“And we’re gonna party like it’s 1899!”

At a time when Cambridge’s population (less Chesterton) was around 40,000 people, around 1,800 teachers and delegates rocked up to the town for the annual conference of the National Union of Teachers – one of the largest and most respected of the national trade unions in the country at the time.

And an exciting time it must have been for the social reformers in town given the importance that was attached to the teaching profession, and the improvements that were being made both within the profession as well as the new generation of school buildings that were going up. Remember it was only in 1870 that elementary education became compulsory.

It’s also worth noting that it was a prominent event for the town’s liberals – the General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers at the time was the Liberal MP for Nottingham West, James Yoxall. It was also at the time a controversial piece of legislation was going through Parliament – the Board of Education Act 1899 which was another milestone towards the centralisation of education policy in England. (The timeline of Education is worth a look – note the number of policy changes and new Acts of Parliament in the 1890s)

Finally, the prominence of women as organisers and participants was no accident – the organisers decided to make a point of this shortly after Cambridge was announced as the venue a year before. The newspaper screengrabs are from the British Newspaper Archive here

As the 30th annual conference – and perhaps because it was the last one of the old century, it ended up being extremely well-attended.

…and note the presence of a new temporary motorcar service as the number of delegates attending swelled the town’s population by almost 5%. Fortunately several hundred delegates were able to make use of college accommodation at a time when the conferencing industry in Cambridge at least was not the well-organised machine that it is today.

The agenda was extensive. A full review of the conference and events was provided by the Cambridge Independent, digitised in the British Newspaper Library here. The screengrab below illustrates the incredible detail in which such large events were written up.

One woman who was in her absolute element was journalist, diarist, and former Mayoress of Cambridge Catharine Tillyard.

Above – Catharine Tillyard, whose husband Alfred, the Editor of the Cambridge Independent, served as Mayor of Cambridge in 1898. Photo from Sheila Mann’s book on their daughter, Aelfrida.

Catharine is one of my favourite local historical figures – one I would love to see an early career research do an extensive historical study on. This blogpost explains why. In her weekly column, she referred to a number of things from the conference in successive columns for the rest of that month.

And given the very sexist reputation that Cambridge student had in those days (again, they had form), Mrs Tillyard noticed the more positive reception women speakers received at the speaker’s podium in the large hall.

Remember that Mrs Tillyard was one of the most well-known campaigners for Votes for Women active in Cambridge at the time. She was in her late 40s in 1899, and with a long-standing column in her husband’s newspaper, meant that she had a following of thousands. Women being treated as equals in a profession mattered. Even more so on such a public platform where the country’s media publications had sent correspondents to report.

The Conference as a social gathering

The first page of the conference calendar shows that the women started early, with an event at the then recently-opened Cambridge Training College for Teachers – today Hughes Hall.

The calendar of events, of which this is only the first page, only lists the official events. Given the fragmented nature of institutionalised Christianity – each denomination at the time a large movement in themselves, would have organised their own events outside of the official programme.

In previewing the social side of the conference, with several of the colleges prominent in hosting events – along with the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge Borough Council (we weren’t a city in those days), and numerous campaign groups – the Temperance League being one of them.

Again at the time, the movement against the alcohol trade was at its peak, with many church groups taking part in frequent parades and rallies in a town where some of the main roads had up to one public house every 25 metres. (Eglantyne Jebb wrote up the research in 1906).

Note the football match and the Conference Ball – and the charity fund-raisers.

Not surprisingly, one of the beneficiaries was Addenbrooke’s Hospital. At the time it had a convalescent home in Hunstanton, then up the railway line which in those days extended beyond King’s Lynn, along with the union benevolent fund. Again, important in the days before the welfare state, when people were expected to provide for themselves either through social insurance from a range of ‘friendly societies’ or rely on overburdened charities.

“How did Cambridge get selected other than having the University here?”

The guidebook hints at a number of very well-connected teaching professionals who were based in Cambridge at the time. One was the Principal of Homerton College, John Horobin, who was to die tragically early in his mid-40s only a few years later.

As well as a national level organising committee, there were local organising committees active in the run up to, and during the conference. Mr Horobin was secretary of the Benevolent Purposes, Press, and Decorative Art Committees. His wasn’t the only familiar name that stood out either.

The Welsh-born Elizabeth Hughes, the first Principal of Hughes Hall, Cambridge, is also photographed.

She wasn’t alone running the Ladies Committee – another rising star worked with her as secretary.

Top Centre – Miss Blair is Mally Blair from Aberdeenshire – the Headmistress of the Higher Grade School, now Parkside, in Cambridge. She devoted her life to teaching children in Cambridge, retiring from teaching and public life in the 1930s. Also prominent are Miss Robson, the Headmistress of St Phillip’s Girls School off Mill Road, Miss Iliffe from the publishing family that re-launched the Cambridge Independent in the 21st Century, and John Horobin’s second wife, Maud. (His first wife, Louisa tragically died of scarlet fever in September 1896).

…which reveals she successfully stood for election to Cambridge Borough Council in Newtown – today on the border between Market and Trumpington wards. She served at a time when there were a number of women elected to the Borough Council

Sadly by 1939, most of them had either retired, lost their seats, or passed away.

Of Miss Robson, she retired due to ill-health in 1918, having almost built St Phillip’s Girls School from scratch over a period of 32 years.

Above – The Cambridge Daily News credits Miss Robson with overseeing the creation of the largest girl’s elementary school in Cambridge – noting a number of girls who went onto the Higher Grade School for Girls (Then down the road at Anglia Ruskin/Cambridge School of Arts, today Long Road Sixth Form College) and the Perse Girls.

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