Prof Helen Maud Cam on the ‘Corruptocracy’ of John Mortlock’s Cambridge in early 1800s

Professor Helen Cam CBE was one of the most significant local historians in the history of Cambridge the town. The massive Victoria County History Project which is still work in progress, contained one of her most significant contributions to our town – she wrote the chapters of Cambridge the town while the men of the colleges (bar Newnham and Girton) divided up their college histories between them.

Professor Helen Cam following her appointment to Harvard. British Newspaper Archive

In a contribution to Cambridge Portraits: Twelve Women, Janet Sondheimer wrote a short biography of Professor Cam – part-digitised (with a few pages omitted) here. This covers her time as a young researcher in the 1920s – including her contributions towards the recently-formed Cambridge Labour Party. Her personal papers deposited at Girton College as far as I know have not been studied for her work for the party, although we know she contributed financially to what was the Romsey Labour Club on Mill Road. One of her contemporaries in the Cambridge Labour Party in the 1920s would have been social reformer Lella Secor Florence, who founded Cambridge’s first birth control clinic in Barnwell in 1925 (and then wrote about it in 1930 based on interviews with the first 300 service users. It has been digitised here, and I have also deposited my original copy in the Cambridgeshire Collection should you wish to read it.) There’s a Ph.D thesis waiting to be written on the work and achievements of the Cambridge Labour women – mindful that Clara Rackham and Leah Manning were at their most active in Cambridge town in this decade.

Cambridge Antiquarian Society

Professor Cam was one of the most prominent members of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society – past members included Eglantyne Jebb, current members include…me! But Professor Cam researched and wrote a number of detailed articles for the society. In an incredible piece of work, the archive of its annual public reports going back to 1859 have been digitised. You can read them here

It was during the Second World War that Professor Cam researched and wrote the incredible account of just how corrupt and mismanaged the Borough of Cambridge had become. It is in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society for 1944.

John Mortlock and the Duke of Rutland’s interests

Cambridge Past, Present, and Future, who run the Blue Plaque Scheme for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire have written up on how Mortlock served the Duke’s interests and how he asset-stripped the body responsible for improving Cambridge’s public realm. You can read it here. Professor Cam’s article of 1944 goes into significantly more detail on Mortlock’s regime, but starts with this damning quotation from The Times.

Which is quite something. Professor Cam’s conclusion is just as damning.

The hardest part to take is the account of how Mortlock squandered the town’s wealth – meaning that it never reached its potential at a time when it was growing rapidly in the early-mid 1800s.

It would take the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 to remove the Duke of Rutland’s influence, but it would be several decades more before overt and blatant corruption in elections in Cambridge would be vanquished.

Supporting my future research on the story of Cambridge the town

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