On books that are ‘new’ to me but were published and printed ages and ages ago
For those of you following my Lost Cambridge project, you may be aware that I’ve acquired ***all these books*** to help me figure out what the real story of my home town really is. Much as been written, typed, published and printed in Cambridge but outside of university circles, perilously little of it has much to do with the town of Cambridge. Paradoxically you have all of these ‘Cambridge histories’ published by Cambridge University Press, but what we don’t have is a ‘Cambridge history of Cambridge’.
Shortly after Brexit when I got depressed again and sort of gave up on seriously commentating on national politics to spend more time pointing and laughing at it, I wandered up to the top of Castle Hill in Cambridge to begin filming a series of short videos trying to explain bits of how Cambridge grew.
But that was back in the days when I had only read a few books.
A shocking lack of books about Cambridge on sale in the big book shops
OK, so London has something like 60x more people in it, but that doesn’t mean it should have an entire section of its own while Cambridge has a poxy little set of shelves with little more than tourist guides, college biographies and the very specialist publication.
For me, part of the solution is for publishers and sellers to get together and republish some of the older books that don’t necessarily date. Charles Darwin’s Granddaughter Gwen Raverat wrote Period Piece about her childhood with three of Darwin’s high-achieving sons & daughters-in-law. Look closely enough in charity shops and you can get it second-hand for a pound. In places it is rip-roaringly hilarious, in particular Gwen’s attempts to avoid having to go to church. I should have followed her example as a teenager but got brainwashed by fear and trusted that those in authority (school/adults/church) knew what they were doing. Oops. Thus I find myself fascinated by the history of an institution and how it shaped my home town while at the same time wanting to smash the institution to pieces along with the patriarchal mindset that goes with it. I can’t be the first person to feel this way about a religious upbringing and won’t be the last. I just don’t have plans to go around firebombing everything.
“What was the history of the churches in Cambridge?”
Any social historian of the 19th Century will have spent many an hour trying to get their head around who ran which sect of which non-conformist movement at which time in any given town. The splits within the far left had nothing on the splits within the non-conformist movement in the 19th Century because the latter had a habit of building new buildings or mission halls every time they had a split. Or that’s the stereotype I get. And then it took a talented woman like Ellice Hopkins in the 1870s to remind the men they were spending too much time splitting hairs over abstract theological concepts while the poor of the town were starving.
Every so often I’ll stumble across a piece that talks about a meeting that took place in a prominent church or church hall in town and I’ll be like: “Ooh! I had a music rehearsal in there not so long ago!” or something similar. I was strangely pleased to find that one of the halls I learnt ballroom and salsa in was also a regular meeting hall for Cambridge’s women’s suffrage movement. Ditto my old primary school hall being used regularly by the then growing Labour Party where Hugh Dalton, who’d go onto become Chancellor of the Exchequer under Attlee spoke on more than one occasion.
Few of the really interesting people spent their entire lives in Cambridge – thus tracking them down can be quite time-consuming.
Take Hugh Dalton MP as an example. Labour activists with more than a vague knowledge of Attlee’s 1945 Cabinet will know about Hugh Dalton’s Parliamentary and ministerial record. What they may not be aware of is what he was doing before he was famous. I.e. being active round these parts. So I found out what he felt about his days in Cambridge in the first part of his memoirs in this book. Things in here then allow you to cross-reference things in the British Newspaper Archive or local archives. In Dalton’s day, Cambridge newspapers were properly partisan in ways that would make today’s tabloids blush.
Not biased at all: Vote for your friendly local neighbour Sir George Douglas Newton. Advert from The Cambridge Chronicle 1922 in The Cambridgeshire Collection.
The ***really interesting stuff*** – what the writers thought of things at the time they were happening
This is where our generation has the benefit of hindsight – for example knowing that Cambridge Labour Cllr Dr Alex Wood‘s proposals for disarmament in the mid 1930s was probably not his best idea, though completely understandable at the time given the huge losses communities faced as result of the First World War. Even now I still get the sense that our generation does not realise just how unpopular Chamberlain’s government was when war was finally declared. Nor do we acknowledge just how popular Chamberlain was less than a year before when he came back having signed the doomed Munich agreement of 1938.
