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date: 09 December 2023

Steamboat ladiesfree

(act. 1904–1907)

Steamboat ladiesfree

(act. 1904–1907)
  • S. M. Parkes

Steamboat ladies (act. 1904–1907), were a group of over 700 women from the Oxford and Cambridge women's colleges who came by the steamboat ferry to Dublin to obtain BA and MA degrees awarded by Trinity College, Dublin, between 1904 and 1907, at a time when their own universities continued to withhold full membership (and therefore graduation) from women students. These women made use of the traditional privilege that enabled qualified members of the three sister universities to graduate ad eundem at the others, their journeys to Dublin for the purpose earning them the nickname the steamboat ladies.

In 1904, after a long and hard-fought campaign, Trinity College, Dublin, agreed to admit women to degrees in arts and medicine. From 1869 the college had offered examinations for women, who were awarded a certificate only. In 1892, at the time of the tercentenary of the college, a memorial signed by over 10,000 Irish women was presented to the board of the college requesting the admission of women. After a period of three years, during which time the board had received a deputation of men to speak on the women's behalf and had sought legal advice, in 1895 the request was refused. The main fear expressed by the board was that the presence of young women in a male residential college would be a danger to its moral and social life. However, in the subsequent decade the opinion of the board changed, partly due to the declining influence of the ageing provost, George Salmon, who had strongly opposed the admission of women, and partly due to the presence of younger men on the board. In 1903 the board applied for royal letters patent to clarify the legal position and in 1904 the first women students were admitted to read arts and medicine (though engineering remained closed to women until 1920).

In June 1904, following a request from an Irish woman student from Belfast who had attended Girton College, Cambridge, a grace was passed by the senate of the University of Dublin offering to women students of Oxford and Cambridge the ad eundem privilege whereby the three universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Dublin mutually granted degrees to each others' graduates. Therefore women students who had successfully completed their university examinations at one of the Oxford or Cambridge women's colleges could apply for Dublin degrees. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge, while admitting women students to the university examinations since the 1880s, still did not award them degrees. The Dublin arrangement with the women's colleges of Oxford and Cambridge was to last for three years, to 1907, by which time Trinity College would have its own women graduates. It is probable that the board assumed that only a small number of Irish students who had attended the women's colleges of Oxford and Cambridge would apply, but they were taken by surprise and somewhat embarrassed by the hundreds of women who applied to take Dublin degrees during the three-year period.

The majority of the Oxford and Cambridge women who came to Dublin to receive BA and MA degrees were university academics, training college lecturers, headmistresses, and schoolteachers. In their public and professional life they needed formal recognition of their academic studies when competing for appointments with other women who had graduated from universities like London and Durham, which did award degrees to women. The largest number came from the two Cambridge colleges, Girton (founded in 1869) and Newnham (1871), where the college authorities actively encouraged their past students to apply; others came from the Oxford women's colleges, Somerville (1879), Lady Margaret Hall (1879), St Hugh's Hall (1886), and St Hilda's (1893). The Girton students were in the best position to apply because Emily Davies, the founder of Girton, had insisted from the outset that her students should take the full university examinations for a Cambridge degree. The Clothworkers' Company, which supported the higher education of women and provided scholarships at the women's colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, announced that it would pay the commencement fee for any of its former scholars who wished to take a Dublin degree. The names of the students who had graduated in Dublin were listed each year in the colleges' alumnae journals, including the Girton Review, the Newnham Roll Newsletter, and the Somerville Students' Association Report.

As the University of Dublin's MA degree was awarded for a small fee to any BA of at least three years' standing, the majority of the steamboat ladies were allowed to take out the two degrees on the same day. Most of them stayed only one or two nights in Dublin, returning to their teaching posts and duties in England as soon as possible. The fee for conferring the BA degree was £10 3s. and for the MA £9 16s. 6d., with an additional fee of 10s. for an MA testimonial. The women often travelled together with friends from the same year in college or from the same school where they were teaching. At Trinity College they were entertained after the ceremony to lunch in the college dining hall, a privilege not yet open to Trinity's own women staff and students.

Many of the Oxford and Cambridge women who came to Dublin had taken their university examinations in the 1880s and 1890s, and were now mature women in senior posts. Others were more recent students, aspiring to careers both at home and abroad, as university academics, headmistresses, teacher training college lecturers, and missionaries. Among the distinguished women academics who came were Emily Penrose, principal of Somerville, Margaret Tuke, principal of Bedford College, London, and three future mistresses of Girton, Katherine Jex-Blake, Bertha Phillpotts [see Newall, Dame Bertha Surtees], and Edith Major. Among the pioneering headmistresses who came were Frances Dove, founder and principal of Wycombe Abbey School, Sara Burstall, educationist and head of Manchester Girls' High School, Lilian Faithfull, principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College, Penelope Lawrence, co-founder and headmistress of Roedean School, Brighton, and Frances Ralph Gray, first high mistress of St Paul's School, London.

Among other graduands were headmistresses of the new schools of the Girls' Public Day School Trust in London, including Florence Gadesden, pioneer and influential headmistress of Blackheath high school, and Ethel Gavin, distinguished headmistress of Notting Hill high school and of Wimbledon high school. The future headmistress of the Clothworkers' Company's Mary Datchelor School, Dorothy Brock, also graduated in this way. Others included some of the first principals of the new girls' high schools and of the county secondary schools set up under the 1902 Education Act, among whom were Grace Fanner (1871–1958) of Putney county secondary school, Alice Stoneman (b. 1870) of Park School, Preston, and Jenny Whyte (1881–1952) from Kettering high school. There were a number of principals of teacher training colleges, including Emily Julian (1858–1935) of Avery Hill College, London, and Zeta May (1882–1943) of Neville Cross College, Durham.

