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Frances Melville

Frances Melville

The household into which Frances Melville was born might reasonably be described as that of a typical mid-Victorian middle-class family. Frances’ mother, Helen, gave birth to seven children in 10 years and when Frances, her eldest daughter, was born in October 1873, there were already four little boys up in the nursery at 4, Abbotsford Park, a house which still stands just round the corner from the present school on Colinton Road. Frances’ father, Francis Suther Melville, was 58 when Frances was born, some 26 years older than his wife, and served as a Depute Clerk of the Court of Session. 

Looking back on her life on her retiral, Frances spoke of the good fortune of her upbringing and education. 

‘I personally am conscious of the great privilege …of being associated from early life with the wide forward movement in women’s education and improved political status. To have met the leaders of that movement, men and women, and been enrolled in it before school days were over.’

Those school days between the ages of 11 and 18 were spent at George Watson’s Ladies’ College. Judging by her valedictory account, it seems most likely that she would have joined the Edinburgh National Society for Women's Suffrage whilst she was still a schoolgirl. She certainly took part in the Literary and Debating Society at school, no doubt honing debating skills that would later serve her well.

On leaving school in the summer of 1891, Frances followed a traditional route for middle-class girls and went to study music in Germany. However, she returned in time to take her place in the first cohort of women ever to be enrolled as students at the University of Edinburgh on 5 October, 1892, the result of a historic change in the Scottish University Ordinances permitting four universities, including Edinburgh, to admit women as undergraduates.

Later, Frances remembered the happiness she and the other women students in Edinburgh felt, ‘marching in step with the companies of first University Women everywhere.’

However, women students had a mixed reception from both the university authorities and their male peers. Unabashed by being excluded from existing student societies and clubs, the women founded their own. Frances was President of the first Women’s Representative Council and chaired the Women’s Debating Society in its first year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the early debates was on the subject of women’s suffrage. 

Frances graduated in 1897 with first-class honours in Philosophy. She worked as a tutor in Edinburgh and at Cheltenham Ladies’ College before her appointment in 1899 as Warden of University Hall, the first hall of residence for women at St Andrew’s University. Frances clearly combined this role with continued study of her own, and in 1910 she became the first woman in Scotland to graduate as a Bachelor of Divinity.

By then, however, Frances had become Mistress of Queen Margaret College, Glasgow. Originally established for women students before they could be admitted to the University of Glasgow, Queen Margaret College had subsequently merged with the University and provided Frances with a role which would enable her to demonstrate the strength of her academic, organisational and leadership abilities until her retiral upon its closure in 1935. 

In 1897 Frances Melville was a founder member of the George Square Former Pupils’ Club and she hosted the West of Scotland Branch at Queen Margaret’s College for many years. In her paper on The Education of Woman (1911) she criticised the ‘double-faced ideal’ of girls’ education. Always moderate and measured in outlook, she identified the importance of good domestic education for women, over half of whom would be managing a home, whilst emphasising the significance of an academic education for all girls, many of whom, like her, would have a professional career. Her description of girls’ schools that managed to balance these two strands owed much to her appreciation of what her old school was becoming during the headship of another significant figure in the development of education for girls and young women in Scotland, Charlotte Ainslie.

Throughout her life Frances remained committed to political and social causes, particularly those relating to the rights and experiences of women, collaborating closely with other women activists in doing so.

In one celebrated campaign, she and three other women graduates of the University of Edinburgh applied to vote in the 1906 General Election for one of the two Members of Parliament who at that time were elected by graduates of Scottish universities. They were refused. Undeterred, Frances and her colleagues went to the Court of Session, arguing that as the election rules stated that all “persons” who were graduates had a vote in the election, they could not be denied a vote because they were women.

They lost their case, but encouraged by other women graduates, Frances along with Chrystal Macmillan and Frances Simson took an appeal to the House of Lords in 1908.

Outside the House of Lords 1908

Frances Simson, Chrystal Macmillan and Frances Melville outside the House of Lords. Image courtesy of the University of Edinburgh

It took the Law Lords one month to make a decision. Unsurprisingly, they ruled that the parliamentary franchise had always been confined to men and therefore the word ‘person’ referred to a ‘male person’ and did not include ‘woman’.  However, the case highlighted the increasingly obvious absurdity of denying women the vote, and the women graduates of Edinburgh had acquitted themselves well, one newspaper dubbing Chrystal Macmillan as the “Scottish Portia” on account of her impressive performance in front of their Lordships.

Nineteen years later, and nearly ten years after all women had gained the vote, Frances stood as an independent candidate in the by-election to elect a Member of Parliament for the Scottish universities which was caused by the death of former Labour Prime Minister, Ramsey Macdonald. She lost to John Anderson, later the wartime Home Secretary. But Frances, whose election address urged her electorate to consider interests and values other than material ones, had beaten two male candidates into third and fourth place.

Election Address

Frances Melville’s Election Address 1938. Image courtesy of University of Glasgow

After the failure of their House of Lords appeal, Chrystal Macmillan moved to London to continue to campaign. When war broke out in 1914, she strongly opposed the war, distancing herself from mainstream suffrage groups which had suspended their activities in order to support it. Her idea was for a “Women's International Congress” to meet in The Hague in 1915 to

‘... discuss the principles on which peace should be made and, if so agreed, to act internationally.’

But so early in the war, such talk of peace, and the suggestion that all international disputes should be resolved through conciliation was very unpopular with the British people. The prominent suffragist, Millicent Fawcett, stated that the actions of the women involved were “close to treason”. 

Frances Melville was a member of the British Committee of the Women’s International Congress but her name was not on the list of 24 British representatives chosen to travel to The Hague. It is possible that controversy and her professional role meant that she preferred to keep a low profile. Or it may simply have been that travelling to The Hague was more difficult from Scotland. As it was, most of the delegation only made it as far as Tilbury docks before the Admiralty closed the North Sea to civilian shipping, and the Congress went ahead with just three British representatives.

But Frances was certainly involved in more practical activity during the War. She helped Elsie Inglis set up and fund the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service. The idea of female medical units serving on the front line was rejected by the War Office but nevertheless, a number of units staffed entirely by women were established. Frances was also responsible for the War Register of Women Graduates who undertook relief war work in hospitals and munitions factories and on the land.

After the war and throughout the rest of her life, Frances involved herself in the work of many committees and organisations devoted to improving society. She was perhaps fortunate that as an unmarried, professional woman with no domestic responsibilities she had not only the ability, inclination and drive but also the time to do so. She was a member of the Council of Scottish Justices’ and Magistrates’ Association and one of the first women in Scotland to be a Justice of the Peace, dealing mainly with cases under the Education and Children’s Acts. Concerned about the effects of poverty in Glasgow, she also took an active interest in housing, special and nursery schools, and the training of social workers.

Frances Melville

Frances Melville. Image courtesy of the University of Glasgow

Looking at photos of Frances Melville, it is difficult to see beyond the reserved and stern demeanour, but her enthusiasm and concern come through in her speeches. And she was never afraid to criticise male-dominated institutions. She also had a great sense of fun, for example, whilst helping the Local Defence Volunteers (the Home Guard) during World War II, she delighted in driving her car far too fast along the country lanes near her home in Kirkcudbrightshire.

Frances Melville

Frances Melville. Image courtesy of the University of Glasgow


Frances was to return to Edinburgh and she died at her home in Merchiston Place in 1962, just four minutes’ walk from where she had been born. Her life as a professional woman, an academic, an administrator and a campaigner was very different from that of her mother in her domestic sphere. However, Frances was the first to acknowledge the importance of both.