Tag Archives: Selden’s Sister

Marguerite Gollancz: academia and the archivist

In a couple of days, I will be attending an event run by Selden’s Sister, a group of legal historians who are interested in uncovering, highlighting and celebrating the contributions of women to legal history. Going beyond the better known women historians of matters law-adjacent (Stenton, Cam, Putnam … ) and beyond England as well, the event will look at a number of very interesting women and their work.

Thinking about ‘women legal historians’ of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries is not easy. In England, legal history has developed, on the whole, as LEGAL history: firmly attached to legal scholarship and the legal profession. And women had a long struggle to enter that world. We are not going to find ‘the female Maitland’. We can, however, find numerous female historians who took an interest in matters which come within a broad conception of legal history. There are those who managed to carve out an academic career for themselves, and duly became reasonably well known. As is always the case with the study of women in history, however, we should take the opportunity to think laterally and creatively, and not to assume that we can find women who might be classed as having made a contribution to legal history only within formal academic settings. There is a particularly good case for investigating and highlighting some of the pioneering women who worked as county and municipal archivists. One of these, and somebody whose career and life seem to me to be rather interesting, was Marguerite Henrietta Gollancz (1911-1981). This is a short introduction to somebody who might not be familiar, but seems very worthy of further investigation.

I see that the catalogue of Trinity College, Cambridge lists the authorised form of her name as ‘Gollancz, Marguerite Henrietta (1911-1981), daughter of Israel Gollancz’. Her father was certainly a notable figure, a professor of English and leading light in the British Academy, (and he can be found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) and no doubt his interests and encouragement, and provision of ‘a home devoted to books and study’,[i] helped shape Marguerite’s own inclinations and life-chances, but she was clearly a lot more than somebody’s daughter.

She went from South Hampstead High School to Girton College Cambridge, where she studied history and was taught by Helen Maud Cam, amongst others. She then took her study further in the University of London, and wrote an MA dissertation,[ii] supervised by C.H. Williams, on fifteenth century gaol delivery.[iii] She edited rolls of the fourteenth century sessions of the peace for the Northamptonshire Record Society, publishing in 1940,[iv]  (those two things qualify her as a legal historian, in my book).[v] During the war she took on administrative work for the civil service, and also worked with civil service records, in connection with the writing of a Civil History of the War. [vi]

Her career as an archivist took off after WWII, when, in 1947, she began work as the county archivist of Staffordshire and librarian at the William Salt library. The County Records Committee reported both her initial annual salary (£460 pa) and how this might rise in increments to ‘a maximum of £510 per annum plus bonus’. [vii] [I do find myself wondering what would have been deemed worthy of a bonus in the world of county archiving].

Newspapers give the odd glimpse of her life as a working archivist. She appealed for the public to bring in their old documents, stressing that there might be interest in more recent as well as ancient records.[viii] She gave a view in an apparently contentious issue of whether old Lichfield probate records should be brought back to Staffordshire.[ix]

In 1955, she resigned, having secured a job with Surrey County Council, as their archivist.[x] She then moved to Surbiton.[xi] She began work as Surrey’s first county archivist in 1956, and continued until her retirement in 1974. A picture of her in this role can be seen here.

In her obituaries, something of a point is made about the fact that she did not publish very much ‘on her own account’.

‘In later years, her scholarly work was to be subordinated to the claims of her professional duties, to which she devoted much of her free time, and to the service of record publishing and local history societies. [xii]

‘Her official duties … and her commitment to assisting researchers and editors left little time for publication on her own account, but a number of notes and reviews from her pen have appeared in our publication.’[xiii]

To some extent this is given a positive spin (she was too busy being helpful to other researchers, and looking after her staff, to do so) but it is quite interesting that it is assumed that the only natural goal of somebody with a skill for history is academic-style publication. There is all sorts of gender-focused discussion to be had about that. In fact, to those of us working in modern academia, some of the activities of Marguerite Gollancz rather chime in with the sort of things we are encouraged to do: being ‘public historians’ and having ‘impact’. We saw her engaging with the public of Staffordshire, getting them to bring in their documents (co-production?). Newspapers record her exhibitions (e.g. in connection with the Festival of Britain and the Coronation of Elizabeth II, during her time at the Staffordshire Archive post), and her public lectures.[xiv]

Her commitment to the archives and the work of preserving historical documents was reflected in substantial legacies to archives with which she had been associated.[xv] I am not sure that that counts as ‘impact’, though it certainly shows dedication.

Marguerite’s papers are, fittingly, neatly catalogued in an archive. This, surely, is what she would have wanted.





I was interested to see that Marguerite Gollancz was thanked in the preface to the formidable Bertha H. Putnam’s The Place in Legal History of Sir William Shareshull, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench 1350-61 (Cambridge, 1950). Interesting to see these connections.


Photo by Javier Balseiro on Unsplash


[i] Staffordshire Advertiser, 6th September 1947, p. 5.

[ii] Staffordshire Advertiser, 6th September 1947, p. 5.

[iii] Obituaries, Journal of the Society of Archivists, 6:8 (1981), 532-538; Marguerite Gollancz, ‘The system of gaol delivery as illustrated in the extant gaol delivery rolls of the fifteenth century’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 16.48 (1939) 191-3. I would like to track down that thesis.

[iv] Obituaries, JSA.

[v] Staffordshire Advertiser, 6th September 1947, p. 5.

[vi] Staffordshire Advertiser, 6th September 1947, p. 5.

[vii] Staffordshire Advertiser, 6th September 1947, p. 5. 2nd  August 1947, p. 3.

[viii] Burton Observer and Chronicle, 15th February, 1951, p.1.

[ix] Lichfield Mercury, 12th  October, 1956.

[x] Staffordshire Sentinel, 2nd December, 1955, p. 12.

[xi] Staffordshire Newsletter, 15th May,1981, p. 11.

[xii] Obituaries, JSA.

[xiii] D. R. Robinson, ‘Miss Marguerite Gollancz: Obituary’, Surrey Arch. Soc. Bulletin, 171 March/April 1981.

[xiv] Surrey Advertiser, 12th January,1963, p 14, noting that Gollancz was to lecture on ‘Cobham in the late eighteenth century’ at Stoke D’Abernon Village Hall. If the presence of the learned county archivist was not enough, attendees were promised old maps, documents and … best of all … colour slides taken by Mr A Bourne (who lived in the village).

[xv] Staffordshire Newsletter, Fri 15 May 1981 p. 11.