Cambridgeshire Conservatives to sell off Shire Hall, Cambridge


What will become of this very historic site in Cambridge City, where the Conservatives have no councillors?”


Please note the clarification from the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, Cllr Steve Count:

The Conservative Party seems to have a love-hate relationship with the City of Cambridge in recent decades. Historically, Cambridge Borough used to be a safe Conservative seat – so safe that they were able to parachute Sir Eric Geddes in as our MP a century ago without so much as a grumble. The high point for borough Conservatives was in the interwar era when the number of people turning up to their summer fete at the Gog Magog Hills opposite Wandlebury near Addenbrooke’s would easily exceed 10,000 people.

380802 Cambridge Conservatives Fete The Gogs Crowds.jpeg

From the Cambs Collection, over 10,000 people rock up to the annual Cambridge Conservatives’ Summer Fete. Note back then, Cambridge County was administratively much smaller – encompassing what is now South Cambs today.

The Implosion of the once mighty Cambridge Conservative Party

In the late 1970s, Cambridge Conservatives ran Cambridge City Council with 24 councillors. By the Millennium this number was down to two. (See the decline in this diagram by the late Colin Rosenstiel). There is a Ph.D thesis/mega research project waiting for a political historian to study and conclude how and why this happened.

In more recent times, a number of public buildings and services have come under threat –

…despite ministers telling anyone who will listen about how important Cambridge is to the national economy. (90% of business rates collected by the city council are surrendered to The Treasury for redistribution to more economically deprived areas – one of the sticking plasters from the early 1990s to deal with the mess of the Poll Tax policy that has stuck with us).

Cambridgeshire archives

The decision to move the archives out of the city was met with much anger in local history circles – not least because of the way plans to move the archives to a new heritage centre by the railway station (that article from 2005) were abandoned in very controversial circumstances – ones that hit the national news not so long ago. The decision to move the county archive out of the county town caused some problems for Cambridge City Council, who moved its archive into the county’s after the restructure of local government in the 1970s meant libraries and archives moved from district to county councils.

Cambridge Magistrates Courts

The Conservatives in government have tried to close Cambridge’s Magistrates Courts – something that South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen opposed (See here) and ultimately abandoned by the Courts Minister, Lucy Frazer MP for South East Cambridgeshire who found herself with this particularly tricky item on her table shortly after being appointed as Courts Minister.

Cambridge’s Crown Post Office

Now privatised although threatened with renationalisation under a prospective Labour government, Cambridge’s main post office (which always seems busy and full of tourists whenever I need to go in there for anything) is under threat. With a strong trade union tradition in the postal services, Labour MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner has backed the campaign to save it. Given that it is such a short distance from nearly all of the major bus routes into the city centre, the accessibility point is well made.

And now Shire Hall

While I think it reflects extremely badly on the Conservative Party as a whole to be moving the county council’s HQ outside of the county town as a matter of principle (the same would apply to any other political party doing the same), my main concern now is what happens to the Castle Hill site.

I’ve made the case repeatedly that the site should remain in council ownership, but if they really wanted/needed the income, to sell a long term lease to a hotel company to create a historically-themed hotel along with additional office accommodation.

[Updated to read:]

As per the clarification here and at the top, it is still the intention to lease the site – though a complete disposal of the site has not been ruled out.

However, there is nothing on official Cambridgeshire County Council’s website, or social media feeds clarifying that it was a long term lease available. Ditto on Strutt and Parker’s website – the agents appointed by the County Council. Hence making it harder for anyone to know the difference – all the public are seeing is the risk that a very historical site where Cambridge was near as dammit founded, is being privatised and turned into student flats or something that will bar off the general public – irrespective of whether it is true or not. Read the Cambridge Independent here for more.

“Who’s interested in the sale of the site?”

One firm is already getting excited about the prospect of more student flats.

…which would be the effective privatisation of another public building. The above reaction from Puffles was one of the more polite and muted ones compared to others I’ve seen.

Museum of Cambridge Castle Hill Satellite

The one thing to note is that the two car parks at road side of the site, plus the green, are now protected open spaces in the new Local Plan. Any new owner would be barred from developing/building on them. Then there is the Castle Mound listed historical monument which they cannot touch.

“Does this mean a possible heritage attraction won’t happen?”

For me, the worst case scenario is turning the site over to an ‘apart hotel’ operator – which, along with one web-based brand have become unpopular with local residents as guests are not supervised and can become hotspots for anti-social behaviour. But it would be a minimum cost, maximum profit operation for an unscrupulous developer. None of the hassle of running a hotel, but the benefits of being able to charge per night rather than per term. Note that the Castle Park building – formerly council offices, are already student accommodation.

“What should be done about Shire Hall?”

I’m not going to go into the politics behind the decision – that’s for a separate post at some future date. Note a couple of years ago I made some experimental videos exploring some of the history of the town – and started off outside Shire Hall.

The full playlist of videos is here

For me, it’s perfectly viable to combine a new heritage attraction – in my case an expanded Museum of Cambridge, along with a boutique hotel aimed at the upper end of the market rather than the mass market or student accommodation, while having office and restaurant accommodation incorporated in part of that redevelopment. This could include a rooftop cafe/bar with even better views than The Varsity’s Rooftop Terrace. The views are splendid but unfortunately at huge cost to the privacy to local residents in the centre of Cambridge, and also the terrace ruins the view of St John’s College from Jesus Green.

“Where would the museum expansion go?”

Where the car parks are

“Hang on – aren’t they now protected?”

They are, but it’s easier to make the case for the car parks to be designated for a heritage development in a future local plan if it involves rebuilding something that was already there in the first place. In this case it is the old magnificent Victorian Assizes Court build in the mid 1800s.

Above – models and photos of the old Assizes Court on Castle Hill, Cambridge. From the Cambridgeshire Collection.

“What will decisions come down to?”

For me, it’ll be purely rational and cold-blooded – for all of the emotion that could get thrown into it. Which one guarantees the county council the most money based on the criteria that they come up with for the sale. One of those criteria is about the heritage aspect of it – as they confirmed in a response to a public Q I tabled earlier this year.

“Who in their right mind goes to meetings of the Commercial and Investment Committee of their local council during the working day?!?”

“What might a solution look like that will placate all concerned?”

For me, a partnership between Cambridge City Council, some of the colleges, and a crowd-funding campaign targeting those firms and organisations that have been in Cambridge a long time, along with any philanthropists, would be ideal. That way, both town and gown have a financial stake in one of the most historic sites in the city – from where the Romans and the Normans rocked up, to where much of the river trade passed,  the place where the Great Suffrage March in 1913 marched past – (Sat 19th of July 1913 to be precise – read the report here), and the place where the Cambridgeshire Regiment was to make its final stand against an invading army during the dark days of the early 1940s.

Cambridge Defences WWII

Above – from the County Archive, the WW2 defence plan for Cambridge against the nazi invaders.

Note the boundary between E and A company of the 5th Btn Cambridgeshire Regiment (Home Guard), with A Company guarding the section between the railway line and Newmarket Road. Now you know why the ice rink being built there got delayed.

“Can the heritage be protected and even enhanced?”

My heart says ‘yes but’…and my head says ‘no…but…’

To give such a bid any chance of success, a consortium led or chaired by someone credible (i.e. not me – because Puffles) who can command the confidence of local government, the colleges, the local historical community, and beyond. How we go about putting that group together… I am all ears. Email me if you have any ideas and/or want to be involved in a response – antonycarpen [at] gmail





When nothing edible can fill the emptiness inside me

…and when eating a big tube of jellytots makes things worse!

Following on from my last blogpost – and thank you to those of you who took time to respond, if you remember one thing from this post, it’s not to eat a tube full of jellytots. You get a sugar rush that needs far too much fibre-based foods to combat. Yet growing up I can’t recall times when I was conscious of different foods affecting my mood.

Following a morning of filming Heidi Allen’s Brexit event in Cambourne (videos here) followed by a champagne tea at Homerton College for their 250th Birthday, I came away with the familiar sensations of having been in crowded rooms full of people yet completely and utterly disconnected from them at the same time. The first time I had heard of this as a concept was in the mid-1990s when The Levellers wrote JulieWhat I didn’t know at the time was that a few years later I’d move down to the town where the band formed – in Brighton. It would be a full decade after first hearing their music that I’d see them live – at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2004.

“Oh – it’s Puffles!” 

Heidi introduced me to the packed hall as I brought in my filming kit – telling the audience that the event was being filmed. (Not everyone likes being on camera at political events – even ones that are open to the public, hence why this is important). As I made my way through to the back of the hall, I could hear people whispering in hushed tones:

“Oh! It’s Puffles!” 

In some parts of Cambridge, Cambridgeshire and London I’m more known for the escapades of my tweeting dragon Puffles. The dragon’s not everyone’s cup of tea – but in recent times I’ve been getting more comments about why I’m not taking the dragon out and about.

“How does a person feel disconnected and empty inside, while having ***over seven thousand social media followers***??!?”

