On events and parties and nights out of old – and as we get older


A wander through nights out of old – and their decline in the face of a growing city

I’ve started writing manuscripts of times gone by to fill in some of the gaps in the various diaries I’ve kept over the decades as a parallel stream to my current research project on Cambridge’s history. The reason being that as we get closer to the modern day, this was a history that I lived – irrespective of how ‘detached’ I felt to what was happening in Cambridge civic life during my childhood. For all of its reputation of being this seat of learning, young people in and around Cambridge outside of Cambridge University have generally gotten a raw deal from both town and gown.

I was talking to a couple of friends recently about a small group of us going to a club night before realising that the only places that run them are smaller than The Junction in Cambridge. The reason why I mention this is because in the 1990s The Junction used to host regular club nights for a host of different music tastes. My last club night there was in September 1999 with a couple of friends just before I left Cambridge to go to university – I was the last of our cohort to leave bar those going to Cambridge University from Cambridge in that year. A week before we’d seen off one of my childhood close friends who is now a headteacher in one of our schools. Turns out that for the music night out we’d spotted, the venue was The Q-Club, where I went for his birthday bash in the mid-1990s. Since then, I’ve lived through a generation and more in terms of years. Hasn’t Cambridge grown to sprout some newer premises?

Cambridge has grown by a town the size of Haverhill since I left to go to university

…or about 30,000 people. So in my book this means that the civic amenities and infrastructure that Cambridge should now have should be the equivalent of what Haverhill already has plus more. That means there should be at least one reasonable-sized night venue that is additional to what was there. That’s not to say it’d be guaranteed to succeed. It was poetry-slammer Sally Jenkinson who spoke about the joys of the single market-town night club at Hammer and Tongue in Cambridge recently.

So…why haven’t we got anywhere that’s high profile new?

This is something I’m examining in the context of Cambridge’s history. Young people in Cambridge in the 1980s had an occupation at a former bike shop on East Road in 1986 in order to persuade Cambridge City Council that it might be a good idea to build a new venue for young people – hence The Junction getting built. You can see by the materials alone how it was a minimum cost job – the outlines of the concrete blocks being visible on the outside as well as the inside. This being before the J2 and J3 were added after the Millennium.

Showing my age – the big four-zero is getting bigger

This also means that the nights-out of my mid-teens are not the sort of thing I could even hope to replicate.

One diary entry from the mid-1990s is from one epic night out at the start of Year 11, GCSEs year. Me and my friends from school were going to the indy night ‘Supersonic’ and were introduced to people from other schools en masse through mutual friends. Many of us paired off and we didn’t get back in until 3.30am. Not only that, none of us felt the effects of the alcohol we’d consumed earlier that evening the following day. These days it takes me a good 2 days to recover from a drinking session! (I’m more picky on what I drink too). Looking back now, there are a number of things that stand out.

Everything we saw was in the context of school

And school isn’t great for everyone. I was watching First Dates on C4 recently and one chap who hadn’t been on a date in his life got an outpouring of sympathy from Twitter because it was a really rough time at school that scarred him long into his adulthood. A couple of the teachers – some of whom I still see in our neighbourhood today, remark that my year group / cohort was polarised like no other they had experienced. By the time we got to Year 11 different groups disliked each other to the extent that they wanted to see the back of each other as soon as possible. Fast forward a generation and in my voluntary and community work I discovered that young people’s desire to meet and interact with children and teenagers from other schools is just as strong. Which then makes me ask why us adults are not facilitating more of this.

Alcohol (plus narcotics too) and how we deal with it has a massive impact

It’s a national policy area that has a massive impact locally. I had no idea that Cambridge City Council and the police had been pressured by other local civic institutions to clamp down on underaged alcohol sales. This led to the side-effect of driving under-18s into the hands of dealers because the latter don’t ask for ID to check if you are over 18 or not.

It was also the difference between getting drunk round the house of a friend who had open-minded parents, a pub that turned a blind eye to the law, or on the streets in a park somewhere. (Funny how as I write this, Liam Gallagher is singing on telly). My parents at the time not being liberal-minded at all meant that I had to acquire booze from elsewhere, though it was often my place after a late night/early morning at The Junction that friends would crash over, followed by a cooked breakfast afterwards. So it wasn’t all bad! The lesson I learned from those days was from the open-minded parents who let us drink on their premises simply because they said it meant they could step in before things got really out of hand, and also we’d all talk to them and they’d listen. After however many cans of beer they probably found out far more about us as a group of teenagers growing up in the mid-1990s than all of the other parents put together.

It was only when I turned 18 that I didn’t have to worry about getting ID’d all the time – which meant I stopped going out at a time when everyone was. But the other thing that didn’t help (especially with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder at the time) was the low level aggression and violence. It was by sheer luck that I avoided the two beatings that some of my friends from school got in the mid-late 1990s. Both of them were alcohol related, and dare I say it had a vague school or college link. Funnily enough, one of the pubs where one of the violent teenage gangs that carried out one of the attacks – and was known for serving underaged drinkers, has since been demolished.

