Wummin's Wednesday: Isabella Elder (1828-1905)
Updated: May 15, 2020
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This lady whom we now behold, How charming in her native grace! Her actions shine like burnished gold, Angelic kindness in her face! - Black Eagle, 27 June 1885.
Depicting Glaswegian philanthropist, Isabella Ure Elder, this poetry excerpt was published in a local newspaper to mark the opening of Govan’s Elder Park. One of the city’s most pioneering female figures, Isabella was born in the Gorbals on 15 March 1828, the daughter of an affluent solicitor. She used her wealth to fund philanthropic and female-focused education projects, dedicating her life to developing her home city.
The 37 acres of Elder Park were established by Isabella in 1885, to offer the people of Govan “healthful recreation by music and amusement”. Nurturing a sense of community, the grounds feature lush greens, avenues of trees and a small boating pond. Tradition says that falling into the water will earn you the title of ‘Govan Knight’. Isabella paid for annual firework displays and founded the Elder Park Library in 1901, rendering it accessible to the working class by offering Sunday opening hours. Not far from her family’s shipyards, the park, which was named after her husband, can still be visited today.
Isabella married marine engineer John Elder in 1857. His company was regarded as one of the world’s leading shipbuilders, employing over 5,000 men. John’s death in 1869 left Isabella as the sole owner of the business for nine months, before transferring ownership to her brother. During her widowhood she spent her time touring Europe and undertook multiple philanthropic projects in Glasgow; creating Elder Park, opening a School for Domestic Economy, sponsoring a villa for the Cottage Nurses Training Home, then founding and funding the Elder Cottage Hospital in 1903.
Financially supporting scholarly institutions all over the city, Isabella also became invested in fostering women’s education. She was frustrated by the sexist attitudes towards teaching, which obstructed women from attaining degrees. It wasn’t until 1892 that Queen Margaret College, later merging with the University of Glasgow, became the first in Scotland to accept women into higher education, yielding the earliest female medical graduates in 1894. Isabella only agreed to finance the institution’s use of North Park House on the condition that teaching became balanced for men and women, arguing that females would receive sub-standard lessons if taught separately from their male counterparts. She was dissatisfied by the university’s efforts to uphold this agreement, and in 1899 refused to provide further funding unless female education was taken seriously. In appreciation of her generosity, the university awarded Isabella with an honorary degree in 1901, being described as “a true woman, a wise benefactress of the public and of learning.” Today, Isabella is commemorated all over the campus, even having a building named in her honour.
Isabella died on 18 November 1905 at her home in Glasgow, her death certificate being signed by the city’s first woman to graduate in medicine, Dr Marion Gilchrist. In her will, she left more than £125,000 to charities. The Elder family tomb lies at the summit of the Glasgow Necropolis, where Isabella remains one of the very few independently named females to be buried in the cemetery.
In 1906, the year after her death, a £2000 publically-funded statue of Isabella was unveiled in Elder Park. Besides the presence of Queen Victoria in George Square, Isabella was the first woman to have a commemorative statue in the city, and today remains only one of four. Surrounded by a memorial garden, she sits upon a granite base depicted in academic robes, her “angelic kindness” forever preserved in bronze.
This blog post was written by Amy Lyall, a student journalist. You can find more of her excellent stuff here: https://amylyallwrites.wordpress.com or on Twitter @amylyall1.