Ellice Hopkins – work amongst working men of Cambridge


A predecessor of Florence Ada Keynes who praised her work, Ellice went into the slums of Cambridge some 30 years before Eglantyne Jebb did, but for different reasons. Yet the former came to similar conclusions that the latter did.

I only found out about Ellice because Florence wrote about her. Fortunately one of the historical book reprinters had gotten hold of and had scanned the book Ellice wrote & published in 1884 about her experience of the slums of Cambridge. It’s titled Work amongst working men.

The bit that online articles seem to miss out was Ellice’s impact on people in Cambridge – where she lived for the first 30 years of her life. I quote Florence as follows:

Our own Council [The National Council of Women in the UK, following the formation of the one in the USA] took shape gradually, and the Cambridge Branch was not formed until 1912, but much of the inspiration of the whole movement in Great Britain had come many years earlier from a Cambridge woman, Miss Ellice Hopkins – due to her “fertile brain and far-seeing mind” – to use the worse of her biographer Miss Rosa Barrett. Miss Hopkins spent the first thirty years of her life in Cambridge. Her father, William Hopkins was a brilliant mathematician and as such a brilliant teacher that he became known as the Maker of Senior Wranglers [high exam-scoring students in Cambridge], of whom twenty fell to his share. Among his pupils were Stokes, Kelvin, Fawcett, Tait and Clerk-Maxwell.

When Ellice Hopkins’ passion for social work developed while she was still a young woman, her father encouraged and supported her, suffered her to be about the streets at night and to go alone into public houses – then the haunt of a rough class of navvies who had come to Cambridge in large numbers to carry out repairs on the railway lines which had been found to be unsafe. This was in the early 1860s. She obtained great influence over the men and could attract and hold an audience of 600 to 700. After her father’s death she left Cambridge and turned to the care of girls. This brought her into touch with Miss Janes, the chief organiser of the National Council, whom she influenced greatly, and thus became to some extent the foundress of the movement.

From P94 of Gathering up the threads, by Florence Ada Keynes. W Heffer & Sons Ltd, 1950, Cambridge.

There’s a nice little footnote at the end of the page regarding Ellice’s father William and the famous Henry Fawcett who, despite being blinded aged 25 in a shooting accident with his father, would go on to become Postmaster General.

“It was Hopkins’ affectionate and stimulating letter to Fawcett upon his blindness which gave him courage to face life. “Keep that letter for me” said Fawcett to his sister, and from that time his tone was cheerful and resolute”

Florence Ada Keynes quoting The Life of Henry Fawcett by Leslie Stephen – which you can read on P48 of the digitised book here. Florence also mentions in her book that such was Henry Fawcett’s popularity that the funeral procession to his resting place in Trumpington was over a mile long. This was in 1884 – he wouldn’t live to see his dream of votes for women – he was an early supporter. The link between Ellice and her father William to Florence Ada Keynes was through Fawcett, who took an interest in the newly-married John Neville and Florence Ada Keynes in the 1880s.

Ellice Hopkins preaching to the poor and working classes of industrialising Cambridge

My first thought on reading that Ellice went off to preach in the slums was that this was going to be yet another case of the daughter from a rich family heading off to the poor parts of town to tell them how they should be living their lives. A theme that sounds familiar even today? I read years ago on a Sunday newspaper magazine that what the middle classes don’t understand about the working classes is that the former think the latter want to be like them, when in reality the latter want to be like the super-rich. On contemporary politics you could say that this in part reflects one of the major fault lines in the Labour Party today – between its working class origins and the professional classes that dominated the Blair years and are still prevalent now – in both the pro and anti-Corbyn camps.

Yet with Ellice, it becomes clear that she was listening just as much as she was preaching, and that some of the things that we take for granted today were huge barriers in the years before the welfare state. For a start, many men refused to go to work because of the sense of shame they felt at not having not just smart clothes for church, but in some cases any clothes for church. These were the times when men on the margins according to Hopkins would pawn their clothes for a bit of drink and buy them back later on in the week when they got paid – if they got paid. Both Ellice and Eglantyne would write about the problem of alcoholism in Cambridge. Strange to think that campaigners in the same part of town today are pressing for the remaining pubs to be protected, compared with the times when Newmarket Road had about one pub every 25 meters in Eglantyne’s day 110 years ago.

Ellice feeding back to the wealthy

Ellice didn’t mince her words. In particular she was scathing about society’s selfishness and how this was incompatible with Christian virtues. Not only that, she described the social impact of such individualistic attitudes.

“Our selfish absorption in our own interests, caught up and echoed by the working classes, gives rise to a strife between labour and capital which perpetually threatens our trade, and engenders hatred and bitterness, while the huddled-up lives in our courts and back streets originate the germs of disease which visit impartially the rich man’s house as the poor man’s hovel, and indirectly give rise to drunkenness and crime, which burden us with heavy calendars and poor rates, and darken and sadden our moral world.”

I hadn’t expected anything like this from Ellice’s book before it arrived. The other interesting piece from her book was how she called for the opening of coffee houses across Cambridge as an alternative to the public house. This was in 1884.


It would be about a century and a quarter before her vision of Cambridge full of coffee houses was achieved!

Ellice’s place amongst the Cambridge Heroes

Ellice started what Florence took on – and was continued by the likes of Eglantyne Jebb, Dame Leah Manning MP and Clara Rackham. They are some of the headline names in this study. Nearly half of her book deals not with religious issues, but social and political issues. Chapters 6-9 are as follows:

  • Social difficulties
  • The savings questions
  • Overcrowding
  • Conclusion [i.e. what to do about the above-three and more]

What’s wonderful to read is how she asks searching questions about the role of municipal government not just in Cambridge, but nationwide. As with Eglantyne, she’s not just concerned with the immediate health and threats to life issues, but also about leisure and entertainment. In the ‘social difficulties’ question she asks why our parks don’t have big band stands for music, along with the very poor quality of acts in the music halls in the slums.

On housing and basic infrastructure, she is scathing on how one can’t hope to be morally clean when the open sewers and the numerous threats to public health meant that physical cleanliness did not match up – and said that such economic deprivation was a moral issue too.

On the ‘savings questions’ we enter a world of self-help where the co-operative and friendly societies attempted (with varying degrees of success) a form of local social insurance where workers would pay a small subscription in return for cover when times were hard. Yet Eglantyne’s study in 1906 showed that even at their peak, the movement in Cambridge only managed to provide such insurance cover for about a third of the workforce. Along with pressures from the rest of the country, this led to Lloyd George’s radical budget that caused the constitutional crisis of 1910/11 but one that also led to the foundation of the welfare state.

What’s fascinating about Ellice’s writings is the common thread that runs from her through to Florence Ada Keynes, through to Eglantyne Jebb, Dame Leah Manning MP and Clara Rackham. This also means I’ve got to re-read Camaraderie: 100 Years of the Cambridge Labour Party  by Ashley Walsh and Richard Johnson because in that book is the link between longstanding Cambridge Councillor Clara Rackham and Cambridge’s first woman MP Anne Campbell – pictured below in 1960 at Newnham College with the ball above her head – this newspaper front page currently on display at the Museum of Cambridge


Anne Campbell (centre) who would go onto become Cambridge MP in 1992, and is still active locally as a school governor at two institutions in my neighbourhood.



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