Those around in Puffles’ early days have often commented that social media felt a lot more friendlier back then than today. In the early 2010s every so often I’d host pub lunches in London for social media friends who had not met up face-to-face before. What struck me at the time with those was how the conversations seemed to have a natural flow to them – as if everyone had known each other for years even though they had not met face-to-face before.

Eventually I was no longer able to sustain hosting them – a train ticket and a pub lunch in London doesn’t leave much change from £50, and few people were willing to spend that much to make the return journey. While finance is less of an issue now, it’s health and confidence that are my barriers. It’s only when you’ve experienced the sensation of heart-related chest pains that put you in A&E that as a chronic worrier you end up second-guessing every bodily ache or pain. I cannot begin to tell you how draining that is.

Your life through the eyes of other people

In the process of a clear-out of things, I stumbled across a host of photos from my first couple of years at university – mainly of other people long gone from my life who I never knew for long anyway, and a handful of me. All I see of myself in those photos is just how ill and gaunt I looked – something that obviously reflects badly on myself but also of the institutions that should have intervened but never did. Photos of me in pre-social media age are actually quite rare – from my early teens I made it my business to stay out of photographs because of incredibly low self-esteem combined with being horrified at the results of photographs that were actually taken of me.

The really sad thing in all of the sets of photos – most of which will be binned because most were from visits to other places with people who I was only with for a few weeks at most, is that none of the groups of people from one set to another knew each other, and never stayed in touch. The people from the visit to Athens in 2000 were not the same group in Istanbul in 2001, for example. The same is true for everything after I graduated. The people I got to know through one activity or place of employment never crossed paths with another – despite my various efforts at the time. It was like oil and water – you can bring them together but they shall not mix.

Five years ago I made the observation that no one had been through the series of life experiences good and bad from the point of view of being by my side. (See the subtitle A life story through one pair of eyes only). When you’re at school and college, you have dozens of people sharing the same experiences as you in the same classrooms – even though your individual reactions to said experiences are inevitably different.

“I can’t go back – only forward”

One of the responses to my previous blogpost included the above. The nature of Cambridge (the town) today is one that has a destabilisingly high transient population. Thirty years ago this part of South Cambridge had such a lack of movement that it sort of became stale. From one extreme to another.

The response was in the context of being an integral part of a community group but for various reasons moving onto new projects and feeling that trying to go back for that same experience as several years ago wouldn’t be right – and wouldn’t feel right. This is my experience with dance lessons in central Cambridge, where at the invitation of a couple of acquaintances I’ve started once-per week just to get some exercise in. But I’m under no illusions – this is not the same set up of 2002-04 that I’m going back to, despite a handful of vaguely familiar faces. It’s a much smaller operation now – about half the size it was at its 2005 peak.

“You’ve not danced the Viennese Waltz for over seven years? That means you’re really good at it”

…when someone in far better shape than me grabbed me to dance the above on Friday night.

There’s a bit of me that really wants ‘to feel what being physically fit feels like again’ yet at the same time given age and health I don’t know if I could hack such an exercise regime that -given my poor mental health would leave little left for any other activity. But one thing that will always stay with me from the decade that I loathe to call the Noughties, is the sensation of dancing with someone who instantly connects with you on the dance floor. By that I mean you have this unexplained telepathic understanding of being able to lead/follow your fellow dance partner. This side of leaving the civil service I can’t recall ever experiencing that sensation dancing with anyone where you can almost close your eyes and have everything blurring into the background as the two of you move effortlessly around the floor, zero collisions.

When being permanently exhausted seems like a new found shyness

One or two people mentioned this over the years as well as recently. It’s all mental health-related, and in particular the sensation of no longer having the internal strength to fight the incessant worry chatter of what one friend calls her ‘mind weasels’. Or for those of you familiar with Spoon Theory, it’s a bit like knowing you could energetically participate in something knowing it’ll eat into your allowance of spoons for the next day/week and thus you’ll have to pay for it at some point in the future by lying in bed recharging your internal batteries. Back in the day when I did basic social media and public policy consulting, for every day at work I’d need to spend a day crashed out recharging. Two days in a row full on would be three days recharging. Hence I have no idea how people working in schools and hospitals manage on such full-on timetables. So if it looks like I’m taking a bit of a back seat at something, know that this is me pacing myself rather than being an unwilling/disinterested participant.









I never found my tribe


On trying to make sense of my past forty years.

Because next year I hit the big four zero.

The manner in which many of us who left the civil service in 2010/11 in the early years of austerity is something that will stick with me for a very long time. Having politicians tearing your profession to bits while being constitutionally barred from speaking out wasn’t fun. The creation of Puffles the Dragon Fairy on Twitter was one way of dealing with this.

When I joined the civil service in 2004 I remember having a sense of relief from the stability that a full time job in the field I thought I’d spend the rest of my working life in. In December 2006 I remember feeling an incredible sense of pride and relief having been informed of my passing of the Fast Stream Assessment Centre. The only other time I felt anywhere near that sense of pride/relief was with my GCSE results some ten years previous.

But there was no continuity

As a light reader of political and historical biographies, one common theme with many of them is the cohort of people who surround them from a relatively early age all the way through into retirement. Even now, studying the women who made modern Cambridge, Clara Rackham and Florence Ada Keynes had a partnership that effectively lasted half a century.  Yet I never experienced that.

I remember post-GCSEs being told that I had gotten into one of the best state sixth form colleges in the country. In the early days there I wondered who would be the people who would go onto be stupendously successful with their names in the bright lights and in the newspaper headlines. It was only later on that I found out that ‘success’ did not mean what I thought it did, and that as teenagers in South Cambridge, too many of the things we were told by the generation above us were the result of group think and peer pressure.

Life on a piece of paper

It goes something like this:

“Born – nursery – good school – great college – top university – graduate job – marry – children – retire – die.”

…even though I knew I wanted something far more – something that could nourish my soul in a way that going to church every Sunday was doing the exact opposite of.

I could have done something far more productive and beneficial than going to church every Sunday

Paraphrasing what comedian Ed Byrne said with his experience of having to go to church as a child, I take the same view. Yet even in the 1980s churches still had a strong hold – far stronger than today. It’s only looking back now that I can see just how divisive as institutions they were to us as a group of children trying to grow up together.

When I was finally able to break away from religion during my first year at university, no one realised just how difficult a move that was. They still don’t now. Institutionally we have nothing to support people who choose to break away from religion – one that may well have been embedded in the school that they went to. (Hence my opposition in principle to faith-based schools). It’s not simply a case of no longer having a routine of doing the same thing every Sunday morning, but making a substantive break away from a group of people many of whom you’ve know for a large portion of your life. It’s the equivalent perhaps of leaving a political party having been an active volunteer for a long time, or leaving a charitable group or campaigning organisation – a group of people with similar beliefs (or so you assumed) who you spent time with on a regular basis over a long period of time.

Not knowing I was suffering from a medical condition

It was my college years that, looking back, I really could have done with someone stepping in and ensuring I got proper medical treatment for the depression and anxiety I was suffering from. It’s straight-forward for me now to identify particular incidents where I can say ‘Yep – that was my anxiety talking’ or ‘Oh – that was my depression in action there.’ But even as recently as the late 1990s the impact of the failings of a number of institutions and individuals (myself included) is still striking. The direct impact was no longer staying in contact with people who I had known from childhood.

Anxiety makes you needy and intense…and the more friends pull away from you the worse that intensity and neediness becomes…and so the cycle gets worse and worse. And this has been the story of my life for as long as I can remember. And because this wasn’t nipped in the bud when it could and should have been (or – made even worse, in particularly by the rules of some of the institutions), the negative impact has been huge.

Not settling at University

One of the biggest negative impacts on my health at university was instability of housing. It never got anything out of me being there because as an institution we were just numbers. As with many universities in the 1990s, it had expanded its student numbers without building the necessary student accommodation to house them. They also had not put in place the services to ensure all students could find accommodation in the private sector with the minimal of stress. Had I had the courage I probably would have dropped out of university at the end of the first time/start of the second, saying it wasn’t working for me. But I didn’t have the courage. Lack of courage is my biggest moral failing and will remain so for the rest of my life. All the bad decisions I’ve made in life can be reduced down to that point.

The really sad thing with my time at university – especially when compared to that big institution that dominates my home town – is that I never met or made any friends for life. In fact I can only think of three people who I would later meet up with again at a future point. But they are all long gone now.

Trying too hard in the civil service

In the old Government Office for the East of England, the institution had a habit of filling its then annual intake of new civil servants at junior admin level with large numbers of young, talented and restless graduates. For jobs that required 5 GCSEs, about half would be taken by people with degrees. This meant that there was an imbalance between the senior management who started in the civil service of typing pools with a group of people who were familiar with using the internet in an academic, if not a working environment. To give you an example, one senior director insisted his PA printed out all of the emails he received for him to deal with them. (He retired less than a year later following a restructure).

