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Hurlbatt, Ethel, educator and social activist; b. 1 July 1866 in Bickley (London), daughter of Charles Hurlbatt and Sophia Margaret Smith; d. unmarried 22 March 1934 in Tours, France.

Ethel Hurlbatt was an early leader in women’s university education and a promoter of women’s entrance into the professions. One of seven children born to a mining engineer, she was raised in the south of England and may have spent part of her childhood in South Africa. Between 1888 and 1891 she attended Somerville Hall at the University of Oxford as a scholarship student, receiving honours in modern history, and then stayed for an additional year of postgraduate studies. The university would not grant degrees to women until 1920; her ba and ma were awarded ad eundem by Trinity College, Dublin, in 1905, and she was in the first group of women to receive a master’s degree from that institution.

Upon completion of her studies at Oxford in 1892, Hurlbatt was appointed founding principal of Aberdare Hall, the women’s residence at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire in Cardiff, which became a founding institution of the University of Wales the next year. She took an active role in all aspects of female education, from primary studies to technical training in domestic arts, and she served as the honorary secretary for the Association for Promoting the Education of Girls in Wales. She was principal until 1898 when she was succeeded by her sister Kate, who would hold the position for 36 years.

From 1898 to 1906 Hurlbatt was principal of Bedford College, the oldest women’s college in England, and an ex officio member of the teaching staff, lecturing in political economy. The school became part of the University of London in 1900, and she sat on the college’s council and all of its committees. While she was principal Bedford established stable finances by privately raising funds from former students and obtaining an increased government grant. Outside the institution Hurlbatt was active in a number of causes that sought to advance women and education. She had served as vice-president of the National Union of Women Workers and on the subcommittee concerned with women and education at the International Congress of Women, held in London in 1899.

During the summer of 1906 the principal of McGill University in Montreal, Sir William Peterson*, offered Hurlbatt the position of warden of Royal Victoria College, one of the rare posts in academe available to women in Canada at the time. She accepted and became the college’s second warden after Hilda Diana Oakeley, with whom she had studied at Somerville. Friends believed that she took the post in the hope that university life in a smaller, colonial city would be less demanding. Notwithstanding her robust physical stature, Hurlbatt had lifelong health problems. In the obituary published in the McGill News, Susan Elizabeth Vaughan [Cameron*], Hurlbatts successor as warden, described her as having “constitutional weakness, especially in the nervous system.” She travelled to Canada aboard the Empress of Britain, as did Lord Strathcona [Smith*], the founder of Royal Victoria College, whom she had met that summer. Her arrival in Montreal in January 1907 coincided with a short period of good health. As warden of the college, she would be a moral and intellectual role model for young women who attended McGill. The number of students she oversaw would grow from 80 in 1912–13 to several hundred by the time she retired. Her notable students included historian Vera Brown Holmes, experimental scientist Eleanor Marguerite Hill*, and Jessie Boyd Scriver, who would go on to become a prominent paediatrician and assistant professor of medicine at McGill. A tutor in history who worked with individual students from 1907 until 1915, Hurlbatt also gave classes in the subject. Within the university she campaigned for women’s admission to professional programs. In 1913, having kept a private account of failed female applications for admission to medicine since her arrival, she took it upon herself to canvass the policies of British universities on their acceptance of women to medical schools. In areas such as arts and sciences, where women were admitted, she encouraged female students to pursue postgraduate studies abroad. Initially paid a relatively modest salary of $1,500 per year, she would receive only a $500 increase over her 22 years at the college, and would be deemed ineligible for the pension program established by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching since she was not a professor at McGill.

Hurlbatt, who had both English- and French-speaking friends, was an active participant in Montreal clubs and philanthropic enterprises. She was on the women’s commission of the Comité France-Amérique de Montréal and served on the board of directors of the city’s branch of the Alliance Française. In 1918 she would be named an Officier de l’Instruction Publique by the government of France for her efforts to promote the French language at McGill. She was also involved in the Monteregian Club, the Montreal Women’s Canadian Club (vice-president in 1908), the Art Association of Montreal, and the Alumnae Society of McGill University, and she maintained her membership in the University Women’s Club of London. Having gained some experience with British settlement houses, where members of the upper classes, many of them studying social work, would live alongside the urban poor in the hope of improving the latter’s conditions through contact and cooperation, she helped in the creation of the University Settlement of Montreal in 1910. That year she was a volunteer on the organization’s initial women’s auxiliary. An enthusiastic supporter of women’s suffrage, she delivered a speech to the alumnae society entitled “Suffrage movement” in 1908 and another called “History of woman suffrage in England” the next year. She also spoke on topics as varied as hygiene, education, and women in professional and industrial work. She lent her leadership skills to the Montreal meetings of the International Council of Women from 11 to 15 June 1909, preceding its congress in Toronto later that month. In 1912 she participated in the Child Welfare Exhibition in Montreal and was among the city’s leading anglophone women activists who attended the Canadian Public Health Association meeting in Toronto.

