Isolating the stories within Cambridge’s town and civic history


Reaching information overload means it is ever so easy to lose focus – and also miss essential details.

The problem with trying to write a history of a place like Cambridge is that the sources are many and varied. Furthermore, some of the really interesting nuggets are hidden away in books that are described as covering something very different. One of the most recent example of this in my research was the book by one of Charles Darwin’s grandchildren, Margaret, who wrote about Newnham Grange, now the site of Darwin College. It was in this book that I found out about Margaret’s translation and code-breaking activities – where she was recruited to The Admiralty because Director of Naval Education, Sir Alfred Ewing had a chat with her during a courtesy call to Margaret’s mother, Maud Darwin on his way back from Scotland to London.

Margaret would go onto marry Sir Geoffrey Keynes, the younger son of Florence Ada Keynes and the younger brother of John Maynard. Talking of Sir Geoffrey, I got hold of his book of edited letters from the Cambridge/Granchester poet Rupert Brooke. Flicking through the book in G David of Cambridge, I was already in stitches with some of his letters – absolutely brutal with those on the receiving end of his wrath, but utterly charming to people he loved. Geoffrey was a close friend at school and university, but out of the quartet of four young men at the core of their group, only Geoffrey would survive the First World War.

I was talking to a couple of friends about this big project, and they were the first two to start cross-examining me on the details, and picked out that a lot of what I’ve got at the moment are facts and anecdotes – I’ve not yet put it together as a story that has a beginning and an end. The other thing is that my instinct is to shy away from conflict and violence. In order not to lose the excitement from that historical period, I’ve got to do the opposite and focus on the human side of it rather than having the whole thing reading as a list of stuff that happened. The point I need to get across is that Cambridge got to here because of a series of choices that lots of people made. Praise the good ones that people made and call out the bad ones too – in the knowledge that this is me with my subjective opinion of the present day rather than an objective look at what happened. The study of our past does not mean we refrain from making a judgement on what happened. One of the fascinating things about history is two different people can read the same source materials and come to completely different opinions. Ditto experiencing the same event.

So…what have we found of late?

I’ve spent the past few days going through the extensive card file index in the Cambridgeshire Collection – proper old skool archive. Part of that has given me a grounding of the Cambridge that Florence Ada Keynes arrived at in the 1870s. Strange to think that in her childhood there was no running water and by the time she died in the mid 1950s she had a house with a modern plumbing system in.

The parts that are really striking are the old photographs and descriptions of the slums of Cambridge. East Road, Newmarket Road, Castle Hill, Newtown off the town side of Hills Road – behind the grand Cintra House building were some of the worst slums in the city. It was where another Cambridge hero – Jack Overhill, the wartime diarist (or as he’d prefer to be known, the swimmer) lived. I’d like to think that although they mixed in very different social backgrounds, the two would stop and chat in the street given then only lived 5 minutes from each other.

Getting inside the minds of the people at the time

I’ve not yet sussed out what made Florence Ada Keynes tick. Eglantyne Jebb on the other hand I think I have – in large part due to Clare Mulley’s book and research because she’s been through a fair amount of Eglantyne’s personal correspondence. Half the challenge is tracking down the personal papers and letters from all of the people involved. In terms of future historians, I fear that they won’t have nearly as an extensive archive of correspondence to go through for life today because collectively we don’t properly save or archive our email correspondence.

In one sense though you can judge people by their actions – for example Clara Rackham and friends walking down to London from Cambridge as part of a national campaign for votes for women & universal suffrage. The other thing we’re very lucky to have is the extensive newspaper coverage that we simply don’t get today. There isn’t the audience for it. Unless they consult the official meeting papers, the public never knows who was at what meetings, who said what and who voted which way. Community reporting and filming alone will never make up for a trained, professional media function to help hold local institutions to account.

Having to go back further, and broader than I’d like to

Most historical biographies that I’ve read will go back two or three generations to get a grounding of the individual that is the book’s subject. For me, writing a book about the modern history of Cambridge effectively means going back to the end of the Napoleonic wars and the start of the huge rise in Cambridge’s population. It also means getting my head around the evolution of Parliamentary and ministerial power. For example I was re-reading an article about how councillors were debating on whether to table a bye-law on the employment of children under a then recently-passed Act. (The Employment of Children Act 1903). The Act outlaws a host of bad practices, setting minimum floors, and empowers councils to set local (higher) standards depending on their area. At the meeting I was reading about, Eglantyne Jebb, who was on the council’s Education Committee, was pushing for higher standards than other councillors found acceptable. But to make sense of the whole thing, you have to understand that Parliament had passed a new Act, and have a basic understanding of who was compelled to do what, empowered to do what, or liable for what under it.

What seems like random, petty nonsense was major politics in those days

Yeah – antidisestablishmentarianism was big news. And not because it was a long word. 130711 Liberal protest against antidisestablishmentarians Welsh Bill

The Liberal candidate spent a whole meeting talking about the disestablishment of the Welsh Church (the term normally used to describe separating the Church of England from the state, ie where The Queen would no longer be head of that church) – criticising those that opposed the disestablishment of that church – the antidisestablishmentarians if you will. What shall we talk about today chaps? The starving poor? The unemployed? No! Let’s talk about a church on the other side of the country!

But – and it’s a big but. The Tories lost the Cambridge seat less than 10 years before because Prime Minister Balfour pushed through the Education Act 1902 that essentially gave financial support to Anglican and Catholic schools but not non-conformist ones. Bearing in mind this was also the time of the controversy of the Ireland Home Rule Bills – Cambridge had protests about those as well, this was a big deal. Basically a number of locally and nationally influential institutions stood to either gain or lose lots over this.

Temperance – the ‘ban the booze’ movement

That was huge in Cambridge and elsewhere too – remember this was before the US Prohibition experiment, and the idea of simply banning the production and sale of alcohol due to the social problems people associated with it had a lot of support.

071018 Temperance - churches split on platform

The problem here was that the Church of England (&/or many members of it) happened to have shares in the big drinks firms. And their opponents understandably called them out on this. One of the interesting side movements from this was the setting up of local alcohol free cafes and hotels in Cambridge – there were four running by the outbreak of the First World War. However, the tactic of buying up pub licences as they came up for renewal was abandoned due to costs. Again it was Eglantyne Jebb who told us about how impoverished pub landlords had an incentive to serve drunk customers because their profit margins were so low due to the presence of so many pubs – about one every 25 metres on Newmarket Road.

You church people can have your protests on Parker’s Piece but absolutely not are we having Suffragettes and trade unionists with their dangerous ideas!

130718 Labour vs Church protests on Parkers Piece

As this from the British Newspaper Archive (£) shows, the Mayor of Cambridge wouldn’t let Cambridge’s trade unionists erect platforms for their speakers, but would allow church groups protesting to put up such things. The Mayor also banned Emmeline Pankhurst from speaking (or rather, the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Society from hiring the large hall) at The Guildhall because he feared people would smash up the place. The problem wasn’t the women, it was the Cambridge male undergraduates who are conspicuous by their regular presence in the newspapers of the time as being summoned for all sorts of law-breaking.

So…yeah. Now to write a song about how antidisestablishmentarianism isn’t just a long word in the dictionary.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s