Locked out of the library, 1891

This week I’m delighted to be taking part in a panel discussion organized by St John’s College FemSoc on the theme of Women In Academia with University Librarian Dr Jessica Gardner and Professor Helen McCarthy, author of the prize-winning Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood (2020). As well as the history of women at Cambridge, wider issues to be discussed include the experiences of women in different professional settings and the importance of remembering histories to inform our future. For their support of my research this year I am personally grateful to the Women’s History Network, the national association for historians with a passion for women’s history. To mark the occasion I’m reposting my blog ‘Locked out of the library’ (below) about Cambridge University’s pioneering women scholars who were denied access to the University Library in the 1890s. I’m pleased to say it’s a welcoming space for all scholars and researchers today, both within the academy and beyond.

‘Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.’ Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)

For many years the University Library (known as the U.L.) was ‘a contested space’ for women at Cambridge, as Dr Jill Whitelock, Head of Special Collections at the University Library, puts it. She has been researching how the control of access to the U.L., alongside the university’s lecture halls and laboratories, was bound up with the status of women at Cambridge between 1869 and 1923, and gave a fascinating talk, ‘Lock up your libraries’, as part of the ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition and events of 2019-20 (curated by Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin). I am very grateful to Dr Whitelock for alerting me to a remarkable letter that was sent to the University Library Syndicate in November 1891, and for sending me a photograph of it. My blogpost below is about some of the women who signed the 1891 letter; there is much more background in Whitelock’s excellent recent article ‘”Lock up your libraries”? Women readers at Cambridge University Library, 1855–1923’ now published in Library & Information History, (Volume 38 Issue 1, Page 1-22, ISSN 1758) and free to read online.

Nowadays, the U.L. is based in the striking Gilbert Scott-designed building that opened in 1934 in the west of the city (see Whitelock’s blogpost ‘The abandoned library’ here). Before 1934 the University’s library was situated in the Old Schools building, by the Senate House. The Old Library was ‘a chaotic but atmospheric medley of disparate rooms, uneven floors and dark places for which readers could borrow lamps to light their way,’ as Whitelock writes in ‘M. R. James and the ghosts of the old University Library’ here. It was chiefly a space for male academics and researchers, but Whitelock’s research shows that there were also women readers who used the university library for their research long before the first ‘ladies’ college’, Girton, was established in 1869. These included a ‘Miss Henslow’, one of the daughters of Professor Joseph Stevens Henslow who had taught Charles Darwin in the 1820s. Miss Henslow was probably Frances Harriet (later Mrs Hooker), who in 1851 married Darwin’s friend Joseph Hooker; her translation of Maout and Decaisnes’ A General System of Botany, Descriptive and Analytical from French into English was published in 1873 and can be consulted in the U.L.’s Rare Books Reading Room (MD.40.65).       

Girton College was founded in 1869, Newnham College two years later. That year, following a vote by the Syndicate, the first woman reader’s card was issued to Newnham’s Ella Bulley (who would become renowned later as the scholar and archeologist Ella S. Armitage). In 1871 she was one of the ‘first five’ students who lived in the Newnham College’s earliest premises, a rented house in Regent Street. Because she was 30 when she began her studies, she was permitted a year-long card (all of the library’s readers then had to be over 21). Three years later, she would become Newnham’s first research student and, after her marriage to Reverend Elkanah Armitage, with whom she had two children, she continued her academic work, teaching at Owens College in Manchester (which became part of the University of Manchester) and publishing several books on medieval history. Her library card was preserved by the U.L. and was displayed in ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition of 2019-20.  

(Ella Bulley, U.L. library card, 1871)

One of the other five students was Mary Paley Marshall (then Mary Paley) who took charge of the small collection of books that students could borrow. She was, in effect, Newnham College’s first librarian. In 1874 she became the first of two women to take the Cambridge Tripos (final year exams) in Moral Sciences, along with Ella’s younger sister Amy Bulley. A year later Paley Marshall became Newnham’s first resident lecturer, teaching Political Economy ‘from a philanthropic woman’s point of view’, as a former student, Winnie Seebohm wrote.