The First World War gave Hurlbatt a new focus, and she took responsibility for the Women’s War Register, the Montreal branch of a volunteer agency that was formed in 1916 by the local Women’s Canadian Club. The organization aimed to register English-speaking women who might be able to do the jobs of men serving overseas. The register was discontinued in 1917 because the National Service Board had been created late in the previous year and given the task of calculating the number of possible recruits. Serbia recognized her contribution to the war effort by awarding her the Cross of Mercy.

During the influenza pandemic of 1918 Hurlbatt fell seriously ill. She witnessed the breakdown of Sir William Peterson, who resigned as principal in April 1919. He was replaced by Sir Arthur William Currie, with whom she got along well. For the school year of 1924–25 she took a medical leave of absence. The next year she was awarded an honorary ma by her alma mater, Oxford. She spent over a year in hospital (1928–29) before her resignation was made final. Three Montreal female philanthropists privately covered much of her hospital bill of $6,000 plus the surgeon’s fees, while publicly the alumnae society amassed $2,000 (the equivalent to her annual salary) so that she could travel and pursue treatment to improve her health. Following a therapeutic winter (1929–30) in Bermuda, she returned to Montreal, where McGill awarded her an honorary lld.

Hurlbatt spent her last four years travelling, passing her summers in Montreal and winters in England and continental Europe. In 1932 she enrolled as a pupil at the Institut de Touraine in Tours to study French and sketching, one of her favourite pastimes. It was there that she suffered a heart attack and died on 22 March 1934.

Hurlbatt’s career spanned a period when women remained on the margins of universities. She was one of the most visible women taking part in academic processions at McGill, yet her name disappeared as a member of the history department in calendars after 1916. Vaughan emphasized her “intellectual and moral forcefulness, her unwavering justice and the strenuousness of her ideal” rather than any academic accomplishments. In keeping with her lifelong dedication to promoting women’s education, the first scholarship of the almunae society was created in her name the year after her death.

Suzanne Morton

Ethel Hurlbatt is the author of “Professions open to women,” in The International Congress of Women of 1899, ed. [I. M. Marjoribanks (Hamilton-Gordon)] Countess of Aberdeen (7v., London, 1900), 3 (Women in professions), 30–33.

McGill Univ. Arch. (Montreal), MG 4003 (Women’s War Register Committee fonds); MG 4014 (Susan Cameron Vaughan fonds); R.G. 2 (Office of the Principal and Vice-Chancellor), c.15–c.35 (William Peterson, administrative records, 1895–1919); R.G. 4 (Secretariat of the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning and the Board of Governors), c.97, file 10730; R.G. 14 (Office for Human Resources), c.32, file 2048; R.G. 42 (Royal Victoria College), c.1 (annual reports, 1923–1933); R.G. 76 (Associations of McGill graduates), c.88, file 79/5. Montreal Herald, 14 Sept. 1912. Montreal Standard, 5 Oct. 1912. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). Margaret Gillett, We walked very warily: a history of women at McGill (Montreal, 1981). “Miss Ethel Hurlbatt, m.a., , hon. m.a. Oxon,” McGill News (Montreal), 10 (1929), no.4: 16–17. ODNB. Prominent people of the province of Quebec, 1923–24 (Montreal, n.d.). S. E. Vaughan, “Ethel Hurlbatt, ll.d., warden of the Royal Victoria College, 1907–1929,” McGill News, 15 (1934), no.3: 18–23. Who’s who in Canada, 1927.

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Cite This Article

Suzanne Morton, “HURLBATT, ETHEL,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hurlbatt_ethel_16E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hurlbatt_ethel_16E.html
Author of Article:   Suzanne Morton
Title of Article:   HURLBATT, ETHEL
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2021
Year of revision:   2021
Access Date:   September 30, 2023