Elspeth Huxley and Reading: fact versus fiction

‘Writers must learn pretty quickly to disguise what they’re doing if they don’t want to end up in the libel courts.’ (Val McDermid, 2023)

My previous post about Elspeth Huxley dealt with her time at Reading as it was portrayed in the book, Love among the Daughters’. Her description of Reading and the London Road Campus was far from flattering.

The reviews and notices of the work label it ‘non-fiction’ even though it bears many characteristics of a novel. In the Evening News of 26th Sept. 1968 it was already listed fourth in the non-fiction best sellers; the following month it was ranked first, ahead of Kim Philby’s ‘My Silent War: the Autobiography of a Spy’ (there are those who claim that this contained elements of fiction, too). And in an interview with The Times on 16th September 1968, Huxley described it as autobiography. Nevertheless, it is generally regarded as an example of ‘fictionalised autobiography’, a genre in which changes to details of real people, places and events do not detract from the authenticity of the account.

There are several reasons to question the accuracy of the narrative:

    • a gap of over 40 years between the events described and publication;
    • changes calculated to avoid offending people who were still alive;
    • exaggeration and caricature for comic effect (the humour is a recurring theme of the book reviews; Christine Nichols, Huxley’s biographer, regarded it as one of her wittiest books);
    • Huxley’s own statements about her recollections;
    • discrepancies with historical records.

In August 1968 Huxley was interviewed on BBC Woman’s Hour by Marjorie Anderson. Here she gave a far more nuanced explanation of ‘autobiography’ than in her Times interview:

‘Well, it’s an autobiography in a sense, but it’s more of a recreation, more of a reconstruction of the period and of the impressions one had of life at that age than it is a chronological series of actual events. I don’t pretend to remember conversations which one had forty years ago, so one recreates the conversations, trying to make them true to the people one was conversing with – I mean one tries to create the atmosphere, but it’s much more of a creation of atmosphere than a chronicle.’ (Recorded 9th August 1968; broadcast 18th September 1968).

She further revealed that she never kept a diary but did have some notes that she made at Cornell and some old photographs.

Huxley’s Family

Elspeth stayed with her aunt, uncle and cousins on arrival in England and during the vacations. Although these periods have little relevance to her time in Reading, the treatment of her relatives illustrates her approach.

Gertrude, Kate and Joanna are the children of Aunt Madge and Uncle Jack. They are Elspeth’s cousins and ‘the daughters’ of the book’s title. All the above names are  pseudonyms, as is the case with other relatives and acquaintances.

Cousin Gertrude is a superficial 1920s flapper; Kate got herself expelled from her convent school for various crimes such as running a book on racehorses; Joanna, the youngest, attends a ‘smart’ school in Suffolk; Aunt Madge descends into weeks-long silent sulks; and the idiosyncratic, bigoted Uncle Jack seems angry, disapproving and withdrawn except when reminiscing about his regiment.

These caricatures are accompanied by other family members such as Aunt Lilli and Uncle Rufus (a less well-suited couple it is hardly possible to imagine), not to mention the bottom-pinching Lord Fulbright who insists on taking young women skating, and the withered Russian countess with a constipated parrot that attacks people’s ankles.

It is in such stereotypes, and those of some of the personalities at Reading, that much of the humour lies. It must be said, however, that some of the witty features that thrilled the critics of 1968 are far less hilarious for the modern reader – Lord Fulbright comes across as a sinister predator rather than an amiable eccentric; the casual racism and antisemitism in language and attitudes, the snobbery and patronising colonial attitudes, even if they accurately reflect and satirise the views of a particular section of society in the 1920s, can still come as a shock.

In Elspeth Huxley: a biography, Christine Nicholls documents the extent to which changes had to be made to avoid offending  living family members. In particular, the real-life Joanna didn’t want her daughter to know about her youthful indiscretions. Joanna’s adventurous character was therefore transferred to Kate, and references to drugs, illegitimacy and an abortion were deleted.

Reading and the College/University

In his master’s thesis, Richard Keefe confirms some details in the book, but also notes factual errors: the number of Women’s halls of residence, the size of the student population and the ratio of male to female students. Huxley claimed that ‘Girls were in the fortunate position of being heavily outnumbered by men’ (p. 48), whereas in fact the opposite was true. This misconception, which was perpetuated in the book reviews, and even her biography, must have resulted from Huxley’s experience among predominantly male Agriculture students.

Elspeth’s gloomy perception of the campus and its buildings contrasts sharply with that of Edith Morley (‘These extensive and beautifully laid out grounds’, 1944/2016, p. 111) and with the ambition of W. M. Childs, Reading’s first Vice-Chancellor, ‘to make a place of sojourn for impressionable youth’ (1933, p. 51). In his history of the first 50 years of Reading University, J. C. Holt (1977) concludes that Huxley’s views could be neither ignored nor dismissed – an objective judgement was impossible.

However, in the BBC interview, when Marjorie Anderson queried the dreariness of Reading and the wisdom of educating young people in dreary surroundings, Huxley appeared to attribute this to the town rather than the University:

‘Oh I don’t think I found it dreary myself. I thoroughly enjoyed it.’

