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TCD’s first female chemistry graduate.

Sydney E. Auchinleck. (Private collection).
Sydney E. Auchinleck (1884-1970). (Private collection).

Sydney Auchinleck – female despite the name – was an impressive woman from an early age. A published poet in her teens, she wanted to be an engineer but Trinity College wasn’t ready for that in the early 1900s, or indeed even by the end of the 1960s. Sydney consoled herself by becoming the first female chemistry graduate and a mechanic in her spare time. Her story is included in a memoir recently published by her family one of whom has volunteered this guest blog post.

Sydney Elizabeth Auchinleck was born at 35 York Street, Dublin on 18 April 1884, the daughter of Dr Hugh Alexander Auchinleck FRCS (I), an alumnus of Trinity College, Dublin. By the age of sixteen, Sydney had shown herself to be a talented girl having already published a book of poetry For the honour of the Queen and other verses (Dublin: Hodges, Figgis & Co, 1900); her poem with the same title was set to music and played by military bands and at other ceremonies at the time. Sydney attended Alexandra College which was enlightened enough to include in its curriculum the same subjects that were taught to boys, some of which were taught by the staff from Trinity. Sydney was among the first 40 women undergraduates admitted to Trinity College, in  Michaelmas term 1904. She decided to study Experimental Sciences; her great wish was to be an engineer but this was not open to women at the time. Trinity did not admit women to the Engineering School until 1972. She wrote a poem called ‘To TCD’ describing her studies there, and one notes the prescient fourth line:

Oh Trinity, dear Trinity, how proud I am to be

E’en the least of the alumni in the University

Full long you have rejected us, but fate has cleared the way

We come to you “on trial”, but we come to you to stay ….

And now I study Chemistry, and hope that one fine day

Your haughty Engineering School will let me in to stay

(I know it’s very doubtful) but what e’re my fate may be

I hope I never give you cause to be ashamed of me.

The first committee of the Elizabethan Society. S. E. Auchinleck is standing, extreme right.
The first committee of the Elizabethan Society. S. E. Auchinleck is standing, extreme right.

Women had to wear subfusc colours of brown, navy and black in addition to academic gowns, and mortar boards to signal their right to be at large on the campus. There was a curfew ensuring women were off the premises by 6 p.m., women were not admitted to the dining room and they had to sit at the front of the class and on separate benches in the laboratories. Sydney wrote a protest poem about the fuss over clothing, bravely signed with her initials; her other protest poem was pinned to the Front Gate.

The women formed the University Elizabethan Society in 1905 and this gave them a place to meet. The facilities, in House 6, comprised a lunch and tea room, a small library, reading and writing room. Debates took place there every Wednesday at a time when women were not allowed to attend debates elsewhere in College. Sydney became the treasurer and also served as the secretary of the Eliz. Sydney was the first woman to graduate in chemistry, in 1908. She remained active in the life of TCD becoming treasurer of the Women’s Tennis Club and a member of the Dublin University Women Graduates Association (DUWGA).

At the wheel, Mombassa, 1922. (Private collection).
At the wheel, Mombasa, 1922. (Private collection).

By this time Sydney had become engaged to Dr Norman Jewell, a graduate of the Medical School. (Jewell, who won the MC for his services during WWI, was the subject of an earlier blog post). She planned to join him in the Seychelles where he had taken a job in the Colonial Services. Before joining Norman, Sydney took a teaching diploma which was awarded in 1910, perhaps with a view to educating any future children in the unknown tropics.

Women's Royal Voluntary service Middlesex Branch. S.E. Auchinleck, seated, second from right. (Private collection).
Women’s Royal Voluntary Service Middlesex Branch. S.E. Auchinleck, seated, second from right. (Private collection).

It seems a great pity that Sydney, having excelled academically, should give up any thoughts of a career for the sake of her husband and family. She continued to write poetry throughout her life and showed her leadership skills by becoming a Girl Guide leader in East Africa and a senior member of the East Africa Women’s League. Always practical, Sydney took a course in car mechanics in 1920 as there were very few mechanics in Kenya at that time and roads were mostly unmade tracks through bush. Later, when back in Britain, Sydney was the leader of the Harrow on the Hill branch of the Women’s Voluntary Service in WW2. Something of Sydney’s story, including some of her poems about the Seychelles and East Africa, can be found in her husband’s memoir On Call in Africa in War and Peace, 1910 to 1932 recently published by her family.

Sydney and Norman had four children: John, a Trinity medical graduate; Norman (also known as Bill) a much-decorated submariner; Norah, who worked in the National Portrait Gallery in London; and Daphne who was a radiographer.

Sandra Jewell (granddaughter).