An ever-present force in the first half of the 20th Century in Cambridge, our city has much to be grateful to her for.
In the days when newspapers listed the names of councillors who attended meetings, and when they quoted debates verbatim, one name comes up with incredible frequency: “Mrs Rackham”. But who was she?
It should come as little surprise that Clara was a student at Newnham – known as Clara Tabor under her maiden name, and by her middle name Dorothea by her family. Shortly after completing her studies at Newnham she married Harris Rackham, a classicist at Cambridge.
Cambridge and District Co-operative Society
W Henry Brown’s history of the Cambridge Co-operative Society attributes its growth in the early 20th Century down to the women of Cambridge, and to one woman in particular – Clara Rackham. (See my blogpost here). It’s difficult today to think of any institution like it in our city – one where the working and trading relationships between individuals and firms is so integral to the social and civic improvement of the town. Yet that is what it was. Around this time the town was experiencing an economic downturn
Cambridge Co-operative Women’s Guild
It was Clara who, on 02 May 1902, founded (and grew) the Cambridge Co-operative Women’s Guild. This was at a time of increased and influential activities from possibly the most talented, passionate, persistent and resourceful group of women that Cambridge has ever seen – as every other blogpost preceding this one pays testament to. According to the Dictionary of Labour Biography (vol 30), Clara quickly became the school manager of the Cambridge Higher Grade School for Girls. In 1906 she wrote a contribution to Eglantyne Jebb’s book on social issues in Cambridge – the first social scientific study of poverty and multiple deprivation in Cambridge’s history.
Cambridge Liberal Party
Clara is listed as an organiser of a meeting of Cambridge Liberal Women opposing the Education Bill of 1902. The Bill threatened to remove the right of women to stand for election to the local school boards. Although serving on the Board of Guardians in Cambridge, Clara became more and more interested in the women’s suffrage campaign.
Votes for women and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies – NUWSS
According to the Dictionary of Labour Biography (vol 30 – again) Clara was elected to the executive committee of the NUWSS in 1909/10, and later on its successor the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, and also the National Council for Women – for which her close friend and campaigning partner Florence Ada Keynes became president in 1931.
War time as a factory inspector, followed by a switch to the Labour Party
Clara became a factory inspector during the war – work that took her all over the country. This was while her husband, Dr Harris Rackham was posted to London. This meant that Clara had to relinquish her campaigning work for the duration of the war. The pair returned to Cambridge and Clara joined the Labour Party. Some of the sources quoted above suggested a number of reasons for this, including the failure of the Liberal Party to support votes for women, to Clara being moved by the plight of the low paid factory workers in the slums of northern England.
Winning at the Cambridge Town Council elections 1919 – becoming a councillor
Clara stood for election in the November 1919 elections with Mrs Stevenson – also the election where Florence Ada Keynes lost her council seat in Fitzwilliam ward. Florence would shortly be re-elected in Chesterton.
A year later, both Clara Rackham and Florence Ada Keynes were sworn in as magistrates, alongside Edith Bethune Baker. They became our city’s first women magistrates – described by W Henry Brown as “A trio of worthy women” in his history of the Cambridge Co-operative Society.
Legal rights for children and young people
Clara developed her legal interests, becoming a member of the new Magistrates’ Association (See p65 here), and became an activist calling for specialist judges to deal with the cases of children and juveniles in the 1920s & 1930s.
Cambridge County Councillor, and borough councillor for Red Romsey
Clara Rackham would go onto become an Alderman, and chair of the old Cambridge County Council (geographically smaller than the current Cambridgeshire County Council). The ward that she was elected to in 1928 – Romsey town, was known back then as ‘Red Romsey’ because of the political leanings of the residents and activists there. A part of Cambridge with a very strong local ‘town’ identity, you can even get your own clothing reflecting that political and civic history! It’s a shame that the old club was sold off by the local party many years ago, and is now being turned into a private nursery plus the inevitable student flats.
Above – a tablet at Shire Hall listing the former chairs of the old Cambridge County Council. Note the presence of Lilian Mary Hart Clark – Mrs Mellish Clark, who was also on the board of the Cambridge Housing Society and also of the old Cambridge School of Arts/Cambs College of Art & Technology – today Anglia Ruskin University. Chair of the Governors for five years, the Mellish Clark building on their East Road campus is named after her.
There are some interesting lines in the Dictionary of Labour Biography about Clara’s later years. She would refrain from taking part in the pre-meeting prayers at Cambridge Borough Council, and also turned down the mayoralty of Cambridge on religious grounds. The Mayoralty of Cambridge has a number of civic responsibilities that go with the role, including a number of readings at church services that have been traditional for centuries – as the city council’s civic handbook describes. (That hasn’t stopped other devout atheists from taking up the role of Mayor of Cambridge).
The Museum of Cambridge would later pay tribute to Clara in their 2006 project on the women who shaped Cambridge.
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