Finding Ida Darwin

Headway Cambridgeshire’s new exhibition IMPACT! Brain injuries and WW1 has just opened at the Museum of Cambridge (open from 1pm – 5pm each Thursday, Friday and Saturday in September 2020).  I am reposting this blog about my visit to the Ida Darwin site in 2016, when Block 10 was the home of Headway Cambridgeshire, an organization which supports people with an acquired brain injury and their carers.


Just 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 a leafy, tree-filled park, including a creche, a ‘Help the Aged’ centre, and clinics specializing in helping young people with mental health issues and their families. Until a couple of years ago, Block 10 was the home of Headway Cambridgeshire, an organization which supports people with an acquired brain injury and their carers. I went there in summer  2016 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 classical 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 simply not true in Ida’s case. Being in a university town brought her into contact with other women who shared her zeal for education and strong sense of social awareness. Inspired by the social reformer and feminist Josephine Butler, they formed an association to offer support to underprivileged girls who were being drawn into prostitution or suffering neglect or abuse, arranging training and jobs for them as domestic servants and shop-workers.

Darwin’s work with disadvantaged girls led to her growing interest in people with learning disabilities, described as ‘mentally deficient’ or ‘feeble-minded’ in the harsh language of the time. Along with an influential pressure group of scientists and public figures she campaigned for legislation to ensure improved mental disability provision, and succeeded. The Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 was the first act by the British government specifically related to providing improved care for people with learning disabilities, although at first this was mostly limited to segregation in special institutions.

The First World War changed Ida Darwin’s understanding of mental disability and mental health, as she began to understand how the two were closely linked. After her son Erasmus was killed in April 1915, she interviewed soldiers convalescing at the First Eastern Hospital and read articles and books about shell shock, and the ‘talking cure’ pioneered by Dr WHR Rivers, who treated Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart. As soon as the Armistice was signed, she asked Rivers and her friend Dr CS Myers, who coined the term ‘shell shock’ in 1915, to support her idea for founding a civilian outpatient clinic. There, early intervention and counselling by trained medical staff could help to prevent mental breakdown and admission to Fulbourn mental hospital.

In 1919 one of the country’s first outpatient psychiatric clinics opened at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. Sadly, it did not last long, due to lack of funding. Instead, Darwin threw her efforts into funding research and organizing new national mental health associations in the 1920s: the National Council for Mental Hygiene and the Child Guidance Council. Together with the Central Association for Mental Welfare, which Ida and Horace helped to found in 1913, these groups formed the National Association of Mental Health in 1946. Today this charity is known as Mind, which celebrates its 75th birthday in 2021.

In 1970 the Ida Darwin Hospital at Fulbourn near Cambridge was officially opened, offering services for mentally disabled children. It was named after Ida Darwin in recognition of her lifelong work in mental welfare. No longer a hospital, it now combines some NHS residential care for young people and their families with other community services. The site has been sold to a private developer and may be turned into new housing; Headway Cambridgeshire was among the clinics that have had to move elsewhere. When the builders move in, the name of Ida Darwin may disappear in the rubble, along with the history of her work.

Ann Kennedy Smith (updated 8 September 2020), all rights reserved.

With thanks to the Headway Heritage group at Headway Cambridgeshire. My article about Ida Darwin and early ‘shell shock’ doctors is in the new History Today, and can be read online here.

Sources: The Darwin Archive at the University Library, Cambridge; 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)

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