Library and Archives Blog

Elizabeth Maconchy in St Hilda's Archives

Our Archivist, Oliver Mahony, explores the range of wonderful items relating to composer Elizabeth Maconchy featured in the current display in the case in South Foyer.

To mark the upcoming performance by Rosalind Ventis of the String Quartet No.3 [1938], the current display in South Building celebrates the collections of composer and Honorary Fellow Elizabeth Violet Maconchy [1909-1994].

The St Hilda's Archives holds an extensive collection of her MS musical scores as well as her unique personal papers. These include appointment diaries, correspondence, concert programmes and cuttings albums. The cuttings albums in particular, one of which is on display, give a unique insight into how her compositions were received by critics and how female composers gained recognition from the 1920s onwards. Later cuttings in the collection focus on the early career of her daughter, academic and composer Nicola LeFanu [St Hilda's 1965].


Featured items

  • Photograph of Elizabeth Maconchy by Suzie E Maeder.
  • Cuttings scrap book c.1926-1935 [SHA/PP1/Unlisted Box 13]
  • Ink score: ' And Death Shall have no Dominion' c.1969. Donation. [Accession: 2020.0020/ PP1 C.1.2b]
  • Visitor Guide to The National Museum of Art, Washington D.C c.1962 [SHA/PP1/unlisted box 13]
  • Appointment diaries c 1955 and c. 1985 [ SHA/PP1/unlisted box 14]
  • Newspaper cuttings about performance of piece by Nicola LeFanu c. August 1975 [SHA/PP1/unlisted box 7]







Maconchy items in the display, including manuscript score, appointment diary, cuttings albums, concert programme and photograph, Photograph of Elizabeth Maconchy by Suzie E. Maeder, Newspaper cutting relating to Elizabeth Maconchy from the Daily Mail, 30 August 1930, Elizabeth Maconchy's appointment book from 1985

Uncomfortable stories: Virginia Woolf and George Duckworth

To coincide with the CILIP Rare Books conference, Dr Michelle A. Taylor (Joanna Randall MacIver Junior Research Fellow), explores an uncomfortable story in the College Library’s collections. The items featured here are currently on display in the case in South Foyer.

Mary Bennett, Principal of St Hilda’s College from 1965-1980, was a relative of Virginia Woolf, being the daughter of Woolf’s maternal cousin, H. A. L. Fisher. She donated autographed books by Woolf to the St Hilda’s College Library and Archives. They are inscribed, rather cursorily, to Woolf’s maternal half-brother (also Bennett’s relative), George Duckworth. The brevity of these inscriptions already tells us a little about Woolf’s relationship to George, suggesting a marked lack of closeness or affection. It was only in 1976, when Woolf’s unpublished memoir writings were gathered into a posthumous collection called Moments of Being, that the full story of their complicated and perhaps even abusive relationship came to light. 

In one of these memoir writings — ‘22 Hyde Park Gate’, which Woolf first read aloud in a private gathering in 1921 — Woolf recalls George as a helpless buffoon who was only inadvertently threatening: ‘He lived in the thickest emotional haze, and as his passions increased and his desires became more vehement […] one felt like an unfortunate minnow shut up in the same tank with an unwieldy and turbulent whale’.

But the close of Woolf’s wry recollection reveals that George’s attentions to Woolf were not just oppressive in their Victorian conventionality and sentimentality: Woolf recounts, in hazy terms, how George ‘flung himself on [her] bed, and took [her] in his arms’, calling her his ‘beloved’. At best, this contact was inappropriately romantic and non-consensual, a distressing manipulation of a minor by an adult charged with her care. At worst, it was sexual abuse, akin to the abuse she suffered from her other half-brother, Gerald Duckworth, which she recalls in another posthumously published piece of memoir, ‘A Sketch of the Past’.

As Dr Lyndall Gordon, Senior Research Fellow at St Hilda’s, wrote, ‘It is impossible to know exactly what happened beyond the fact that Virginia’s experience of sexual abuse at the age of six was reinforced [by George] as a young woman’, and that she was haunted by it even in ‘her last breakdown’.

The story these inscriptions tell — as much as the story they cannot tell — presents an uncomfortable reminder of the culture of silence and shame that kept and still keeps children like the young Virginia Woolf from speaking up about their mistreatment at the hands of those they should be able to trust. 

Featured items

Leslie Stephen, Memoir from de luxe edition of the works of W.M. Thackeray  (London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1878) 

Woolf inherited her literary inclinations from her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and author of, among other books, this study of W. M. Thackeray. This copy is inscribed to his sister-in-law Mary Fisher, who was also Mary Bennett’s grandmother. (Thackeray was Leslie’s relative by marriage: Minny Thackeray, the novelist’s daughter, was Leslie’s first wife; Julia Duckworth née Jackson, Woolf’s mother, was Mary Fisher’s sister.) Leslie’s inscription to his sister-in-law shows us how even new relatives by marriage might express more warmth than Woolf did in giving George Duckworth his books. 

