Helen Wodehouse

The first principal of Bingley was Helen Marion Wodehouse (centre second row, with students in 1914). She was was born in Bratton Fleming, Devon in 1880. She was the daughter of the Reverend Philip John Wodehouse and Marion Bryan Wallas. She had 2 brothers and 1 sister, Christine, Charles and Philip. Helen attended Notting Hill School, London where her aunt Katharine Wallas (a former student at Girton) taught Mathematics. Helen then won an exhibition to Girton College to read mathematics in 1898. She stayed on at Cambridge to study Moral Sciences 1902-1903.bing900Wodehouse1914

She took her Teacher’s Higher Diploma at Birmingham University in 1903 and stayed on to lecture in Philosophy from 1903 to 1911. During her time at Birmingham she lived with Professor J H Muirhead and his wife, Mary Talbot Wallas, her aunt, and took an MA in 1904 and a DPhil in 1906.

Helen accepted the post of Principal at the new teacher training college at Bingley in the West Riding of Yorkshire in October 1911. On leaving Bingley she went on to become Professor of Education at the University of Bristol 1919-1931, becoming one of the very few women professors at the time. In her twelve years at Bristol she established what came to be one of the leading education departments in the country, both for professional education and for research. The department was later housed in a building within the university bearing her name.

Following this she became Mistress of Girton 1931-1942. Helen had intended to retire in 1940, when she would be sixty, but in the event was persuaded to stay on for another two years because of the war. Despite her Church of England upbringing, she decided at the age of seventeen that she could no longer believe in the doctrines of Christianity; yet she remained a naturally religious person. Combining her philosophical with her religious views, she preached many ‘lay’ sermons as part of her educational duties, and, after her retirement, wrote ‘One Kind of Religion’, published in 1944, in which she expounded her belief in a God, and her admiration for the historical Jesus, but her disbelief in personal immortality.

Helen Wodehouse wrote in the fields of Philosophy, Theology and Education. While her books are now out of print, there are still several journal articles available online. Her key works, as cited in her obituary, give a sense of the range of her interests: A Survey of Education (1924), The Scripture Lesson in the Elementary School (1926), Temples and Treasuries (1935), Selves and their Good (1936), One Kind of Religion (1944).

In later life she moved to Wales and passed away at the Park Nursing Home, Llandrindod Wells, Radnorshire, on 20 October 1964. From accounts at the time of her death, Helen Wodehouse was described as austere, shy, dedicated, inspirational. In a memorial pamphlet, there are some stories from a former student: “Teaching, she told us, is not so much handing on the torch of knowledge as fumbling with a box of matches, trying to strike one so that your pupils can find the electric light switch for themselves”. (Humphreys 1964).

In 1964, when she died, Helen Wodehouse was still the only woman to have held a Chair at Bristol University and it was in 1964 that the decision was taken to name the new Graduate School of Education building in Berkeley Square after her.

Thanks to Bristol University and Girton College for archive information.

Click here to go to the Bristol University site to read another article on Helen Wodehouse.

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