Some thoughts as I go down a road of discovering some of Cambridge’s heroes that our city has forgotten.

Until recently, I’d never heard of any of them:

  • Daisy Hopkins – Castrated Cambridge University proctors & changed law
  • Eglantyne Jebb – First study of poverty in Cambridge – founded Save the Children
  • Eva Hartree – First woman to be mayor of Cambridge – supported refugees fleeing the fascists when UK newspaper bosses were hobnobbing with them
  • Florence Ada Keynes – Second woman to be mayor of Cambridge, first woman to be a councillor – historian and author of Cambridge the town. You may have heard about her son, John, who founded the Arts Theatre in Cambridge
  • Lucy Gent – Air Raid Precaution’s warden – killed in action during an air raid on Cambridge
  • Petica Robertson – Air Raid Precaution’s warden – killed in action during an air raid on Cambridge

And those are just the few I’ve stumbled across – though I need to write a separate blogpost about Ada Keynes.

NPG x17439; Eva Hartree (nÈe Rayner) by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy)

Mayor Eva Hartree – the first woman to become Mayor of Cambridge

I was at a jam-packed meeting of the Mill Road History Society this evening at St Barnabas on Mill Road. It was like a local meeting of the great and the good in local history in Cambridge. Have a watch of Dr Philip Howell’s presentation on sex workers in Victorian Cambridge. It’s about an hour long but it is very well put together, combining personal testimonies with concepts such as data mapping – something worth looking into with other city datasets.

When I mentioned Eglantyne Jebb – founder of Save The Children, it turned out most of the room was familiar with her even though I had only recently stumbled upon her. Not being the first occasion where people with knowledge of local history and local politics had said they were more than familiar with someone who I had only just discovered, it got me thinking about how we get the lives and times of people who I call ‘Cambridge’s lost heroes’ out of the history books and into local popular culture.


Eglantyne Jebb (from the Cambridge Independent/British Newspaper Archive, and Save The Children respectively)  – whom I’m convinced would have made an excellent Member of Parliament for Cambridge had women been allowed to vote and stand for election. But being banned from doing so, she founded Save The Children instead.

“What do you mean by local popular culture?”

My take is that local history generally has got a bit of a dull reputation – and unfairly so. Not least because the custodians of local history generally are doing what they do on a combination of shoestring budgets plus the goodwill of volunteers. You don’t go into local history to become rich.

Yet at the same time, local history is a gold mine because unlike the Michael Gove approved version of history where you have to be able to list important dates, local (to me) history means I can wander over to the places where stuff actually happened. Also, with Cambridge, most of the history written about it has been about the university, its colleges and its academics. We don’t get to hear much about the people – the women in particular, that made Cambridge the city it is today, irrespective of whether they were members of the University of Cambridge or not.

“No – what do you mean by local popular culture?”

I’m talking things like plays, performances, music, films, documentaries, paintings, sculptures, statues and the like.

But achieving the sort of vision that I have in mind isn’t something that is easy to put on. It’s something that, like the Cambridge Folk Festival will take years, if not decades to build up. In one sense, it’s already started with the annual Cambridge History Festivals. The other assumption is that there are suitable venues and that they are available for use. With the exception of my dream 2,000 capacity concert hall on the corner of Hills Road and Lensfield Road, Cambridge physically has the venues, but not the accessibility.

On plays, I remember at school being part of a couple of musicals that for me at the time and age I was at, really did have the ‘wow’ factor. The big thing that did it for me was scale – numbers of people involved in both acting and accompanying music, and the size of the stage. The one I was in at sixth form college I remember being blown away by the imagination of the stage designer, who was the same age as me but who had the imagination to design a scaffold and put a mini orchestra at the top of it. I’d always assumed that the musicians were in the music pit below.

Heading back to my old secondary school – long since unrecognisable due to a major building program shortly after I left, I remember being struck by the scale of one of the art projects in the entrance hall to the hall we were rehearsing in. Compared to a quarter of a century ago, it was a different world. I don’t remember any art project by anyone having that sort of an impact. And when it comes to new public art in Cambridge generally, I’m struggling to think of anything that has that *wow* factor – things like this generally being lampooned more than anything else.

“What sort of thing did you have in mind?”

I’ve mentioned before my long term project about a musical based around the time the Corn Exchange and other buildings were opened – a time of huge historical change as Eglantyne Jebb describes brilliantly in her 1906 study. We also had a number of good things coming out of the Cycle of Songs project of 2014 – though the risk with one-off programs is that they can be easily forgotten soon after, unless incorporated into an accessible archive. (Hence my point about the importance of digitising our archives).

