“This is Cambridge – we deserve better!”

Summary: In 1892, local councillors on Cambridge Borough Council criticised proposals from architect William Milner Fawcett for a new guildhall. Their comments are striking in that not only did they state that Cambridge deserved better, but also that they were prepared to spend more ratepayers money on a grander design.

The problem was that six years later when such a grand design was put to them, they bottled it and put the decision to local ratepayers who naturally refused to vote for what would have been a tax rise.

I’ve covered the story at Lost Cambridge here. This in part is the story of indecisive councillors bickering over designs before Florence Ada Keynes came in and solved the problem by finally getting a guildhall built – unfortunately one which in my view had the ugliest outside design. Thousands of townfolk took her to task over this. But as they had no united alternative, we got what we currently have. It could have been different.

181009 Guildhall unbuilt etching 1857

Peck and Stephens in the late 1850s was only partially accepted – we got the large assembly hall, opened in 1862 (and still there), but the powers that be didn’t approve the rest of it.

In the late 1880s/early 1890s, a series of proposed designs were submitted to councillors. Below is one design from local architect John Morley. There are others out there – but I’m awaiting the county archives to re-open.

350222 John Morley Guildhall 1890s

Above – from the Cambridge Daily News 22 Feb 1935 in the Cambridgeshire Collection – at a time when the controversy of the current guildhall was at its peak.

Below – William Milner Fawcett’s design of 1892.


Fawcett’s design was regarded as not grand enough. Alderman Deck, from the family of pharmacists was quoted as:

“He did not think that the elevation was of sufficient Importance for such a town as Cambridge. He believed the only thing they could do was to increase the grant and let the people have something worthy to look at. Towns of less size than Cambridge had far more handsome buildings.” (from earlier blogpost)

Councillor Young agreed:

“…he would rather the Council should pay an additional £5,000 for a better looking building, because it was to last for all time. It was not nice to see dormer windows facing a magnificent square they had.”

What struck me reading through the article and the minutes was how there was a real sense of civic pride from the councillors, and that they wanted the architecture to reflect this. So when one such design came along…

181009 Colour Photo Belcher Unbuilt Guildhall Horace Darwin 1898 Cambs Collection1.1

…John Belcher’s design for Mayor Horace Darwin, they couldn’t persuade the rest of the council nor the rate payers to agree to fund it. Such was the disappointment that it doesn’t seem like much more was made of guildhall designs until Florence Ada Keynes made it clear that the problem of the guildhall needed to be dealt with. Until then, our guildhall was this

Cambridge old guildhall - note to the left is old Petty Cury

Above – Cambridge’s old guildhall from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Below: Charles Cowles-Voysey’s design of 1935.

350108 CambridgeGuildhallCambridgeIndy1935

Above – from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

The design became a target for political satire, so unpopular it was.


I can visualise Puffles now:

***Hai! We iz here to use your guildhall for target practice!***

DORA in this case…possibly the Defence of the Realm Act?

“Why are you so obsessed about civic architecture in Cambridge? Leave our poor architects alone!!!”

Messrs Jones and Ellis wrote a book about it. And given one of the newest local council buildings being the anonymous South Cambridgeshire Hall where the acoustics of the main debating chamber/conference room are awful for such a new building, I think the architecture world can do so much better. Furthermore, I think they won’t have any choice. They will have to. Because climate change is going to make them.

“Forced to?”

Yes – this from RIBA:

“RIBA declares environment and climate emergency and commits to action plan”

Over a decade ago when I was working on climate change policy in the context of new homes policy in Whitehall, one of the things that struck me was how different the design of our built environment was going to have to be if we were to adapt to the changes that even limited climate change would bring. Given the forest fires from the Amazon to Siberia, and the unprecedented melting glaciers in Iceland, Greenland, and further weakening of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf (we have the Scott Polar Research Institute and the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge), those changes might come far faster than we previously anticipated.

One of the things more than a few people in and around the building industry have mentioned to me is that the era of the glass-and-steel tower is over. The only reason why we were able to build them in the first place was cheap energy to pay to heat them. Hence why one of the conversations we’d often have inside Whitehall during my time there was on what was going to happen with renovation of buildings. One of the few good things that can be said about the buildings in Cambridge with large glass surface areas is that changing their facades does not need to involve the complete demolition of the buildings themselves – which have solid steel frames at their cores. Important when considering the lifecycle of buildings and embedded carbon.

“We can’t build Belcher’s Guildhall”


Actually, doing that would be a silly idea – not least because that design only has three stories on it, while the current guildhall has at least five. Furthermore, the interior of the main office buildings doesn’t need huge amounts of structural work done to it. And I think it’d be nice to have something similar to Belcher’s facade in place if not for Eva Hartree’s centenary as our first woman Mayor of Cambridge, then perhaps for Florence Ada Keynes’ centenary in 2032.

“No. We can’t have Edwardian Baroque.”

Ultimately architecture is about opinions – and money. Kenneth Robinson in 1964 was full of opinions in his video piece, slamming lots of town architecture left, right and centre. But no one can convince me that the accommodation for St Edmund College below, and featured here, is a credit to our city. Bland, lazy, minimalist and an architectural crime against our city for them to have forced through such a design on such a prominent location.


“I do share concern about blandness”

And I regularly hear such comments from councillors on planning committees, but the current system means that they have to approve bland applications less they lose on appeal and have to bear the costs at a time of austerity.

As I said at the top: “This is Cambridge – we deserve better”. Perhaps what’s interesting is that over the past century and a bit, I’m not the only local resident who has said this – and I can imagine similar has been said by others for their villages, towns and cities. And rightly so.


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