By the 1880s, women at Cambridge seemed to be gaining ground. In 1881 female students gained the right to take the Tripos exams on equal terms to the male students (see my blogpost here), and in 1887 the University Library’s age restriction for readers was dropped, allowing women under 21 to use the library for the first time.

Coincidentally, this was also the year that a Cambridge woman student made the national headlines. In 1887 Agnata Frances Ramsay (later Butler) of Girton College was the only student to be placed in the first class of the Classical Tripos. Three years later, Newnham College was in the spotlight when Philippa Fawcett, Millicent Fawcett’s daughter, outperformed all of the male students in the 1890 Mathematics Tripos. Their success in the two subjects that were traditionally considered as the preserve of men -Classics and Mathematics – caused a sensation. Cambridge women had now proved that their intellectual ability could be superior to that of their male counterparts, and conservative forces at the University were becoming uneasy that they would invade other, traditionally male, spaces.

This was reflected in a tightening of the rules permitting access to the University Library. The hours that readers who were University ‘non-members’ (which included women) could use the library were reduced from 10 until 2pm (from 4pm previously), and in autumn 1891 it was proposed that a fee should be introduced. Non-members would now be permitted to use the library only from 10am until 2pm, and were restricted to certain areas. As Rita McWilliams-Tullberg points out in Women At Cambridge (revised edition 1998), this restriction ‘was most hardly felt by the staffs of the women’s colleges who, whatever their degree of scholarship, could only use one of the world’s finest libraries on the same conditions as members of the general public’ (p. 156).

Crucially, by now Girton and Newnham’s academic success had been proven not only by the excellent exam results of their students, but also by the research record of their lecturers and tutors, who had published books and academic papers. Regardless of their achievements, they could now only use the library on extremely limited terms. In November 1891, twenty years after Ella Bulley’s reader’s card was issued, a petition in the form of a letter was delivered to the University Library Syndicate. The letter politely asked for the new library rules to be reconsidered, and was signed by twenty-four women who described themselves as ‘former Students of Girton and Newnham Colleges who have obtained places in Various Triposes’. They respectfully requested permission ‘to work in the Library with the same freedom as heretofore’, explaining politely that for those who had ‘morning engagements’ (that is, teaching students) the reduced hours meant that it would now be almost impossible for them to use the library for their research.


In ‘History of the Library’, vol. V, 1886-1900, UL classmark ULIB 6/5/5

The letter was signed by twenty-four women lecturers and librarians, researchers and laboratory demonstrators, star students and scholars from the first twenty years of Girton and Newnham. They include the linguists Margaret Janson Tuke (Dame Margaret Tuke, D.B.E.), the Newnham lecturer who would later head Bedford College in 1907 (now merged with Royal Holloway, University of London) and Bertha Skeat, the first resident lecturer at the Cambridge Training College for Women Teachers (now Hughes Hall).

Scientists who signed the letter include Ida Freund, who was the first woman to become a chemistry lecturer in the UK; Dorothea F.M. Pertz, who had co-published papers on geotropism and heliotropism in plants with Francis Darwin; and the botanist and geneticist Edith Rebecca Saunders, who worked closely with the biologist William Bateson. ‘Saunders had several years of independent research under her belt when she started to collaborate with William Bateson,’ writes Susannah Gibson in The Spirit of Inquiry (2019) ‘she was not a junior colleague, but very much his equal.’ Saunders conducted her groundbreaking plant experiments at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, and with Bateson co-founded the Genetics Society in 1919. Christine Alexander, librarian of Cambridge University’s Plant Sciences Department, has compiled a fascinating online collection about Saunders’ influential work.

The 1891 group also included Newnham’s most famous student, Philippa Fawcett (Mathematics tripos Parts 1 & II 1890-1), as well as one of the first women to sit for the Tripos almost 20 years previously, Mary Paley Marshall (Moral Sciences Tripos 1874). She was now back in Cambridge after some years teaching male and female students at Oxford and the newly founded Bristol University, where 30 years later she would be awarded an honorary doctorate for her contribution (see post here). The letter is also signed by two of her fellow Ladies’ Dining Society members and ‘sometime’ (i.e. previous) Newnham lecturers Ellen Wordsworth Darwin and Mary Ward; like Paley Marshall, they were active in promoting higher education and suffrage for women, and continued to research and write. The letter is also signed by E.E. Constance Jones, then a lecturer in Moral Sciences at Girton, who would become Girton College Mistress (head) from 1903 until 1916.

