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)

Steamboat Ladies: women at Cambridge & Dublin

 

Women were first admitted to Ireland’s oldest university, Trinity College Dublin, in 1904 and one of the most important episodes to raise Irish women’s academic reputation was the awarding of ad eundem gradum degrees to their predecessors at Cambridge and Oxford. Girton College was the UK’s first residential institution offering university-level education for women 1869, and Newnham was founded two years later. But although women had been studying and sitting for final exams at Oxford and Cambridge since the 1870s, they continued to be refused degrees at those universities. Between 1904 and 1907, over 700 ‘Oxbridge’ women travelled to Dublin by special arrangement to be given the degrees at Trinity instead. Among them were distinguished headmistresses, teachers and academics, who wanted to be able to prove their degree status and were nicknamed ‘Steamboat Ladies’ for the cheap ferry transport they used to to cross the Irish Sea from Holyhead.

Inviting these women to attend a formal graduation ceremony on the same terms as male students was a remarkable act of forward thinking on the part of Trinity College Dublin. Yet it happened almost by accident, as Susan M. Parkes writes in her book A Danger to the Men? A History of Women in Trinity College Dublin 1904-2004 (Lilliput Press 2004). The Trinity Board had presumed only a handful of Irish women who had studied at Oxford and Cambridge would take up the offer, and were surprised when hundreds of women arranged to make the journey to Dublin. ‘These distinguished women of varying ages were the leaders of women’s secondary and higher education in Britain’, Parkes writes. ‘Trinity was honoured by their presence, and though the majority of the “Steamboat Ladies” probably never returned to Dublin, they remained proud holders of University of Dublin degrees’.

Steamboat ladies

Seeing so many distinguished women gathered together must have provided inspiration to Trinity’s first generation of female students, who on regular occasions from December 1904 onwards watched the women proceed from the Provost’s house (where they had been given lunch) to the college’s gracious Front Square where they posed for photographs on the steps of the Dining Hall.  The last ‘Steamboat Ladies’ ceremony took place in 1907 and the revenue generated by the fees paid by these Oxbridge women enabled the purchase of TCD’s much-needed hall of residence for women, Trinity Hall in south Dublin. Its first Warden (and for the next thirty-two years) was Elizabeth Margaret Cunningham, who had studied modern languages at Girton College in the 1890s. She was herself one of the original ‘Steamboat Ladies’, travelling back to Ireland from her post as a lecturer at Royal Holloway College London. In 1908 she gave up her promising academic career to return to Dublin and make Trinity Hall a welcoming place for TCD’s female students. She wanted them to have the chance to experience the atmosphere of encouragement and support that she had enjoyed while studying at Girton.   

Sixty years later, in 1968, Barbara Wright (née Robinson) became one of the first four women to be elected to the Fellowship of Trinity College Dublin. To mark the occasion, Dame Ruth Cowen (then Principal of Newnham College Cambridge, where Wright had completed her Ph.D. degree in 1962) gave Professor Wright a remarkable gift: one of the original graduation gowns worn by one of original Newnham’s Steamboat Ladies. ‘I thought that was really moving that they wanted to mark the full accession of women to all stages in Trinity, in gratitude for what Trinity had done for them’, Wright said in a 2019 broadcast.  ‘These were very important women, in society, and in the world of learning, and it was extremely important that they should be recognised as such.’

It was wonderful to see this historic gown on display in last year’s Cambridge University Library exhibition ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’  (my review in the Times Literary Supplement is free to read here) As a TCD student in the early 1980s I was fortunate enough to be taught by Professor Wright and it was partly thanks to her inspiring teaching and encouragement that I came to Cambridge to study for my own Ph.D. in French Literature in 1985. It’s lovely that such historic, tangible connections exist between the first women at Trinity College Dublin and at Cambridge University.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

Libraries for our times

‘Bodleian Library’ by A. Pugin, in Joseph Foster’s Oxford Men and Their Colleges (1893) https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Oxford_men_and_their_colleges.djvu/601, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82456602

