Lorna Walker (1929-2023)

Alyssa Shepherd
Monday 11 April 2022
Lorna Walker in pink jacket
Lorna Walker in 1983. Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: Group-1981-53

Lorna Walker studied History at St Andrews in the late 1940s, and returned in the 1960s as a lecturer in Medieval History and Warden of University Hall. She retired in 1991, and lived in St Andrews until her death in 2023. The following account of her time as student and staff at University was drawn from an interview with her in 2021.

Lorna Walker first came to St Andrews in 1948 to begin an arts degree in History and Modern Languages. Lorna had ‘always loved history’, and had studied both History and Modern Languages as a child at school in Cape Town, South Africa. Born in London, Lorna had relocated to Cape Town to live with family friends from 1940 until 1943, in order to avoid the Blitz in London. She was not the first of her immediate family to get a place at University. Both her father and her elder brother had had places to attend Cambridge University but had put their academic careers on hold for the world wars and then the family business.

She chose St Andrews as her grandparents originally came from Doune in Perthshire, and her father wanted her to spend some time in Scotland. Her father died during her first term in 1948. Lorna made moves to return to London to be with her mother following her father’s death, but her mother insisted Lorna remained at St Andrews as her father would have wanted her to.

Lorna stayed in University Hall while a student. In her first year, she studied History alongside French. Of her undergraduate days, Lorna recalled that the divisions between the Medieval and Modern departments were not solidified in those days but developed during her time there. One studied a lot of Modern History, though it was the Medieval that caught Lorna’s attention. At school, she had learnt about the Stuarts and Tudors. She loved, however, the earlier history. She particularly enjoyed Robin Adam’s classes on the twelfth century and the Normans.

Lorna also recalls being taught by (Caroline) Doris Ketelbey, the only woman teaching in the history department in those days. Although she believed that Miss Ketelbey did not have a permanent appointment, Lorna remembers her being a very popular lecturer amongst the student cohort at St Andrews.

Lorna was a highly successful student during her time in St Andrews, receiving multiple medals for her achievements. At the end of her undergraduate degree, she hoped to pursue research. As a fourth year student, she spent some time as a research assistant to Robin Adam. He was working on the historic papers of Dunrobin Castle, the seat of the Duke of Sutherland, where Robin Adam’s father worked as Factor. Lorna spent some time up there with him and Ronald Cant, who was also working on the project. She recalled having a lovely time during her stay with Robin and his family.

After she graduated from St Andrews, Lorna won a Carnegie Scholarship and went on to study for a masters degree at London University, moving back to be with her mother. At that time the old London MA was a research degree – not a taught degree. She had two supervisors on her research: Professor Plucknett of the School of Economics and Law, and then Welsh historian, Sir Goronwy Edwards, who also served as the Director of the Institute of Historical Research in Russel Square. Lorna recalled spending a lot of time sitting outside their rooms, hoping they would see her. Beyond a curriculum of core classes such as palaeography that they attended with students from other arts disciplines, postgraduate students received less teaching in those days.

Having had to change the title of her degree – the relationship between local and central courts in England in 12th and 13th centuries – Lorna graduated MA with distinction. At this time, the Doctorate of Philosophy or Ph.D. was just being introduced to the British universities. Lorna asked her supervisor if she could change from the masters degree to a Ph.D. He told her that that was ‘a new-fangled American thing’, and that ‘I haven’t got one, your professors in St Andrew’s haven’t, and so you stay where you are and you get a suitable appointment and then we see from there’. And that was that! He considered the old London MA the best one could get, and few academics of his generation had PhDs. Lorna said that later on, when asked by one of her students why she was only a Miss and all the men most were Doctors, that it had never worried her much: it was, she said, ‘a question of vintage’.

After completing an MA, Lorna recalls there being few openings for new historians. Many of her cohort went on to research county histories under the umbrella of the Victoria County History. Lorna herself went on to work for the Goldsmiths, the city livery company, who were at that time looking for someone to work on their medieval records. She worked for them for a contract of three years, before applying for an academic position at St Andrews.

Advertisement from the Times 1961, for the role of Warden of University Hall
Advertisement from the Times 1961, for the role of Warden of University Hall

The position Lorna applied was as joint lecturer in Medieval History and Warden of University Hall. She described the interview as ‘formidable’. It was held in the Hebdomadar’s Room by a large interviewing team covering both roles. In those days, the position of warden was one of much greater authority than it is now, and usually held by academics.

