Fawcett, Philippa Garrett

(1868-1948), mathematician and civil servant

by Rita McWilliams Tullberg

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Fawcett, Philippa Garrett (1868-1948), mathematician and civil servant, was born in London on 4 April 1868, the only daughter of Henry Fawcett (1833-1884), Liberal politician and professor of political economy at Cambridge, and his wife, Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), leader of the women's suffragist movement. Philippa Fawcett's political and intellectual inheritance was formidable. Both her parents were active in the movement for the higher education of women. Not yet two years old, she reportedly toddled among the group of senior academics and their wives meeting in her parents' drawing-room in Cambridge in 1869 to plan the scheme of lectures for women that led, in time, to the foundation of Newnham College.

As the only child in a busy intellectual and politically active household, Philippa Fawcett was exposed to radical causes and was given more independence than was usual among her contemporaries. She attended Clapham middle school in London and then Clapham high school, one of the new Girls' Public Day School Company's schools where standards were based on those in the best boys' schools. She proved at an early age to excel in mathematics and at fifteen received coaching from George Barnes Atkinson of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. From 1885 to 1887 she attended courses at University College, London, in pure and applied mathematics and mechanics, and she also studied chemistry at Bedford College. On the basis of her excellent results in the higher local examinations, she was awarded a Winkworth scholarship to study mathematics at Newnham College, Cambridge.

At Newnham, Philippa Fawcett's study habits were regular, rarely exceeding six hours daily. She was an enthusiastic hockey player in the Newnham team, an excellent needlewoman, and took part in the college debating society. As was the custom among students aiming for high honours in the mathematical tripos, she was coached by Ernest William Hobson of Christ's College. Great hopes were placed on her achieving high marks in the competitive mathematical honours degree, the tripos. This was officially open to women from the Cambridge women's colleges, Newnham and Girton, although they could be classed only unofficially and received no degree as recognition of their academic success. When the results of the tripos were announced in the Senate House on 7 June 1890, the names of the successful male candidates were read out, and Geoffrey Thomas Bennett of St John's crowned as senior wrangler, the top male student in the first class. As was the practice, the names of the women candidates were then read, their places in the competitive examination being described as 'equal to' or 'between' those of the men. Philippa Fawcett's place was 'above the senior wrangler'.

Fawcett's success produced a great deal of excitement among the undergraduates and at Newnham, and was widely reported in the press. While it was still generally held that women were mentally incapable of scaling the heights of mathematics, educationists had concluded in the mid-1860s that the quality of mathematics teaching for girls and women was at fault. Greatly improved teaching meant that mathematics became as popular a subject for women at Cambridge as classics or English. Eight women from Newnham and nine from Girton succeeded in the mathematical tripos in Philippa Fawcett's year; two Girton students were also placed among the wranglers.

In 1891 Philippa Fawcett sat part two of the tripos, which was considered to demand more originality and ingenuity of candidates. Again she confounded the women's critics by being placed, together with Bennett, the male senior wrangler of her year, alone in the first class. Both were former students of University College, London, which in 1892 appointed them fellows, an honour given to distinguished students, though without pecuniary reward.

Bennett was made a fellow of St John's College, awarded the university prize for mathematics, and lectured for the university. Fawcett was not eligible for any such lucrative posts or prizes. Newnham gave her the Marion Kennedy scholarship, which permitted a further year of mathematical work, resulting in the publication of a paper in a mathematical journal. In 1892 she was appointed a college lecturer at Newnham (which as yet had no fellows), helping other young women prepare for the mathematical tripos. As a teacher she was remembered for her 'concentration, speed, ... infectious delight ... and patience' (Newnham College Roll Letter, 53).

From 1899 to 1900 Philippa Fawcett embarked on a world tour with Blanche Athena Clough, who was also on the Newnham staff. In July 1901 she accompanied her mother on a trip to South Africa, where the latter headed a government commission of women inquiring into conditions in British concentration camps. She resigned her Newnham lectureship in 1902, when she was persuaded to return to the Transvaal to help establish the school system there. Among her tasks was to train mathematics teachers in Johannesburg and to develop a system of farm schools which could meet the needs of the widespread Boer farming community.

