History of the College

The history of St Mary’s College is entwined with that of women’s education at the University of Durham. In line with moves elsewhere in the country St Hild’s College was founded for the education of women teachers in 1858. In 1895 the University Senate agreed to the granting of degrees to women and this resulted in a supplementary charter being granted.

Thus, it was in 1896 that the first female undergraduates appeared in Durham and 1897 saw the establishment of scholarships dedicated to women. These early women lived with relations or a ‘friend approved by Senate’. Discussions regarding the provision of a hostel for women students were undertaken and approval was given for a new building on the current site of St Mary’s. This scheme did not result in a building; the reasons why are lost in the past due to a lack of records.

In February 1899 the University finally made 33 Claypath available as a Women’s Hostel. This was the forerunner of what we now call St Mary’s College and is the beginning of the Mary’s story. In May of 1899 Miss Laura M. Roberts was appointed Principal before the first students (six in number) were admitted in the Autumn. Miss Robert’s resigned at the end of the academic year due to the University failing to agree to a move away from Claypath for the Hostel.

Miss Elizabeth Robinson was appointed as a successor and succeeded in agreeing a move to Abbey House on Palace Green in 1901, which was followed by the addition of Abbey Cottage in 1903. At this time Abbey House gained several nicknames used by male students such as “The Dovecote,” “The Convent,” and “The Prison “. Apparently the term “Dovecote” referred to the tendency of the female students to ‘coo’ or because the gowns worn gave the appearance of dove wings.

In 1904 meetings of past and present students were instituted and these are the direct antecedents of the annual reunions held by the Society today. Women were accepted to Convocation (full membership of the University) in 1913 which was significantly before Oxford or Cambridge. In 1914 Miss Robinson resigned to be succeeded by Miss Phyllis Wragge who only stayed for two years before the arrival of Miss Donaldson who would serve as Principal from 1916 to 1940.

During the Great War life in the Hostel became increasingly cramped as numbers increased, whilst expansion of the building was not possible. The women of the Hostel played an increasingly important part of University life due to men being absent as a consequence of the war.

Following twenty one years as a Hostel the status of College was bestowed in 1919 and this institution was dedicated to St Mary, as is the Great Cathedral which stands overshadowing Abbey House. In this year the College moved to a much larger building which today serves as the home of the Chorister School. It was a Prebendial House. Although this house was much bigger there was still insufficient space and so properties were taken on the Bailey including Dun Cow Cottage, 39 North Bailey, 8 South Bailey and 13 South Bailey.

The need for expanded accommodation was obvious and the University Council established a committee to look into this in 1934. By 1935 Mr Vincent Harris had prepared a design, but the project did not proceed. In 1938 an appeal fund was launched for the building of a new college and by 1939 over £115000 was committed, but the majority went to build King’s College leaving too small an amount to build in Durham.

Miss Fergusson was appointed Principal in 1940. The war brought hardship with rationing and the fitting of cellars to the College for use in air raids. Members of the College volunteered to help with fire watch duties at the Cathedral, organised youth clubs, factory clubs, helped in the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and organised children’s play centres. By 1945 numbers had increased to 80 students; such was the pressure of this demand that St John’s College loaned Cruddas House as accommodation for Mary’s girls. By 1948 this situation was becoming fraught with some 400 applicants for just 27 places.

This provided the impetus behind approval for a new College building being finally granted. The Current St Mary’s College Fergusson Building was begun in 1947 with Princess Elizabeth visiting in October of that year to lay the foundation stone. Pictures of this momentous occasion are to be found on the walls of College today adjacent to reception. The new building was sized for 100 students, with the first block being ready in Michaelmas Term 1951. The High table, made from solid oak by Mr Robert Thompson (the “mouse” man) was purchased at this time using the Old Students’ gift fund. The resolution to make this gift was taken at the 1948 reunion.

By the end of the summer vacation of 1952 the move into the new building was completed. Having overseen this process Miss Fergusson departed Durham to take up a post in Edinburgh. Her tenure had encompassed the war years, the acute lack of accommodation during the immediate post war years and the transition to the new building.

Miss Williamson acceded in 1955 and early in her tenure in the November of 1956 the Queen Mother paid an informal visit to make up for her missing the official opening ceremony in 1953 due to bereavement upon the death of her brother. 1957 saw the new Coat of Arms granted approval by the Court of Heralds. The continued success of the College in attracting applicants saw 1000 apply in 1960 and the numbers of students in College swell to 139 in residence and a further 14 in lodgings.

A new building, today called the Williamson Building, was completed in 1962 and was especially designed to allow for a continued unobstructed view of the Cathedral from the Fergusson building. May 1964 saw the consecration of the new Chapel in the roof of the North East Wing, but some years passed until the Society undertook to furnish the chapel with furniture from Thompson of Kilburn. Just before this in the summer of 1962 Miss Williamson left St Mary’s for Royal Holloway College, London.

