In 1898 Frances Evelyn, Countess of Warwick established a group of hostels in Reading to train young ladies in agriculture and horticulture.
Within her Agricultural scheme for Women she sought to encourage educated women to work in light farming, gardening and rural occupations. In the first six years 225 students had been enrolled and Lady Warwick looked for more extensive premises.
In 1903 the organisation moved to Warwickshire.
There were considerable financial difficulties during the first 20 years at Studley.
A great deal of letter writing took place seeking support from potential donors. Every effort was taken to maximise the commercial aspects of the work done at Studley. Produce was sold and students made thousands of pounds of jam and marmalade. The students worked on the difficult clay soil in their long Edwardian skirts and stout leather boots.
In 1908 Dr. Lillias Hamilton became warden. She was a relentless pioneer for women’s social reform. She obtained a 21 year lease for Studley, put right the sewer system and water supply, and changed the name to Studley College.
Things became more difficult during the First World War and Dr. Hamilton returned to medicine for the duration.
On her return to College in 1918 she found it in a terrible state and once more set about improvements. Temporary accommodation was acquired in the form of a government war surplus building.
In March 1922 Dr. Hamilton retired due to ill health and in autumn 1922 Miss Emily Ekins became acting warden. She was a former student of Studley, who had stayed on as a junior member of staff and then continued to study for a BSc in horticulture.
In 1924 she became the first college Principal.
This was the turning point for Studley College.
The college achieved some financial stability and students were entered for external examinations for the first time and had a successful outcome.Facilities for students improved as a cycle shed housing 37 bicycles was erected and a radiator was installed in the boot room. Flying in the face of tradition, some of the young ladies started to wear breeches under their skirts and eventually these were deemed ‘appropriate’ work wear for young ladies!
In 1926, finally, the Ministry of Agriculture recognised the work of Studley and assisted with an annual grant of £1,000, which increased over the years to £33,000. During the 1920s the interior of the house was redecorated. The horticultural department was improved by the construction of packing and potting sheds, a propagation glasshouse, a rock garden and mown lawns. The farm was improved with a hard cheese room, a refrigerator, improved stocks of cows and sheep, calf accommodation and a poultry training area, including laying houses. Gas and electricity was installed over the whole estate.
When the 21 year lease was up, the college raised funds to buy the freehold. A grant was obtained from the Ministry of Agriculture and a fund raising committee was established under the patronage of H.R.H The Duchess of York (later to be Queen Elizabeth the Queen’s Mother). In December 1929 the freehold was purchased for £11,500. The college continued to develop throughout the 1930s and BSc (Hort) was added to the college curriculum and increasing dialogue took place between the college and the Research and Development Institutes.
In June 1938 the south wing, with purpose made single study bedrooms, was opened by H.R.H. The Duchess of Gloucester.
The south wing was opened just in time to accommodate trainees for the Women’s Land Army during the Second World War. From early days the college had entered exhibits in agricultural and horticultural shows in Crystal Palace, Holland Park and Chelsea, and gained several gold medals from the Royal Agricultural Society and the Royal Horticultural Society.
This continued until the outbreak of the Second World War.
During the war, food and gas were rationed and students were rather isolated as the only transport was their bicycles. However, the traditional entertainments continued among students and staff, including country dancing, plays and expeditions. The Studley students did their best to ‘Dig for Victory’, working long hours, giving up holidays and digging up lawns to plant potatoes. During the Coventry and Midland air raids, the cellars were used for study and sleeping.Miss Ekins finally retired in 1946, once the war was over and was succeeded by Mrs K.G.Wollacott and then Miss D Garstang, who was at Studley for seven years. The horticulture unit had a new potting shed, the dairy had a covered entrance and floristry was introduced. Six modern aluminium 100ft glasshouses were erected, mainly for the commercial production of flowers and pot plants.
In 1956, Miss Elizabeth Hess was appointed Principal. She had a wide experience of horticulture and working with women trainees. She trained at the Royal Botanical Society, London, became foreman at Swanley College, Wye and then worked for the Ministry of Agriculture during the war and as an HMI for schools. In 1967 she was awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal for her work as Principal.
With her background in horticulture and education, Studley was on course to succeed. A first-class training with an up-to-date approach was offered, students’ results were excellent and the sale of produce was highly satisfactory.
Students enjoyed the new social freedoms of the 1950s and 1960s and a number of in-college societies were formed for drama, dancing, bird watching, music, sports and the Student Christian Movement. There were youth hostelling trips and skating in Birmingham, visiting lecturers, beauty counselling, debates and National Union of Students activities. The college exhibited at Chelsea Flower Show, demonstrating daylight replacement for St Paulias and all-year-round production of Chrysanthemums.
Studley College initiated the Education Advice Bureau at the Royal Show, which proved so successful that RASE adopted the idea, supported by a number of colleges and universities. The farm secretaries course was initiated in 1961 and proved to be highly successful. Each year there were 20 farm secretaries on the one-year course and a total of 40 horticulturists and 40 dairy farmers on the two-year diploma courses.
The full complement of 100 students was maintained until the closure of the college in the late sixties.
In 1961, the Agricultural Colleges Committee of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) had visited the college and declared that they would be prepared to recommend a grant for expansion to accommodate 150 students per year. By 1964, however, responsibility for Agricultural Colleges had passed from MAFF to the Department of Education and Science, recognising the fast developing educational and career opportunities.
In late 1966 the Minister for Education visited the college for two days and expressed satisfaction with the standards of both academic and practical work. Also in 1966, the Pilkington Report came down heavily on ‘single-sex’ colleges and the Government of the day decided to withdraw the £33.000 annual grant, which, in effect, closed the college.
In spite of lobbying by well organised and informed students, staff, local women MPs, the Status of Women’s Committee and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, the college closed in 1969.
Following the closure of the college in 1969, there were considerable assets to be disposed of. The college buildings, equipment and land were sold and the Governors and Miss Hess set up Studley College Trust. It was established in order to encourage, assist and develop education, instruction and research in agriculture, horticulture, forestry and allied subjects and pay scholarships, grants and bursaries for the advancement of education and the maintenance of any student. With the income from this investment the Studley College Trust continues to provide financial assistance to young people who wish to pursue a career in one of these areas.