What role do libraries play in society today? And tomorrow? Last week I was fortunate enough to attend an online conference asking these questions, marking 700 years since the founding of the first purpose-built central library for the University of Oxford (you can see three excellent short videos on the past, present and future of the Bodleian Libraries on their website here.) Over the three days of the ‘Oxford Library 700’ conference there were fascinating talks by librarians, archivists and authors as well as specialists in the world of media, science and communication on the role that libraries have played and continue to play in our global society. Recordings of talks by Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden and others will be available soon via the website: meanwhile, I have listed a few of my own personal highlights below.

In his keynote speech, ‘The library as wishful thinking’, the writer and former Director of the National Library of Argentina, Alberto Manguel asked why libraries around the world are often seen as outdated institutions. ‘How can things have gone so wrong?’, he asked. Libraries are as powerful as the use we continue to make of them, and can be reduced to mere adornment if a nation perceives them as irrelevant. ‘Any cultural institution entails both the possibility of learning and of imaginative change’ he argued, ‘and also the duty to understand the use we make of these tools of survival.’ According to Manguel, if we want to make libraries and the information they hold relevant to people again, we should ‘encourage civil disobedience, behave badly, make the government do their job.’

The novelist and FT columnist Nilanjana Roy gave us a heartening glimpse into how people are continuing to access books in India, even after the coronavirus pandemic has caused so many public libraries to close. Roy is a founding member of PEN Delhi, and has spent time tracking the ‘pavement libraries’ that sprang up during the recent citizens’ protests in New Delhi. Most of these makeshift libraries were assembled by women who wanted to pass their love of reading on to their children and others in their neighbourhoods. ‘We saved the books,’ one woman told her, ‘and among ourselves, we still read.’ Roy reminds us that, wherever we are in the world, our libraries should invoke a similar ‘magical foundation of trust’, and the simple invitation: ‘come sit and read’.

Dr Sandra Collins has been Director of the National Library of Ireland (NLI) since 2015. Her talk began movingly with a treasured photo of herself as a child with her late mother, followed by a snap of W.B. Yeats with his family, to illustrate the role of a national library as a ‘memory keeper’ for all of its citizens. She showed us a photograph of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963, and told us that a man had recently written to the library to say that he was the overawed young boy, seen with his mother at Dublin airport. Since the NLI joined the image-sharing website ‘Flickr’ it has had over 8 million views, Collins said, with other ‘citizen detectives’ coming forward to enrich the national collection with their memories of their past.

What will happen to our contemporary memories, she asked, now that there are so few written letters and so much that is ‘born digital’? Collecting and curating is not neutral, she explained, and told us how, as well as guarding the nation’s treasures, the NLI’s mission is to collect ‘the ordinary and the superficial’ that will help to tell Irish people’s stories in the future. This includes capturing websites and other data in a way that embraces the diversity of modern Ireland. ‘How we collect today will shape our country’s memory in future,’ she said. ‘In this way, the ordinary becomes extraordinary’.

Screenshot of Dr Gardner’s Oxford Library 700 talk, 17 Sept 2020, by A. Kennedy Smith

Dr Jessica Gardner is University Librarian and Director of Library Services at the University of Cambridge. Her talk ‘Owning the past, seizing the present’ also addressed the question of how she and her colleagues might approach the past while striving to make a library that is fit for present and future challenges. Referring to the 700th anniversary of Oxford Libraries, she said: ‘we should celebrate such momentous occasions, but we are always in a state of becoming.’ The role of libraries today should be ‘challenging the past, illuminating the present’, and she wants libraries to be places of ‘conversation and activism’.

