Charles Darwin’s conversations

Darwin’s two field notebooks, recovered in April 2022, Cambridge University Library

Earlier this year, two of Charles Darwin’s field notebooks (one containing his iconic 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ sketch) made headline news all over the world. Having been missing from Cambridge University Library for almost twenty years despite extensive searches (see BBC report here) the UL’s Librarian Dr Jessica Garner decided that these priceless objects had probably been stolen and appealed for help from the police and the public. Almost two years later, she and all the UL staff were delighted last April when the two notebooks were safely, and anonymously, returned to her office in a pink gift bag.

The notebooks will doubtless be the pocket-sized stars of a new exhibition, ‘Darwin in Conversation’ opening at the Cambridge University Library on 9 July and travelling to New York later in 2022. The exhibition comes at the completion of almost 50 years of the Darwin Correspondence Project, founded in 1974 and currently directed by James Secord and Alison Pearn. 2022 marks the last volume of the print edition going to press, and the thirty volumes will contain more than 15,000 letters. There is more information about this extraordinary project here, with most of the letters and extensive contextual notes available to read online as part of the Darwin Project’s vast digital archive.

‘Darwin in Conversation’ exhibition, CUL

Darwin’s most extensive correspondence was his close scientific friends Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, Asa Gray and Thomas Huxley, and letters were a way of sharing his ideas with them and other scientists, especially after the first Origin of Species was published in 1859. (Darwin updated five further editions in his lifetime, ‘each edition taking those conversations forward’ as Alison Pearn has said). However, letters were also his primary research tool and during his life he corresponded with around 2,000 people around the world, in what biographer Janet Browne calls ‘an ever-expanding web of scientific correspondence’ from his study in Kent. In Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Pimlico, 2003), she describes how Darwin corresponded with ‘civil servants, army officers, diplomats, fur-trappers, horse-breeders, society ladies, Welsh hill-farmers, zookeepers, pigeon-fanciers, gardeners, asylum owners and kennel hands’ (p.10), spending the equivalent of £2,000 by 1877 on postage and stationery.

Several of Darwin’s correspondents were scientific women, who at the time were excluded from the Royal Society, the Royal Geographical Society, and the Linnean Society. In her book Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters (CUP, 2017) Samantha Evans includes letters from the botanist Lydia E. Becker, who was setting up a small scientific society for women in Manchester and asked Darwin for a copy of one of his botanical papers ‘such as that on the Linum which you have communicated to the learned societies but which is unknown and inaccessible to us unless through your kindness’ (Evans, p. 212; see my previous blogpost here). In January 1867 Darwin sent Becker two papers from his sickbed, revealing his positive attitude to women in science, and she and her group were touched by his kindness. (See my post ‘The ascent of women at Cambridge’ here.

More than 9,000 of the 15,000 letters that Darwin is known to have written and received are held at the Cambridge University Library, and this new exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to see some of them, along with the ‘Tree of Life’ notebooks and much else. It runs until 3 December 2022, and tickets can be booked here. It is accompanied by a contemporary photographic commission by Leonora Saunders re-imagining people who connected with Darwin through letters: ‘those that were rarely seen – and lesser heard.’

Ann Kennedy Smith, July 2022, all rights reserved.

Lydia E. Becker imagined by Leonora Saunders, for ‘Darwin in Conversation’ exhibition, CUL

Two Women Scholars

It’s still shocking to think that while Cambridge was one of the first universities to offer women residential university education (Girton College opened its doors in 1869, Newnham in 1871) it was the last UK university to award them degrees, in 1948. Women students, lecturers, postgraduate scholars and scientists were denied not only Cambridge degrees but also research funding and scholarships, and had only restricted access to the University Library for many years.

Recently I was pleased to give a talk to the Cambridge Archivists’ Group highlighting the work of two campaigning historians, Mary Bateson at Newnham and Ellen McArthur at Girton from the late 19th to the early 20th century. I discussed how they not only succeeded in their own academic research and campaigned for the title of degrees to be awarded to women in 1897, they also actively promoted women’s scholarship at Cambridge and left legacies that continue today.

