Cambridge – the shaping of our city


My mini documentary series on how the borough, and then city of Cambridge became what it is today.

The video playlist is here – enjoy.

I’m currently recording a short documentary series about the history of my home town, focusing on the townsfolk side of things rather than Cambridge University – of which much has been written about the latter. I’m loosely basing it on the book of the same/similar title currently only available from G David Booksellers – ‘Cambridge: The shaping of the city’ by Peter Bryan. The bookseller is also the publisher.

I’ve also touched on a number of other books, such as the wartime diaries of Jack Overhill, edited by Peter Searby (see this one being available from the Cambridgeshire Collection on the third floor of the Central Library in Cambridge’s Grand Arcade. Here’s the intro piece:

It’s not the smoothest of pieces by anymeans – I’m filming it using only a smartphone and a selfie stick – attaching what useful gadgets I can to said phone – for example a small lapel microphone on windy days.

In a sense I want to get a feel for whether this can be done, and if so what it looks like. I don’t know if anyone locally has filmed such a local documentary featuring lots of walkabouts around the city. It takes a bit of getting used to – walking around town staring into a tiny little camera lens. But once you get into a flow and start speaking like a TV journalist, the monotone becomes a thing of the past.

“Why are you doing this?”

My main aim is to use our town’s history as a means for influencing our future – in particular as and when buildings and new infrastructure goes up. We still seem to be getting things very badly wrong with our systems and processes leading to some hideous buildings being approved – in the most part Whitehall’s planning laws having councils over a barrel. But the latter are by no means free from blame. See also Hideous Cambridge in this Cambridge TV clip.

“What have you discovered?”

The big thing for me is how much is hidden away in the British Newspaper Archives online. The problem for me is that no one has gone through the archives systematically (with zero digitisation of local newspapers post-1940) thus the reports contemporary at the time remain undiscovered.  I guess the same could be said for many other towns and cities – which is why digitising the newspaper archives and photographic libraries is for me ever so important.

Some of the most interesting tales have been the micropockets of local history – such as Jack Overhill’s diaries and exploring his neighbourhood. The most interesting bits for me are his takes on national/international news and the impact on not just him but Cambridge too. The biggest discovery I made was on how Cambridge was affected by the Second World War. I went into the Cambridgeshire County Archives and discovered the log book listing every single air raid on the city. Staff very kindly gave me permission to screenshot and publish the entries – you can see them here. I also counted up the casualties and munitions dropped. The figures are much higher than I ever thought:

  • 31 people killed
  • 71 people injured
  • Over 1,500 bombs and other munitions dropped on the borough

Note Cambridge was much smaller then than it is now – so the area the bombs were dropped on is smaller – hence a much more intense experience as a result. The really interesting part for me was corroborating what Jack Overhill wrote in his diaries with what the archives said.

Cambridge Defences WWII

The above map – again from the County Archives and published with their kind permission, is the map of planned defences of the 5th Battalion Cambridgeshire Regt (Home Guard).

The saddest discovery was the deaths of Petica Robertson and Lucy Gent – Air Raid Precaution wardens who were hit by bombs as they tried to get people into the shelters. Only the plaques on St Paul’s Church and The Guildhall note their passing.


Personally I think there should be a statue of the two of them locally.

Anyway, ***lots*** more to follow on this as I unearth more local historical gems in the library.



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