Remembering Erasmus Darwin (1881-1915)

4th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment, 1914. 2nd Lieutenant Erasmus Darwin is in the middle of the back row.

Monday, 11 November, 1918 was a day of riotous celebration in Cambridge. Rowdy mobs of male students smashed shop windows and threw books and paintings into the street. Later a bull was driven into one of the colleges, and an effigy of the Kaiser was burned on a bonfire in Market Square. Cars roared about the streets all day long, and cheering men and women continued to shout and dance well into the night. On 12 November the Cambridge Daily News reported that ‘the world seemed to have turned upside down’.

Ida Darwin, 65, spent the day quietly at The Orchard, her home on the northern outskirts of Cambridge. From about noon, as she sat on the veranda overlooking her garden, she could hear the sounds of joyful pandemonium breaking out in the town. She wrote to her daughter Ruth that evening to describe how, within an hour of the announcement of the end of the war, ‘the whole town was beflagged and full of all kinds of motor vehicles tearing about regardless of petrol restrictions.’ Her husband Horace Darwin, 67, had been in the office of his Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company on Chesterton Road when he received a telephone call with the news. When he and the other directors came out to tell the workers that the war was over, ‘there was a seething mass of excitement & singing’, Ida told Ruth. ‘D[addy] had to stand on a table & make a speech & announced that the Works would be shut for the rest of the day. They ended with cheers for D…’

Ruth Darwin, 35, was in Reims in eastern France, working at a ‘Foyer des Soldats’, a hostel with a canteen and recreation rooms for convalescing French soldiers. (There were over fifty of such hostels, organized by the British Committee of the French Red Cross and staffed by English women volunteers.) The Darwins’ other daughter Nora Barlow was in London with her husband and four small children. Both Ruth and Nora understood why their mother felt so detached from the cheering crowds in Cambridge that day and the happiness of the end of this long war. Ida described it as ‘the feeling almost of dread of beginning normal life again with the blanks.’

Erasmus Darwin, Nora and Ruth’s brother, had been one of the first to enlist after war was declared on 4 August 1914. He was 32 and worked as a company secretary for an ironworks in Middlesbrough in the industrial north east of England. He had been working hard there for seven years and now was ready for an adventure. ‘You know of course that it simply means we shall be used for police duty, and it will be a kind of prolonged strenuous holiday,’ he reassured Ida. At first the army provided the excitement Erasmus craved. His company slept under canvas until the end of October, and their days were filled with rifle training and revolver shooting. Erasmus enjoyed taking his men out on scouting manœuvres over the Yorkshire moors, and a photograph of him shows him standing in his uniform and squinting into the sun a little self-consciously, as if amused to find himself in a muddy field playing war games with a group of men.

In November 1914 the company was moved from their temporary billets outside  Darlington to another camp forty miles north of Newcastle. Forty thousand troops were stationed there already, and more were arriving every day. Erasmus was convinced that his own company, with its experience and training would soon be sent to the front to fight: ‘We may be in France any day now, more than that none of us know …We were all getting tired of waiting for something to do and now that it has probably come we are glad.’

The reason for so many troops pouring into Newcastle that autumn was the prospect of an imminent German invasion. The Secretary of State Lord Kitchener announced a major alert for 20 November, when the tides and moon were particularly favourable for a sea crossing, and around the country three hundred thousand British soldiers were ordered to be on standby. But by December Erasmus told his parents that ‘the terrors of immediate invasion’ seemed to be wearing off. The winter months that followed in the training camp were cold, uncomfortable, and claustrophobic, with regular outbreaks of meningitis in the poorly sanitised billets. It seemed as if their regiment would never be sent to the front, and he and his fellow officers began to discuss organizing a tennis tournament for the summer.

At last, news came that the Yorkshire battalions should prepare for departure on 18 April. On 14 April Erasmus scribbled a note to his sister Nora in London: ‘No absolutely definite news but it is practically certain that we go on Friday’. Nora doubtless had other things on her mind, as her third child, a boy, was born that Wednesday. The following day, Erasmus received an official summons from the War Office to attend a meeting in London, and was offered a post working for the Ministry of Munitions. Erasmus turned it down, and went to visit Nora briefly to see her newborn son. He sailed with his company to Boulogne on 18 April.

A day after arriving in northern France he wrote to explain to his father that he had been asked to help to organize factories to produce the munitions that were badly needed by the British army. It would have been ‘interesting and important work’ Erasmus wrote, ‘but of course there are plenty of older men who can do it just as well as I can.’ Horace wrote back immediately:

You could not possibly have accepted the W.O. appointment; to have accepted a civil job almost to the day your regiment was ordered for active service seems to me out of the question. It wd. have been very nice for us having you still in England and doing really useful war work, but that is another story… Well good bye old chap, it is such a comfort to us to feel so certain you did right to join the army when you did.

