Barbara Wootton – the first woman elevated to a life peerage in the House of Lords: Her Cambridge years.


Cambridge hero Barbara Wootton of Girton College spent her childhood and formative years in our town – a time when Cambridge University was still refusing to grant women degrees. Prior to that, she was at The Perse Girls, at a time when secondary schools in Cambridge were still in their infancy. She would go on to become a solid Labour Party activist, working as a researcher for the trade union movement. Later, she would go onto become a magistrate specialising in juvenile law, as well as being respected as one of the pioneers of the academic field we now call the social sciences.

It was sometime in mid-2017 that I stumbled across Barbara Wootton’s biography in G-David’s bookshop in Cambridge. I was on the lookout for biographies of women generally – ones that went beyond literary biography, and ones that had some sort of connection to the town.

Ann Oakley’s biography of Barbara Wootton is a cracking read of one of the most high-achieving women of the 20th Century. (You can buy it here at a knockdown price). Her WikiP page summarises her life achievements. Her autobiography was published in 1967 titlted “In a world I never made”. She was also a widely-published author within the Labour and trade union movement, and her works are just as relevant today as they were when she had them published. Some are still available – see here.

Barbara in Cambridge

I’m primarily interested in Barbara’s early years here in Cambridge. She achieved so much after she left Cambridge that there is no way I could do justice to her achievements. And she’s not the only woman of whom that could be said – Eglantyne Jebb is another. Talking of the Jebbs, Eglantyne’s Uncle, the University’s MP and classicist Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, was known for being a strong supporter of women’s rights.

051201 WomansSuffrage Mrs Adam Sir Richard Jebb Clara Rackham

The list of the great and the good in the last above shows how so many of the great women of Cambridge a century or so ago were part of this solid network. At the bottom right we see Barbara’s mother, Adele Adam mentioned as seconding a motion to elect Mary Ward (The Cambridge one, not the London one) as hon Sec of the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association, which was hugely influential at the time. Just not influential enough to persuade Cambridge University to drop its institutionalised sexism – something that ultimately persuaded Barbara to leave Cambridge.

The first time we see Barbara mentioned in the local newspapers was as a winner of the Perse Girls literature prize in 1913 and 1914 under her maiden name, Barbara Adam.

131219 Perse Prizegiving Literature Barbara Adam

A tense relationship between mother and daughter

Barbara doesn’t speak highly of her mother in the quotations used in Ann Oakley’s book. Their relationship sounds rather tense – perhaps expected between two very academically talented and strong-minded women? It certainly wasn’t easy for Adela Adam, as her husband James Adam died while all three of their children were under 16. This meant that Adela had to increase her teaching duties as well as having to move out of the Emmanuel College house that came as part of her husband’s post there. Adela was a classicist in both heart and mind; Barbara wasn’t, and part of the tension between the two stemmed from Barbara’s desire to study the social sciences and drop classics, which she ultimately did.

Tragedy strikes. Again.

One event that seems to have hit Barbara Wootton hard was the untimely death of her husband Jack Wootton, who died only a few weeks after their marriage at St Mark’s, Newnham. Although she would marry later in what would be an unhappy marriage, she stuck with her late husband’s surname for the rest of her life. Like many, she became a pacifist, and would become a conscientious objector in World War 2. Although registered, she did not have to undertake war work for her work as a magistrate was deemed sufficient.

171017 Capt Wootton killed in WWI

Capt Jack Wootton’s death as announced in the Cambridge Daily News via the British Newspaper Archive.

Supporting Hugh Dalton to become Cambridge borough MP

Hugh Dalton was a former student of Eton who came to Cambridge to study at King’s. A close friend of the poet Rupert Brooke and Geoffrey Keynes, the younger son of Florence Ada Keynes, the Mother of Modern Cambridge, Hugh and Ruth Dalton, who would both go onto to get elected to Parliament in their own rights, stayed in Cambridge in the years immediately after the First World War. Hugh served as an artillery officer in the First World War in Italy, fighting the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a little-publicised but incredibly destructive theatre of war. When Hugh Dalton asked another Cambridge legend, Leah Manning, formerly of Homerton College, Cambridge, to help him become the borough candidate for the Labour Party, Barbara Wootton joined them in the campaign.

220303 Hugh Dalton Barbara Wootton Barnwell Theatre

Local newspapers published lists of where candidates would be speaking (unlike today where the public is only told *after* senior politicians have visited) during election campaigns. William Toynbee, the early Labour stalwart, mentioned in the list is featured in this book by Joy Travers. Alongside Barbara Wootton who hosted Hugh Dalton both at St Peter’s in Castle End, and at the old Barnwell Theatre, now in the care of the Cambridge Buddhist Centre, were two giants of the early Labour movement: Dr Marion Phillips, and George Lansbury. Dr Phillips would become one of the earliest Labour women MPs, while George Lansbury would be one of the few men politicians who was jailed for supporting the Suffragettes in the run up to the First World War.

A regular local public speaker.

As mentioned earlier, the women’s rights movement in Cambridge was as big as it was influential. They also had the support of prominent members of Cambridge University even if they were unable to shift the institution. Below is one such example at Sidney Sussex, where Barbara listed as speaking alongside the first woman Mayor of Cambridge, fellow Girton graduate Eva Hartree.

200724 Womens Citizens Rally Sidney Sussex Gardens

From the British Newspaper Archive

Barbara was also a member of the Federal Union which campaigned for Britain to become part of a ‘United States of Europe’ – in part as a means to reduce the likelihood of Europe going to war again. In the early post-war period, women made a huge push to be an integral part of the post-Great War international political framework. It is an area of international political history that has gotten little publicity in popular culture, not least because the outbreak of the Second World War is seen as representing the complete failure of the works of those who worked to secure a lasting peace following the Great War. Eglantyne Jebb and the Geneva Convention of the Rights of the child which she wrote and was ratified by the League of Nations was one of several treaties re-ratified by its successor, the United Nations.

200925 Wootton Cambridge Womens International League

From the British Newspaper Archive

Lady Wootton of Abinger

Fast forward to 1958 and Barbara was in the first cohort of women elevated to the House of Lords as a Life Peer.

Today is the 60th anniversary of the enactment of that legislation.



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