Diversifying our community of local historians


How to grow, expand and diversify the group of ‘community custodians’ of our local history – and a list of local groups and websites

I wandered up to the annual Cambridgeshire Association for Local History Awards held at St John the Evangelist Church opposite Homerton College at the weekend. The group that attend regularly are predominantly over the age of 50 – most are retired. Someone commented to me that it was nice to see someone young attending. I’m 40 in a few years time. Which frightens the living daylights out of me.

Handing out the awards was Mike Petty MBE – who the county owes a massive debt of gratitude for his work in collating and curating the records in the Cambridgeshire Collection.


Above: A young Mike Petty with the Princess Royal on the opening of the Lion Yard Shopping Centre in 1975

Mr Petty gave a talk to the audience that was both a wake-up call for me as it was for them. It was all about getting online. Only someone like Mike or Allan Brigham could have given a talk like that to the audience there and have it being meaningful and having a positive impact. I simply wouldn’t have had the credibility with the audience. It also made me realise that there is still a lot more to do on basic IT skills training across society. We’re living in a time period where younger generations are more skilled than older generations (generalising big time) but noting that it’s a chunk of the older generations that hold the majority of the assets. A polarisation that bodes ill for society.

It’s more than ‘Oh – where are the young people?’

I filmed Hilary and Shelley of the Museum of Cambridge at the Cherry Hinton Festival prior to the awards. They are running the Capturing Cambridge project.

One thing I mentioned in a previous recording (which I’ve not yet uploaded) was how Cherry Hinton has changed significantly in my lifetime. During my primary school years I’d cycle through the village regularly. Then in the 1990s when I had the misfortune to be at school with some people from the village who I really didn’t get on with, I seldom went through the village for the best part of a decade. (It then got me thinking about which parts of town do today’s teenagers consider unsafe/no go zones, and what the public authorities are going to do about it.) Today, the village has a younger feel to it – and is much more ethnically diverse. I still refer to it as a village rather than just a suburb of Cambridge swallowed up by decades of expansion because it was once a standalone village. The homes that finally linked the village with the rest of the city were only built in the last 50 years.

My point above is that when I observed who was at the festival – as well as the young people out and about in town, Cambridge has become much more diverse. Which made me wonder about the parents of those children and why they were not much more conspicuous by their presence in the civic life of the city. One of the insights I got from the Greek Orthodox community from Cllr George Pippas when I popped into their new premises at the old United Reformed Church on Cherry Hinton Road was that many of their families were academic and science professionals who had moved to Cambridge in part as a result of the ongoing economic crisis in Greece. Many incredibly well-qualified people with incredible intellect…and yet the city is not tapping into their cerebral wealth. I assume theirs is not the only community in our city that is being ‘bypassed’ by our civic institutions.

Working together across the class divides

I’ve mentioned in a couple of videos about the football club I first played for when I was 10. We trained on Coleridge Rec, and the two trainers – both parents of children at local schools, came from very different social classes. One was a university professor – Andrew Webster, and the other, Andrew Ross was a plumber. And they worked together brilliantly. Webster was very much the quieter more softly spoken of the two, with Ross being the ‘traditional alpha male’ whose voice and mindset carried a powerful authority with a group of ten year old boys.

The above experience for me explains why for participation it’s not simply a case of getting people who are more qualified in the room together. For me you only have to look at the publicity the books about Cambridge University and its colleges get in local bookstores vs the books about the borough of Cambridge. Far less has been written about the latter, with far fewer books being shifted despite the borough having a very interesting history in itself. Interestingly, one of the comments in the archives in the book Planners and Preservationists is quite striking…



…note the final paragraph above. Have some members of Cambridge University been guilty of playing down the role of the people of the borough of Cambridge who are not part of Cambridge University? What impact has this had on the history of the town?

Books about the borough of Cambridge – long lost publications gathering dust in our local libraries?

I was at Rock Road Library not so long ago and noticed they had a number of short publications covering various historical aspects of life in the borough of Cambridge. But being thin paperback publications means that they physically deteriorate faster, and are harder to spot by the casual browser because you can’t see the titles on the spines of the books. This is irrespective of whether the content is any good or not. Never judge a book by its cover? Never judge a book by its spine even? But what if you cannot see the spine?

This made me wonder whether there is scope for someone to do a collation exercise to bring together the existing publications, where possible updating their content, and publishing them in a larger book of collated works.

More than just books

Kay Blayney got it spot on for Women of the World: Cambridge in 2015. Have a watch.


One of the things I’ve learnt from the digitised British Newspaper Archives is that they are a treasure trove for sources and inspiration for any play-writer or songwriter. Not least because decades ago the local journalists would report from every public meeting there was and write who said what verbatim – heckles included! I remember talking about this to local musician Melody Causton – who wrote this number about Jack the Ripper.


“He is burning he is wild, caught up in his sin / He sold his soul to the devil and now the devil fears him.”

For me, the big untapped route of diversifying our local history community is through music, art and drama. That’s not to say books are not important – they are. That said, I can’t help but feel we need to have a rethink on how we use our written resources to share the story of our city.


Cambridgeshire Association of Local History Book Award Winners 2016

  • Bognor, F and Tomkins, S.P The Cam: an aerial portrait of the Cambridge river
  • Boulton, R A policeman’s lot in 19th century Chatteris
  • Buchanan, A Robert Wills and the foundation of architectural history
  • CALS Not just a name on the wall
    (Award to go to Caroline Clifford and Alison England)
  • Delanoy, L and Scott, M One. two, three
  • Kingsbury, J and Williams, C Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, 1941-2014
  • Miller, E The Ely Coucher Book
    (award to go to F Willmoth and S Oosthuizen, Editors)
  • Morrison, M The Links on the hills: a history of the Old Course at the Gogs
  • Phillips, G and Stockman, N Chatteris remembers
  • Rawle, T A Classical adventure: the architectural history of Downing
  • Smith, D.C A Georgian house on The Brink
  • Thompson D Religious life in mid-19th century Cambridgeshire and
  • Huntingdonshire: The Religious Census of 1851


  • Barrett, D and Calvi, N The girls who went to war
  • Evans, M East Anglia at War
  • Fen Drayton History Soc Fen Drayton at war, 1914-18
  • Glazer, A.M and Thomson, P Crystal clear: the autobiographies of Sir Lawrence and
    Lady Bragg
  • Harper, G and Dellar, G Guilden Morden in the 1940s
  • Jarvis, D Wholefood heroes: the story of Arjuna
  • Melbourn History Group 1914-18: The Great War
  • Saltmarsh, J King’s College Chapel
    (letter to go to the Editors)
  • Sullivan, C Trials and tribulation: the story of RAF Gransden Lodge 




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