The organisational restructure that decimated the ranks of young junior officers (while increasing the corps of senior managers that would ultimately be scrapped by Pickles and all) did away with what I thought could have become that relatively stable if not particularly exciting work place. I had spent the previous two years having thrown myself into a host of extra-curricular work-based things (because essentially I was under-employed in my comms role that I was paid for, and didn’t want to bum around being useless during the day). Yet in my heart of hearts I knew I wasn’t ‘connecting’ with the people I worked with at the level I really wanted to.

The same happened when I moved to London – trying too hard. I wanted to get to a stage where the people who I worked with were the people who I socialised with. Yet despite the positive disposition and volunteering for stuff, with hindsight I tried too hard. And burnt out.

Trying too hard as a symptom of anxiety and insecurities

One of the things I’ve struggled with for ages is getting to and from places. The only time at a local level it wasn’t really a problem was during my civil service days in Cambridge because I cycled everywhere at a time when I was physically fit – being able to get from the town centre back home nearly three miles away in the late evening in fifteen minutes. Flying through the darkness in the highest gear on my bike with a sense of effortlessness after 3-4 hours of dance classes in the evening following a day at work was normal at that time. I couldn’t do it now.

No long lasting friends despite the years of volunteering and helping out – in Cambridge, Brighton, London & beyond.

That’s one of the things that, with all things taken into account, leaves me feeling empty inside. Other people have come in and found their tribes and settled in whichever group, collective or organisation I happened to be in…but I never did. Why not? Why were they successful where I was not?

It’s too late now to change things or go back

This is sort of where I am now in my mind – a social creature living a solitary life involuntarily. I was people-watching at an event not so long ago, observing who knew whom, conscious in my mind that I didn’t really know anyone there. I was pondering on what the life and career paths of all of these people were, and on what kept them in touch with each other, and how this compared to decades and centuries gone by of their predecessors in this town of ours (Cambridge).

Hitting the big four-zero next year also means being in a cohort that I’m assuming for the many involves settling down and having children. But not for me. I’ve taken a conscious decision on the basis of my health that I could never cope with being a parent. My suspected heart attack of 10 months ago hit me like a ton of bricks, and made me realise that actually I have much less time left than I perhaps had assumed I had. That plus never being able to afford my own place in Cambridge in the short-medium term, and not being able to work full time anymore…you have to make a huge number of adjustments both physical and in terms of mindset.

Hence taking risks (including financial ones) with Lost Cambridge

I’m investing some of the proceeds of the sale of my share in an inherited property into my work on the history of Cambridge – not least because if I don’t do it now, I never will. And if I don’t, who else will? Those of in the field all have our different approaches. Alan Brigham has his tours, while Fonz has his radio show, while Mike Petty is undertaking a huge digitisation program, and Honor Rideout runs the Cambs Association for Local History. To give a few examples. And that’s before mentioning the Museum of Cambridge, and the Cambridgeshire Collection. They have all been around in this field for a lot longer than I have, and have done far more. I’m a relative newcomer.

But what we’re not is this well-supported, well-resourced dynamic team of historians sharing the story of this small but great city of ours, based in a place or building that when people enter into it go ***Wow!***.

It’s somewhere I’d like Cambridge to get to – and maybe one day it will. Just not within my lifetime.






On presenting Cambridge’s women heroes to our city


Facing the public with some of the results of my research on the women who made modern Cambridge.

I gave a talk about some of the women I’ve been researching about as part of an evening on all things Radical Mill Road, for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas 2018, hosted by the Mill Road History Society.

The lighting made things hard work for my camcorder, but so long as you can hear the audio and sort-of-see-the-slides it should be OK.

My talk was the third of the three talks, Deborah Thom and Mary Burgess delivering excellent presentations before. For those of you interested in the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage movement, Mary, Celia and Caroline at the Cambridgeshire Collection have collated a series of documents and items from this time. Furthermore, we now have a wonderful introduction to what the women of Cambridge achieved, in Sue Slack’s new book on the Cambridge Women and the struggle for the vote – available now.

A new local history meetup group

Not so long ago, I started a local history Meetup Group – Lost Cambridge with the aim of bringing new audiences to the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Central Library. This is because the Conservative-led Cambridgeshire County Council confirmed to me in response to a public question that they are running the county’s archive services at their statutory minimum.

Above – Cambridgeshire County Council full council July 2017.

Two years ago I also asked a question about the digitising of the county archives – this from December 2016. So it’s not as if what I’ve been doing has come out of the blue. The big picture funding decisions are outside of the scope of this blogpost, but given the realities of the situation, securing new independent funding streams for our archive services has to be a priority while the politicians fight things out over county budgets.

Learning a harsh historical lesson or two

When the heart of Cambridge town was ripped out in the comprehensive redevelopment of the Lion Yard in the early 1970s, the long-promised new concert halls and music centre never materialised. Below is a map from “The Cambridge That Never Was” by Francis Reeve – Oleander Press 1976.

180930 Gordon Logie in Reeve_2 1960s.jpg

Fast forward to the mid-late noughties and private developers ran rings around Cambridge’s planners and councillors in Cambridge Railway Station/CB1 to ensure we did not get the promised heritage centre for our county archives – now moving out to Ely, leaving local people fuming. This article in The Guardian went viral. Recently it was picked up by the CreateStreets Twitter feed. Finally, the new Housing Minister had his say:

…which sparked things off locally again.

This matters personally to me because all of this historical research started after spotting some old photographs of long-since-demolished buildings in Cambridge – which turned into a series of short videos titled: Cambridge – the shaping of our city in 2016. (Part of it was also a means of getting away from national and party politics following the EU Referendum!)

Interestingly, my concerns with the present day and recent decades have been around preserving our historical town heritage (which we’ve not been at all successful on), while the likes of Eglantyne Jebb, Florence Ada Keynes, Leah Manning and co were primarily concerned with poverty, its symptoms, causes, and solutions to. On the latter, slum clearances were a significant policy tool as the size of local, and then national government grew. What matters with all of those women is that they had a positive vision for the future of Cambridge, were persistent in their campaigning… And. They. Won.

But something didn’t happen after the Second World War

The prominence of those high profile campaigning women in Cambridge for whatever reason did not carry through into the post-war years, and the successes of the women in the pre and interwar era did not embed itself into our civic consciousness. The centenary of Votes for Women has given us a huge opportunity to put things right – hence the importance of books like Sue Slack’s.

The power of images.

Since getting hold of a new big printer, I have been printing out a number of large images from the archives and bringing them along to a number of public talks. One of those was a very recent meeting of the Cambridge City Council’s full council, where I showed a number of A2 print outs to councillors of the women councillors and activists from a century ago in the Palmer Clark archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

My suggestion prior to Cllr Anna Smith’s response was to have those prints expanded to A0 and displayed in the large assembly hall on the guildhall site – especially as the only portrait of a woman displayed is that of Queen Victoria.

The other poster that Cllr Smith referred to was the one below.

181017 Cambridge Colleges MuseumofCamb Poster.jpg

It’s an original from we think 1957 and it was for sale online at a not cheap price. When the Museum of Cambridge said the price was beyond their means (recall their funding crisis a year ago) …and not wanting to lose this historic piece to someone or somewhere else, I asked the art dealer to knock 20% off of the asking price on the grounds that I was acquiring it for the Museum of Cambridge, and arranged to have it delivered directly to the Museum.


As you can see, the poster is ***Huge*** – at the Museum of Cambridge

The point of all of these large images is that people have been genuinely moved by the large scale reproductions. Such as today at Newnham College.

Her biography is being published in November 2018.

Art and music on the women who made modern Cambridge.

My first commissioned piece of artwork has arrived – this being a portrait of Frida Stewart/Knight by Maxine Moar.

181018 Frida Stewart Max Moar.jpg

Frida Stewart – above, by Maxine Moar, and below from the book Rosie’s War by Rosemary Say who escaped with Frida from a wartime prison camp in WW2


Frida Stewart – a Cambridge woman of action.

I’ve also got two very talented local song writers commissioned who are in the process of writing songs of the Cambridge women of their choice, both of which are due for publication in early 2019. One local musician who has already written her own track separately on the struggle for votes for women is Flaming June.


Multiple stories need many people and multiple media with which to share them and embed them in our city’s civic consciousness.

Talking to one senior council officer recently, he commented that he didn’t even know the names of the historically significant men councillors past, let alone the women – which I said spoke volumes about how we as a city were completely ignoring our local civic and social histories. Go into any major bookshop in town and you’ll find in the history section lots of books written by men about men. For whatever reason, military history takes precedence over all other forms of history in bookshops, even though modern warfare is an incredibly destructive force – while social history primarily covers how we collectively improved the lives and livelihoods of humanity. Isn’t there something to be said about promoting and celebrating our civic heroes too?

Given the number of people who were active in and around Cambridge at this time, researching and presenting the stories and experiences of the women who made modern Cambridge is beyond the capabilities of one person. There is simply too much material to cover in order to know which bits to select as highlights in order to give the new reader the freedom to select which ones if any, to do further reading on.