Sadly, Erasmus never got his father’s kindly letter. At 5pm on Thursday 22 April the German army released 6,000 canisters of chlorine gas, a deadly new weapon, along the Ypres Salient. Thousands of French colonial troops died in what became known as the Second Battle of Ypres, and Canadian forces only just managed to hold back the German advance. All British troops available were needed to fill the gaps, so the Yorkshire battalions were ordered to advance to the front line on Saturday 24 April.

Before they set off, Erasmus tried to calm his men by joking that they should pretend they were ‘on a field day’, just like their training exercises on the Yorkshire moors. As they advanced towards the village of St Julien in columns of platoons they were fired on by German artillery and long-range machine guns from the front and on both sides. Erasmus was hit by machine gun fire and died instantly. He and Captain Jack Nancarrow were hastily buried near a farmhouse, in graves that were never subsequently found again.

Nora’s baby, born on 15 April 1915, was named Erasmus Darwin Barlow. Horace Darwin joined the new Ministry of Munitions in May 1915, and during the war the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company would develop equipment to locate the position of enemy guns, and instruments such as gunsights in aircraft. On 30 April 1915 Erasmus Darwin’s obituary was published in The Times, written by his cousin Bernard Darwin. He wrote that Erasmus ‘had many of the warmest friendships; nor could anyone have been more wholly delightful and light-hearted than he was in holiday mood.’ One of the few holidays his hard-working cousin allowed himself, Bernard wrote, was returning to Cambridge for May Week every year. Erasmus would have loved the exuberant celebrations of Armistice Day 1918.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved. 14 November 2021

Sources: Ida Darwin letters: Add. 9368.1: 6105, Add. 9368.1: 6112: Erasmus Darwin letters DAR 9368.1: 3177-82, Cambridge University Library Darwin Family Papers. https://greenhowards.org.uk/announcement/erasmus-darwin/


 

Beginnings

RBLIn my previous post I wrote about the 1881 Senate 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. ( Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece shows him being fussed over by Henrietta) As a former student and tutor 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 December 1947. The present Queen’s mother was the first woman to be awarded the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Laws (Honorary) in October 1948.

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)

Even so, Emma Darwin was not in favour of complete equality. 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 shared the Darwins’ liberal attitudes to women’s education, but when it came to his old university it seems that he wanted to keep the status quo. He was worried that by giving women the right to take exams Cambridge had 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 they wouldn’t be allowed into the British professions in any case.

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 nineteenth-century teachers included Ruskin, John Stuart Mill and William Morris. EM Forster and Seamus Heaney were among those who taught there in the twentieth century. There’s an informative UCL history project on 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 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.

Litchfield was wrong to fear women students as he did, and believe it was ‘the beginning of the end’ for Cambridge. This year Cambridge University celebrates beginnings: ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibitions, events and talks will mark 150 years of women at Cambridge, from 1869-2019. The future looks bright.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 14 July 2019. All rights reserved.

Ida Darwin and the refugees, 1914

Refugees_from_Belgium_in_Paris,_1914.jpg

Ida Darwin and her husband Horace were staying at a spa in the Haute Savoie, south-eastern France, when the Great War broke out on 4 August 1914. At first they thought they would wait until things settled down – only on 19 August did they decide to set out for home. This story is based on a letter that Ida wrote in September 1914 to her son Erasmus.

Ida and Horace arrived in Paris early on Tuesday 25 August, exhausted by their long train journey from Lyons and intending to rest in a hotel for a day or two. The streets that they knew well were now eerily empty. One shop on the Rue de la Paix carried a notice on its plate glass window saying that the owner and employees had gone off to war and asking the public to protect his property. Outside their hotel Ida observed people ‘eagerly buying the fresh editions of the papers with the accounts of the German advance & the beginnings of the fighting at Mons & standing still on the pavement to read them.’ They decided that it would be wise to leave Paris on the first train available, so Ida left Horace in their hotel room and went to have their passports stamped at the British Consulate.

They boarded a train leaving Paris that evening. As the train headed north Ida was struck by what she saw from her carriage window.

Our train stopped at every station & the carriages were besieged by soldiers begging for French newspapers. As we went along we saw rows & rows of horses and artillery silhouetted on the evening sky, & at Chantilly as we passed through the station was full of women & children camping out. These were the first of the refugees that we had seen.

They disembarked at Amiens at 11pm, where another train was supposed to take them on to the ferry port of Boulogne. The promised train did not arrive. Ida managed to find a porter, who told them that a trainload of wounded soldiers was expected at any moment and all other trains had been held up. It was the second night of the Battle of Mons and most of Amiens’s larger buildings had been turned into impromptu hospitals.

