Elder [née Ure], Isabella (1828–1905), benefactor
by C. Joan McAlpine

Elder [née Ure], Isabella (1828–1905), benefactor, was born on 15 March 1828 in Hutchesontown, Gorbals, Glasgow, the fourth and last child, and only surviving daughter, of Alexander Ure (1788–1830), writer (or solicitor), and his wife, Mary, daughter of Hector and Margaret Ross, also of Gorbals. She had one older brother, John Francis (1820–1883). Her father died when she was two years old. There is no evidence as to where she might have been educated but most likely it was privately arranged. She married on 31 March 1857 [see under ], a brilliant marine engineer and shipbuilder.

On John Elder's death in 1869 Isabella Elder became the sole owner of his shipbuilding yard in Govan. Elder's firm had the greatest output on the Clyde, employing more than 4000 men. She ran the business successfully for nine months until partners could be found. Her brother, who was unmarried and had become a famous harbour engineer on the River Tyne, became the senior partner.

A wealthy widow with no children, Mrs Elder tried to do what she thought her philanthropic and much-loved husband would have liked done, especially for the people of Govan, and for education and health generally. In 1873 she augmented the salary of the professor of civil engineering at Glasgow University, and in 1883 created the John Elder chair of naval architecture, the first of its kind. She became involved in the struggle for the higher education of women in Glasgow, and when Queen Margaret College for Women was constituted in 1883 she purchased North Park House and grounds and gave it to the college rent free, provided £20,000 was raised as an endowment. Earlier she had given bursaries for working lads from Govan to study marine engineering at Glasgow University and instituted scholarships for girls wishing to train as teachers or governesses. In 1890 Queen Margaret College very progressively opened a medical school and Mrs Elder, sympathetic to the desire of women to study medicine, agreed to fund all the running expenses.

Mrs Elder maintained a close interest in the college, where the women students, though taught by university staff, could not graduate and obtain a degree. She realized that many women had to earn their living and that qualifications were necessary. When, in 1892, the university commissioners (Scotland) announced that women would be accepted in Scottish universities, Queen Margaret College became incorporated into the University of Glasgow. The medical course was considered satisfactory from its inception and 1894 saw the first female medical graduates, but it was 1895 before the first woman graduated in arts. Mrs Elder remained concerned lest women were given sub-standard teaching if they were taught separately from the male students and agreed to North Park House being handed over to the university for the exclusive teaching of women only on condition that the teaching provided was the equal of that for men. Despite promises she was disappointed in the lecturers, and when the principal approached her in 1899 for further largess she refused unless the original agreement was kept. She was never associated with the suffrage movement but always with equality of educational opportunity for women. In 1901 Glasgow University at its fifth jubilee awarded her an honorary LLD.

In 1885 Mrs Elder gave Govan the 37 acre Elder Park and established and paid the expenses of a school for domestic economy, where teenage girls and young married women were taught to cook nutritious food cheaply and run a house. The US consul in Glasgow at that time commended the enterprise to the United States. She provided a district nurse to instruct women in health and hygiene and visit homes. The nurse could also assist the local general practitioners. In 1901 she provided a villa, helping to start the training home for cottage nurses in Govan, a project to help rural areas. In 1903 she built and paid the running expenses of the Elder Cottage Hospital where cottage nurses could gain experience. She built the Elder Free Library, liberally endowing it.

Mrs Elder possessed great strength of purpose and strong principles. She also had a tender and most sympathetic heart, which led to many unrecorded acts of kindness and generosity quite apart from her public benefactions (which amounted to more than £200,000 in her lifetime). Of medium height and somewhat buxom as she grew older, she had thick dark hair plaited round her head; her hazel eyes contributed a look of compassion to firm features which, in turn, reflected her self-possession and intelligence.

Isabella Elder died at her home, 6 Claremont Terrace, Glasgow, on 18 November 1905 of heart failure, gout, and bronchitis. Her death certificate was signed by Glasgow's first woman medical graduate, Dr Marion Gilchrist. She was buried on 22 November in the Elder family tomb in the Glasgow necropolis. By her will, which left more than £125,000 for charitable purposes, she established in memory of her father-in-law the David Elder lectures in astronomy at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College (later Strathclyde University), and set up in memory of her husband and brother the Ure Elder Fund for Indigent Widows of Govan and Glasgow. She was described as ‘a true woman, a wise benefactress of the public and of learning’ (The Bailie, 12 Dec 1883). A statue of Mrs Elder, unveiled in 1906, stands in the Elder Park near that of her husband. The statues of husband and wife erected by public subscription are unique in Glasgow.



C. J. McAlpine, The lady of Claremont House (1997) · A. Craig, The Elder Park, Govan (1891) · A. Craig, The statue of Mrs John Elder (1912) · The Bailie (12 Dec 1883) · The Bailie (23 Nov 1892) · Glasgow Herald (20 Nov 1905) · Glasgow Herald (23 Nov 1905) · U. Glas., Queen Margaret College archives, DC 233 · U. Glas., Ure Elder collection, DC 122 · parish records (birth), General Register Office for Scotland, Edinburgh, 15 March 1828 · parish records (baptism), General Register Office for Scotland, Edinburgh, 27 April 1828 · parish records (marriage), General Register Office for Scotland, Edinburgh, 31 Jan 1857 · d. cert. [Scotland]


U. Glas., Archives and Business Records Centre, DC 233 · U. Glas., Archives and Business Records Centre, DC 122


J. Millais, oils, 1886, Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove, Glasgow · Fergus, photograph, 1888 (after a steel engraving by J. G. Stodart), repro. in Craig, Elder Park, Govan, 36 · A. McF. Shannan, bronze statue, 1906, Elder Park, Govan, Glasgow · A. McF. Shannan, marble bust, 1906, Elder Free Library, Govan, Glasgow · H. Farrer, pastel, BBC Concert Hall, Queen Margaret Drive, Glasgow

Wealth at death  

£159,404: confirmation, 27 Dec 1905, CCI

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Isabella Elder (1828–1905): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/47543