She was succeeded by Mrs Mary Holdsworth. The intention of keeping student numbers accommodated in College at 280 was proving difficult; in fact numbers reached 323 in 1969 resulting in the College acquiring the bottom flat of 45 South Street and a house on the Avenue. The internal structure of College also changed with the basement of the Fergusson building being converted into sewing rooms, rooms for Tutors and in 1970, the conversion of the old chapel space into a bar. The houses of West Court were built at this time for the use of Tutors and all College rooms were provided with washbasins, which were particularly focussed towards conference trade (it seems nothing is new with the current emphasis on conference income through Event Durham).

Miss Florence Irene Calvert was appointed Principal in 1974 having been the President of the SCR for the previous twenty years. This period was one of consolidation after a period of considerable change.

Miss Joan Kenworthy was appointed Principal in 1977. Her tenure encompassed further changes to the physical appearance of College. 1991 saw the opening of the Teikyo University buildings in the South East corner of St Mary’s College land. This development also included the construction of staff flats to the south of the main driveway to the west of West Court.

In 1993 an additional 52 en-suite rooms were opened in the Williamson Building. This development was intended to improve the cost-efficiency of College and also allow additional facilities suitable for conference trade. A new conference hall and associated seminar rooms were built in the same period. The conference hall, today called the ‘Kenworthy Hall’ is situated to the south of the dining hall and connected by a glass atrium. The seminar rooms, today named the ‘Holdsworth and Donaldson’ rooms are situated to the west of the kitchen block. These new facilities opened in 1993/4.

Miss Kenworthy presided over an expansion of JCR involvement in all College activities, the development of fellowships and an emphasis on bursaries to support student activities. She steered a course for College through a time of turbulent Government Policies and financial uncertainty.

Mary’s celebrated a centenary in 1999 and looked forward to a new century with Miss Jenny Hobbs as Principal. The big question for the College was whether to remain single sex. After several years of debates and consultation the decision was finally taken to admit male undergraduates in the Michaelmas term of 2005. This process of integration has proceeded smoothly until today we stand at an approximate 50/50 male to female ratio.

Other recent developments have been the conversion of the Mews block into dedicated female only accommodation (now named the Shepherd Wing) and the redevelopment of the Williamson building through a £1.5 million upgrade. In 2007 the College appointed its first male Principal, Professor Philip Gilmartin. This was accompanied by the appointment of the first male MCR President, Steven Spencer in 2007 and has been followed by the first male JCR President, James Liddell in 2009.

In an echo of the past and a reminder that female education, so long now an established right in the UK, remains contentious in other lands, October 2010 witnessed the arrival of Afghan female scholars to take up residence in the Shepherd Wing as part of the Chancellor’s initiative in this area. This exciting initiative maintained Mary’s historic role at the forefront of women’s education whilst also enhancing the college’s community.

Professor Gilmartin departed for the University of East Anglia in August 2011 following four successful years which encompassed continual change, including a large expansion of arts activities, a reinvigoration of the SCR, much needed improvements in the provision of food and significant re-expressions of the College’s identity, for example, through commissioning Mary’s own wine and port, the establishment of a sculpture park and provision of subsidised kit for all sports teams. Professor Gilmartin’s tenure also witnessed Mary’s climb from being one of the least popular of Durham’s Colleges, to being a selective College; that is, having more first choice applications than there are undergraduate places. Whilst this is undoubtedly due to the efforts of all staff, student leaders and senior figures, Professor Gilmartin’s leadership and vision were instrumental in achieving this dramatic change in fortunes.

The current Principal, Professor Simon Hackett began work in September 2011. As well as being the Principal of St Mary’s he is a Professor of Applied Social Sciences, and holds a wide variety of other roles, as members can find by clicking on his name. Under his stewardship the college has  thrived, increasing its proportion of ‘first choice applications’, enjoying considerable sporting success and further developing the arts.

In 2015 the Shepherd Wing was converted to largely returner and postgraduate accommodation, with the female only accommodation provision being relocated to the newly designated ‘Boughton Wing’, named in honour of Gillian Boughton, former Vice Principal and Senior Tutor of St Mary’s.  At the time of writing, in September 2018, the college stands in a strong position, holding on to its traditions whilst adapting to the demands of each student generation and to changes in higher education. There is every reason to see a future for St Mary’s that is as bright as its illustrious past. 

The Society has existed since the fist meetings of Mary’s alumni in 1904 and throughout most of this time (since 1908) has produced an annual newsletter, contributed materially to the College and organised reunion events. We became ‘St Mary’s College Society’ in 1920 when the College also became ‘St Mary’s’. Until 1979 the College Principal was the ex-officio President of the Society. The then Principal Joan Kenworthy suggested an independently elected President, a position first held by Mrs Louise Chapman. We currently have over 8000 members spanning many different periods of the College history and in 2008 welcomed our first male members; a year which also witnessed the last all female year become graduate members. Thus, 2008 marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. In 2010 the Society produced the last universally paper copy newsletter, switching to electronic distribution for the vast majority of members. This change has saved a substantial sum of money which has been reinvested in providing enhanced provision for both current students and alumni. This has included supporting a freshers’ formal, a Society Book Fund, a new travel bursary, a postgraduate bursary aimed at supporting conference attendance and targeted support for the MCR. We in the Society seek to modernise alongside the College and look forward to the future with confidence, whilst retaining our roots firmly in the past.