Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 29 September 2023

Mordan, Clara Evelynfree


Mordan, Clara Evelynfree

  • Deborah Quare

Mordan, Clara Evelyn (1844–1915), suffragist and benefactor, was born on 28 September 1844 at 2 Barkham Terrace, St George's Road, Southwark, London, the elder of the two daughters of Augustus Mordan (d. 1901), manufacturer of mechanical pencils, and his wife, Elizabeth Jane, only daughter of James Thomas Hathaway, merchant, of Southwark and his wife, Mary. Clara Mordan's mother died in 1849. Augustus did not remarry, and it seems probable that Clara and her sister, Ada, were entrusted to the care of governesses, receiving the education traditionally given to girls of that period, mainly art, music, literature, and languages. Ada married, in 1870, Edmund George Johnson, and died in 1876 leaving a son and a daughter.

Clara Mordan was an attractive young woman, as three portraits testify. She was at one time engaged to be married but broke off the engagement partly because of the legal disadvantages incurred by married women. Her lifelong interest in women's suffrage and education may well stem from attending, with her father, a lecture in 1866 in which John Stuart Mill advocated women's suffrage. From the 1880s onwards she was a member of various women's societies, including the London Women's Suffrage Society and the Central Society for Women's Suffrage. Not only did she make generous contributions to the funds of these societies but also donated her time and her administrative talents as a member of their executive committees. In 1906 she turned to a more militant form of suffragism when she joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), supporting the work of Mrs Pankhurst. She was the first subscriber to the WSPU campaign fund, gave practical help at by-elections, and was a welcome and fluent speaker at suffrage meetings. The 1908 WSPU procession was in part financed by Clara Mordan, who was one of the speakers at the Hyde Park rally. Ill health, in the form of tuberculosis, prevented her from further active participation, but much of her private correspondence up to her death was written on notepaper headed 'Votes for Women'. Her father clearly supported her views and apparently had no objection to her forming her own household and administering her own finances during his lifetime. He died in 1901, leaving an estate, of which she was co-executor, of £117,864.

In 1897, after reading a paper by Annie Rogers, 'The position of women at Oxford and Cambridge', in which the need for endowments and scholarships for women was stressed, Clara Mordan, together with her friend Mary Gray Allen (1846–1925), visited the women's colleges in Oxford and decided that St Hugh's was most in need of financial help. Her first act of generosity was to endow a scholarship in her name, to the value of £40 per annum, the only stipulation being that the holder 'shall not perform or witness any experiment or demonstration on a living animal during her tenure of the scholarship'. The first Mordan scholar, Margaret Mary Crick, was elected in 1898, and Clara Mordan made great efforts to get to know all the holders of her scholarship. It may well have been her influence that caused so many members of St Hugh's, especially the Mordan scholars, to take part in the 1908 WSPU rally. She visited St Hugh's regularly and was remembered very vividly by one of the students, Helena Deneke, whose reminiscences, although written fifty years later, describe 'a queer bird-like little lady [who] might have stepped out of one of Dickens' books, her coal-black hair was worn looped and parted, her garments looked home-made and were old fashioned'. Clara became a close personal friend of the principal, Miss Moberly, sharing her vision of a purpose-built new home for the college. Despite her increasing frailty she wrote regularly to St Hugh's council in support of the proposed new building and, to the end of her life, took great interest in all the details of its construction.

Clara Mordan died on 22 January 1915 at 18 Marine Mansions, Bexhill, Sussex, where she had lived almost exclusively in her final years to derive as much benefit as possible for her ailing lungs from the sea air. Her friend Mary Gray Allen had been her constant companion and support while Clara was bed-ridden and was described by Clara in a personal letter to Miss Moberly, written two months before her death, as 'my dearest friend, who never leaves me'. In her will Clara left to St Hugh's over £10,000, which enabled the college to continue its building despite the economic stringencies imposed by the war. She also made Mary Gray Allen a residuary legatee on condition that she in turn bequeathed this inheritance to St Hugh's. Miss Moberly testified to Miss Gray Allen's support of the college: '[Clara Mordan] has also left us the goodwill of her chief friend, Miss Gray Allen, who has taken her place on the Council … and is prepared to take a continued interest in St Hugh's' (St Hugh's Club Paper, 23, Oct 1915). Mary Gray Allen, who had considerable means of her own, died in August 1925 and left to St Hugh's £36,000, the accumulated income from her friend's bequest, a sum which established Clara Mordan's position as the most important female benefactor of women's education of her time.


  • E. E. S. Procter, ‘Early history of St Hugh's’, 1980, St Hugh's College, Oxford
  • H. Deneke, ‘What I remember’, 1934, St Hugh's College, Oxford
  • letters from C. E. Mordan, St Hugh's College, Oxford
  • P. Griffin, ed., St Hugh's: one hundred years of women's education in Oxford (1986)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • St Hugh's College, Oxford


  • H. T. Wells, watercolour, 1858, St Hugh's College, Oxford
  • H. T. Wells, oils, 1859, St Hugh's College, Oxford
  • W. Lucas, charcoal and coloured chalk, 1860–1865, St Hugh's College, Oxford

Wealth at Death

£47,702 4s. 6d.: probate, 12 March 1915, CGPLA Eng. & Wales