Huxley’s Fellow Students

The pseudonyms of the students who figure most centrally are: 

    • Dando: female, a Dairying student who played lacrosse;
    • Thomas: male ‘an athlete and a hockey star’, Dando’s friend;
    • Snugg: female, a third-year student, housemate of Huxley;
    • Turner: male, Rugger Captain, Snugg’s friend;
    •  Corbett: male, Cricket Captain;
    • Viney: male, captain in the Officers Training Corps, and member of the University’s rowing eight;
    • Swift: female, Fine Arts student, housemate of Huxley;
    • Abdul: male, studying Commerce, Swift’s friend, described as ‘a swarthy, sleek-haired Oriental of some kind’, p. 59); the only foreign student, and the only student referred to by his first name;
    • Nash: male, member of the Dramatic Society and Labour Club – an outsider because of his politics and background.

Thomas, Turner, Corbett and Viney made up the self-styled Philosophers Club, an all-male clique who ‘sat together in the Buttery, drank together in the pub, … shared a boat on the river, [went on] jaunts to London to see a show.’ (p. 53).

Following a careful analysis of student records and having spotted how Huxley transposed letters in people’s names, Richard Keefe is confident that he has identified the students on which the characters of Snugg and Turner were based.

Of Snugg, Huxley writes that she:

‘… gave herself airs, and was apt to introduce into conversations topics like hunt balls, point-to-points, first nights, presentations at court and cousins in the Foreign Office’ (p. 51).

All of which was greeted with scepticism because she came from Birmingham. Richard Keefe suggests that the real Snugg was Marjorie Hope Scutt, born in 1906, a student of Fine Art (Diploma), Embroidery (Certificate) and Leatherwork (Certificate).

Huxley sums up Turner as:

‘… not only lord of the [Rugby] Fifteen but he was reading agriculture, had a job lined up in the colonies, held office in the Students’ Union, and was said to drink a lot of beer ; so he was one of the social princes. (p. 50).

Turner was due to spend the next year in Trinidad as training for the Colonial Service and is identified by Keefe as George R. Parker, a Wantage Hall student (1924-26).

Turner’s intended career seems typical of what Huxley claims for the majority of agriculture students at Reading – they would never dirty their hands ploughing or hoeing, but would join local authorities or become agricultural officers and District Commissioners somewhere in the Empire, enjoying the benefits of servants, plenty of leave, good pay and a generous pension after only 25 years.

The Academic Staff

While it takes detective work to identify the students in the book, Huxley’s lecturers in the Agriculture Department are immediately recognisable. One, Professor Sidney Pennington, is even mentioned by his real name – there was no need for a pseudonym because she held him in high regard –  he was a practical person who could turn his hand to real farm work. This should not surprise us as, before his promotion, the College had appointed him farm manager in 1914.

One observation that finds an echo in the University’s Photographic Collection is that ‘the professor was accompanied everywhere by a small and shaggy white terrier’ (p. 69).

Shows the dog
Prof Sidney Pennington with his West Highland terrier on Lane End Farm, Shinfield (University of Reading Special Collections)

Huxley’s other lecturer was ‘Our Dean’, unnamed but obviously H. A. D. Neville, professor of Agricultural Chemistry and Dean of Agriculture since 1920. He is not named in the book, presumably because his description is less complimentary:

‘… a small, squat, ugly, rather savage Midlander who taught biochemistry, spitting out the formulae  as if they had been so many oaths …’ (p. 116).

Prof H. A. D. Neville (University of Reading Special Collections)

The Intermingling of Fact and Fiction

According to Huxley’s biographer, the detail in Love among the Daughters’ cannot be entirely trusted:

‘What Elspeth did was to portray locations accurately, but conceal the truth about events and people who were still alive. She would often transfer a remembered incident to a different time, and always amalgamated or distorted characters so that there was no danger of libel.’ (Nichols, 2002, p. 82)

Nevertheless, as Antonia Fraser suggested in the Sunday Times (22nd September 1968), Huxley skilfully negotiated the blending of fact and fiction such that the reader understood far more of the social history of the period than through academic study.


The BBC copyright content is reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

Thanks also to Penguin Random House for permission to access the Review File for ‘Love among the Daughters’ and to use the quotations from the Woman’s Hour interview.

Many thanks to Richard Keefe for giving me a copy of his master’s thesis.


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

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

Huxley, E. J. (1968). Love among the daughters. London: Chatto & Windus.

Keefe, R. (2022). History, Big Data and changes in the University of Reading / University College Reading’s Student Population over time (1908-1972). Unpublished Master’s Thesis, University of Reading.

McDermid, V. (2023). Past lying. London: Sphere.

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

Nichols, C. S. (2002). Elspeth Huxley: a biography. London: Harper Collins.

University College Reading, Calendar, 1925-6.

University of Reading, Calendars, 1926-27 & 1927-28.

University of Reading Special Collections. Review file for ‘Love among the Daughters’ by Elspeth Huxley. Reference number: CW R/4/40 [also containing interviews with the author and BBC broadcasts – BBC copyright content is reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved].

University of Reading Special Collections. University History MS 5305 Photographs – Portraits Boxes 1 & 2.

