Dr John Venn – more than just that diagram


You have probably heard of the Venn diagram. But did you know its creator, Dr John Venn, a Cambridge academic was also an active participant in Cambridge’s civic society?

Ploughing through the various local archives in Cambridge on all things turn of the 19th/20th Century and one name seems to pop up all over the place – Dr John Venn. When I looked at his page on Wikipedia, I noticed that his life outside of the University of Cambridge had been completely missed out.

A man with many interests

Local history

A number of the societies Dr Venn was involved in are still in existence today, over a century after his involvement. The Cambridge Antiquarian Society is one – an organisation dedicated to the history, architecture and archaeology of not just Cambridge, but our county (Cambridgeshire) too. (If you are interested in joining them, see here).

Horticulture – gardening and things

The newspaper archives are also full of news from the various fruit, vegetable and flower competitions that took place in Cambridge over a century ago. Remember this was a time when we had no TV or radio – or any electronically amplified music for that matter. Also it was a time when ‘agricultural news’ dominated the newspapers – with entire broadsheet-sized (think the FT/Telegraph then increase the size and decrease the font) pages dedicated to all issues farming. Cambridge, being much smaller population-wise and geographically as well, meant that the countryside was much closer to the city centre than it is today. One name that regularly appears as a prize winner is Dr Venn.

870820 Dr Venn Romsey Flower Show

From the British Newspaper Archive

What’s historically significant about this newspaper article is that it shows Town and Gown socialising together. Romsey Town – the part of Mill Road that is east of the railway bridge was a working class community built mainly to house the railway workers from the latter part of the 19th Century onwards. The “Mrs Darwin” mentioned is likely to be Maud Darwin, the American wife of George Darwin, and thus the daughter in law of Charles Darwin. As Charles had several sons, most of whom stayed in Cambridge, when newspapers write “Mrs Darwin” referring to their wives, it’s not always clear which couple they are referring to! In the 1887 Romsey Flower Show, Dr Venn won first prize in the Hanging Baskets section. There’s a bit of me that likes to think he’s more proud of his efforts winning that, than on inventing the Venn diagram! I can picture him screaming now:

“What about my hanging baskets you Philistines!?!?!”

Which reminds me, Dr Venn was ordained into the Anglican priesthood but appears to have relinquished his religious activities upon his research and developments in science & philosophy.


Like that other star of Cambridge’s civic history, Sir Horace Darwin – founder of the Cambridge Scientific Instruments Company, Dr Venn and his son – also called John, invented an automatic cricket bowling machine.

090611 Dr Venn cricket bowling machine

Again from the British Newspaper Archive – though I’ve not seen evidence of him being a regular cricketer or spectator.

Supporter not just of votes for women, but of women standing for election.

Dr Venn and his wife Susanna were signatories to the powerful letter of Friday 16 October 1908 composed by Maud Darwin and Florence Ada Keynes, calling for qualified women to put themselves forward for election to Cambridge Town Council. (Discussed here). Note several other seriously big names in Victorian England countersigned that letter – including Horace Darwin who was Mayor of Cambridge in 1896/07, Eglantyne Jebb (founder of Save the Children), who signed with her aunt (Lady Caroline Jebb – also Maud Darwin’s aunt), and her mother, listed as Mrs Arthur Jebb. Dr John Neville Keynes, the Cambridge University Registrar naturally signed, supporting his wife Florence. The Principals of Newnham College and Homerton College, Anne Clough and Mary Allan respectively are listed, as is the Master of Selwyn College. Note that those three institutions would have been very modern at the time compared to the long-established colleges. Unlike today, Newnham and Homerton were at the very start of their long journey to become full member colleges of the University of Cambridge.

The importance of newspaper archives.

It was only through local and online newspaper archives that I was able to find out more about Dr Venn. Hence news such as this is incredibly disappointing as Daniel Zeichner MP rightly points out. In decades and centuries gone by, we find – especially in Cambridge – that those famous for their academia were quite often active in other fields as well. Cambridge seems to have a particularly rich civic seam to explore.





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