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Selincourt, Agnes Defree

  • Janet Sondheimer

Selincourt, Agnes De (1872–1917), missionary and college administrator, was born at Alverstoke, Leigham Court Road, Streatham, London, on 4 September 1872, the eldest daughter and fourth child of Charles Alexandre De Sélincourt, merchant, and his wife, Theodora Bruce, née Bendall; her father was of French origin, possibly of Huguenot descent. From a private school in Dover she went in 1889 to the sixth form of Notting Hill high school, run by the Girls' Public Day School Company (GPDSC), and from there in 1891 to Girton College, Cambridge, where in 1894 she achieved first-class honours in the medieval and modern languages tripos. She next taught for one year at Sheffield high school (GPDSC), but having resolved as a student to devote her life to missionary work in India, she spent the following year (1895–6) at Somerville College, Oxford, studying oriental languages. With two Cambridge contemporaries, and with the blessing of the Student Volunteer Missionary Union (SVMU), she departed as planned for India, to set up in Bombay a centre where 'women of our own universities' could live together while engaging in work, chiefly educational or medical, of an evangelistic nature.

In 1901 Agnes De Selincourt was obliged for reasons of health to leave the Bombay settlement, but after a year of recuperation in England felt strong enough to accept appointment from January 1903 as the first principal of the Lady Muir Memorial College, Allahabad, founded under the auspices of the Zenana Bible and Medical Missionary Society to train educated Indian women who were already Christians for work in schools, villages, and in the segregated women's quarters (zenanas) of high-caste families. Defeated once more by failing health, her own and her mother's, she returned to England in 1909, still hoping to go back to India but pleased meanwhile to make contact as an officer of the SVMU (now part of the Student Christian Movement, SCM) with the rising generation of women students.

In September 1913, just turned forty-one, Agnes De Selincourt became principal of Westfield College, Hampstead, University of London, in succession to Constance Maynard, who had been mistress (the title was not passed on) since its inception in 1882. The new principal, forward-looking, energetic (although still in delicate health), and indisputably a scholar, gave the college a fresh impetus that was badly needed. With the aim of bringing in more students, desirable on both educational and financial grounds, she publicized Westfield's academic achievements and produced the first illustrated prospectus. She brought distinguished people, Dr W. R. Inge, dean of St Paul's, for example, to the college to deliver lectures open to the public, and converted the annual garden party, hitherto a purely social occasion, into a formal commemoration day.

Agnes De Selincourt's management of the college was a wellnigh perfect example of the professionalism that could now be expected of women principals. She delegated household management to a qualified domestic bursar, a new appointment which more than proved its worth in the straitened circumstances of wartime. Effortlessly, it would seem, she gained the confidence of key members of the academic staff, some of them by many years her senior; she improved the lot of visiting staff by lending them her own room, 'tasteful and softly lit', for private interviews with students. Her own encounters with students (on whom she received regular reports) were mostly informal—at mealtimes, in Sunday evening discussion groups, when she often spoke to them of India, and in a literary society she took in hand—except for her weekly divinity lecture, attendance at which was obligatory. Based, like her predecessor's Bible classes, on study of the scriptures, they were intellectually more demanding, and were occasionally supplemented by courses from professional theologians, among them William Temple, a valued friend she had first met in SCM circles and who at her prompting was invited in 1914 to join the college council; in 1916 he became chairman.

Leadership of the college during wartime brought additional burdens and responsibilities: student bereavements, parents in financial difficulties, and a cleavage of opinion, which found Agnes De Selincourt on the side of the pacifists, over the righteousness or otherwise of the war itself. The college nevertheless remained full, and room for the expansion she had consistently advocated suddenly became vital. The problem was solved by the parent of a current student, Sir Joseph Maclay, from whom she secured a handsome benefaction which was applied to the purchase early in 1917 of a commodious house directly opposite the main buildings. But she realized that a college on the scale she envisaged would not be viable without considerable support from public funds, for which Westfield, because of the exclusively Anglican composition of its governing council, was ineligible. With Temple's backing, she persuaded the council (of which, unlike her predecessor, she was a member ex officio) to seek legal authorization for the required alterations. The matter was still not concluded when on 31 August 1917 she died at a nursing home in Whitby following a bicycling accident near the cottage she owned at Robin Hood's Bay in Yorkshire.

By all accounts a compelling personality, Agnes De Selincourt was small, dark, well dressed, sometimes vivacious in manner, sometimes abstracted. She was an accomplished public speaker, poised and incisive, and in more private debate a skilful and at times fiery opponent. Her religious faith, arrived at through prolonged study and meditation, was clearly the mainspring of her existence. Principal to only two complete generations of Westfield students, she had scant opportunity to realize her aspiration of raising up leaders for schools and colleges in India and the Far East, although a start was made when a student from China, Pao Swen Tseng, returned home to found a girls' school in Changsha. Agnes De Selincourt's commitments outside Westfield included membership of the university's board of oriental studies and of the organizing committee for the Lambeth diploma of student in theology.

Agnes De Selincourt's ashes were buried in the family grave at Brompton cemetery. Westfield's memorial service for her, at St Luke's Church, Hampstead, was held on 11 October, the day she had designated for the official opening of Maclay Hall, in the event named Selincourt as her memorial. 'To maintain connection with the family' her brother Professor Ernest De Selincourt (1870–1943) was immediately elected to the Westfield council and served until 1937.


  • E. M. Carus-Wilson, ed., Westfield College, 1882–1932 (1932)
  • J. Sondheimer, Castle Adamant in Hampstead: a history of Westfield College, 1882–1982 (1983)
  • T. Tatlow, The story of the Student Christian Movement (1933)
  • Church Times (7 Sept 1917)
  • Girton Review, Michaelmas term (1917)
  • K. T. Butler and H. I. McMorran, eds., Girton College register, 1869–1946 (1948)
  • A. De Selincourt, Girton Review (Oct 1903)
  • M. Thresher, A venture of faith: history of the Lambeth diploma (1989)
  • b. cert.


  • J. Trevor, tinted photograph, 1921 (after pencil drawing; after photographs by A. de Biden Footner), Queen Mary and Westfield College

Wealth at Death

£5829 16s. 5d.: probate, 12 Dec 1917, CGPLA Eng. & Wales