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date: 29 September 2023

Blake, Katharine Jex-free


Blake, Katharine Jex-free

  • Fernanda Helen Perrone

Katharine Jex- Blake (1860–1951)

by unknown photographer

The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College, Cambridge

Blake, Katharine Jex- (1860–1951), classical scholar and college head, was born at Rugby School, Rugby, Warwickshire on 18 November 1860, one of nine daughters and two sons of Thomas William Jex-Blake (1832–1915), later headmaster of Rugby School and dean of Wells, and his wife, Henrietta Cordery. Katharine's aunt, Sophia Jex-Blake, was a pioneer in the medical education of women; her uncle, John Graham Cordery, was an Indian civil servant and translator of Homer. Henrietta Jex-Blake [see below] was her younger sister.

Katharine Jex-Blake, who was, like her sisters, educated at home by masters from Rugby School, went to Girton College, Cambridge, in 1879. With the exception of one year (1884–5) spent as an assistant mistress at Notting Hill high school, she remained in residence at Girton until 1922. In 1882 she became one of the first two Girtonians to gain a first class in part one of the classical tripos, and subsequently became only the second Girtonian to take both parts of this demanding examination. She served as classics lecturer at Girton from 1885 to 1916 and as director of studies in classics from 1902 until 1919. She was appointed vice-mistress in 1903 and mistress in 1916.

Katharine Jex-Blake was first and foremost a scholar, although her greatest contribution to scholarship was as a teacher. Her only published classical work was her translation of Pliny the elder's Chapters on the History of Art (1896), in collaboration with her friend Eugenie Sellers (Strong), who wrote the introduction and commentary. Jex-Blake's influence as a teacher, however, extended far beyond Girton. In the early 1920s the classics lecturers at six women's colleges (Girton, Newnham, Bedford, Royal Holloway, Somerville, and Lady Margaret Hall) had been her students. Other prominent pupils were Agnata Ramsay, Katharine McCutcheon, Dorothy Tarrant, Dorothy Brock, Dora Olive Ivens, and Margaret Postgate (later Cole). Her terrifying tutorials, where she exposed the unprepared and exploded the half-baked, became legendary. Most of her students, however, seemed to respect her high standards and appreciated her dry wit and underlying kindness. They also got to know her in more informal settings, through 'Homeric', her weekly readings of Homer with the third-year students, or at meetings of the Classical Club. The college was reportedly delighted when she was elected mistress.

Katharine Jex-Blake proved to be an able administrator in the difficult years of the First World War and its aftermath. She has been described as the 'first truly professional and scholarly modern woman academic and administrator to be mistress of Girton' (Bradbrook, 67). Her contemporaries frequently commented on her clear-eyed, practical approach to problems; her favourite phrase was 'Let us take a concrete case' (The Times). During the war she faced a shortage of labour, the rationing of food and fuel, and the fear that students would leave for war work with a resulting loss of tuition fees. In reality only a few students and lecturers left, while the college received three Belgian students without fees and a Serbian at a reduced fee. Always practical, Jex-Blake responded to wartime shortages and inflation by growing vegetables in the garden and keeping pigs on the college grounds.

After the war, when enrolment at Girton increased, Jex-Blake bought a disused army hut and used it for lecture rooms. Under her tenure, student fees, which had been stationary since 1869, were gradually raised to pay for the needed expansion and improvements. In 1919 she presided over the college's jubilee. She also navigated Girton's uneasy relations with Cambridge University. In 1920 a proposal brought before the university senate to give full membership to the members of the women's colleges was rejected amid much acrimony. In 1921 a grace giving women titular degrees was passed (Jex-Blake had taken her own MA from Trinity College, Dublin, several years earlier), and the college began a process of constitutional change in preparation for its royal charter, granted in 1924 under Jex-Blake's successor, her cousin Bertha Phillpotts, later Dame Bertha Newall. There was also pressure from the students at Girton for revision of the college's antiquated social regulations. Katharine Jex-Blake introduced a few modifications, although more changes came with her successors. An old student recalled that she 'bridged the gulf between past and present … by her statesmanship and her clear vision, by her saving sanity, and her sense of humour … [and] by her uncanny knowledge of things she could not possibly know' (Brock, 6).

