Finding Ida Darwin

‘she never let her vision become thickened and fogged, as most people do…Only some things were too terrible for her to look at, or tell’ Gwen Raverat, Period Piece

IMG_0903Just a mile or two south of Cambridge, after you pass the imposing gates of Fulbourn Hospital, there is a road to the left with a small sign marked ‘Ida Darwin’. It’s easy to miss. Turn in and you’ll find various single-storey prefabricated buildings scattered about in a leafy park, including a creche, a ‘Help the Aged’ centre, and clinics specializing in helping young people with mental health issues and their families. Block 10 is the home of Headway Cambridgeshire, an organization which supports people with an acquired brain injury and their carers. I went there this summer to meet a group who are researching the life of Ida Darwin, the woman the site is named after.

Ida was born in London in 1854, the daughter of the influential civil servant Lord Thomas Farrer and Frances, a renowned singer. She grew up in a world of Victorian culture and privilege. Her father was a keen amateur botanist and a close friend of the great naturalist Charles Darwin, and in 1880 Ida married Darwin’s youngest son Horace, an inventor. They moved to Cambridge, where Horace began a business making equipment for the new scientific laboratories.

In Period Piece (1952) Ida’s niece Gwen Raverat describes Cambridge of the time as ‘a society which was still small and exclusive. The town of course didn’t count at all.’ This was not true in Ida’s case. Being in a university town brought her into contact with women who shared her zeal for education and strong sense of social awareness. Inspired by the social reformer and feminist Josephine Butler, she and other like-minded wives formed an association to offer support to town girls who were being drawn into prostitution or suffering neglect or abuse.

Her work with disadvantaged girls led to her growing interest in the people who were termed ‘feeble-minded’. Along with an influential pressure group of scientists and public figures she campaigned for legislation to ensure improved mental health provision, and succeeded. The Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 was the first act by the British government specifically related to services for people with learning disabilities. At the time it was associated with the powerful eugenics lobby, with influential cabinet member Winston Churchill lending his support.

Ida was opposed to Churchill’s call for enforced sterilization, and sought a more humane approach. At the end of the First World War, she read about the ‘talking cure’ pioneered by her friend Dr Rivers for officers suffering from shell shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. She invited him to Cambridge to discuss how early intervention and counselling could help remove the stigma associated with mental breakdown.

In the 1920s Ida helped to organize one of the country’s first outpatient psychiatric clinics at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. She was co-founder of the Central Association for Mental Welfare, one of the three groups that formed the national mental welfare organization now known as Mind.

In 1970 the Ida Darwin Hospital at Fulbourn near Cambridge was officially opened, offering services for mentally disabled children. It was named after Ida in recognition of her work. No longer a hospital, it now combines NHS residential care for young people and their families with other community services.

The 1960s buildings are badly in need of repair, and negotiations for developing the site are underway. It may be turned into new housing, meaning that Headway Cambridgeshire and the other clinics would be moved elsewhere. When the builders move in, the name of Ida Darwin may disappear in the rubble.

With thanks to the Headway Heritage group at Headway Cambridgeshire.

Sources: The Darwin Archive at the University Library, Cambridge; ‘Who was Ida Darwin?’ (accessed August 25 2016); Gwen Raverat, Period Piece (Faber, 1952); Ruth Rees Thomas, ‘Ida Darwin 1854-1946’ Focus (magazine of Fulbourn Hospital, Cambridge) summer edition 1970.

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Finding Ida Darwin’, (August 25, 2016) day/month/year)

See also: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Ida Darwin and the dangerous girl’ at (accessed August 25 2016)

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