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Penson, Dame Lillian Margeryfree


Penson, Dame Lillian Margery (1896–1963), historian, was born in Islington, London, on 18 July 1896, the eldest daughter, but not the eldest child, of Arthur Austin Penson, wholesale dairy manager, and his wife, Lillian Alice Martha, née Brown. After private education she went to the University of London, first at Birkbeck College, then at University College. In 1917 she graduated BA with a first in history and in 1921 she became one of the earliest PhDs. She served as a junior administrative officer (1917–18) in the Ministry of National Service; then in 1918–19 worked in the war trade intelligence department. She taught as a lecturer at Birkbeck College from 1921 to 1930, and also part-time (1923–5) at East London (later Queen Mary) College.

In 1930 Lillian Penson was appointed to the chair of modern history held at Bedford College for Women. There she had as colleagues, besides some distinguished men, some remarkable women, who helped to give the college a distinctive quality, marked by a high degree of civilization. Among these were Susan Stebbing and Edna Purdie, who became her trusted friends. She opposed the introduction of male undergraduates to Bedford College, a proposal agitated during her later years, but not fulfilled until 1965.

Under the leadership of Lillian Penson the department of history flourished. Her lectures were immensely enjoyed. They were as carefully prepared as if they had been ceremonial performances for distinguished occasions: polished, lucid, not overloaded with detail, imaginative, at times witty or humorous, beautifully balanced, and economically worded, reflecting deep insight into issues and personalities. For many years her seminar at the Institute of Historical Research was a Mecca for diplomatic historians. In classes and seminars she had little patience with the shiftless; but for the serious she had generosity, patience, and helpfulness. A common epithet of disapproval, uttered in a certain tone of voice, was ‘glib’. Eccentric but intelligent undergraduates, who seemed unusually incapable of a reasonable degree of conformity, she was inclined to defend, calling them 'my funnies'.

Lillian Penson's first researches were in colonial history, and bore fruit in The Colonial Agents of the British West Indies (1924) and other publications. Her commitment to diplomatic history seems to have begun with her appointment in 1918 as an editor of the peace handbooks prepared for the Paris peace conference. From this she went on to assist G. P. Gooch and H. W. V. Temperley on British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898–1914 (11 vols., 1926–38), being credited with assistant editorship on the title-pages of the later volumes. Temperley's influence on her was profound. He was for her what a historian should be. She stressed, as he did, the need for adequate linguistic equipment; the usefulness of knowing the folklores, literatures, and geography of the European countries; the need for careful study of private as well as public papers; and the value to the historian of some experience of affairs. With Temperley she produced Foundations of British Foreign Policy (1938) and A Century of Diplomatic Blue Books (1938). The planning of these projects and the business affairs connected with them provided excellent training for the administrator of later years. Had time allowed, she would have produced a magisterial work on Lord Salisbury's diplomacy. Papers in the Cambridge Historical Journal (1935), 'The new course in British foreign policy, 1892–1902' in the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (1943)—a minor classic—and the Creighton lecture for 1960 (which by illness she could not deliver) give some idea of the directions the magnum opus would have taken.

Before war came in 1939 Lillian Penson was a person of importance in the university, not without hostile critics and anti-feminist opposition. Dean of the faculty of arts (1938–44), a member of the senate from 1940, in 1945 elected chairman of the academic council (a strategic position), and in 1946 a member of the court, she reached the peak of her career when in 1948 she became vice-chancellor, the first woman known to hold such an office. She had a unique knowledge of the university machine; she was clear-headed, generally tactful, and adept at conciliation, although some persons found her too trenchant for their liking. She was succeeded in 1951 by an old friend, H. Hale Bellot.

In two areas she took a special interest: the Fulbright scheme and colonial higher education. She was a founder member of the United States educational commission in the United Kingdom (1948) and acting chairman in 1953 and 1954. She did more than any other British academic to secure the co-operation of British scholars in this excellent scheme, so rewarding to British and Americans alike. The policy for higher education in the colonies, as worked out in 1943–5 by the commission under Sir Cyril Asquith, of which she was a member, involved the establishment of colonial university colleges, brought into ‘special relationship’ with the University of London, whereby curricula and examinations were conducted jointly by university and colleges. This was intended as a means whereby good standards would be established, preparatory to the colleges becoming independent universities. While ready to adjust London rules to meet colonial circumstances, she resisted in this, as in other connections, ‘liberal’ pressures for relaxation of standards. She made numerous laborious journeys to the colleges. She had a particular devotion to Khartoum. She became in 1955 a member of the council of the college at Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. Her view of these developments she set forth, in historical perspective, in a Montague Burton lecture at Glasgow in 1954, Educational Partnership in Africa and the West Indies.

In 1951 Lillian Penson was appointed DBE. In 1949, the year following the admission of women to degrees there, Cambridge made her an honorary LLD, one of the first two women, after Queen Elizabeth, to be so honoured. Oxford made her an honorary DCL in 1956. Among the other seven honorary degrees which she received was the LLD of Southampton (1953), which had also enjoyed a special relationship with London. In 1959, in recognition of what she had done for medical studies, the Royal College of Surgeons made her an honorary fellow. She served three terms as a member of the council of the Royal Historical Society and as a vice-president, and was honorary vice-president from 1959 until her death.

Of middle height, as a younger woman Lillian Penson was slim, of a light and brisk step, and with black hair of rich texture, carefully groomed. In later years she was of heavier build, of heavier gait, and her hair touched with grey; her face fuller, of complexion somewhat more florid. Generally of kindly expression, she could, as she put it, 'look repressive'. Her eyes were singularly eloquent. She was not loquacious, but when she spoke, she spoke with authority. Early in her career she adopted, and maintained to the end, a professional costume of a two-piece dark suit, with white blouse, its front flounced, and over some thirty years of the same pattern. For social occasions, her dresses were of unobtrusive elegance. She held it important for herself and others to dress suitably to the occasion.

Marks of a puritanical upbringing were never effaced: a belief in work and duty, uneasiness with flippant talk about serious subjects, and integrity of a certain type. Moderately conservative in most ways, Lillian Penson hated the appeasement of the thirties, and admired Churchill. While many saw the public figure—très autoritaire, said a Frenchman—only a few saw the other Penson, who believed that the last thing to do with your dignity was to stand on it; the compassionate person given to doing good by stealth; an excellent cook, judge of wines, and raconteur; a connoisseur of detective fiction; fond of country walks and fishing; excellent as hostess or guest; and a good listener. After two years in which she was gravely incapacitated, she died, unmarried, at her home, 54 Marine Parade, Brighton, on 17 April 1963.


  • J. D. Fair, Harold Temperley: a scholar and Romantic in the public realm (1992)
  • private information (1981)
  • personal knowledge (1981)


  • Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, papers
  • TNA: PRO, corresp., BW 90


  • photograph, U. Lond.

Wealth at Death

£24,380 14s.: probate, 16 July 1963, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]