Upon her retirement from Girton in 1922 Katharine Jex-Blake donated a sum collected in her honour to the college for what became the Jex-Blake fellowship, thus encouraging the advanced study and research that she had had little opportunity to do herself. She remained involved with Girton, serving as a governor and sitting on the council as representative of the old students for ten years. She was made an honorary fellow in 1932. In retirement she served for many years as a member of the council of the Girls' Public Day School Trust, where she continued to use her administrative and practical skills to forward women's education [see also Girls' Public Day School Company]. She died at Nettlesworth, Wickham Hill, Hurstpierpoint, Sussex, on 26 March 1951.

Her sister, Henrietta Jex-Blake (1862–1953), college head, was born at Rugby School on 8 July 1862; she did not attend college but instead studied music at the Leipzig Conservatoire, Dresden, and Vienna, becoming an accomplished violinist. From 1899 to 1909 she was headmistress of St Margaret's School, Polmont, in central Scotland, which was founded by her sister's Girton friend Maud Mary Daniel, who wished to replicate the successful girls' school St Leonard's, St Andrews. As headmistress, Henrietta Jex-Blake promoted girls' sports and encouraged many of her pupils to go to university, particularly to Girton.

In 1909 Henrietta Jex-Blake was elected the second principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Under her tenure the number of students grew, several large building projects were completed, and the college was incorporated under the Companies Act. She modernized and redecorated the college buildings, often using her own money. A colleague later wrote that 'she held tenaciously to the ideals of her family, believing in the right and duty of women to work in whatever way was most suited to their gifts, irrespective of the mere fact of their sex' (Brown Book, 26). She was a strong supporter of women's suffrage and of opening degrees to women. Like her sister she served as principal during the stressful war years and their aftermath. At Oxford, however, women became eligible for degrees in 1920. Henrietta Jex-Blake presented the first candidate for matriculation and was herself awarded an MA by decree. Exhausted by the strains of the war years, looking after her ageing mother, and clashes with the LMH council, who, for example, rejected her proposal of a limited pension plan for tutors and staff, she retired in 1921, a year before her sister.

Henrietta Jex-Blake and her sister travelled frequently together, often spending winters in Italy. In Madrid, they found themselves caught in the chaos of the Spanish Civil War, which they endured with equanimity. Henrietta Jex-Blake served as a governor of the Burlington School and Clapham secondary school, and on the committee for King's College, Campden Hill (later Queen Elizabeth College). In later years, the sisters lived together in Tunbridge Wells. Henrietta Jex-Blake died at the White House Nursing Home, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, on 21 May 1953.


  • Girton Review, Easter term (1951)
  • The Times (28 March 1951)
  • Daily Telegraph (28 March 1951)
  • Manchester Guardian (30 March 1951)
  • M. D. Brock, ‘Speech at the farewell roll luncheon to Miss Jex-Blake’, Girton Review, Easter term (1922)
  • B. Stephen, Girton College, 1869–1932 (1933)
  • M. Bradbrook, That infidel place (1969)
  • K. T. Butler and H. I. McMorran, eds., Girton College register, 1869–1946 (1948)
  • Brown Book (1953) [Henrietta Jex-Blake]
  • G. Battiscombe, Reluctant pioneer: a life of Elizabeth Wordsworth (1978)
  • C. Avent and H. Pipe, eds., Lady Margaret Hall register, 1879–1990 (1990)
  • Journal of Education, 53 (March 1921)
  • 1939 register


  • Norfolk RO, letters to Henrietta Jex–Blake and Violet Jex–Blake


Wealth at Death

£26,521 19s. 0d.: probate, 11 June 1951, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£17,954 1s. 9d.—Henrietta Jex-Blake: probate, 11 July 1953, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
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Norfolk Record Office, Norwich
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Girton College, Cambridge