The two women who organized the 1891 petition One was the Girton economic historian Ellen A. Mc Arthur (History Tripos 1885), who would become the first woman to receive an honorary ad eundam doctorate from the University of Dublin, based on her academic publications (see my ‘Steamboat Ladies’ post here). The other person was the Newnham historian and lecturer Mary Bateson (History Tripos 1887) a sister of William Bateson. Her mother Anna Bateson and sister Anna, had co-founded the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association in 1884, and Mary was also an active suffragist as well as a serious scholar.  She worked closely with the legal historian F.W. Maitland and was instrumental in the foundation of Newnham’s first research fellowship in 1903. As Dockray Miller writes, Mary Bateson ‘firmly believed, twenty-five years before Virginia Woolf addressed the faculty and students of Newnham College about the necessity of “a room of one’s own,” that women could not pursue serious scholarship without the financial and professional support of an academic institution.’

The 1891 petition offers a snapshot of twenty-four extraordinary women who had studied, researched, taught and published at Cambridge during the past twenty years. It is ironic that their books were welcomed by the U.L. even though they were not – including Paley Marshall’s The Economics of Industry (1879), co-written with Alfred Marshall, and E.E. Constance Jones’s Elements of logic as a science of propositions (1890). (Jones’s An introduction to general logic would be acquired in 1892; W. Cunningham and Ellen A. McArthur’s Outlines of English Industrial History in 1895; Mary Bateson’s Mediaeval England, 1066-1350 in 1903) . These and many more of their books and scholarly papers can still be consulted there today.

In 1891 these women had already achieved much – and would go on to do much more – but it was a period when the tide had turned against Cambridge women who dared to excel. Their request for greater access to the library fell on deaf ears, and the Syndicate’s policy became more, not less restrictive. In May 1897, after thousands gathered outside the Senate House to protest against the vote to allow women the title of degrees, the U.L. Librarian Francis Jenkinson confirmed that non-members’ access to the library would be limited yet again, until midday only.

So, locked out of the University Library as they were, staff and supporters of Girton and Newnham raised funds to build up their own magnificent college libraries, which today have around 100,000 books each. Tennyson, Ruskin, George Eliot and many others were early supporters of Girton College’s Stanley Library, and Newnham College’s beautiful Yates Thompson Library, see below. It was not until 1923 that Cambridge women students finally won the right to become readers at the U.L. on the same terms as the men.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

Yates Thompson Library, Newnham College (photo: Ann Kennedy Smith, 2022)


Girton College by E.E.Constance Jones (1913); available at the UL (Cam.c.913.2)

SOURCES: My thanks to Jill Whitelock and to Carolyn Ferguson for their generous help. Any remaining errors are my own. Christine Alexander, ‘My Colleague, Miss Saunders’; E. Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999); Mary Dockray Miller, ‘Mary Bateson (1865-1906): Scholar and Suffragist’ in Women Medievalists and the Academy, edited by Jane Chance (Wisconsin, 2005); Susannah Gibson, The Spirit of Inquiry (OUP, 2019) (see my TLS review here); Rita McWilliams-Tullberg Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1975; revised edition 1998); Jill Whitelock, ‘”Lock up your libraries”? Women readers at Cambridge University Library, 1855–1923’ in Library & Information History, Volume 38 Issue 1, Page 1-22, ISSN 1758-3489 (available online Apr 2022)

A Cambridge love story: Ida & Horace Darwin

The Darwin Correspondence Project has just released online for the first time Charles Darwin’s letters from 1880: read more here. This is a post about his son Horace’s first year of marriage to Ida Darwin, and how moving to Cambridge in 1880 gave them both unexpected new opportunities.

Ida Farrer married Horace Darwin in London on 3 January 1880. After a chilly honeymoon touring Cornwall, they were both glad to move into their first home in Cambridge later that month. Horace had rented a house on St Botolph’s Lane, a narrow road running alongside the church wall near King’s Parade. He had wanted to find them a larger house with a garden, but there were only four such houses to let in Cambridge, he was told. More colleges were now allowing their fellows to marry, and accommodation suitable for families was scarce.

