In 1913 Cambridge University’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology opened the doors to its beautiful new building on Downing Street. It is still there today, with over a million artefacts telling ‘countless astonishing stories’ of human civilisation. When the original museum was founded in 1884 its largest collection was 1,500 objects from Fiji, many collected by the man who became the museum’s first curator, Anatole Von Hügel, a Scottish-Austrian Baron of the Holy Roman Empire. A new field-based approach to anthropology was fast developing in the late nineteenth century, with new, ever more far-flung expeditions bringing back objects, photographs and information for close study. The museum’s collection soon outgrew its original Cambridge premises, and Von Hügel turned his energies to raising funds for a new building. His wife, Baroness Eliza von Hügel assisted him in this, and in 1910 she laid the museum’s foundation stone.
Eliza von Hügel, more often known as ‘Isy’, was born Eliza Margaret Froude in 1840, the daughter of the engineer and naval architect William Froude F.R.S and his wife Catherine (nee Holdsworth). Isy’s uncle J.A. Froude was a historian who became the friend and biographer of Carlisle and she was brought up in Cockington, near Torquay in Devon. She was 35 when she agreed to marry the 21-year old Anatole Von Hügel, who had moved to Torquay when his father, the Austrian Count Karl Von Hügel, an army officer, diplomat, explorer and plant hunter, retired there in 1867. Anatole and Isy’s shared faith partly explains their decision to marry despite the fourteen-year age gap: Isy and her mother had converted to Roman Catholicism in the late 1850s and were close friends with Cardinal Newman.
As a couple they had more than religious convictions in common. Isy’s mother’s family, the Holdsworths, were traders and collectors in their own right and a number of Polynesian items from Captain Cook’s voyages were gifted to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology by Arthur Holdsworth, Isy’s cousin. Soon after Isy and Anatole became engaged in 1875, he went abroad for the sake of his health. He chose Fiji originally because of his ornithological interests, but soon realized that because the islands had recently become a British colony, much of its indigenous culture would be lost if he and his fellow explorers did not record and preserve as much of it as they could. He did not return to England for three years, but he and Isy exchanged long letters.
In 1880 they married and moved to Cambridge, where Anatole took up his post as museum curator, the first Catholic to hold a university position at Cambridge. They lived in Croft Cottage on Barton Road and built a chapel at Croft Cottage for Catholic worship soon after they moved to the house, and together they were one of the university’s first ‘power couples’, campaigning to change university rules to admit the first Catholic undergraduates to Cambridge. In 1893 Eliza became the first president of the Children of Mary, a nationwide Catholic teaching organisation, and Croft Cottage was also a social centre for Anatole’s university colleagues and for Isy’s own intellectual discussion groups. These included her friends from the newly founded women’s colleges at Newnham and Girton, and the twelve women who belonged to the Ladies’ Dining Society.
But Isy was not content to pursue her interests in Cambridge alone. After donating much of her own money to found the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology and laying the foundation stone in 1910 she decided that she wanted to discover the world for herself, and in 1912, at the age of fifty-two, she travelled with her niece Mary Froude to Morocco and the Canary Islands. The Museum still contains items from her independent travels, including, as listed in the catalogue:
a cowbell made by the last of the descendants of a family made in 1911 at Guimar, Tenerife by the last of the descendants of a family in whom the hereditary right was vested of making cattle bells for the entire group of islands.
What was Eliza von Hügel like? After she died in 1931, the anonymous writer of her obituary in The Tablet obituary described her as ‘bright to the last’.
Minute in stature and delicately made, she was something of an elf; and her mind flitted here and there —though almost always alighting on a serious topic—like an elf earnestly engaged on good work.
We haven’t yet been able to trace a photograph or painting of Isy, but she was clearly a charismatic and influential figure. Like the other women in her circle including Ida Darwin, Mary Paley Marshall and Louise Creighton, Eliza von Hügel worked on a voluntary basis for many years to improve living conditions for others in Cambridge and beyond.
In September 1914 she launched an independent campaign to house Belgian refugees in Cambridge. Instead of women and children, as Anatole von Hügel recalled, ‘large family groups’ arrived, ‘which it would have been both difficult and unkind to break up.’ Isy took this in her stride admirably and enlisted others to find empty houses that could be used by family groups: ‘the “Hügel Homes” were set on foot, and a fund for their upkeep was at once started by those who had already promised support to the Baroness’s first proposal.’ Isy used her own funds and undiminished energies to ensure that Belgian families were able to stay together safely in Cambridge for the duration of the war.
By Ann Kennedy Smith and Carolyn Ferguson, with thanks to the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology for access to their special collections
Sources: Eliza von Hügel obituary, The Tablet, 26 December 1931; Museum of Archeology and Anthropology website (accessed 31.12.2017); Hügel Homes for Belgian refugees: Cambridge 1914-19 A. von Hügel (Cambridge, 1920)