Mabel Atkinson: Newcastle University’s Pioneering Lecturer

This year Newcastle University has been celebrating its connection with civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Fifty years ago the university awarded him with an Honorary Degree; the only UK university to do so in his lifetime and at a time when, as Professor Richard Davies Pro-Vice Chancellor for Engagement and Internationalisation notes, he was becoming “an increasingly controversial figure”[1]. However this is not the only instance of Newcastle University’s pioneering spirit. Sixty-three years prior to Dr. King’s acceptance speech, in 1904, the university (then known as Armstrong College) appointed 28-year-old Mabel Atkinson to the position of Lecturer in Philosophy and Assistant Lecturer in Classics. This was at a crucial time for the University; they were in the middle of construction of the Armstrong Building which still hosts the Department of Classics and Ancient History today. It was also at a crucial time for the women’s movement.

In 1894 Mabel had been among the first women students admitted to Glasgow University, just two years after admittance was extended to them. While they were now allowed to attend, they were taught in separate classrooms to the male students. Mabel graduated with a MA with first class honours in 1900, winning a medal for most distinguished arts graduate of the year and a silver medal for best essay in philosophy.

mabel atkinson photo

(Source: S. Vietzen, ‘Beyond School’, 1984)

In 1904 she took up her post at Armstrong College.  As part of her duties as Lecturer in Philosophy, Mabel was responsible for the annual departmental reports to the Director of Armstrong College.  From these we have some interesting information about the department during that time. In 1904 there were 8 students attending Ethics lectures and one attending Logic lectures. The Department of Classics and Ancient History where she also lectured and assisted J. Wight Duff recorded 103 students for that year. The Philosophy department was very small and Mabel appears to have been the only lecturer during this time. She notes that she often adopted a ‘tutorial’ style of teaching as a result.  The department did not have a set office/room and was only granted a ‘special classroom’ on the third floor, presumably of the Armstrong Building, in 1907. The number of students slightly increases from 1904 onwards and by the time of her resignation in 1908 there were three students in Logic and fifteen to sixteen across the term in Ethics.  In her annual reports (bar her 1906 report) Mabel took care to record the gender breakdown of her students. As a result we know that the Philosophy Department had a high proportion of female students. In her 1907 Ethics class, for instance, she records there being thirteen women and three men in attendance. Her successor Harold P. Cooke also recorded the gender of his students for his first two years. In 1910, he records 13 women and 6 men attending Logic classes. Unfortunately, as no other lecturer did this we can’t tell if this was unusual for the university at this time.

Mabel’s exact duties in the Department of Classics and Ancient History are slightly less clear to us but the department head J. Wight Duff always took care to thank her for her work and assistance in his annual reports. As well as her work at the University, Mabel also taught at a local school during this time. We are able to somewhat sketch her time at Newcastle outside of teaching. We know that she delivered a lecture on ‘The Republic of Plato’ to the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Central Socialist Institute sometime in 1905-1906. In 1906 she attended a summer school in Jena, Germany. This led to her suggesting to the Fabian Society that they set up a summer school which could provide a mix of educational and recreational activities and help them forward the Fabian movement in the provinces.  The first Fabian Summer School took place in 1907 and Mabel attended and assisted in the running of it. In 1907-1908 she gave a lecture on ‘An Estimate of Lucretius’ to the Armstrong College Literary Society as her Presidential Address. In April 1908 she published ‘The Struggle for Existence in Relations to Morals and Religion’ in the International Journal of Ethics and is identified within the journal as being from Armstrong College. The same year she resigns her post in Newcastle and relocates to London to lecture in economics at King’s College for Women. In her final annual report she concludes that she wishes “to express my thanks to the Authorities of Armstrong College and to my colleagues on the staff for the many kindnesses I have received from them during my four years of work”[2].

Mabel Atkinson (later Palmer) would go on to play an important role in education reform in South Africa where she worked to establish higher education for black students and was one of the founding staff members of Natal University College in Durban[3]. Reading accounts such as these, her time at Armstrong College can seem relatively straightforward but we must not forget that this was early days for women’s education. Glasgow University, for example, did not appoint their first woman lecturer, Theodora Keith, till 1919. We must also be careful not to overstate the progressive nature of the university at this time. The same year Mabel Atkinson is appointed a lecturer the Principal’s Annual Report notes that Miss Chadderton had resigned her post as Normal Mistress in view of her pending marriage. Nevertheless her appointment as a lecturer was a landmark moment for Newcastle University and for women’s education.

[1] Newcastle University Press Office. ‘Year-long commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. starts’. [online] (2017). Available at: [Accessed 15 May. 2017].

[2] M. Palmer, ‘Report of the Department of Philosophy 1907-08’ in Armstrong College – Annual Reports to Council from the Professors and Lecturers 1904/5-1918/9.

[3] A full account of her work in South Africa can be found in S. Vietzen, ‘Beyond School: Some developments in higher education in Durban in the 1920s and the influence of Mabel Palmer’ (Natalia, 14, 1984) and in S. Marks, Not Either an Experimental Doll: The Separate Worlds of Three South African Women (2002).

Further Reading

Armstrong College – Principal’s Annual Report 1904/5-1922/3. Available at Newcastle University Library Special Collection. Item 3/1/2.

Armstrong College – Annual Reports to Council from the Professors and Lecturers 1904/5-1918/9. Available at Newcastle University Library Special Collection. Item 3/2/2.

M. Atkinson, ‘The Struggle for Existence in Relation to Morals and Religion’ (International Journal of Ethics, 18(3), 1908).

I. Britain, Fabianism and Culture: A Study in British Socialism and the Arts c.1884-1918 (1982).

S. Innes, ‘Mabel Atkinson’ (2004) [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Jan. 2017].

S.Marks, Not Either an Experimental Doll: The Separate Worlds of Three South African Women (2002).

P. Pugh, Educate, Agitate, Organize Library Editions: Political Science Volume 59: One Hundred Years of Fabian Socialism (2013).

S, Vietzen, ‘Beyond School: Some developments in higher education in Durban in the 1920s and the influence of Mabel Palmer’ (Natalia, 14, 1984).



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