The start of February 1880 was busy with unpacking furniture and hanging pictures, but Ida was keen for Horace to get back to his work. ‘Father’s klinostat has been so much on Ida’s mind, that I knew I should have no peace until it was done’,[i] Horace told his mother Emma. He had promised his father, Charles and brother Francis – who collaborated on their father’s botanical projects – to design a special instrument to measure the gravitational pull of climbing plants two years previously.[ii] Horace had put off the project, blaming his poor health and feelings of ‘slackness’. But, encouraged by Ida, he had taken out subscriptions to the scientific journals Engineering and Nature to try to keep up with new developments, and he completed the klinostat in time for his father and brother to use it.

Cambridge in 1880 was the right place and time for Horace to develop his skills as a mechanical designer. He was already designing a pendulum with his mathematician brother George, a fellow at Trinity College, and designing a self-recording thermograph for the Meteorological Office. Well-made measuring instruments were badly needed in the UK, as scientific work was increasingly taking place not in a gentleman scientist’s home – where Charles Darwin had always conducted his experiments – but in the rigorous atmosphere of the laboratory, where results could be properly tested. Apart from in London and Birmingham, there were few skilled instrument makers to cater for the growing needs of the university laboratories.

As a newly married couple there was also, inevitably, much socializing to do and introductions to be made. Ida was amused to see how uncomfortable her husband’s Trinity College friends clearly were about having a woman in their midst. She wondered ‘in the most heartless way’[iii] who was most frightened by such introductions, and concluded that it was probably Horace. She knew that one of his closest friends, Albert Dew-Smith had been downright hostile to the idea of his marriage.  ‘I can understand her wanting to be with you’, he told Horace when he heard of his engagement, but ‘I don’t see why you want to see her.’[iv]  

When a Cambridge man married, it was believed that his allegiance to his college and to his friends changed forever. Dew-Smith, known to his friends as ‘Dew’, was an amateur photographer and lens-maker and had helped to fund Cambridge University’s new Department of Physiology with his inheritance. He had an urbane, sardonic personality, and Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have modelled the character of Attwater in Ebb Tide on him. Horace had often stayed with him in his rooms in Bishops Hostel adjoining Trinity College, dining together at High Table and sitting up late, smoking and drinking. Since 1878 Horace had assisted Dew-Smith in making scientific instruments in his workshop above a carriage shed in Panton Street, where he shared a business with the mechanic Robert Fulcher.

Ida had her own projects to pursue. Marrying Horace and moving to Cambridge in 1880 had given her a sense of her own independence, far away from family duties and expectations. Two years previously she had wanted to follow her brother to Oxford and to study Classics at the newly founded college for women, Somerville. But her father Thomas Farrer simply would not permit it. Now, as a married woman, she could attend a wide variety of university lectures and meet men and women who were as passionate about learning as she was.

It was a passport to another country. Ida took Greek lessons with Francis Jenkinson, a fellow of Trinity College who tutored women students at Newnham College, and was introduced to Anne Clough, the principal, and Helen Gladstone, by then in her third year of studies there. The Liberal Party swept into power in April 1880 and Helen’s father William Gladstone was elected Prime Minister for the second time. Although he was, like Ida’s father, opposed to the idea of women in higher education, Gladstone was proud of his daughter’s achievements in Cambridge and approved of her becoming the college’s Vice-Principal later that year.

Ida’s friendships at Newnham led to her campaigning actively on women students’ behalf, including being able to sit for the university’s final exams as a right, not a privilege (see my 1881 blog here). Horace supported Ida in this, as did many like-minded dons such as Richard Claverhouse Jebb, and there was a remarkable spirit of optimism in the air for women at Cambridge in the early 1880s.

