Photo credit: Vera Brittain Literary Estate/Somerville College
In the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, there were almost no opportunities for women in higher education. It will come as no surprise that Oxford Extension was in high demand from women students from the inception of the programme in 1878.
Vera Brittain and Oxford Extension
For women of the middle class, Oxford Extension was an intellectual lifeline, connecting them to a wider world of ideas and higher education. They attended the Extension Lectures in large numbers in their home cities and towns; and they flocked to Oxford for the annual Summer Meetings (an early version of our Oxford University Summer School for Adults), to take advantage of the more intensive programme of lectures and study opportunities these meetings offered.
A few of these students used the Extension programme as pathway into formal, full-time education at University level.
One such student was Vera Brittain. She is best known as the author of the memoir Testament of Youth, a book well known for describing the impact of World War I on the lives of women and the middle-class civilian population of Great Britain. Brittain, who entered Somerville College to read English in 1915 and interrupted her studies to serve as a nurse during the war, is one of Oxford's notable alumni from this era.
But Vera Brittain's first experience of Oxford occurred two years earlier – as an Oxford Extension student.
In 1913 Brittain attended a series of lectures given by J.A.R. Marriott (who was at that time the equivalent of our current Director) in her home town of Buxton.
Marriott was impressed with Vera's essays – on the Industrial Revolution, the Problem of Distribution, the History of Trade Unionism and the Rise of the Socialist Movement. When he handed her first essay back to her, he described it as 'an excellent piece of work'.1
On the basis of her work for Marriott, Vera was awarded a prize scholarship to attend the Oxford Summer Meeting for that year, 1913.
Marriott, who was Secretary of the 'Oxford Delegacy for the Extension of Teaching Beyond the Limits of the University' (one of the Department for Continuing Education's early names – quite a mouthful) was to play a significant role in Vera's future. He stayed at the Brittain family home on the night of the final lecture of his 1913 Buxton lecture series, and Vera took advantage of his being there to mention her longing for Oxford in front of her parents, who were reluctant to let her study at University level.
Vera 'asked [Marriott's] advice with regard to the first steps to be taken. The genial matter-of-factness with which he gave it seemed to dispel all doubts, and made the customary objections look so trivial that they were hardly ever mentioned again.' 2
Vera Brittain did make it to Oxford as a full-time undergraduate; she was accepted to Somerville College to read English in 1915; she returned after the war in 1919, changing her course to Modern History.
A few years later, she returned to her Extension roots. In 1926 she gave a course of Extension Lectures at Westgate on Sea, running from October to December, on 'Ideals of World Unity' – a fitting subject for a lifelong campaigner in the cause of pacifism.
1. Vera Brittain, Chronicle of Youth: Vera Britain's War Diary 1913-1917 ed A. Bishop (London 1981), entry for 5 February 1913.
2. Testament of Youth (London, 1933), page 63.
To read more about Vera Brittain's days at Oxford as a student at Somerville College, please see:
Next: read how a more intensive form of adult education came to pass, and why.
The text in these 'History of the Department' pages is to be found in the book 'Dons and Workers: Oxford and Adult Education Since 1850', by Dr Lawrence Goldman, Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at St Peter's College, Oxford, and a former member of the Department for Continuing Education.