Remembering Erasmus Darwin (1881-1915)

4th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment, 1914. 2nd Lieutenant Erasmus Darwin is in the middle of the back row.

Monday, 11 November, 1918 was a day of riotous celebration in Cambridge. Rowdy mobs of male students smashed shop windows and threw books and paintings into the street. Later a bull was driven into one of the colleges, and an effigy of the Kaiser was burned on a bonfire in Market Square. Cars roared about the streets all day long, and cheering men and women continued to shout and dance well into the night. On 12 November the Cambridge Daily News reported that ‘the world seemed to have turned upside down’.

Ida Darwin, 65, spent the day quietly at The Orchard, her home on the northern outskirts of Cambridge. From about noon, as she sat on the veranda overlooking her garden, she could hear the sounds of joyful pandemonium breaking out in the town. She wrote to her daughter Ruth that evening to describe how, within an hour of the announcement of the end of the war, ‘the whole town was beflagged and full of all kinds of motor vehicles tearing about regardless of petrol restrictions.’ Her husband Horace Darwin, 67, had been in the office of his Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company on Chesterton Road when he received a telephone call with the news. When he and the other directors came out to tell the workers that the war was over, ‘there was a seething mass of excitement & singing’, Ida told Ruth. ‘D[addy] had to stand on a table & make a speech & announced that the Works would be shut for the rest of the day. They ended with cheers for D…’

Ruth Darwin, 35, was in Reims in eastern France, working at a ‘Foyer des Soldats’, a hostel with a canteen and recreation rooms for convalescing French soldiers. (There were over fifty of such hostels, organized by the British Committee of the French Red Cross and staffed by English women volunteers.) The Darwins’ other daughter Nora Barlow was in London with her husband and four small children. Both Ruth and Nora understood why their mother felt so detached from the cheering crowds in Cambridge that day and the happiness of the end of this long war. Ida described it as ‘the feeling almost of dread of beginning normal life again with the blanks.’

Erasmus Darwin, Nora and Ruth’s brother, had been one of the first to enlist after war was declared on 4 August 1914. He was 32 and worked as a company secretary for an ironworks in Middlesbrough in the industrial north east of England. He had been working hard there for seven years and now was ready for an adventure. ‘You know of course that it simply means we shall be used for police duty, and it will be a kind of prolonged strenuous holiday,’ he reassured Ida. At first the army provided the excitement Erasmus craved. His company slept under canvas until the end of October, and their days were filled with rifle training and revolver shooting. Erasmus enjoyed taking his men out on scouting manœuvres over the Yorkshire moors, and a photograph of him shows him standing in his uniform and squinting into the sun a little self-consciously, as if amused to find himself in a muddy field playing war games with a group of men.

In November 1914 the company was moved from their temporary billets outside  Darlington to another camp forty miles north of Newcastle. Forty thousand troops were stationed there already, and more were arriving every day. Erasmus was convinced that his own company, with its experience and training would soon be sent to the front to fight: ‘We may be in France any day now, more than that none of us know …We were all getting tired of waiting for something to do and now that it has probably come we are glad.’

The reason for so many troops pouring into Newcastle that autumn was the prospect of an imminent German invasion. The Secretary of State Lord Kitchener announced a major alert for 20 November, when the tides and moon were particularly favourable for a sea crossing, and around the country three hundred thousand British soldiers were ordered to be on standby. But by December Erasmus told his parents that ‘the terrors of immediate invasion’ seemed to be wearing off. The winter months that followed in the training camp were cold, uncomfortable, and claustrophobic, with regular outbreaks of meningitis in the poorly sanitised billets. It seemed as if their regiment would never be sent to the front, and he and his fellow officers began to discuss organizing a tennis tournament for the summer.

At last, news came that the Yorkshire battalions should prepare for departure on 18 April. On 14 April Erasmus scribbled a note to his sister Nora in London: ‘No absolutely definite news but it is practically certain that we go on Friday’. Nora doubtless had other things on her mind, as her third child, a boy, was born that Wednesday. The following day, Erasmus received an official summons from the War Office to attend a meeting in London, and was offered a post working for the Ministry of Munitions. Erasmus turned it down, and went to visit Nora briefly to see her newborn son. He sailed with his company to Boulogne on 18 April.

A day after arriving in northern France he wrote to explain to his father that he had been asked to help to organize factories to produce the munitions that were badly needed by the British army. It would have been ‘interesting and important work’ Erasmus wrote, ‘but of course there are plenty of older men who can do it just as well as I can.’ Horace wrote back immediately:

You could not possibly have accepted the W.O. appointment; to have accepted a civil job almost to the day your regiment was ordered for active service seems to me out of the question. It wd. have been very nice for us having you still in England and doing really useful war work, but that is another story… Well good bye old chap, it is such a comfort to us to feel so certain you did right to join the army when you did.