Elspeth Huxley at Reading

‘It seemed to rain a great deal in Reading.’ (Elspeth Huxley, ‘Love among the Daughters’, p. 58)

Elspeth Huxley, born Elspeth Grant in 1907, was an agriculture student at Reading in the 1920s. Earlier posts on this blog have mentioned her ‘approved lodgings’ and her description of the Great Hall as ‘a sort of outsize garden shed’.

There are so many facets to Huxley’s life that it is hard to sum her up. She was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, travel-writer, journalist, broadcaster, agriculturist and environmentalist. She was esteemed as an expert on African affairs and was invited onto the Monckton Commission which reviewed the constitution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1960.

Huxley in Kenya
Elspeth Huxley plays a mancala game with two Kikuyu men at Njoro, Kenya in the 1930s (British Empire & Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives: BECC 1995/076/1/2/27)

In 1925 at the age of 18 she left her parents’ coffee plantation in Kenya and headed for England to begin two years as a student of Agriculture at Reading. She arrived during the period when the University College was being transformed into the University of Reading but, as far as I can tell, she made no mention of this in her writing or later interviews.

The University’s official record of her is sparse but there are two relevant entries in the University’s annual report for 1926-27: she was awarded the Diploma in Agriculture, Division I (‘Subject to completion of farm work’) and was the recipient of the Leonard Sutton Prize for Agriculture.

In an interview for the Bristol Museum in 1994, nearly 70 years later, the period at Reading was dismissed with no more than a cursory mention:

‘I left [Kenya] when I was 18 to get a bit of education as they thought, because I hadn’t had any to note.’ 

Nevertheless, it was a sufficiently important landmark in her life that she devoted six chapters to it in her autobiographical narrative ‘Love among the Daughters’.

‘Love among the Daughters’

This was Huxley’s 26th book. published in 1968 and serialised on BBC’s Woman’s Hour the following year. It was the third autobiographical volume recounting her early life and followed ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’ (1959) and ‘The Mottled Lizard’ (1962), accounts of her childhood in Africa. ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’ was made into a seven-part series by Thames TV in 1981.

The daughters of the title are Elspeth’s cousins, given the pseudonyms Gertrude, Kate and Joanna. They are the children of her ‘Aunt Madge’ and ‘Uncle Jack’ with whom she stayed on arrival in the UK and during the vacations.

The book is a chronological account of her time at Reading followed by a year at Cornell University in the USA. It is interspersed with witty descriptions of her eccentric relatives and their acquaintances. Huxley, newly arrived from the colonies, is the naive outsider, like an anthropologist observing the customs of a remote tribe, delicately negotiating English society with its house parties, fox hunting and intimidating servants. The same sense of puzzlement imbues her academic life – Reading was ‘honeycombed with subtle snobberies’ – while her first weeks at Cornell with its sororities and complex course structures were a bewildering sequence of events over which she appeared to have little control.

An interesting feature is her perspective on the relative merits of university life in England and the USA. Although she enjoyed her time at Cornell and appreciated closer relationships with professors and lecturers, she was less impressed by the academic culture – her courses were like an assembly line. They were were hard work – intensive and highly structured, and the examinations were memory tests:

‘Facts were black and white, not grey. The fuzziness was gone. The English ambiguity had annoyed me but now I missed it… The aim here was to answer questions; there [at Reading] to ask them.’ (p. 167).

The theme of university life in the States is one she had originally addressed in an article submitted to Tamesis, the College Magazine, in autumn 1927 – these were still her earliest impressions and focused on the size of the institution, the social life, fraternities, football games and the diversity of subjects on offer. Nevertheless, she had already made up her mind that:

‘Education slavishly follows set lines: whereas personal freedom is almost unlimited, intellectual bondage is complete.’ (Huxley, 1927, p. 12)

The Depiction of Reading in ‘Love among the Daughters’

The town of Reading with its ‘unpretentious’ College/University was always destined to be a disappointment.

‘No one would believe [Reading] had a university.’ (pp. 24-5)

Elspeth’s dream had been Oxford or Cambridge but a lack of Latin gave her little choice:

‘no one would be at Reading if he could possibly have got a place at Oxford’ (p. 60)

Some of her first impressions of the campus and its surroundings are recorded on page 47:

    • ‘London Road was not as squalid as some of the neighbouring streets… little dwellings dark with grime’;
    • Close by was ‘the Royal Berkshire Hospital, which looked more like a university than that establishment itself.’;
    • The campus sported ‘an ugly clock tower’;
    • ‘The whole place had a newly spawned and makeshift appearance and lacked dignity, coherence or style.’;
    • The lobby was ‘much less imposing than the booking hall of any small country station.’.

Elsewhere she refers to ‘the dark back-streets of Reading wet with drizzle’ (p. 122) and contemplates the rumour that Reading was the second most immoral city in England (second only to Nottingham!).

