Another hero of Cambridge – the first woman to become our mayor


Another patriarchy-smashing hero of Cambridge, who campaigned against the marriage bar that stopped women from working, and who campaigned against gender pay discrimination against women. Furthermore, some observations on people of faith who got active in Cambridge on social justice issues – past and present.

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

Eva Hartree, Mayor of Cambridge 1924-25. National Portrait Gallery

We know she’s in the robes of the Mayor of Cambridge because the coat of arms gives it away. The supports are two sea horses.

Again, I’ve been through the newspaper archives and have discovered a number of fascinating things about her. Just like Eglantyne Jebb who was active around the same time, Hartree was years ahead of her time in her thinking. (Or rather, her time was rather backwards in its thinking compared to the pair of them!) The four things that stand out from cursory internet searches include:

  • She campaigned against the marriage bar that put women out of work once they got married
  • She campaigned against gender pay discrimination against women
  • She campaigned for refugees fleeing Germany and Spain in the 1930s, organising Cambridge as one of the places to welcome those fleeing fascism
  • She was on the Cambridge Borough/Town Council’s National Service Committee as the town made preparations for the looming outbreak of WWII in 1939

She stated in 1933:

“We claim that it is a right of every individual regardless of sex to sell his or her labour in return for gain. After all, it is a private matter how a woman and her husband arrange their lives. It is no business of the employer. The only business of the employer is that the work is well done and what should be paid for it.”

Ballymena Observer 27 Oct 1933.

She penned the letter below to the Cambridge Independent Press just before the outbreak of WWII for Spanish Refugees who could not return home following the end of the Spanish Civil War.


390818 EvaHartreeLetterCIPSpainRefugees_2.jpg

Both of the above from the wonderful British Newspaper Archive. Note that at the time, the British Government was not providing financial assistance to refugees from Germany in the 1930s.

390120 Refugees Code of Conduct.jpg

Susan Cohen’s essay on voluntary refugee work in Britain 1933-39 cites Hartree (noting her religion as Jewish, and one of the most prominent in the UK at the time) as having set up local arrangements to support refugees in Cambridge as early as November 1933. Note this was in the face of what some UK newspaper owners were getting up to at the same time. By 1939 Cambridge’s churches had gotten together to support refugees.


The two things that are striking are how the different denominations put aside their theological differences to deal with a real crisis, the involvement of local politicians from across the political spectrum (note Dr Alex Wood of Labour is mentioned in this article 0 Eva Hartree being a Liberal), and how some of the refugees said that it wasn’t the money, but the kindness of the welcome they had received that made such a difference when they arrived.

The concept of “Christian Witness” – People of faith in public services

This is something that comes up time and again in the newspaper archives, and is something that cropped up again when the Cambridge Food Cycle Group were looking for new premises. To quote the newspaper article above:

“The objects of The Council [for Christian Witness in Cambridge] from its beginning have been to quicken the social conscience of Christian people and to initiate and support movements calculated to promote physical, moral and social welfare” 

Interestingly, my experience of going to church throughout my childhood seldom had anything to do with meeting people living in poverty on our doorstep face-to-face. (As I’ve stated in an earlier blogpost, my experience of Christianity growing up wasn’t a positive one at all). Yet with cross-church support across Cambridge (I can think of at least four denominations that have hosted regular Food Cycle free dinners for people on low incomes) we see a modern day example of both Christians, people of other faiths and none joining together to respond to a common crisis. In this case, I’d like to think Christians in Cambridge feel that they are following in the footsteps of their forbearers in the 1930s who responded to a similar crisis.

On the issue of food poverty, this also links in with an event hosted by the Emmanuel URC on Trumpington Street in Cambridge a few years ago on the politics of food. It’s one thing to provide food for the poor, it’s another thing to ask why the poor have no food, and it’s something else to then take that message/question of why there is this injustice on the streets of our city and speak the truth to power. Which is exactly what happened when some food executives were invited to take part in an event hosted by Sir Brian Heap. The Christians in the audience didn’t pull their punches either. The minister at URC left a comment on my blog following the event, saying that his faith gives him a language on which to speak on issues of social justice.

Christians & people of faith on the city/borough council

Cambridge has a long history of people of faith being elected to, and serving on our council benches. Today I can think of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists who either currently serve or who have served as elected councillors across the four main parties in Cambridge representing the whole community in the past few years that I have been following local politics. It goes to show that no one political party has a monopoly on people of faith or those such as myself with none.

It makes me wonder whether regular religious attendance by an individual makes the more likely (in the statistical sense) to step up and get involved in local politics vs someone who does not. That would make an interesting post-graduate research project for someone: What factors are likely to influence whether or not someone decides to stand for election in and around Cambridge? (And how it changed over time?)




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