Cambridge loses two civic titans in the same year

Summary: The untimely passing of Mayor Nigel Gawthrope in January 2019 came as a shock to our city. Today, we received the sad news of the passing of Sir Michael Marshall, president of the Marshall Group, one of Cambridge’s largest employers. 

The sudden passing of Mayor Nigel Gawthrope came as a shock to many of us in Cambridge, passing as he did while on holiday scuba diving in South Africa. Today, we learnt of the the news that Sir Michael Marshall passed away, also on holiday, in Spain.

Championing young people

One of the first things Mayor Nigel Gawthrope did was to appoint a civic cadet for civic ceremonies in Cambridge.

This was something I had not seen done before. The reason I picked this out is because both Mayor Nigel and Sir Michael were passionate supporters of our cities children and young people – in particular our cadets, Sir Michael being a former member of the Air Cadet Council.

Staying up late for long meetings

I first met Sir Michael when he was a member of the Greater Cambridge Partnership Assembly – he attended more than a few soul-destroyingly long meetings which the Federation of Cambridge Resident Associations commissioned me to film. Here is Sir Michael speaking at one at The Guildhall, Cambridge back in December 2016.

Sir Michael Marshall was speaking about the problematic Girton Interchange following the announcement that ministers wanted to press ahead with a new motorway linking Oxford to Cambridge – the OxCam Expressway. The Girton Interchange has been a problematic junction on the west of Cambridge for some time – and as Ella Pengelly for the Cambridge News wrote in May 2019, it still needs a significant upgrade to reduce the impact of HGVs on the local road network. Not surprisingly, the wider Oxford-Cambridge Motorway project is being opposed – particularly strongly at the Oxford end by the Expressway Action Group. Much of the infrastructure at the west-of-Cambridge end has already been built.

It goes without saying that being Mayor of Cambridge involves chairing meetings of the full council of Cambridge City Council. Again, these can be depressingly long meetings as any local democracy reporter can testify to.

Party politics aside, towns and cities need people like Mayor Nigel Gawthrope and Sir Michael Marshall to help make and shape them into what they are.

“Build bridges”

The message I took away from Mayor Nigel’s memorial service at Great St Mary’s was this.

I wasn’t the only one.

As a local historian, I can only think of two previous Mayors of Cambridge who were known for their attempts to build bridges between communities in Cambridge – and these two were civic titans in their own time:

321230 FlorenceAdaKeynesTheVoteFrontPage

Mayor Florence Ada Keynes, 1932-33


180710 Mayor Horace Darwin 1896.jpg

Mayor (Later Sir) Horace Darwin, 1896-97

One thing that both Sir Michael and Mayor Nigel had in common with the above-two mentioned civic titans Florence Ada Keynes and Sir Horace Darwin, is that they all believed Cambridge could be better than it was for the many – and to that end they all worked towards that aim. For those of you interested, you can see an exhibition of the work of Sir Horace Darwin in Cambridge at the Museum of Technology by the Riverside off Newmarket Road. I’d like to see a similar exhibition somewhere for Florence Ada Keynes…but see that as ‘work in progress’.

“How should Cambridge commemorate not just Mayor Nigel Gawthrope and Sir Michael Marshall, but our past civic heroes generally?”

Two ideas came to my mind this morning. The first one was specific to Sir Michael. Given his extensive track record of championing charitable causes in and around Cambridge (the list is considerable as the Cambridge Independent describes here), he set an incredible example to successful business men and women across the city and beyond.

One must remember that Sir Michael went to school in Cambridge – St Faith’s, before heading to Eton and then returning to study at Jesus College, Cambridge, as the article in the Cambridge Independent states. Interestingly, Sir Michael followed in the shoes of the eldest son of Florence Ada Keynes – the economist John Maynard Keynes, who also went to St Faith’s and Eton, before returning to Cambridge. It’s worth noting that Cambridge’s infrastructure of state secondary schools was not built at the time both men were at school. Which shows how far as a society we have come in such a short space of time.

Talking of successful and wealthy men who supported charitable causes in and around Cambridge, let’s not forget that John Maynard Keynes was the founder of the Cambridge Arts Theatre. He tried to persuade King’s College Cambridge to fund it but despite Keynes being the College Bursar, he couldn’t persuade his fellows to support him. So he paid for it himself – building work taking place at the same time his mother, Florence Ada Keynes was building our new guildhall. And not without controversy either! Mayor Florence succeeded where Mayor Horace did not – even though in my personal opinion I prefer Mayor Horace Darwin’s scheme to the one we got some 40 years later. Have a look here.

An annual award/set of awards in Sir Michael Marshall’s name for the individuals in the business sector who have contributed significantly to improving our city for the many.

One of the things that I’ve learnt over the years since my return to Cambridge from London nearly a decade ago, is that supporting local charities and causes is not simply a case of asking rich people to throw money at things. In fact, that’s possibly the least appropriate form of support for a city like Cambridge because it ceases to be a relationship of civic equals, and creates a dependency culture on one side, while creating one of absolving responsibility for the other so long as the latter group donate enough money.

I’ve learnt that the personal face-to-face involvement, something that Mayor Nigel Gawthrope taught us all in bundles, is just as important as financial contributions. It can be as simple as personal introductions, advice on how to pitch an idea or proposal, and also where best to do so (thus saving time and effort) that can be just as crucial. And that involves meeting people, going to events, and getting stuck in when perhaps one would rather be at home relaxing.

Mayor Nigel and Mayoress Jenny getting their hands messy at Cambridge FoodCycle

For me, such an awards scheme would help encourage Cambridge’s wealthier businesses to remember the city their firms are based in, as their businesses inevitably have to look outwards in this globalised economy. This is even more important given that Cambridge is now a place to live for people from all over the world – and also somewhere that has a relatively high turnover of population as well. Hence there’s an interest in making it easier for our city to make new firms and new arrivals to get involved in the life of our city.

A permanent Mayor’s fund for civic capital projects

Given the high profile given to the wealth generated by businesses in and around Cambridge, and some of the huge amounts paid over when successful startups are floated in share offerings, the people of Cambridge has not gained nearly as much as it could or should have done. As I’ve said on a number of occasions, one big reason for this is the over-complicated structure of governance.


Above – diagram by Smarter Cambridge Transport.

But changing this requires significant movements by Parliament and Whitehall – which is not going to happen in the short to medium term. So in the meantime…

…A permanent Mayor’s fund is something that I’d still like to see founded as a means to focus the attention of larger donors, and to complement the annual nominated Mayoral charities that each new civic mayor is empowered to appoint by Cambridge City Council. My initial proposal – the one I blogged about here was initially declined by Cllr Lewis Herbert, (Lab – Coleridge), the Leader of Cambridge City Council). You can read Cllr Herbert’s response in the minutes of the Full Council meeting of 19th July 2018 – item labelled 18/44/CNL “Public Questions”. Again, there’s no criticism of Cllr Herbert’s response from me. He was undertaking his role as Leader of the Council having to make a decision based on very limited council resources, and I was undertaking my role as an active citizen to find out what is and is not feasible in the current climate.

That all said, I’d like to think that someone out there who is in a better position than me to make either the Mayor’s Permanent Fund idea (note the ideas for large capital projects that we could raise money for here), or the civic awards in the name of Sir Michael Marshall, or both, a reality. Because one of the ideas I have – a new museum building that tells the story of Cambridge, is a place where we can tell and share the stories of how our city was made and by whom. That way, the names of our civic giants and legends are far less likely to be forgotten. Instead, it increases the chances that future generations will celebrate them.



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