On a lighter note, she writes of college dances, learning the tango, walks by the Thames, teas in Sonning and the Henley Regatta. She provides pen portraits of her lecturers and fellow students. Despite the alleged immorality of the town, relationships between female and male students were chaste, not for moral or religious reasons but simply because of a ‘lack of facilities’:

‘What could we do on a muddy tow-path in a wet gale on a Sunday Evening swathed in macs and blue with cold, even when strengthened by iced cakes?’ (p. 64)

Her academic studies centred on the biological sciences combined with practical farm work:

‘we spent many wet, cold and inconclusive afternoons trudging round the university farm learning how to mark out a field for ploughing, to distinguish Yorkshire fog from cocksfoot and sainfoin from broad red clover, to master the show points of bulls, cows, pigs and fat bullocks, and to calculate the areas of fields.’ (p. 117)

Studying the natural sciences was a new experience for her, and something of a revelation. She seems barely able to contain her enthusiasm for areas of biology, zoology and bacteriology such as the life of the liver fluke or the structure of a stamen.

The Book Reviews

The University of Reading’s Special Collections holds 35 pages of press cuttings containing reviews, publisher’s announcements and interviews with the author, all relating to ‘Love among the Daughters’.

The reviews tend to focus on the eccentricities of Huxley’s relatives and acquaintances and upper-class rural life spent hunting and shooting. Those that deal in any depth with Reading University echo the drabness and gloom of Huxley’s description, the petty bourgeois snobbery and student poverty.

Huxley’s time at Cornell receives far less attention, except from reviews in The New York Times and The Irish Times; a BBC Radio 4 broadcast on ‘Today from the South and West’ cut the whole section on Elspeth’s time in the US from the original script.

Several reviewers mention, or deplore, the role of students in helping to break the General Strike of 1926 believing that they were saving the nation. It was an event that Huxley herself looks back on with embarrassment at the political naivety of herself and her friends: ‘overnight the students became a reservoir of scabs’ (p. 138).

Huxley’s biographer, Christine Nicholls, claims that the critics were unanimous in their praise of the book, and while it is true that the response was overwhelmingly positive, there were a few reservations. Christopher Wordsworth in The Observer (29/9/68) suggested that the comedy was overdone. Others questioned the accuracy of Huxley’s memory and disputed the amount of rain that fell on the town.

A future post will address some of the aspects of ‘Love among the Daughters’ that may leave modern readers feeling distinctly uncomfortable, and consider the historical accuracy of a work that was written some four decades after the events depicted.


To Thomas Birkhead at the Penguin Random House archive for permission to access the Review File for ‘Love among the daughters’ and to Jayne Pucknell, Senior Archivist at the Bristol Archives, for the transcript of Huxley’s 1994 interview and the photograph of her in Kenya.


Bristol Archives. Interview with Mrs Elspeth Huxley in Oaksey on 7th March 1994. Reference: BECC OH 0114.

Huxley, E. J. (1927). I’ll tell the world! Impressions of an American university. Tamesis: The Official Organ of the Students’ Union of the University of Reading, Vol. XXVI, Autumn Term, No. 1, pp. 11-13.

Huxley, E. J. (1968). Love among the daughters. London: Chatto & Windus.

Nicholls, C. S. (2002). Elspeth Huxley: a biography. London: Harper Collins.

University College Reading, Calendar, 1925-6.

University of Reading, Calendars, 1926-27 & 1927-28.

University of Reading. Proceedings of the University, 1926-27.

University of Reading Special Collections. Review file for ‘Love among the Daughters’ by Elspeth Huxley. Reference number: CW R/4/40.

Women and Higher Education: Praise for University College, Reading

In December 1915, the College Review reported a speech about opportunities for women in which University College, Reading was singled out for a special pat on the back.

The speech was given by Sara Burstall, Head of the Manchester High School for Girls from 1898 to 1924, and the second headmistress of the independent school that had been founded in 1874. As can be seen from the text of her speech below, she was a champion of women’s education. She was also a strong supporter of women’s suffrage. Details of her life and career can be found here in the school’s digital archives.

Opening section of the article in the Reading University College Review, December 1915.

In her address, Miss Burstall stressed that any reduction in the government grant would have a direct impact on women students in the newer universities . She continued:

‘In these centres of higher education women enjoy full rights, and to maintain and increase the efficiency of these institutions is one of the most important needs of women’s education. We have only to study what is being done for women at University College, Reading, to see an example of what is needed, and what deserves public support and credit.’ (pp, 20-21).

These words raise three questions. What was it about Reading that stood out? What was life really like for women students? How did Sara Burstall know so much about University College, Reading?

What was it about Reading that stood out?

Several factors may be relevant:

  • University College, Reading was a pioneer in the provision of student hostels and halls of residence, especially for female students. Even as early as 1907, two such hostels provided for 80 women (Childs, 1933). It seems to have been assumed that  women from outside the area would be provided with accommodation — in the mid-1920s, the novelist Elspeth Huxley had no choice but to accept an ‘approved lodging’ in a hostel, having applied too late for a place in a hall of residence.
  • Wardens of women’s halls and hostels, for example Mary Bolam at St Andrew’s, were very protective of their charges and were concerned with both their personal and academic well-being.
  • Universities and colleges that established a senior position dedicated to the welfare and discipline of female students tended to be favoured by parents and the headteachers of girls’ schools (Dyhouse, 1995). In 1915 this post, officially known as the Censor of Women Students, was occupied by Lucy Ashcroft, herself a former Maths teacher in high schools for girls.
  • The College already had a high proportion of women students, especially in subjects such as dairying, teacher education and horticulture. The trend towards equal numbers of men and women would continue once the College had become a University in 1926 (see Dyhouse, 2006).
  • It was claimed that women and men at Reading had equal access to all classes and College societies (Dyhouse, 1995).
  • In 1908 Edith Morley had been made Professor of English Language, the first woman in the UK to obtain a chair at a university or a college of similar academic standing.

