St Hilda's College

Mary Bennett 1913-2005, Principal 1965-1980

The first Principal with a husband, Mary and John Bennett broke new ground, encouraging students in the Lodgings and leading the musical life of the College. On being proposed for the Principalship, she is reputed to have said 'it can't be much worse than running the WI'.

Alida Young, DPhil, English, who studied at St Hilda's while Mary Bennett was Principal, has written the following personal account of their friendship:


Remembering Mary Bennett, Principal of St. Hilda’s College, 1965-1980

To this day, whenever I make an omelet--usually with my spouse standing nearby in the kitchen with me--I measure out a teaspoon of water and, dropping it into the egg mixture, say “Bless you, Mary Bennett.” My spouse invariably smiles and repeats it after me. To explain that ritual involves memories going back more than thirty years and the distance of an ocean. That was then in England and here I am now in the United States. But the memories remain vivid and are deeply cherished. The former Principal of St. Hilda’s distinctive presence and lasting influence are, even now, never far away.

Mary Bennett taught me the secret to a delicious, moist omelet depends on that little bit of water, just as she taught me the secret to elegance is simplicity and authenticity. A distinguished woman of the world with an impressive pedigree and accustomed to privilege, she also taught me to be mindful of those around you--that no one is ever above the simple courtesies or too important to show interest, attentiveness, and warmth.

Though I had a mother of my own--a loving one--Mary Bennett, in retrospect, became a kind of mother figure for me as well. And, as our friendship grew--though the subject never came up, never seemed to matter--I like to think I represented for her, in some sense and at some level, the daughter she never had.

I met Mary Bennett the first time when, as a newly arrived American graduate student at St. Hilda’s during the 1970’s, I was invited for the traditional “meet and greet” with the Principal. Sitting down in the designated chair in front of her in her spacious office, her presence was admittedly--and as I heard reported--formidable, even regal. But, when our meeting was over, I remember my overall impression of her could be summed up in one word: sparkling. Maybe it was because of her sparkling blue eyes or her sparkling, immaculately white blouse worn under a signature periwinkle blue sweater. As we talked, I realized it was also because of her love of sparkling conversation. With time I would learn it was, most of all, because of her sparkling spirit.

As the academic term proceeded, I would catch a glimpse of the Principal now and then. Our paths might briefly cross on the college grounds. But the surprise came when one morning I found her note in its pale blue envelope in my pigeonhole. “My dear Alida,” it read, “John will be out tonight. Would you like to join me at the Lodgings for dinner?  It will all be very simple.”  Of course, I accepted the invitation. Who would refuse? And so began a delightful custom that would repeat itself on multiple occasions throughout my graduate years.

I remember loving the Lodgings at first sight--its layout and balance, airiness and light.  Its bright and open character, it struck me, reflected the lady of the house. Upon ringing the bell, the Principal would open the front door and usher me into a roomy vestibule, with a black and white tiled floor, and main rooms radiating from it: drawing room straight ahead, kitchen to the left, and study and staircase leading to the second floor on the right. The inviting drawing room was painted pure white, with a panel of French doors at its center opening to a back patio. The furniture, effectively spare and set away from the walls, included armchairs with white slipcovers and a white settee accented with a red paisley India shawl spread across it. The fireplace, where we would have a glass of sherry before dinner, had blue-slipcovered wingchairs on each side, facing each other. The Principal always sat in the chair on the right and I sat in the one on the left.

Having begun our conversation in the drawing room, we would move to the adjacent dining room and sit down to a gracefully styled mahogany dining table and chairs with, I thought, the loveliest moss green velvet upholstery. The meal would typically be an omelet, a tossed salad, and crusty bread with creamery butter, accompanied by a glass of wine. Sometimes there would be cold chicken cutlets. There would always be a sweet--perhaps a raspberry tart with custard or a gooseberry fool--and there was also always cheese. Everything would be standing ready at the sideboard, the Principal having prepared it herself if it had not been earlier by Mrs. H, the kindly woman who cooked for the Principal and her husband John when they dined at home together.

Our conversation would range widely--about a recent chamber concert at the Holywell Music Room, a newly published book by an Oxford don, or an exhibit one of us had attended at the Christ Church Picture Gallery. Or, the topic might be women’s colleges in America, some of which she had visited to learn more about them. Mary Bennett was thoroughly up to date and always studying the debate around single sex institutions--perhaps anticipating decisions and choices that would someday have to be made--and she was always interested in more input on the subject.