I’ve also got in mind commissioning a super-sized painting featuring all of the women I’ve mentioned above, and more, who shaped Cambridge. That or running it as a competition broken down into age categories. It’s one of the reasons I am desperate to get hold of photographs or accurate drawings of Daisy, Petica and Lucy up top, because I’ve not seen or found any. Petica and Lucy will probably need a wider local public appeal.

I’m also on the lookout for other women…

“Hang on, why women? What about…”

The men? If you wanted to have any control or influence on the various councils or decision-making bodies in Cambridge, until recently you had to be a member of the university. Remember we still have not had a century of women’s suffrage, so the likes of Florence, Eglantyne and Eva will have had to have fought through far greater barriers than any of us could imagine. That, plus others have already written about the men. There are also enough paintings of men across the colleges in Cambridge without me needing to encourage anyone to add to them.

My use of first names rather than the standard surnames also reflects both what feels to me as a growing familiarity with the individuals concerned, plus also finding their first names more intriguing and unique than their surnames. If I went by surname only it feels like I could be writing about male politicians of days gone by.

Are there other women out there?

There are, and I need people’s help in identifying them for a start. Names that I’m thinking about that I need to blog about include:

  • Mary Allan of Homerton College
  • Leah Manning
  • Jean Barker (Baroness Trumpington)

There’s also the case of Bernie Callaghan – former local councillor who could have gone on to become Cambridge’s first Black woman mayor had she not made this huge error of judgement. I remember reading about this at the time and feeling absolutely gutted and disappointed for and by her, because she got so close to the top post. Since then she’s disappeared from public view. I still wonder what happened to her.

“There’s a book in this, isn’t there?”

More than one. What struck me in the library over the past few days is how little there is on the lives and times of our local politicians, campaigners and civic leaders since about 1950. For some of the people in and around Cambridge, they will have lived through these times. But no one has, as yet collected, collated, curated and published the story of how we got to today in Cambridge. The task of doing so looks daunting, and much as I would like to be part of doing that work, I could never do it all alone. I just don’t have the health.

The timeline of events

The other vitally important bit in all of this is the timeline of local, national and international events – and how they intertwine with each other. These include not just the big picture stuff such as the outbreak of WWII, but things that we’ve long since forgotten such as the University of Cambridge and Corporation of Cambridge Act 1894, passed as a result of the uproar in support of Daisy Hopkins. Or the campaign for votes for women (there were numerous public meetings in Cambridge – and if I recall reading, a few outbreaks of arson too). The various reforms of local government, the changes at a national level that changed how public services were delivered, and even the changes and the decline of mainstream Christianity in Cambridge (as reflected by the closure of some notable churches in recent times).

And finally…

I asked Dr Howell a question as to whether Cambridge University and the Church of England had apologised to the people of Cambridge for the crimes against the women of Cambridge resulting from their unlawful activities. The reason for that question is that I don’t feel we as a city (and the University of Cambridge as an institution) have acknowledged the suffering those women and girls endured at the hands of university authorities.

There’s a bit of me that would love to see one of the annual ceremonies that the Mayor of Cambridge has to take part in at Great St Mary’s Church being amended to incorporate the Vice Chancellor (representing Cambridge University) and a cleric from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (It was the Dean of Caius, Rev Frederick Wallis who arrested Daisy Hopkins (as these numerous newspapers of the time testify to)) having to ask the Mayor of Cambridge (acting on behalf of the people of the city) for forgiveness on behalf of their institutions on how they treated the women of Cambridge for so long. At the same time also having the University of Cambridge making an annual donation to a local women’s charity as chosen by the students union and councillors. Note the current postholder of Dean of Caius is Cally Hammond.

“That sounds a bit …far out?”

Yeah – it probably is. But by having something in an existing annual event to commemorate what Daisy Hopkins endured for our city means that more people will become aware of her story.

“Then what?”

This goes for the women I’m researching generally, but this links back full circle to the present day democracy activism I’ve been doing for years: encouraging more women (And people generally) to get involved in local democracy.

“How would that work?”

In a nutshell:

  • These are your predecessors
  • Look at the great things they achieved
  • Cambridge is going through huge changes – we need people to get involved to shape our town’s history
  • It needs a new generation of women to step up like our past heroes did
  • Are you one of that new generation?

Just…phrased much much better than that. But we’ve got to make the inspiring content on our past civic heroes in order to have them inspire the next generation. Otherwise they’ll become forgotten names gathering dust in an archive. Their live stories and achievements are too compelling to be left there.

Original source – A dragon’s best friend

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