1912, and its decision was passed on to Morley in a letter from Childs on the  22nd June. There were three main points:

    1. There should be a ‘fair trial’ of the agreement of 1908; Morley would remain half-time.
    2. If the arrangements did not work they could be modified.
    3. When the College became a university, the Council would have the right to make a single professor responsible for the whole subject of English language and Literature.

Morley immediately sought clarification of the third point (22nd June), but Childs insisted that it spoke for itself and refused to elaborate (24th June).

July 2012: Professor R. Dewar is appointed

The appointment Robert Dewar as Professor of English Literature was made in July 2012; Morley was not impressed:

‘I abstained from voting for Mr Dewar because I object in principle to the appointment to so important a post, of a man who has not yet proved himself.’ (Morley to Childs, 19th July).

In the belief that she would lose her position when the College became a university she enclosed a formal letter of resignation. She says she intends to apply for a Readership at King’s College for Women and asks Childs for a reference.

Subsequent events unfold as follows:

    1. Childs protests about her taking such drastic action, claiming that she has made an ‘unauthorised’ and ‘unwarrantable assumption’ about Point 3 of his letter of the 22nd June. He is returning her resignation letter and advises her to await the outcome of her King’s application before finalising her decision (19th July).
    2. In a letter from Morley to Childs on the 24th July she has changed her mind and states that she has ‘definitely decided not to stand for King’s.’
    3. In a reply dated the 25th, Childs is glad she is staying but fears there may be future conflict. She must therefore commit herself wholeheartedly and ignore the setbacks. If she can’t do this she should go to King’s.
    4. In a response of 26th July, Morley agrees that she had misconstrued Point 3 of the Finance Committee’s decision, mistakenly believing she would be forced to leave when the Royal Charter was granted. She will accept the risk and hopes to stay on permanently.
    5. Morley to Childs on the same day: Childs has now returned her resignation letter. She will forget her grievances, she says, and affirms that: ‘I think you will agree that my decision to give the new conditions a trial after all that has passed, is the best proof I can offer that I am putting my “dignity” on one side.’
The New English Department

At the beginning of the autumn term 1912, the College calendar displayed the full complement of the English Department: two Professors – one for Language and one for Literature, and one Lecturer in both Language and Literature (see below).

As had been requested by Morley in 1908, her title is no longer Professor of English Language and Lecturer in English Literature but simply Professor of English Language. This, she believed, would remove any impression that she was subordinate to her new colleague.

University College, Reading Calendar, 1912-13, p. 51.

Professor Dewar and Mr Crofts were soon to join the armed forces, returning from WW1 as late as February 1919. Presumably Professor Morley kept the department going during their absence. In 1934 Dewar succeeded W. G. de Burgh as Dean of the Faculty of Letters and held that post until 1948.


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

Morley, E. J. (2016). Before and after: reminiscences of a working life (original text of 1944 edited by Barbara Morris). Reading: Two Rivers Press.

University of Reading, Special Collections, MS 2049/50: File of correspondence between William M. Childs & Edith Morley, including a memo from W. G. de Burgh.

University of Reading Special Collections, MS 5305: Photographs – Portraits Box 1.

University College, Reading, Annual Report and Accounts, 1918-19.

University College, Reading. Calendar, 1912-13.


Edith Morley: the ‘Professorship Battle’ (part one)

By the end of my previous post, the saga of Edith Morley’s chair had reached the stage where she was the only head of a department not to receive a professorship. Despite her reservations about her own academic prowess, she was so disturbed by the way the matter had been conducted by the College, and the low calibre of some of those who had been promoted that she decided to take the matter further.

Correspondence between Morley and the College Principal, W. M. Childs, about her professorship is held in the University’s Special Collections at the MERL. Morley’s handwritten letters, with their spontaneity and their insertions and deletions, tell us much more about the controversy and her own conflicted feelings than the carefully curated prose of her own ‘Reminiscences’. The sequence of events she narrates in just a few brief lines on page 116 is this:

    1. she offered her resignation;
    2. she was persuaded to remain and try out the new system;
    3. she found the situation intolerable during the 1907-8 academic year;
    4. she refused to stay on unless she was granted the title;
    5. she was nominated Professor of English Language.

In fact, and as the correspondence shows, the negotiations between Morley and Childs were complex and lengthy, occasionally embarrassing, but generally polite and mutually respectful. It may have been a battle from Morley’s perspective, but at this stage it was a relatively civilised one (later events in 1912 are a different matter and will be the subject of my next post).

The business was treated as confidential, with only the Dean of Letters (W. G. de Burgh) being fully informed. Several of Childs’s letters are marked ‘private’. On one occasion Morley was rebuked (Childs to Morley, 2/3/1908) for discussing the wording of a possible professorial title with her friend Miss Lilian Faithfull (formerly Vice-Principal of King’s College Ladies Department and from 1906-22 Headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies’ College). For this, Morley was extremely apologetic (Morley to Childs, 3/3/1908) but claimed that she had understood any such injunction to apply only within the College.