As an example of challenging the past, Gardner drew attention to her ‘Behave Badly’ badge, which coincidentally echoed Alberto Manguel’s words in his keynote address. The badge is a replica of one handed out by the renowned historian Lisa Jardine (Jesus College’s first female fellow) in the 1970s and ’80s, encouraging her women friends to pin it under their jackets if necessary. It featured in the University Library’s recent ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition, marking 150 years of women at Cambridge, and Gardner said that wearing it reminded her of the struggle that women at Cambridge had to gain equal membership of the university. She praised Dr Jill Whitelock‘s excellent archival research into the historical University Library as a ‘contested space’ that symbolized and reinforced privilege, and I was delighted that she also mentioned my recent blog about the 1891 petition, when 24 women lecturers from Girton and Newnham colleges politely requested access to the University Library. As Gardner says, ‘whilst their books were welcomed on the library shelves, their access to the library itself was severely restricted’.

Gardner urged her colleagues around the world to enable more people to make use of their libraries: ‘We should make our content as open and accessible as possible, for as many people as possible.’ Although access to public spaces has to be limited during this uncertain time, all of the talks I listened to last week reminded me that the future of our libraries will be to welcome more readers through their doors, and to be able to access their extraordinary collections digitally. Cambridge University Library has recently joined Google Arts and Culture so that it can share its treasures freely and openly with many more people.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 24 September 2020

 

Woman with a camera: Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985)


1915 portrait of Lettice Ramsey (née Baker) by Frances Baker © Newnham College, reproduced with kind permission of Newnham College (via Art UK‘s website).

A young woman wearing a red blouse leans against a balcony railing. Her head is tilted and her brown eyes are pensive, and there’s something resolute about her expression.  In the background is a landscape that has become familiar to viewers of last year’s BBC drama series Normal People: the light-filled west of Ireland coastline. As a small child Lettice Ramsey’s English parents moved to Rosses Point estuary in County Sligo where her father Cecil managed an oyster farm. When he died suddenly, her mother Frances Baker took her two young daughters a few miles south to live in the town of Ballysadare. Baker had trained with Gwen Raverat at the Slade School of Fine Art, and she opened a small shop in the town; her paintings were also displayed and sold in exhibitions in Ireland and the UK. She painted this portrait of here seventeen-year-old daughter in 1915, when Lettice was about to travel to England to board at Bedales, the progressive co-educational school in Hampshire, before going on to study at Newnham College, Cambridge.

This beautiful portrait, which now belongs to Newnham, seems to suggest Lettice’s feelings of sadness at leaving her home in Ireland, and her determination to succeed. In 2019 it was extensively restored by conservator Polly Saltmarsh before being displayed at Cambridge University Library as part of its 2019-2020 “Rising Tide” exhibition. The determined-looking girl in the painting studied moral sciences at Newnham from 1918 until 1921, worked in Cambridge University’s first Psychological Laboratory and would later pick up a camera to become, with Oxford’s Helen Muspratt, one of the leading women photographers of the 1930s in their studio partnership, Ramsey & Muspratt.

Yet it’s probably fair to say that these days Lettice Ramsey might be still better known for her famous husband than for her pioneering contribution to portrait photography. Frank Ramsey was the brilliant mathematician, philosopher and economist who, as an eighteen-year-old student at King’s College Cambridge, helped to translate Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus into English in 1921. Lettice (née Baker) was five years older than him and Newnham’s star student when they first met in 1920 at a meeting of the Cambridge Heretics society, where she was Treasurer. Frank gazed at her, too overawed to speak. He wrote in his diary that Miss Baker was “very beautiful and rather nice.”

They began their love affair in 1924, when he was a King’s fellow and she had returned to Cambridge to work at the Psychological Laboratory. They married in August 1925, had two daughters and a relationship that was happy if unconventional (neither believed that love meant exclusivity, and Lettice thought jealousy about sexual matters was reprehensible). Tragically, Frank died of liver disease in 1930, aged just twenty-seven. Cheryl Misak, the author of a new biography Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers (OUP 2020) is convinced that he caught Weil’s disease while swimming in the River Cam in what was an unusually warm October. There’s an excellent discussion about Ramsey’s life and work in this episode of BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking with Shahidha Bari and Cheryl Misak – and it has a delightful recording of Lettice’s voice halfway through.

