Born in Aberdeenshire in 1840, Louisa Lumsden was the youngest of seven children. Lumsden had a relatively interesting education, starting school in Cheltenham before moving to a boarding school near Brussels and completing her early education at a finishing school in London. Around this time, she heard of a course of lectures for women held at the University of Edinburgh. Lumsden enrolled and worked tirelessly throughout 1868 and1869
Girton College, the first women’s college in Cambridge, opened in 1869. Lumsden applied immediately and excitedly. Emily Davies, who was recruiting for the college, said of Lumsden: “She is 28, manifestly a lady, as well as an eager student, and I should think eminently desirable for us to have in our first group”. Lumsden joined the college in 1869 and became part of the group that is now known as the ‘Girton Five’, or the Girton Pioneers, passing the classical tripos in the third class in 1873. It is known that she excelled in wrestling – one of the many recreational activities that the women were encouraged to participate in to integrate themselves with the male students. Following her graduation, Lumsden was appointed as a tutor in the Classics Department, but she resigned in 1875 due to clashes with other staff. In 1876, she became a Classics teacher at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, after which she was recruited to head a new school for girls in St Andrews.
Lumsden was recruited to be the first headmistress for St Leonards School at its conception in 1877. Under her guidance, St Leonards was born as a progressive school that was created to provide young Scottish women with the same opportunities public schoolboys in England were receiving – the first school of its kind in Scotland. Key figures to the Women’s Movement, such as Louisa Garrett Anderson, were educated under her at this time. After five years, she left to look after her mother despite pleas from the council for her to stay. In her old age, she was asked if she had known how successful St Leonards would be. She replied no, she had never thought about it: “I was far too hard at work laying foundations to have time to dream”.
Lumsden’s next contribution to women’s education came with University Hall in 1896 when she became the first warden of the first female hall at the University. Her vision was for a Scottish Girton – she wanted to unite women to strengthen and support their educational journeys. Sadly, Lumsden’s vision received an unfortunate amount of opposition and resistance from the students, who thought she was too controlling, and from members of staff, who thought her too progressive. As a result, she resigned in 1900. When she was later awarded her LLD by the University, which she “chose to interpret it as amends for the University’s past treatment”, a testament to how difficult the resistance to her vision was.
Retiring back home to Aberdeen, she became involved in the women’s emancipation movement and was named president of the Aberdeen Suffrage Association in 1908. Louisa Lumsden never married or had children, but she was rumoured to have had a romantic attachment with her friend Constance Maynard that ended in grief. As well as her LLD from St Andrews University in 1911, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE) in recognition of her services to education in 1925.
In present day, Louisa Lumsden is claimed by both St Leonards and University Hall as their founder and inspiration. The University recognises and promotes her as a key figure in its history, with the recent article Trailblazing Women at the University of St Andrews featuring her. There is also a society, The Lumsden Club, named in her honour and the University has a special collection in its archive dedicated to her. Louisa Lumsden was an incredible woman who did a lot of good for women’s education and with a very strong connection to St Andrews.