What’s in a name? The story of Eva Smith

head and shoulders photo of Eva Smith

Karin Horowitz (NC 1978), Honorary Associate explores the life of fellow Newnham alumna Eva Smith, immortalised through one of our postgraduate accommodation houses.

I lived in Eva Smith House for three years when I came to Newnham in 1978 to read English as an affiliated student and then stayed on to do a PhD. I never gave a moment’s thought to who Eva Smith was during the time I lived there.

It was only several decades later, when I embarked on a project to celebrate Newnham’s 150th, that I found myself drawn to the challenge of uncovering the person the house was named after. Together with a fellow student who I met at Eva Smith House, Leanne Grega, and a colleague and friend from Historic England Heritage Schools, Kate Argyle, we set out to research Eva’s life and contributions to Newnham.

The building that was to become Eva Smith House, originally called College House, was built around the start of the twentieth century on Grange Road. Grange Road had previously been known as Parallelogram Road, a name whose suitability will become evident as this story unfolds.

Eva Mary Smith was born in 1885 and matriculated in 1904. One of only sixteen women studying Mathematics, Eva came sixteenth among men and women in Part I of the Mathematics Tripos in 1907. She was the only female ‘wrangler’ (student achieving a First in the Mathematics Tripos finals), a formidable achievement. In Part II she was the only female student and took a II.ii. After graduating, she spent a year at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1908. When she returned to the UK, she held a series of teaching posts, became a headmistress and then the Principal of Edge Hill Training College (now Edge Hill University), which had opened in Liverpool in 1885 as the first non-denominational teacher training college for women. She was a Newnham Associate from 1909 to 1925, and died in Cambridge in 1961.

Eva was Principal of Edge Hill when its Durning Road premises were destroyed in a German bombing raid on 28 November 1940. A direct hit killed 166 people and Churchill called it the ‘worst single incident of the war’ in terms of loss of life. Smith was caught up in her own personal battle against ill health and deteriorating eyesight at this time, culminating in her retirement in 1941. In retirement she lived in a flat in Cambridge where she enjoyed tending plants and flowers.

She was most remembered for her commitment to developing the well-rounded character of her students:

‘I find the things that stand out in my mind about Miss Smith are her rapid thinking, her mathematical power of selection, her courage and initiative under changes that were truly upheavals. Her outlook in the training of students was chiefly, I think, the sense of responsibility which she insisted they should develop, her concern for their spiritual and cultural welfare and the trusteeship which she felt we had for our material environment.’ (Edge Hill College Magazine, 1961)

Eva Smith left the residuum of her estate to Newnham College including her flat and many of its contents, as well as various investments. College Archivist Frieda Midgley adds that Eva’s possessions were sold at a time when ‘plans were afoot to purchase 16 Grange Road and convert it to graduate accommodation’. As the house was named after Eva, ‘it seems reasonable to infer that her benefaction was channelled into this project.’ It was a project which fulfilled the vocation of Eva Smith in developing a sense of responsibility and self-sufficiency in her students. The 1964 Roll Letter explains its novelty as a new kind of student house:

‘In October 1963, a Newnham experiment began; number 16 Grange Road was opened as Eva Smith House for graduate students of the College. Nine research and postgraduate students live here. There is no resident Senior Member or housekeeper – the residents rent the rooms from the College and work out their own way of life, doing their cleaning, cooking and housekeeping themselves. The experiment seems to be an enormous success. The house and garden are delightful, the rooms interestingly furnished and there is freedom and independence without loneliness or landlady trouble.’

‘Freedom and independence without loneliness’ – or indeed landlady trouble! – was exactly what Eva Smith House offered its residents. Having lived there 14 years after the project was launched, I can vouch for that and for the continuing success of the experiment.

Every named building has its own story to offer if we dig deep to discover it. What’s in a name? is an apposite question indeed. Eva Smith’s personal qualities and aspirations were transformed into a living experience that would support decades of Newnham students to come, in developing that ‘sense of responsibility’ which she devoted her life to nurturing in others.

Newnham’s ongoing trusteeship of the material environment has been recently demonstrated in the sympathetic renovation of Eva Smith House in response to student feedback and their desire for modern interiors rather than the eclectic – and for some, endearing – mix of new and old furniture that was there when I arrived.

Eva Smith house

Greening Eva

The complete refurbishment of Eva Smith House was completed in November 2022 as part of our Greening Newnham work to reduce carbon emissions and improve the efficiency of College buildings. The house now sports a state of the art air-to-water heat pump and has been fully insulated.

Drone infrared imaging was used to assess heat loss from the building. In a thermogram, of which this is an example, brighter colours from red to yellow indicate greater heat
and infrared radiation is being emitted, while purples and dark blue/black indicate cooler temperatures.

Whitstead: The success of the work on Eva Smith House was followed in the summer of 2023 with work on Whitstead, where all the rooms were stripped back to brick and the ceiling to expose the roof joists, to allow for new insulation of all internal walls and ceilings. Double-glazed leaded conservation windows were installed, along with another air-source heat pump, with underfloor heating throughout. Energy-efficient white goods, low flow showers and dual flush toilets were installed.

Car charging points: UK Power Networks installed a new power cable from the sub-station on Gonville and Caius sports field across Clare Road in spring 2023, ready for the installation of six electric vehicle charging points in the Tennis Court car park area.

New greenhouses and rainwater harvesting: Two new greenhouses have been constructed in the College gardens with eight water butts to collect rainwater from their roofs, along with automated heating, ventilation and misting (watering) systems which will reduce water use and heating costs.

You can read more about our campaign to support Greening Newnham and other wok on Shaping Newnham’s Future here.

  • Research into the identity of Eva Smith was undertaken by Kate Argyle from Historic England Heritage Schools, supported by guidance from Dr Gillian Sutherland and work undertaken by Frieda Midgley, Newnham’s archivist, and Dan Copley, archivist at Edge Hill University, Ormskirk.
  • This feature first appeared in the Newnham College Roll Letter.