One of the things venue owners and proprietors tell me is that teenagers today are far more ingenious about getting hold of alcohol underaged than we were. So much so that in Cambridge it they hit the headlines recently. A decade before that, The Varsity Newspaper investigated the drugs scene in Cambridge.

“Wouldn’t having one big venue just concentrate all of your problems in one place?”

In one sense The Regal in Cambridge – formerly a cinema and concert venue – is more than well-known as being that sort of place. Big, spacious and lots of cheap alcohol. But as a building I still think it is splendid, and during the day it serves a purpose of providing cheap, hot meals in an otherwise expensive city. It’s also one of the few venues in Cambridge that is wheelchair accessible.

Fashions change, and towns and cities have to adapt to them

The history of rollerskating in Cambridge is one such illustration of it – as I explored in this blogpost. In the late 1800s there was a huge rollerskating craze. Then new sound and cinema technology was invented and a number of old rinks were built over for new cinemas and theatres. (That plus changes in laws removing the University’s veto on new theatres & cinemas).

In my case I stopped going clubbing in my early 20s because I got involved in one of Cambridge’s large dance societies. In that decade we were big enough to organise our own events that could more than match what was happening in town anyway. Then I left Cambridge to live and work in London where you are more than spoilt for choice. Thus between leaving Cambridge in 1999 to leaving the civil service in 2011 I was more than pre-occupied in terms of nights out. In the time that has elapsed, the one thing that is more prominent – not surprisingly, is the growth of international student parties and club nights. A few years ago local police were reporting on the increased case load associated with alcohol-fuelled incidents at these places too. On the bus back from town one evening we spotted one such incident between two groups of males that had spilt out onto the main road. It has also become a planning issue in Cambridge too. But then if irresponsible firms are going to cram in lots of young people from all over the world and not give them either enough to do, enough facilities and/or enough supervision especially in the evenings, it can hardly be surprising that bad stuff happens. Don’t blame the kids for problems designed in by adults.

Land prices distorting what gets built and where

To be honest, I don’t really know where you’d put a new venue or a new cluster of venues in Cambridge as it currently is outside of the ones I’ve moaned about (eg the old bingo hall/art deco cinema). Also, at the same time I don’t want the whole debate to become ridden in social class splits. Let’s face it, with Cambridge’s history we’ve got form when it comes to rich aristocrats rocking up and trashing places. When the Cambridge Corn Exchange was opened to the public in 1875, large numbers of Cambridge University undergraduates (all men in those days) smashed up the opening ceremony – such was the violence that a dozen or so were hauled before magistrates (after which their chums smashed the windows of the former mayor’s house), and led to headlines and grovelling apologies in The Times.

So…complaining about not feeling safe at night in the centre of Cambridge in that regard is not a new thing. Question is what urban design changes can we make in order to change this? Ditto with a cultural change? That also goes for the colleges who own the land in Cambridge as well: What would it be like if you all functioned as if you were responsible for everyone in Cambridge rather than just your college members?




Frida Stewart – a Cambridge woman of action


The inspiring story of Cambridge town hero Frida Stewart and how she evaded two fascist dictators – while never forgetting those who helped her

The book Rosie’s Warwritten by the daughter and son-in law of Rosemary Say, an escaped prisoner of the nazis in occupied France and later a British diplomat in Spain, arrived very recently. By sheer chance I discovered that Rosemary was the woman who Cambridge anti-fascist fighter Frida Stewart (later Frida Knight) escaped with as they evaded the Gestapo and prison camp guards in occupied France in 1941-42.


Cambridge hero Frida Stewart before her internment in occupied Francein Rosie’s War

I first stumbled across Frida’s story in early 2017 where I wrote up this article following a tip off on my Lost Cambridge Facebook page. The story has snowballed ever since.

What quite often happens with me and historical research is that it is a photograph of someone or something that connects with me somewhere in my heart that then spurs me onto find out more. For example looking at these photographs from the Museum of Cambridge’s collection featuring many lost buildings of the past got me wondering why they were knocked down and whether anyone tried to save them. Given the amount of redevelopment going on – and the approval of the demolition of East Anglia’s former WWII Regional Headquarters yesterday by Cambridge City Councillors (see last blogpost) means that this is a bit of a sore point.

Connecting with their personalities

I think it was either Dr Janina Ramirez or Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock who I discussed online about connecting with the personas of the people that historians research. Some such as Eglantyne Jebb and Frida Stewart I have found easier to connect to when reading of their writings, actions and speeches compared to others, such as Florence Ada Keynes, who is much much harder to ‘read’ in terms of feelings and emotions.

What’s great about ‘Rosie’s War’ is that I’ve got the first real sense of the persona that was Frida Stewart. Absolutely hard. as. nails. Definitely one of the bravest and most courageous daughters of our city. A tribute to Noel and Julia Holland’s interviewing of Rosie, and of Rosie’s answers too. Rosie also comes across as one of the nicest and most fun people to be around. I guess it is in times of extreme difficulty & duress that we find out what what and who we really are. I have to confess that in the past, under such times of difficulty and duress I’ve not been pleased to find out who and what I have been as a person – using that as a driver to change things about myself.

