Cllr Mrs Iris Owen – The Florence Ada Keynes of the 1960s

If only for a short while as a councillor. For in 1969 her husband took on a new job in Canada at the University of Toronto, taking his wife with him, and leaving a huge civic and political void in Cambridge local democracy.

Iris Owen’s husband was Dr George Owen of Trinity College, Cambridge – the mathematician and parapsychologist. Interestingly, their work in Canada was the inspiration and creative spark behind the movie The Quiet Ones – the fact vs fiction explained here.

But that’s not my area of expertise – or interest either. Horror films scare me! (Not good for someone with an anxiety disorder!) Hence I avoid them. I’m interested in the work undertaken by Iris Owen the social reformer, charity campaigner, civic activist and local councillor. Such is the wealth of information contained in the 1969 interview carried out by Deryck Harvey for the Cambridge Evening News in its 01 Sept 1969 edition, that Cllr Mrs Owen would make for a very interesting subject for a local history project.

The Labour County Councillor for West Chesterton on what was the short-lived Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely Council, was so active in Cambridge’s charitable and civic society that the people of West Chesterton voted for her to become their county councillor – at a time when on the other side of the river there was a rising star in the Conservative Party who went on to become nationally prominent in the 2010s: Cllr Mrs Jean Barker – Baroness Trumpington. Both councillors had to leave Cambridge on account of their husbands taking on new jobs.

Above-left, Mrs Iris Owen from the Cambridge Evening News in the British Newspaper Archive, and above-right, from the History vs Hollywood website here – Iris Owen in the early 1970s in Canada.

The text below is from the Cambridge Evening News of 01 Sept 1969 via the British Newspaper Archive here, and has also been transcribed by J.R. Colombo for free from p83 here

“Legend has it that Mrs. Iris Owen has been known to serve on 40 committees simultaneously in Cambridge and the surrounding area. It will come as a shock to many of them to know that she is to emigrate to Canada.

“For a long time now the old adage about giving the extra task to a busy man might well have been paraphrased: “Give it to Iris Owen!” Her remarkable capacity for voluntary social work is seldom likely to be paralleled. Now that she is to accompany her husband, Dr. George Owen, of Trinity College, Cambridge, to Toronto University, a great many committee places will be falling vacant.The first of them will be the Cambridge area secretaryship of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Perhaps this is the job that has claimed the largest proportion of her time in the past 10 years.

“I have always loved children,” said Mrs. Owen, at ease in her husband’s college rooms. “I think I have always been particularly interested in their welfare.”

Cllr Iris Owen (Labour – West Chesterton) To Deryck Harvey, Cambridge Evening News 01 Sept 1969, via the British Newspaper Archive, and Conjuring up the Owens, 1999, J.R. Colombo, Toronto, p83.

“As secretary, she has prepared annual and committee meetings at one end of the scale, while maintaining a continuous drive to gather funds at the other. Flag days, house-to-house collections, charity shows and other activities have inevitably taken a great deal of time and energy to organise. Simply, the job became vacant and somebody asked if she would take it.

“I’ve never regretted it,” she said happily. “I enjoy it, you know. I can’t hear not having things to do. I hate not being busy.

“Just as important has been her task as chairman of the Board of Governors of Kneesworth House School. This is an approved school to which boys are committed for any length of time between six months and three years. Four review committees are each responsible for deciding when their 12 boys should be released.

“It does mean that the members have to know each boy thoroughly,” Mrs. Owen explained. “We want them to feel that they know their review committee members. The boys are not there for punishment. What you have really got to do is to teach them to cope with their own problems when they go home to live in their own environment.”

“Her other interests including being a governor of five schools in the south of Cambridgeshire, manager of the Benet Hostel for homeless girls, chairman of the Cambridge Women’s Citizen’s Association [Dorothy Stevenson and Eva Hartree were both members], and a member of the Central Aid Society [which Mary Paley Marshall, Florence Ada Keynes, and Eglantyne Jebb were all involved in] and the Mental Welfare Association [which Lady Ida Darwin pioneered in Cambridge].

“If this were not enough, she also belongs to the East Anglian Regional Hospital Board, including a nurse training committee [she would have been on it when both my parents trained as nurses at Addenbrooke’s] and an appeals tribunal, the Local Advisory Committee to the Ministry of Social Security, the Cambridge Consumer Council, and many other local associations and charity committees.

“One of her pet dreams is to see a central organization in Cambridge for the mutual benefit of all member groups. [Today, the Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services / CCVS] Information, time and the individuals’ energy might then he better dispersed. How and why has Iris Owen come to he so deeply involved in the community around her? The story is one of great mental fibre combined with tireless energy, and it goes hack to her home in Meldreth and school days in Cambridge.

“I was born in Meldreth, and went to the County Girls’ School [Today Long Road Sixth Form College] and the Tech [CCAT – later Anglia Polytechnic, today Anglia Ruskin University], as they were in those days,” she explained. “After I left school I went to London, largely because I wanted to go to evening classes in business, economics, languages, typewriting and shorthand, and a three-year course in drama and speech training. “I worked for a branch of I.C.I., and became office manageress. I lived in Chelsea in a lovely little flat for 12s 6d a week.”

“The London blitz interrupted her career. Already adept at a telephone switchboard, electric typewriter and dictaphone, she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service and became a wireless operator.

“I was a dab hand at Morse in those days,” she jokes. “Then when the war finished, I decided I would take up nursing which was something I had always wanted to do.

“I came back [to Cambridge] and went into Addenbrooke’s. Against all the rules of etiquette, I went in, knocked on the door, and said, ‘Please, I want to be a nurse. If I can’t become a nurse now, I shall probably change my mind.'”

“Miss Otley, the matron, said: ‘There’s a waiting list, but if you feel like that, you can start next week.’

“I stayed and did my state registration, and then went into Prof. Mitchell’s clinic and worked for him for six or seven years.”

She met her husband, George, at a Cambridge party. He was a research student. They have a son, Robin, 14, who will remain in Cambridge as a boarder at The Leys School. [This was at the time Alan Barker was the Headmaster, and his wife Cllr Mrs Jean Barker (Cons – Trumpington) was active on Cambridge City Council – the two women would have more than likely crossed paths – and political swords throughout the 1960s!]

Denied nursing because of her domestic role, Mrs. Owen became ever more deeply involved in social welfare work. She still find time to relax.

“I love reading, of course; I read an enormous amount. I enjoy watching television. I’m very interested in the theatre–we used to go regularly.”

Although not a strong swimmer, she used to enjoy a lunchtime dip in one of the Cambridge pools [Parkside Pool having opened in the mid-1960s after a lifelong campaign by Clara Rackham to get it built!]. It was a relaxation that could he fitted into her incredibly hectic routine.

“I always wish I had half-a-dozen lives,” Mrs. Owen said, quite seriously. “There are so many things I’m interested in. I would be six different people if I could. “People often say to me, ‘How do you find time?’ I suppose I must be a fairly organised person; I couldn’t live without my little diary. “My problem is when things overlap, you see. It’s very much a question of organisation. “There’s an awful tendency in Cambridge to have everything on Wednesdays!”

The one thing that the interview does not conclude with is what overall impact Iris Owen had on Cambridge during her time in our city. Gathering the evidence – in particular from newspaper reports and the minutes of meetings she took part in, and analysing these sources would make for an incredible local history extended project for students in further education, or as a thesis topic for those in higher education.

Over to you.

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