Kathleen Wood-Legh and the Cambridge Refugee Committee

In the late summer of 2013, which feels an alarmingly long time ago now, I was informed that I was the joint-recipient of the Wood-Legh Prize, which is awarded each year for the dissertation submitted as part of the MPhil in Medieval History at the University of Cambridge which receives the highest mark. The little bit of money that came with the prize was greatly appreciated, as my PhD funding, courtesy of the John Osborne Research Studentship, had not quite kicked in and many of my meals were coming from the generosity of my friends. Just as important was the vote of confidence the prize represented, the little statement that I had written something that might be halfway worth reading. About the mysterious Kathleen Wood-Legh who had contributed the funds for the prize and after whom it was named, I confess I had only the vaguest notion. I knew very little about her, and did not care to find out more.

This state of affairs might not have changed had I not attended an excellent conference in the beginning of March 2020 entitled ‘Cambridge: City of Scholars, City of Refuge (1933-1945)’. Organised under the aegis of CRASSH and hosted by Trinity College, this conference was about the people who sought refuge in Cambridge from Fascist persecution. It was there that I first learned about the Cambridge Refugee Committee, an extraordinary organisation of people who in March 1938 looked at the conflagration beginning to spread across the heart of Europe and decided to save as much as they could from the flames. Affiliated with the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, the Committee sought to help scholars at risk from Fascism, particularly Jews, by helping them escape to Britain.

There were the successes. One of them was my Groß-Doktorvater (PhD supervisor of my PhD supervisor), the Austrian Walter Ullmann, not himself Jewish but a lawyer known for prosecuting violent henchmen of the far-right and refusing to pledge allegiance to the Führer following Anschluss. There were also the failures, the people who because of a lack of money, or bureaucratic goodwill, or simple awful bad luck did not make it. The Committee continued to fund and find places for scholars, dependent on a shoestring budget and the kindness of a network of helpers. They also intervened when these refugees were interned as German nationals in 1940. They didn’t know that history would commend them. They didn’t know that the evils they defied would be defeated. What they did know was that something had to be done. So they did it.

Over the course of the conference, as I learned about the Committee, I also learned that a vital figure on their Case Committee and ubiquitous to their organisation was one Kathleen Wood-Legh. I had not known. I had not asked. But the line of my CV that said ‘Wood-Legh Prize’ suddenly acquired a new significance. And it occurred to me that it was past time for me to pay a little more attention than I had previously.

What follows is an effort by me to make up for my earlier neglect of my benefactor, an attempt to answer some of the questions I should have asked back in those late summer months in 2013. In doing so I have particularly benefitted from reading Megan J. Davies and Colin M. Coates, ‘Kathleen Wood-Legh: A Canadian in Cambridge’, Creating Historical Memory: English-Canadian Women and the Work of History, ed. Beverly Boutilier and Alison L. Prentice (Vancouver, 1997), 254-270. My thanks also to Alison Vinnicombe and Hazel Freestone for all their help.

I am grateful to the Lucy Cavendish College Archives for letting me use this image.

Kathleen Wood-Legh (1901-1981), BA MA (McGill); BLitt (Oxon.); PhD Litt.D (Cantab.)

Kathleen Wood-Legh knew the value of an academic prize won early. Reporting on a McGill University graduation ceremony in 1923, the Montreal Gazette made note of a ‘tall, slightly hesitant candidate, with a quiet radiance in her face’ who collected the Prize in History. The Gazette did not record her name (although as Davies and Coates observe, the report included those of all the men who also graduated at the occasion, p.255) but this was Wood-Legh. Blind since childhood, she was guided across the stage by a friend. That prize and the promise it suggested must have been a factor in prompting her family to leave her native Canada so she could continue her studies in England. In 1926 she arrived in Cambridge. It would be her home for the rest of her life.

She also knew the value of a little bit of money. At Cambridge her work on medieval social and economic history impressed G.G. Coulton, the supervisor of the PhD thesis she completed in 1932, and G.M. Trevelyan, then Regius Professor of Modern History. Despite their enthusiastic support and fulsome references (Trevelyan, ‘I think her moral and intellectual power very remarkable and well suited to teaching’, Davies and Coates, p.268), Wood-Legh was unable to secure a permanent job anywhere. Instead, she managed a precarious existence as a tutor teaching undergraduates within Cambridge’s system of one-on-one supervisions. Money was short for her until the death of an uncle in the 1960s provided her with some measure of financial stability. In these conditions she published her well-received Studies in Church Life in England under Edward III (1934) and Perpetual Chantries in Britain (1965), as well as a host of articles on related subjects.

