Facing the public with some of the results of my research on the women who made modern Cambridge.
I gave a talk about some of the women I’ve been researching about as part of an evening on all things Radical Mill Road, for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas 2018, hosted by the Mill Road History Society.
The lighting made things hard work for my camcorder, but so long as you can hear the audio and sort-of-see-the-slides it should be OK.
My talk was the third of the three talks, Deborah Thom and Mary Burgess delivering excellent presentations before. For those of you interested in the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage movement, Mary, Celia and Caroline at the Cambridgeshire Collection have collated a series of documents and items from this time. Furthermore, we now have a wonderful introduction to what the women of Cambridge achieved, in Sue Slack’s new book on the Cambridge Women and the struggle for the vote – available now.
A new local history meetup group
Not so long ago, I started a local history Meetup Group – Lost Cambridge with the aim of bringing new audiences to the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Central Library. This is because the Conservative-led Cambridgeshire County Council confirmed to me in response to a public question that they are running the county’s archive services at their statutory minimum.
Above – Cambridgeshire County Council full council July 2017.
Two years ago I also asked a question about the digitising of the county archives – this from December 2016. So it’s not as if what I’ve been doing has come out of the blue. The big picture funding decisions are outside of the scope of this blogpost, but given the realities of the situation, securing new independent funding streams for our archive services has to be a priority while the politicians fight things out over county budgets.
Learning a harsh historical lesson or two
When the heart of Cambridge town was ripped out in the comprehensive redevelopment of the Lion Yard in the early 1970s, the long-promised new concert halls and music centre never materialised. Below is a map from “The Cambridge That Never Was” by Francis Reeve – Oleander Press 1976.
Fast forward to the mid-late noughties and private developers ran rings around Cambridge’s planners and councillors in Cambridge Railway Station/CB1 to ensure we did not get the promised heritage centre for our county archives – now moving out to Ely, leaving local people fuming. This article in The Guardian went viral. Recently it was picked up by the CreateStreets Twitter feed. Finally, the new Housing Minister had his say:
…which sparked things off locally again.
This matters personally to me because all of this historical research started after spotting some old photographs of long-since-demolished buildings in Cambridge – which turned into a series of short videos titled: Cambridge – the shaping of our city in 2016. (Part of it was also a means of getting away from national and party politics following the EU Referendum!)
Interestingly, my concerns with the present day and recent decades have been around preserving our historical town heritage (which we’ve not been at all successful on), while the likes of Eglantyne Jebb, Florence Ada Keynes, Leah Manning and co were primarily concerned with poverty, its symptoms, causes, and solutions to. On the latter, slum clearances were a significant policy tool as the size of local, and then national government grew. What matters with all of those women is that they had a positive vision for the future of Cambridge, were persistent in their campaigning… And. They. Won.
But something didn’t happen after the Second World War
The prominence of those high profile campaigning women in Cambridge for whatever reason did not carry through into the post-war years, and the successes of the women in the pre and interwar era did not embed itself into our civic consciousness. The centenary of Votes for Women has given us a huge opportunity to put things right – hence the importance of books like Sue Slack’s.
The power of images.
Since getting hold of a new big printer, I have been printing out a number of large images from the archives and bringing them along to a number of public talks. One of those was a very recent meeting of the Cambridge City Council’s full council, where I showed a number of A2 print outs to councillors of the women councillors and activists from a century ago in the Palmer Clark archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection.
My suggestion prior to Cllr Anna Smith’s response was to have those prints expanded to A0 and displayed in the large assembly hall on the guildhall site – especially as the only portrait of a woman displayed is that of Queen Victoria.
The other poster that Cllr Smith referred to was the one below.
It’s an original from we think 1957 and it was for sale online at a not cheap price. When the Museum of Cambridge said the price was beyond their means (recall their funding crisis a year ago) …and not wanting to lose this historic piece to someone or somewhere else, I asked the art dealer to knock 20% off of the asking price on the grounds that I was acquiring it for the Museum of Cambridge, and arranged to have it delivered directly to the Museum.
As you can see, the poster is ***Huge*** – at the Museum of Cambridge
The point of all of these large images is that people have been genuinely moved by the large scale reproductions. Such as today at Newnham College.
Art and music on the women who made modern Cambridge.
My first commissioned piece of artwork has arrived – this being a portrait of Frida Stewart/Knight by Maxine Moar.
Frida Stewart – above, by Maxine Moar, and below from the book Rosie’s War by Rosemary Say who escaped with Frida from a wartime prison camp in WW2
I’ve also got two very talented local song writers commissioned who are in the process of writing songs of the Cambridge women of their choice, both of which are due for publication in early 2019. One local musician who has already written her own track separately on the struggle for votes for women is Flaming June.
Multiple stories need many people and multiple media with which to share them and embed them in our city’s civic consciousness.
Talking to one senior council officer recently, he commented that he didn’t even know the names of the historically significant men councillors past, let alone the women – which I said spoke volumes about how we as a city were completely ignoring our local civic and social histories. Go into any major bookshop in town and you’ll find in the history section lots of books written by men about men. For whatever reason, military history takes precedence over all other forms of history in bookshops, even though modern warfare is an incredibly destructive force – while social history primarily covers how we collectively improved the lives and livelihoods of humanity. Isn’t there something to be said about promoting and celebrating our civic heroes too?
Given the number of people who were active in and around Cambridge at this time, researching and presenting the stories and experiences of the women who made modern Cambridge is beyond the capabilities of one person. There is simply too much material to cover in order to know which bits to select as highlights in order to give the new reader the freedom to select which ones if any, to do further reading on.
In discussions earlier today with a couple of academics in this field, I mentioned that in terms of research, my ideal set up would be working as part of a research team where one or two very senior women academics specialist in this field were the chairs / champions of us group of researchers – one where there is a soft structure to work within, networks to tap into and channels by which to share our research, ones that go far beyond the traditional publishing of academic papers to historical journals. (For example using art, music and drama as mentioned above).
Finally, my personal preference in all of this research is that it is led by a woman – and one who has the confidence of those working with her. I’m not the person to lead it – I have neither the experience, expertise, calibre of persona, aptitude nor the health to be able to deliver on something that could become an extended program lasting many years given the potential there is with the material that I know is out there.
If you know anyone who is interested in getting involved – especially early career researchers, drop me an email at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com.