Florence and the machine – in Cambridge

Summary: On how Florence Ada Keynes, Mary Paley Marshall and the Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society transformed Cambridge 

Before I start, I couldn’t have written this project without the help of the archivists at the Cambridgeshire County Archive. So if the story interests you, please:

  1. Donate to the library service because politicians are continually cutting their budgets – whether at Westminster, or whether at Shire Hall having voted for freezes in council tax rates over the past 2 years.
  2. Scrutinise your candidates for the Cambridgeshire County Council elections that happen on 04 May – they are listed here. Demand that they fund our archives properly.

Now…back to the history

If the Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society was around today achieving similar things, I’d like to think they’d rebrand themselves as this given their record. I discovered the real story behind Cambridge in the 20th Century. It’s drivers were a group of incredibly talented, passionate and civic-minded women who, over the course of 40 years of events, socials and termly big-piece lectures were able to shape the agenda of our city in a way no other group of residents had done before – or has done so since.

‘Now…how can I leave something behind in a very safe place that only a curious little dragon fairy will find?’


First of all, make it look as innocuous as possible – as Florence Ada Keynes did during World War 2.

As any passionate archivist will tell you, it’s the folders labelled ‘miscellaneous’ that tend to be the ones filled with the historical treasures.

In the 1880s, Cambridge University changed their rules to allow academic fellows to get married. This was also not long after Newnham College’s founding. One of the first undergraduates there was Cambridge Hero Mary Paley – later Mary Paley Marshall. Despite all of the legal barriers that faced women at the time – they were not allowed to vote, let alone stand for election. (They also ran the risk of being arrested  on suspicion of being sex workers by Cambridge University Police if not chaperoned – until another Cambridge Hero – 17 year old Daisy Hopkins put an end to this).

Thus in the 1880s we find a university undergoing huge social changes – with similar changes happening in Cambridge as it expanded out of its historical core. It was unplanned expansion – eastwards along Newmarket Road, Southwards towards Hills Road, and north-eastwards towards Chesterton, and north-westwards along Huntingdon Road. And with that brought slums.

“Something must be done”

So in 1886, a number of women in Cambridge got together to do something about it. The names listed in the Cambridgeshire County Archives as forming the first committee are as follows:

  • Miss Jones
  • The Hon Mrs Lyttleton
  • Mrs Marshall
  • Miss Miller
  • Mrs Prothero
  • Mrs Sidgwick
  • Mrs Verrall
  • Miss Welsh

The names that stand our for me in that list aside from Mrs Marshall – Mary Paley, are Mrs Sigwick – Eleanor Balfour who was the niece of late Victorian Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, and the brother of Arthur Balfour who would become Prime Minister in the early 20th Century. Eleanor would go on to become Principal of Newnham College, succeeding Miss Anne Clough.

Two societies – the exclusive dining society, and the wider discussion society. The objectives of the discussion society as written by Mary Paley were as follows:

“That a society be formed in Cambridge with the object of bringing together ladies who are interested in the discussion of social questions”

Florence Ada Keynes writes of a separate dining society, which she describes as follows:

“I became a member of the Ladies Dining Society of ten or twelve who dined at one another’s houses once or twice a Term…The hostess not only providing a good dinner (though champagne was not allowed), but also a suitable topic for discussion should one be required…”

The above is from Cambridge Women: Twelve Portraits.

So on 04 November 1886, The Principal of Newnham College, Anne Clough, commenced the start of the Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society. And they didn’t start


If anyone from Newnham College is reading this blogpost, please get in touch with the Cambridgeshire County Archives at Shire Hall – this is part of your college’s (and our city’s) history. I strongly recommend purchasing the right to digitise & publish the records – not least in order to transcribe and them. (Again, with thanks to the County Archives, I’ve been given permission to publish a limited number of snapshots from the archive. The records are extensive though).


There were a number of entries relating to the National Union of Women Workers. Initially the discussion society was apprehensive about joining the former – a motion to join initially being defeated. However, they ultimately ended up affiliating to it – later known as the National Council of Women. Florence Ada Keynes would later become their national president, also representing the UK at the international council meetings, just before she was elected Mayor of Cambridge.


Reading between the lines of the debate chaired by the Mayor of Cambridge in 1906, we can already see the influence of Eglantyne Jebb – who founded Save the Children. Her aunt, Caroline Jebb (who married Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb) and her mother – Richard’s sister (called Eglantyne as well, but known as Tye), were also members. When Tye retired after her term of office on the committee, Eglantyne the younger was elected in her place.

Eglantyne the younger had started a research project for the Cambridge Charity Organisation Society to investigate poverty and multiple deprivation in Cambridge. Digitised here, it’s one of the best books about Cambridge I’ve ever read – and her analysis and policy recommendations generally still stand the test of time today. One of her recommendations was on town planning – doing away with the slum courtyards and making homes and rooms bigger with better ventilation. Another was reducing the frequency of pubs in town – noting that Newmarket Road had about one pub every 25 metres.

They were able to call on very eminent speakers – in particular those related to them:

  • John Maynard Keynes (Florence’s son) chairing a debate on national insurance
  • Alfred Marshall (Mary Paley’s husband) chairing a debate on unemployment & labour exchanges, and poverty


The society, which changed its name when it affiliated to the National Council of Women in a resolution in 1913 hosted a number of debates that are still relevant today.


This year is the 100th anniversary of what looks like the first public lecture/debate on modern day sex education of children. Two years later, we find Florence – now an elected town councillor chairing a debate on housing reform. This would lead to a big housing conference the following  year. Note the presence as well of Maud Darwin – the Darwin family were incredibly influential in Cambridge at the time – with a number of Charles Darwin’s descendants remaining in Cambridge.


Although Eglantyne Jebb left Cambridge for good in 1913 with a broken heart, the poster above warmed my heart to know that she came back here to deliver a talk on the passion that she’d become world famous for – founding the Save the Children organisation.

And last but not least, all good things have to come to an end. The final entry in Florence’s records show this.


The Cambridge Preservation Society – hopes, ways and means. Today, the Cambridge Preservation Society is better known as Cambridge Past, Present and Future – one of our biggest civic organisations in (and around) the city.


The amount of material covering the achievements of this group of women is substantial. I would like to work on a project to bring their Herstories to light, but need a group of people to work with. As a county, we also need to encourage a new generation of local historians to come through, because as a community we’re not getting any younger.

If you are inspired to find out more about what this group of incredible women achieved for Cambridge, get in touch at antonycarpen [at] gmail

If you want to get involved in local democracy like they did – remember Florence became Mayor of Cambridge and gave us our current guildhall, then have a look at Democracy Cambridge. Because democracy’s not a spectator sport.

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