We shared a love of music and might also have discussed the Sunday afternoon concerts she and John regularly hosted at the Lodgings--when student musicians from St. Hilda’s and other colleges would perform and to which others, like me, were invited to make up an audience. Sitting ensconced within the harmonious proportions and pristine surroundings of the Lodgings, sipping another glass of sherry, and listening to the string quartet of the day performing Haydn or Mozart, I felt as if I had been transported to a Regency drawing room in the time of Jane Austen. John Bennett was a man of strict musical tastes: nothing after 1850 in the classical music repertoire was generally played. I remember how once, when I was housesitting at the Lodgings, he and the Principal returned home and, upon entering the house, he was shocked to hear I had the radio tuned to a Mahler symphony.

From time to time during the academic term, Mary Bennett and John would go to Surrey to spend the weekend at their country home in Thursley, where they also spent their summers. The Principal had asked if I would be interested in housesitting at the Lodgings while they were gone, as a break from my college digs in Alma Place. If free, I always made myself available; it was a chance to enjoy a change of scene and I felt honored by the invitation. Seeing them off on their trip provided me with one of my most endearing memories: the sight of the two of them side by side in their charmingly quaint, spotlessly clean, and jaunty “Clipper Blue” Morris Minor--the slightly taller Principal sitting erectly at the wheel and waving goodbye as they headed down the circular drive.

I will always remember Mary Bennett’s explanation the first time she asked me to housesit. She said a house was meant to be lived in and should never stand empty; a house should have life to it. Housesitting at the Lodgings meant taking care of Whitby, the all-white resident cat named after St. Hilda--the Abbess of Whitby--and namesake of the college. Whitby mostly stayed invisible and on occasion I would hunt for her to make sure she was safely on the premises. She could usually be found hiding in the upstairs bedroom, no doubt missing her master and mistress. Finding Whitby safe, I would catch a glimpse of the painting on the wall: a cozy scene depicting the Principal and her husband sitting together in separate chairs on a braided rug in front of a glowing fireplace. I assumed the setting was Rock Cottage, their home in Thursley, and noticed the artist had painted John’s feet as not quite reaching the floor but that the Principal’s did. A touching detail.

Hanging elsewhere in the Lodgings was another painting: a portrait of Mary Bennett as an attractive young woman with striking blue eyes. I always imagined she would have had a succession of suitors. Yet Mary Bennett had married late in life--certainly for her generation--and always made it clear her marriage came first. I remember that when I saw, as sometimes happened, an advertisement in the University Gazette or elsewhere for a committee or board position--likely involving music--prompting me to remark she would be the perfect person to fill it, her response would always be that she was flattered but could not consider it out of deference to John.

Not long after I left Oxford with my degree to return home, Mary Bennett retired. She had hinted she would and I had protested it seemed too early but did not know, as I do now, that she had reached the age when English law required it. Although Thursley would always be home base, she and John chose to live in college digs to stay close to St. Hilda’s. To my great surprise, I learned they had landed in the very same house I had occupied in Alma Place. If now a “dower house,” it had nothing “dour” about it, nor did a “dowager” reside in it; the Bennetts remained vibrant and active as ever.

In later years and married, I visited Mary Bennett with my spouse in Oxford twice.  Sadly, John had passed away and she insisted we stay with her in Alma Place where, graciously and characteristically, she made herself scarce to afford us space and comfort. Upon her request, my husband happily fixed a squeaky latch on the front stoop gate and pulled out some sweet pea vines that had grown too luxuriant in the garden. She also, almost girlishly, showed me a garnet ring she had bought for herself.  A bit of an indulgence, she said, but why not at this stage of life, and did I like it? It wasn’t too showy? Needless to say, it was exquisite and, no, it was not.

As time passed, we never stopped corresponding by mail. My trove of blue aerogrammes grew. I was humbled by the faithfulness and largesse of such a flow of letters from a woman who was richly and abundantly connected to so many others who were surely more important.

The day came when I learned that Mary Bennett had cancer and had been taken to the John Radcliffe Infirmary. She was 92 years old. I knew she was being well cared for but felt helpless because so far away. Telephone messages conveying love and concern left at the hospital seemed inadequate.

It was autumn, the cold of winter pressing in, but the card I posted showed a watercolor of a robin’s nest. I wanted her to know that for me she would always represent eternal spring. The robin’s eggs inside the nest were not quite the right color blue--not her signature shade--but I knew she would forgive me.

Perhaps my modest tribute never reached her--maybe it was already too late. But it does not matter. Nothing in life is ever perfect--except that our unique friendship was. Thank you, Mary Letitia Somerville Fisher Bennett.

©  Alida Young, DPhil, English