After Frank’s death, Lettice Ramsey was left to bring up their two daughters alone. In 1932, her then lover Julian Bell invited her to his family home at Charleston in Sussex to meet his parents, Vanessa and Clive Bell. Ramsey brought along her new portable camera and took informal snaps of Virginia Woolf playing with her young niece Angelica Bell in the sunshine; Woolf in turn took a photograph of Lettice standing in her summer dress and one of the distinctive necklaces she often wore, holding what looks like an early Leica camera (see Maggie Humm’s Snapshots of Bloomsbury, 2005). The National Portrait Gallery in London has most of these portraits, and in 2012 put on an exhibition of a selection of them.

On a summer holiday in Dorset with her daughters later in 1932 Lettice met Helen Muspratt, ten years her junior, who owned a small photographic studio in Swanage. It was a life-changing meeting for them both, and may have given Ramsey an idea. Her own mother Frances Baker had earned a living as a single parent in Ireland by selling her paintings; perhaps Ramsey too could support her young family by combining her own artistic and business skills. In her book Face: Shape and Angle (2016), Helen Muspratt’s daughter Jessica Sutcliffe describes how Ramsey, almost on the spur of the moment, asked Muspratt to join her on a new venture. The photographic studio of ‘Ramsey & Muspratt’ (note the ampersand) opened on St Andrews Street in Cambridge later that year. The owner of their main professional rival, Palmer Clark, the town’s photographer since 1867, predicted that “those two ladies won’t last six months.” But Ramsey & Muspratt was so successful that after a couple of years Lettice and Helen bought Palmer Clark’s studio on Post Office Terrace for £600 and established their own premises there.[i]

The two women turned what was little more than a collection of old sheds in an overgrown yard into a purpose-built studio and shop, while the various outhouses were using for developing and printing. Lettice asked her friend Wittgenstein for advice on painting the studio’s woodwork, as he had helped to design his sister’s house in Vienna in 1925. “If it is good paint it white,” he told her. “If it is bad paint it black.” Thanks to his advice, Ramsey and Muspratt’s studio became a stylishly modern space. In 1937 a student journalist in Cambridge’s Granta magazine said it was “like one of René Claire amid Paris rooftops” which reflected Lettice Ramsey’s personal style. “Hers is the photography of originality… She does not need the old-fashioned curtained room, heavy arc lamps and elaborate watch-for-the-dickybird camera.” [ii] There is a rare photograph, probably taken by Helen Muspratt, of Ramsey in the Cambridge studio here.

Ramsey and Muspratt worked as an equal partnership, and as Granta wrote, “They prefer to take people naturally” taking turns to work in the studio and the darkroom. They always signed their portraits democratically as “Ramsey & Muspratt” even after Helen opened her own separate studio in Oxford in 1937. “Helen had the know-how and I had the connections,” Ramsey modestly recalled of her fashionable Bloomsbury set.  Throughout the 1930s many of the undergraduates photographed by Ramsey and Muspratt in Cambridge and Oxford would become very well known: Dorothy Hodgkin who in 1964 won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (she is still the only British woman scientist to be awarded a Nobel) and Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who would later become infamous as Soviet spies. In 1932 Lettice Ramsey photographed the ‘Apostles‘, including Sir Anthony Blunt. “All intellectuals in Cambridge were Communists at the time”, Ramsey recalled. “We had great hopes, but then were gradually let down.”[iii]

Many of these portraits are now in the National Portrait Gallery’s extensive Ramsey & Muspratt collection, which can be seen here. From the beginning, both women were also keen to push the boundaries of photography as an art form, and were fascinated by Man Ray’s photographic experiments (it seems they were unaware of Lee Miller’s similar work during this period). They discussed solarisation techniques in the studio’s darkroom with their Cambridge scientist friend, J.D. Bernal, and experimented with different styles, as Sutcliffe describes in her book. Their 1935 portrait of Eleanor Singer shows how imaginative their collaboration was (on Peter Loft’s website here).

