A list of societies and groups in Cambridge? A good idea? Eglantyne and Florence Ada got there first.


Cambridgeshire has an online list of community and social groups across the county – http://www.cambridgeshire.net/ but it is run on a shoe string, and needs far more support. Splendid as the idea is, the idea is not new. Eglantyne Jebb and Florence Ada Keynes got there first.

Have a look at http://www.cambridgeshire.net/. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was seen to be the first port of call for finding out who is doing what in the county? Perhaps having something that looks like http://events.onthewight.com/ on the Isle of Wight? Splendid idea? Much as I’d like to claim credit for having this as a policy in Puffles’ election manifesto for 2014, the idea for having a publication that informs local people about social and community groups in and around Cambridge is not new. Not new at all. It’s over 110 years old.


The Cambridge Register of Societies, Institutions etc – courtesy of the Cambridgeshire Collection

The above document was compiled by Eglantyne Jebb for the Cambridge Charity Organisation Society – or the Society of Charitable Organisations as is often referred to.


…and it turns out that Cambridge wasn’t the only place with such an organisation.

The guide Eglantyne compiled also gives us a snapshot of the many attempts in Cambridge made by hundreds of people to deal with the problems of multiple deprivation and poverty.

At the same time, we also get a snapshot of the ratepayer-funded public services. Take our libraries in Cambridge – of which we had two main ones at the time: The Central Library (round the back of the Guildhall where Jamie’s restaurant now is), and Mill Road Library – now the Indian Cultural Centre.


Cambridge libraries had over 50,000 books in 1903 – a wonderfully high figure.

Note too that Eglantyne has included the library income, as well as including what proportion of the rates that residents had to pay (similar to council tax) went into library spending.

The Contents page is also a snapshot of the activities being done.


The activities doing on in Cambridge – but what do they mean?

The first thing to remember is historical context: The size of the state was much smaller than it is today. Secondly, means of communication meant that the sort of centralised state operation we now take for granted simply was not possible in those days due to the limitations of early telephones and telegraphy.

This meant that local councils had much more freedom from the state – and inevitably far fewer resources too. They were also doing to roads and sewers what we have to do over the next couple of decades: upgrade and retrofit our homes and workplaces. It won’t be cheap, and at some stage the state will have to step in far more significantly than it currently is. (See the UK Green Building Council for some policy options)

This meant that a huge amount of expenditure went on improving the roads – in particular to deal with the dust that was whipped up. The newspaper archives tell us that there was local controversy about the nationalities of the gangs that worked on the roads. Should they employ local workers who cost more, or migrant labour that cost less but meant that the profits taken by less scrupulous employers were not spent locally? Hmm…why does that debate sound familiar…?

There was also the issue of public health. Remember that Eglantyne tells us that in 1906 Cambridge’s Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) was 1 in 8. Today it’s about 3 in 1,000. Hence the priority for local rate payers was getting proper sewers fitted and safe access to clean water too. The newspaper archives tell us that this also explains why we did not get Belcher’s Guildhall of 1898. (Don’t worry – my plan is that we’ll get an improved and upgraded version plus new concert hall plus new castle/expanded Museum of Cambridge by the time of Florence Ada Keynes’ centenary of her being elected mayor in 2032. Honest! 🙂

What the subtitles on the contents page mean:

Here are just a few.

Means of Education

It wasn’t just the schools that were listed, but also things like evening classes and other forms of training. It also covered council scholarships – ones which were also eligible for the private schools such as The Perse. Think of these as similar to the old Assisted Places scheme under John Major’s government.

Friendly Societies

You see that item of national insurance on your pay slip? It had its origins in the Friendly Societies. The Oddfellows explains this here. In fact, the Cambridge Oddfellows branch is still going – have a look at what’s on. Despite the best efforts of Friendly Societies to have a system of mutual support for workers in return for small subscriptions, Eglantyne tells us in her study of social problems in 1906 that only about a third of people could afford to make such payments. Hence why there was such pressure on the then Chancellor David Lloyd George to bring in a system of national insurance.

Means of thrift

In a nutshell, the Co-op movement is the most familiar brand name, but Eglantyne tells us that the various groups were incredibly autonomous and beneficial to the local areas that they operated in. The principles with shopping with the Co-op back then are very similar to what we have today. I have a couple of co-ops that I shop at regularly, and I swipe my card every time I shop there. In return I get a share of the dividends which I can then claim back against future purchases.

110 years ago, Eglantyne shows us that the local co-op movement was also a supplier to many small independent stores across the city covering a range of goods and services. Food, shoes, clothes, coal, bread, crockery & cutlery to name but a few. It seems strange now to think that people would go to a different shop for each, when today you can go to a big supermarket and get them all.


“How do you keep something like that up to date?”

It never was – even though Eglantyne invited comments and contributions for future publications. Perhaps it was the destabilisation of everything by the First World War, changes in the roles of local councils as the state expanded, along with Eglantyne leaving Cambridge and the inevitable disbanding of that group of women that drove social change in the early 1900s that meant that things like this didn’t continue. Or it may be that the compilation of such information was taken on by another organisation that I’ve not yet stumbled across in the archives. Note that Eglantyne as always was thinking ahead – and having to deal with a problem that has not gone away as far as keeping things updated is concerned.

It still remains a fascinating document – you can see it for yourself in the Cambridgeshire Collection on the top floor of the Cambridge Central Library in Lion Yard. See here for details.



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