Skip to main content

Spooks and spiders: Pythagoras and the foundations of Newnham College

In 1870, a small group of academic thinkers, including the philosopher, Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), began to provide lectures to women in Cambridge. The popularity of the ‘Lectures for Ladies’ series meant that arrangements were quickly made to accommodate those women who lived too far away to attend the lectures on a daily basis. In 1871, Sidgwick rented a house on Regent Street for the use of female students, but the house was not large enough, and somewhere between 1871 and 1872, the women transferred from Regent Street to Merton Hall, where they remained until Newnham College was fully established on its present site on Sidgwick Avenue in 1875.

Included among the students who resided at Merton Hall was the future economics lecturer and librarian, Mary Paley. Born in Lincolnshire in 1850, Paley was the great-granddaughter of the eighteenth-century philosopher and theologian, William Paley. She moved to Cambridge in 1871, where she was one of the first five students of Newnham College, and took the Moral Sciences Tripos in 1874 (as a woman, however, she was unable to graduate with a degree). In 1876, she married her economics teacher, Alfred Marshall, and together, the couple continued to lecture and publish works on economics in Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge until Marshall’s death in 1924. Paley was subsequently made Honorary Librarian of the Marshall Library of Economics in Cambridge, which houses a large collection of books belonging to her late husband.  

In her memoirs, Paley recalls having spent two years “at Merton Hall, with a dining-room large enough for separate tables, with its lovely gardens where the nightingales kept us awake at nights, and with its ancient School of Pythagoras supposed to be haunted, though the only ghosts which visited us were enormous spiders”.[1]

[1] Ann Phillips (ed.), A Newnham Anthology, 4; reprinted from M. Paley Marshall, What I Remember.