Our local history group was given a fascinating talk last night by Sean Lang of Anglia Ruskin University on ‘The Cambridge Bonfires’ - moments of civil unrest in Cambridge at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The unrest took the form of spontaneous bonfires in Cambridge’s Market Square, in which both Town and Gown participated. But these bonfires were to mark what today would be considered distinctly reactionary causes: the defeat of an attempt to extend the awarding of degrees to women, and the conferring of an Honorary Degree on Lord Kitchener, victor of the Battle of Omdurman.
Dr Lang recreated a world in which the Cambridge students treated the city much as their own fiefdom. Their territory was, after all, literally being extended. Cambridge university sports clubs were proliferating in the 1870s, 80s and 90s, leading to more and more plots of land in the vicinity of the city centre being given over to sports pitches. The river, while still very much a working channel of trade and communication, was increasingly dominated by athletic young men in rowing boats.
|1880 Cambridge University Rugby XV|
The masculine culture of the university was offended by the very idea of women (from Girton and Newnham colleges) being awarded degrees. The defeat of this proposal in 1897 was considered a relief by many male students and graduates, who wished to deny ‘Girton Girls’ the public recognition of a full degree. The authorities could do little to prevent the celebratory bonfire in the Market Square that followed.
|Picture showing the protest at Women's Degrees in Cambridge, 1897. The effigy of the woman on a bike was cut down and destroyed by the (largely male) crowd|
Another bonfire was expected in 1900, in anticipation of the Relief of Mafeking. This time, the city authorities were more canny in controlling the unrest. The Mayor, Horace Darwin (son of Charles) established a ‘Bonfire Committee’ to apply some organisation to the event. The location of the bonfire was switched to Midsummer Common, where its impact could better be controlled. Although the bonfire was huge, its effect on the city was less disruptive. The Market Square, this time, was carefully policed to avoid disorder breaking out.
|Dr Sean Lang shows a picture of the Midsummer Common bonfire of 1900|
Thereafter, there were far fewer examples of civil disorder in the city. The boisterous student culture calmed; Town and Gown learned to live more harmoniously with each other. How typically British that such violent examples of disorder and unrest were ultimately quelled by means of a local authority subcommittee…. and how sad that it took until 1948 before women were awarded full degrees.
|Mayor Horace Darwin|