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Higgins, Ellen Charlottefree

  • Caroline Bingham

Higgins, Ellen Charlotte (1871–1951), college head and feminist, was born at 12 Trinity Square, Brixton, London, on 14 August 1871 (she was always reticent about the date of her birth). Her parents, Henry Bell Higgins, a publisher, and his wife, Margaret Hay, who were both of Scottish descent, sent her to Scotland for her education. She attended Edinburgh Ladies' College, from which she won an entrance scholarship to Royal Holloway College (RHC) in 1890. In 1894 she gained the distinction, unprecedented at RHC, of being listed in the first class in final honours mathematics in the Oxford examinations (which were then open to women from outside Oxford), and gaining a first in BA (hons) English, with the Gilchrist prize, in London University examinations. She was a brilliant student, to whom academic success came easily, but she was also a talented musician and sportswoman. At RHC she played the violin and viola in Band, the college orchestra, and also played hockey and cricket for the college. During her years as principal of RHC she returned to Band to play the cello and the double bass. In later life she took up the clarinet, and had lessons with the great virtuoso and teacher Frederick Thurston. Her lifelong love of learning was illustrated by her beginning the study of Russian at the age of seventy.

After graduating from RHC Miss Higgins joined the staff of Cheltenham Ladies' College, where she taught mathematics from 1895 to 1907, latterly as head of department. In 1907 she was appointed principal of RHC, where she continued in office until 1935. In 1918 the post of secretary to the governors of RHC was given to Miss Ulrica Dolling, who despite her Germanic name was a native of Northern Ireland. From their first encounter Miss Higgins and Miss Dolling became inseparable companions, and lived together during their retirement, from 1935 onwards. In a more permissive age their relationship might have been acknowledged as homosexual; but in a period when lesbianism was almost unmentionable, no comment on its nature was made.

During her long principalship Miss Higgins continued to build upon the foundations laid down by her two predecessors at RHC, Matilda Bishop and Emily Penrose. She consolidated RHC's reputation for academic excellence, high moral tone, and civilized manners. Towards the end of her principalship one of her colleagues, in a eulogistic speech at a college dinner, said of her: 'More and more I seem to see that the College is Miss Higgins and Miss Higgins the College. … The sense of duty, of playing the game, the lack of pose or pretentiousness, the tolerance and kindliness and hospitality, the straightforward, simple outlook of our students are I think a direct reflection of Miss Higgins' own fine attitude, they are herself' (Bingham, 113).

Miss Higgins held office as a senator of the University of London from 1911 to 1935, and immediately before the First World War was successful in blocking a move to expel RHC from the university on the grounds of its geographical remoteness at Egham. She employed her talents and determination in the cause of establishing the position of women in both the scholastic and administrative areas of academic life. During her principalship women were admitted to the governing body of RHC, and in 1920 the principal herself became a governor ex officio. Professor E. S. Waterhouse, in a memorial address for her, said:

She fought a battle for women's education. She believed in it as a right and not as a concession or favour. She fought against men—asked no favour and gave no quarter. … Her struggle for the rights of women perhaps made her accentuate the masculine [in herself], as though she would fight the battle on equal and level terms.

Royal Holloway College Association, College Letters, Dec 1952, 42–3

Though not herself directly involved in the women's suffrage movement, she encouraged the students of RHC to be interested in the issue: early in her principalship, in 1908, the Royal Holloway College Women's Suffrage Society was founded.

Miss Higgins was also a traditionalist and an autocrat. In the later years of her principalship, after the First World War, she was reluctant to recognize the relaxation of the conventions which had governed the conduct of young unmarried women. Women's rights were not in her mind to be equated with such practical applications of women's liberation as informal mixing with the opposite sex. As a result, RHC between the two world wars gained the reputation of being a somewhat old-fashioned institution. Yet, though Miss Higgins may have seemed to her students exasperatingly reactionary, she none the less inspired their affection, and her autocratic manner won her the nickname Chief. In a verse on her retirement a colleague described her as:

The Scottish ChiefOf manly mien, of words directly firedIn sentence brief,Whose rule was famed for steadfastStrength of mind,Resolved yet reasonable, firm but kind.

M. F. Richey, Collegiate Causeries, 1949, 33

During her retirement Miss Higgins played no part in public affairs, but enjoyed her lifelong pleasures of literature, learning, music, walking, mountaineering, and travel. She and Miss Dolling were both members of the Ladies' Alpine Club, and they celebrated their retirement with an ascent of the Matterhorn. Miss Higgins died at their home, 8 Warrender Park Crescent, Edinburgh, on 13 December 1951. Miss Dolling, one of her executors, died in 1970.

The portrait of Miss Higgins by Sir William Orpen, which was hung in the dining hall of RHC, successfully conveys her forceful personality and her strikingly masculine appearance, which is accentuated by her closely cropped hair and the stiff-collared shirt and tie which she wears beneath her academic gown. Her obituary in Nature (2 February 1952, 178) referred to her 'quite famous clothes—her invariable and rather mannish day-attire and her magnificent but fashion-defying evening dresses'. These, which she wore for formal dinners in college, were always sombre in colour and rich in material, often worn with a splendid necklace of cornelians and diamonds. In her retirement she indulged a preference for a dinner jacket.


  • Royal Holloway College Association, College Letters
  • M. J. Powell, ed., The Royal Holloway College, 1887–1937 (privately printed, Egham, [1937])
  • M. Pick, ‘Social life at Royal Holloway College, 1887–1939’, typescript, Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey
  • W. E. Delp, ‘Royal Holloway College, 1908–1914’, Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey [privately printed pamphlet]
  • private information (2004)
  • C. Bingham, The history of Royal Holloway College, 1886–1986 (1987)
  • b. cert.
  • CCI (1952)


  • Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, minutes of governors' meetings
  • Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, research materials presented by Caroline Bingham
  • Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey, E. M. Blackwell MSS


  • photographs, 1894–1927, repro. in Bingham, History of Royal Holloway College
  • W. Orpen, oils, 1927, Royal Holloway College
  • photographs, Royal Holloway College

Wealth at Death

£1572 0s. 11d.: confirmation, 18 Jan 1952, CCI