Mapping the Cambridge Women’s Civic Action Network of the early 1900s


Following Eglantyne’s example and taking a systematic approach to getting a picture of the Cambridge Heroes. 

I’ve just got hold of Clare Mulley’s excellent biography of Eglantyne Jebb (buy it here) – which interestingly has a glowing tribute from the Princess Royal for Eglantyne’s work founding Save the Children. Although the chapter of her years in Cambridge focuses mainly on Eglantyne’s ground-breaking book Cambridge – a study in social questionsit provides a host of really useful pointers to Eglantyne’s social and political network – which was huge. I had a first go at picking out some big names in my blogpost on The Newnham College connection. But further research shows that the incredibly influential names that she was on first name terms with were already taking part in Cambridge civic action before she arrived in Cambridge.

Eglantyne Full Clare Mulley.jpg

A stunningly elegant Eglantyne Jebb in 1904 – from Clare Mulley’s biography.

According to Clare Mulley, Eglantyne had her heart broken around the time she was doing teacher training. (*Ditto here – just a few years older!). It was after that point she threw herself into her work, first in Cambridge, then for war refugees in continental Europe from 1913, and finally setting up Save the Children for which she is best know. But she worked herself into an early grave, dying at the age of 52. A photo of her taken just before her passing that’s in Clare’s book, she looked like a ghost. So sad to think that in less than a quarter of a century she went from being this radiant, passionate figure to the burnt out figure in that photograph.

It also makes me wonder about the First World War. If it had not broken out when it did, and if the Balkan Wars that preceded them had not broken out (where the Ottoman Empire came within a whisker of losing its capital, Constantinople – now Istanbul), what would the impact of Eglantyne and her network have been on Cambridge, and would they be far more prominent now in the history of the city than at present?

The network – who helped Eglantyne write her book?

You’ll have seen from my earlier blogpost the huge list of names in the letter to the Cambridge Independent Press of 1908 calling for potential women candidates to stand in the local elections. In the course of writing this blogpost I was going through the list of acknowledgements Eglantyne wrote into the foreword of her book. I’ve screen-grabbed them from the scanned book.

Click on each rectangle one by one to see the names in detail.

This is the important bit regarding Eglantyne’s network because these people were the ones that worked with her on her book on Cambridge.

In terms of books published about Cambridge, a thesis I’d like to test (not alone, but as part of a team), is that Eglantyne’s book, along with the Holford-Wright Report of 1950, were two of the most influential books to shape modern Cambridge, and that our city would be very different places if it were not for those studies.

The big two names who I can only describe as her mentors were “Mrs Alfred Marshall and Mrs Keynes” – otherwise known as Mary Paley Marshall, the economist in her own right, and Florence Ada Keynes, the first woman to be  elected councillor to what we now call Cambridge City Councillor, the first woman to be elected an alderman, and the third woman to become Mayor of Cambridge. (I wrote about the latter here). Around this time, Alfred Marshall was obviously still in Cambridge, as was John Neville Keynes – Florence’s husband – soon to be joined by John Maynard Keynes who had returned to Cambridge after withdrawing from his civil service post in the highly-competitive India Office.

Given that the Cambridge Independent Press tells us that both Alfred Marshall and one of the Keynes’ men were on the executive committee of the Cambridge Charitable Organisations Society in 1913, I find it inconceivable that those household names of Economics 101 courses would not have read drafts or the final copy of Eglantyne’s book.


What’s even more astonishing from a personal point of view is that the newspaper clip above indicates that the society’s annual meeting took place in the hall where I learnt ballroom dancing in Cambridge!

There are a couple of other names that stand out in that list in the top right hand side paragraph:

  • Mrs Darwin – Maud Darwin who was Charles Darwin’s daughter in law
  • Sir Horace Darwin – Son of Charles Darwin, Maud’s in law, and a civil engineer.
  • Mr Eaden Lilley – founder of one of the best department stores in Cambridge in the 20th Century. We locals still miss it.
  • Mrs Sidgwick – Eleanor, sister of the former Prime Minister Balfour and niece of Former Prime Minister Lord Salisbury
  • Dr Venn. You heard of the Venn diagram? Yes – he invented it.
  • Mr Sturton – heard of Sturton Street in Cambridge? Yes – that family.
  • Mrs Rackham – Clara, campaigner for women’s suffrage, future Labour councillor

Re Clara Rackham, the link between Eglantyne (a liberal) and the Labour Party is through Clara, who was a close friend of Dame Leah Manning – one of the earliest women MPs. Interestingly, Leah called for military support to be given to the republican Spanish government fighting the Fascists under Franco. At the same time, another Cambridge Hero – Frida Knight, drove an ambulance from London to Spain to carry out various support actions during that war.

Cambridge ladies’ dining society

Interestingly, just under a year ago, Cambridge academic Dr Ann Kennedy Smith ran a course at the Institute for Continuing Education on the impact of Cambridge University allowing fellows to have wives.

The group of wives formed a new society and became pioneers in their own right in education, mental health care and the suffrage movement. Their achievements show how the Victorian idea of a wife as an ‘angel in the house’ was very different from the reality.

Dr Kennedy Smith also wrote a blogpost about the society here. What strikes me about the dining society – where she lists Lady Caroline Jebb, (Eglantyne’s aunt who married her mother’s brother, Richard), Lady Ida Darwin (Sir Horace’s wife, and who has a hospital named after her where my Dad used to work), Eleanor Sidgwick (sister of one ex-Prime Minister & niece of another), Charlotte Linda Morgan, Maud Darwin and Adela Adam as members, is that their reach was far, far greater than the dining society alone.

Yes – what a powerful network, but there was only so much they could do: The limitations of charity and the founding of the welfare state

Again I find it inconceivable that the politicians and civil servants in Whitehall and Westminster wouldn’t have heard about the social issues that the Cambridge Heroes were campaigning on. Too many of them have knighthoods and titles for a start. As we have also seen with Clara Rackham and Leah Manning, it’s one thing to raise money for the poor and it’s another thing to ask why the poor have no money/are so destitute. This is where we see the likes of Eglantyne producing an excellent piece of public policy which the newspapers of the day could not ignore.

As I mentioned earlier, I have a very strong sense that Eglantyne’s book: Cambridge – a study in social questions, was far more influential on the shaping of modern Cambridge than most of us appreciate. Should that be the case, all of us who are active in local democracy and/or who work in local public policy will need to reappraise how Cambridge got to where it is today. Because something tells me not nearly enough of us realise just how exciting, exhausting and at times heartbreaking that story is.



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