On the challenges & considerations of writing a local history book – the importance of context
Go into one of the main bookshops in Cambridge (Waterstones or Heffers) and you’ll find that they have more books about the history of London than of Cambridge. And by that I mean Cambridge the town as opposed to Cambridge University and its colleges.
The biggest challenge I have with Cambridge is that a series of books/publications that would otherwise have helped me along the way haven’t actually been written yet. Take Clara Rackham below – featured in the Cambridge Independent’s series on Women Workers in 1930.
Cllr Clara Rackham JP – in partnership with Mayor Florence Ada Keynes did more than any other pair of people to shape modern Cambridge over a course of half a century. Source: Cambridgeshire Collection’s Newspaper Microfiche Archive.
No one has written a biography of Clara. One of the projects I am suggesting for the CamVote100 project is to fund an early career researcher to work with us in order to research and write that biography.
Books aimed either at the mass market or the general local market include the examples below.
Stephanie Boyd’s book you can find in the Cambridge University Press Bookshop next to Great St Mary’s, and the Memory Lane one both locally and in charity shops. Local historian Mike Petty has also written a number of books narrating his favourite photographs from Cambridge and County – see here.
The first book is a light read, colourfully illustrated. I’ve commented previously that every single primary school, if not secondary school should have a copy of Stephanie’s book.
The second book follows a pattern of photographs with captions organised either chronologically (eg by decade) or geographically – going through council ward by ward. But it doesn’t tell a story. This is because each neighbourhood has its own story to tell. One of our roads – Mill Road, has its own history society! Note we also have:
- The Cambridgeshire Association for Local History (which meets monthly in South Cambridge and organises further events)
- The Cambridge Antiquarian Society – which has been going for well over a century and a half, whose membership has included the great and the good from Cambridge town and gown
- The Cambridgeshire Records Society which published Jack Overhill’s incredible Cambridge war diaries – life as a conscientious objector in WW2 in one of Cambridge’s inner city slums.
- And if you haven’t been to the Cambridgeshire Collection, do have a visit – they are on the 3rd floor of the Central Library.
Mike Petty’s subject lists of newspaper headlines
Mike Petty’s new online lists of Cambridge Newspaper headlines are also now up on the Internet Archive. You can access them all here.
“What is the ‘internet archive'”?
Primarily an American project, it is what it says – a massive free archive and digital library of all things online. There are two really useful features for researchers. The first is that it allows anyone to create research guides as Mike has done, for others to use. Secondly it enables anyone to digitise documents and upload them to the archive to make them accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
Cambridge Newspaper Subject Guides
Originally a series created by Mike and maintained during his many years in the Cambridgeshire Collection, these were essentially manual indexes kept for anyone who was interested in researching anything about the county. What’s really useful for anyone interested in local politics is that it shows just how long Cambridge has been dealing with its problems of today. Let’s take Housing.
The above-link pulls up text that looks something like below:
Year, headline, publication (CDN = Cambridge Daily News, today’s Cambridge News) and the date. This means you can go to the microfiche collection to pull out the often quite detailed articles. It was only after World War 2 that we saw a major decline in the detail of news articles. If you are lucky, the British Newspaper Archive will have digitised the newspaper articles concerned and, for a £subscription you can access them here. Most of the Cambridge newspapers that they have already digitised are pre-1920. Very few from that period onwards have been digitised – 25 million into over 700million pages thus far for their entire national archive!
There are a whole host of other headline lists Mike has created that could easily fall into/provide content for a history of Cambridge:
- Commons and parks
- University women
- County women
- Strikes – industrial
- Local Government
…and that’s just for starters.
Part of the fun is also learning how to use those lists as well, because the lists themselves are not ‘the history’ so to speak. More, they are sectional encyclopaedias organised chronologically rather than alphabetically.
Clara Rackham and Florence Ada Keynes as Cambridge’s twin civic pillars
If we take Clara and Florence’s lives as our reference points, we can build the story of our city around the lives that they led – or rather, around the history that they and their group of friends made.
Florence Ada Keynes in the late 1880s, in ‘Dissenting Forbears.’
Both Florence Ada Keynes and Clara Rackham arrived in Cambridge as students of Newnham College. While Cambridge University didn’t seem to want women students to have anything to do with them, Cambridge the town, did. Florence was elected Mayor in 1932, while Clara, so urban legend has it, turned down the offer of the mayoralty. Florence maintained her political independence throughout her life, although described her politics as ‘progressive liberal’. Clara on the other hand left the pre-war Liberal Party to join the Labour Party, becoming Cambridge’s first woman Labour Party councillor in 1919. Clara’s political life started with Votes for Women and ended with the CND, marching 8 miles in her late 80s in one protest in Essex, against nuclear weapons.
