In April 2022, two of Charles Darwin’s field notebooks (one containing his iconic 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ sketch) made headline news all over the world. They had been missing from Cambridge University Library for almost twenty years despite extensive searches (see BBC report here) and the UL’s Librarian Dr Jessica Garner decided that these priceless objects had probably been stolen rather than misplaced. Following advice from the police and Interpol, a public appeal for help was launched. Almost two years later, all the CUL staff were delighted when the notebooks were safely, and anonymously, left outside the Librarian’s office in a pink gift bag. An excellent new University of Cambridge podcast discusses the mystery of the missing notebooks.
The notebooks are the pocket-sized stars of the exhibition, ‘Darwin in Conversation’ at the Cambridge University Library from 9 July – December 2022 (it will be in The New York Public Library from from April – July 2023). The exhibition comes at the completion of almost 50 years of the Darwin Correspondence Project, founded in 1974 and currently directed by James Secord and Alison Pearn. 2022 marks the last volume of the print edition going to press, and the thirty volumes will contain more than 15000 letters. In November 2022 all of these, with extensive contextual notes, have been made available to read free online as part of the Project’s vast digital archive.
Darwin’s most extensive correspondence was with his close scientific friends Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, Asa Gray and Thomas Huxley, and letters were Darwin’s principal way of sharing his ideas with them and other scientists, especially after the first Origin of Species was published in 1859. (Darwin updated five further editions in his lifetime, ‘each edition taking those conversations forward’ as Alison Pearn has said). Letters also acted as his primary research tool and a way of seeking out information from the general public. During his lifetime Darwin corresponded with around 2,000 people around the world, in what biographer Janet Browne calls ‘an ever-expanding web of scientific correspondence’ spinning outwards from his study in Kent. In Charles Darwin: The Power of Place(Pimlico, 2003), she describes how Darwin corresponded with ‘civil servants, army officers, diplomats, fur-trappers, horse-breeders, society ladies, Welsh hill-farmers, zookeepers, pigeon-fanciers, gardeners, asylum owners and kennel hands’ (p.10). By 1877 it is estimated that he had spent the equivalent of £2,000 on postage and stationery.
Several of Darwin’s correspondents were scientific women, who at the time were excluded from the Royal Society, the Royal Geographical Society, and the Linnean Society. In her book Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters (CUP, 2017) Samantha Evans includes letters from the botanist Lydia E. Becker, who was setting up a small scientific society for women in Manchester and asked Darwin for a copy of one of his botanical papers ‘such as that on the Linum which you have communicated to the learned societies but which is unknown and inaccessible to us unless through your kindness’ (Evans, p. 212). In January 1867 Darwin sent Becker two papers from his sickbed, revealing his positive attitude to women in science, and Becker and her group were touched by the his kindness (see my post ‘The ascent of women at Cambridge’ here).
More than 9,000 of the 15,000 letters that Darwin is known to have written and received are held at the Cambridge University Library, and this new exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to see some of them, along with the ‘Tree of Life’ notebooks and much else. It runs until 3 December 2022, and tickets can be booked here. It is accompanied by a contemporary photographic commission by Leonora Saunders re-imagining people who connected with Darwin through letters: ‘those that were rarely seen – and lesser heard’ including Lydia Becker.
Ann Kennedy Smith, July 2022, all rights reserved.
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.
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.
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 inThe 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.
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)
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 1880gave 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.
[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.
[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
In my previous post I wrote about the 1881 Senate House vote at the University of Cambridge giving women the right, for the first time, to take final exams. Ida Darwin had written to her sister-in-law Henrietta Litchfield (née Darwin) asking her to encourage her husband Richard Buckley Litchfield to travel to Cambridge to support women’s education there. (this charming illustration by Gwen Raverat in her memoir Period Piece shows him being fussed over by Henrietta) As a former student of Trinity College he had the right to vote on University matters. As it turned out, the vote was won by a large majority, although Cambridge degrees were still some way in the future for women, who were not admitted to membership of the University until 1948, when the present Queen’s mother was the first woman to be awarded the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Laws (Honorary).
Samantha Evans is author of the excellent Darwin and Women (CUP, 2017) which I reviewed here. In her book Evans describes how Charles Darwin’s ideas were affected by the women scientists he corresponded with, as well as his wife Emma and daughters Henrietta and Bessy’s active engagement in lifelong learning.
Women in their circle, even without raising an particular banner, were extraordinarily active: they learnt mathematics and physics; they hired tutors; they took examinations; they watched debates in the House of Commons from the ladies’ gallery; they attended university lectures if they were open to women. (Evans, p. 210)
Last week I came across Evans’ fascinating article (see link here) about Emma Darwin’s attitudes to higher education for women. In March 1881 Emma wrote to her son George about the recent vote.
You heard of the triumphant vote for the girls at Cambridge having their places in the exam. made public. Horace went to tell them about it & was received w. clapping. Afterward they put all their candles & lamps in the windows & ended w. a dance. R. thinks it is the beginning of the end & (I believe), that they will turn out as badly as the Russian young lady Doctors at Zurich.’ (DAR 251: 1002 Emma Darwin to G. H. Darwin, 7 March 1881.)
Horace, Ida’s husband, was so elated with the good news that he rushed to Newnham to celebrate with them, but his brother-in-law ‘R.’ (Richard Buckley Litchfield) felt very differently. Ida had assumed that Richard would share the Darwins’ liberal attitudes to women’s education, but Emma Darwin’s letter reveals that when it came to his former university, he preferred to keep the status quo. He was worried that, by giving women the right to take final exams, Cambridge had already gone too far and it would mean “the beginning of the end” for its continuing success as a university.
