A revolutionary proposal


In June 1958, plans were under way to build a new Cambridge college. It would be a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill, and promote teaching and research in science and technology. A campaigning group called the Women’s Freedom League wrote to Churchill directly with a proposal (“you may regard as revolutionary”) that he use his considerable influence to make it Cambridge’s first coeducational college. “You already know that great efforts are being made in all schools and colleges to increase the number of women scientists.” Churchill, 83, thought this sounded like a perfectly sensible suggestion. “I see no reason why women should not participate,” he told his friend, the civil servant Sir John Colville. But Colville, in charge of raising funds for the proposed college, was convinced that donors in British industry would withdraw their support if they heard that Churchill College was planning to admit female students. It would be, he told Churchill, “like dropping a hydrogen bomb in the middle of the University.”

Although women had finally won the right to Cambridge degrees in 1948, they were still very far from being represented equally at the University in the 1950s. Numbers were capped, and for every eleven males there was just one female student: Cambridge still had the lowest proportion of female undergraduates of any university in the UK. To help correct this, a third “foundation” for women students, originally called New Hall, was established in 1954, with just sixteen students in a house on Silver Street. In 1962 New Hall moved to its permanent home on Huntingdon Road, thanks to the generosity of Ida and Horace Darwin’s daughters, Ruth Rees Thomas and Nora Barlow who donated their former family home The Orchard and its grounds so that a college for 300 students could be built. The house had to be knocked down, and most of what Gwen Raverat described in Period Piece as Ida’s “poet’s garden” disappeared beneath the rubble, but it allowed this much-needed third college for women to come into existence, and Ida surely would have approved. The gardens of  Murray Edwards College (as it is now called) are still imaginative and beautiful.


Churchill’s 1958 letter to Colville (on loan from the Churchill Archives Centre) is just one of the many fascinating items on display in the new exhibition, “The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge” at the University Library, which uses letters, costumes and audio-visual material to tell the story of 150 years of women at Cambridge. Today, all the formerly male colleges are fully coeducational, and Churchill College’s website boasts that it was “in the vanguard of dramatically expanding female participation in Cambridge University” as the first college to vote to admit women in 1972 (the same year that King’s and Clare also became coeducational). In her excellent independent blog, the current Master, Professor Dame Athene Donald (the first woman to hold this post at Churchill College) asks “How many ‘Firsts’ does it take to change a system?’.  She makes the point that, although in 2019 there is gender equality across the University in terms of students, women still hold only 20% of the professorships. “I am pleased to be part of the advancement of women in Cambridge”, Donald writes. “I am not pleased it is still so far from complete. Everyone – most definitely including male leaders – have a part to play in making the progression speed up.” One positive recent development is that out of Cambridge’s 31 colleges, there are now 15 female Heads of House, including the new Master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, the first person of colour to head any college in Oxford or Cambridge. Hers is one of the 27 luminous portraits currently on view in the University Library’s Royal Corridor.

The “Rising Tide” curators Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin plan to add more archival items over the six months of the exhibition, which they describe as “a work in progress” – much like women at Cambridge, in fact. Professor Athene Donald will be speaking at the event closing the exhibition in March 2020, and my own talk “A club of their own: Cambridge women’s societies and associations 1883-1914” is on 5 December 2019 (tickets are free, but you’ll need to book here). And if you are in Cambridge visiting “The Rising Tide”, do go to Murray Edwards College to see the outstanding paintings and sculptures on view there; one of the world’s largest and most significant collections of contemporary art by women.

Finding Ida Darwin

‘she never let her vision become thickened and fogged, as most people do…Only some things were too terrible for her to look at, or tell’ Gwen Raverat, Period Piece

IMG_0903Just a mile or two south of Cambridge, after you pass the imposing gates of Fulbourn Hospital, there is a road to the left with a small sign marked ‘Ida Darwin’. It’s easy to miss. Turn in and you’ll find various single-storey prefabricated buildings scattered about in a leafy park, including a creche, a ‘Help the Aged’ centre, and clinics specializing in helping young people with mental health issues and their families. Block 10 is the home of Headway Cambridgeshire, an organization which supports people with an acquired brain injury and their carers. I went there this summer to meet a group who are researching the life of Ida Darwin, the woman the site is named after.

Ida was born in London in 1854, the daughter of the influential civil servant Lord Thomas Farrer and Frances, a renowned singer. She grew up in a world of Victorian culture and privilege. Her father was a keen amateur botanist and a close friend of the great naturalist Charles Darwin, and in 1880 Ida married Darwin’s youngest son Horace, an inventor. They moved to Cambridge, where Horace began a business making equipment for the new scientific laboratories.

In Period Piece (1952) Ida’s niece Gwen Raverat describes Cambridge of the time as ‘a society which was still small and exclusive. The town of course didn’t count at all.’ This was not true in Ida’s case. Being in a university town brought her into contact with women who shared her zeal for education and strong sense of social awareness. Inspired by the social reformer and feminist Josephine Butler, she and other like-minded wives formed an association to offer support to town girls who were being drawn into prostitution or suffering neglect or abuse.

Her work with disadvantaged girls led to her growing interest in the people who were termed ‘feeble-minded’. Along with an influential pressure group of scientists and public figures she campaigned for legislation to ensure improved mental health provision, and succeeded. The Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 was the first act by the British government specifically related to services for people with learning disabilities. At the time it was associated with the powerful eugenics lobby, with influential cabinet member Winston Churchill lending his support.

Ida was opposed to Churchill’s call for enforced sterilization, and sought a more humane approach. At the end of the First World War, she read about the ‘talking cure’ pioneered by her friend Dr Rivers for officers suffering from shell shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. She invited him to Cambridge to discuss how early intervention and counselling could help remove the stigma associated with mental breakdown.

In the 1920s Ida helped to organize one of the country’s first outpatient psychiatric clinics at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. She was co-founder of the Central Association for Mental Welfare, one of the three groups that formed the national mental welfare organization now known as Mind.

In 1970 the Ida Darwin Hospital at Fulbourn near Cambridge was officially opened, offering services for mentally disabled children. It was named after Ida in recognition of her work. No longer a hospital, it now combines NHS residential care for young people and their families with other community services.

The 1960s buildings are badly in need of repair, and negotiations for developing the site are underway. It may be turned into new housing, meaning that Headway Cambridgeshire and the other clinics would be moved elsewhere. When the builders move in, the name of Ida Darwin may disappear in the rubble.

With thanks to the Headway Heritage group at Headway Cambridgeshire.

Sources: The Darwin Archive at the University Library, Cambridge; ‘Who was Ida Darwin?’ http://www.headway-cambs.org.uk/who-was-ida-darwin/ (accessed August 25 2016); Gwen Raverat, Period Piece (Faber, 1952); Ruth Rees Thomas, ‘Ida Darwin 1854-1946’ Focus (magazine of Fulbourn Hospital, Cambridge) summer edition 1970.

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Finding Ida Darwin’, (August 25, 2016) https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)

See also: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Ida Darwin and the dangerous girl’ athttp://dangerouswomenproject.org/2016/06/23/ida-darwin/ (accessed August 25 2016)