Wife and Mother

“She must have been enchanting when young; so fine-spun and rare, with her sloping shoulders and shining Victorian perfection.”

(Raverat, G., Period Piece: London, Faber & Faber, 1952)

Ida was christened Emma Cecilia Farrer, the daughter of Thomas Henry Farrer (later Lord Farrer) and his wife Frances. As a young child, she loved to read Hans Andersen’s fairy tales, and identified with the main character in his story ‘Little Ida’s Flowers’. She was known as Ida for the rest of her life. Her father knew Charles Darwin, and, being a keen botanist, was able to help Darwin with some of his experiments.

Ida married Horace Darwin, Charles' son, in 1880 and they made their home in Cambridge. As an intelligent and socially aware young woman, she was not content to confine her activities to socialising with Dons’ wives and their families. Using her twin advantages of money and social status, she aroused public awareness and fought for social and legislative reforms in mental health services. Ida dedicated her ‘working life’ to the support of the more vulnerable members of the community.

In 1918, Horace Darwin was knighted and Ida became Lady Darwin.

The Social Worker

In 1883, when Lady Humphrey formed The Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls (CACG), Ida became an active member. The aim of the Association was to protect girls in Cambridge who were 'in trouble'. This was an early example of the University and Town working together. Ida became aware that a number of these vulnerable girls were termed ‘feeble-minded’; this started her life-long interest in learning disability and the need for social reform to provide support for these disadvantaged individuals.

In 1908, she was instrumental with Mrs F. A. Keynes in inaugurating The Cambridge Association for the Feeble Minded (CACFM). This followed the recommendations of the Royal Commission for the Care and Control of the Feeble-minded, which had been set up in 1904 and reported in 1908. Ida became chairman of the Association. This became a real family cause and in 1914; not only was her husband Horace on the committee but her daughter Ruth was also the Honorary Secretary of the Association.

It was during this time that Ida became interested in eugenics, and the fact that certain weaknesses seemed to run in families. In 1910 Ida gave a talk on ‘Inherited Pauperism’ at the Annual Meeting of the CACG.She was not averse to using her husband’s position and influence to promote the best interests of her causes:

“When Mrs (Lady from 1918) Darwin wanted action she called personally on the Mayor, the Chief Constable, or the Chairman of the bench. She continued to rely on the support of her husband and the extensive Darwin family network to further her aims…”

(Paulson-Ellis, C., 'The Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls, Social Work with Girls and Young Women in Cambridge 1883 –1954' : 2007)

The publication of the Mental Deficiency Act in 1913 led to the CACFM amalgamating with the new Cambridgeshire Voluntary Association for the Care of the Mentally Defective. The word Voluntary was dropped in 1915 when the County Council became partly responsible for its funding. Ida was on the committee, and in 1919 in the chair. In 1919, the Association was able to finance the rental of an office in Sidney Street; until that time Ida had provided a room in her own home for the administration of the Association.

In the 1920s, this Association evolved into the Cambridge Voluntary Association for Mental Welfare (CVAMW), and Ida was Chairman for the rest of her working life.

Ida was also very involved with the Cambridge branch of the National Council of Women. This was a society made up of professional women - one of their aims was to promote the role of women in health, welfare and local government. The Cambridge branch was particularly interested in careers for secondary-school girls, and in housing for single working women. The Branch Minute Book 1926 – 1937, which can be seen in the County Archives, records that Lady Ida Darwin was Chairman for a period from 1926 onwards.

In 1928, Sir Horace Darwin died, and Ida, now 74 years old, started to withdraw from her public activities. However, she still supported those causes dear to her heart; in 1935 when the CVAMW became short of funds, Ida was able to donate £600.

Ida died in 1946, and in her obituary in The Times on July 6th 1946 it was stated that:

"When her interest and sympathy were awakened in the unhappy and hazardous lot of the mentally deficient, she worked quietly and unweariedly on their behalf, and she had no small share in bringing about the Act of 1913.”

(The Times, Digital Archive 1785-1985 - Obituaries)

The Ida Darwin Hospital

In the 1960s, the need for provision dedicated to the care and support of severely mentally handicapped people in the area was recognised. The East Anglian Regional Hospital Board chose a site next to the Fulbourn Mental Hospital and building began. The Hospital was to cater for 250 residents and the aim was that the facility would enable each resident to maximise his or her potential. This was achieved through the provision of a dedicated medical and nursing team, a centre for research into the causes of mental handicap, therapeutic input for disabilities, occupational therapy, and a school for children up to the age of 19.

At a meeting of the Regional Board in 1963, the Chairman Lady Adrian suggested that the new unit be named ‘The Ida Darwin Hospital. This was to be in recognition of Ida and her contemporaries who were a “…great influence on the framing of early legislation for the care and control of the mentally handicapped and were personally responsible for the formation of voluntary bodies for the welfare of the mentally handicapped in Cambridge.” (Programme for the Official Opening of the Ida Darwin Hospital, East Anglian Regional Hospital Board : Cambridgeshire County Archives) Although residents were able to use the facilities from 1966 onwards, the Ida Darwin Hospital was officially opened in September 1970.