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date: 29 September 2023

Maitland, Agnes Catherinefree


Maitland, Agnes Catherinefree

  • Enid Huws Jones

Agnes Catherine Maitland (1849–1906)

by William Strang, 1906

The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College, Cambridge

Maitland, Agnes Catherine (1849–1906), college head, was born on 12 April 1849 at 12 Gloucester Terrace, Paddington, Middlesex, the second daughter of David John Maitland, a merchant, formerly of Chipperkyle, Galloway, and his wife, Matilda Leathes Mortlock. When Agnes was five years old the family moved to Liverpool. She received her education at home, though in 1867 she attended the first course of lectures organized by the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women. The family was Presbyterian and Agnes grew up to be active in Liberal politics, accomplished as a public speaker. She was involved in the domestic science training school founded in Liverpool by Fanny L. Calder in 1876, and in 1877 became an examiner to the Northern Union Schools of Cookery. From 1881, under the auspices of the Liverpool school, she was a visiting examiner to elementary schools. She produced cookery books which became standard for a generation, and frequently lectured on hygiene and housekeeping. She also wrote improving novels for girls and young women; one of these, Rhoda (1886), was reissued in 1920. For a time she was secretary to the Egypt Exploration Fund.

When in 1889 Miss Maitland was appointed warden of Somerville Hall, Oxford, Lord Aberdare described her as 'a thorough lady' (Adams, 45), possibly defensively, if some had contrasted Miss Maitland with her predecessor, Miss Shaw-Lefevre. Somerville now had a principal for whom it was a home and a livelihood. Her ambitions for the hall were unlimited. In 1893 electricity replaced oil lamps, and the building of a gatehouse and lodge (demolished in 1932 when the Darbishire Quadrangle was built) gave Somerville a presence on the Woodstock Road. In 1894 the hall became a college.

Miss Maitland knew that to achieve this status Somerville must have its own tutors. Her initiative was at first considered a betrayal (especially of the Society of Home Students) by the Association for Promoting the Education of Women (AEW), which had arranged teaching for women students under the redoubtable leadership of Mrs Bertha Johnson. Peace was secured by the payment of fees to the AEW. She strongly supported the proposal in 1896 to admit women to Oxford degrees; on its defeat she criticized the suggestion of John Percival, bishop of Hereford, that a separate Queen Victoria University for Women should be established. Where her sympathies were engaged, Margery Fry wrote, 'Miss Maitland was eager, and sometimes even vehement' (S. M. F., 24). In 1899 Miss Maitland called back Margery Fry, then languishing at home with her parents and unmarried sisters: she was given the title of librarian. Five years later the impressive library building, designed by Champneys, was opened. Munificent gifts followed, including the library of John Stuart Mill and that of Amelia B. Edwards.

Miss Maitland was a tall woman of powerful presence. The tutors, Phoebe Sheavyn said, all liked her but they sometimes had to stand up to her. Her physical and mental energy pervaded the small community. A gymnasium was equipped: dons and students played hockey together. Miss Maitland was forty when she came to Somerville. No one else was over thirty-five. She had a sense of ceremony: there was an arm-in-arm procession into dinner, still served in two separate buildings. She established traditions but did not impose petty rules and restrictions. Though by nature something of an autocrat she had been early trained in democratic procedure. Former students were to be involved in the college council, as electors and members. It was said of her that though she was a brilliant administrator she had a tendency to economize in small matters. This frugality perhaps left its mark on the college. Many of its members, in a later consumerist age, carried this tradition with pride.

Miss Maitland respected the devotion to pure scholarship shown by her tutors, but her own educational interests were in practical affairs. She was a member of the educational section of the National Union of Women Workers and of the committee of the University Association of Women Teachers. In 1904 she was one of a deputation to Lord Londonderry, president of the Board of Education, urging the need for more women as inspectors of elementary schools where the majority of the teachers were women. She was particularly concerned for the teaching and practice of hygiene in state schools. The British Association appointed her to a committee on school hygiene. She was recognized as an eloquent exponent of the history and development of state education.

Agnes Maitland died, after a long illness, at 12 Norham Road, Oxford, on 19 August 1906, and was buried three days later in Holywell cemetery. In 1910, when Miss Penrose was principal, a new residential block was called Maitland. Between this and the original old house rose her memorial, the college hall. There, every evening until the latter half of the twentieth century, when increasing numbers made this impossible, the whole college dined formally, as Miss Maitland would have wished.


  • S. M. F. [M. Fry], ‘Agnes Catherine Maitland’, Oxford Magazine (24 Oct 1906), 23–4
  • Englishwoman's Review, 38 (1906), 282–3
  • Men and women of the time (1899)
  • Somerville College register, 1879–1971 [1972]
  • P. Adams, Somerville for women: an Oxford college, 1879–1993 (1996)
  • V. Farnell, A Somervillian looks back (1948)
  • Somerville College archives, Oxford
  • private information
  • E. H. Jones, Margery Fry: the essential amateur (1966)
  • The Times (22 Aug 1906)
  • b. cert.



  • W. Strang, crayon drawing, 1906, Girton Cam. [see illus.]
  • J. Gunn, oils, 1931 (after photograph), Somerville College, Oxford
  • W. Strang, chalk drawing, Somerville College, Oxford

Wealth at Death

£2354 9s. 6d.: confirmation, 26 Oct 1906, CCI

sealed in London, 7 Nov 1906, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Bodleian Library, Oxford
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Girton College, Cambridge
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, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
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Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]