Professor Margaret Gowing: Hertford school girl

Susan Payne

Margaret Gowing (based on a photograph from
Susan Payne
The impressive entrance to Christ's Hospital School at the far eastern end of Fore Street.
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

In 1932, among the cohort of young girls arriving at Christ’s Hospital School, was Margaret Mary Elliott. Christ’s Hospital was a charity school established to offer a good education to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Elliott, aged 11 came on a scholarship from the London County Council.

Early years

Elliott’s family lived in Kensington, London; her parents Ronald (a motor engineer) and Mabel Donaldson (a school teacher) with their 3 children. With her father’s long-standing illness and the marriage-bar preventing her mother’s return to work, the family lived in reduced circumstances. However, showing academic promise, Elliott was able to secure a scholarship.

Christ’s Hospital school was founded in 1552 in Newgate, London. In the following century, much of the school was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and the children dispersed, some to Hertford. By the start of the 20th century the boy’s school left the town, leaving the girls the whole site in Fore Street.

Elliott enjoyed learning, although not the school environment. She became a prefect and played in her house hockey team. Elliott gained distinctions in Latin, English and French and a pass in German in her higher certificate.

At the age of 16, Elliott entered the London School of Economics, with the support of further scholarships. She graduated in the middle of the war with a First in Economic History.

Becoming an author

Elliott’s wartime service was spent in the Civil Service. In 1944 she married a fellow-Christ’s Hospital scholar, Donald Gowing; they had two sons.

At the end of the war Margaret Gowing as she now was, joined the historical section of the Cabinet Office and a project to create a series of books recording the civil history of the UK during the war, which eventually ran to 27 volumes. Gowing co-authored two in the series, ‘The British War Economy’ (1949) and ‘Civil Industry and Trade’ (1952). These gave her the experience of authorship and brought her into contact with many scientists and policy makers.

In 1959 Gowing joined the UK Atomic Energy Authority as historian and archivist. At the start she said that she ‘didn’t know an atom from a molecule’1. This position gave her access to many papers, most of them still labelled secret, relating to Britain’s wartime atomic project and post-war development of atomic energy. Gowing wrote widely-acclaimed accounts of the making and implementation of nuclear policy in war and peace until 1952. The books controversially shed light on then current thinking about nuclear policy, exposing the rivalries between national powers which formed relations between science and politics in the mid-20th century.

Promoting the History of Science

Gowing left the Atomic Energy Authority in 1966 for posts, first at the University of Kent and then Linacre College, Oxford University. Much of her time now was spent with scientists, working to get science and technology recognised in British culture. She opened up the history of science by lending her expertise to a range of national institutions. Gowing became a member of the newly-established BBC Archives Advisory Committee to advise on history of science broadcasting materials.2 She served for 14 years as a National Portrait Gallery trustee to promote the inclusion of scientists and engineers in the collection. She was also a trustee of the Imperial War Museum, until resigning in opposition to the introduction of entrance charges in the 1980s.

National recognition

In 1988 Gowing became a Fellow of the Royal Society, making her one of only three people to be elected both there and to the British Academy (1975). Appointment as CBE came in 1991.

Margaret Gowing died in London, after a long and debilitating illness in 1998.



1 Fox, Robert. Margaret Mary Gowing (1921-1998). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Published 23 September 2004.

2 ‘New BBC archives committee’. The Stage, 29th January 1976, page 11

MacLeod, Roy. Margaret Mary Gowing 1921-1998. The British Academy.

‘Obituary: Professor Margaret Gowing’. Independent, 20th November 1998



This page was added on 25/02/2024.

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