Virginia Woolf, The common reader (London: Hogarth Press, 1925)

Like the other books inscribed to George Duckworth by Woolf, this copy of The Common Reader (1925) is not a first printing: it is the second edition, printed in November 1925. It appears to have waited three years to be gifted to George in 1928. George’s copies of To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928) are also the third and second impressions, respectively. These dated inscriptions on later printings testify to a somewhat distant relationship: George is an afterthought to Woolf, as she is to him.                                                                                 

Virginia Woolf, Orlando (London: Hogarth Press, 1928)

In ‘22 Hyde Park Gate’, Woolf writes that George ‘had a curious inborn reverence for the British aristocracy […]. His secret dreams […] were all of a wife with diamonds, and having a coachman with a button, and having the entrée at Court’. Still, it is hard to imagine George appreciating Orlando, although it was an open secret that Orlando, an aristocrat, was based on Vita Sackville-West, daughter of the 3rd Baron Sackville.

Letter from Virginia Woolf to Mary Fisher (later Bennett), 1st January 1935 [item in display case is a facsimile]

It’s not clear how much contact Woolf had with Mary Bennett, though this letter, written when Bennett was 22 and Woolf 53, suggests some warmth and familiarity. For most of her life, Woolf was friendly enough, too, with her cousin Herbert, Mary’s father, but in her diaries and letters she occasionally grouped him with her brother George: respectable, political, and successful, both represented a certain type of patriarchal figure she resented. In 1928, Woolf visited Oxford to speak to the women of St Hugh’s College; Fisher, who had left government to become the Warden of New College, invited her to stay. Mary would have been fifteen during this visit.




, , George Duckworth / Virginia Woolf / Dec 1928,

St Hilda’s & Crime Fiction

Inspired by all the St Hilda's Crime Fiction Weekend excitement, Librarian Dr Jill Dye has been looking at examples of that genre from our library and archive collections.

The College Library contains several works in the genre of crime fiction, well-used by staff and students alike. Many of these works have links to the College, including the legendary authors Val McDermid (alumna) and P.D. James (Honorary Fellow). Alumna Mavis Doriel Hay’s 1935 novel takes place in a fictional Persephone College, the riverside landscape of which sounds eerily familiar…

Since 1994 the College has drawn readers from all over the world to the St Hilda’s Crime Fiction Weekend to hear their favourite authors explore the genre, and discuss their own work and the writers who have inspired them. This annual event has quickly become part of the College’s history, and its ephemera is now collected and preserved in the College Archive.

Display case filled with crime fiction books, and Crime Fiction Weekend tote bags and posters from 2018.

Oxford Gardens in St Hilda's Special Collections

Deputy Librarian Eleanor Kelly takes a look at Oxford Gardens in St Hilda's special collections. Visit our display case in South Foyer to see some examples in real life.

Oxford’s rich history of gardens dates back over 400 years. Oxford’s Botanic Gardens opened as the Oxford Physic Garden on 25th July 1621, for the purpose of growing medicinal herbs for teaching medical students. Herbals, such as the one on display, contain many examples of plants that would have grown in the Physic Garden, including Cowslips and Primrose. The leaves of cowslips were used in tea and preserves to procure sleep and the root of primroses were used to treat sneezing and headaches. Nearly 220 years later in 1840 the Physic Garden became known as the Botanic Gardens. Today it conserves plants from around the world and supports the University’s teaching and research.

The Oxford Botanic Gardens expanded to include the Harcourt Arboretum when the University acquired the estate of Nuneham House, near Nuneham Courtenay in 1947. Nuneham House was the seat of the Earl of Harcourt, built in the mid-1750s. Renowned English gardener, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown re-landscaped the gardens in the late 1770s to include a looped woodland circuit. In 1786, the upper section of the Carfax Conduit House (which formed part of Oxford’s early water system) was moved from the centre of Oxford into the grounds of Nuneham. The land at Nuneham House were further developed in the 1830s by Sawrey Gilpin and the arboretum was established. There are now more than 130 acres at Harcourt Arboretum.

The origins of the gardens at St Hilda’s also lie with the Botanic Gardens. Cowley House (the foundation of Hall Building) was built by Dr John Sibthorp during his time as Professor of Botany 1785-96 on a site deliberately chosen due to its proximity to the Physic Garden. It is thought that the original lilac tree in St Hilda’s gardens was from a scion obtained during Dr Sibthorp’s travels in Asia Minor. He was also responsible planting thorns, prunus and amylaucia. Cowley Grange (now South Building) was built in the 1870s and the gardens were first laid by Christ Church chemistry tutor Augustus Vernon Harcourt.

