Mary Bennett

Astute Principal who steered St Hilda's College, Oxford to academic success and distinction
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mary Letitia Somerville Fisher, historian and university administrator: born Oxford 9 January 1913; staff, Transcription Service, BBC 1941-45; staff, Colonial Office 1945-56; Honorary Secretary, Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies 1960-85; Principal, St Hilda's College, Oxford 1965-80, Honorary Fellow 1980; Member, Hebdomadal Council, Oxford University 1973-79, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, 1979-80; married 1955 John Sloman Bennett (died 1990); died Thursley, Surrey 1 November 2005.

A Principal in the grand style, Mary Bennett steered St Hilda's College, Oxford, to academic success and distinction over a period of 15 years.

When she assumed office in 1965, the auspices were very favourable. Along with the other four women's colleges, St Hilda's had recently obtained full self-governing status within Oxford University. The Robbins Report and its recommendations for the expansion of higher education, though feared by some Oxford dons ("More means worse"), opened up possibilities for expansion of the fellowship and for the admission of a more socially equitable mix of the undergraduate body. Financial problems - which had in the past dogged St Hilda's to a greater extent than its sister colleges - now eased, as joint appointments with the university became available for the first time, as did funds to promote building programmes to meet the new expansion.

Mary Bennett was alert to these new opportunities and quickly went into action. During her period of office the fellowship doubled in size, and several new buildings arose on the beautiful river site - one of these, at the time controversial, has since become a (listed) icon of 20th-century architecture. Nor were graduates - a hitherto somewhat neglected group in Oxford - forgotten: a fine purpose-built Middle Common Room on site and a small well-appointed graduate house nearby were added to the list.

These achievements might not in themselves have seemed remarkable during the expansionist 1970s, but behind them - and other less tangible ones in the academic and personal sphere - lay strong and astute leadership and an ability to weld together a governing body which contained its fair share of distinguished prima donnas and thus the ever-present potential for schism. An unerring sense of timing and the ability to defuse problems before they became intractable, together with a great deal of preparation behind the scenes and sounding out of opinion in advance of meetings, ensured smooth passage for the most controversial of issues.

Bennett's administrative talents were soon noted in university circles and she became a valued member of Hebdomadal Council. At a time when the movement towards mixed colleges was gathering momentum she endeavoured to moderate the tempo of change which, she realised, would inevitably damage the women's colleges. In this one area she did not succeed, however, for the tide of history was moving rapidly, as were the academic and social aspirations of women.

Mary Bennett had a tolerant understanding of, and insight into, human strengths and weaknesses. She took a close interest in all members of the college: as well as keeping a benevolent eye on her colleagues, both junior and senior, she followed the academic, sporting and musical progress and achievements of undergraduates in meticulous detail. True to her liberal principles she entered sympathetically into their concerns - in the 1970s Oxford was undergoing a particularly lively period of student "revolt" and a demand for "participation" - and she earned much respect for this. While many of the fellows were tut-tutting about the various undergraduate invasions of university property (first the Clarendon Building, then the Examination Schools), Bennett was in close touch with the St Hilda's ring-leaders (and, some thought, even egging them on!) Many of this generation of undergraduates remained in close contact with her in later years and some became life-long friends.

Mary Fisher was born in 1913, into a distinguished academic family - her father, H.A.L. Fisher, Warden of New College, was an eminent historian who had been a cabinet minister in the Liberal government and her mother, Lettice, a graduate of Somerville College, taught Modern History at St Hugh's College, Oxford 1902-1913. It was, moreover, a family which had connections with various illustrious figures of the early 20th century, including, albeit distantly, Virginia Woolf. From early childhood Mary Fisher moved in Oxford academic circles which included such personalities as Herbert and Jenifer Hart and Isaiah Berlin.

At Somerville, her First in Greats and research interests in Roman history (in which for a time she gave tutorials) might have led naturally to an academic career but for the intervention of the Second World War, when she worked for the Transcription Service of the BBC, then in 1945 moved to the Mediterranean Department of the Colonial Office. This opening out of her horizons after the hothouse atmosphere of Oxford was most salutary. After her marriage in 1955 to John Sloman Bennett, a colleague in the Colonial Service, she resigned prematurely from the service, occupying herself, as she put it, "with this and that" (for example, the honorary secretaryship of the Roman Society).

However, she was plucked from relative obscurity in 1965 when St Hilda's College was seeking a Principal to follow Kathleen Major. The Fellow responsible for this coup showed extraordinary prescience about the outstanding qualities which Mary Bennett would bring to the post of Principal, despite the 10-year break in her c.v. The expansion of the college and the building up of its academic reputation would become her greatest and most enduring achievement. Her close involvement with St Hilda's would continue right up to her death.

Retirement, when it came, was not entirely welcome ("I have become a ghost") and seemed inappropriate for someone still at the height of her powers. The decision to settle near college in the "dower house" in Alma Place, however, ensured that she remained in touch. Her academic interests - reading and writing and visits to the Bodleian Library - were assiduously maintained and there were many family papers to sift through from which books would issue (her first book, The Ilberts of India 1882-1886, 1995, being published when she was 82).

After the death in 1990 of her husband John - whose various interests, especially early music, she had shared - she put a typically brave face on widowhood and embarked on a series of travels which took her, until well into her nineties, to Italy, France and the Orkneys. Typically, her last appearance at St Hilda's was at the College Gaudy in late September when she was already seriously ill.

Mary Bennett was one of the most remarkable women in a generation of remarkable women and she typified that generation in her breadth of intellectual interests and her generosity of spirit. She exuded great inner strength and confidence, but without the least trace of arrogance, snobbery or vanity. Thus, when in her retirement speech to the college she stated that she was handing St Hilda's over to her successor "in good heart", that was perceived by the audience not as an idle boast but as a statement of fact and one to which they could amply testify.

Complaints about Mary Bennett's "aloofness" were sometimes voiced by colleagues but neither this nor the sobriquet "ice-maiden" which had been attached to her in her undergraduate days reached the heart of her personality. This was rooted in supreme self-confidence and imperturbability. It was, as one close friend of hers observed, akin to that to which certain Greek philosophers aspired, but was difficult to achieve in practice. At no time was it more in evidence than in her final illness - which was brief - and which she faced with a sovereign equanimity.

She was an excellent conversationalist - an art she had learned at a tender age in the Lodgings at New College amidst Warden Fisher's stellar guests - and preferred always to pitch a conversation at the higher rather than the mundane level. Her fine wit was evident in a brilliant spoof "obituary" she wrote of a fictitious fellow (one "Anastasia Smith") as a model to guide Fellows who contributed to the St Hilda's Centenary Collection of Fellows in 1993.

Hilda Brown

Comments