Ramsey & Muspratt gained an international reputation during this time, and featured regularly in Photography magazine, whose editor praised the duo in 1936 for not following the lucrative route of becoming London society photographers: “Though they are too modest to claim it for themselves, Ramsey & Muspratt hold an important place in photography. For they are forcing the new idea, the modern spirit to the fore”. As Ramsey told him, “We are fortunate in having Cambridge as a field, as we get a lot of young people to photograph: undergraduates, who like experimenting in light and treatment.”[iv]

Helen Muspratt and Lettice Ramsey had a close friendship that lasted a lifetime, across two university cities, that continued long after their professional association ended in 1947. After Muspratt married and settled in Oxford, she was also her family’s main breadwinner, so their experimental photography of the 1930s was abandoned for the “bread and butter” business of wedding and university photography after the war. This might explain why Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes so disliked their 1956 “official” wedding photos taken by Ramsey, which Plath complained resembled “passport shots without imagination or sensitive lighting” (see my blog post here.)

Family photograph of Lettice Ramsey in the 1960s, with kind permission of Stephen Burch. Not to be reproduced without permission.

In the 1960s Lettice Ramsey often returned to the west of Ireland, where this photograph was taken (a rare appearance – she was usually behind the camera, her grandson Stephen Burch recalls). “We had a number of family holidays there in the 1960s, the first of which in 1963 marked the start of my interest in birding” Burch writes. A selection of Ramsey & Muspratt portraits and family photographs, along with other information, features on his website here.

In 1969, at the age of 71, Lettice Ramsey took her camera to Phnom Penn and Siem Reap, unconcerned about the threat of war in Cambodia. When she was forbidden to enter the country as a professional photographer, she simply obtained another passport in which she described herself as a housewife and carried on taking photographs undaunted (“I took hundreds,” she told friends). A year later, she climbed the scaffolding on King’s College Chapel to photograph the stained glass windows, and remained unconcerned when she was accidentally locked in overnight.

Lettice Ramsey reluctantly retired on her 80th birthday in 1978, and sold her Cambridge studio. She had hoped that it would continue as a working studio, her grandson told me, but the next owner’s business was not successful, and he sold the studio and extensive archive of photographic plates to Peter Lofts (who now owns the copyright to almost all Ramsey & Muspratt’s photographs). In 1978 the two women were photographed in their respective Oxford and Cambridge studios by John Lawrence-Jones for a Sunday Times magazine article called ‘The Photographers of Golden Youth’ by Francis Wyndham. This was the first time since the 1930s that their work had been recognized in the national media, and the magazine featured a range of their most famous (and infamous) subjects.

Lettice Ramsey died in 1985, so she did not live to see the recognition belatedly given to Ramsey & Muspratt’s achievements as women photographers: a selection of Helen Muspratt’s photographs were exhibited at Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries in 2020. Their photographs also featured in a Channel 4 programme, ‘Five Women Photographers’ in 1986 when Muspratt’s work featured in a major exhibition at the Bradford Museum of Film and Photography, reassessing the work of 20th-century female photographers, which toured the country for two years. In 2015 the portrait photographer Jane Bown went to Dorset to take Muspratt’s photograph for the Observer. It was a shame, as Jessica Sutcliffe writes, that Lettice Ramsey was not around to enjoy their renewed fame. “She, of all people, would have enjoyed the attention, appreciation, and, most of all, the accompanying parties”.

©Ann Kennedy Smith 3 July 2020 (all rights reserved)


[i] Jessica Sutcliffe Face: Shape and Angle, Helen Muspratt Photographer (Manchester University Press, 2016), p.50.

[ii] Quoted in Sutcliffe, p.50.

[iii] Quoted in Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert Guy Burgess: the spy who knew everyone (2016)

[iv] January 1936: quoted in Sutcliffe, p.63.