In discussions earlier today with a couple of academics in this field, I mentioned that in terms of research, my ideal set up would be working as part of a research team where one or two very senior women academics specialist in this field were the chairs / champions of us group of researchers – one where there is a soft structure to work within, networks to tap into and channels by which to share our research, ones that go far beyond the traditional publishing of academic papers to historical journals. (For example using art, music and drama as mentioned above).

Finally, my personal preference in all of this research is that it is led by a woman – and one who has the confidence of those working with her. I’m not the person to lead it – I have neither the experience, expertise, calibre of persona, aptitude nor the health to be able to deliver on something that could become an extended program lasting many years given the potential there is with the material that I know is out there.

If you know anyone who is interested in getting involved – especially early career researchers, drop me an email at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com.




On the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Review – no Localgov Restructure?


The elephant in the room remains untouched by the report despite welcome measures such as calls for public transport investment, long term market town strategies, and a powerful voice for Fenland, one of the most economically deprived areas despite close geographical proximity to Cambridge.

You can read the report here – click on one of the tiny orange arrows to the bottom right.

The dragon wasn’t impressed by the lack of a clear demand for a streamlined system of governance following years of tinkering with structures on the back of political envelopes.

Cambridgeshire 1945

The above map (dating from 1945) from the history of local government in and around Cambridge from 1959 (which I’ve digitised here – have a look at ***all of the wonderful maps!***) is one of my favourite as it gives an example of what a series of unitary councils might look like. The table below in Annex 1 is actually a very important table as it summarises who has what powers in Cambridgeshire.

180923 Cambs Localgov Powers Table_1180923 Cambs Localgov Powers Table_2180923 Cambs Localgov Powers Table_3

“The review had a huge remit – there was only so much they could have said about governance”

Overall there are 27 recommendations – 14 main ones, 13 subsidiary ones, which for any official report is a huge number. Interestingly it’s the last one – the last of the subsidiary recommendations that may catch the attention of regular bus users in Cambridge (of which I am one – and a founding member of this new group) is that they have called for Mayor James Palmer to use his powers of bus franchising. Many have been calling for him to do this for quite some time – despite the main bus operator, Stagecoach, having big reservations with it. In the grand scheme of things it’ll hit their profits. Andy Campbell of Stagecoach has always been clear at public meetings that he will not run bus routes that are run at a loss unless someone subsidises them.

Above – dragon goes several stages further. And given the current political climate, renationalisation is being discussed not just at national but in local political circles. This from last year at the general election hustings in Great Shelford.

Dan Greef (Labour – South Cambs) responding to a question on nationalisation at the General Election 2017 hustings at Gt Shelford Hall. 17 May 2017.

“Why is governance such a big issue?”

One of the reasons why ‘the business community’ is reported in political circles to favour executive mayors is because there is a direct point of contact to lobby to get what they want or need. The problem is that England has a very long history of having civic mayors. Cambridge has had a mayor (with fluctuating degrees of powers) for the best part of 800 years. Not something to be thrown away lightly. Peterborough too has a civic mayor. Thus there has been confusion with some dignitaries from other countries unfamiliar with the civic leader they are dealing with – assuming that our civic mayors have executive powers (they don’t) and/or mistaking the executive county mayor (currently Mr Palmer) for being the mayor of the cities of Cambridge and Peterborough respectively. (He isn’t). That’s not Mr Palmer’s fault, that’s the fault of ministers who rushed the policy development of executive mayors.

The current set up of local government causes far too much confusion for citizens and businesses – this review could have taken the opportunity to call for structures to be simplified.

Ask any of the business representatives who have been to local government meetings in Cambridge and more than a few will tell you that some, such as the Greater Cambridge Partnership Assembly can make you lose the will to live – especially as they trundle on into their third or fourth hour.

I put it in the context of the nominal hourly rate the individuals around the Assembly table get paid, or would have gotten paid if it were at a consultancy rate. And then asked the question whether politicians and officials had gotten value for money out of all of the people who were around the very large set of tables. Which in part is why I’m not a fan of big meetings that last for ages with lots of people where only one person gets to speak at a time. In my civil service days, 90 minutes was the maximum my teams would aim for, knowing that if they went above 2 hours, people would lose concentration. Given the importance of the issues at stake, not something you want to have happening.

Reducing duplication

There’s far too much of it in the current structure – and as a result it costs time and money, not just for the organisations, but for the media who report from said meetings and for the public who want to keep up with who is saying what. The problem is that the Review has taken the existing structures as a given rather than asking some essential questions as to whether the geographical area for a single county-wide mayoralty is the right one, and whether the current arrangements for scrutiny and accountability with the Combined Authority as is, are suitable in order to safeguard public money.

Separating the party political from the propriety and governance issues

The ballot box thumping the residents of South Cambridgeshire gave the Conservatives at the local elections this year made things a little bit more complicated for the Conservative majority on the Combined Authority – and completely removed the Conservative working majority on the Greater Cambridge Partnership. The latter, for which Cllr Lewis Herbert, Labour’s leader of Cambridge City Council, is the only member of the Board who has been there from the first meeting. Yet he had no say in the creation of the Partnership/City Deal as it was put together when the Liberal Democrats controlled Cambridge City Council.

The Conservatives have chopped and changed their board members, with only former Cllr Francis Burkitt taking a very proactive stance as both a member and a chairman compared with his party colleagues. While I didn’t agree with Cllr Burkitt, nor his party’s policies, he always struck me as a competent chairman, prepared to ask difficult questions, overturn officer advice when it was warranted, and face the media on controversial issues. I got the sense that people knew where they stood with him. In the early days of 2014/15, I felt that Cllr Herbert was carrying along the entire project alone.

The election of the Liberal Democrats with such a big majority on South Cambridgeshire District Council (one that will be there for up to the next four years give or take a boundary change) means that Liberal Democrat Cllr Aidan Van De Weyer, the representative for South Cambs, faces a huge test trying to make the Partnership work with the manifesto that he and his party colleagues were elected on earlier this year.

Finally, recent personnel changes in the Combined Authority by Mayor Palmer have been in the headlines of late, with both Cllr Herbert and the new leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, Cllr Bridget Smith, calling for an independent review into the departure of the Combined Authority’s chief executive. The question is whether the other leaders of the county’s district councils – all Conservatives, will support such a call. Given what I’ve seen of past meetings, I doubt this will happen. Again, the fault is in the design – the Combined Authority Board being one aimed at getting the leaders of different political parties representing different areas to work together.

Politically polarised district councils

Cambridge City Council has zero Conservative councillors – a constitutional outrage in some traditionalist circles

East Cambridgeshire District Council has zero Labour councillors, and only three Liberal Democrat Councillors – and one independent. The other 35 councillors are all Conservative.

Fenland District Council has zero Labour councillors – despite it having once been a Labour-controlled council in the 1990s. How and why that party imploded remains a mystery.

With the above in mind, is there something about the electoral system that means large numbers of people are not being adequately represented? Whether that’s the 10,000 or so Conservative voters in the general election inside Cambridge City, to the 17,000 voters who voted for Labour in South East Cambridge (covering much of East Cambs DC).

What about retraining of workers?

One of the best articles I’ve read on this issue is by the finance and economics writer Frances Coppola – The Bifurcation of the Labour Market.

“Business re-engagement with the growing “shanty town” of low-skilled, poorly paid and insecure workers is essential for economic recovery. And it seems to me that fostering this re-engagement is the role of government. “

Essentially there is an incentive for firms to poach the skilled workers of their rivals rather than to invest in their own workforces. The growth of the zero hours/gig economy has also resulted in too many people being deprived of hard won workers’ rights such as the right to paid holiday and sick pay.

One of the things I’ve not seen is a comprehensive approach to the retraining of workers – in particular career switchers. In 1996 during my final year at school in Cambridge, our head teacher told us our future was one where there would not be jobs for life, and that we would have to retrain and switch careers. What followed clobbered Generation Y and the Millennials, where grants for further study were scrapped for all but the poorest – who had to go through various hoops and means testing (which are barriers in themselves), and hit them/us with eye-wateringly high debts. Seeing one of my Twitter followers informed that she owed the Student Loans Co over £50,000 was sobering. Knowing that the loan book has been sold off to the private sector isn’t going to help graduates get out of debt. And we’ve not even looked at housing. Yet if the under-40s are supposed to be retraining let’s say every decade or so, how can they possibly afford to incur the costs of it? More loans? It’s unsustainable. At some stage employers are going to have to take on much more of the costs of training and retraining – whether through taxation or other means.

And finally….

It’s a cliche to say young people are our future, but they are. Yet we don’t seem to have a mechanism to tap into what their hopes and fear for the future are. The reason why this matters is because Millennials are the first generation to grow up knowing more and/or having access to far more knowledge than the adults that are teaching them. What are the things that they can teach the adults? What knowledge of public services do they have that adults and decision makers are not aware of? For example the impact of poor public transport services on school/college attendance and future career choices. And we have been here before. Mary Chamberlain’s book on Fenwomen first published in the 1970s has heartbreaking testimony of young women being told they could not go onto study what they wanted to study because the government of the day had cut the bus services from their village. Do we have a picture of how the career and life choices of our children and young adults are being affected by the worsening transport situation?

