Trailblazer - Isabella Elder
Updated: Feb 17
This is the second in our series of blogs introducing a high-level overview of the life stories of the women who our fleet of bikes is named after. We try to weave in some parts of their stories into some of our Glasgow bike tours however hopefully, these blogs provide a little more context.
Many thanks to Anabel Marsh from Glasgow Women's Library for writing this post.
Isabella is one of only four named women in Glasgow to be commemorated by a statue. Born Isabella Ure on 15th March 1828, in 1857 she married John Elder (1824–1869), a partner in a thriving shipyard. By the time he died, John Elder & Co. in Govan was regarded as one of the world's leading shipbuilders. Isabella became the sole owner and ran it successfully for the next nine months until it was transferred to a partnership led by her brother.
As a wealthy, comparatively young, widow with no children, Isabella now had time on her hands which she filled by touring Europe for extended periods and becoming a major philanthropist in Glasgow with a particular interest in education, especially of women, and in the welfare of the people of Govan. There, she was responsible for creating Elder Park (the site of a statue to her husband and, later, her own statue), Elder Park Library, a School for Domestic Economy, a Cottage Hospital and the Cottage Nurses Training Home. The hospital is now a nursing home, known as Elder House.
Isabella was a generous donor both to the University of Glasgow and to the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College, now the University of Strathclyde. However what interests me most is that in 1883 she purchased North Park House, known to many Glaswegians as "the old BBC building". She provided this property and other financial support to Queen Margaret College, the first college in Scotland to offer higher education to women (although they were not yet allowed to graduate). In 1892, the College became part of the University of Glasgow, but Isabella only agreed to hand over North Park House on condition that the teaching provided to women was equal to that of men. The first women graduated in medicine in 1894 and in the arts in 1895.
Isabella died on 18 November 1905, and I don't know if it was planned or if it was a coincidence, but the doctor who signed her death certificate was Marion Gilchrist, the first woman to graduate in medicine from Queen Margaret College. Marion also has a Gallus Pedals bike named after her.
Isabella is buried in the family tomb in Glasgow Necropolis. Generous to the last, her will left more than £125,000 for charitable purposes including the Ure Elder Fund for Indigent Widows of Govan and Glasgow.
Her statue was unveiled in Elder Park in 1906, at a cost of £2,000 raised by public subscription, much of it from the ordinary people of Govan who held her in high regard. She wears the academic robes of the University of Glasgow which had awarded her an honorary degree (LLD) in 1901.
The University has commemorated her in other ways. A memorial window in its Bute Hall pictures her alongside Janet Galloway and Jessie Campbell of Queen Margaret College. She is the only woman named on the Quincentennial Gates on University Avenue, where the name Elder, and the initials QM for Queen Margaret, can be found top right. In 2015, the university also renamed a building Isabella Elder.
You can find out more about Isabella’s story via two Glasgow Women’s Library Heritage Walks: Necropolis and West End. GWL also holds copies of an excellent biography by Joan McAlpine, as does the Mitchell Library:
McAlpine, C.J.J. (1997) The lady of Claremont House: Isabella Elder, pioneer, and philanthropist. Glendaruel: Argyll.
Women's history is often referred to as hidden or forgotten, but in Isabella's case it is well documented, and she has truly left her mark on the city. I consider her achievements to be quite spectacular for the Victorian era when there were so many restraints on women and their activities and wonder what she would have been had she lived a century later. A Professor? A CEO? A politician? I have no doubt that she could have accomplished anything she set her mind to.
This blog is part of a Trailblazers collection, celebrating the lives of 10 women who we decided to name our bikes after! To find out more and click to see some of the other blogs, please click on Trailblazers: The 10 Women who inspired Gallus Pedals.
** Disclaimer - The main image was sourced from the University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections and no changes were made to the original. A copy of the license for use of this image is available here. The use of this image does not imply endorsement from the Licensor **
Anabel Marsh is a volunteer tour guide with Glasgow Women's Library (GWL). GWL now has six women's history walks, three longer trails, and one bike ride, all of which can be downloaded as self-guided tours from GWL's website. Guided walks take place during the summer months and can be booked via the library's events calendar.