In August 1880 Charles and Emma Darwin travelled to Cambridge to visit Ida and Horace. They stayed at 17 Botolph Lane, and met both Dew-Smith and Helen Gladstone. Despite Ida’s worries that Dew-Smith would not approve of her, they all got on famously well. ‘Our recent visit to Cambridge was a brilliant success to us all, & will ever be remembered by me with much pleasure.’ Charles Darwin told Frank Balfour.[v]

By the autumn of 1880 Ida and Horace had moved into a larger house at 66 Hills Road, and Francis Darwin went to visit them. He reported back to his father about Horace’s ambitious plans. ‘Fulcher has come round to going in a peaceable manner & remains friends with Dew,’ Francis wrote. ‘H[orace] looks on it as certain that he shall join Dew but it is still a state secret’. Dew-Smith had bought out Fulcher and persuaded Horace to join him as a partner in a new instrument-making business.[vi] Horace was convinced that he wanted to earn his own living independently from the generous allowance Charles Darwin gave him, but consulted Ida closely before making his decision. The Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company was officially launched on the first anniversary of their marriage, in January 1881.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 2022, all rights reserved


 

Footnotes

[i] Cambridge University Library, Ida Darwin Papers, Add. 9368.1: 3828, 1 Feb 1880, Horace to Emma Darwin. The klinostat developed by Horace Darwin is described in detail in Francis Darwin’s Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1880) pp. 449–55.

[ii] Charles Darwin’s book (assisted by Francis Darwin) Movement in plants: The power of movement in plants was published in November 1880. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11613,” accessed on 14 February 2022, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/?docId=letters/DCP-LETT-11613.xml. See also Anne Secord, ‘Specimens of observation: Edward Hobson’s Musci Britannici’ in The Whipple Museum of the History of Science (CUP, 2019) eds. Joshua Nall, Lisa Taub & Frances Willmoth, pp. 101-118.

[iii] CUL, Ida Darwin Papers, Add. 9368.1: 3828, 1 Feb 1880, Horace to Emma Darwin.

[iv] CUL, Ida Darwin Papers, Add. 9368.1: 3889, November 1879, Horace to Ida.

[v] Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 12706,” accessed on 14 February 2022, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/?docId=letters/DCP-LETT-12706.xml

[vi] For more about Dew-Smith and Horace Darwin’s collaboration, see Cattermole, Michael J. G. and Wolfe, Arthur F. 1987. Horace Darwin’s shop: a history of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company 1878 to 1968. Bristol and Boston: Adam Hilger

Pride and Prejudice Day

On this day, 28 January 1813, Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice was published. Over seventeen years had passed since she finished writing her original version of the book, then called “First Impressions”, when she was just twenty years old. Now, at the age of thirty-seven, as Austen at last held a published copy in her hands, she called it “my own darling Child”.

Most of us know Austen only as the writer of six novels that were published in just six years and two months, from Sense and Sensibility in 1811 to Persuasion in 1817, published five months after her death. Freya Johnston’s illuminating new book, Jane Austen, Early and Late (Princeton University Press, 2021) argues that, by limiting our perspective to these mature novels, we aren’t getting a complete picture of Austen as a writer. Her “juvenilia”, or teenage writings, are usually seen as unimportant, even embarrassing, but Austen herself  “preserved, returned to, and revised her earliest unpublished works long after she became a published author,” Johnston points out.

One of these works is Austen’s comical “The History of England”, which she wrote in 1791 when she was fifteen and, in her own words, a “partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian.” It was a tongue-in-cheek response to the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith’s weighty schoolroom text, The History of England, from the Earliest Times to the Death of George II (1771). Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra privileged the women’s stories and portraits over the men’s – and this “partial, prejudiced” view of history is detectable in Austen’s later novels too. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine complains that history tells her

nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kinds, with wars and pestilences, in every page; the men are all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome.

It’s worth remembering that the first version of Northanger Abbey was, like Pride and Prejudice, written when Austen was a precocious, and wildly talented, young woman.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

‘Wild Child’, my essay on Jane Austen, appears in this month’s Dublin Review of Books.

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, drawing, c.1810

The 1897 protests, part 2: the women in the photograph

A female effigy wearing a white blouse, blue bloomers and striped stockings, riding a bicycle, has been suspended above the entrance to the Macmillan & Bowes bookshop in Cambridge. It’s a misogynistic caricature of a female student that represents everything that over ten thousand men have gathered on King’s Parade to protest against on 21 May 1897. When, later that day, the university voted against allowing women the title of a Cambridge degree, the figure was torn apart and burnt on a huge bonfire in Market Square, as rioting continued into the night. The Cambridge Weekly News recorded the events in a gleeful special edition called ‘The Triumph of Man’.  

