Unsung Women - The Cambridge 1897 Vote

ComposerKirsty Martin

Performed byWomen of Note

Location: This piece and its historical context are closely linked with the area near Senate House and St Mary's Street.

This audio file is a recording & edit by Historyworks:


Elizabeth Howe, Jane Elsden, Daisy Hopkins – tear it down
Disorderly girls – mistreated ones – unfortunates – tear it down
It cost fifteen hundred pounds a year -
to keep the women living in fear/ for the Spinning House – tear it down
Rise Up Rise up! Rebel Rebel! Resist Resist! and tear it down!

The spinning house built on hate and neglect
Cold and wretched – a filthy place
A prison for men to control and correct
Any girl who dared to show her face
Weak tea for supper and sleeping on straw
No fire to warm them or natural light
Cold water and bricks to scrub the floor
The women were shaking with anger and fright

Proctor and Bulldog they swore to protect
The scholars and Dons and the men of the Gown
For no reason the women and girls they’d arrest
Just for shopping or travelling to Town
Patrolling the streets, ignoring the law
Bulldog and Proctor they went on the prowl
Abusing their power strong arming the poor
And seized any woman by fair means or foul

Rise up, rise up, disorderly girls! Rebel, rebel, mistreated ones!
Resist, resist, unfortunates! & tear down the Spinning House! x3

Tear down the spinning house – break through the ceiling of glass
Tear down the spinning house – break through the ceiling of glass
History – will be ashamed of this – will be ashamed of this

Spinning towards equality / Revolution on her bike (she was)
Get you to Girton – get you to Newnham, Beatrice - Pioneers
Newnham – Girton – Pioneers
Anne Jemima Clough – and Emily Davies –
They couldn’t access the library -
They couldn’t work in the laboratory –
and they couldn’t receive their degrees –
(they couldn’t receive their degrees)
as there was no equality… (no equality)

Spinning towards equality / Revolution on her bike! (she was)
1897, the Senate put it to the vote –
Men came from far and wide – and called us
harpies, Suffragettes, lunatics and beggars
They strung us up and they shouted us down,
Yet through our defeat, we sang ‘we work in hope’

(Pioneers) Girton, Newnham, (Pioneers).
Some talk of Senior Wranglers, and some of Double Firsts
And truly of their species, these are not the worst
But of all the Cambridge heroes, there’s none – can compare
With Woodhead, Cook and Lumsden, the Girton Pioneers!

Tear down the spinning house – break through the ceiling of glass!

©Kirsty Martin 2014

Historical Context

On St Andrew’s Street there once stood a building where no Cambridge woman would have wanted to end up - the Spinning House. It was first known as Hobson’s House, due to Thomas Hobson being one of the eleven partners who founded it on the 30th July 1628. It was a place where the poor, both men and women, were put to work spinning wool, giving it its more common name of ‘the Spinning House’.

However, it soon became an institute specifically for punishing young girls and women, symbolising a big tension between the town and the gown, with the University employing its own force, known as bulldogs, to arrest local girls who were then locked up. Conditions inside the building were terrible, punishments handed out were harsh and strict rules of confinement were maintained. To many of the citizens of Cambridge, the Spinning House came to symbolise  the University’s hold over the city, as girls were often arrested for little reason and tried by the Vice-Chancellor’s Court, not through the normal system of justice. Eventually the Spinning House was shut down in 1894.

The university also treated its female students with little more respect. Girton and Newnham Colleges for women had been established in 1869 and 1879 by Emily Davies and Anne Jemima Clough but despite being able to attend lectures, many restrictions were placed on the female students. They couldn’t work in the laboratories, or have full access to the library and were unable to receive degrees. By 1897 their growing dissatisfaction resulted in the Women’s Degree Syndicate proposing to the Council of the Senate that full membership be awarded to women.

The poll was scheduled for Friday 21st May in 1897. This resulted in absolute outrage from the male students. The Cambridge Weekly News reported between 15,000 and 20,000 people surrounded the Senate on the day of the vote, mostly men intimidating those that wanted to vote in favour. They could be seen and heard at every window and roof in the area, even perching themselves on the top of St Mary's Church. Banners were hung out from Caius College and an effigy of a female student was suspended from the windows above Macmillan’s bookshop, now the Cambridge University Press bookshop. When the signal for commencement of the vote was given, a second effigy of a woman in a cap and gown was lowered from the upper windows of Caius College.

When the vote was announced the opposition had won with 1,713 votes to the 662 of those in favour, the male students tore down and burnt the effigies. The women of Girton and Newnham took the news of the poll and the behaviour of the male undergraduates with surprising stoicism and resolution. Another attempt was made in 1921 but this failed when Oxford agreed for women’s equality to take degrees, and so for Cambridge it wasn’t until after the second world war and the huge social changes that ensued, that on May 1948 women won their campaign for parity with the men at Cambridge, and could officially wear gap, gown and hood, and receive their degree.

Image courtesy of the Cambridgeshire Collection, Cambridge Central Library.

To find out more about the history that has inspired this composition and its lyrics you can visit the Historyworks website.

Click on the film link below to access a fun film showing the route and the process of the Cycle of Songs journey: 


Score, Lyrics and Part Recordings

Lyrics: You can download the lyrics here and read them at the foot of this page.

Score: You can download the score here.


The full demo of 'Unsung Women':

The full text of the Libretto can be accessed by clicking here

Seperate parts of the piece can be accessed below:





Unsung Women - The Cambridge 1897 Vote


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