There’s more I could write, but I’ll finish here for now.







Do you print out your photographs?


On storing personal photographs with an eye on archiving.

So I got the dragon a new (for us) second hand toy to be distracted by – an A2 printer that was going fairly cheap for what it does.

Poor Eglantyne Jebb looks petrified in the face of Puffles! This print is from the Palmer Clarke archive in the Cambridgeshire Collection – with tens of thousands of glass plates that volunteers are currently scanning and cataloguing. [For those of you interested, I run free monthly talks at the Cambridgeshire Collection on the 2nd Saturday of each month – see here for details].

I went through a spreadsheet that another volunteer had created from the card index to locate a number of very prominent women who were social reformers in the run up to the First World War and in the interwar period. Getting these printed out on A2 photo paper (i.e not poster paper) isn’t cheap. It’s at least £20 a time. Given the number of plates I could order, the potential printing cost from a third party was looking at over £500. At which point it’s far better buying a printer capable of doing the job.

What the detail shows that viewing on screen misses

I don’t know about you, but I prefer looking at historical documents and things on paper rather than on screen. I find I have more time to ponder and contemplate, gazing at a large sheet than having to fiddle around moving a cursor that is distracting to say the least – to say nothing of the screen glare. Surprisingly, some images have come out incredibly well even though they are photographs of small photographs.

Such as this one of Belcher’s unbuilt guildhall in Cambridge. This is the story of why we didn’t get it, but having the ability to print it out means I can give a copy back to the Cambridgeshire Collection that is far more striking than the original photograph we got it from. (The original painting is lost somewhere in the current guildhall).

Ipswich on the other hand managed to build theirs.

“Why print all of this stuff out?”

Some of it is because more detailed, larger prints reveal far more. Coming back to Belcher’s Guildhall plan, this – again from the Cambridgeshire Collection, is a photo of an A2 print I made earlier today. The original newspaper print is about A5, and the descriptions of the rooms are illegible in the latter.


Yet when I printed them out at A2, as the detailed snapshots from my phone show, the room labels magically appear.


The County Court room is more clearly visible as the large room on the left in the image above.


The Committee Room labels are visible, as is the balcony, while we can clearly make out the shape of the council chamber as well.

The printed image does not require another piece of equipment to access it, unlike data stored on a separate device/hard drive.

This was what got me thinking about what to print and where to store the images – both the photographs I take when out and about in Cambridge, and the images I’ve been digitising for my own research – eg newspaper articles.

One of the things with photographs in our local archives is that many of them are quite small. Understandable given the cost of producing them – alongside things like rationing and censorship, especially in wartime.

Humanity and personality getting lost/hidden in very small images

When we opened the first of the large prints I had ordered separately via the Cambridgeshire Collection, We gasped with surprise when the first prints of Eglantyne Jebb came back – as well as the photo of the roof of the old Masonic Lodge that was on Corn Exchange Street.

One of the people who came to one of my history talks is a Mason, and told me that the roof had indeed been saved, transferred to another lodge which, if all goes well we might be able to visit.

“So…size is everything?”

Not quite.

But for the purposes of my research, being able to photograph otherwise delicate newspapers and reprint them in the same large format means not repeatedly pulling out the originals from the archives. Furthermore, with images, as I’ve mentioned there is so much more detail that comes out in a larger format. For example in Eglantyne’s case you can see the freckles on her face just beneath her make-up. At that size she looks so much more human.

“Printing out all of those photos will take ages and won’t be cheap”

I’m not intending on printing out all 10,000+ photos that seem to have found their way onto my laptop since leaving the civil service in 2011. (The large majority of them are actually snapshots of things I’ve found in archives rather than of people and things). It’s strange because I used to hate being in photographs and hated taking them too because I was rubbish at it. There are precious few photographs of me in my teens and twenties around.

Does it bother me? Yes and no. It does because otherwise it feels like the things – even the good things that happened, were lived by someone else in another life. But then it doesn’t bother me at the same time because the people who I shared those experiences with are no longer in my life. As I mentioned in a previous blog, the impact of my mental health problems that I didn’t fully recognise at the various times were more than enough for people to back away. The ‘intensity’ that goes with it is one of the personality traits I hate in myself because I know how off-putting it can be. Unfortunately photos like this from over a decade ago shortly after I moved to London risk becoming meaningless because they lack both context and being part of a narrative or story.


This photo was taken at a ballroom ball at Fulham Town Hall by the former Stardust Ballroom Dancing Company (which unfortunately did not take off despite a strong start, and was liquidated).

But yes, in the grand scheme of things, I think it’s worth going through your own digital photo collections and picking the best ones either to print out on photo paper or get professionally developed (and at a larger-than-standard size). Chances are someone in the future will thank you for it.


Why is the contribution of China during the Second World War not more prominent in popular & military history?


Between 1937-39, the Cambridge Daily News frequently ran headlines reporting the atrocities carried out by invading forces of Imperial Japan. Yet the high level of reporting in newspapers of the time don’t seem to have transferred into popular history. Why is this?

I was in the Cambridgeshire Collection again today, and the big thing I took away was the repeated headlines of news in the Far East of Japan’s war against China that exploded into conflict in 1937 after a very uneasy peace following Japan’s occupation of Manchuria and large areas of northern China in the early 1930s – which resulted in Imperial Japan leaving the League of Nations.

Just as the repeated headlines of the Spanish Civil War (and the paralysis of UK foreign policy in the face of that aggression was something I found exhausting reading earlier this week, the headlines today were just as shocking. What really struck me was that there were several incidents that, in any other time would have led to a military response from the British.


From the Cambridge Daily News, August 1937, in the Cambridgeshire Collection

The third screenshot shows the aftermath of an incident where the British Ambassador to China was injured in an air attack on his car by a Japanese plane. This incident involving soldiers from Northern Ireland was also reported. At the time, Shanghai was a highly-developed city, occupied by a coalition of forces from the colonial powers of the day. Hence why the British were there. And the cartoonist/satirist David Low, spent those same years tearing into the governments of Baldwin and Chamberlain over their foreign policies – the cartoons below coming from this book I found in a charity shop ages ago.


David Low – A Pageant of Politics, 1938

These were serious times – here’s the Mayor of Cambridge visiting a model office at Boots on Petty Cury (The store’s still there give or take some major rebuilding work) which is supposedly resistance to a poison gas attack.


From the Cambridge Daily News, October 1937, in the Cambridgeshire Collection

Above – Ronald Searle satirising events in Cambridge on the week Mayor Briggs visited Boots.

It was also a time when anti-war protests were becoming more prominent – as were the preparations for war following an increase in defence spending announced in the Budget earlier that year.

The thing is…Cambridge was still building stuff


As the photos above via the Cambridgeshire Collection show, work on The Guildhall and a new crematorium continued and a new Synagogue and a new secondary school (Coleridge – today part of the Parkside Federation) were opened.

So in one sense, life carried on as normal, yet in another sense, they were incredibly dark times. As I said to a couple of people this week, how many government ministers of Stanley Baldwin’s and Neville Chamberlain’s pro-appeasement pro-non-intervention governments can you recall? Compare that with Churchill’s wartime coalition.

“What’s this got to do with war in the Far East?”

The best book on this subject area is Forgotten Ally, by Rana Mitter. Note in the title the conflict is listed as being from 1937-45. In popular historical culture some people complain that the USA only refer to WWII being from 1941-45 – i.e. from Pearl Harbour. For other parts of the world, the conflict began far earlier than autumn 1939.

Further more, the war in the Far East was perhaps much more significant for Cambridge than it was for other parts of the UK. For a start, academics fleeing from the dictatorships would end up in Cambridge one way or another. And Cambridge would give them a platform on which they could talk about what was going on. Accordingly, the local newspapers would report what was going on.


The Liberal Party held their national summer school at the University Arms Hotel in Cambridge in 1937, and the last headline speaker was Dr Moritz Bonn of the then banned SPD (Social Democrats of Germany) – and was on the list of persons to be rounded up by the nazis had they succeeded in invading Britain. Searching the digitised list of names, 65 entries return from the search term “Cambridge”. Sobering indeed.


Above – from the Cambridgeshire Collection, the visit by Professor Peng Chun who managed to evade invading Japanese forces before heading to Europe to speak about the war in the Far East.

1937 Resolution following Prof Peng Chun talk in Cambridge.jpg

Above – the resolution passed by a number of societies in Cambridge in October 1937.


Solidarity between Indian and Chinese students in Cambridge in 1937 – even before the Second World War, and even before the First, Cambridge had a number of students from India and China studying at Cambridge University.

The Fall of Singapore in 1942

The final reason why events in the Far East are significant to Cambridge in particular is because the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Cambridgeshire Regiment were sent on a doomed mission to defend the so-called Fortress of Singapore in early 1942. Newspapers of the late 1930s reported on the large military spending on Singapore, but to little effect it seemed. Diverted halfway through their voyage originally to the Middle East, and having received limited training for mobile warfare, they were thrown into the jungles of Malaya and the siege of Singapore before being surrendered by General Percival in what was possibly the biggest defeat for British and Empire military forces in its history. One of the soldiers captured was Ronald Searle. And as this article recalls, many did not survive the horrors of the prison camps.