In Chapter 1 of a new book about the history of women cyclists, Revolutions: How Women Changed the World On Two Wheels, Hannah Ross describes the bloomer-clad Cambridge effigy as embodying the independent and ambitious ‘New Woman’ of the 1890s, and its violent disposal was a warning that women should never again dare to challenge the all-male status of Cambridge University. Ross describes among the crowd ‘a few women students, looking a bit apprehensive’. Yet, looking more closely at the people standing by the bookshop, it’s clear that several of the women spectators were not students, and I believe they were anything but fearful.

The cyclist effigy photograph was taken from the tower of Gonville & Caius College by the Cambridge photographers Thomas Stearn & Sons. ‘His wife, sons, niece, and other family members worked in the firm, which finally closed in 1970,’ according to an article from the Graphic Arts Collection at Princeton University. (The Stearns also took the image of the sea of male undergraduate boaters filling King’s Parade featured in my previous post, ‘No women at Cambridge’ Part 1.) I am going to look in more detail at two close-up images of the women in the photograph, and investigate their connection to the women’s degree campaign.

UA Phot.174/4, Cambridge University Library digital archive

In this detail of the photograph, made possible thanks to Cambridge University’s digital library, a male photographer can be seen on the balcony of Great St Mary’s Church opposite Caius. He’s standing behind his camera, along with his male assistants and a handful of young women wearing white blouses and dark skirts and holding onto their straw boaters. These could be his female assistants but seem likely to be Girton or Newnham students who are viewing the scene with one of the few male undergraduates who supported women’s degrees, perhaps a brother or a friend. But who is the woman in the dark dress and more formal hat with her back to the camera, talking to one of the students?

In the second close-up by the bookshop (see below), more women and girls are visible. Some are with male companions, but most of the women who are gathered by the bookshop door look as if they have arranged to be there together. As on the balcony of St Mary’s, some of the group appear to be students, while others are older, wearing dark dresses and elaborate bonnets or hats. They could be there to chaperone the younger women, of course, particularly in this rowdy crowd of male undergraduates. But I think that many of these women were active supporters of the campaign to secure women’s degrees, perhaps due to their ongoing connections with Newnham and Girton, or as part of societies promoting women’s suffrage and access to the professions that had sprung up in 1880s Cambridge. The women’s identities are still a mystery, but we can make some educated guesses.

In the doorway of the bookshop, in a dark dress and hat and looking up at the camera, might be the Irish suffragist Mary Ward, then aged 46. She won a scholarship to Newnham in the 1870s and was a politically active student, campaigning for women to have access to university education on equal terms to men, and to be admitted to the University’s Tripos examinations. In 1879 she gained a first class honours in the Moral Sciences Tripos, the first woman to do so. She was a resident lecturer at Newnham until her marriage in 1884 to James Ward, a fellow of Trinity College and a keen supporter of women’s education. Mary continued her close ties with Newnham after her marriage, lecturing and supervising students, as well as becoming an active member of the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association (CWSA) founded in 1884.

I’ve been trying to work out who might be standing close beside her. Another former Newnham student who actively supported the women’s degrees cause was the botanist and geneticist Edith Rebecca Saunders. Known to her friends as Becky, in 1897 she was 32 and the Director of the Balfour Biological Laboratory for Women. She also worked closely with the biologist William Bateson, 36, whose sister Mary Bateson, 32, was a Newnham scholar of medieval history and for the previous two years had been one of the leaders of the campaign to secure women’s degrees at Cambridge. Mary was an active suffragist, along with her mother Anna Bateson (the CWSA’s co-founder) and journalist sister Margaret (Heitland). It’s hard to believe that no one from this extraordinary Cambridge family was there that day.

Some clues to the other women present might be found in a letter written six years earlier (see ‘Locked out of the library’ here). Mary Ward, Becky Saunders and Mary Bateson were among the twenty-four Newnham and Girton scholars who in 1891 politely requested greater access to the university library just as greater restrictions on non-university members’ use of it were under discussion. The library syndicate’s negative reaction to their request was ‘a clear warning of a growing reluctance to grant the women further privileges’, Rita McWilliams-Tullberg writes. It did not prevent these determined women from continuing their activism on behalf of women at Cambridge, however, notably Girton’s librarian and scholar E. Constance Jones; Bertha Skeat, the first resident lecturer at the Cambridge Training College for Women Teachers (the university’s oldest graduate college, later renamed Hughes Hall); and the historian Ellen A. McArthur who from 1896 ran the first hostel for postgraduate women students in Cambridge. Were they among the crowd that day?

