Isabella Elder

Isabella Elder used her wealth to improve welfare in Govan and women’s education


Isabella ELDER was very rich. Her husband John’s Govan company was one of the world’s leading shipbuilders; he was regarded as the finest of marine engineers.
After his death in 1869 aged 45, Isabella took over the business for nine months before going into partnership with her brother. He ran the shipyard, she set about spending the cash.

Her one indulgence was travel; the rest of her cash went into philanthropy. Her goal was to make life better for the people of Glasgow; in particular those in Govan and women keen to get an education.

She began by donating £5000 towards the Chair of Civil Engineering at Glasgow University, then endowed £12,500 to create the John Elder Chair of Naval Architecture.
Hearing that Queen Margaret College would be the first in Scotland to offer places to women, Isabella bought North Park House in the west end and let the college use it rent- free. In 1890 she funded the new medical school’s first courses.

Although the women at QMC could study, they didn’t get a degree. That changed in 1892, when it was announced that women would be accepted at Scottish universities, and QMC and the University of Glasgow merged. Isabella was delighted, but feared women might not receive the same calibre of teaching. So she took back the keys to North Park House until the university promised high quality education for every student.

The women studying on medical courses funded by Isabella graduated as doctors in 1894, but by the turn of the century, she felt the standard of women’s teaching had slid. She told the principal she was withholding her money until he kept his promise.



In Govan, Isabella created Elder Park, where she put on a fireworks display every year; built Elder Cottage Hospital and paid its running costs; opened a library and set up a school of domestic economy, where local women learned to cook, mend and keep house on a budget.

Isabella died in 1905. In her will she left over £125,000 to charity.

Her death certificate was signed by Dr Marion Gilchrist, the first woman to graduate from Glasgow University and the first to get a medical degree in Scotland. A bronze statue of Isabella was unveiled in Elder Park, the £2000 to commission it raised by the people of Govan.


Discover more about the remarkable men and women who shaped Scotland and changed the world with our new bookazine Scottish Heroes 



Available online from DC Thomson Shop or in stores at WHSmith