Sadly, Erasmus never got his father’s kindly letter. At 5pm on Thursday 22 April the German army released 6,000 canisters of chlorine gas, a deadly new weapon, along the Ypres Salient. Thousands of French colonial troops died in what became known as the Second Battle of Ypres, and Canadian forces only just managed to hold back the German advance. All British troops available were needed to fill the gaps, so the Yorkshire battalions were ordered to advance to the front line on Saturday 24 April.

Before they set off, Erasmus tried to calm his men by joking that they should pretend they were ‘on a field day’, just like their training exercises on the Yorkshire moors. As they advanced towards the village of St Julien in columns of platoons they were fired on by German artillery and long-range machine guns from the front and on both sides. Erasmus was hit by machine gun fire and died instantly. He and Captain Jack Nancarrow were hastily buried near a farmhouse, in graves that were never subsequently found again.

Nora’s baby, born on 15 April 1915, was named Erasmus Darwin Barlow. Horace Darwin joined the new Ministry of Munitions in May 1915, and during the war the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company would develop equipment to locate the position of enemy guns, and instruments such as gunsights in aircraft. On 30 April 1915 Erasmus Darwin’s obituary was published in The Times, written by his cousin Bernard Darwin. He wrote that Erasmus ‘had many of the warmest friendships; nor could anyone have been more wholly delightful and light-hearted than he was in holiday mood.’ One of the few holidays his hard-working cousin allowed himself, Bernard wrote, was returning to Cambridge for May Week every year. Erasmus would have loved the exuberant celebrations of Armistice Day 1918.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved. 14 November 2021

Sources: Ida Darwin letters: Add. 9368.1: 6105, Add. 9368.1: 6112: Erasmus Darwin letters DAR 9368.1: 3177-82, Cambridge University Library Darwin Family Papers. https://greenhowards.org.uk/announcement/erasmus-darwin/


 

Glass ceilings and graduations

Professor Linda Doyle, Irish Times, 2021

At the beginning of this academic year, Professor Linda Doyle took up office as Provost of Trinity College Dublin (TCD), the first woman to lead the university in its 429-year history. ‘Another glass ceiling has been shattered’, said Simon Harris, Irish Minister for Further and Higher Education. To celebrate the occasion – and mark the autumn graduation ceremonies taking place at Trinity this week – I am re-posting my new and improved ‘Steamboat Ladies’ blogpost about the moving historic connections between women at Trinity College Dublin and Cambridge women.

Steamboat Ladies: women at Cambridge & Dublin

Women were first admitted to Ireland’s oldest university, Trinity College Dublin, in 1904 and one of the most important episodes to raise their academic reputation came from the example set by their predecessors at the women’s colleges at Cambridge (Newnham and Girton) and Oxford. Between 1904 and 1907, over 700 ‘Oxbridge’ women travelled to Dublin to be given the degrees they had rightfully been earning since the 1870s. Among them were distinguished headmistresses, teachers and academics, who were nicknamed ‘Steamboat Ladies’ for the cheap ferry transport they used to to cross the Irish Sea from Holyhead.

It was a remarkable act of forward thinking on the part of Trinity College Dublin to invite these women to attend a formal graduation ceremony on the same terms as male students. Yet it happened almost by accident, as Susan M. Parkes writes in her book A Danger to the Men? A History of Women in Trinity College Dublin 1904-2004 (Lilliput Press 2004). The Trinity Board had presumed only a few Irish women who had studied at Oxford and Cambridge would take up the offer, and were surprised that hundreds of British women, who had earned their degrees but had never been given them, arranged to make the journey to Dublin. ‘These distinguished women of varying ages were the leaders of women’s secondary and higher education in Britain’, Parkes writes. ‘Trinity was honoured by their presence, and though the majority of the “Steamboat Ladies” probably never returned to Dublin, they remained proud holders of University of Dublin degrees’.

Steamboat ladies

Seeing so many distinguished women gathered together was a striking image, and must have provided inspiration to Trinity’s first generation of female students, who on regular occasions from 1904 watched the women proceed from the Provost’s house (where they had been given lunch) to the college’s gracious Front Square where they posed for photographs on the steps of the Dining Hall.  The last ‘Steamboat Ladies’ ceremony took place in 1907 and the revenue generated by the fees paid by these Oxbridge women enabled the purchase of TCD’s much-needed hall of residence for women, Trinity Hall in south Dublin. Its first Warden (and for the next thirty-two years) was Elizabeth Margaret Cunningham, who was born in Donegal and had studied modern languages at Girton College in the 1890s. She was herself one of the original ‘Steamboat Ladies’, travelling back to Ireland from her job as a lecturer at Royal Holloway College London. In 1908 she gave up her promising academic career to return to Dublin and make Trinity Hall a welcoming place for TCD’s female students. She wanted them to have the chance to experience the atmosphere of encouragement and support that she had enjoyed while studying at Girton.   