SOURCES: My warm thanks to Stephen Burch, Laura Dennis, Maggie Humm, Peter Lofts, Sara Rawlinson and Polly Saltmarsh. Thanks also to my helpful Twitter contacts in tracking down Lettice Ramsey information: Paul Bird @singleaspect; Dr Barbara @adoptanovel; and ArtUK’s Julia Abel Smith @jabelsmith.

Stephen Burch’s website ‘Stephen Burch’s Birding and Dragonfly website’

Peter Lofts’ ‘Lofty Images’ website, with many restored Ramsey & Muspratt prints available for sale

Jan Marsh, ‘ Pioneering photographer who made her mark in naturalistic portraiture and social documentary’. Obituary of Helen Muspratt, Guardian, 11 Aug 2001

Guardian photo essay: ‘Helen Muspratt: the camera of a communist radical’

Jean Mc Nicol ‘All this love business’ London Review of Books, January 2013

Cheryl Misak Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers (OUP 2020) 

“Mrs. Lettice Ramsey.” Obit. The Times (30 July 1985): 12.

Sara Rawlinson, photographer, who last year went on a cherry-picker to take photos of King’s College chapel: see online photography exhibition

Polly Saltmarsh, Saltmarsh Paintings Conservation

Frances Spalding Vanessa Bell: Portrait of the Bloomsbury artist (Tauris Parke, 2018)

Charles Saumaurez Smith writes about his family’s Ramsey & Muspratt collection on his blog here

Jessica Sutcliffe Face: Shape and Angle, Helen Muspratt Photographer (Manchester University Press, 2016)

Clubs of their own

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“We were a very lively buzzing community, pushing along our way, very much amused with ourselves,” Blanche Athena Clough wrote of her time as a Newnham College student in the 1880s (she later became Principal). As well as studying Classics, she had lots of college clubs to choose from, including the Shakespeare Reading Society, the Browning Society, several French societies and the ever-popular debating society. Both Newnham and Girton had a rich associational life, as the section on ‘Social Life’ in the ongoing ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition at Cambridge University Library reveals. Most of the University’s student-run societies that began in the 1870s were exclusively male, as Clough confirms. “We had no part or lot in University societies except the Ladies Discussion Society and I think C.U.M.S. [Cambridge University Music Society]… in any case the University generally were hardly aware of our existence.”

There’s no doubt that the women-led societies that began in the 1880s and lasted for so many years helped to make Cambridge a better place. They certainly made it more socially inclusive for the women involved. These were not University societies, but associations begun in many cases by academic wives and townswomen who worked closely with Newnham and Girton college heads Anne Clough and Emily Davies. I’ve been talking quite a bit about these clubs recently. I was invited to speak to Selwyn College alumni about the college’s first Master’s wife, Kathleen Lyttelton; and about ‘The Women who changed Cambridge’ at the rather splendid Oxford and Cambridge Club in London last November. Then I gave a talk called ‘A Club of Their Own’ at the University Library in December, connected to the ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition. This month I gave another version of that talk to the Friends of Milton Road Library in a bright and welcoming new library setting.

It felt appropriate to have such different settings for my talks, as the 1880s societies I discussed were the first to bring ‘town and gown’ women together in an active, outward-facing social network. Jessie Stewart writes that it was not surprising that, influenced by the feminist social reformer Josephine Butler, the Cambridge women’s ‘zeal for education brought social awareness’. The Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls (founded in 1883) was practical and philanthropic in nature, helping underprivileged girls to find employment as domestic servants; it was co-founded by Ida Darwin and other married townswomen and dons’ wives. ‘For some of the younger women, lately married, the “Care of Girls” served as a launch pad into national organizations, local government and the magistracy – they were a talented and ambitious generation,’ Christina Paulson-Ellis writes.  In 1956 it became the Cambridge Association for Social Welfare.

downloadThere were other more overtly feminist groups. In 1884 Selwyn Master’s wife Kathleen Lyttelton (pictured here) co-founded the ‘Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association’ with Millicent Garrett Fawcett, which was the beginning of Cambridge becoming one of the major centres in the long campaign for women’s votes. The ‘Cambridge Ladies’ Discussion Society’, mentioned by Blanche Athena Clough above, was a large discussion society founded in 1886 by Mary Paley Marshall and others with the aim of bringing University wives, townswomen and female students together to discuss social questions. Speakers included Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a medical doctor in England. In December 1892 she came to Cambridge to give a talk on the medical profession for women, and was ‘pelted with questions’ by Newnham and Girton students, according to a report in the Cambridge Independent Press.