Another 1891 signatory was Philippa Fawcett whose First Class in the Mathematical Tripos in 1890 made national news, proving women’s intellectual ability in subjects that until then had been considered as the preserve of men. In 1897 she was 29 and conducting research in fluid dynamics at Newnham, the college co-founded by her mother Millicent Fawcett who made clear her support for women’s degrees at Cambridge. Agnata Frances Butler (née Ramsay) was the only person to gain a First in the Classics Tripos of 1887. Although she gave up her work on Herodotus soon after marrying the Master of Trinity College, Montagu Butler, the following year, they both continued to be closely involved in the campaign to admit Cambridge women to the titles of degrees. In early May 1897 Montagu told Agnata that he was helping Henry Sidgwick to hold an urgent meeting in Trinity College’s Lodge to boost support for the women’s cause. He and Henry were in the Senate House voting on 21 May, and it’s possible that Agnata may have joined the women outside to lend her support.

Other possibilities are Elizabeth Welsh, then Girton Mistress; Ida Freund, an active suffragist and the first woman to become a chemistry lecturer in the UK; and Blanche Athena Clough, among others. Not all of the women’s supporters were connected with the colleges, however. Newspaper columnist Catharine Tillyard wrote scathingly about the undergraduates’ lack of good manners in the Cambridge Independent Press, so she may well have witnessed the rotten-egg throwing at close quarters. There is more information about her in the ‘Lost Cambridge’ blog here.

Mary Paley Marshall, Maud Darwin, Ida Darwin and Caroline Jebb were among the women and men who, whether present that day or not, continued to back the work of Newnham and Girton students and staff. But although the identities of many of the women in the photograph may never be known, what’s important was the steadily building groundswell of support for the women’s colleges throughout the UK and beyond. This would be much needed for the next fifty years as, without the university’s assistance, the growth of the women’s colleges depended entirely on private donations to fund residential buildings, libraries and research grants. It was thanks to the generosity of their many friends that, after this dark day in 1897, women at Cambridge continued to flourish and grow.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved. With thanks to Carolyn Ferguson.

Sources: ‘Effigy of woman undergraduate…’ (UA Phot.174/4), Cambridge University Library digital archive, https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/PH-UA-PHOT-00174-00004/1; ‘Cambridge boys celebrate…’, Graphic Arts Collection blog, Firestone Library, Princeton University: https://graphicarts.princeton.edu/2018/02/22/cambridge-boys-celebrate-when-women-are-refused-degrees/ ; Sue Slack, Cambridge women and the struggle for the vote (Amberley, 2018); Rita McWilliams-Tullberg, ‘Women and Degrees at Cambridge’ in Martha Vicinus, A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women (Methuen, 1977)

‘No women at Cambridge’: the 1897 protests

Part 1 The men in the photograph

On the morning of 21 May 1897, all along King’s Parade, thousands of men stand waiting. The view from a first-floor window shows a sea of straw boaters stretching into the distance. Most of the men in this photograph are Cambridge University undergraduates, some looking nonchalant with their hands in their pockets, others pressing against the railings that surround the Senate House. There are also serious-looking older men in dark suits and bowler hats in this vast crowd, and boys in flat caps who smile up at the camera. ‘The scene will never be forgotten’, one onlooker wrote, recalling ‘the excitement of the undergraduates who assembled in great numbers, the spectators at every window and on the tops of houses and St Mary’s Church, and fireworks in the Senate House Yard’. We can imagine the chatter and shouting to friends, the whistles and catcalls: a festive mood, that later would turn into ugly, anti-women violence.