English gardener and St Hilda’s alumna Eleanor Sinclair Rodhe (SHC: 1900-1903) said of St Hilda’s gardens:

“Naturally everyone thinks their own college has the most beautiful garden, and S. Hilda’s, with its waterway and views of Merton and within sound of all the bells, is, I think, the loveliest, although the smallest of the women’s college gardens. Seen from the river, part of S. Hilda’s South garden is a miniature vision of spring – the violet, mauve, pale yellow and white of the irises, the rock-garden with violas, thrift, phlox, aubretias, rock roses, London pride and forget-me-nots, the poppies and in the background the brooms, and to the left the orchard of buttercups, sorrel and a white mist of cow-parsley.”

A small cedar tree was planted by Hall Building to commemorate the founding of the College by Dorothea Beale in 1893, and today, St Hilda’s is the only college to have three types of cedar trees in its grounds: Lebanese, Atlas and Himalayan cedars.

Featured items

  • R.T. Gunther, Oxford gardens: based upon Daubeny’s popular guide to the Physick Garden of Oxford (Oxford: Parker & Son, 1912)
  • John Hill, The family herbal (Bungay: Brightly & Co., 1812)
  • Picturesque views of the principal seats of the nobility and gentry in England and Wales (London: Harrison & Co., 1787)
  • Eleanor Sinclair Rohde, Oxford college’s gardens (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1932)
  • Anne Pratt, The flowering plants of Great Britain, volumes one and three (London: Frederick Warne, 1870?)
An early layout of Oxford's Physic Gardens from Gunther's Oxford gardens, 1912, Description of cowslips from Family Herbal, 1812, Image of Nuneham-Courtenay, from Picturesque views, 1787, Image from Flowering plants of Great Britain, irises, 1870, Image from Flowering plants of Great Britain, roses, 1870

Student Activism at St Hilda's

Our Archivist, Oliver Mahony, takes us through the long history of student activism at St Hilda’s. 

At its foundation, as a women’s only Hall, the College was at the forefront of student debate around suffrage and the recognition of women by the University. The 1970s and 1980s saw increased instances of student direct action in response to a lack of university student representation and as a protest against government policy.  

Our archive collections include student magazines, postcards and reminiscences detailing student political and social action. The selection of political postcards shown here date from 1912 and reflect the struggle for women’s equality. The designer of the Oxford Women Students' Society for Women's Suffrage (OWSWS) banner, Edmund Hort New, also designed the early St Hilda’s library bookplates. 

The Fritillary was an early student newspaper produced by students of the original all women’s Halls and The Society of Home Students. A short report [bottom of page 90] about the OWSWS meeting held at Lady Margaret Hall mentions the Suffrage pilgrimage march which took place that summer and included a leg though Oxford. 

St Hilda’s also has its own tradition of student newspapers, filled with evidence of student political and social action. Direct action against government policy and the absence of student representation in university decision making was a feature of the early 1970s student life. ‘Pressure Cooker’ dates from the 1970s, with this issue reporting on the student occupation of the Indian Institute and the forceful removal of the protestors by the proctors and police. ‘The Hildette’ was produced in the mid-1980s, with the issue on display featuring articles relating to women's career opportunities after graduation and a piece about a university society offering support for refugees. Later editions feature boycotts relating to apartheid, CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) action and debates relating to the women’s rights movement.  

Today, St Hilda’s students continue to take a passionate stance on a variety of social and political issues; from the Black Lives Matter protests against the Cecil Rhodes statue on the High, to gender equality, pushing for divestment in fossil fuels and advancing LGBTQ+ rights. We continue to collect evidence of this action for the archive to give an insight into student life today for the researchers of the future. 

Featured Items

- JCR student paper: ‘Pressure Cooker’ c. 1972 [Accession: 2019.0018]

- The Fritillary, June 1913 [REF/010/41]  

- JCR student paper: ‘The Hildette’, Trinity 1984 [JCR 006/6]  

- Suffrage political postcards [CORR 006/15-17] 

“Last Tuesday Mrs Fawcett came to L.M.H. to the Oxford Students' branch of the Women's Suffrage Society on the future work of the union. She is awfully nice, and doesn't look nearly as old as she must be. She said that the future work of the union must be to secure votes for the women still left unenfranchised [sic] by the Franchise Bill, and also to work for reform of the laws which bore more hardly upon women than on men.” 

Margot Collinson [St Hilda’s 1917] Letter home dated 8th November 1917 [PP 13/8] 

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