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Bloomsbury Institutions


Ladies’ College

Also known as Bedford College


It was founded in 1849 by Elisabeth Jesser Reid as a higher education college for women

It opened in rooms in 47 Bedford Square, run by Frances Martin, who was later involved in the founding of the Working Women’s College in Queen Square and the College for Working Women in Fitzroy Street

Among its early students and supporters were Barbara Leigh Smith (later Bodichon), campaigner for women’s property rights and later founder of Girton College, Cambridge, Bessie Rayner Parkes, campaigner for equal opportunities for women in education and employment, Lady Byron, widow of the poet, founder of a school in Ealing, and a Unitarian convert, and Anna Swanwick, translator from German and Greek and a Bloomsbury resident (she lived in Tavistock Place in 1841 and Woburn Square in 1851), who ran a school for working-class girls in the Colonnade in the 1840s (Anna Swanwick: A Memoir and Recollections 1813-1899, compiled by her niece Mary L. Bruce, 1903)

Other supporters were Ann Scott, wife of Alexander John Scott, Professor of English at University College and the Ladies’ College, and Sophia De Morgan, wife of Augustus De Morgan, Professor of mathematics at University College and the Ladies’ College itself

Mary Ann or Marian Evans, later the novelist George Eliot, attended classes in 1850–1851, studying maths first with Augustus De Morgan and then with F. W. Newman, also of University College

Another early student was Dickens’s thirteen-year-old daughter Katey, who attended drawing classes in 1853–1854 from her home, Tavistock House in the north-east corner of Tavistock Square

Though Mrs Reid had made a loan of £1500 to start her College, she found in 1856 that its finances were precarious and was obliged to turn the loan into a gift

In 1853 the College council had decided to start a school to increase numbers and fee income

After Mrs Reid’s death in 1866, her three Trustees, Eliza Bostock, Jane Martineau, and Eleanor Smith, continued the College successfully, though they closed the school in 1868 after arguments with Frances Martin, who was inclined to turn it into an Anglican institution

The College was renamed Bedford College in 1859

The College became part of the University of London in 1900, and merged with Royal Holloway College in 1985

What was reforming about it?

It was the first higher education institution for women in the UK

Following the lead of University College London, from which it acquired most of its (largely unpaid) Professors, it was non-sectarian

Its early students and subscribers included several of Mrs Reid’s friends, many of them Unitarians like her and several of them feminists campaigning for female education, suffrage, and married women’s property rights

Students of Bedford College were among the first women in the UK to take degrees when the University of London opened its degree examinations to women from 1878

Where in Bloomsbury

It began in the house at 47 (now no. 48) Bedford Square in 1849, and expanded into no. 48 (now no. 49) Bedford Square in 1860

The College’s founder, Mrs Reid, a wealthy Unitarian philanthropist, had lived at 6 Grenville Street since her marriage to Dr John Reid in 1821 (he died the following year)

Having moved out of the Grenville Street house in 1842 but kept the lease, Mrs Reid opened it as a boarding house for students of the Ladies’ College in 1852

The College itself moved out of Bloomsbury in 1874 to larger premises near Baker Street after the Bedford Estate managers had informed the Trustees that the leases on the two houses in Bedford Square would not be renewed

Website of current institution

The successor institution is Royal Holloway, University of London (opens in new window)

No. 47 (now no. 48) Bedford Square, original home of Bedford College

Books about it

Margaret Tuke, A History of Bedford College for Women, 1849–1937 (1939)

Linna Bentley, Educating Women: A Pictorial History of Bedford College, University of London, 1849–1985 (1991)


Its extensive administrative records are held at Royal Holloway, ref. BC; details are available online via the Royal Holloway archives catalogue (opens in new window)

There is a handlist: Claire Daunton and Elizabeth Bennett, ‘A Catalogue of the Archives of Bedford College (University of London), 1849–1985’ (1987)

The Elisabeth Jesser Reid Papers, also at Royal Holloway (ref. RF/100-RF/106), contain extensive correspondence between Mrs Reid and her early supporters, including Henry Crabb Robinson, extracts from whose diaries are also part of the collection; details are available online via the Royal Holloway archives catalogue (opens in new window)

This page last modified 14 April, 2011 by Deborah Colville


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