My thanks to the group for inviting me; below is a link to their excellent blogpost about my talk.

Beatriz Allende (1942-1977)

Beatriz Allende

As one of the Women’s History Network independent researchers for 2021-22, I’m honoured to be chairing an online WHN seminar at 4pm on 8 June 2022, in which Dr Tanya Harmer (associate professor at LSE) will present her paper on Beatriz Allende, the revolutionary doctor and daughter of Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende. Harmer’s recent biography Beatriz Allende: A Revolutionary Life in Cold War Latin America (University of North Carolina Press, 2020) draws on exclusive access to her private papers, as well as firsthand interviews, to connect the private and political and reveal the human dimensions of radical upheaval. It promises to be a fascinating talk, and I am looking forward to it – and grateful for WHN’s support for my own research this year.

You can find out more details about the talk, and sign up for a Zoom link below.

A Cambridge woman’s business: Louisa Greef (1829-1913)

Louise Rayner, King’s Parade, Cambridge (c.1901) Watercolour

In 1950, Florence Ada Keynes published her memoir, Gathering Up the Threads: A study in family biography. It paints a memorable picture of her time as one of the first students at Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1870s, when she recalls being amused by the names of ‘Greef’, ‘Sadd’ and ‘Pain’ over the shops in King’s Parade, Cambridge (see Rayner’s watercolour from the early 1900s, above).

As part of my research into the early years of women at Cambridge, I was looking through Newnham College’s account books from the 1880s when the name ‘Greef’ caught my eye. There was a carefully written note of a payment made to ‘L. Greef, painter’, and I assumed that this referred to a man. After some further research into Greef’s college account books dating bak to 1798 held at Cambridge University Library (see below), I discovered that Louisa Greef was a woman. She took charge of a long-established family business that had provided plumbing and glazing to the men’s colleges for over a hundred years, and she successfully took it in a new direction.

Louisa was born Louisa Headdey in Cambridge in 1829, the fourth and youngest child of William Headdey, a butler at Clare Hall (now Clare College) and Elizabeth Headdey (1807-1887). She married Robert Greef at All Saints’ Church in 1863 and moved into his family home at 4 King’s Parade. There, the Greefs’ home and business was situated between John Swan, a retired bootmaker and his wife, and Mary Careless, a bedmaker with her five student lodgers. The Greefs had a cook and a housemaid, and three undergraduate lodgers. Louisa’s mother Elizabeth Headdey who was living with them was listed as an ‘assistant’. Robert Greef ran the long-established family business that provided plumbing and window glazing services to the colleges.

A year later Robert and Louisa’s only child, Louisa Ellen Greef, was born, but sadly she died just a few weeks later. The family grave is in Mill Road Cemetery, and there is more information about the Greefs on this excellent website. In the 1871 census Robert Greef was listed as a ‘Plumber Master employing 10 men’. In 1872 the couple were joined by Louisa’s 17 year old nephew Arthur Headdey (the son of Louisa’s brother William) who came to work for them as a trainee accountant, and his younger cousin Henry Edward Fuller (born 1858) the son of Louisa’s sister Elizabeth. He started working for the firm as an apprentice plumber.

In 1876 Robert died aged 43, and Louisa, aged 47, took charge. It was not unknown for a widow to take over the family business in this way. After Robert’s father died in 1838, his mother Ann run the business while bringing up three children, and Louisa’s sister Elizabeth Fuller, also a widow, had been running her husband’s bakery and brewery business at 45 Sidney Street since 1869. Her older son was now working as a college cook and her daughter Annie was a music governess.

With the help of her two nephews, Louisa soon expanded the business. According to the 1881 she employed thirty men, meaning that within five years, the company’s size had tripled. This was largely thanks to her decision to move into the area of painting and decorating, to cater for the growing demands of colleges and domestic customers in the new family houses springing up around Cambridge. Among them was the Keynes’s house in the new development of Harvey Road. Louisa was ambitious: ‘L.Greef, Plumber, Glazier, Plain & Decorative Painter and Paperhanger’ was advertised in Spalding’s Almanack stating that they provide window glazing for ‘Public and Private Buildings’, and in 1882 hers was one of three companies to tender a quotation to refurbish the Guildhall (now demolished). Unfortunately for her, the contract went to F. R. Leach instead.

