Queer Places:
University of Cambridge, 4 Mill Ln, Cambridge CB2 1RZ, UK
Westfield College, 4 and 6 Maresfield Gardens, London NW3 5SU
University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 3PA, UK
Madingley Rise, Madingley Rd, Cambridge CB3 0EZ, UK
Tunbridge Wells Cemetery, Benhall Mill Rd, Tunbridge Wells TN2 5JJ, UK

Portrait of Bertha Phillpotts by Philip de LazloDame Bertha Surtees Phillpotts (October 25, 1877 – January 20, 1932) was an English scholar in Scandinavian languages, literature, history, archaeology and anthropology.

Bertha Phillpotts was born in Bedford on 25 October 1877. Her father, James Surtees Phillpotts (1839-1930), was headmaster of Bedford School and instrumental in turning it from a relatively obscure grammar school to a top-ranking public school. Her mother, Marian Hadfield Phillpotts née Cordery (1843-1925), was a competent linguist. Having received all of her basic education at home, in 1898 Bertha won a Pfeiffer Scholarship to Girton College in the University of Cambridge, where she studied medieval and modern languages, Old Norse and Celtic.[1] She graduated in 1901 with First Class honours. She then obtained a Pfeiffer Studentship which enabled her to travel to Iceland and Copenhagen to pursue her research. From 1906 to 1909, she worked as librarian at Girton College. In 1911 she won the Gamble Prize for her essay Studies in the Later History of the Teutonic Kindreds.[2] In 1913 she became the first Lady Carlisle Research Fellow at Somerville College, Oxford.[3]

During the First World War she worked for some time at the British Legation in Stockholm, on a largely voluntary basis. Her elder brother Owen Surtees Phillpotts was Commercial Attaché at the legation. Bertha Phillpotts' services were requested by the head of mission Sir Esmé Howard, and she undertook both clerical and research work for him.[4]

Bertha Phillpotts' elder brother Brian Surtees Phillpotts ("Broo") was an officer of the Royal Engineers who served in the First World War and was fatally wounded in action near Ypres in September 1917.[5] Her younger sister, Marjory Surtees Philpotts captained the England Ladies Hockey Team[6] and married William Sealy Gosset[7][8].

Bertha Phillpotts was Principal of Westfield College from 1919 until 1921, and a member of the College Council from 1922 until 1932. She became the Mistress of Girton College in 1922, succeeding Katharine Jex-Blake (1860-1951) who happened to be her first cousin (the daughter of her mother's sister Henrietta Cordery and Thomas Jex-Blake, sometime Headmaster of Rugby School). She held this post until 1925 when, following the death of her mother, she resigned in order to look after her elderly father who was living in retirement in Tunbridge Wells. However she was elected to a research fellowship and continued to be an active Fellow of the college, commuting between Tunbridge Wells and Cambridge in her Morris Cowley car which she nicknamed Freda.

From 1926 until her death in 1932 she was director of Scandinavian studies and university lecturer at Girton College.

In 1922 Bertha Phillpotts was selected (as the sole woman member) to serve on the Statutory Commission for the University of Cambridge. She remained a member until she resigned from her post at Girton College in 1925. From 1926 until 1931 she was a member of the Statutory Commission for the University of London.

Bertha Phillpotts' extensive research work included translations of old Icelandic sagas and studies on the influence of Old Norse and Icelandic on the English language. She is particularly known for her theory of ritual drama as the background to the Eddic poems.[9]

In June 1931, when she was already in failing health, Phillpotts married a long standing friend and fellow Cambridge academic, the astrophysicist and educator, Hugh Frank Newall, FRS.[10] She died in Cambridge on 20 January 1932.[11]

Bertha Phillpotts is buried (as Bertha Surtees Newall) next to her parents in Tunbridge Wells Cemetery,[12] while Hugh Frank Newall is buried in the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground in Cambridge.

In recognition of her wartime service at the British Legation in Stockholm, Bertha Phillpotts was honoured in the Order of the British Empire list for 1918.[13] In 1929 she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to education.[14] She was the first female academic to be honoured in this way.[15]

Bertha Phillpotts was awarded an honorary Doctorate (Litt. D.) by Trinity College, Dublin in 1919.

The Dame Bertha Phillpotts Memorial Fund for the promotion of Old Norse and Icelandic Studies at the University of Cambridge awards grants and scholarships for postgraduate students and other scholars in the relevant fields.[16]

Bertha Phillpotts' Morris Cowley car Freda (here being driven by her cousin Mary Clover), c. 1930
Bertha Phillpotts' Morris Cowley car Freda (here being driven by her cousin Mary Clover), c. 1930

This telling observation was contributed after her death by Bertha's friend Mary Anderson, Madame de Navarro:

Summer before last she came to stay with us at Blakeney [Norfolk], having motored in ‘Freda’ from Cambridge. She was already not well, and came for a rest. But hearing our son was racing his boat that afternoon she insisted on going in the Parthenia along with him ... The Parthenia came in a long way first, and won the cup. Dame Bertha then leapt into another boat and came in second. The next day she was in another boat and was placed third. I then thought it time to reprove her for racing three times in two days – and she not well. But her only reply was, "Don’t! When you talk to me like that the buttons burst off my shoes!" ... In appearance she was girlish, with a lovely head and a beautiful profile and hair. Her keen eyes and quick, almost bird-like movements but added to her charm. She was one who, for all her learning, her high sense of duty, had a gallant gaiety altogether her own.[18]


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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertha_Phillpotts