The correspondence is not complete – there are references to missing letters and to private conversations whose contents we can only infer. Some of those from Childs are handwritten drafts with no copy of the formal typed version. Others are carbon copies from which the colour has faded. Nevertheless, the section of the archive for 1908 contains 13 legible letters (7 from Morley, 6 from Childs) written between February and March, and two sets of Childs’s personal notes. From these we can establish the following rough chronology:

    • in 1907 Morley was not made professor because in Childs’s firm opinion, ‘she had not the requisite qualifications for a Professorship in English Literature.’ (Childs’s retrospective notes, probably 1911). The College wished to appoint a male Professor of English or English Literature at a later date.
    • She threatened her resignation. According to Childs’s notes, ‘Miss M. agitated.’ 
    • In July 1907 Morley suggested that in return for her professorship she would receive no increase in stipend, nor any change in her rights. She would also accept the College’s power to appoint ‘a special professor’ to cover those areas in which she was less qualified (Childs quotes this back to her in a handwritten draft of 2 March 1908).
    • Events between July 1907 and February 1908 are unclear, but according to Childs, during the summer of 1907 Morley had requested a reassessment of her position and had agreed to a half-time post on an annual salary of £250 (Childs’s personal notes of 1911 and a draft of a letter to Morley of 18 June 1912). She was persuaded to stay on and give the new arrangements a fair trial.
    • At some point, the idea of giving Morley a title other than Professor of English was floated. It would contain the words ‘English Language’ (Childs’s notes of 1911). Later letters show Morley’s passionate resistance to being relegated from ‘English’ and ‘English Literature’ to ‘English Language’.
    • By 1908 Morley was extremely dissatisfied with the new arrangements. We don’t know the details but she expressed her frustration in a letter of 24 February 1907 in which she again threatens resignation (see image).

Final para

    Letter of 24/2/1908 from Morley to Childs threatening resignation (University of Reading Special Collections).
    • Childs was astonished, or so he claimed in a reply of the same day. His letter prompted an immediate counter-response from Morley (25 February) outlining her conditions:
        • The word ‘Language’ should not appear in her title – she does not want to be pigeonholed as a Philologist and confined to nothing but basic work on literature.
        • When a new English professor was appointed, the two posts should have equal status. In return she would respect his authority in areas outside her expertise.
    • There followed two letters containing suggestions from Morley of possible wordings of the professorial title: ‘Old & Modern English’ or ‘Historical & Modern English’ (27/2/08); ‘English Language & Literary History’, ‘English Language & Literary Criticism’, ‘English Letters & Language’, ‘English Language & History of Literature’ (29/2/08). She would accept his decision as long as the word ‘Literature’ was included somewhere, but would prefer ‘English’ on its own.
    • On 2 March 1908 Childs produced a handwritten draft of a letter reminding her of what she had already agreed (see image below) and outlining a set of non-negotiable conditions and concessions. These included:
        • The only acceptable title would be Professor of the English Language and Lecturer in English Literature;
        • Council would have total freedom in the appointment of a new English Professor;
        • She would still have a share of Literature teaching and the two professorships would have equal status, but on questions of literature ‘the authority of the Professor of Literature shall be acknowledged.’;
        • He would not proceed unless he had Morley’s total and continuing acceptance of these proposals.
Childs quotes M's own letter
Childs’s draft letter of 2 March 1908 in which he quotes back to Morley the concessions she had made the previous July (University of Reading Special Collections)
    • Morley’s reply dated the following day was polite and conciliatory. She would be prepared to accept all the conditions but was still worried about the wording of her title, quibbling about the inclusion of the definite article before ‘English Language’ when it was not present in front of ‘English Literature’. She wants all mention of ‘Lecturer in English Language’ to be removed on the appointment of the new Professor. Otherwise, she claimed, she would appear ‘explicitly’ subordinate to him.
    • Childs’s reply of the same day (3 March 1908) agrees to the future dropping of the reference to ‘English Language’ but cannot agree to any extension to the title once the new professor was in post (the word ‘extension’ appears in several documents but its meaning is not clear to me).
    • Morley is pleased, and agrees to the terms. However, she retains the right to reconsider her position on the appointment of the new professor (8 March 1908).
    • Childs agrees to put the proposals to the Finance Committee but insists on confidentiality: premature disclosure could derail everything.
    • Morley’s agreed title appeared in the College Calendar for 1908-9 (see image below).
first title
Calendar for 1908-9. Note that the definite article before ‘English Language’ has been removed.

The story doesn’t finish here, however. I stated earlier that during 1908 the exchanges between Morley and Childs had been civilised, polite and mutually respectful. Nevertheless, in 1912 with the imminent appointment of a new Professor of English Literature their tone became distinctly more frosty; and that will be the subject of the next post.


I have borrowed the phrase ‘professorship battle’ from Barbara Morris because that is how she indexed the affair when she edited Edith Morley’s original manuscripts. It isn’t an exaggeration, particularly when developments of 1912 are taken into consideration.


