In 1885, Margaret Florence Newcombe became the first woman BA to graduate from Dalhousie. In the years and decades that followed, a number of pioneering women followed in her footsteps, and slowly but surely the number of female Dalhousie students began to grow. By the early 20th century, there were enough women enrolled that the university began to plan for a women-only residence building. In 1912 the university purchased a house on South Street to house eleven girls, which was far from solving the problem. Major building projects were put on hold during the First World War, but by 1919 a female residence had become a priority because of the dire housing situation in Halifax and landlords' tendencies to prefer male tenants. The Dalhousie Gazette, reporting on the imminent sod-turning for the new women's residence in July 1919, reported that "It has no name yet; but it is no secret that the man who gives the money to erect it will have the right to name it."
As it turned out, it was not a man who gave the money, but a woman: Jennie Shirreff Eddy, a wealthy widow and former nurse, originally from New Brunswick. Eddy had worked as an RN in the Victoria Hospital in Halifax, and so was familiar with the city and expressed a great deal of admiration for it and for Dalhousie. At the urging of her friend and lawyer R.B. Bennett -- the future Prime Minister of Canada and at the time a member of the Dalhousie Board of Governors -- she pledged $300,000 to the new residence that was to be in memory of her parents. It was then the largest donation ever given to Dalhousie and the largest of its kind ever given by a woman in Canada.
In the spring of 1919, the southwestern corner of campus was chosen as the site for the new Shirreff Hall. The building was located close to Oxford Street in order to preserve as many of the original white pines as possible, and was much lauded for is picturesque location and view of the Northwest Arm. The architects were Frank Darling of Toronto and Andrew R. Cobb of Halifax, the minds already behind the rest of the campus. Because the use of ironstone in buildings was beginning to be questioned (as the mortar proved to crumble with time), Darling found a new and promising type of stone, a pinkish quartzite from New Minas, Nova Scotia. When the Prince of Wales passed through on his tour of Canada in August 1919, he laid the cornerstone of the building; construction did not being in earnest, though, until 1921. The building was designed with future additions in mind, including the allowance for a potential Women's College, if desired.
Eighty-six women moved into Shirreff Hall when it opened, and from that point forward residence there was mandatory for any young woman coming from outside of Halifax. The intention was that the Hall would be not only a residence but a centre of social life for all female students. Research into other women's residences had ensured it featured many of the elements that were considered important at the time: single rooms; generous public space for activities like dancing; private spaces such as alcoves for ladies to entertain callers; a dining room warm, not sterile. Eddy herself was a forceful woman with firm ideas that she wielded into fruition, including making the library larger and brighter, adding study rooms on the first and second floors, and, over the objections of the architect, including fireplaces in the public rooms. Eddy believed in women's education and was proud to contribute to giving women a comfortable, refined, and home-like place to live while at school.
In 1957 the federal government announced that the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation would start awarding grants for university residences. This funding made possible an expansion to Shirreff (the eastern New Eddy wing) that doubled its capacity. In 1967 the five-storey Newcombe wing opened on the west side. Today Shirreff houses 451 students in four wings: New Eddy (1962), Old Eddy (1923), Newcombe (1967) and the Annex (1923). As of September 2005, Shirreff was no longer an exclusively women's residence, as New Eddy and Old Eddy introduced co-ed accommodations by floor.