But there was plenty of work to go around for both firms in the busily expanding Cambridge of the 1880s, and Leach and Greef worked together on a decorating and bathroom refitting job for Trinity Hall in 1882. Soon afterwards Louisa Greef’s firm took on new work at Newnham College. They had been employed there since the mid 1870s as a plumber and glazer, but from Michaelmas term 1885, L.Greef was referred to as ‘painter-plumber’, having taken over the painting and decorating work previously carried out by F.R. Leach.

It may have been that the Leach firm had become too expensive for Newnham, who had to manage their finances very carefully in the early years. The Vice-Principal and mathematician Eleanor Sidgwick, in charge of the accounts, called this ‘chasing twopences’. As I turned over the pages of the Newnham College account books, I thought about how hard Eleanor Sidgwick, Anne Clough and Helen Gladstone worked to expand the college during those years. Did they also want to support a decorating company run by a professional, independent woman? It is possible.

In 1891 Louisa handed over the management of her business to her nephew Henry Fuller, the former plumber. She continued to live at King’s Parade while Henry managed the business, and his commitment to the firm (and to his aunt Louisa) can be seen by the fact that he later changed his surname to Greef. Louisa had a long and, it seems, happy retirement, living with her two unmarried nieces, Annie and Alice Fuller. She died in 1913.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2022

Gathering Up The Threads by FA Keynes (W. Heffer & Sons, 1950); cover illustration by Gwen Raverat


“Only connect”

This week I wrote a short piece for the Royal Society of Literature‘s online series, “Only Connect” which is sent out by email three times a week and has provided a connection to the RSL community throughout the pandemic. In each edition, a member of the community introduces a recording or article from the RSL’s library that means something to them. My piece, #OnlyConnect276, takes the theme of exile and is reprinted below with the RSL’s permission. The link to the complete series is here, and well worth exploring for further recommendations.

Today’s Only Connect comes from writer and researcher, Ann Kennedy Smith, who has chosen our 2017 event, ‘The Art of Non-Fiction’ with Hisham MatarLara Feigel and Deborah Levy, chaired by RSL Vice-President, Lisa Appignanesi.

“Listening to this wonderful RSL recording brought back the pleasure of attending it in 2017, and the happy anticipation of more such events in 2022. It made me think about the exciting possibilities of non-fiction, ‘as various certainly as the great mansion of fiction’, as RSL Vice-President Lisa Appignanesi says. She brings her expertise as a non-fiction author to chair this lively discussion that ranges from questions of style to the layered nature of the ‘I’ as narrator, with RSL Fellows Deborah Levy, Lara Feigel and Hisham Matar. Towards the end, Matar, who previously won the RSL Ondaatje Prize for his novel, In The Country of Men, reads from his 2016 memoir, The Return. It’s a moving and resonant reminder of how so many people, recently forced to leave Ukraine, now face a life in limbo: ‘What do you do when you cannot leave and you cannot return?'”

Where I’m Writing From…

Ann Kennedy Smith is a freelance writer, RSL member, and researcher, with essays and reviews in the TLS, Guardian and Slightly Foxed. She’s working on a book about women at Cambridge – her blog ‘The Ladies’ Dining Society 1890-1914‘ can be found here and she tweets at @akennedysmith. She enjoys writing in the ‘stacks’ of the University Library (especially at sunset with its views of Cambridge spires) and is currently reading Lennie Goodings’ fascinating memoir A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago (OUP), and re-reading F.M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter (Persephone). It’s a ‘forgotten’ gem from 1924 that fortunately keeps being rediscovered.

There are still lots of pieces in the RSL’s Library to be written about and contributions are welcome from all. If you would like to write for Only Connect, please contact