The tensions had been building for months. The previous year, a special University Syndicate was appointed to discuss the case for Cambridge degrees to be awarded to suitably qualified women students. Since 1881, the two ‘ladies’ colleges’ of Newnham and Girton had awarded their own certificates to students who had fulfilled the University’s degree requirements and taken its final ‘Tripos’ exams. But by the 1890s many women were finding it difficult to compete in the professional workplace, where B.A.s and M.A.s were expected. Girton and Newnham students had already proved women’s intellectual ability, especially with the outstanding results of Agnata Frances Ramsay and Philippa Fawcett (see my ‘Locked out of the library’ post). The conferring of the title of degree would be ‘to the University at least unharmful’, the Principal of Newnham College Eleanor Sidgwick wrote, ‘and to women an unmixed gain’.

To begin with, the upcoming vote was discussed behind closed academic doors, with those in favour and against women’s degrees expressing their views in polite speeches. But soon the dons’ disagreements became a topic of polarised public debate, and daily newspapers ‘reported each thrust and counter-thrust in a fashion reminiscent of war-reporting’, the historian Rita McWilliams-Tullberg writes. The Times and the Morning Post did not need to give any reasons why women should be excluded from the responsibilities and benefits of the University: it was simply held to be self-evident, as shown by Oxford’s recent refusal to change its statutes. Many former Cambridge students (known as the M.A.s) suspected that giving women degrees would change the fundamental character of the ancient university and be ‘the thin end of the wedge’, leading to further invasions of male-held privilege.

The fact that the Cambridge vote was carefully worded to grant women the titles of degrees, and nothing more, made little difference to men like the Professor of Political Economy, Alfred Marshall. Despite his wife Mary Paley Marshall‘s ongoing teaching commitments at Newnham, and his own support for women’s education twenty years earlier, Marshall now wanted to have no women at Cambridge, and in 1897 he seized the chance to get excitable young men on his side. ‘Some opponents of the College used their influence with the undergraduates, and especially the athletic element,’ the historian Alice Gardner wrote in 1921, and ‘the voice of “sweet reasonableness” was drowned in angry clamour’. The views of undergraduates, athletic or otherwise, were not usually taken into account by their professors, but now male anger became a politically useful tool. Meetings were held and posters and daily flysheets printed and displayed around the town, with inflammatory slogans such as “Down with Girtonites! Non plus the Newnhamites!!”

Many Cambridge men in 1897 – undergraduates and professors, as well as the non-resident M.A.s – had convinced themselves that others were about to ‘steal’ something that rightfully belonged to them. When, in the afternoon of 21 May 1897, it was announced that the move to award women degrees had been defeated by a huge majority, 1,713 votes to 662, the huge roar of male voices could be heard for miles around. ‘Pandemonium broke loose’, the eye-witness recalls, and a hail of fireworks and rotten eggs were thrown at the dons in celebration, and crude effigies of women students were torn down and pulled apart. Students perching on the roof of Newnham College, waiting to hear the news, heard the shouting grow louder and more threatening as a mob ran towards Newnham and attempted to break down the gates of the college. Only the firm words of the Principal, Eleanor Sidgwick, as she and other women staff stood guarding the gates, stopped the men in their tracks.

In May 1897 most of the visible damage was done to property, with boards and shutters torn from shop windows to build a huge bonfire in Market Square. The damage done to the confidence of the women’s colleges was harder to repair. Although everything continued much the same as before, the Newnham and Girton college leaders could not forget the precariousness of their existence, and they became extra-vigilant about their students not giving offence or making any demands. It meant that for many more years the best women teachers, scholars and staff would continue to be excluded from research and participation in Cambridge University, at an ongoing cost to the university for another fifty years.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, January 2022, all rights reserved. Part 2, The women in the photograph, to follow shortly.

Sources

‘Crowds gather…’ : Cambridge University Library (UA Phot. 174/3) https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/PH-UA-PHOT-00174-00003/1

Alice Gardner, A Short History of Newnham College Cambridge (1921)

Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘The Road to the Senate House, TLS October 2019: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/road-senate-house-women-cambridge/

Rita McWilliams-Tullberg Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1998)

Gill Sutherland, ‘History of Newnham’, https://newn.cam.ac.uk/about/history/history-of-newnham/

‘The Rising Tide: Women At Cambridge’: https://www.cam.ac.uk/TheRisingTide

‘No Gowns for the Girtonites!’: Cambridge University Library https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/PR-UA-01897-POSTER/1