In those years she also made the world better, in big ways and small ways. The former we have already touched upon, but in addition to working with the Cambridge Refugee Committee, Wood-Legh was also on the Cambridge Children’s Refugee Committee, finding homes for more than 2000 Central European Jewish children suffering a continent torn apart by adults. The smaller things centred upon her home at 49 Owlstone Road, where ‘Kay’, as she was known to the many friends who stopped by for afternoon tea, created a world where a little grace and a little hope for the future could be nourished. It was there, a week after he had arrived in Cambridge, that Walter Ullmann met his future wife, Elizabeth Knapp, who came for German classes.

It was also there, in the years after the war, that a series of young German women come to act as Wood-Legh’s secretary discovered a new beginning. One who arrived shortly after 1945, Brigitte Frank, later wrote to thank her for the comfort she provided ‘when you remember the inner situation of a young German girl in those days, whose really shattering experience had been the destruction of all values and a deep sense of insecurity’ (Davies and Coates, p.269). These women in their early twenties were lost in the wreckage of all the certainties they had ever known. They found a place where they could start contemplating the future again in the country of their enemy and in the house of one who had set herself against the ideology with which they had been raised. From such kindnesses are better worlds made.

That she knew the value of a community is clear. In 1950 Wood-Legh was a founder member of the “Dining Group” with her friends, the zoologist Anna McClean Bidder and the computational linguist Margaret Masterman. Brilliant and unconventional women, they were everything Cambridge in its better moments aspires to be and, at its very best moments, achieves. The university desperately needed them but was not yet aware of it. (This absence of cognisance should perhaps not be surprising given that the first women to become full members of the university did so in 1948.) Lacking a place for mature female scholars like themselves, they made one, gathering on Tuesdays for dinner and intellectual debate. They became the core of Lucy Cavendish College, established in 1965 for mature female students (as of 2021 the college is now mixed and for all ages). One of the founding fellows, Wood-Legh wrote the college constitution. She was however barred from being a trustee on account of her blindness (Davies and Coates, p.264). (The world gets better, but it does not do so all at once, but slowly, and ever at the cost of continual work).

Community was something she studied as well as something she made. In her Perpetual Chantries, based on the series of Birkbeck lectures she gave in 1955, Wood-Legh examined the medieval chantry as an institution and as a community of people bound together by rite and by memory. In her review for Speculum (42 1967, pp.768-9), Dorothy Bruce Weske celebrated Wood-Legh’s sensitivity for the experiences of her subjects, writing that ‘No one can read this book without feeling that he has lived for a while in the Middle Ages’ (p.768). Patrons endowed churches and monasteries so that masses might be sung in chantries for the benefit of the souls of the deceased. I have never been a praying man and such is the quality of my voice that I am more likely to be paid to be silent than to sing. Nor have I been the most assiduous celebrant of my benefactor. I hope nonetheless that this little canticle may stand in place for the full mass.

Human memory being what it is, we can only know a small fraction of the people in the past in whose debt we lie. For the most part we repay them by paying it on. But sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes we get the opportunity to pull on a thread and bring the past towards us. Part of what historians do is follow these ties into the darkness that lies behind us, in order that we might take a brighter light into the darkness that lies before us. As I’ve tried to illustrate, Kathleen Wood-Legh touched more lives than most people do. It makes me feel small and proud to know that in the tiniest possible way, at a very great distance, I am one of them.

One final thing. The Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, with whom the Cambridge Refugee Committee was affiliated, is still active as the Council for At-Risk Academics. They help academics who have had to flee oppression and danger find temporary positions and support institutions caught in the line of fire. Right now they are funding scholars exiled by the ongoing disaster in Syria, having previously run programmes in Iraq and Zimbabwe. They depend upon donations to fund their work, so if you have any spare change for an academic in need (and I’ve annoyed you enough that you’re not giving it to the Buy Sam an Elephant Fund) consider giving it to them.

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