Who was Lady Ida Darwin

Ida Sepia

Emma Cecilia Farrer was born on the 7th November 1854, daughter to the statistician Thomas Farrer and his wife Frances Erskine. She spent her childhood living in Surrey. She had a keen love for flowers, music and for Scotland. Historian Ann Kennedy-Smith describes her upbringing as ‘in a wealthy, well-educated Victorian world that mixed privilege with politics, science with the arts.’

As a child Emma named herself ‘Ida’ from the Hans Christian Anderson story ‘Little Ida’s Flowers’. We felt that Ida’s act of re-naming herself showed how determined she was as a person to shape her own life and that is was this spirit that led her to campaign for others.

Ida married Horace Darwin, the son of naturalist Charles Darwin. The family were initially against the match, due to Horace’s poor health, but the union went ahead and they were married on 3rd January 1880 at St Mary’s Church in Bryanston Square, London.

Ida and Horace moved to Cambridge where Horace formed the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. Ida used to help in the shop and with the business accounts, although her daughter remembers math was never her strong point. In 1896 Horace was elected as Mayor of the Town Council with Ida taking the role of Lady Mayoress. Living in Cambridge allowed Ida to become connected to like-minded women, many connected to the University, who wanted to help people in the community who were experiencing hardship and poor health.

When Lady Humphrey founded the ‘Association for the Care of Girls’, Ida became an active member. In this role she came into contact with ‘feeble-minded girls’. These girls were often neglected and abused by their families. Some turned to sex work to earn their money and many were frowned upon as un-wed mothers. It is likely that some had a learning disability, something which was poorly understood at the time. The ‘Association for the Care of Girls’ placed these young women in hostels and helped them train as domestic servants, the major source of employment at the time.

Ida was greatly affected by the people she met through her work  and her daughter, Ruth Rees Thomas said, ‘…she realised the injustices they suffered in an ignorant and careless world. She suffered with them and there was awakened in her the deep convictions of the need for social and legislative reforms that guided her future course’.

At the time there was a growing awareness of learning disabilities and a learning disabled person was often referred to as ‘feeble-minded’ or ‘mentally defective’. At the time many people believed that ‘feeble-minded’ people would turn to criminality, drunkenness, sex work and go on to have families of their own who were also ‘feeble-minded’. There was growing support for eugenics with many powerful people advocating for enforced sterilization. Ida was against this and felt that good care and meaningful employment held the key.

The ‘Royal Commission for the Care and Control of the Feeble-mind’ was set up in 1904. The Commission published several recommendations in how to provide care for the ‘feeble minded’. Ida, along with Florence Ada Keyes, founded the ‘Cambridge Association for the Care of Feeble-mind’ in 1908 in order to put these recommendations into action. One of the primary aims was to raise public awareness and Ida campaigned hard for the passing of the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, stressing the importance of agreeing a clear definition of ‘mental deficiency’. She felt that, if people could understand more about ‘mental deficiency’ then it would be easier to understand what support was needed.

As well as being concerned about those classed as ‘feeble-minded’, Ida was also interested in offering support to those with mental health conditions. She read the works of Freud and was interested in ‘talking cures’ for traumatised soldiers returning from war. Ida and Horace were amongst the founders of the ‘Central Association for Mental Welfare’ (or CWA) – one of the organisations which merged to become the National Association for Mental Health in 1946, which is now known as the leading mental health charity MIND.. In later years the CMWA had started many projects – the first psychiatric social worker in Cambridge in the 1920s, the first occupational therapy centre in the 1930s and also the first child guidance clinic.

In 1918 Horace was knighted and Ida became formally known as The Honorable Lady Ida Darwin. Horace and Ida had three children, Erasmus, Ruth and Emma. Erasmus was killed in 1915 in the First World War at the second Battle of Ypres, the grief of which had a profound effect on Ida.

Ida died on 5 July 1946 and she is buried in Cambridge at the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground, alongside Horace who had died in 1928. Her obituary in The Times described Ida as “one of the pioneers in this country in the field of social work”.

You can learn more about Ida Darwin and see how her work fits into the history of brain injury by looking at our timeline.


The Hospital Brain Injury Co-ordinator became someone who absolutely understood how I felt, I didn’t need to explain. I could talk about my fears and worries. She was such a great support through the difficult days, but could also celebrate the small step successes, which was important to me.