When she started teaching in 1961, the curriculum was largely similar to when Lorna had studied it. The core chronology and courses remained, while lecturers altered what was taught within them. This became wider in scope over the course of her career. At an early stage, Lorna was able to include in some art history to her classes, as at that time there was no School of Art History. She particularly wanted to include elements of French Art History and said that she still gets letters from her students saying that they have visited the places she taught them about and are remembering her tutorials. Lorna also took a group of students on a field trip each Easter break to Durham, to visit the border Cathedrals and the records at Durham University.

Lorna had little opportunity to enjoy research while in the joint position of lecturer and warden, as the wardenship was a full-time job. According to her contract, while warden she did her teaching in the Hall, and did not have an office in St John’s. Lorna hosted her seminars in the Common Room at University Hall. She produced an edition of a book called ‘The North Sea World’ with Barbara Crawford and their American colleagues, the result of a conference held in St Andrews. In the 1970s she produced a volume on the history of ‘The Goldsmiths Company’, which came out under her name and the name of the professor she had worked with while she was with the company.

She was primarily busy with the Hall all year round, building a program of summer courses and summer schools to make money for the university after the students had left for the vacation. During term time, the two roles proved very full-on. Lorna recalled that there would be many times when she was up at midnight preparing a lecture for the next day and would have to answer taps on the door from her students. At that time, there was no central administrative office running the hall. Lorna, as warden, was responsible for sending letters of admission to incoming students and organising conferences held in the hall. Part of her duties as warden of the Hall also included welcoming and hosting a number of female academics, or ‘distinguished ladies’, as they were known, in the Hall’s apartments – many of whom provided ‘an interesting high table compliment’ at meal times. Lorna still receives cards from these special visitors from time to time, who speak fondly of the ‘golden days’ at University Hall.

Her right hand throughout her time as warden was her bursar, Anna Ross. Along with one of Lorna’s former students, Sheila Taylor, who joined them as deputy warden, they were the most senior staff in the Hall. Lorna said that without Anna, she would never have survived as warden for so long. Over their time at University Hall together, they became very good friends and live together now in their retirement.

Lorna recalls the change in the age of majority made a big difference to her role as warden. When she was first appointed, the age of majority was twenty-one, and the university was ‘in loco parentis’. As warden, she had a greater responsibility then for her students. When she first became warden, the Lumsden Wing was still under construction, and it was together with Anna that she was appointed to furnish and equip the new Hall.

As warden, Lorna felt that it was exceedingly important to promote a sense of community in the hall between staff and students. In the 1980s, she recalls beginning to feel a divide between the staff and the students and wanted to mix things up a bit. At that time there was very little to bring the postgraduate community together. Hosted at University Hall, they formed a senior community for postgraduates and mature students, which Lorna recalls enjoying enormously. They also began to admit male students into University Hall, which had formerly been an all-women residence. In the first year, three brave men joined them, whom Lorna called ‘the three musketeers’. The numbers increased, and by the time Lorna left in 1991, there were almost equal numbers of men and women in the senior community.

It was only as a staff member that Lorna recalled the distinction between men and women coming up within the History department. At the time of her appointment, Lorna was the only woman in the Mediaeval department. She recalls that some men would stand up when she came into a room, while others would remain firmly seated apart from opening the door. She also recalled that at departmental meetings, the chairman would sometimes say ‘Miss Walker and Gentlemen’ at the start. Over time that changed, and staff members are now on first-name terms. When young new members of staff first joined the department, the head of department always gave them a mentor to help them with their first lectures and settling into the new role. Lorna, however, was never appointed a mentor (although she believes that may have been an element of her composite job as much as her sex). It was something that Lorna always regretted.

The department of Mediaeval History also used to hold a formal Examiner’s Dinner, hosted by the then-head of department, Professor Lionel Butler, and his wife. When Lorna started, it was a very posh affair. At the end of the dinner, the women would go upstairs to the drawing room while the men remained downstairs with port and cigars. In those days, Lorna was the only staff member who did not remain downstairs, until Ann Kettle joined the department.

In 1991, after thirty years as warden of University Hall, Lorna took early retirement with reengagement. She remained on the teaching staff in Medieval History and had an office in St John’s for three or four years, before she retired from teaching entirely.

In 2013, she was awarded the University Medal, in recognition of “her exceptional and dedicated contribution to the University over most of her lifetime”.

Two seated women (one with medal), and two men (one in military-style uniform) standing behind.
Lorna Walker MBE (in 2023), taken by Frances Andrews

In 2023, she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the New Year Honours for services to higher education. Lorna Walker sadly passed away in late October 2023. The Principal of the University paid tribute to her as “one of our most cherished historians, and a much-loved friend and former colleague from the former Department of Mediaeval History”.

This life history was originally written by Kate Grant, who interviewed Lorna in early 2021. Later updates are by Aileen Fyfe.

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