The war in Burma

The Chinese played an incredibly important role in the fight against Imperial Japan – the figure I’ve seen quoted at various points is that the Japanese army had over a million soldiers stationed in China at the time of the surrender in 1945. The front on the China- Burma-India borders was where British and Indian forces – and also the 15,000 soldiers of the 82nd West African Division which included Nigerian soldiers who had smashed the Italian fascists out of modern day Somalia in the East African Campaign. According to this from the BBC, over a million soldiers from across Britain’s colonies in Africa were mobilised to fight in the Second World War. Not an insignificant amount of personnel. The jungles of Burma were scenes of some of the toughest fighting of the war.

“That being the case, why were they forgotten?”

Before the days of the internet you had people on TV coming out with stuff like this. Fair play to Richard Wilson aka Victor Meldrew (who during his national service in the 1950s was stationed at Singapore) for calling Manning out. I still remember one or two ignorant fools from my college days praising the latter even though we slammed him for his bigoted views. (As well as being factually incorrect, but by then the damage was done – it’s much harder to correct a lie after it has been mentioned on prime time TV). This was just one example.

The other issue perhaps was Cold War politics. The Government of China recognised by the UK and the USA was the regime led by General Chang Kai Shek and his nationalist movement, the KMT. His wife, known in the media as Madame Chiang Kai Shek, was a very fluent English speaker, and one of the most famous political figures of her day. This is her speaking to the US Congress.


Following the invasion by Japan, the conflict between Chang Kai Shek’s forces and Chairman Mao’s communists was halted. However, in 1946 it broke out again and by 1949, the latter had taken control of mainland China while the latter withdrew to the island of Taiwan, where it remained under American protection. As far as the US Government was concerned, the government in Taiwan remained the official representatives of the Republic of China (as opposed to the People’s Republic of China we are familiar with today) until President Nixon’s policy change in the early 1970s.

Thus in the decades that followed, it could have been that praising the efforts and sacrifices by nations under communism was ‘not the done thing’ as far as the British Establishment was concerned. Ditto perhaps with countries that were seeking independence from the UK. Personally I’ve not even scratched the surface of what the reasons might be. But it’s certainly an area worth reaching for a new generation of historians.

“Isn’t all of this just re-writing history?”

Not at all – because the history that I am talking about has already been written at the time. When it was written, it wasn’t called ‘history’, it was called ‘news’ and was written by journalists. All I’m doing is re-telling the stories as opposed to coming up with something new.

And for me it’s a reasonable question to ask fellow historians why the news reports of the time – the repeated news reports over an extended period of time – have not made it into the popular history books given the number, frequency and extended time frame those reports were being published in the newspapers of the time.



The Cambridge Folk Festival, and time in the archives too


On experiencing the 2018 Cambridge Folk Festival with a limited number of spoons, and hiding from the heatwave in an air-conditioned archive/library.

At the 2016 Cambridge Folk Festival two years ago, I made this video with a phone and a selfie stick.

It was slightly different this year because my music collective We. Are. Sound., which contains a large number of fans of the US folk band Darlingside (who were headlining) had organised to let us take over the vocals on one of their songs at an unannounced short set in one of the bars. It went something like this:

Those in the audience who were not part of our collective were pleasantly shocked and surprised to hear us all harmonising given that we’d not sung along with the few other tracks they had played. (We’d prepared for this and had sung it in a previous gig).

180805 Darlingside_2

Judging by the band’s reaction after they handed over to the audience after the first line, I think we did OK.

Following that, I slouched in a chair to listen to Kate Rusby and Eddie Reader and Friends.

…but unfortunately Reader didn’t sing the song that propelled her to Number 1 in the music charts in 1988. All together now: ***It’s got to beeeeyeeeeyeeeeyeeee….. Perrrrrrrrrrfect!***

The one artist who held the audience spellbound was Janis Ian

…and if the Folk Festival organisers and producers can do a deal, they’ll get a soundtrack to her song 1776 at the Folk Festival released online.

“…Because it could never happen here”

One woman and her guitar – who even had us all captivated with her monologues between songs. In particular the challenges of being in a same sex marriage in an era of Donald. [Standing on the US-CDN border: “The form says to state marital status – what should I put?” “Well, you’re married aren’t you?” “Well, over here I am, but fifteen metres over there, I’m not”]

Having to plan everything in advance in micro-detail

I can’t see myself ever having the health to manage a full festival anywhere. Hence only booking for this day. But it still meant having to think things through in a level of detail that most other people probably take for granted. This was the first year I took a chair with me because I knew I’d not cope on my feet all the time. That and feeling like a cheapskate borrowing other peoples as I did 2 years ago. As it turned out, the chair I bought and brought with me was used by others in and around my music collective, me crashed on someone else’s as we did a slow-motion merry-go-round picking up ice creams, beers and other things over the afternoon.

The sky did spoilt us at times though.

Organisers also opened a multi-tap water fountain on site given the heatwave. I sort of wonder how we all coped at previous festivals. I remember the 2004 festival being particularly warm and sunny with Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy headlining at an event that some more hardcore goers felt lacked ‘real’ folk music.

The band I’d like to have seen this year were First Aid Kit

…but the truth was I just didn’t have the stamina. That said, this year the music was incredibly loud – so loud that I could clearly hear Patti Smith banging out Because of the night from my bedroom window the night before Sunday’s fun and games.

Monday morning in the archives

I had the best sleep in ages – I hope this bodes well for when I have my wisdom teeth removed in 12 or so hours time from writing this. Impacted and one with more than deep roots, I can’t say I’m looking forward to it, but they want out.

Given the weather forecast, I chose to stay in the Cambridgeshire Collection all day – it took me about four hours to browse through six months of newspaper reports from 1936. Turns out local artist and author of St Trinians, the great Ronald Searle, had covered a previous heatwave in Cambridge.


From the Cambridge Daily News, in the Cambs Collection, June 1936

You can find out more historical treasures in the collection on the 3rd Floor of Cambridge Central Library – or click here. I’m also hosting a group visit to the collection on Sat 11 August – see here for details. (I hope the worst effects of wisdom teeth removal will have worn off by then).

In part as a result of the heatwave, my broken laptop, the summer break from local democracy, and having a much clearer picture of the history of Cambridge the town compared to two years ago, I’ve increased the intensity of the research that I’m doing – this being the longest session I’ve managed thus far. Remember normally I can only function for a few hours a day.

One piece of [historical] bad news after another – it’s grinding

Because some headlines behind events from my GCSE in history in the mid-1990s read very very differently when you read the newspaper headline in an original newspaper of the day.

360307 Nazis occupy Rhineland headline CDN 1936

When I read through each front page minute-by-minute one after another, the sense I got was one of a government of the day absolutely floundering in the face of the aggression from the dictators. Not least because the one thing ministers knew, the people did not want another war – and the latter made sure MPs knew about it too.


This was one of many meetings in Cambridge at the time – remembering that in Cambridge at the 1935 general election, over 40% of voters had voted for the high profile pacifist Labour candidate Dr Alex Wood  in what was a safe Conservative seat at the time.

And remember that the writers and participants of the time did not know about the storm clouds ahead – though even as early as 1936 even the advertisers were predicting war.


From the Cambridge Daily News, in the Cambs Collection, May 1936

Remember it’s not like you can go up to people and organisations and say:

“I don’t know why you’re doing all that now – World War 2 is going to break out in 1939!”

This also means remembering that it was hard for people to predict the technological advances even in the near future, as well as the social and cultural changes.

Cambridge town continues to progress

Even with the dark clouds looming in 1936, Cambridge still kept on progressing.

Motor traffic was becoming such a problem that we finally got a borough parking scheme.

360323 First Car Parking signs in Cambridge 1936

From the Cambridge Daily News, in the Cambs Collection, March 1936

Below is the opening of Cambridge’s first animal clinic on Covent Garden off Mill Road – an address I walk past fairly regularly.

RSPCA Clinic Cambridge

From the Cambridge Daily News, in the Cambs Collection, April 1936

Below – the approval of Cambridge Airport – which would also play a support role in the Second World War – and thus become a target for single plane raids hitting East Anglia.

360206 Cambridge Airport Approved

From the Cambridge Daily News, in the Cambs Collection, February 1936

Trying to differentiate between an item that’s an entry into a list of historical dates to one that is part of the story of our city

All of the above historical items were from a six month period in the Twentieth Century. Think of what the rest of the story of Cambridge the town holds.

Furthermore, the article on the funeral of Millicent Fawcett’s husband, Prof Henry Fawcett, who died in 1884 while Postmaster General always gets me thinking about historical ‘what ifs?’ For example if Prof Fawcett had been elected MP for Cambridge borough in 1863, and/or if he had lived for another 30 years instead of dying in his early 50s. Part of me likes to think we’d have got universal suffrage far earlier, and could have had the prospect of Eglantyne Jebb, MP for Cambridge in a 1910 general election. But Cambridge’s loss was the world’s gain.