Sixty years later, in 1968, Barbara Wright (née Robinson) became one of the first four women to be elected to the Fellowship of Trinity College Dublin. To mark the occasion, Dame Ruth Cowen (then Principal of Newnham College Cambridge, where Wright had completed her Ph.D. degree in 1962) gave Professor Wright a remarkable gift: one of the original graduation gowns worn by one of Newnham’s Steamboat Ladies. ‘I thought that was really moving that they wanted to mark the full accession of women to all stages in Trinity, in gratitude for what Trinity had done for them’, Wright said in a 2019 broadcast.  ‘These were very important women, in society, and in the world of learning, and it was extremely important that they should be recognised as such.’

It was wonderful to see this historic gown on display in last year’s exhibition ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ at the Cambridge University Library (my review in the Times Literary Supplement is free to read here) As a TCD student in the early 1980s I was fortunate enough to be taught by Professor Wright and it was partly thanks to her inspiring teaching and encouragement that I came to Cambridge to study for my own Ph.D. in French Literature. It’s lovely that such historic, tangible connections exist between the first women at Trinity College Dublin and at Cambridge University.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

Avon calling

The smiling, smartly dressed ‘Avon Lady’, with her tempting case full of cosmetics and gloved finger on the doorbell, was popularized in American television commercials in the 1950s: ‘She’s a good friend, a good neighbour; she’s in the beauty business, representing Avon.’ Ding dong! Avon Calling! became the catchphrase for the company that flourished during the USA’s postwar economic boom, and it’s the name of a fascinating new history book by Katina Manko, which I reviewed in this week’s TLS: see link here.

“Women’s patterns of entrepreneurship and labor follow uniquely gendered paths,” Manko writes, and makes a convincing argument that Avon should be judged by the historical experience and objectives of women (not men) in business. Founded in 1886, Avon was the oldest and largest continually operating direct-sales company in the world, and from its earliest days it was unique in hiring women exclusively to sell its products. The company literature stressed the respectability of a job in which women sold products to other women in their neighbourhood, so that their earning power worked for the benefit of both the family and the individual herself.

It was a formula that appealed to many women who were prevented by the marriage bar from retaining their jobs after they married, and in the early years of the twentieth century Avon was unusual in portraying women’s entrepreneurial ambitions as admirable. They included Miss Susie Robinson, who in 1931 described in the house magazine Outlook how she had sold Avon merchandise from her hospital bed following an operation. She took more than $15 from nurses, doctors, janitors, and even other patients, and used the money she earned to pay her hospital bill.

But despite praising enterprising women like Susie, Avon’s power and profits remained in the hands of its all-male senior management team for almost all of its history. The glass ceiling for women employees stayed firmly in place until the eve of the twenty-first century, when the company at last appointed its first female CEO. But as Manko observes, ‘Avon’s monumental makeover of the late twentieth century was only skin deep’ and the internet age finally brought an end to the Avon Lady’s friendly and businesslike calls.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 25 September 2021

Ding Dong! Avon Calling! The Women and Men of Avon Products, Incorporated by Katina Manko (OUP, 2021)

Image: https://tomandlorenzo.com/2020/06/ding-dong-avon-calling-vintage-ads/

Independent Researcher Award

Dr Ellen McArthur (1862-1927)

I’m delighted to say I’ve just been awarded an ‘Independent Researcher Award’ for the coming academic year 2021-22 for my research project ‘Outrageous Proceedings: Women At Cambridge 1882-1914’. I am one of four researchers to be given this award by the Women’s History Network, a national association and charity for the promotion of women’s history and the encouragement of everyone interested in women’s history.

This award provides funding for me to investigate the lives and work of seven pioneering female scholars, college heads, academic wives, townswomen and female students who settled in Cambridge during the late nineteenth century. It was a time when women were not made welcome by many in the traditional male university society here, but their own social networks and societies provided the support and encouragement for these seven women to go on to do some remarkable work.

Some of the women whose stories I plan to explore further are familiar from this blog, including Mary Paley Marshall and Kathleen Lyttelton. Others whose names are less familiar are the Girton scholar Ellen McArthur, who was the first woman to be awarded a doctorate at Trinity College Dublin and helped to establish history teaching in UK schools, and Dr Susila Bonnerjee who, after studying at Newnham in the 1890s, went back to India to establish medical education for women then returned to England to fight for women’s suffrage.

I am very grateful to the Women’s History Network for their generous support. More details on their website below:

https://womenshistorynetwork.org/whn-independent-researcher-awards-2021-22/