Mar 8, 2016

International Women's Day 2016

Mary Caroline McKenny Hughes (1860-1916) – promoter of geology for women in the University
Category: March 2016
Posted by: Sarah

The May 1888 edition of the Geological Magazine carried an article ‘On the Mollusca of the Pleistocene Gravels in the Neighbourhood of Cambridge’ authored by the 28 year old Mrs McKenny Hughes. She was Mary Caroline McKenny Hughes (nee´ Weston, 1860-1916), who had in 1882 married the Woodwardian professor Thomas McKenny Hughes (1831-1917). In 1909 she co-authored with her husband, the ‘Cambridgeshire’ volume of the renowned Cambridge County Geography series.

Following her marriage, Clara McKenny Hughes, as she was generally known, became an influential figure in the development of the Department of Geology (now Earth Sciences) in the University of Cambridge. It was not until 1882 that professors in the University were permitted to marry and McKenny Hughes immediately took the opportunity to visit some old acquaintances, the Weston family in Crosby Ravensworth, Westomoreland. There he asked the Reverend George Frederick Weston (1819-1887), who was the local vicar, permission to marry his daughter Clara. She was 23 and McKenny Hughes was 51 years old when they got married on November 28th, 1882.

Little is known of Clara’s education but like so many young women of her social standing, she was apparently a keen amateur archaeologist, botanist and artist. Her father, the Reverend Weston, was a Cambridge University educated (Christ’s College) cleric, who in the 1840s had travelled widely through Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Greece, Spain, the Ottoman Empire and Egypt.

Clara was born on the 4th July 1863 at Crosby Ravensworth to the George Weston’s second wife Caroline James. Weston had become vicar of Crosby Ravensworth in 1848 and remained there until his death in 1887, so Clara spent her whole youth in the vicarage. Her father was an accomplished painter and watercolourist, particularly of landscapes and architectural subjects and no doubt encouraged Clara’s artistic talents. In later life she became a regular exhibiter at the Cambridge Drawing Society, which was founded in 1882.

However it was Clara McKenny Hughes enthusiasm for geological field work that was to make a mark on the development of the Department of Geology in the University. Not only did she carry out independent investigation of the Pleistocene mollusc fauna but she was a regular participant on departmental field trips organised by the Sedgwick Club. Clara’s presence meant that young female students could for the first time also attend.

The annual Sedgwick Club photos show that from 1897 until 1913 Clara was invariably present, often sporting the ‘tool of the trade’, a geological hammer. In the 1897 photo there are 3 females amongst the 23 geology students and in 1913 there were 7 out of 18 students. Apart from Clara, the other female geologist who was also consistently present was Gertrude Lilian Elles (1872-1960) of Newnham College. ‘Gertie’ Elles had directly benefited from Clara McKenny Hughes' presence and enthusiasm for the science of geology. From 1891 ‘Gertie’ Elles was a member of the Department as student, researcher, demonstrator in the Museum, University lecturer and the first woman to be appointed to a readership in the University in 1936.

Douglas Palmer
Sedgwick Museum

Clara McKenny Hughes with husband and son
Clara McKenny Hughes with husband and son on a geological field trip to the Malverns in 1892 (from Sedgwick Museum Archives)