In 1905 Fawcett returned to England to take up the post of principal assistant in the executive officer (education) department of the London county council (LCC), where she took charge of higher education. She became responsible for existing secondary schools and developed new ones established under the 1902 Education Act: twenty-seven such schools were established during her time with the LCC. The council attributed much of their success to her expert and enthusiastic direction of the administrative work involved in their creation and development, including the scheme of county council scholarships that enabled students to progress through the system. She was the first professional woman appointed to the council's permanent staff and, remarkably, she received the same salary as would a man in the post. Equal pay for men and women on the council's senior staff, granted in 1919, was her own contribution to 'the Cause'.

Fawcett's responsibilities at the LCC also included teacher training. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, local authorities, and in particular the LCC, founded day teacher training colleges. Since most existing colleges were denominational and residential, these day colleges sought to break the hold of religion on teacher training and to provide cheaper facilities for students living locally. When the principal of Avery Hill Training College in Greenwich, founded in 1906, fell ill and resigned in 1907, Fawcett 'abandoned her desk at County Hall to mount a rescue operation' and within six months had put the college's administration on a sound footing: 'When we were a ship without a rudder, she pulled us through' (Shorney, 54-5). She took a particular interest in the London Day Training College, founded in 1902 and transferred under her guidance to the University of London as the Institute of Education in 1932. Clapham Day Training College, originally attached to her old school, was reorganized (and in 1953, after her death, was named after her). In 1920 Fawcett was appointed assistant education officer (higher education). On retiring from her post in 1934, she was thanked in particular for the tact with which she had handled the relationship between the council and the University of London and for 'the very happy relations which exist with the governing bodies of secondary schools throughout London' (LCC minutes).

Philippa Fawcett is known to have participated in a manifesto organized by the suffragettes in July 1910 (Rubinstein, 181, n.70). Otherwise she strongly supported the suffragist cause led by her mother, who while firmly opposing the violent and disruptive methods of the suffragettes was prepared to join with them when they refrained from militancy. However, as a public servant, Fawcett generally kept a low profile during the suffrage campaign. She was a prominent supporter of the League of Nations Union, helping to develop junior and schools branches, and was particularly active in the 'Peace ballot' of 1934-5. She supported the London and National Society for Women's Service (renamed the Fawcett Society in 1953), serving on the executive committee and later as president. She also donated £6000 shortly after the Second World War to the society's library (later the National Library of Women) at a time of serious financial difficulty, rescuing an outstanding collection of archives and printed material on the changing role of women in society. She has been described as a woman of frugal habits, reticent, and modest to a fault (Newnham College Roll Letter, 50; Siklos, 40) . She had a great love of literature, travel, walking, and gardening. During the First World War she spent her holidays as a relief postman in Yorkshire, and sewed and knitted comforters for the military during the second. She died in London on 10 June 1948.


S. Siklos, Philippa Fawcett and the mathematical tripos (1990)
[A. B. White and others], eds., Newnham College register, 1871-1971, 2nd edn, 1 (1979), 7
Newnham College Roll Letter (1949), 46-54
D. Rubinstein, A different world for women: the life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1991)
London county council, minutes of proceedings 28 Feb 1934 (dated 6 March 1934), 'Retirement of assistant education officer (higher education)', LMA
D. M. Copelman, London's women teachers: gender, class and feminism, 1870-1930 (1996)
D. Shorney, Teachers in training, 1906-1985: a history of Avery Hill College (1989)
L. Goldman, 'Introduction: an advanced liberal: Henry Fawcett, 1833-1884', The blind Victorian: Henry Fawcett and British liberalism, ed. L. Goldman (1989), 1-38
CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1948)

Newnham College, Cambridge, diaries of travels in India and China with B. A. Clough
UCL, record of subjects studied, prizes, and fellowship
Women's Library, London, diary of visit to Ireland with M. G. Fawcett |  BL, letters to B. A. Clough
LMA, records of London county council education officer's department
U. Lond., Institute of Education, administrative corresp. with P. Nunn

photographs, Newnham College, Cambridge [see illus.]

Wealth at death  
£41,060 18s. 6d.: probate, 12 Oct 1948, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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