By Georgia Oman
In May 1876, Margaret Merrifield wrote a letter home to her mother from Newnham College, Cambridge, where she had arrived as a student the year before. The College itself had only been founded a few years earlier, in 1871, with five students living in a rented house in Regent Street, Cambridge. In 1875, the first permanent buildings had been constructed on a piece of land near the village of Newnham, suitably removed from the men’s colleges in the centre of town, and surrounded by expansive grounds, perfect for taking exercise. It was about this that Margaret wrote to her mother.
“We are rather put out about our cricket. Some of us, notably Miss Benton, Miss Ellis and I wanted very much to play, so Miss Ellis asked Miss Clough’s permission, [which] was granted at once. Whereupon we collected money for a bat and Miss Benton and I bought it yesterday morning. Well, yesterday evening we were just going to play, when Miss Clough came out and said she was sorry but she could not possibly let us play.”
The intervention of the College Principal, Miss Clough, highlights the tenuous position early women students faced upon entering the universities for the first time. Miss Clough initially said the game would ‘spoil the grass’, but ‘after a little hesitation, said there were other reasons.’ Any perceived lack of decorum or femininity in female students could turn public opinion against their cause, or worse provoke the University to rescind the already meagre concessions they had grudgingly extended. As Rita McWilliams-Tullberg notes, ‘Cambridge women were perched on the gunwale of the university boat and were therefore most reluctant to rock it.’ Unfortunately for Miss Merrifield, her cricket bat had to be sacrificed for the greater good.
Image: Drawings of bats from W. G. Grace, Cricket (1891) (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).
 M. de G. Verrall (Merrifield, 1875), letter to mother, 7 May 1876, in A. Phillips (ed.), A Newnham Anthology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 5-6.
 M. de G. Verrall, pp. 5-6.
 R. McWilliams-Tullberg, ‘Women and Degrees at Cambridge University, 1862-1897’, in M. Vicinus (ed.), A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), p. 143.