When Victoria College federated with the University of Toronto in 1892, only 14 of its 226 students were women. But their numbers quickly grew, and within the next decade 63 women earned degrees while attending Victoria. However, the young ladies had trouble finding suitable places to live, so a group of prominent, public-spirited women formed an association to build Canada’s first residence for female university students. Annesley Hall opened in October 1903 with 47 residents.
To celebrate the hall’s 100th anniversary, the college held the Victoria Women’s Residence Reunion on May 31. Events included an open house, tours, dinner and a residence slumber party. A highlight was the Service of the Lamp and the Owl, which began in the early 1900s to welcome women into the Victoria College community. During the ceremony, women light a candle at the “lamp of learning” to symbolize their dedication to knowledge and truth.
It was moving to watch Burwash Hall’s dining room gradually fill with candlelight as each woman received the flame, says Margaret Chambers (BA 1938 VIC), one of the 400 alumnae who took part in the service. “I felt a bit nostalgic,” adds the 87-year-old, who studied mathematics.
Chambers remembers the strict residence rules that existed when she lived at Annesley during the 1930s: men were occasionally invited to tea dances, they could call at the reception desk and socialize in the sitting room, but they were never allowed on the residence floors. In later years, a man could visit a student in her room during set hours, but there were rules: an open door and “four on the floor.” Within these codes of conduct, women still found ways to practise mischief. “We had some awfully good times,” laughs Chambers, recalling how they would toss cold water over the top of the bathtub cubicles, a nasty shock to those enjoying a luxurious soak. She also remembers girls climbing in through the windows after their dates, because the doors were locked at 11 p.m.
Nowadays, residents and visitors come and go as they please, but the recitation chanted at the lamp of learning ceremony remains a constant: “Heed our college motto/Truth shall make you free/Take this lamp of learning/Shield it valiantly/Never let it flicker/Nor its cause forsake/Keep it trimmed and burning/For Victoria’s sake.”