IMG_8985Today, anyone who is interested in finding out more about these societies can access their extensive original archives in the Cambridgeshire Archives in a brand new, purpose-built site in Ely. It’s a bit harder to find out about the fourth club that I talked about, and have written about in this blog for the last few years. The twelve members of the Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society did not, as far as I know, keep minutes of their conversations or record details of the dinners they shared once or twice a term for almost twenty-five years. There are only intriguing snippets about the club in a couple of memoirs, and a handful of references in letters and diaries. It’s understandable that the women wanted to keep their conversations private, including from future researchers like me. The fact that it lasted for so many years shows that the Ladies’ Dining Society was deeply significant at a time when women’s voices and contributions to debate went largely unheard. ‘Even to form a ladies’ social club was a mild assertion of women’s right to public space’, as Doughan and Gordon write. Below I have listed their useful book, along with archive sources and a selection of excellent books, essays and articles about Victorian women’s societies.

The University has not always been welcoming to women, but the UL’s excellent Rising Tide exhibition and events show the remarkable things that women at Cambridge have achieved despite all the obstacles, and the Friends of Milton Road Library provide a year-round programme of stimulating and varied talks: more information here.

©Ann Kennedy Smith (all rights reserved)

Cambridgeshire Archives: Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society minute book, 789/Q139; Cambridge Association for Social Welfare (1883-1985) [formerly CACG]  R106/097; Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society minute book, 789/Q139; CWSA Papers to 1919: 455/Q16-57, 59-60, 62-79; archives held at the Cambridgeshire Collection (in Cambridge Central Library) and the Museum of Cambridge.

Secondary sources: Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999) and ‘Rooms Of Their Own: Victorian And Edwardian Women’s Clubs: Hesitant Beginnings‘ & other articles on ‘Woman and her Sphere’ website (accessed 16 Feb 2020); Louise Creighton, Memoir of a Victorian Woman: Reflections of Louise Creighton, 1850-1936 ed. James Thayne Covert (1994); D. Doughan and P. Gordon, Women, clubs and associations in Britain (2006); Linda Hughes, ‘A Club of Their Own: The “Literary Ladies,” New Women Writers, and Fin-de-Siècle Authorship’ Victorian Literature and Culture  35:1, March 2007, pp. 233-260; (1947); Amelia Hutchinson, ‘The “Hidden Histories” of women at Trinity’ (unpublished dissertation, 2019: https://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/news/amelia-hutchinson-on-the-hidden-histories-of-women-at-trinity/ )(accessed 16 Feb 2020); Mary Paley Marshall, What I remember (Cambridge, 1947); Sue Slack, Cambridge Women And The Struggle For The Vote (Amberley, 2018); G. Sutherland ‘Girton for ladies, Newnham for governesses’ in Teaching and Learning in Nineteenth-Century Cambridge, eds. Jonathan Smith and Christopher Stray, 2001) pp.139-149 and In Search of the New Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Britain 1870-1914 (Cambridge, 2015); Christina Paulson-Ellis, The Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls: Social Work with Girls and Young women in Cambridge 1883 -1954 (2008); Ann Phillips, A Newnham Anthology (Cambridge, 1979); Jessie Stewart, ‘Social Welfare in Cambridge’, The Cambridge Review, 5 November 1960;  Tamsin Wimhurst, The Development, Importance and Influence of a Local Network of Women c. 1886 – 1930: unpublished MA dissertation, University of Cambridge 2007