In her article, Evans explains that the ‘Russian young lady doctors’ who went to Zurich to study medicine were told in 1873 that they would not be offered appointments in Russia on their return. Effectively, their education would be worthless, and they faced a stark choice of either returning to their home country or continuing with their work abroad. It was a stark choice. Richard Litchfield was arguing (quite reasonably, if rather pessimistically) that there was little point in women trying to get a Cambridge education, because even if they did, they wouldn’t be allowed into the British professions.
Yet Litchfield was himself a forward-thinking educator. In 1854 he was one of the group who founded London’s Working Men’s College at 31 Lion Square in Bloomsbury to provide artisans with the chance for an education. It was one of the first adult education institutions, and its illustrious nineteenth-century teachers included John Ruskin, John Stuart Mill and William Morris. E.M. Forster and Seamus Heaney were among those who taught there in the twentieth century. There’s an informative UCL history project about the college here.
In 1864, Elizabeth Malleson opened the Working Women’s College just round the corner at 29 Queen Square. She wanted the two colleges to merge, but the council of the male college (including Richard Litchfield, who taught there for many years) resisted. Perhaps he felt it would be the beginning of the end for the institution he had done so much to establish. It was only in 1966 that women were admitted to the male college, eight years after the first women gained degrees at Cambridge. Now known as WMC -The Camden College, it provides courses equally to men and women today, particularly for those who have missed out on traditional educational opportunities, including the unemployed, older adults and refugee learners.
It’s a shame that Litchfield feared that by awarding women students their degrees, it was ‘the beginning of the end’ for Cambridge. After all, it was because of the women’s success in final examinations that teaching standards were raised across the University. This year Cambridge celebrates beginnings: ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibitions, events and talks will mark 150 years of women at Cambridge, from 1869-2019.
On the 19 February 1881 Ida Darwin sat down in her home in Hills Road, Cambridge to write an urgent letter to Henrietta Litchfield, her sister-in-law. They had been friends for years, long before Ida had married Henrietta’s brother Horace just over a year before, and often wrote to one another. But this letter was different. It was not about either of them, but about women’s rights in the future. ‘There is great excitement at Newnham & Girton about the voting which is to take place next Thursday’, Ida told her,
which will decide the fate of women up here for some time to come. I have sent a circular about it to Frank [Darwin] who says he will come up if he can. Could & would Richard come too? If the women do not get the certificate granted to them this time, their position will be worse than it has been, as they will lose the privilege of being examined by the University examiners.
Ida was referring to the Senate vote – about to take place on 24 February 1881 – on whether Cambridge University’s final year Tripos examinations should be opened to female students by right, not by favour as had been the case until then. Every M.A. (male graduate) who could attend the vote counted, so Ida was attempting to round up as many of the Darwins’ extended family as she could.
Since 1874 twenty-one women had been granted special permission to take the Tripos, and all had succeeded, with four being placed in the First Class. By 1881, even though there was still no question of female students being awarded degrees, pressure had been building on Cambridge to give some sort of formal recognition to its female students, particularly since London University had opened its degrees to women three years before. In 1880 a petition known as the Newcastle Memorial had obtained over eight thousand signatures from across Britain calling for Cambridge University to grant ‘to properly qualified women the right to admission to the Examinations for University Degrees’.
The Memorial had come as a surprise to the leaders of both of the women’s colleges, but Newnham College’s Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick and the college Principal Anne Jemima Clough felt that the time was right to move forward. Emily Davies at Girton argued that the proposal did not go far enough, but reluctantly accepted that Girton had to support it. She knew that if the vote was defeated it might mean the end of the women’s colleges’ tentative relationship with the University.
Ida Darwin had made many friends at Newnham, including Helen Gladstone, the Prime Minister’s daughter and Ellen Crofts, a young lecturer in English. Horace’s mother Emma Darwin knew Anne Jemima Clough well, and his sisters Henrietta and Bessy attended lectures at London University. Before she married, Ida had wanted to study at the newly founded Somerville College at Oxford; now that she found herself in Cambridge as a wife, not a student, she wanted to help others, and was determined that more doors into higher education should be opened to women in the future.
On 24 February the Senate House was packed with about 400 M.A.s and Henry Sidgwick was pleasantly surprised when it dawned on him that almost everyone there was in favour of the women’s vote. ‘Ultimately, with great trouble, I discovered the enemy seated in a depressed manner on a couple of benches in one corner, about thirty in number,’ he later wrote.
The Graces allowing women students to take the Tripos were passed by 366 votes to 32: Ida and others’ efforts to round up supporters had worked. In Kent, Charles and Emma Darwin rejoiced when they heard the news. ‘You will have heard of the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’, Charles told his son George. ‘Horace was sent to the Lady’s [sic] College to communicate the success & was received with enthusiasm.’
But in their celebrations of February 1881 neither the Darwins, nor Ida and her Newnham friends, could have known that their optimism about women’s status at Cambridge would not last. From then on, women’s progress towards recognition by the University was increasingly blocked by those who were reluctant to change its status quo as a university for men. The photograph on the cover of Rita McWilliams-Tullberg’s book above shows the thousands of male undergraduates and M.A.s who gathered to protest against the Senate’s 1897 vote to grant degrees to women students, who would not win the right to degrees and full membership of Cambridge University until 1948.
Sources: Ida’s letter to H. Litchfield is Add.9368.1: 5977, C. Darwin’s letter is DAR 210.1:103, both from the Darwin Papers held at Cambridge University Library; other quotes are from Rita McWilliams-Tullberg’s chapter ‘1881 Admission to Examinations’ in her excellent Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1998) (pp 70-84). See also my post ‘The Ascent of Women at Cambridge’ and the excellent Cambridge University Library online article here: https://www.cam.ac.uk/TheRisingTide