The woman who changed Cambridge’s skyline


If you travel into Cambridge from the south, down Hills Road, you can’t miss this building. But how did it get there?

I can’t pretend to like the institution that dominated my childhood and is a big cause of my existing mental health problems, but it is still a part of Cambridge’s history, so therefore I can’t ignore it. But historians have a duty to tell the full story – and that means including the metaphorical monsters as well as the angels. The building I am talking about is the Catholic Church of OLEM. (See also this article on Capturing Cambridge about the church that recently had its listed building status upgraded to Grade 1)

I had been vaguely aware that the founder of the building, Yolande Marie-Louise Duverney , referred to as Mrs Lyne-Stephens in newspapers of the late 1800s, was a very wealthy widow and bankrolled the construction of this ‘mini-cathedral’ – one of the largest Catholic churches in England. Yet the research by Jenifer Roberts in her biography of Yolande tells of a much more darker story.

“Isn’t the story of a pretty French ballerina being swept off her feet by a handsome, kind, wealthy Englishman true then?”

Not according to Roberts.

By today’s standards, the adults involved in Yolande’s life in her teens would all be in prison for abusing her and her fellow dancers. She was from a poor background and started her dance training at a young age. As Roberts writes:

“Yolande’s mother was the most domineering and ambitious of these stage mothers, ready to fight ‘tooth and nail’ for the advancement of her daughter….happy to pimp Yolande for her own financial gain.”

Roberts tells of one early pregnancy, the result of which we know not. Did Yolande miscarry or did she give birth? If the latter, what happened to her child? Roberts mentions that the convention for ballet dancers in that state would have their newborns taken away from them and given either to relatives or a family in the country. Roberts then described how at 18 years old, Yolande became the mistress of the new manager of the Paris Opera – Louis Veron.

In London, Yolande caught the eye of the very wealthy heir to the fortune of the Lyne-Stephens glass fortune, Stephens Lyne-Stephens. Roberts’ research shows that out of all of the suitors, he was the one Yolande liked the least. But marry they did and Yolande retired from the stage.

They were married for 23 years before Stephens Lyne-Stephens died. Numerous court cases followed but Yolande inherited the family fortune and for the rest of her life was able to dedicate herself to a life of philanthropy.

Cambridge from the mid-1850s

Just as women were barred from being awarded degrees by Cambridge University until 1948, the religious test barred Catholics from taking degrees until 1856 – the religious tests being finally abolished in 1871, followed by the abolition of the requirement that fellows should be married in the following decade. One of the things that becomes notable in the local newspapers is the rise in the reporting of events in non-conformist churches. The rapidly growing districts of Barnwell, Castle End and Newtown/St Pauls were dotted with mission rooms as they were public houses.

At the time, the small church of St Andrew’s had served the small Catholic community for the past few decades. Under the leadership of Arthur Riddell as Bishop of Northampton (whose diocese at the time incorporated Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, a policy of increasing the number of Catholic students at the University of Cambridge was pursued – hence the need for a new, much larger church. According to Roberts, it was conversations between Canon Christopher Scott, and Yolande that led to the latter making the offer to finance the building of the church in its entirety – thus ensuring that it was to be built to her taste. Roberts mentions that the only additional donation Yolande consented to was that of a medieval cross from local Austrian aristocrat Baron Anatole von Hügel, longtime curator of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and one of the most prominent Catholic residents in Cambridge at the time.

Opposition to the building of the church

Having a steeple far taller than the then recently-completed All Saints Church opposite Jesus College, long since closed but still a town masterpiece – especially inside, the plans for such a large church outside the Church of England ruffled the feathers of more than a few people in town. One person who was particularly outraged was the comically-named Mr Henry Gotobed – a Liberal local councillor for Barnwell.

870401 Henry Gotobed slams OLEM_1

…whose main point of contention in his letter of April 1887 was “What about those that the Catholics killed in the Tudor times?!?” some three hundred years earlier.

870401 Henry Gotobed slams OLEM_2

…before demanding an apology for said historical wrongs.

Mr Gotobed also followed it up in another letter, repeating his assertion that the people that OLEM commemorates – the English Catholic Martyrs of the Reformation, stating those condemned by Henry VIII were thus condemned because they rejected his (temporal) authority as king, rather than on the issue of him declaring himself supreme head of the Church in England. Mr Gotobed also then questions the claims of some of the saints – raising the issue of the Gunpowder plot.

870423 Henry Gotobed slams OLEM_King Henry

Despite Mr Gotobed’s complaints, the church got built. Despite the best efforts of a nazi air raider in 1941 which took out the eastern windows, the church still stands. It didn’t do the old Perse School on the opposite side of the road any good – it took a direct hit from the incendiaries. This was also the same air raid in which Lucy Gent and Petica Robertson, two ARP wardens active on Hills Road, were killed in action as they tried desperately to get people into the air raid shelters on Parker’s Piece – the only two women service personnel killed by the nazis in their attack on Cambridge.

Below, from the Cambridgeshire Collection’s Microfiche Archive, the CDN 16 Jan 1941 – photographs of the old Perse School for Boys opposite OLEM ablaze having taken a direct hit from an incendiary device during an air raid.

410116 WWII Air Raid Perse Hills Road Parkers PIece 1941

410116 WWII Air Raid Firemen Perse Hills Road Parkers PIece 1941

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