“One man saved us from the greatest war of all” runs the title screen. Note the cheers from the crowds.
Women of action in action
At present my top three are (L-R) Anti-fascist fighter, Communist activist, historian and musicologist Frida Stewart (later Knight); author, charity campaigner, Liberal Party activist and founder of Save The Children, Eglantyne Jebb, and the Mother of Modern Cambridge who was the first woman to serve on Cambridge Borough/City Council, Former Mayor of Cambridge and the woman who gave us our current Guildhall in Market Square, Florence Ada Keynes.
Frida Stewart, Eglantyne Jebb and Florence Ada Keynes all in their late teens/early 20s before they went onto greater things. I’ve picked up a number of old books written either by them or about them. For some strange reason I’d like to think that an animated Puffles would have gotten on like a house on fire with Frida and Eglantyne, but perhaps less so with Florence. But I can’t put a finger on why this is.
The missing political histories
I’m finding it a bit of a struggle finding any books or biographies about the Conservative MPs that Cambridge the town had. Almeric Paget, who Eglantyne fought tooth and nail to stop being re-elected, turned out to be a bit of a right wing extremist in his later years. Well…a lot of a rightwing extremist writing articles praising the fascist dictatorships of the 1930s…while still holding is party membership. But then he wasn’t the only Conservative politician to hold such views. Or Labour for that matter with Mosley. But in the grand scheme of things, Cambridge escaped the worst of the right-wing disturbances give or take a talk or a dinner organised and hosted by (and also opposed by) the students.
Old maps, old plans and long lost dreams
For me, John Belcher’s guildhall plan of 1898 – championed by Mayor Sir Horace Darwin (one of Charles Darwin’s three knighted sons) was the most heartbreaking one.
We didn’t get this, so when it comes to revamping our current guildhall for its centenary, I want Belcher’s design above to be the inspiration for a new facade – while not compromising the structural integrity of the interior.
Funnily enough it was going through the photo archives of the Museum of Cambridge that got me interested in how some buildings got knocked down and others didn’t.
Guildhall designs were always controversial. St Trinian’s author Ronald Searle – a local who went to what we now call Parkside, and Anglia Ruskin University, lampooned it all in the Cambridge News in the 1930s.
Nothing’s changed as far as an opinionated population is concerned. Just look at the public backlash every time the City Deal/Greater Cambridge Partnership gets something wrong!
Why councillors and council/public officials should consult the history books before planning new infrastructure.
Chances are their predecessors have grappled with the issues before.
For example, how should we reform local government in and around Cambridge? It’s back on the agenda with County Mayor James Palmer’s review of local government, and comments from former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Hestletine in Cambridge very recently. (My late grandmother always called him Tarzan).
In terms of grappling with Cambridge’s traffic problems that we’ve had since the end of the First World War because the inventor of the motor car forgot to invent the parking space and the car park amongst other things, post-war Cambridge grappled with this too. This was Cambridge in 1956 – a map I found in an antique shop for £1.50.
All that road traffic heading from London to Ely, King’s Lynn and Norwich would have to head through the centre of town over Magdelene Bridge by Quayside or Victoria Road Bridge in order to get through the city. There were no motorway bypasses and no Elizabeth Way Bridge in Chesterton. Sir William Halford’s report in 1950 also had drastic plans, such as this major road bridge completing the north-eastern section of a ring road in red.
The planned road would have ploughed over Stourbridge Common and have ruined the whole area. Fortunately locals threatened to have a proper riot if work went ahead and Halford backed down. Other parts of his plan that didn’t get built but are shown on the map include:
- The footbridge linking Rustat Road to Cambridge Railway Station directly, thus giving Cambridge Station a separate entrance from the South and East – decongesting Station Road.
- The bus stop for the above
- The road linking Mill Road and East Road ploughing through Gwydir Street – which would have made a future Simon Fraser select somewhere else for Hot Numbers Coffee.
The one bit that did get built was Elizabeth Way Bridge – but that bridge, completed in the early 1970s & opened by Mayor Jean Barker (today Baroness Trumpington) already had an Act of Parliament authorising its construction. The Cam Bridges Act 1889. We were going to build the bridge in 1914 but war got in the way. We also found out at an open house event at the Museum of Cambridge that the little icons in the top left by the lightly marked paths were all military storage areas for D-Day!
