18th November 1870

University rocked by the Surgeon’s Hall Riot

The University of Edinburgh was the first UK university to accept women students. The so-called Group of Seven, led by Sophia Jex-Blake, matriculated in 1869 in the face of significant objections, which persisted throughout their time at the institution, even though they had high-profile support from the likes of Charles Darwin.

University blockaded

On the afternoon of 18 November 1870, the women were due at the Surgeon’s Hall for an anatomy exam, but were unable to gain access because the street was blocked by a crowd. The Fife Herald of 24 November 1870 reported that

“on Friday afternoon, considerable excitement was created in Nicholson Street, by a rather noisy demonstration got up by some of the male medical students attending the Royal College of Surgeons against their female class-fellows… a number of young men congregated within the College railings, and commenced to shout, hoot, and yell in the most unseemly manner – their object in doing so being avowedly to express their dislike to female students in general, and particularly to those with whom they were associated in the lecture halls… Miss Sophia Jex Blake writes to the Scotsman to say that only a few of the students joined in these hostile manifestations, and that the body of them ‘as soon as we left the hall, formed themselves into a body guard before and behind us, lest we should suffer even the slightest inconvenience from the pressure of the senseless mob’…”

Once they’d managed to pass through the group of male students objecting to their presence, the Surgeon’s Hall gates were shut, barring their passage. The incident, in which they were trapped until a fellow student opened the gates and allowed them to enter, became known as the Surgeon’s Hall Riot, and the women’s bravery and steadfastness earned them considerable support, and many of their less backward-looking fellow students continued to offer them escorts as they made their way to and from lectures and exams.

Guilty pleas

Three of the students who had taken part in the riot stood trial for breach of the peace and, said the Dundee Courier of 24 November 1870, “they all pleaded guilty… the Sheriff fined them £1 each, with the alternative of ten days’ imprisonment, and in addition ordered them to find caution for £2 each.”

At the same hearing, a fourth medical student, Walter Robertson, was tried for breach of the peace and for assaulting a policeman. He pleaded not guilty, but the Sheriff was having none of it. He said that the facts of the case were clear and that had Robertson’s father not had such a good name in Edinburgh, he would have sent the defendant to prison. Instead, he fined him £1, plus £5 caution.



Other events that occured in November

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