Celebrating Henry Francis Pelham

11 October 2021

Members of Trinity and Somerville colleges have celebrated the life and legacy of former Trinity President Henry Francis Pelham on the occasion of the restoration of the family grave at St Sepulchre’s Cemetery in Oxford.


Henry Francis Pelham was Camden Professor of Ancient History at Oxford from 1890, and in 1897 became President of Trinity College, where he had been an undergraduate. He held both offices until his death in 1907.


Henry Pelham was hugely influential in revitalising the study of Ancient History in British universities. Recognising that Oxford had fallen seriously behind other European nations, he addressed the latest scientific and archaeological discoveries in his lectures, and was prominent in the foundation of the British School at Rome.


He also played a significant role in development of higher education for women, being a member of the Committee set up to establish the non-denominational Somerville Hall in 1879. He then became a member of the Council of Somerville, presided over by Dr John Percival, the then President of Trinity College and later Bishop of Hereford, and with Miss Madeleine Shaw Lefevre as the first Principal. In 1886 he was appointed Vice-President and, in 1893, President of the Council. 


Henry Pelham has been described as ‘the most distinguished of Trinity’s Presidents.  Although she never met him, the writer and feminist Vera Brittain (Somerville 1915) believed that he was ‘one of the best friends that Oxford women ever had’, and in her speech at the celebrations, the Principal of Somerville, Baroness Royall, underscored Pelham’s generosity and central role in the expansion of Somerville and its academic collections, as well as his support for giving women membership of Oxford University.  


At the celebration on 2 October the Pelham funerary hatchment was displayed in the Chapel, and the participants walked from Trinity, along the funeral processional route to St Sepulchre’s for the service including the laying of wreaths. The family grave at St Sepulchre’s has been restored by donations from family and admirers, and was re-dedicated in a simple ceremony conducted by the Trinity Chaplain, the Rev. Dr Emma Percy. The celebrations ended with tea and another exhibition at Somerville.