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The Stockwell Round Robin

This month we are doing a spotlight on the Stockwell Round Robin. The Round Robin reads:

“May 27th, 1871

To the Committee of Stockwell College

We the students of Stockwell College petition that the Committee will allow the coming Midsummer Holidays to be extended one week. The students at the Borough Road are not to return until August 16th, and we think that we require quite as much rest from lessons as they. Already several of the students are very unwell and they will scarcely have time to regain their strength, if the holiday be so short. And we think that coming back a week earlier will have a depressing effect on those who have homes at a distance, and that it will tell in the Xmas Examination.

Craving a favorable answer.

We remain

Yours most respectfully”

The 111 signatures are not in the traditional spot below the letter, they are around the outside in a circle. This is a style of petition known as a round robin, and strange style of petition to our modern eyes. The one held in the Stockwell College Archives at the Brunel University London Archives is dated from May 27th 1871. The National Archives have a round robin in their collection known as the Sailor’s Round Robin dating from 1627. The circular format of the round robin means that those being petitioned do not know who the first signature was, therefore they do not know who started the petition. This format was used to mitigate punishment.

The students of Stockwell College (an all-female college) were protesting the fact that the students of Borough Road College (an all-male college) were allowed a week more holiday than Stockwell College. Both colleges are predecessor colleges to Brunel University.

Borough Road College was founded in the early 19th century and was originally a teaching college for both men and women. Within a few decades it became clear that there were more students than the college could fit in the available space. Therefore, in 1860, Stockwell College was founded and Borough Road College became the college for men and Stockwell College the college for women.

This petition is not only significant in feminist history but also in literary history. One of the signatures is of a Miss Tryphena Sparks. Tryphena Sparks was the cousin of Thomas Hardy. The two cousins were very close and it is thought that aspects of Jude the Obscure (first published 1894) are based on Tryphena Sparks’ time at Stockwell College. In Jude the Obscure Sue Bridehead sneaks out of college to meet with Jude, as a result, Sue Bridehead is punished. Her punishment is protested by her fellow students using a round robin, much like the one held in the Stockwell College Archives. Tryphena Sparks died in 1890 and it is believed that it is her death and the struggles of another friend of Thomas Hardy in university were the impetus for the writing of Jude the Obscure.


[BFSS/3/6/6] See if you can find Tryphena Spark’s name.