I wondered whether Reading offered funding that was exclusive to women. Thanks to the diligence of Professor Edith Morley, this information is readily available:  Morley’s edited volume ‘Women workers in seven professions’ (1914) contains a table listing details of the first degrees at all universities and university colleges in the UK, together with the availability of scholarships, bursaries and prizes. Those reserved for women are clearly identified.

Illustration of Reading's funding for women only
An example of how Edith Morley collated information about Higher Education costs and funding. The entries in italics were for women only.

Reading was indeed one of the institutions that set aside financial assistance for women, particularly for students in St Andrew’s Hall. However, these were no more generous or numerous than those at many other institutions.

What Was life really like for women students?

With regard to the bullet points above, Reading seems to compare well with other colleges and universities. I have found no accounts of women having to pay for chaperones in order to attend classes, or being unable to attend meetings or access the library such as those reported In Carol Dyhouse’s (1995) history of women in higher education.

Nevertheless, as Dyhouse points out, there was a great deal of separation between male and female students at Reading, as well as a tendency to study different subjects. There were separate students’ unions, common rooms, sporting activities and separate rules of discipline in halls and elsewhere that often placed tighter restrictions on women than on men.

Such divisions were reported by no less a figure than Albert Wolters, the founder of Reading’s Psychology Department. He recalled that, when he was an education student in 1902, the men were outnumbered by two to one, and that:

‘The present-day student would be astonished at the way in which the men and women held to their own communities … We, the small body of men, were completely integrated, and we dominated the student body ruthlessly and objectionably. But at the end of the year we, who would have been the new oligarchy, saw the folly of our ways and threw our strength into the foundation of the Men Students’ Union..” (Wolters, 1949, p. 18).

The pages of Tamesis, the College Magazine, bear witness to   the patronising attitudes, mockery and even contempt to which women were subjected. Some of the articles are quite offensive, but the women showed themselves quite capable of responding in kind.

Probably the most repugnant attack on the female student body was contained in a spoof edition of Tamesis that was compiled (presumably by male students) in 1927. This so-called ‘Scandal Supplement’ with its feeble and sometimes incomprehensible humour includes a poem titled ‘Some Views on Women’ that is declared to be the leading article and dominates the front page. The image below gives an indication of the tone of its content.

enlarged header
Front cover of the  spoof edition of Tamesis (University of Reading Special Collections).  It was damaged and fragile but is now being repaired and protected by Victoria Stevens, Paper Conservator at the University Museums and Special Collections Services.
What was Sara Burstall’s connection to Reading?

I can’t be certain, but I believe the link to be Caroline Herford who has been the subject of two previous posts on this blog (her portrait can be seen below). Born and educated in Manchester and a former headteacher, Herford became Reading’s first Lecturer in Secondary Education in 1909. She left after only six terms, but the notice of her resignation in the College Review is full of praise for her impact on the college and for her expertise and professionalism. She returned to her roots in Manchester in 1910 for a post as Lecturer in Secondary Education at the University where it is likely that she came into contact with Sara Burstall.

It is also likely that they already knew each other as headteachers — when Herford had been the Head of Lady Barn House School, the period of her headship overlapped with that of Burstall:  Herford’s from 1886 to 1907, and Burstall’s from 1898 to 1924.

Manchester High School for Girls would almost certainly have been a destination for at least some of the girls leaving Lady Barn House, just as it still was in September 2022!

Archivists at the Manchester High School for Girls have found three mentions of the Herfords in their paper records. The first refers to May Herford who taught Classics from 1915 to 1916;  the second is Charles Herford, Caroline’s cousin, who was Professor of English at Manchester University and whose tribute to a former teacher at the school was published in the School Magazine in 1917; the third refers again to Charles Herford who, as well as Sara Burstall, attended the funeral of Margaret Gaskell (daughter of Elizabeth Gaskell), one of the school’s founders. I think, therefore, that we can be confident of a connection between the school and the Herford family.

A third point of contact could have been the Lancashire Red Cross during World War I. According to the digital archives of Manchester High School for Girls, Sara Burstall was on holiday when the war broke out in 1914, but returned immediately and, with advice from the Red Cross, set up a Centre for making clothes and hospital supplies at the school.

At the same time, and in addition to her academic duties, Caroline Herford was a Commandant of the Lancashire Red Cross, a position she held until 1918 and for which she was awarded the MBE. It’s sheer speculation, of course, but could it have been Caroline Herford who advised Sara Burstall on establishing the centre at the High School?

Commandant Miss Caroline Herford MBE, Voluntary Aid Detachments (© Imperial War Museum).

The back of the photograph of Caroline Herford contains the following handwritten details of the work of her students and colleagues in Manchester:

‘Squads of University Students met Ambulance Trains at all hours of the night, and gave hot tea & coffee to the wounded, which were prepared in the Porters’ Room. Between 11 May 1915 and 11 May 1919 they met & [illegible word] 866 trains.’


