How 40 years of debates and discussions focused the minds of the well-connected families in Cambridge to deal with poverty and multiple deprivation the towns slums

Some of you may have read about my recent findings from the Cambridgeshire County Archives. (If not, please read as this blogpost will make more sense that way). Some of you may have notice that former Equalities Minister Baroness Lynne Featherstone was in Cambridge very recently. I asked her about encouraging more women into local democracy given that there was only one other woman in the room that evening. Her response was unequivocal.

Public speaking.

It was something I raised with a meeting the following night with the Cambridge Women’s Equality Party – who agreed with Lynne above.

Opportunities in Cambridge to improve public speaking skills.

Cambridge already has an active public speakers club – Cambridge Toastmasters. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, they are a very good starting point.

For students & young people, Cambridge University runs its own Model United Nations club – something I used to take part in during my student days many years ago. (I’m getting old!) The next Model UN Conference in Cambridge is in late October 2017.

“What would a local government equivalent of Model UN look like?”

Personally I’d love to help organise one. The template is almost identical to the Model UN one. Organisers pick themes for different committees to debate and formulate resolutions on, and then at the end of the event the resolutions are put to a vote by ‘the full council’ – ie all of the participants.

For somewhere like Cambridge, I’d set it up for schools and further education colleges, where participants can represent the village or neighbourhood they live in, or represent a political party. Either way, they have to undertake research to find out what the concerns and issues are on the theme their committee is debating. That way, participants not only find out about what local government does, they get to do role plays too. I’d also have The Guildhall as the host venue. The reason being that once you’ve stood up in the council chamber to ask a public question in a role play, doing it for real at a full city council meeting at a later date is a doddle.

“What’s this got to do with Newnham?”

It was at Newnham College that the first meeting of the Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society took place – way back in 1886. When Anne Jemima Clough, Newnham’s first principal, along with Cambridge heroes Eleanor Sidgwick and Mary Paley took part in that first meeting, I don’t think they had any idea what they were about to unleash on Cambridge.

“What did they unleash?”

A local political revolution – or rather ‘evolution’ because it was very much one step at a time, but certainly from that point onwards, there was movement. Had the local male establishment not dragged their feet (and ditto Parliament & Whitehall), the group would have achieved so much more than they did. The problem as I see it was that the law at the time would not let them.

“What did they talk about?”

In a nutshell, ‘how to change the world’. Starting with the most difficult issue of the day.


Courtesy of the Cambridgeshire County Archives

Poverty and multiple deprivation hit the children the hardest. Two of our town’s most brilliant minds – Eglantyne Jebb (who would later go on to found Save the Children) and Leah Manning – later Dame Leah Manning MP, would sharpen their political and campaigning teeth on this issue from their early 20s in Cambridge. I’ve written about both of them here. Interestingly, it was a 30 year old Eglantyne Jebb who would take the place of her mother (also called Eglantyne but known as Tye) on the committee of the Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society.

Note too that this was a time of huge change in Cambridge as far as our built environment was concerned.


Courtesy of the Cambridgeshire County Archives

A number of buildings that we think of as being centuries old are actually Victorian. The Waterhouse buildings of Gonville and Caius at the northern end of King’s Parade by Senate House (The ‘Harry Potter Tower’ I call it) and the Catholic Church of Our Lad7 & English Martyrs are two examples. People’s palaces – as featured in this BBC documentary were a big thing in those days. In stark contrast to today where too many developers and their financiers do everything in their powers to weasel out of any commitment to provide public and civic buildings beyond the bare minimum they can get away with. And even then, too many game the system.

“Stop ranting – what else did Newnham do?”

It was the early Newnham women that first of all kept the series of termly discussions going in those early years. Florence Ada Keynes – another early Newnham graduate would become one of the pillars not only of the discussion society, but also of the National Union of Women Workers (to whom the society affiliated to in 1913) – later the National Council of Women of which she became president in the early 1930s.

“What’s that got to do with today?”


Courtesy of the Cambridgeshire County Archives

Two of the debates on women in local democracy in 1898 and 1908 respectively show that getting more women active was clearly an issue. When the ban on unmarried women standing for election to district councils was removed, Florence Ada Keynes and Maud Darwin – the American daughter in law of Charles Darwin and a Cambridge Hero in her own right (we got women police officers largely because of her) called on unmarried women to put themselves forward for election – as the Cambridge Independent Press below reveals.


The co-signatories to that letter contain some very influential names – including a number of men. Don’t believe me? Have a read below.

The names that stand out include:

  • Dr Neville Keynes – a prominent economist in & at Cambridge – husband of Florence & father of John Maynard Keynes.
  • Lady Caroline Jebb – married to the classicist Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb (& noting that Eglantyne and her mother, listed as Mrs Arthur Jebb both signed too)
  • Mary Allan – Principal of Homerton College
  • Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick, the latter being the second principal of Newnham (and also the sister of the former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and niece of former Prime Minister Lord Salisbury
  • Dr Venn – The Venn diagram? Him – but he was a lot more than a diagram.

Historians of Cambridge (town and gown) will be familiar with far more names than I am – note how many couples signed as well. This wasn’t the men tolerating something for their wives and daughters to make themselves useful with, rather this was them supporting them and publicly identifying themselves with the cause. My point here being historical learning point for today’s generation of men who want to campaign against the injustices that women – and many other people across our societies still face. (This is where the protected characteristics list in the Equalities Act 2010 is useful).

“So…what happened to it?”

As Florence Ada Keynes describes, many of the original founders grew old and passed away. The final record in the papers she deposited in the county archives made me smile. Scroll to the end of this blogpost.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone reconstituted the society?”


Recall too the founding principle of the society’s founding back in 1886.

That a society be formed in Cambridge with the object of bringing together ladies who are interested in the discussion of social questions

There’s nothing to stop anyone from reforming the above – with exactly the same remit, organising and hosting termly gatherings. One of the things that strikes me is that the regular frequency in which the meetings were held, the large halls they were held in, and the organisers’ abilities to bring in eminent speakers to speak – and more importantly be cross-examined by the audience of women must have been persuasive for the men that spoke before them.

Dare I say it, the changes that Cambridge is currently going through, and the disproportionate impact that austerity is having on women means that if there is a time to reconstitute such a group with a similar, local remit, now is the time to do it.


Original source – A dragon’s best friend

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