Other educational professionals included two future inspectors of schools, namely Edith Deverell [see Marvin, Edith Mary] and Blanche Schooley (1880–1958), and two distinguished teacher educators, Barbara Foxley, professor of education at University College, Cardiff, and Geraldine Hodgson, principal of the secondary teacher training department of Bristol University and vice-principal of Ripon Training College.

Among those in public life who came to Dublin were Eleanor Rathbone, social reformer and first woman MP for the universities, Philippa Fawcett, feminist and first assistant director of education for the London county council, Shena Potter [see Simon, Shena Dorothy], a leading activist and socialist in Manchester, and Katharine Wallas, educationist and an alderman of the London county council.

Ten higher degrees at Dublin were awarded to Oxford and Cambridge women during the period 1904–7. The recipients of the four DSc degrees awarded included in 1905 Gertrude Elles, pioneer geologist and lecturer at Newnham, and Ethel Skeat (1865–1939), scientist and registrar of Cambridge Training College for Women. There were six LittD degrees awarded, the first in 1905 to Ellen McArthur, lecturer in history at Girton, followed in 1906 by that awarded to Lilian Knowles, later professor of economic history at the London School of Economics. In 1907 LittD degrees were conferred on Mary Hay Wood, principal of Cambridge Training College for Women, on Eugénie Strong, archaeologist and classical scholar and assistant director of the British School in Rome, on Mary Lowndes (1863–1947), French scholar, and on Maud Sellers (1862–1939), historian and archivist.

Despite a formal request by the Oxford and Cambridge women's colleges for the women's ad eundem privilege to be continued, the arrangement came to an end in 1907. Trinity College was apprehensive of continuing the arrangement, as young Irish women could be attracted to attend the superior residential women's colleges of Oxford and Cambridge instead of Trinity, which now sought its own women students. The steamboat ladies episode proved to be an important one in the history of the higher education of women by giving a large number of distinguished academic women the opportunity to formalize their graduate status and develop their professional careers. These graduate women were leaders and teachers in the forefront of the development of women's education and were pioneers in their field. The opening of the Dublin degrees to women undoubtedly put pressure on both Oxford and Cambridge to do likewise. However, there were some that argued that it was a 'betrayal' to go to Dublin as it weakened the women's cause at both Oxford and Cambridge. Oxford did not award degrees to women until 1920; Cambridge, while awarding ‘titular’ degrees to women from 1921, finally admitted women to full university membership only in 1948. The University of Dublin was accused of selling degrees, but Anthony Traill, the shrewd new Trinity provost from 1904, who favoured the admission of women, used the money collected as the commencement fees of Oxford and Cambridge women to establish Trinity Hall, the women's university hall of residence, in 1908. The steamboat ladies themselves served as important role models for the young women students in Trinity, showing what could be achieved by university-educated women, and Trinity College, Dublin, was proud to number them among its first women graduates.


  • S. M. Parkes, ‘Trinity College, Dublin and the “Steamboat Ladies”, 1904–1907’, Women and higher education: past, present and future, ed. M. R. Masson and D. Simonton (1996), 244–50
  • S. M. Parkes, ed., A danger to the men? a history of women in Trinity College Dublin, 1904–2004 (2004)
  • P. Adams, Somerville for women: an Oxford college, 1879–1993 (1996)
  • V. M. Brittain, The women at Oxford: a fragment of history (1960)
  • J. Howarth, ‘In Oxford but not of Oxford: the women's colleges’, Hist. U. Oxf. 7: 19th-cent. Oxf. pt 2, 237–310
  • J. Howarth, ‘Women’, Hist. U. Oxf. 8: 20th cent., 345–75
  • C. Dyhouse, No distinction of sex? women in British universities, 1870–1939 (1995)
  • G. Sutherland, ‘The movement for the higher education of women: its intellectual and social contexts in England, c.1840–80’, Political and social change in modern Britain, ed. P. J. Waller (1987), 91–116
  • N. Glenday and M. Price, Reluctant revolutionaries: a century of headmistresses, 1874–1974 (1974)
  • R. McWilliams-Tullberg, Women at Cambridge: a men's university, though of a mixed type (1975)
  • F. Hunt and C. Barker, Women at Cambridge: a brief history (1998)
  • R. B. McDowell and D. A. Webb, Trinity College, Dublin, 1592–1952: an academic history (1982)
  • Dublin University, Calendars (1904–7)
  • K. T. Butler and H. I. McMorran, eds., Girton College register, 1869–1946 (1948)
  • [A. B. White], ed., Newnham College register, 2nd edn, 1: 1871–1923 (1979)
  • Somerville College Register of Students (1904–7)
  • Girton Review (1904–7)
  • Newnham Roll Newsletter (1904–7)
  • Somerville Students' Association Reports (1904–7)
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T. H. Aston, ed., , 7: , ed. M. G. Brock & M. C. Curthoys (2000), pt 2
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T. H. Aston, ed., , 8: , ed. B. Harrison (2000)