To the Imperial War Museum for permission to use the image of Caroline Herford.

A very special thanks to Gwen Hobson and Pam Roberts, archivists at the Manchester High School for Girls who searched School Magazines, School Reports, Governors’ Minutes, letters and newspaper articles for references to the Herford family and to Sara Burstall’s talk.

Another special thank-you to Dan Slade, Deputy Head of Lady Barn House School, for further information and documentation about the Herfords.


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.

Dyhouse, C. (2006). Students: a gendered history. Abingdon: Routledge.

Herford, C. H. (1917). Annie Adamson. In S. A. Burstall (Ed.), Memorial Number of the Manchester High School for Girls (pp. 18-22) [Originally published in the Modern Language Quarterly].

Huxley, E. (1968). Love among the daughters. London: Chatto & Windus.

Morley, E. J. (Ed.). (2014). 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].

Manchester High School for Girls Digital Archives: https://www.mhsgarchive.org

Oxford University Press (2004). Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford: OUP.

Reading College Magazine, 1901-2.Tamesis, Winter Term, Vol II, 1901, pp. 11-12 [anonymous criticism of women’s hockey].

Tamesis, Spring Term, Vol III, 1901, p. 32 [anonymous counter-attack by ‘A Hockey Player’].

Tamesis Scandal Supplement, Reading, June 1927, University of Reading Special Collections.

The Reading University College Review, Dec 1910, Vol III, No. 7, p.24. [Notice of Herford’s resignation].

The Reading University College Review, Dec. 1915, Vol. VIII, No. 22, pp. 20-21. [Miss Burstall on women’s education].

Wolters, A. W. (1949). Early days. In H. C. Barnard (Ed.), The Education Department through fifty years (pp. 18-20). Reading: University of Reading.

Whatever happened to the South Cloister? Part 1: 1905-1926

Anyone based at London Road who has had to walk from the Dairy to L22 in the pouring rain must have wondered why no-one had ever thought of building cloisters on all four sides of the Campus.

A dry day in August, 2022:  the path from the Dairy, passing between L16 and L19, and leading to L22

In fact, a complete set of cloisters surrounding the central quadrangle had been planned ever since the occupation of the London Road Campus in 1905. According to W. M. Childs’s memoir it had been part of his vision right from the start. Referring back to ‘Our New Home’ he writes :

‘The time might come when cloister and pavilions would form one side of a quadrangle extending over ground not yet ours, and cloistered the whole way round’ (Childs, 1933, p. 55)

The first cloister to be built was the East Cloister, shown in the image below and on a campus map published in the Students’ Handbook in 1907:

Early image E. Cloister
Early image of the East Cloister showing the sign for the Physics Building, (now L11). The camera must have been situated just beyond L14 and L19 (University of Reading Special Collections)
Campus Plan of 1907

As far as I can see, the first indication of a South Cloister in a development plan was in 1911. In it the East Cloister extends as far as the present L16, turns right and forms a straight corridor to the spur of L19. It then continues to the centre of what today would be L22 where it was to join the projected West Cloister.

development plan
Development Plan, 1911 (University of Reading Special Collections)

By about 1917, a cloister leading from the Porters’ Lodge was in place between the Great Hall and what, at that time, was the Rose Garden:

Rose Garden
The Rose Garden, circa 1917 (University of Reading Special Collections)

Note the original curved, corrugated roof compared with the pointed roof in this recent image taken from the same spot:

pointed roof
January 2019: the Cloister and Great Hall looking across the site of the former Rose Garden

The change to the structure of the roof can also be seen in these two images that show the underside of the same section.

Looking southwards from the Porters’ Lodge (Early Campus postcard: University of Reading Special Collections)
January 2019: looking towards L46 (now the Architecture Building)

The original roof looks suspiciously like corrugated iron, and this is confirmed, somewhat disparagingly, by Elspeth Huxley’s fictionalised autobiography of her time at Reading in the 1920s. She refers to:

‘… lecture rooms and laboratories linked by what were known as cloisters but were merely brick-floored pathways roofed by corrugated iron.’ (p. 47)

Today’s West Cloister leads northwards from L22 to L33. In the  1907 map shown above, the area is described as ‘Horticultural Garden and Glass Houses’.  This is how it looked until 1917 when the Horticulture Department moved to Shinfield and the Glass Houses were demolished (Giles, 2000):

The site of today’s West Cloister. In the background is the Great Hall (University of Reading Special Collections)

Development of this part of the Campus had to wait until University status had been achieved, after which the need for more and improved accommodation became acute.

This will be detailed in the next post.


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

Giles, A. K. (2000). From ‘Cow College’ to Life Sciences: a chronicle in celebration of seventy-five years and a new name for The University of Reading’s Agricultural Faculty. The Faculty of Agriculture and Food (Life Sciences), University of Reading.

Huxley, E. (1968). Love among the daughters. London: Chatto & Windus.

Tranter, H. (2010). The architectural development of University College, Reading, 1902-1926. Unpublished Dissertation for the Postgraduate Certificate in Architectural History, University of Oxford.

University College Reading (1907). Students’ handbook. First issue: 1907-8.