“So…what else didn’t we get? And what didn’t the University and colleges get?”
Good question. There’s this on Emmanuel Street.
Much less private for the students and members of the college, the space opened up (especially given the buses) would have made the road feel a lot less crowded. Below is what the otherwise dark and unwelcoming southern entrance to Hobson Street by Lloyds Bank in town could have looked like.
…but the Masters of Christ’s College rejected it in 1937 – which I think is a shame as all there is on one side of the road is a high wall and a narrow footpath that no one wants to go down because of all of the buses. Personally I’d like to ban motor traffic down that road once we get the underground light railway that the County Mayor has lined up for Cambridge & District. Basically if we don’t get something like an underground through the city centre, Cambridge will be crushed by demand from motor traffic.
The Lion Yard redevelopment in the 1970s was incredibly controversial. Looking back at the old photographs of what was there before (have a look here) it just feels that the heart of the town was ripped out. It had so much more potential than that.
A shame given the amount of time that was spent trying to come up with ideas, as described and illustrated by F.A. Reeve in his book from over 40 years ago, The Cambridge that never was. Note the plans for small and large concert halls and a new music school for Cambridge University.
The plan below, I think from Clark’s history of Cambridge is a wonderful little plan of what was on the site of the Guildhall before Florence Ada Keynes got the current one built. I ordered a modern day reprint but only a small portion of the book came through out of the 500+ pages that should have been there.
Inevitably with the very old histories of Cambridge, the writers focus on the colleges rather than the town. The first person to tell the story of Cambridge from the town’s perspective in the modern sense, was Eglantyne Jebb, mentioned up top. I’ve now got my own original copy of her book of 1906 and I’ve transcribed what she wrote on the history of Cambridge 1800-1900 in part 1 here, and part 2 here.
The official history of Cambridge the town
It was another woman that wrote the history of the town of Cambridge as part of the Victoria County History project. While the splendid chaps divided up the colleges and the University of Cambridge between them (minus Girton & Newnham), the only person who took on the role of writing our history of the town was the wonderfully-named Professor Helen Cam.
Professor Helen Cam – Cambridge civic legend and also sometime benefactor of Romsey Labour Club.
Because she took the time to write our history – all 150 pages of it which you can read here, I have this crazy idea of rebuilding Cambridge Castle on the site of Castle Hill where the registry office is, and naming it after her. “Cam Castle” – harmless enough? I put this to Cambridgeshire County Council in a public question yesterday after the council announced it was looking to move out of Shire Hall and do something else with the site. I said if they were going to turn Shire Hall into a hotel, please could we have the car park to rebuild the old courthouse and turn it into an expansion for the Museum of Cambridge with the castle next door, thus creating a nice historical civic square ringed by museum, castle, hotel and castle mound, with the top of the castle being an outdoor expensive bar that you charge lots of money for drinks that then pays for and subsidises everywhere else because you get the best views of the city from up there.
From the Musem of Cambridge – our old courthouse where proclamations of new monarchs were made.
It’s not the greatest castle, so why not open up a new castle design to a competition of architects? (And ensure competing architects have engaged with the city *before* they submit their designs as a criteria of the competition?)
It’s not all pretty local pictures
I stumbled across this series by Penguin/Pelican in a number of charity shops on Burleigh Street, Cambridge. They date from the Second World War.
With both I get the sense that Britain was in a very different place intellectually. In the run up to the 1945 general election, the country had quite possibly the biggest conversation in its history about the sort of society it wanted to become after the war. It’s part of a series of cheap reads printed to be affordable for the many, hence the quality of paper they were printed on not being brilliant. That plus the impact of wartime restrictions on paper anyway. The list of the books is here. More than a few of the titles are incredibly dense and intellectual. But many of the authors are literary titans.
It got me wondering what a modern day equivalent of let’s say the above two would look like. Would they work for a commuting market? Teenagers doing Duke of Edinburgh courses / NCS / Scouts / Guides / Woodcraft Folk? Any thoughts?
To conclude, the one common theme with all of these books is that despite their age, there’s still a huge amount to learn from them. I also think past schemes even in this day and age are worth another look in terms of their original concepts. After all, they can’t do much worse than the current lot going up!