“This foundation stone was laid by
Her Royal Highness The Princess Elizabeth
on October 23rd, 1947.”
These are the words on the foundation stone, carved from a block of Durham sandstone. It stands in the north wall of this main building, now the FergussonBuilding. The north wall is on your right as you enter the Dining Hall from the main corridor. The actual foundation stone is hidden from view in an alcove behind glass doors where the conference bar is at present situated. The silver trowel which Princess Elizabeth used to lay the stone is displayed in the glass cabinet opposite the main entrance.
Princess Elizabeth was 21 years old at the time and clearly very interested in her contemporaries. Her wedding was just four weeks away (20th November, 1947), and nearly five years later (6th February, 1952), she became Queen on the death of her father, the same year as St. Mary’s moved into this building. Until 1952, the old St. Mary’s College was housed in various buildings near the Cathedral.
Margaret Fergusson, Principal at the time, and after whom this building is named, captures the excitement and significance of this special day in the history of St. Mary’s College in the 1948 Newsletter to former students.
“The Warden [Sir James Duff], the senior members of the Governing Body and the Senior Woman [Edith Stayman], awaited the arrival of the Princess before the main door of the College. She, having spent the night at Wynyard with [University Chancellor] Lord and Lady Londonderry, entered Durham by the White Gates and was received by the Mayor on Prebends’ Bridge. She then drove straight to St. Mary’s [near the Cathedral] and stepped from her car just outside the archway. Here the Warden presented the waiting group, and the Senior Woman gave Her Royal Highness a bouquet of cream carnations twined with violets for the Palatinate purple. The Princess had brought with her a lady-in-waiting, her secretary, and a detective.”
After a short coffee-party in the dining-room of the old College, during which she enjoyed talking to students about their studies, war-service or the places from which they came, and looking at the water-colour painting by the architect, Vincent Harris, of the front elevation of the new building, she went to see the Cathedral, while members of the College walked up to the site of the new building for the laying of the foundation stone ceremony. She wore a sage green coat and matching side-swept beret with a feather cockade.
“It was a mild, sunny autumn morning with leaves still brightly coloured, and from the dais we could see flags waving from the windows of old St. Mary’s. The ceremony was a very happy one, and the two comments that one heard on all sides afterwards were that everything had gone perfectly, and that the Princess is even lovelier to look at than her photographs, charming though they are, would lead one to expect.”
Sir James Duff, Warden of the Durham Colleges, requested Princess Elizabeth to lay the foundation stone, saying that it marked two things. “First, it is the sign of fulfilment of a hope now nearly fifty years old, that our women students should at last have a home, and a worthy home, of their own. They started in one house; they now occupy seven, widely scattered and none of them suitable for the purposes of a residential college…But, secondly, the laying of this stone marks the first step in a bold plan of extending the Durham Colleges here on the south side of the river till in course of time this becomes a larger centre than our old centre on the rock.”
The Princess’ reply included, “I know that the rise of New St. Mary’s College will give reality to a long cherished hope. It is now 50 years since women first entered the university. They did so in the teeth of strong prejudice and, both at Durham and elsewhere, they must have had to accept living conditions to which no man would have submitted. Now in New St. Mary’s College, we may be sure that every student will have not only a room of her own but many other amenities which are as much deserved as they are desired. The College will stand in this magnificent position, looking across the river to the Cathedral in all its glory.”
Lunch with local dignitaries, university representatives and an orchestral accompaniment, was in the Castle Hall, because the old St. Mary’s did not have a room of suitable size. At about 2.30p.m., after toasts and presentations, “the Princess left the Castle through ranks of students and the great day was over.”
Pictures reproduced courtesy of ‘The Sunderland Echo’