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Isabella Elder

Born 15 March 1828.
Died 18 November 1905.

A prominent philanthropist and pioneer of educational development across social barriers.

Connection to the University of Glasgow: Benefactor, Honorary Graduate
GU Degree: LLD, 1901;

Discover more philanthropists on the University of Glasgow Story website


The following achievement is associated with Isabella Elder:

Pioneering the University education of women in Scotland
The Glasgow movement to establish the right of women to a university education and the establishment of a means to deliver it was led by Jessie Campbell, administered by Janet Galloway and financed by Isabella Elder.


The following honour is associated with this person:


Isabella Elder, née Ure (1828-1905) was a benefactor of the University who took a particular interest in promoting opportunities for women in higher education.

In 1857 Isabella, the daughter of a Glasgow lawyer, married John Elder (1824-69), a partner in Randolph, Elder & Co, marine engineers in the city. Under John Elder's direction the business thrived, and acquired a shipbuilding yard at Govan in 1860. By 1868, when the firm became John Elder & Co and moved to the Fairfield Shipyard in Govan, it was recognised as one of the world's leading shipbuilders and marine engineers.

John Elder died in 1869. Isabella became sole owner of his business for 9 months, until it was transferred to a partnership led by her brother John Ure. Subsequently, she devoted her life to philanthropic projects in Govan and Glasgow. In 1883 Elder purchased 37 acres of ground near the Fairfield Shipyard, and had it laid out as a public park named the Elder Park in memory of her husband and her father-in-law David. The park opened to a great local fanfare in 1885, and for many years she paid for an annual fireworks display there. Also in 1885, she set up a School of Domestic Economy in Govan to teach young women how to prepare nutritious meals, darn, mend, starch, and perform other chores required in managing a household on a limited budget.

Elder also took a keen interest in higher education, and particularly in the University. In recognition of her late husband's enthusiasm for promoting the application of scientific principles in industry, she gave a supplementary endowment of £5,000 to support the chair of Engineering (in 1873) and £12,500 to endow the Elder Chair of Naval Architecture (in 1883) at the University. She also contributed to the building fund, and to provide lectures in Astronomy, at the Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College, the forerunner of the University of Strathclyde.

In 1883, Elder bought North Park House in the city's West End and donated it to the Queen Margaret College, the first college in Scotland to provide higher education for women. In 1890 she agreed to finance the first courses of study at the QMC's new School of Medicine. The QMC subsequently merged with the University, and in 1894 its medical school produced Scotland's first women graduates in Medicine.

She was described in The Bailie, a Glasgow periodical, as being "a true woman, a wise benefactress of the public and of learning". She was awarded the honorary degree of LLD in 1901, and her generosity is commemorated both in a memorial window in the Bute Hall together with Jessie Campbell and Janet Galloway and on the Memorial Quincentennial Gates on University Avenue.

In 2015, Estates & Buildings was renamed the Isabella Elder Building in her honour.