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Bishop, Matilda Ellenfree

  • Caroline Bingham

Bishop, Matilda Ellen (1842–1913), college head, was born at Tichborne, Hampshire, on 12 April 1842, elder daughter of Alfred Caesar Bishop (1811–1885), a scholarly clergyman who throughout most of Matilda's early life held the living of Martyr Worthy, near Winchester, and his wife, Lucy Wedderburne. Her father was considered a conscientious incumbent, though he augmented his income by preparing young men for Oxford and the army, and still found time to ride to hounds. She taught in his Sunday school from the age of eleven. Matilda was educated at a seminary for young ladies in Brighton, where she was obliged to learn long passages of the Bible by heart, and was given an excellent grounding in French by a 'gifted although very ill-tempered French lady'. At sixteen she was sent to Queen's College, Harley Street, where she fell deeply under the influence of the Revd F. D. Maurice, whose lectures in literature and history had a strong religious bias. Matilda described him as 'the greatest man I have ever known, the strongest influence of my girlhood, intellectual and spiritual, with a mysterious power, too sacred for analysis' (Luxton, 12). This near-idolatry characterized her attitude to the clergy of the Church of England. She experienced it again with almost equal intensity during her principalship of Royal Holloway College, when she idolized Archbishop Benson, one of the governors, whom she described as a man whose wishes were her commands.

A broken engagement to a young man whose name she suppressed and a period spent keeping house for her father between his widowerhood and his second marriage preceded Miss Bishop's teaching career. In 1875 she became an assistant mistress at Oxford High School for Girls, of which the headmistress was Ada Benson, the archbishop's sister. From 1877 to 1879 she was headmistress of Chelsea high school, and headmistress of Oxford high school from 1879 to 1887. Her appointment as principal of the newly founded Royal Holloway College in 1887 gave her the opportunity to set high academic standards and create social traditions in a women's college which was unique in the opulence of its buildings and the generosity of its endowment.

Miss Bishop's connection with Oxford encouraged her to arrange that students of the Royal Holloway College should take the Oxford degree examinations, though the successful candidates were given only notification of the class they would have attained, since Oxford did not admit women to its degrees until 1920. Initially she had taken the view that lack of a degree was 'no sort of disadvantage' to women seeking teaching posts, and she remained unconvinced 'whether in the long run women's education can be developed best by following the exact lines of men's education' (Bishop to Bertha Johnson, 15 Jan 1895, Johnson MSS). So her policy on degrees was undertaken in a context of some internal uncertainty. However, students of the college were also entered for London University degree examinations, and successful candidates were awarded degrees, to which London University had admitted women in 1878. At this period London University was an examining and degree-giving body, but not a teaching university. When it prepared to metamorphose itself into a teaching university Miss Bishop expressed the opinion that the Royal Holloway College would do well to seek admission as a constituent school of London University, a forward-looking policy which was followed in the next principalship.

Miss Bishop created at the college a social tradition in which formality and good manners were happily blended with a lack of class-consciousness unusual at this period. The hard work which high academic standards necessitated, however, led Miss Bishop to impose a level of discipline which one of her staff considered more appropriate to a school than to a college: 'Noise was an agony to her, and order and neatness a passion, so there was naturally more sense of restraint than youth could quite bear. It was not easy for her to cease to be the schoolmistress and to realize that if the students were to be transformed from schoolgirls into women it was to be done by treating their immaturity as maturity' (Faithfull, 92–3).

Miss Bishop was a typical member of the first generation of women's college principals; they were cultivated women rather than intellectuals. Though Miss Bishop was dedicated to the ideal of higher education for women, even greater was her dedication to the Church of England. In 1897 she resigned the principalship of the Royal Holloway College when the governors required her to introduce nonconformist services in the college chapel on alternate Sundays. In accordance with her conviction that Anglicanism was the 'true religion', she had arranged that nonconformist students should attend churches or chapels of their own denominations in the vicinity, despite the founder's stipulation that the college should be non-denominational. Her departure was regretted by students and alumnae alike.

In 1899 Miss Bishop was appointed principal of the newly founded St Gabriel's Church of England Training College for Women Teachers in Camberwell, London, a post eminently suited to her abilities and convictions. She died in office at the college on 1 July 1913, having suffered for some time from a weak heart and ignored warnings of the dangers of overwork.

A portrait of Miss Bishop by James Shannon, housed in the dining hall of the Royal Holloway College, shows a slender, dignified woman with black hair and fine dark eyes. Whereas photographs of Miss Bishop show a tense, gaunt face, expressive of the troubles of an overactive conscience, Shannon's flattering image gives the subject tranquillity and grace.


  • A. Luxton, Matilda Ellen Bishop, a memoir (1914)
  • M. J. Powell, ed., The Royal Holloway College, 1887–1937 (privately printed, Egham, [1937])
  • L. Faithfull, In the house of my pilgrimage (1924)
  • M. Pick, ‘Social life at Royal Holloway College, 1889–1939’, typescript, Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey
  • C. Bingham, The history of Royal Holloway College, 1886–1986 (1987)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • St Anne's College, Oxford, Johnson MSS


  • Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, minutes of governors' meetings
  • Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, Royal Holloway College Association, college letters


  • J. J. Shannon, oils, 1897, Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey
  • photographs, Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey

Wealth at Death

£6536 3s. 0d.: probate, 29 July 1913, CGPLA Eng. & Wales