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Memorial Service for Margaret Wileman

This past weekend Hughes Hall hosted a memorial service for Margaret Wileman, the College’s first President. The service, held at Great St. Mary’s, brought together students, seniors, and alumni to honour the life and achievements of Ms Wileman. President Anthony Freeling gave the encomium which is reprinted below.


‘A memorial service is a time not only to celebrate the person and their achievements, but also to acknowledge those whose influence in their lives was critical in a formative way. To that end Margaret’s nephew, Derek Gravatt, has composed a short piece about Margaret’s mother, his maternal grandmother. He is happy for me to read it now. You will see that her influence on Margaret’s education and character was immense. He called it:

Celebrating an unsung heroine.

Margaret was born in humble circumstances. Though she inherited giftings from both her parents, the influence of her mother, Alice, was the more profound. Alice was born in West Bay, Dorset, the eldest of three children of a mender of nets. She was an intelligent child whose continued education was sadly curtailed by family circumstances and the need to look after the home. Denied her heart’s desire, she determined that none of her daughters (Margaret’s parents had no sons) should suffer in the same way. Margaret was the firstborn of seven, four of whom survived to adulthood. It was Alice who helped propel Margaret through school matriculation, despite a weakness in mathematics, and so in due course to enter tertiary education. The rest, as they say, is history. But you should know that Alice did all this whilst at the same time looking after another daughter who was very severely disabled with hydrocephaly and spina bifida who died aged 8; and all this was during Margaret’s formative years. During those eight years Alice never once left the house. That was Margaret’s mother!

Margaret Wileman herself is an immense figure in the history of the College, at its head for an astonishing 20 years, during a period when the very existence of Hughes Hall was under threat several times. She was born in July 1908 in Edmonton, North London, the first child of Alice and her father, who was a publisher.  Margaret was academically distinguished and had a wide range of talents, as artist, musician and poet. She won a Scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, where she achieved a First in Modern Languages, having given up a place at the Slade School of Art. In 1930, she trained as a teacher in the Oxford Department of Education. During the war she lectured at St. Katharine’s College Warrington, and then for 9 years was a resident warden at Bedford College in London. During vacations both during and after the war she worked in refugee camps and girls’ borstals.

She was appointed Principal of Hughes Hall in 1953. She joined Hughes Hall just 4 years after it had changed its name from the Cambridge Training College for Women, when it had first become a Recognized Institution for Women in the University. It was, however, still just a small teachers’ training college of around 70 women. By the time she retired at the end of 1973 Hughes Hall had admitted not only research students and Law students, but even men, and had elected its first Fellows and Senior Members. However, in between these dates Hughes Hall almost disappeared as a separate entity several times, as the Department of Education in the University underwent a number of major changes itself. She led us through these turbulent waters, developing the first College strategy, which led over time to Hughes Hall becoming a vibrant full College of the University with around 600 students today.

On her retirement, she returned to some of her former scholarly interests, in particular working with French colleagues and became in due course an honorary member of a research group at the Sorbonne. She lectured across Europe in one of the three languages she spoke fluently. She was especially pleased when in 1999 the French government appointed her Officier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques.

She was an Honorary Fellow of the College for more than 30 years after her retirement. Living close by, off Hills Road, she was frequently to be seen in College, at dinners and other events until her final days. There are reliable reports of her conversing simultaneously in several languages. She joined us at our Summer Garden party in July last year.

I cannot pretend to have known Margaret well. However I did meet her several times and her interest in me and in how the College was doing was impressive and frankly somewhat intimidating. For it is on the foundations that she laid, together with those who worked with her, several of whom are here today, that we now continue to build. I and the current generation of Fellows shall seek to do justice to those foundations. And we shall try to do so with the grace and generosity that characterised Margaret.’