The women who made modern Cambridge – on stage

The soft launch of Celebrating Cambridge Women demonstrated how local history can be brought to the stage

This is what the stage at the Cambridge Corn Exchange looked like

Above-Left – Cathy Dunbar as Eqlantyne Jebb, and above-right with Simone Chalkley as Louisa Wilkins (Eglantyne’s elder sister who pioneered the Women’s Land Army) Photographs: Matt Hodgkinson at the Cambridge Corn Exchange

They managed to put their script together in a matter of days, covering a range of women including Clara Rackham, Florence Ada Keynes, the Jebb sisters (Louisa, Eglantyne, & Dorothy), Anne Palme Dutt, Leah Manning to name but a few.

Credit goes to Ari Henry and Hilary Cox Condron who really drove the project, and the numerous Cambridge Women’s groups that participated in bringing to life the women that I’ve spent the past seven or so years researching.

Proof of concept – bringing local historical research to the stage

For me I think Ari got it right with the soft launch – even in the cold airy hall of the Cambridge Corn Exchange, itself a piece of Cambridge’s town history. If anything we all needed to prove to ourselves that this could be done, but without the pressure of a grand opening night. After all, that is how the overhaul of Cambridge town and gown started – on a small scale over dinner – as Dr Ann Kennedy Smith comprehensively covers in her blog about Cambridge Women (focussing mainly on the wives of the Dons shortly after the removal of the marriage ban was lifted in the early 1880s).

Marina’s work is exquisite

You can see even from Hilary Cox Condron’s selfie with the photos of Florence Ada Keynes and Eglantyne Jebb how well they have come out

Above – three generations of civic titans in Cambridge – Florence Ada Keynes (1890s-1930s), Eglantyne Jebb (1900s) both in photo frames, and Hilary Cox Condron (1990s onwards) in person. Two of the above were elected as councillors in Cambridge, and the third probably would have been had the law not banned women from standing for election at the time she was active in Cambridge!

Several people asked me about Marina Amaral’s work and techniques. I pointed out that not being a fashion historian, I had no idea about the colours of the clothing that the women were wearing. With an eye for detail, Marina’s research involves reading up on the fashions of the era, often ensuring that ribbons of military orders work by men in historical photographs are correctly coloured. As a result, the details that she identified – in particular on several of Florence’s photographs (such as the one above-left taken when she became the first woman elected to Cambridge Borough Council in 1914) involved a number of things that I had not spotted. For example the colour of Florence’s necklace and gemstone, and the feathers on her hat.

Marina’s restoration work on one of the damaged glass plate negatives of Eglantyne, taken in the very early 1900s, is simply stunning. I’ve not taken photographs of them myself because later this year the council will be arranging for the photographs to be made available for purchase, which amongst other things will enable a percentage of the earnings to go towards the women’s groups in Cambridge, some of which had the women featured as members. (Furthermore it will reward Marina for her excellent work and also provide a small income stream for the Cambridgeshire Collection in an era of austerity in local government).

“Will there be a much larger event later on?”

I think that’s the plan. One of the benefits of the glass plate negatives that I wrote about when I discovered them in 2018 was the size of them: they are far larger than the 35mm film ones I grew up familiar with in the 1980s & 1990s. Therefore far more detail is captured – which means they are suitable for large scale printing. As I understand it, the proposal is to get some of them professionally printed, framed, and displayed on the walls of the large hall on the Guildhall site (opened in 1862 as I blogged here) because with the exception of Queen Victoria, the only portraits that are up there are of men!

A new concert hall for Cambridge came up in conversation too

The colourised photographs were on display in the foyer of the Corn Exchange, with a big “Welcome” sign just above the auditorium entrance from the bar on the ground floor. I explained to people that for a future concert hall (described here) I wanted a very large montage of the women who made modern Cambridge to feature as people walked into the entrance hall of a future concert hall – named after Florence Ada Keynes, so that in what would become one of the most prominent buildings in our city, their story would be front and centre for every single visitor. Furthermore, the site I’d like to have “Florence Hall” sited on is almost opposite where Florence spent her adult life – on Harvey Road from the early 1880s to 1957.

And finally…

As I said to a number of people at the Corn Exchange, I’ve taken the solo part of my research on the women who made modern Cambridge as far as I can go. As the women on stage today demonstrated and proved, the next chapter/part involves a much larger group effort. For me this was proved by the fact that I learnt several things about the lives of the women featured that I wasn’t aware of. Which is a little embarrassing as I provided the briefing notes and literature references for them to work with! Actually no – it shows that the huge amount of information that has been ignored by previous generations of historians is so great that it is beyond the capacity of one man (or one person) to cover it all and do justice to the achievements of the women who made modern Cambridge. This is why it now needs a collective of us to take things to the next level. And the person leading that cannot be me.

This is where academia and those with the sorts of contacts and influence that I do not, and never will have, need to step forward and make this happen. I’m more than happy to support this – and would love to be part of it. I just don’t see myself as ‘the leader’ because life has taught me that such a role is not where I’m at my best or most comfortable. I need to be working as an integral part of a team – one that communicates frequently and meets at least fairly regularly. One of the most difficult things with the past seven years has been the sense of working on this alone – and it has been excruciatingly lonely at times when you make a wonderful discovery but don’t have anyone to share it with. Not in the way where if you discovered something as part of a large team of archaeologists working on a site.

Furthermore, as the depth and breadth of the research and discoveries expand, we will need to ensure that we get a diverse group of people involved – backgrounds and skills. This was one of the themes of the performances. Whilst acknowledging the societal privileges that the women featured had compared to their working class and poverty-stricken counterparts, they also named some of the people who struggled against the huge institutional and structural oppression that women faced – and still face today. It was nice that people like Daisy Hopkins got a mention at the end, along with a post via Uncomfortable Cambridge challenging the notion that we should only celebrate and commemorate achievements, while forgetting about some of the bad things that institutions were responsible for.

This is why I hope Betsy Howe is commemorated when the old Police Station’s conversion into a hotel is completed. Because the Father of Modern Cambridge – Charles Henry Cooper (historian, town clerk, and coroner) was not far from returning a verdict of ‘unlawful killing’ against the Vice Chancellor following the inquest into Betsy’s untimely death following her imprisonment in the hated Spinning House.

For anyone wanting to get involved in the work on future projects celebrating the women of Cambridge – including supporting and sponsorship, please get in touch with Cambridge City Council and ask to speak to/leave a message for Ari Henry.

  • Remember their names
  • Recognise their faces
  • Be inspired by their actions
  • Match their achievements

(Or at least aim to on that last point!)

Supporting my future research on the story of Cambridge the town

If you enjoyed this article and are interested in the history of Cambridge the town and the people who made our modern city, please support my research in bringing their records of achievement to wider audiences. Click here if you would like to make a donation or take out a small subscription to support my ongoing work.

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