In Grateful Memory – The Heroine and The Pioneer

photograph of Aston Webb reception

The main entrance into the Aston Webb Building of the University of Birmingham certainly has the wow factor when it comes to grand design and architecture, but one feature always stops people in their tracks and catches the eye; the rows and rows of names, skilfully carved into the marble of the War Memorials that line the walls to the left and to the right of the foyer. Names of brave service people, academics, graduates, researchers, and pioneers of the University, who died during the First and Second World Wars.

It is unsurprising that at first glance the names appear to be all male but look closer and on the memorial panels of the Great War the names of two woman can be found. Two women who were exceptional for their time and are still inspirational today.

In this month dedicated to Women’s History let us take a look into the lives of these women – Heroine, Elizabeth S. Impey, and Pioneer, Rose Sidgwick.

Elizabeth (Elsie) Impey (1877 – 1915)

Photograph of Elizabeth Impey

Elizabeth was known as Elsie; she was a local girl from a large Quaker family.

After leaving school she trained at Madame Bergman Osterberg’s Physical Training College at Dartford Kent. Her training came in useful when she returned home because she spent six years teaching drill exercises to school children and families.

As a an early female Medical Student at the University of Birmingham, Elsie became the first woman President of the Guild of Students and helped to restructure it. She was instrumental in establishing the Woman’s Club at the University.

Elsie completed her medical training in 1911 and gained experience at local Birmingham hospitals until being offered a position as Medical Officer at Dufferin Hospital for Women, in Lahore.

With WWI raging she sailed from Tilbury Docks on December 18th, 1915, knowing how perilous her journey was and aware that German submarines were targeting civilian ships.

On the afternoon of December 10th, her ship was just off the coast of Crete when it was struck by a torpedo.

By all accounts Elsie didn’t hesitate in rushing to aid other passengers into the lifeboats. Without thought for her own safety she saved 59 passengers, waved them goodbye and then dived into the sea. Elsie was never seen alive again and her body was never recovered.

Elsie was described as having unconquerable spirit, fine courage and remarkable physical health, traits that shaped her life and evidently remained with her until death.

Rose Sidgwick 1877 – 1918

photograph of Rose Sidgwick

After studying and tutoring History, Rose met Margery Fry who was librarian at Somerville College. Rose had taken up the position of temporary history tutor at Somerville and assisted Margery in setting up the new library, the two becoming friends.

When Margery left Somerville College to become the warden of the Ladies accommodation at the University of Birmingham, Rose followed her to take up an appointment as Assistant Lecturer in History.

While her Rose was actively involved in support and advisory committee groups across the county and in 1914, she helped Margery relocate the female student accommodation to University House, which is now the Business School. Rose’s contributions to the social welfare and education of women in Birmingham are commemorated today by a birdbath that stands in the grounds.

In 1918 Rose joined an invited delegation from British Universities to go to the USA on a three-month mission to cement closer working relationships between the two countries. Whilst there Rose was involved in discussions on the founding of a world organisation for higher educated women (The International Federation of University Women), a ground breaking step in the recognition of Women’s education.

While working on the mission Rose fell ill with the Spanish influenza which was pandemic at the time. Like so many that contracted the disease, her infection progressed to pneumonia, and she died in New York on 28th December 1918, before she could see her work come to fruition.

However, her efforts did not go in vain, and the Rose Sidgwick Memorial Fellowship was set up by the American Association of University Women, and still offers scholarships so British women can undertake post-graduate studies in the USA. The award is administered by the British Federation of Women Graduates.

Such tragic stories but two women that the University must certainly be proud to call their own.

Diane Cornfield, Aston Webb Reception

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