Can today’s great & good in Cambridge match the work of their predecessors?


#LostCambridge has highlighted a large network of well known and/or publicly honoured figures in history who were at the forefront of efforts to deal with poverty and multiple deprivation in turn-of-the-19C/20C-Cambridge. Can today’s ‘great and the good’ match that cohort?

I’d be lying if I said that no one from Cambridge University (or Anglia Ruskin for that matter) was engaging in the future of Cambridge. Cllr Ashley Walsh, currently writing a history Ph.D at Cambridge is the leader of the Labour Group on Cambridgeshire County Council, and has been a ward councillor in the historic Petersfield Ward (which has the town-centre-side half of Mill Road on it) for several years. He’ll kick me for saying it, but he’s also the co-author, along with Mr Richard Johnson of one of the best books about Cambridge’s social history I’ve ever read – even though it is titled 100 years of the Cambridge Labour Party. Anyone wanting to get an understanding of Cambridge’s social and civic history should read this book – one that was widely praised across the political spectrum.

Big names – very big names getting their hands dirty in the fight against poverty and multiple deprivation in Cambridge. 

How big? There are three family names at the forefront include:

  • The Darwins – Charles Darwins children and partners, and grand children
  • The Keynes – John Maynard, but perhaps more substantially his parents Sir John Neville, Florence Ada (our first women councillor and a former mayor of Cambridge) along with siblings and spouses.
  • The Marshalls – Alfred Lord Marshall and his economist wife, Mary,

Fighting poverty in Cambridge was very much a family business. Yes there was a social circle around it, but much of that social circle involved debating how to deal with our city’s problems.

There are more names as I’ve listed here, including but not limited to:

  • Eleanor Sidgwick – niece of the last Prime Minister to serve from the Lords (Lord Salisbury) and sister of Prime Minister Balfour who was in Downing Street in the early 1900s
  • Dr Venn. You heard of the Venn diagram? Yes – him. On the executive committee of the umbrella organisation that oversaw charity work in Cambridge. Sir John Neville Keynes and Alfred Lord Marshall were also on this committee
  • Mr Eaden Lilley – anyone older than 35 who grew up in Cambridge will recognise the name as that of the department store where TK Maxx now is. It was one of the best shops in the city by a country mile and is much missed. Somebody had to found it – that was him.
  • Clara Rackham – campaigner for votes for women and one of the first Labour councillors in Cambridge.
  • Dame Leah Manning – a close friend of Clara’s, and one of the first women MP’s in the country.

There is also a ***huge*** Newnham College connection too – I blogged about it here. I still need help in identifying the names from the newspaper clips from the letter of supporters calling for brave women to be the first to stand for election to the now Cambridge City Council. It also makes me wonder what happened to the tradition of Newnham College graduates taking on high profile public facing civic roles and campaigning activities in Cambridge. I’d love to see Newnham, New Hall (now Murray Edwards) and Lucy Cavendish restarting that tradition.

The problems they faced were serious – Infant mortality was at 1:8

The current infant mortality rate for the UK is just under 4 deaths per 1,000 live births. 110 years ago the 1:8 figure equates to over 100 deaths per 1,000 live births. Can you imagine the public reaction and media reaction if any maternity unit, or any town/city had an IMR that high? And Cambridge being that small, it wasn’t easy to walk away from it.

Such was the priority of sorting out our town’s sanitation that rate payers voted against building what would have been a wonderful guildhall (personally I think they should have taken the financial hit, but hey) because they were already spending lots of money on sewerage and sanitation across the town as a means to getting rid of disease and squalor that was killing too many people.

The meetings they attended were public, and their contributions were reported and printed in the newspapers verbatim.

Some people are understandably nervous about being filmed at public meetings. 110 years ago, journalists from newspapers such as the Cambridge Daily News, the Cambridge Independent Press and others would record in short hand the words of every single speaker – including heckles! The result was that in the newspapers, everything you said would be recorded and printed word-for-word. I pay tribute to those journalists and editors who created this goldmine of a historical record. You can see the original newspapers in the Cambridgeshire Collection on 3rd Floor in the Central Library.

