Women who made (Harris) Manchester College

Gertrude von Petzold (1876-1952)

First female to train for ministry in the UK at Manchester College, Oxford 1901-04.  

‘It is an age of feminine invasion’ so said the Cheltenham Chronicle in 1904 when they reported on Gertrude von Petzold’s appointment as the first female pastor of a church in England. Gertrude von Petzold was a pioneer, she was not only the first female to train for ministry in England, the first female to perform a marriage ceremony, she was the first woman to preach at the American Church in Berlin, and one of the first female professors in Germany.  

Petzold came to Manchester College, Oxford in 1901 and became the first female to study full-time alongside her male colleagues, having completed degrees at St Andrews and Edinburgh before arriving. She had come to the UK to pursue her education, believing that there were more opportunities here than in her native Germany.  Quietly determined she worked through the difficulties that others felt at her presence, a female and foreigner, completing her training in 1904. 

A black and white pencil sketch of a female in an academic gown from behind.

Glimpses of her time in College exist in the Archive.  A rather lovely pencil sketch of her appears in the Student Newsletter, The Poz, and we can trace the books she borrowed from Library lists.  She was a member of the Manchester College Discussion Society and regularly took services in Chapel.  


Nonetheless, not all was plain sailing and there are indications that there were some tensions within College relating to women students.  In two letters from Rev. James Drummond, the Principal, dated October 1901, there appears to be some issue with females dining in Hall.  William Edward Addis, tutor in Old Testament, former Anglican priest turned Roman Catholic turned Unitarian, appears to object to females dining and using some of the College facilities. Drummond wrote:

 ‘I should like to know whether the [College] Committee wish it to be our imperative rule that the ladies [Miss Johnson and Miss von Petzold] shall never dine in Hall, at a time when Mr Addis is always present, but may fully lunch at a time when there is no supervision’ (MS MNC Misc 3 fol 53).  

A follow up letter shows that the issue had been discussed:

‘At an informal meeting of the Board of Studies….we agreed that it would be better not to have any printed rule about ladies dining in Hall or using the JCR and that arrangements on these points should be left to the authorities on the spot.  I will speak to the ladies, and reduce these things to a minimum without absolutely forbidding them’ (MS MNC Misc 3 fol 55). 

In a box of material we have from Keith Gilley, who wrote about Petzold in-depth, we have another account of the uncomfortable atmosphere that came with having women in College.

‘The Rev Fred Hankinson….once told me that he was a student at Manchester College at the same time as Gertrude von Petzold.  The other male students refused to have her sitting at the refectory table with them.  Fred Hankinson championed her and talked them round so that she was able to eat with the rest of them’ (Letter from Barbara Monk, 1997, MS Gertrude von Petzold).

A picture of handwritten letter on lined paper in blue ink.


These incidents seem to have occurred during the initial months of Petzold’s time at College and there is no indication that such problems persisted long-term. Women studying alongside men, as equals, was a highly unusual occurrence and the College was the only institution in Oxford to have a mixed sex cohort.   

Once von Petzold qualified, she went on become a sensation; her appointment as the first women to hold a pastorate in England made the papers.  ‘Leicester’s Lady Preacher’, as she was reported, became an extremely popular minister and she developed a reputation for being a very fine preacher.  Postcards of her image were made and sold, one of which was reprinted on the cover of the Tatler magazine.  

She was invited as the only female speaker to the 4th International Congress of Religious Liberals in the States in 1907, where she met Rev Mary Stafford, one of the Iowa Sisterhood.  Following this meeting she resigned her position in Leicester and returned to Des Moines in the States to cover Stafford’s sabbatical for two years. 

Petzold returned to the UK in 1910 to take up another successful ministry in Birmingham at the Waverly Road Unitarian Church.  Over 5,000 people attended the anniversary services held in 1913. She continue to return to Manchester College occasionally to preach, including 7th February, 1915, when Vera Britten was in the congregation.  Britten noted in Chronicles of Youth:

‘I heard a woman preach and take the service today at Manchester College Chapel - the Unitarian place. It made me wish that women were allowed to do this in other churches instead of having the brainless and callow (curates) that are put into the Church because their parents know they will be unfit for anything else.’

Petzold’s career in the UK was interrupted by the First World War when her application for naturalisation was refused twice.  She returned to Germany in 1915. 

Believe in your calling and believe all the more because you are a woman and in a sense a pioneer’ Gertrude von Petzold addressed to Joyce Daplyn at her induction in 1926

A black and white portrait head shot of a female (Gertrude von Petzold)