Getting some old negatives developed.

These are thumbnail images I’ve created from a couple of stunning portrait photographs of the founder of Save the Children, Eglantyne Jebb.

These had been tucked away in the Cambridgeshire Collection where they hold the archives and stacks of undeveloped negatives that are waiting to be catalogued by the volunteers working their socks off on this. Note the list of photographers of times gone by here. Having recently discovered the existence of the card index and the archive of negatives, hopefully we’ll be able get some developed and put some on show.


A long term vision for local government in England


Asking where politicians and political parties stand at a time where the structure of local government is long overdue an overhaul

For those of you who have been following my historical research on Cambridge the town, the structure of local government comes up time and again. Modern local government as a provider of public services first came about with the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, with the creation of modern day county councils under the Local Government Act 1888 – following which the citizens of Cambridge have remained under the thumb of their rural compatriots, holding back the development and progress within the town following centuries of oppression from Cambridge University authorities. Or so we would believe. Actually it’s a lot more complicated than that as institutions and individuals within them have on many an occasion defied the stereotype.

When Cambridge Borough made its first bid for freedom from the county in the run up to the First World War, it was Conservative MP for Cambridge, and later fascist sympathiser Almeric Paget (later Lord Queenborough) who made the case for Cambridge to become a ‘county borough’ or a unitary council. It was the Liberal MP for what is now South Cambridgeshire (but back then Cambridge County) Edwin Montague, then Undersecretary at the India Office (a major department of state in the day) who – speaking on the private members bill concerned, made the case against. See my blogpost here.

Fast forward to the mid-1970s and Conservative politicians in Cambridge made the case against their rural party colleagues for Cambridge to become a unitary council. Instead, through the deft move of pen and paper, schools and libraries transferred permanently away from the city council to the county council, and the Liberal and Labour councillors in the former have been complaining about the sell off of city public services to fund Tory tax cuts ever since.

The current broken structure of Cambridgeshire

Several of you may have seen this or various versions of, by Smarter Cambridge Transport.


Governance of Cambridgeshire following the signing of the Greater Cambridge City Deal.

Now the county’s Local Enterprise Partnership has since been wound up after National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee investigated financial issues raised by North East Cambridgeshire MP Steve Barclay. Never a good idea to get on the wrong side of an MP who happens to be a Treasury Minister at the same time.

The current structure of local governance and government in Cambridgeshire has not been the result of extensive research, but rather party political expediency. 

My personal take is that institutionally, the Conservative hierarchy sees Cambridge as an aristocratic inheritance and the current situation where not a single elected Conservative councillor holds a local council seat inside Cambridge City represents something of a constitutional outrage that His Majesty The King should do something about.

But it’s not just the Tories that are capable of doing stuff like this. Back in 2009, Labour made a botched attempt to take the cities of Exeter and Norwich out of the orbit of their county councils. Botched because the civil service at the time (and I was in the department concerned) refused to sign off the plans because of value for money concerns. The Permanent Secretary at the time had to ask for a ministerial direction in order to absolve himself and his civil servants from responsibility over the policy’s value for money. When a Permanent Secretary does this, this is a big red button that alerts Parliament to start investigating and scrutinising the policy in a very big way. You can see why Labour wanted to proceed – the 2010 general election was only a few months away. In the end, Eric Pickles took over and stomped on the plans. And started a huge program of cuts that we still have the legacy of.

We are over eight years down the line from that general election, and today local councils are making the news over their risk assessments and contingency plans over Brexit. At the same time we are living in a world where local councils are expected by ministers to deliver what they deliver with a lot less – and also to cut back on as many activities as possible. Ultimately this has led to the sorts of problems that Conservative-run Northamptonshire County Council now faces, where it is struggling to deliver on public services and is effectively a failing council. Years of voting through minimal council tax rises have come home to bite. As things stand, all new expenditure by the council has been banned with the exception of spending on statutory services – where the council is required by law to provide a service. The reason why it matters to Cambridge is because Cambridgeshire County Council has a shared services agreement through this LGSS vehicle. Could problems in Northants hit Cambridgeshire?

“Where next for local councils?”

Cllr Stephen Canning asked this in his blogpost here. The paragraphs below make for interesting reading.

“The very definition of a council service also needs to be reviewed to ensure that in the 21st century it meets up to both the expectations its future consumers will have on it and the changing way they’ll wish to access it.

In a hypermobile world a static council with its obscure functions and processes, its opaque structure and its endless forms is not an organisation that ‘Generation Z’ will want to transact with. Services will need to be redesigned and redefined from the front end to the back end.”

The first thing to be clear about when any politician talks about a state institution and policies for it, are what their political principles are for that institution. The reason being is that it is from those principles that the policies flow. At the most extreme ends of the political spectrum of public service delivery are minimal state at one end, to the monopoly provider of cradle-to-grave public services at the other. As a Conservative councillor, it’s fairly safe to say that Cllr Canning doesn’t subscribe to big state municipal socialism! As he makes clear in his blogpost, the challenge he sets out for local councils is primarily as a service provider for those in most need.

The bit where Cllr Canning is very much a pioneer is with how local councils can use new communications and computing technologies to inform decisions made on service delivery. For example using social media in civil emergencies (eg snow storms closing schools) to using big and live data (for example with live bus times sent straight to mobile phones via apps).

Why I have issues both with big state and also with minimal state mindsets

In part, I’ve found out the hard way and have seen close hand how both models of public service delivery are struggling in this tech-rich age we’re living in. That’s also not to say that *Oooh! There is a third way and it’s over here with the Liberal Democrats!* is the answer.

The overarching problem with the big state model is that the incentive creates a culture of dependency on whoever is the provider of the money – in this case The Treasury. Until there is some sort of devolution of tax and revenue raising powers set out in law that don’t require the continual sign off from The Treasury, local councils will forever be looking over their shoulder or hesitating to commit to interesting projects because they want to cover themselves financially if anything goes wrong. Furthermore, too many decisions end up tied up in a tier of management where staff at a lower tier in the hierarchy are waiting forever and a day for a senior manager to sign something off when in reality said senior manager should have either delegated the decision or not have gone on an empire-building mission in the first place – thus tasked with too many responsibilities.

As for the problems with minimal state, you only have to follow the news feeds from charities and/or campaigning groups working on the front line – such as food banks – to see the state that too many people find themselves in. You also run the risk of creating ‘sinks’ where people who need the most help are effectively put, and thus those areas not surprisingly find themselves struggling to cope with issues of multiple deprivation. Eglantyne Jebb spent her Cambridge years dealing with these issues before going on to found Save The Children. Personally I have issues with us going backwards in the opposite direction to which Eglantyne, Florence Ada Keynes, Clara Rackham and the women heroes who made modern Cambridge were taking our town in.

The evolution of Eglantyne’s political principles also make for interesting reading – she arrived in Cambridge as a soft Conservative, became a pro-suffragist Liberal and left Cambridge as a co-operator at a time when the Co-operative Party were not in alliance with the Labour Party. (The party still exists – with a number of MPs standing as Labour and Co-operative MPs – one of whom, Meg Hillier, chairs the Public Accounts Committee).

“What about this vision of local government?”

I was at a meeting at Shire Hall today with some interested parties sorting out all things buses in and around Cambridge. (I’m a founder member of the new Cambridge Area Bus Users’ Group as I use buses almost daily, so it kinda makes sense). The one thing that was clear to me at the end of the meeting was how laws passed by Parliament to change the way local councils did things, were actually making things worse for bus users rather than better. Stagecoach Group is the main bus provider in and around Cambridge and being a private company won’t provide bus services on routes it sees as, and says are unprofitable, unless subsidised. But we have no way of interrogating their claims as they are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (and even if they were, would be able to claim such data as being commercially sensitive). Hence the feeling in the room was for campaigning to persuade Mayor James Palmer to use his powers to franchise the bus network. (He’s still considering it last we heard – hence the formation of the bus campaign group).

Cambridge – the country’s most unequal city

It’s not a title we’re proud of, but the cutting of public services and the inability of local councils to tap into all of this wealth being supposedly generated are really not helping things. What’s the point of having this reputation of being this jewel in the economic crown if we can’t use nearly enough of the wealth to clean our streets properly, build decent recycling facilities (An incinerator? Really??!?), or deal with our century-long problem of traffic on roads?

What sort of support to civic life should local government be providing?

Again for me this comes back to what your individual principles are. The sense I get with Cambridgeshire Conservatives is that local councils have a minimal role in this, and instead local councillors can support whichever named charities they choose at traditional fund-raising nights. At the other end of the scale, you’ll find politicians in other parties who may well say that some charities should not need to exist – for example food banks – because the properly resourced welfare state should be ensuring that everyone has enough to eat.

Should local councils be supporting things like ‘the arts’?

