Ellice Hopkins and the concepts of Working Class Christianity and Democratic Christianity – Cambridge 1884


Reading into more detail of Ellice Hopkins’ research into the plight of the working poor off East Road in Victorian Cambridge.

In my first blogpost on Ellice Hopkins, I made the link between her work, Florence Ada Keynes (who introduced me to her work) and Anne Campbell, Cambridge’s first woman MP who, like Florence, studied at Newnham College, Cambridge.

180714 Ellice Hopkins Photo 1907.jpeg

Above – Ellice Hopkins photographed in 1907 from The Internet Archive here.

The book that features Cambridge in more detail in the 1870s & early 1880s is digitised here. It makes for a fascinating read – both in terms of Ellice’s own background and the prejudices of the time, as well as what she learnt through interacting with working class slumland Cambridge – in this case Barnwell off East Road – i.e. The Kite. Today you’d struggle to find a house selling for less than half a million. How times change.

The mind-numbing struggle of slum life on poverty pay, only alleviated by the bottle

Ellice’s analysis looks at the public house as an institution where working men come to socialise. She says that men cannot socialise in each other’s houses – all too often the slum properties are a couple of very overcrowded rooms. She also says the workplace is also not a place to have conversations – or social intercourse as she puts it. Hence the pub is the only place for them.

One of the things that I’ve noticed as the maps change over time is how the old working class communities are this mix of public houses and mission rooms. Following the Education Act 1870, we also see the growth of school rooms, and larger schools later on.

The Kite Newmarket Road Christ Church detail 1903 NLS

From the National Library of Scotland, above is a detail of “The Kite” with Newmarket Road running along the top horizontally, and the Christ Church chapel above, dating from 1903.

‘Menacing’ the old Primitive Methodist Tabernacle are two public houses. You can also see the a mission room, a smaller church (with a school room attached), and Christ Church. Note the Female refuge, the mission room and the Malthouse next to the latter. Most of the buildings south of the Female Refuge have since been demolished to make way for the Grafton Centre.

One can only imagine the sorts of dramas that people lived in – with the tensions between the churches, the public houses and the people that lived there. To say nothing of the tensions between the public houses themselves, and the different denominations of Christianity as they fought over the souls and the meagre incomes of the poor. Then again, this was also one of the places where Jane Elsden, one of the last women imprisoned by the Vice Chancellor, happened to live. And the newspapers of the time didn’t like her at all.

901018 Jane Elsden in court aged 17.jpeg

From the British Newspaper Archive, this was just the start of her life in the newspapers – she would shortly feature in the papers over escaping from the Spinning House.

950719 Jane Elsden in court refusing to leave pub

This is Jane Elsden refusing to leave the old Hearts of Oak pub – long since demolished.

Alternatives to the pub

I mentioned her call for more tea and coffee houses as alternatives to pubs. One problem she noted was the ownership of pubs by breweries, so they had no economic incentive to serve non-alcoholic drinks. Hence it was the anti-drink/temperance movements that started setting up their own cafes and hotels. As she states on p120:

ElliceHopkins P120

Interestingly, Ellice makes reference to Herbert Spencer’s study of sociology (digitised here) published in 1880. (You can see how useful it is having all of these texts digitised – it makes text searches *so much easier*.

What she also calls for is the establishment of more working mens clubs – where collective control of both drink and drinkers can be established, and where the drinkers collectively do not have a collective interest in ruining the place. Furthermore, she gives details on how to find out more on forming new working mens clubs. It is in these clubs, she states, that the work of educating the working classes can begin.

ElliceHopkins P124 WorkingMensClubsDetails

Note the footnote above.

Ellice Hopkins helps found East Road Working Mens Club

Interestingly I only discovered this just now in the course of writing and researching this blogpost – in trying to find the date the Working Men’s Club on East Road was founded. Turns out it was in December 1866. Today, the club is on Facebook. The premises it now occupies were built as part of the redevelopment of the Kite/Grafton Centre, which demolished the old hall because the council wanted to widen East Road into a dual carriageway.

PostWar IanHallCambridgeWorkingMensClubEastRoad

Above – from Ian Hall on Facebook here. This is the old Cambridge Working Men’s Club.

We find out from the British Newspaper Archive that Mr William Hopkins and his daughter played a huge part in the creation of this institution.

661208 Cambridge Working Mens Club Opened

The two institutions mentioned are St Matthew’s Church, and the second one being the Working Men’s Hall. Speakers paid tribute to the work of Ellice at the event – which I’ll transcribe in the next few days. What is also significant is the presence of the Master of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, who speaks of his time working in that part of working class Cambridge – presumably as a priest as these were the days when Cambridge University fellows and masters had to be celibate.

661208 Master of St Catherines College at opening ceremony working mens club East road

Above two clips both from the British Newspaper Archive here.

What’s even more interesting is some 12 years previous, a public reading room had been built for working men of Barnwell.

661208 Master of St Catherines College at opening ceremony working mens club East road

Thus it’s interesting to see how the institutions and improvements built on one another. Perhaps why the decline of The Kite in the post-war era was so tragic – all of that progress in the 19th Century through to the opening of the new Co-op superstore, went in the opposite direction in the 1960s & 1970s before the clearances and construction of the Grafton Centre.

Ellice’s conclusion on middle class vs working class – and what she learnt about the latter

180714 Ellice Hopkins memoir p23 1907.jpeg

From page 22 of Rosa Barrett’s memoir of Ellice, published in 1907 I found this part quite striking. Taking out the phrase ‘defective in moral and spiritual culture’ – which today could be read as a university-educated affluent person who likes watching  BBC4 documentaries criticising a working class school leaver who works in a supermarket every day for watching ITV2 every other night, the words that follow are striking in how they apply today.

Go into any working class community today and you will find that unconscious devotion and self-sacrifice in spade-loads. Even where people have been working their socks off during the day. Locally we see it in the charity shops of Burleigh Street, in Addenbrooke’s Hospital with its volunteers, to those that visit the elderly and help with things like the shopping.

My take on the religious aspect further down (without casting a judgement on values or motivations of Ellice as an individual) is that this reflects the context of the time that she lived in. Pass over the religious aspect of it and we can see how Ellice would criticise the contexts of the lives many middle class people live in comparison today. Perhaps it is a world reflected by sections of the print media – especially those of us who allow ourselves to have our opinions driven by what we read in it. Dare I say it, if we replace the word Christianity with the word ‘politics’, we get:

“Our politics is so feeble, so negative, so self-circumscribed, so peeping and peering, and full of fears for itself, so wanting in bold heroic outlines and strong passions, that it has little power…” 

…to which I’d add “…to inspire people individually and collectively to go beyond what they thought they were capable of and to create a future worth fighting for – something truly wonderful.”


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