At a time of industry, engineering, international trade, and the related economic boom experienced by Glasgow in the late 19thcentury, the contributions of women are, if not overlooked entirely, often muted by the achievements of their male contemporaries. While one could not say that the achievements and philanthropy of Isabella Elder (1828-1905) have gone unnoticed (she was the first woman to be recognised with a statue in Glasgow, other than Queen Victoria), her contribution to Glasgow, and in particularly Govan is worthy of further commemoration.
Born Isabella Ure in 1828, she married John Elder in 1857. At this time John Elder was a partner in the marine engineering firm, Randolph, Elder & Co. However, by 1868 the firm was known as John Elder & Co, and had moved its premises to Fairfield Shipyard in Govan, where it was recognised as one of the world leaders in shipbuilding and marine engineering. Mr Elder died at the age of 45 of liver disease, leaving Isabella the sole owner of his business – which she ran single-handedly for 9 months after his death, until she entered into a partnership with her brother who took over its day to day operation. Following this, Isobella decided to spend some time abroad where she contemplated how to create a worthwhile legacy for the Elder family. Her husband was described by Professor Rankine as “a man of genius whose marine engines enabled ships to travel further and so opened up the shipping trade.” He goes on to note the social conscience evident in Mr Elder’s character, and his desire to provide opportunity for the poor living in Govan. It is clear that Mrs Elder shared her husband’s philanthropic ideals, as after his death she spent the rest of her life making provisions for disadvantaged groups such as the poor and women in Glasgow.
In 1883, Isabella purchased 37 acres of land beside Fairfield shipyard, where her husband had made his fortune, naming it Elder Park in memory of her late husband and father-in-law, David. She laid the land out as a public park so that the people of Govan might have a healthy recreational space, and she paid for an annual display of fireworks for many years to come.
To support the poor living in Govan, in 1885 she established the School of Domestic Economy to teach women how to darn, stitch, sew, starch, mend and other tasks deemed essential for running a household on a limited budget. Under the tutelage of Miss Martha Gordon, the school was also able to provide classes twice a week about the importance of nutrition, clothing, ventilation, care of children, and the prevention of the spread of infectious diseases. In 1890, Mrs Elder employed a district nurse so that home visits could be made to local families, furthering the outreach potential of the school.
To celebrate her husband’s achievements and in recognition of his enthusiasm for the promotion of scientific principles in industry, in 1873 she gave a supplementary endowment of £5000 to support the Chair of Engineering at the University of Glasgow. And later (1883), £12,500 to endow the Elder Chair of Naval Architecture. She also contributed to the building fund; and to the provision of lectures in Astronomy at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College – the forerunner of the University of Strathclyde.
However, the cause that was arguably closest to Isabella Elder’s heart, was the provision of higher education for women. At this time, women were not permitted to attend universities in Scotland. In 1883, Mrs Elder purchased North Park House in the West End of Glasgow, and donated it to Queen Margaret College – the first college in Scotland to provide higher education to women. This was followed by a medical school designed by John Keppie and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, which opened in 1890, offering the opportunity for women to study medicine – with Mrs Elder agreeing to finance the first courses in Medicine at QMC. Indeed, the first female graduates received their degrees in 1894. The College merged with the University in 1892 and the premises continued to be used for women’s education until the building was sold to BBC Scotland in 1934. However the name of the College persisted with the Queen Margaret Student Union, the Queen Margaret Settlement and the Queen Margaret Halls of Residence in Kelvinside.
In her later years, Isabella Elder’s philanthropy in Glasgow was formally recognised with the award of an honorary LLD from the University of Glasgow. At this time, the Glasgow periodical, The Bailie described her as “a true woman, a wise benefactress of the public and of learning.”
After her death, in 1906, a bronze statue on a granite base, surrounded by a memorial garden, was erected in recognition of her achievements and her devotion to philanthropy in Glasgow, in Elder Park.
The Elder legacy remains evident today, and her generosity is further commemorated with a memorial window in the University of Glasgow’s Bute Hall.