So, where are the great and the good in the face of all of the headlines about all of the money Cambridge is supposedly making?

Because it feels like not nearly enough of our wealth creators or our academic talent are taking a strong enough interest in local democracy and the future of our city.

There are names that stand out as setting positive examples:

Dr David Cleevely and Peter Dawe continue to take part in public debates and discussions about the future of Cambridge, and perhaps more importantly give their time. Some of you will be aware that Dr Cleevely was one of the key supporters behind the Be the Change-Cambridge project of 2014/15. This video I made for the project two years ago gives an insight of what we could achieve. Remember this pre-dates the Greater Cambridge City Deal, the announcement of the county mayors, the 2015 general election and Brexit.

What matters to me is that, like their predecessors (in particular the women of 110 years ago who I’ve labelled ‘The Cambridge Heroes’ because they did all of this stuff while being barred from having the vote, and only being allowed to stand for election to local councils at the very start of the 20th Century) they get involved. I want to see them getting involved and bringing their wisdom and expertise to bear, and also be willing to take questions from and work with the rest of the city – especially those who don’t get to see the grand buildings in the great colleges. We also know that the Cambridge Heroes were not afraid of getting their hands dirty. The evidence is in Eglantyne Jebb’s book: Cambridge – a study in social questions.

The difference between them (in the early 1900s) and us (today)

They were networked like you would not believe – far better than we are today. And they didn’t have social media. Yes, we are talking about an affluent group of people in that network but as I continue to map that network of early 20th Century Cambridge, there are a number of things that strike me:

  • They organised regular seminars – in many cases weekly, where one of them would deliver a lecture to educate the others
  • They organised social meetings regularly
  • They supported each other immensely
  • They took huge risks
  • They went way outside of their comfort zones – especially Eglantyne who was educated by a governess in a country house but was willing to go into some of the most run down areas of town to record systematically the real state of the place
  • They overcame institutionalised prejudices – especially institutionalised sexism, which all too often resulted in being on the receiving end of violence from Cambridge University undergraduates.
  • They achieved a number of historical firsts – Eglantyne’s study being the first proper social scientific analysis of Cambridge’s social problems, through to Florence Ada Keynes being the first woman to be elected to local public office in Cambridge
  • They. Kept. Going. – even in the face of set backs and losses.

And the worst thing of all?

We’ve forgotten them

Which is why I’ve said sort of tongue-in-cheek, sort of deadly seriously, that me and Puffles are going to change all that and write the women back into the history of Cambridge to make up for history writing them out in the first place. Of the two biographies I’ve got of Eglantyne Jebb, they both (understandably) concentrate on her work around the founding of Save the Children. The authors won’t have had access to the newspaper archives that we have here in Cambridge in the Cambridgeshire Collection – or the time to go through every single newspaper from over 100 years ago to map every single mention of Miss Jebb. Me on the other hand…

…but before I even think about doing that, and this is where I’ll need to call on various people for advice, is that I’ll need to work out a method of recording systematically every single meeting that the newspapers have written about. The reason being is that we don’t yet have a picture of the time and effort people put into their work. I want to map the discussions and trace the decisions made in the run up to (and even during) the First World War.

“Why do all of that?”

***Because history on the internet is wrong and we have to change it***

Actually, if we had to stay up and do something because someone on the internet was wrong, we’d be…exactly. But for me this is central to the story of our city. Furthermore, I don’t want to get into the business of saying “Oh, why don’t the rich in Cambridge give us more money and then everything will be alright!”? Cambridge’s problem isn’t money. Cambridge’s problem is that the people who make up our great city – the people who live, work, study and visit here regularly, are unable to make a positive contribution to our city’s future because our systems, structures, processes and controls won’t allow them/us to. Money’s not the solution to that problem. The solution rests in the people. Rather than being passive recipients to the missives of Whitehall, why not do something different? Dare to get involved in local democracy (I know how mind-numbing it can be – I spent nearly 4 hours today filming a meeting in the Guildhall today) and dare to make a difference.





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