A very easy target – the arts world luvvies, scourge of the tabloid press for being privately-educated liberal-leaning champagne socialists! And yes, the media and the arts have more than a few issues as well when it comes to inequalities and access.

One of the first people to try and deal with this in modern times was someone in Florence Ada Keynes’ circle – the poet Rupert Brooke, who was best friends with her younger son Geoffrey – later Sir Geoffrey Keynes the surgeon.

***Oh Rupert! The romantic war poet who was so tragically taken away from us!***

Yes – The Archers commissioned a statue in their garden in Granchester where Brooke wrote poetry – and invited Mrs Thatcher to unveil it in the company of Andrew Lansley.

***Oh, how splendid!***

Rupert Brooke hated the Tories.

***No he didn’t!***

Yes he did – he campaigned against them in the 1910 general elections – finishing one diary entry with the phrase “I hate the upper classes!”

***Rooopert you traitor!!!!***

According to Etonian Hugh Dalton, another close friend of Rupert Brooke, had he lived he may well have joined the Labour Party after the war – as Dalton did, later becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer after unsuccessfully standing for election to Parliament in Cambridge.

***I can’t believe Roo B. was a red-flag-waving, rich-man-taxing, big-state building socialist!!!***

Heartbreakin’, innit?

“What’s this got to do with local government again?”

Rupert Brooke wrote something about the arts and local government that everyone has forgotten about. Or never knew about. Until now.

“What did he write?”

This: Note who wrote the preface


Essentially Rupert Brooke makes the case that the arts should be much more accessible to the people, should be funded by local councils (he gave this lecture in 1910 – in the days before really big modern centralised departments of state, although the transcript wasn’t published until 1946 by Sir G.)

So, Rupert Brooke’s vision for local government had a big place for rate-payer-subsidised arts.


And recall it was the older brother of Sir Geoffrey Keynes, the economist Lord Maynard Keynes, who set up The Arts Council while he was in The Treasury. Two years after Sir Geoffrey published Rupert Brooke’s lecture on Democracy and The Arts, Treasury gave powers to local councils to spend money on the arts. This took place shortly after Keynes had overseen the construction of The Arts Theatre in Cambridge, which was happening at the same time as his mother, Florence Ada Keynes was overseeing the construction of The Guildhall in Cambridge on the opposite side of the road. One of the most controversial public building projects in Cambridge’s history.

Now, Florence Ada Keynes had a vision for local government in the face of the big problems of her day, and was incredibly influential in making huge, if sometimes painfully slow progress in achieving it.

The challenge for political parties – in particular Labour – is to come up with a clear vision for the future of local government *and* how to achieve it. Otherwise they risk making the same mistakes Tony Blair made in the late 1990s, bypassing local government and instead trying to control things from the centre by forming a new generation of non-departmental public bodies. Such institutions are just as easy to get rid of as they are to create. What is much harder to do (politically at least) is to take away the freedoms from local councils that have previously been granted. Can you imagine a future government getting rid of the Mayor of London as an institution? It would take a huge political crisis to agitate a minister to do that.


What do local councillors and politicians want to be remembered for?


Going through archives for Lost Cambridge, I’m stumbling across a huge number of names. But who are the ones that stand out, and why? For those of you currently holding elected office, what do you want historians of the future to recognise you by?

The three most prominent names of long-gone former councillors in Cambridge until very recently, are:

  • Kelsey Kerridge
  • Alex Wood
  • Howard Mallett

“What do they all have in common?”

They all have community centres named after them. Actually, the old Howard Mallett centre has had a chequered history and has since been taken over by a private arts and dance school.

180726 CambridgeCommunityCentresMap

But as venues go, we’re not very good at naming them after civic figures. And even if when we do, the stories behind the people named all too often get lost to the sands of time. (On Storey’s Field, Edward Storey is who that is named after).

The multi-talented Dr Alex Wood of Cambridge Labour Party was given the honour of having Cambridge Labour’s HQ renamed after him. It’s a name many will be familiar with who spot the election imprints on Labour’s election leaflets in Cambridge, but in the grand scheme of things most won’t know much about someone who in his time was one of the most high profile politicians in town during the first half of the 20th Century.

The civic titan that is Alderman Kelsey Kerridge features in this blogpost.

720703 Ald Kelsey Kerridge

Nails. Hard. As. Alderman Kelsey Kerridge, who we named a big sports centre after – because he raised much of the money for it. A county-standard sportsman in a number of disciplines before he took over the family building firm.

The women who made Modern Cambridge

I’ve written about this growing list of women heroes here. (With a host of links embedded). The slogan I ran with when I first stumbled across their stories was this:

“Learn their names

Recognise their faces

Be inspired by their actions, and…

Match their impact”

(See this from a few years ago)

It’s to our city’s shame – especially one that sells itself on its history – that we’ve left so much of it untouched. How many of us knew that Gandhi visited in 1931, going on a morning walk along Coe Fen at 5.30am? Or that his adversary Winston Churchill packed out the Cambridge Corn Exchange several years later in a call for conscription? Or where between them all a certain Major Clement Attlee drove through the snow in an open-top motor from London to Cambridge to verbally thwack the fascist leader Oswald Mosley out of the Cambridge Union?

It’s all in Citizen Clem.

The thing is, if we’ve forgotten some of these really big visits from three of the most prominent men of the 20th Century, what hope is there for remembering local councillors and other civic activists? In part, it’s in the councillors’ own hands, but Cambridgeshire County Councillors – or rather the ruling party (in this case the Conservatives) have chosen to run the archives service at its statutory minimum – as they confirmed in response to this public question from myself. I was in the Cambridgeshire Collection today and they have a wealth of documents and items in there that are like civic gold dust. But they need more funding and they need more of us to take the time to go through what they have.

“What do today’s councillors and politicians want to be remembered for?”

This is something I’ve started asking given the huge changes that are happening to Cambridge at the moment. Unless we all perish in a future inferno the warning signs of which we’ve been given over the past few rainless weeks.

One of the things that I’m trying to get my head around at a local level is remembering to read, write, and comment as if from beyond the grave in a time many decades, if not centuries from now. As I go through the old archives, I’m always reminded that a fellow human or three, being from a completely different time, made the effort to ensure that I could stumble across the various documents fortuitously. How do I ensure I do the same for people who I will never know? This is one of the reasons why I find conduct like this, and also conduct like this, to be crimes against history. And for what?

In terms of local councillors, below is the councillor history for Coleridge – the ward that me and Puffles stood in back in 2014. It’s from the late Colin Rosenstiel’s website, now being kindly maintained by Keith Edkins.

180726 Coleridge councillors 1945-69180726 Coleridge councillors 1976-2004

Click here to see a better view.

Note three men from prominent business families were all Conservative councillors – Kelsey Kerridge as mentioned above, Donald Mackay (Mackay’s on East Road), and Harold Ridgeon of Ridgeon’s. Then something happened in the 1980s that led to the collapse of the once mighty Coleridge Conservatives in Cambridge. The late Colin Rosenstiel gave this explanation back in 2001.

“Isn’t trying to be ‘remembered’ all a bit ‘grandstanding’ and all that? It’s just not the done thing.”

I seem to recall Tony Blair talking about the need to cement Labour’s legacy just before he got involved in Iraq – but it’s only a vague recollection.

One of the things that I’ve learnt from the civic figures of the past is this sense of ‘civic duty’ that seemed to flow in the veins of all of them irrespective of political party. For some reason we don’t see nearly as much talk of the importance of civic duty as perhaps I read in newspapers of old. I dare say that the trend of publicising and marketing around ‘corporate social responsibility’ (all too often tarred with the label of ‘greenwashing’ or other) has perhaps taken some of the shine off of those who didn’t seek the limelight but just got on with working hard in their communities and in return were remembered and commemorated by them. In Cambridge for centuries it was plaques in churches that were often a means of doing this.

The other thing is that most people don’t choose to become local councillors. Given the amount of work it involves and the amount of abuse you get back, it’s not hard to understand why. It’s one of the consistent themes over the decades and centuries.

At the same time, for those who occupy public office – in particular those that have had to fight for their seat, the electorate tends to have a way of dealing with those who continually grandstand while doing little locally. It’s very hard work just trying to stay still, let alone trying to deliver grand schemes. Hence one of the reasons why you don’t see the local press full of stories of councillors and candidates coming up with deeply-thought-through big schemes. And in any case, where’s the money going to come from? Because my idea for a Mayor’s Civic Fund (See my last blogpost) was dismissed at the last council meeting.

Cambridge City Council full council of 19 July 2018 – Public Qs

“Is the responsibility on local communities to push for who they think should be commemorated?”

It’s one of the reasons behind the local blue plaques scheme that now covers Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire. I declare an interest in that I’m on the committee that scrutinises nominations. Because successful ones are celebrated in civic ceremonies, as we did when Cambridge’s first woman MP, Anne Campbell, unveiled the plaque for Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

It might be worth rephrasing the question and asking existing local councillors to suggest which former councillors in their area were/are inspirations to them. That way more of us might learn more about the work that more recent former councillors did.