The women who made modern Cambridge – for Open Cambridge 2019

A couple of months ago I was invited by the organisers of the annual Open Cambridge event to deliver a public talk on my research on the influential women who made and shaped the modern city of Cambridge that we know today. Hence the event below. You can watch a video of the event online here – it’s an hour long.

190914 OpenCambridge Women Modern Cambridge

It seems like a very long way away from three years ago, not long after the EU Referendum result where I decided to turn away from day-to-day reporting of politics and community issues, and towards local history as I found myself at the top of the hill with my mobile phone and a selfie stick.

For those of you interested in the book Cambridge: The shaping of the city by Peter Bryan, you can get copies from G David the bookseller.

My opening remarks refer to a short speech by Cambridge Town historian Allan Brigham: Have a listen.

Historian Allan Brigham – his local tour guide page on FB is here.

Mr Brigham was referring to the growth of Cambridge between 1800 and 1900 – when Cambridge grew from a population of 9,000 to 40,000. That growth was summarised in the first couple of chapters in Cambridge: A brief study in social questions ( <<– digitised here) by Cambridge hero Eglantyne Jebb – founder of Save the Children.

Eglantyne Jebb Palmer Clarke Low Res_1.1 restored

Eglantyne Jebb in the Palmer Clarke Archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection. You can visit the Cambridgeshire Collection on the 3rd Floor of the Cambridge Central Library in Lion Yard.

At the start of my talk, I stated the following:

“The women you are about to hear about were all women of action. As a result of their actions they transformed and modernised our city.

  • -Remember their names
  • -Recognise their faces
  • -Be inspired by their actions
  • -Follow their examples

“What is the one small one-off action or one small behaviour change you could make as a result of Open Cambridge this weekend?””

This was – and is because I want my research to inspire actions by others to use art, music and drama to embed the memory of those that gave us so much. I want to avoid the risk of this becoming another academic project that gathers dust on a forgotten shelf or an abandoned orphaned website. This was one of the reasons why I commissioned local young musician Rachel Caldwell to write and perform a song about one of the women of her choice. She chose Lady Ida Darwin, social reformer and mental health campaigner. She explains why in this video from the event before giving a wonderful musical performance.

“Before” written and performed by Rachel Caldwell at Anglia Ruskin University, 14 Sept 2019.

Historian Tony Kirby – formerly of Anglia Ruskin University on the history of housing in Cambridge

One of the main local history societies that serves Cambridge is the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History. For those of you interested in the post-war development of one of Cambridge’s main roads – East Road, Cambridgeshire Collection archivist Mary Burgess will be giving a talk on her new book about an under-appreciated road on 05 October 2019. (£2.50 to pay for the hall hire, or free for members. Annual membership for individuals is only £8)


Above – lost to the demolition wrecking ball, Left – the Barnwell Coffee Palace – later the White Ribbon Hotel, which provided lodgings for single men. Right – the old Cambridge Workingmen’s Hall, the fruit of the work of Ellice Hopkins in the mid-1800s. Both photos from Ian Halls in the Cambridge in the 1960s FB group.

See also:

Although I wasn’t able to film Mr Kirby’s talk at the Open Cambridge Festival this year, he gave a similar presentation for the Cambs Association for Local History in May 2018, which he gave me permission to film. You can watch his 2018 presentation on the history of housing in Cambridge here.

Six months prior to that, Mr Kirby gave a presentation on the railways in and around Cambridge for the Mill Road Winter Fair of 2017. You can watch Mr Kirby’s talk on Cambridge Railways here. To the complete surprise of those of us in the audience, Professor Stephen Hawking in one of his last ever public appearances joined us to listen to Mr Kirby’s presentation.

Professor Hawking would pass away only three months after the photograph above was taken.

On commemorating the women who made modern Cambridge

At the end of my presentation I listed:

  • A new concert hall for Cambridge on the same road that Florence Ada Keynes lived down, and in which her children spent their early childhoods in.
  • Expanding the Museum of Cambridge onto Castle Hill – in particular given the decision of Cambridgeshire County Council to move to Alconbury.
  • Giving the guildhall a new facade similar to/improving on the design given by John Belcher for Sir Horace Darwin during his mayoralty of 1896/97.

181009 Colour Photo Belcher Unbuilt Guildhall Horace Darwin 1898 Cambs Collection1.1

Splendid – John Belcher’s Edwardian Baroque design for Sir Horace Darwin in 1896/97. This is why we didn’t get it.

Large pieces of artwork

Artist Jerome Davenport produced this of Sylvia Pankurst in East London.

190118 East London Sylvia Pankhurst Mural.jpg

Mr Davenport said a ballpark figure for a similar mural is around £8,000. Given the images and photographs in the Cambridgeshire Collection, I’d like to think it’s not beyond the resources of the city to brighten up some of the blank walls that seem to be all too common on too many of the new developments going up in and around Cambridge these days. If we can use art and architecture to improve our city, tell the stories of our city and inspire current and future generations to continually improve it, so much the better. After all – and as councillors in 1892 said, “This is Cambridge – we deserve better!” 

Have your own ideas?

Feel free to add them to the comments section here or on the Lost Cambridge Facebook Page. Alternatively, discuss them with your local councillors – find them here using your postcode.

Open Cambridge 2020

It’s worth noting that both my talk and Mr Kirby’s talks sold out the original lecture hall – mine in six hours! We both moved to a larger lecture hall. Inevitably not everyone turns up – but it was a splendidly sunny day on the day!

The growing interest in Cambridge’s local town and civic history – and the excellent lecture and breakout space at Anglia Ruskin University means there’s an opportunity for ARU to host something larger, showcasing Cambridge and Cambridgeshire’s local history groups, societies and resources. Worth considering?

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