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date: 29 September 2023

Burrows [née Bliss], Esther Elizabethfree


Burrows [née Bliss], Esther Elizabethfree

  • Margaret E. Rayner

Burrows [née Bliss], Esther Elizabeth (1847–1935), college head, was born on 18 October 1847 at Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, the third child and second daughter of William Bliss (1810–1883), a cloth manufacturer in the town, and his wife, Esther (1808–1882), daughter of Robert Cleaver of Saffron Walden. She was educated at schools for young ladies in Bristol (Mrs Glover's) and in Brighton (Miss Wilmshurst's) until, when she was sixteen, she was required to return home to take the place of her elder sister who was marrying. From then until her own marriage, Esther Bliss directed her father's large household and cared for her mother, who suffered from epilepsy. The Bliss mills prospered and William Bliss, who lived in the style of a country gentleman, expected his family to join in his philanthropic activities. Esther was given the management of the night school for the mill girls.

On 8 September 1870, Esther Bliss was married in Chipping Norton parish church to Henry Parker Burrows (b. 1833), partner in a firm of wine merchants and brewers in Maidenhead. In October 1871, Henry Burrows died unexpectedly, leaving a pregnant widow and very little money. Esther Burrows returned to live with her parents in Chipping Norton, where her daughter, Christine Mary Elizabeth Burrows, was born. After 1872, the Bliss mills were less successful. Fashion in cloth changed and there was increased competition from other manufacturers. A fire destroyed one of the mills for which there was no insurance cover. When William Bliss died in 1883, there was insufficient money for his son to run the firm and the inheritance which his daughter could have expected had vanished.

Esther Burrows was determined that her daughter should have all the advantages which had by then been opened to women. To pay the fees for Christine to attend Cheltenham Ladies' College, she had by 1887 moved to Cheltenham and opened a house in which students of the college could board. Her earnings were sufficient to cover the expenses when Christine was awarded a place at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in 1891.

In 1892, Dorothea Beale, principal of the Cheltenham Ladies' College, invited Esther Burrows to become principal of St Hilda's, a hall for women which she was establishing in Oxford; students at the hall would attend university lectures and prepare for university examinations. An essential part of the arrangement was that Christine should transfer from Lady Margaret Hall to help her mother prepare for the first students and to provide advice on Oxford procedure. The hall opened for Michaelmas term 1893 with six students and with Esther Burrows in sole charge. She continued her close collaboration with her daughter after 1894 when Christine remained at St Hilda's as tutor and, later, as vice-principal.

The survival of St Hilda's in its first few precarious years was largely the result of the wise and unobtrusive diplomacy of the first principal. Dorothea Beale was an outsider to Oxford and her motives for setting up a rival hall were deeply distrusted by other women's halls. Esther Burrows, however, won the confidence of the other women principals and of the Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women in Oxford so that, after a three-year probationary period, St Hilda's achieved full status as a women's hall. Under Esther Burrows's management the number of students increased and extensions were added to the original building.

Despite the very tight budget Dorothea Beale imposed upon St Hilda's, Esther Burrows created an attractive and comfortable hall for her students. She was a gracious hostess and she welcomed visitors and new students as if St Hilda's were her own home. She was an elegant white-haired lady, generous and kind-hearted but insistent that rules and conventions be observed by students. She retired as principal in 1910 and was succeeded in that office by her daughter. She stayed in Oxford after her retirement and, after 1919, lived with Christine. She died in her home, 47 Woodstock Road, Oxford, from a stroke on 20 February 1935 after many years of ill health, and was buried at St Luke's, Maidenhead, after a funeral service at St Hilda's College.


  • M. E. Rayner, The centenary history of St Hilda's College, Oxford (1993)
  • H. M. Allen, Chronicle of the Association of Senior Members [St Hilda's College, Oxford] (1934–5)
  • The Times (21 Feb 1935)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • St Hilda's College, Oxford, corresp., other MSS


  • B. Maul, crayon drawing, 1900, St Hilda's College, Oxford
  • C. Ouless, oils, 1927, St Hilda's College, Oxford
  • photographs, St Hilda's College, Oxford
  • photographs, priv. coll.

Wealth at Death

£760 18s. 4d.: probate, 23 March 1935, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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