As they stood on the platform, unsure of what to do, Ida watched uniformed British Red Cross men darting about making preparations. Train upon train pulled in, each disgorging not wounded men, but more and more refugee families, who were then shunted on to other trains. Their porter stared at the bedraggled women and children crowding the platforms, muttering ‘Ah! Mais ce n’est pas gai.’ Ida described the pitiful scene to Erasmus.

Many of the people looked very poor & others were well to do. All with children or dogs. One sick woman was being carried on her bed by 2 priests, another by her friends – there were little nuns too, & farm labourers and their bundles. The whole station was full of the shrill sound of women’s and children’s voices, until that lot was sent off & another was poured out afresh onto the platform. And all the time there was a slow procession on the further side of trains carrying gun carriages, covered carts & other war material & endless strings of the Nord engines, being withdrawn from the enemy.

Ida and Horace took turns sitting on their trunk and bags, not daring to move far from each other for fear of getting separated in the crush of people. Their porter waited with them. Ida told Erasmus how ‘that long night 25th to 26th – the second of the battle of Mons – in the great black station with its couching arc lights & its panting engines & its ever growing crowds of refugees, is burnt into one’s memory for ever.’ She tried hard not to think about plume-helmeted Prussian troops on horseback, riding into the station with their bayonets aloft.

When dawn came Ida shared out their remaining chocolate and biscuits with the mothers of crying babies, and wondered if she would ever see England again. Then, just after 6.30am, the train to Boulogne arrived, and their faithful porter managed to bundle them into a carriage with their luggage. Ida couldn’t help noticing that it was a third class carriage, but she did not mind.

They travelled with five weeping women and their children. One mother with a baby girl and two young boys told Ida that she had been given an hour’s notice to leave her home near Cambrai on the French-Belgian border. She told Ida that they had spent all of the previous hot day travelling by train, and when they stopped at one station, kind English soldiers had run along the platform, passing their tin mugs of water up to the thirsty children.

Ida and Horace sailed from Boulogne on Wednesday afternoon, six English gunboats guarding their ship’s passage across the Channel. She told Erasmus how strange it was to look out of their Folkestone hotel window on Thursday morning and see Englishmen and women, towels under their arms, peacefully strolling down to the beach. Three days later the cross-Channel ships stopped running.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 15 November 2018

My next post will be about Ida and her friends’ (including Eliza von Hügel)  involvement with Belgian refugees in 1914-18. This year’s ‘A Window On The War’ project has more information about a wide range of Cambridge women’s work during the Great War, with an excellent photographic exhibition now at Michaelhouse Café until 24 November. Its curator J. E. Bounford’s fascinating blog is here

Sources: Ida Darwin, Making for home, August 1914 (Blackwater Press, 1995). For more information about Ida Darwin, see Headway Cambridgeshire’s timeline.

The ascent of women at Cambridge

 

9781107158863When women were given the right to take examinations at Cambridge University in February 1881 Charles Darwin, aged 72, rejoiced. ‘You will have heard of the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’, he wrote from his home in Kent to his son George. ‘Horace was sent to the Lady’s [sic] College to communicate the success & was received with enthusiasm.’ Darwin is not usually celebrated for his feminist sympathies. In Descent of Man (1871) he stated that ‘the average standard of mental power in man must be above that of women’. As Dame Gillian Beer writesin regard to women Darwin ‘failed to observe in this one field the pressures of environment that were elsewhere fundamental to his arguments.’ She has contributed the foreword to a revealing new book, Darwin and Women by Samantha Evans (my review of it is here). This selection of lively letters from the team behind the Cambridge Darwin Correspondence Project shines light on many of the remarkable women with whom Darwin corresponded with interest and intellectual involvement over his lifetime.

Many of the women scientists, journalists and writers who wrote to the great scientist were involved in the promotion of women’s education. Although Darwin’s daughters Henrietta and Elizabeth (Bessy) did not have the opportunity to enrol at the new women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, they attended lectures at London University and shared a keen interest in education with their friends. ‘Women in their circle, even without raising any particular banner, were extraordinarily active’, Evans writes, ‘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.’ Darwin’s daughter-in-law Ida Darwin (married to Horace) was a keen supporter of Newnham, the ‘Lady’s College’ that Darwin refers to, and a future daughter-in-law, Ellen Crofts Darwin, studied and lectured there.

The ‘triumph of the ladies’ at Cambridge in 1881 was short-lived. Although women had won the right to sit for final exams, there was to be no membership of the university, no degrees and not even the right to attend lectures for many years to come.