Naming roads after prominent locals.
We did this with Clara (and Harris (her husband, a classicist and brother of the illustrator Arthur Rackham) – the pair often campaigned together)
Rackham Close off Histon Road, Cambridge, above. From G-Maps.
Spalding Way (two mayors Spalding), Tillyard Way (Alfred and Catherine Tillyard), Keynes Road (Take your pick – John Neville, Florence, John Maynard, Margaret, Sir Geoffrey), Darwin Drive (again, take your pick – Sir Horace, Sir George, Sir Francis, Maud and Ida Darwin could all have had individual roads named after them – only Ida Darwin got the hospital named after her).
The awkward thing with naming residential roads after high-achieving locals is that they risk becoming notorious in later years due to the anti-social behaviour of even a small number of misbehaving residents. I remember being at a talk at the Friends Meeting House on communities, and hearing how it only takes a very small number of people to completely disrupt a local community and make it hell for everyone else. Which was why I was delighted to see this article in the Cambridgeshire Collection:
Lady Alice Bragg – our third woman mayor, as a magistrate, jailing a local suspect.
Click here to view the video of Lady Alice bestowing the Freedom of the City to the Cambridgeshire Regiment – the latter only recently having been liberated from the horrific prison camps in the Far East in WW2, the First & Second Battalions having been captured in their entireties in the humiliating surrender of Singapore in early 1942. Lady Alice was our third woman mayor, Florence being our second, and Eva Hartree, later an anti-fascist campaigner, our first.
Why writing any historical book on a town is a team effort
One of my top political heroes, Eglantyne Jebb taught me that in her book about Cambridge’s problems at the turn of the 19th/20th Century.
Note Clara and Florence are both mentioned in the acknowledgements at the start of the book (which has been digitised here in the internet archive) – as is Mary Paley Marshall, one of the most prominent economists in Cambridge’s history.
Cambridge hero Eglantyne Jebb during her Cambridge Years – she later founded Save The Children.
The calibre of women who worked with Eglantyne on her book were incredibly high. As far as a history of Cambridge in the 1800s goes, Eglantyne in the first couple of chapters in her book on ‘New Cambridge’ pretty well summarises the social history. A result of her education – she studied history at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. It was going through the online newspaper archives that revealed her very political history (see my blogpost here) that is all too easily forgotten as history understandably remembers her charity work and campaigns. But yes, Eglantyne would have made one outstanding Member of Parliament for Cambridge. But Parliament still maintained their ban on women standing for election and voting in general elections.
What the newspaper headlines and articles tell us
That local newspapers are important? This article on the BBC was published last month (Feb 2018). For those of you who are journalists, do you see yourselves as journalists or writers of history? Politicians and activists – do you see yourselves as politicians or activists, or as makers of history?
One of the things the women of Cambridge who I read about were very good at was organising their letters and writing down who was doing what – eg in the minutes of their society and campaign meetings. For me there is no way we can work out what will be important for future historians. With the centenary of votes for women, the politicians in Parliament in 1917 & 1918 were certainly not thinking about how the centenary of the first votes for women would look to the generation of 2018.
“I say Winston – how do you think they will brand our concession of the suffrage to the property-owning ladies in 100 years time? The centenary for votes for some women doesn’t really cut the mustard for me!”
But that’s what we’re stuck with.
On the Votes for Women issue alone, the number of public meetings alone gives us a picture of just how exhausting all of that campaigning was for those that took part.
The other thing that clear is the impact of changing technology. Take music for example. In the space of 100 years we’ve gone from classical music orchestras of various sizes at one end of society, to pianists in music halls at the other end, through to the early days of playing back recorded music on gramophones through to the development of electric amplification, to the rise of consumer music systems – MIDI systems and ghetto blasters at the large end to the Walkman/personal stereos at the small end, all the way down to music players the size of postage stamps and palm-sized gadgets that you can play from an almost infinite choice of recorded music streamed ‘online’.
And yet…some women columnists from the 19th Century are still today years ahead of their time. Or rather the media publications today are years behind the time they should now be at. Step forward Catherine Tillyard
21 years worth of local newspaper columns on local democracy and how women were influencing what was happening in Cambridge in the run up to the First World War. There has not been a local newspaper reporter or columnist like her since. For a start, no local newspaper would give any journalist the print space for such a column. From a historian’s perspective, Catherine was just wonderful for bequeathing Cambridge with such a wonderful treasure of reports. One of the possible projects for the CamVote100 centenary is to commission an early career researcher to go through all of Catherine’s articles and bring them to a wider audience. Furthermore we can also raise Catherine’s profile as an example for a new generation of women journalists to cover a field even today still dominated by men.