St Andrew’s: from Hostel to Hall

The original University College and Reading University have always been justifiably proud of their student accommodation. They were pioneers in this field. The author and journalist Elspeth Huxley, however, had little time for hall life. In her semi-fictional account of her time as an agricultural student at Reading in the 1920s she counts herself lucky not to get a hall place:

‘Most of the students lived in halls of residence, and I had dreaded going to live in one with its inevitable rules and regulations and herding together. I was lucky; Reading had only two halls for women, and I had applied too late to get a place…’ (Love among the Daughters, pp. 47-8)

Nevertheless, she does admit that, ‘The smart hall was St Andrew’s’ (p. 49).  By the time Huxley arrived in Reading in 1925, the former St Andrew’s Hostel in London Road, that had been set up privately by Mary Bolam, had long since been replaced by St Andrew’s Hall.


By 1908 it was obvious that the old hostel’s capacity and quality of provision were inadequate. Once again the Palmer family came to the rescue: Alfred Palmer offered the tenancy of his old home East Thorpe on Redlands Road. This large house had been designed by Alfred Waterhouse and completed in 1880. The terms of the lease were generous and came with a promise to add a new wing to double its capacity. On Palmer’s death in 1936 the University inherited the property.

ground floor
Architect’s Ground Floor Plan of ‘East Thorpe’, 1880 (University of Reading Special Collections)

The official opening of St Andrew’s Hall was conducted by Mrs Alfred Palmer on June 10th 1911 and was followed by a garden party. After that things progressed quickly: fees were set; a management committee was appointed; and Allen Seaby, Lecturer in the Department of Fine Arts, designed a bookplate.

Between 70 and 80 women students moved into East Thorpe with  Mary Bolam continuing as Warden. The Hall was now under the direct control of the College rather than a private venture as had previously been the case. Capacity was soon increased from 79 to approximately 120 students through the use of neighbouring houses.

The Hall from the corner of Redlands Rd and Acacia Rd (College Review, 1913).

Fees quoted in the College Calendar of 1911-12 were £32 per annum for sharing a double  bedroom; £36 for sharing a double study-bedroom; and £42 for occupying a single study-bedroom. Rules and regulations, in addition to the general College rules about behaviour, punctuality and attendance, were the same for students in all halls, hostels and ‘Recognised Houses’, and focused on obtaining permission for changing accommodation, overnight absences, leaving Reading before the end of term and staying in Reading after the end of term.

The Calendar advertised that:

‘All studies and study-bedrooms have fire-places. Lighting is by electricity and gas, and hot-water radiators traverse the building. There is complete provision of bath-rooms, lavatories, pantries, cloak-rooms, drying-rooms, and bicycle sheds.’ (p. 100)

Study Bedroom in St Andrew’s Hall (College Review, 1913).

The St Andrew’s Hall Committee was chaired by Mrs Childs, wife of the Principal, and included Mr and Mrs Palmer, the Warden, and the Principal. Francis Wright, the Registrar, acted as Secretary.

In an Appendix to the College’s Annual Report of 1911-12, Mary Bolam reported that:

‘Everyone has settled down comfortably in the new Hall so that the old days seem far away. The health throughout the year has been excellent.’ (p. 59)

The Hall bookplate, designed by Allen Seaby; published in 1911 in Tamesis; with the motto ‘They can because they think they can’.

The architect’s plan of the Palmer household (see above) can easily be related to the layout of today’s building by those who visit the Museum of English Rural Life and the University’s Special Collections.

Enlarged secction

This enlarged section of the ground floor plan shows the three rooms (Morning Room, Drawing Room and Dining Room) that were knocked into one to become the Special Collections Reading Room. The Entrance Hall became St Andrew’s student common room, and is currently hosting MERL’s exhibition ‘Biscuit Town: 200 Years of Huntley and Palmers in Reading’. The room at  bottom right is still referred to by staff as ‘The Study’.

The wall between the original dining room and drawing room had already been removed in 1911, as reported in the Calendar of 1911-12:

‘The former drawing-room and dining-room have been thrown into one, making a spacious dining-hall, fifty feet long, facing the garden and opening into it.’ (p. 100)

The result can be seen in the image below. Here, the wall between the original Drawing Room and Morning Room remains intact.

Old dining hall
University of Reading Special Collections (undated).
The Reading Room in January 2022. The wall between the former morning room and drawing room no longer exists.

Other original features have been preserved: the two doorways (blocked by bookcases), the moulding, the fireplaces and the windows (one of them the bay window), looking out onto the gardens.

View from the Gardens (Childs, 1929).
The Gardens in July 2013.

Please see The History of St. Andrew’s Hall  for more information.  This ‘Scrapbook’, based on research by Rosalinde Downing and produced by The Museum of English Rural Life,  provides a lot more detail about East Thorpe, its designer and owners; its time as St Andrew’s (including extracts from the Minute Books of the Common Room Committee); the heated controversy over the Hall’s closure in 2001; and its subsequent reincarnation as The Museum of English Rural Life.


To Professor Viv Edwards for the Latin translation; and to Emily Gillmor for permission to reproduce Allen Seaby’s bookplate design.

Also to the Reading Room Assistants and Graduate Trainees for help accessing material and with the photography.


Childs, W. M. (1929). A note on the University of Reading.  Reading: University of Reading.

