The death of John Charles Horobin of Homerton College, July 1902.

Less than three years after giving his ground-breaking speech at the opening of Morley Memorial Primary School, the Principal who moved Homerton College from London to Cambridge (and thus influencing the lives of many a child in Cambridge since), was dead.

Above – John Horobin of Homerton College.

Above – from the British Newspaper Library.

At the opening of Morley Memorial Primary School, John Horobin was quoted in the Cambridge Independent Press as follows:

“So far as he had been able to influence the Board of Management he should attempt to go further. He did not believe in charging fees for books or papers. He had come to the conclusion long ago that it was the birthright of every child to have the best possible education; he did not believe that they should have poor schools for poor people, but that they should have the very best schools for all the people. (Applause).


Note the style of quoting people in speeches in newspapers of the day was in the past tense. Given the time he was living in, such political ideals were, by Cambridge’s Conservative standards dangerously left wing. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that the appreciation and portrait published in the liberal-supporting Cambridge Independent Press recalls the man who was a teacher first, and a politician second. This is something that Homerton College miss out in their tribute to Mr Horobin. This is not the first time that history has missed out on the party political activities of great historical figures – local to international. Eglantyne Jebb’s party-political activity for the Cambridge Liberal Party has also been overlooked in favour of her charitable work founding Save the Children. This also meant overlooking her work as a League of Nations Commissioner – one of the first women in history appointed to such a role.

John Horobin the Trade Unionist

This will be of interest to students of Dame Leah Manning MP, who arrived at Homerton as a young student only a few years after Mr Horobin died. John Horobin was an active member of the National Union of Elementary Teachers – which in 1888 changed its name to the National Union of Teachers, of which Leah Manning became only the fourth woman president in the late 1920s before her election to Parliament. Today, the union is now part of the National Education Union, with a long-active branch in Cambridge. Mr Horobin had good reason to be a union member – this was a time of huge changes to the school system, and of rapid expansion following the Education Act 1870 that introduced compulsory elementary schooling for all children for the first time.

But it was not a straight-forward journey to the system of state education that we have today – as Mr Horibn explained at a conference of teachers in the NUET in Cheltenham in 1888.

Above – from the British Newspaper Archive here.

Note the Cambridge Labour Party had not been founded at the time. Many who would join the Labour Party after the First World War would have been categorised as radical liberals – even those that died before the rapid expansion of the party after that war, such as Rupert Brooke the poet and Cambridge Fabian.

Mr Horobin was active in representing teachers who had been hard done by. In 1893 he made his way up to Wimblington, a small village east of Peterborough, and south of March in Cambridgeshire, to make the case for one headmaster dismissed for something I’m still trying to get my head around!

One of the features of some of the schools built following the Education Act 1870 was the use of the school halls as meeting rooms and even polling stations – which extends to the present day. In this case, the School Board felt the use of the playing field for a political event was enough grounds to dismiss the head teacher. Today we don’t have elections for school boards, but you can volunteer to be a school governor, as I did several years ago.

John Horobin the non-conformist and anti-sectarian campaigner for education

The Congregational Church – today part of the United Reformed Church, was a growing movement in Cambridge in the late 1800s. In 1876 they build the Congregational Church on Trumpington Street – which is where Florence Ada Keynes and family went to on Sundays for a number of years. It was recently sold to Pembroke College who are converting it into an auditorium and public venue – similar to what it had already become used for in recent years.

With intense competition between competing religious movements for the right to set up and teach, Mr Horobin made this plea for fund to purchase the old Cavendish College buildings on Hills Road. The story of why that college failed is told by Cambridge local historian and author Peter Searby for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society in 1983. You can read the digitised version here – scroll to the end.

Above – from the British Newspaper Archive. Mr Horobin makes the case for the Free Churches (outside of the control of the Church of England) to get together to support the expansion of a teaching college on non-sectarian lines.

John Horobin elected to the Executive Council of the National Union of Teachers.

Clearly Mr Horobin’s star was rising, and at the meeting of the NUT in Swansea, Wales, Mr Horobin was elected to the trade union’s National Executive Committee. As recorded by the Newspaper Library of Wales, dated 24 April 1897.

John Horobin, the West Cambs Liberal

Mr Horobin was also a party political activist as well. He gave this speech in Orwell, near Wimpole Hall in South Cambs in 1898 on the international situation at the time.

In 1900, only a few years before his untimely death, he stood for Parliament in Stowmarket, Suffolk.

Above – from the constituency wikiPage.

Note this was not am election run on a universal-franchise. Prior to the First World War, only property-owning/rate-paying men could register to vote. This disenfranchised not only all of the women, but many working men who could not afford their own places.

Mr Horobin in defeat listed the challenges he faced. Interestingly after he died, the Cambridge Liberal Party struggled to find a candidate for the 1906 General Election. They were delighted in late 1903 to select the young barrister Stanley Buckmaster KC. Had Mr Horobin lived longer than his 46 years, would he have stood as candidate in Cambridge? Given that the issue that broke the Conservative Government of the day was the Education Act 1904 which favoured Church of England schools, chances are Mr Horobin would have won the seat in Cambridge just as Mr Buckmaster did, serving as MP 1906-10.

The death of Mr Horobin

In Women in Teacher Training Colleges, 1900–1960 by Elizabeth Edward digitised here, we get a sense of how buys Mr Horobin was.

“…he had had a wide experience of teaching in school, before entering Cambridge University as a mature student in 1885. A man of stupendous energy, always ‘racing against the clock’, he was active in Liberal politics and the National Union of Teachers, in addition to his college duties. At Homerton he widened the college curriculum – paying particular attention to improving the sports facilities and encouraging students’ literary and cultural activities”

Women in Teacher Training Colleges 1900-1960

Which makes me wonder whether overwork/exhaustion played a part in his untimely death. The Cambridge Independent reports on 01 August 1902 as follows:

“A vigorous and kindly personality is removed from the Town and University life of Cambridge by the death of the Principal of Homerton New College, Mr John Charles Horobin M.A., who after an illness of somewhat long duration, passed away at his residence at Homerton College, Hills Road, early last Saturday morning.

“For some two or three years past, Mr Horobin had not quite been his old racy and energetic self, and though to the very last most keen in his interests and most considerate for others, he had of late been obliged to very much moderate the intensity of his occupations.

“HIs condition during the last two or three weeks had been regarded as more serious, but the news of his death came as a painful shock, not only to people in Cambridge, but to his many friends in the teaching profession throughout the Kingdom.

“Mr Horobin was a man of many ideals, and a strong practical vein in his character was always prompting him to carry them into effect. A teacher first, he was next a politician, and, a friend who knew him well remarked, “a politician whose opinions were rooted in principle and grown in experience.

“He worked hard for the Liberal Cause in West Cambridgeshire, being at one time a member of the Council, and pre-eminently a fighter, he always seemed to be at his best when the outlook was the worst. Mr Horobin was a delightful friend, and, in all the fullness of both words, an Englishman and a gentleman.

“Born in Tean, Staffs, he graduated from Emmanuel College [Cambridge] in 1888, being placed amongst the Junior Optimes in the Mathematical Tripos. From 1890 to 1896 he was a member of the London School Board and acted with the Progressive Party. He became Principal of Homerton College in 1890 when the college was a mixed one and situated at Homerton [East London] and the removal from Cambridge was carried out during his principalship. At the General Election in 1900 Mr Horobin contested the Stowmarket Division of Suffolk in the Liberal interest but was unsuccessful against Mr Ian Malcolm.”

I’ll save the funeral report of Mr Horobin for a separate blogpost.

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