To Sharon Maxwell, Archivist at the Museum of English Rural Life/Special Collections Service for telling me about the correspondence between Morley and Childs.


File of correspondence between William M. Childs and Edith Morley, MS 2049/50. University of Reading, Special Collections.

Morley, E. J. (2016). Before and after: reminiscences of a working life (original text of 1944 edited by Barbara Morris). Reading: Two Rivers Press.

University College, Reading. Calendar, 1908-9.

Edith Morley and Reading’s first Professors

The University of Reading is justifiably proud of the award of a chair to Edith Morley in 1908; her Professorship of English language was a landmark in the history of women in academia, and she is celebrated as the first woman to be appointed Professor at a university or university college in the UK. The wording of the previous sentence is important because her achievement has been disputed.

In 2017, the BBC News website published this report from Scotland:

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has uncovered the story of Emma Ritter-Bondy, whom it believes was the first female professor of a higher education institution in the UK. The Glasgow Athenaeum School of Music, which is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, made her Professor of Piano in 1892.

The article goes on to point out that this was 16 years before Edith Morley’s appointment. This is true. I believe it is also true that there was a female Professor at a teacher training college in Cardiff before 1908 (Dyhouse, 1995).

Some may wish to defend Morley’s claim by referring to geography (England versus the UK) or the relative academic status of each institution, but it seems to me that to pit these pioneering women against each other, in a competition they never asked to enter, merely detracts from their achievements.

What makes Morley particularly interesting and worthy of recognition, however, is that the chair wasn’t handed to her on a plate; she had to fight for it – and that is something that is often overlooked.

London Rd plaque
Plaque on the London Rd Campus: the text is slightly ambiguous – her original appointment in 1901 was at the former site on Valpy Street; she was based at London Rd from 1905 until she retired in 1940.
Reading’s first Professorships

In 1907, as a step on the long journey to becoming a university, University College Reading founded the Faculties of Letters and Science, appointed their respective Deans, and established eleven professorships.

Thus, the title of Professor was conferred on the lecturers responsible for the following subjects:

      • Modern History (W. M. Childs, College Principal)
      • Philosophy (W. G. de Burgh, Dean of Letters)
      • Botany (F. Keeble, Dean of Science)
      • Geography (H. N. Dickson)
      • French Language and Literature (A. V. Salmon)
      • Mathematics and Economics (A. L. Bowley)
      • Physics (G. J. Burch)
      • Chemistry (J. K. H. Inglis)
      • Zoology (F. J. Cole)
      • Agriculture (J. Percival)
      • Fine Art (W. G. Collingwood)

It will come as no surprise that the subject missing from the above is English, nor that the professors were all men. The College Principal, W. M. Childs, makes no attempt in his memoir ‘Making a University’ of 1933 to explain this omission, nor to mention the struggle that ensued; he simply adds a footnote in small print to state that, ‘English language was added to this list in 1908.’ (p. 124). Edith Morley doesn’t even seem to merit the honour of an entry in the book’s index.

Morley’s Reaction

John Holt’s official history of the university also pays little attention to the affair, although he does refer the reader to Morley’s own ‘Reminiscences’. Holt’s single mention of Morley’s professorship is nothing more than second-hand gossip from a colleague claiming that she ‘pounded poor old Childs until he made her a professor’ (Holt, 1977, p. 89). Though Holt’s account is not entirely negative, the tone of this is in keeping with several other of uncomplimentary descriptions of her, such as ‘provocative, disturbing, aggressive, intransigent’ (p. 89) and a ‘rogue professor’ (p. 276).

It was statements such as these that prompted the social historian Carol Dyhouse to treat Edith Morley’s time at Reading as a case study in her history of women in British universities (Dyhouse, 1995, pp. 156-161: ‘Difficult careers: the case of Edith Morley’).

Originally, Morley had been led to believe that a smaller number of ‘outstanding’ heads of department would receive professorships. So she had no great expectations for herself. In fact, in her memoir, and elsewhere, she seems to doubt, or at least downplay, her own capabilities:

    • ‘[I] had no illusions about my own merits.’
    • ‘I possessed the makings of a tolerable scholar’
    • ‘I knew that I had no claim to outstanding intellectual gifts and that it was beyond my power to produce original work of a high order.’ (Morley, 1944/2016, p. 115).

It was only when she realised that she was the sole lecturer responsible for an academic discipline who had not been given the title that she resolved to fight the decision. She was particularly incensed by what she perceived as the underhand and tactless way in which the whole business had been conducted, and believed she had a stronger case for a professorship on the grounds of both teaching and scholarship than some of the male heads of subject.

My next post will document Morley’s interactions with the Principal in pursuit of her claim for equality with her eleven male colleagues.


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. (2016). Before and after: reminiscences of a working life (original text of 1944 edited by Barbara Morris). Reading: Two Rivers Press.

The first female professor in the UK. BBC News (2017), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-39191297 (retrieved 13/5/2023).

University College, Reading. Calendar, 1907-8 & 1908-9.

University College, Reading. Report of Council, 1906-7.