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

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

Huxley, E. (1968). Love among the daughters. London: Chatto & Windus.

Seaby, A. W.  (1911). Bookplate for St. Andrew’s Hall. Tamesis, Vol. X, Spring Term, 1911. No. 1, p. 94. 

The Reading University College Review, Vol. III, July 1911, pp. 180-81.
The Reading University College Review, Vol. V, No. 15 (Images on p. 252 ff.).

University College Reading, Annual Report and Accounts, 1911-12.

University College, Reading. Calendar, 1911-12 & 1912-13.

University of Reading Special Collections. Photographs in the box: University History, MS5305 Halls, Great Hall.

The Great Hall: ‘a handsome building’ or an ‘outsize garden shed’

The Times report of the grand opening of the Great Hall described it as ‘a handsome building‘. It is  just as handsome today. It has been well maintained and beautifully preserved, and has been a Grade II listed building since 1987.

Now & Then
The Great Hall in 2019 and 1907 (Students’ Handbook) looking towards the North Window

Architectural details can be found on the Historic England website. Here’s how the College Principal, W. M. Childs described it in his memoir:

A hall was built large enough to seat a thousand people. Externally, it was of a certain solidity; internally, the oak panelling, and the sweeping curves of the roof gave it a handsome and cheerful dignity. It answered its purpose as a rallying centre of life. Speakers and musicians praised it. Examinees found it comfortable and airy; for festivities it was first-rate; and its floor was very perfectly constructed for dancing.‘ (p. 56)

The dances have been described by several past students. Professor Holt reports an interview with Dr Adela Erith who had been a student in St Andrew’s Hall in 1913. According to Dr Erith the Warden, Miss Bolam, monitored the suitability of the men her charges wished to take to the summer ball:  Were they gentlemen? Did they own a dinner suit?

She [Miss Bolam] would not countenance any unseemly behaviour and would not allow the men to swing the women off their feet when dancing the Lancers.‘ (Holt, 1977, p. 66)

Writing in 1949 Ernest Allwood, who had obtained the Diploma in Letters in 1920, wondered nostalgically:

‘How many present-day students can envisage a dance in the Great Hall with men in tails and white gloves and the women students being escorted by their duennas from their Hall of Residence in approved crocodile formation?’ (p. 26)

The one sour note about the Great Hall comes from the author and journalist Elspeth Huxley who arrived at Reading in 1925 to study agriculture. In her fictionalised autobiography, ‘Love among the Daughters‘, she describes the Hall as ‘a sort of outsize garden shed where dances, examinations and assemblies were held.‘ (p. 47).

This is just one of the many barbs she directs at the College and University, its campus and the area round London Road. She too reflects on the dancing and recalls her first Students’ Union dance at the beginning of the academic year. It is a sharp contrast to Childs’s description:

Tickets, so far as I remember, were three-and-six, including supper in the Buttery. The dances themselves were held in the outsize garden shed. The deal floor, rough and splintered and marked with ink stains from the pens of agonized examinees, was sprinkled for the occasion with french chalk which formed treacherous patches on which you were liable to slip and twist an ankle….Between dances, you walked about in cloisters swept by gusts of icy wind that wrecked you hair-do and chilled your bones.’ (Huxley, 1968, p. 51)

She didn’t think much of the supper in the Buttery either! Nevertheless, even the hard-to-please Elspeth Huxley had fond memories of such occasions: ‘And yet, we did enjoy those dances…. At eighteen, they had magic. God knows what one would think of them now.’ (pp. 51-2)

More evocative of my own experience of evening concerts in the Hall is ‘The Hall by Moonlight‘ by Allen Seaby. It was published in Tamesis, the College magazine in 1910. At the time he was Lecturer in Fine Art but became Director of the department in 1911 and Professor in 1920. He was a distinguished and prolific artist, author and ornithologist whose sketches and designs can be found in issues of the College Magazine, the College Review and other publications of the College and University. Further examples of Professor Seaby’s work will be featured in  future posts.

‘The Hall by Moonlight’ by Allen Seaby, 1910

The references above mention dances, examinations, festivities, assemblies and concerts. But who would have predicted its deployment as a COVID-19 testing station?

The Great Hall, January 2021
Post Script

I shall return to Elspeth Huxley’s semi-fictionalised account of her time at Reading in a future post.


I am grateful to Emily Gillmor for permission to reproduce ‘The Hall by Moonlight‘.


Allwood, E. F. (1949). 1919-1920. In H. C. Barnard (Ed.), The Education Department through fifty years (pp. 26-7). University of Reading.

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


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

Huxley, E. (1968). Love among the daughters. London: Chatto & Windus.

Nicholls, C. S. (2002). Elspeth Huxley: a biography. London: Harper Collins.

Seaby, A. W. (1910). The Hall by moonlight [Sketch]. Tamesis, Vol. X., Autumn Term, 1910. No. 1, between pp. 19 & 20.

University College, Reading. Speech by Mr Haldane. (1906, October 29). The Times, p. 3.

University College Reading (1908). Students’ handbook. Second issue: 1908-9. Reading: UCR.

University of Reading Special Collections, MS 5383/1-12 (Postcards): University Buildings, early 20th Century.