Educating women at King’s

Image provided courtesy of King's College London Archives

Female students make up 62% of King’s 31,000 students today, but they haven’t always had the same access to higher education as their male peers. In the late nineteenth century, King’s was at the forefront of expanding education to women.


Lectures for women were first held in Kensington Town Hall in 1878. Supported by G C W Warr, Professor of Classics at King's, and the principal, Alfred Barry, the programme proved a huge success and moves were made to found a ladies' department. Royal assent was granted in 1882 and the new Ladies' Department was inaugurated in 1885 at no 13 Kensington Square.


Whilst the new department was administered by King’s, with the principal as head of department, a female superintendent (from 1891 known as the vice principal) managed the new institution from the start. The department's aim was to give its female students a taste of a liberal education.


Lillian Faithful, Image provided courtesy of King's College London Archives


Lilian Faithfull took over as vice-principal from Cornelia Schmitz in 1894. Under her guidance the department developed the character of a university college. In 1898 the application for the admission of women to the King's College associateship was granted by the Council. From 1902 the department was known as the Women's Department, and students took examinations for London University degrees and Oxford or Cambridge diplomas.


A number of significant women attended the college in those early years. Students included literary scholar and suffragette Edith Morley, the first woman professor at a British university; Helen Fraser (Dame Helen Gwynne Vaughan), professor of botany at Birkbeck College London; and writer and feminist icon Virginia Woolf. The title of Woolf’s seminal essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ is likely to have derived from a quote from her former vice principal, Lillian Faithful, who said ‘the possession of a castle of one’s own is, perhaps, the first keen joy of College life.’


Image provided courtesy of King's College London Archives


In 1910 the Women's Department was incorporated in the University of London as King's College for Women. Owing to pressure on space from increasing numbers, the College expanded into no’s 11 and 12 Kensington Square between 1911-1912.


In 1913 a Royal Commission on the University of London unexpectedly recommended that the Home Science Department alone should be developed in Kensington. A new site at Campden Hill, originally intended for the whole of King's College for Women, was developed to house the Household and Social Science Department from 1915.


Meanwhile, King's College became a co-educational institution by absorbing the arts and science departments from King's College for Women, which moved from Kensington Square to the Strand in January 1915. The number of women students began to increase rapidly and, with many of the male students called up to WWI, women gained a new prominence in King’s life.


Ultimately, the Household and Social Science Department also re-joined the King’s family when the renamed Queen Elizabeth College merged with King’s in 1985. We’re tremendously proud of the ground-breaking work these institutions did to improve education for women and of the brilliant alumnae that have been educated by the university.