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The Finnieston or "Squinty" Bridge Over the Clyde, Upstream from Govan
The Finnieston or "Squinty" Bridge Over the Clyde, Upstream from Govan

Isabella Elder lived from 15 March 1828 to 18 November 1905. She was a philanthropist and supporter of women's education. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Isabella Ure was born in the Gorbals area of Glasgow as the daughter of a solicitor. In 1857 she married John Elder, a marine engineer who ran the shipbuilding company John Elder & Co. At the time of John Elder's early death in 1869, John Elder & Co. employed 5,000 men in shipyards at Govan on the banks of the River Clyde. As sole owner of the company following her husband's death, Isabella Elder took over and successfully managed it for nine months. She then arranged for her brother, John Ure, a harbour engineer working in Newcastle, to take over day to day management of the company.

This left Isabella, now a very wealthy widow, with time on her hands. She began touring the continent for extended periods and from the 1880s she increasingly became involved in philanthropic causes in Glasgow. In 1883 she endowed a Chair of Naval Architecture at the University of Glasgow. She also purchased premises which she made available rent free to the Queen Margaret College for women, and worked closely with the college to ensure their standards matched those of Glasgow University. When Queen Margaret College opened a medical school in 1890, Isabella Ure covered the running costs. Meanwhile in 1885 she had opened a school for domestic economy for poor girls and women in Govan. She also provided Govan with Elder Park, now home to statues of both Isabella and her husband John, with the Elder Cottage Hospital, and with the Elder Free Library.

In 1901 Isabella was awarded an honourary degree by Glasgow University. It is perhaps fitting that when she died in November 1905, Isabella's death certificate was signed by Dr Marion Gilchrist, the first woman to graduate in medicine in Glasgow.

This biography draws on research first published in "The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women".

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