The woman who took Oxford by storm

The woman who took Oxford by storm

7th March 2018 By Nat Rachman

Oxford University’s Local Delegacy exams, first set for school-leavers in 1857, had more riding on them than simply grades: the top candidate would also be offered an exhibition scholarship to the university itself, either at Balliol or Worcester College. On calculating the results for the papers of 1873, there was no doubt as to who reigned supreme that year. The candidate named A. M. A. H. R., as they signed their papers, had triumphed. While not top in any subject, their consistency was outstanding: joint-first in French as well as second in Latin, Greek, and German. A glittering Oxford career no doubt awaited them. There was only one hitch: A. M. A. H. R. was a girl.

Annie Mary Anne Henley Rogers, born to an academic Oxford family, had been well within her rights to take the exams, which had been opened to girls a few years beforehand. The colleges, however, had not followed the same model and a woman was still deemed incapable of being a student. Balliol saw fit to console her with six volumes of Homer, while Worcester initially proceeded with granting the exhibition, but only as a joke. The dons were all too aware that this long string of initials were those of a girl. This was not, however, the last they would hear of Annie.

There was only one hitch: A. M. A. H. R. was a girl

Her father, James Thorold Rogers, had been the one to encourage her to sit the exams. He was a professor of political economy, and something of a radical, as both an advocate of universal manhood suffrage as well as a committed supporter of the North in the American Civil War. His cerebral pursuits were matched by his appearance: the Newcastle Leader remarked that his stooped posture ‘had the effect of projecting his head far forward, so that his face, with his magnificent brow and piercing eyes, seemed to be entering a room before his body crossed the threshold’. He was also a harsh critic of Oxford, and fell into disfavour with more conservative elements among the dons. Needless to say, his career there was short and acrimonious. His eventual election to Parliament saw yet more conflict: in his maiden speech alone, he insulted Randolph Churchill’s ungrammatical use of Latin and referred to an opponent as ‘vermin’, a term he was made to retract by the speaker. Annie’s father was not the only eccentric in her life however – Lewis Carroll had used her as a child-model, dressing her up in faux-medieval attire and writing ditties and letters to her.

Despite Annie’s comfortable youth in an elegant Regency house on Beaumont Street, her early years were by no means free of misfortune. In 1876, her brothers Henry and Bertram were home for the holidays; having occupied themselves with some cricket and cards, they retired to bed. When Henry failed to appear at breakfast next morning, the fifteen-year-old Bertram went up to his room to investigate and found him ‘suspended by a strap from the hook on the door, quite dead’. Thorold always insisted it was an accident, despite all indications. Ann Rogers, their mother, recorded the day of his suicide in her diary with the words ‘God have mercy upon us for what happened today. My son, my son.’ In 1882 she noted the anniversary: ‘The terrible day. My sweet darling Boy I can hardly bear it even now.’ The captain of Westminster School and a young man set for even greater things at Oxford had killed himself. No motivation was ever identified.

The university allowed degree-level examinations for ‘women over 18’ in 1875

In part triggered by Annie’s case and the petitioning that followed, Oxford finally shifted its position. While undergraduate examinations and scholarships remained firmly closed to female students, the university allowed degree-level examinations for ‘women over 18’ in 1875. A year after Bertram’s death, Annie stormed to first-class honours in Latin and Greek as the only female candidate to sit the papers. She went on to achieve the same distinction in Ancient History in 1879, before being appointed Oxford’s first female don at the age of only twenty-three. Taking after her father, Annie refused to make life easy for those around her. She campaigned vigorously for greater female inclusion in Oxford, listing her hobbies as ‘bicycling and attending committees’. Her advocacy was particularly notable in the Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women in Oxford, or AEW for short. By 1907 she was a don at St Hugh’s, and quickly adopted the sartorial stagnation of her male colleagues, choosing to dress consistently ‘in a long skirt, stiff shirt, heavy woollen stockings, boots, and a variety of old-fashioned hats.’

Loved by some and feared by others, one student remarked that ‘She knew how to make us work to repair a neglected classical education’; another remembered her instead as ‘the Vampire of the AEW, the fell tyrant of the classical students, bully of all beginners’. She soon acquired the nickname ‘the Rodge’, a testament to the mixture of intimidation and endearment she inspired in others. Despite her championing of female empowerment, she preferred the company of men, taking, according to Oxford Magazine, ‘a highly critical attitude towards her own sex’. It was only in 1920 when Oxford removed its ban on granting them to women, and thirteen years after taking the position of don, that she finally received her degree. For an institution that had in many ways snubbed her, Annie remained remarkably faithful to the university, living in its town from birth until her death in 1937, hit by a lorry on the way to an evening lecture.

Annie was never someone to skirt controversy

‘The Rodge’ was not always the easiest person to be around. She certainly struck fear into some students and dismay into many of her colleagues. When standing up for a fellow female tutor who had been suddenly sacked, she criticised St Hugh’s principal Eleanor Jourdain to such an extent that she was voted off the college’s council. One observer remarked that she ‘drove most people to desperation by her persistent talking in an unpleasing voice’. Annie, however, was never someone to skirt controversy. Looking back on the progress that has been made in equal rights, there seem few better Oxford women to celebrate for International Women’s Day. There is undoubtedly still work to do: women remain underrepresented in Oxford’s teaching staff and continue to receive a fewer number of top degrees. For the advancement achieved so far however, we would do well to look back to 1873’s A. M. A. H. R.