Wishing they were around today

I often wonder what Cambridge would be like if Frida, Eglantyne, and Florence were around and active in Cambridge in their primes, along with say the likes of Eva Hartree, Leah Manning and Clara Rackham. I was talking to Gabrielle Hibberd at the G1000 Cambridge event earlier about the women who made modern Cambridge. She asked if we were at a similar point in history where there is space for a group of high calibre women to step forward and transform Cambridge once again – to which I said there was. That was after reflecting on the number of low calibre politicians (and now more prominently, businessmen) that I have seen in both Westminster and locally. Having seen a number of heads of big firms being grilled by select committees in recent years.

Although Frida was around and active a generation or two after the likes of Leah and Clara, and thus not directly part of their network or that of Eglantyne and Florence, the one thing that Frida had as a member of the Communist Party – she was a lifelong communist even after the fall of the Berlin Wall – was that she had a rock solid network. Your network had to be if you had fascists on your tail with a death warrant with your name on it. As I’ve mentioned before, the women that made modern Cambridge were also a rock solid network. Rosie brilliantly describes how Frida was able to tap into her international network of communists that enabled them to escape.

Frida’s confidence in strange surroundings

Rosie describes how in their bug-ridden prison camp (Caserne Vauban, Besançon as illustrated here) her and a younger group of women from all over the world had managed to get a more spacious room in their prison camp in Besançon. They had formed a nice little clique when Frida rocked up with a Nigerian companion called Ronka, also detained by the nazis. I dread to think what life was like for her. Rosie hints that Ronka was released and sent to Nigeria on the grounds that Nigeria at the time wasn’t interning German civilians. Rosie says this was at a time when civilians from third countries in the prison camp (even British colonies) were being released. But not Frida or Rosie. In their room they also had the daughter of a Jewish leathermaker and a Polish immigrant who happened to have been born in Palestine – where her birth was registered by the British authorities. This was Shula Przepiorka – who I discovered died as recently as 2014, aged 90. Thus she would have been in her teens in the prison camp. Despite not being able to speak a word of English, and having never set foot in England, Shula was detained. Despite objections to anyone new settling into their room, Frida was having none of it and batted off all objections and thus Frida and Ronka moved in. Rosie and Frida were both fluent in French – Rosie almost able to pass as a native speaker. Frida was also conversational in Spanish due to her time fighting Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War.

“Yeah but Frida was a communist and communism killed millions more than anyone!”

Angela Jackson put that very point to Frida in an interview late in Frida’s life after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“We should not blame Communism for the evils of Ceau¸sescu or Stalin any more than we blame Christianity for the Inquisition, or for Cromwell’s crimes, or the Crusades . . . Can you imagine turning your back on the Ninth Symphony just because it has been badly performed? Well I can’t! What is great and good and beautiful does not turn out to be paltry and rotten just because the wrong people got hold of it and misinterpreted it! Communism has not yet had an adequate performance, and we’ll have to work for it long and hard before this can happen.” (p197 of British Women & the Spanish Civil War)

I’ll leave you to judge her response.

What a number of people from Cambridge who knew Frida in her lifetime have written in online exchanges is how sharp her mind was, even when she became very frail in old age. Frida Stewart in 2003 article by Angela Jackson Photo

Frida Stewart via Angela Jackson.

“Why wasn’t Frida invited to talk to local school children about her wartime experiences?”

Because I was one of those schoolchildren who she might have met. Frida died in the mid 1990s when I was taking my GCSEs. A local resident who busted out of a nazi prison camp after defying Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War would have been one fascinating visit, that’s for sure.

Rosie made the point that if they had been soldiers, they’d have got medals for escaping from their prison camp.

420316 Frida Stewart Rosemary May Daily Record Photo

From the British Newspaper Archive – this was also on the front page of the Evening Standard.

What Frida was able to do just before they left Marseilles was to pick up a secret message from a communist resistance fighter to take to General de Gaulle in London – the message hidden on the inside of the paper of a cigarette! Rosie describes how Frida was absolutely buzzing on having picked it up, but knew that put her at even greater risk had she been caught. Fortunately, and despite being strip-searched at the Spanish border, Frida was able to smuggle through the message which she was able to give to de Gaulle himself. She spent the rest of the war working for the Free French in London. I’d like to think that this act alone would have been worthy of some award, even if Frida might not have accepted it.

Being a lifelong communist, I’m not sure Frida would have accepted an honour from an institution that she wished to overthrow. In fact, we know that she was viewed with suspicion by the British authorities – here’s her MI5 file now deposited in the National Archives, and it contains 128 pages of documents! I paid to view the files – turns out she was compromised by the security services who were tapping her phone and intercepting her mail in the late 1940s. The one piece that caught my eye was this one.

Frida Stewart Political puppet show Cambridge villages National Archives 086

From The National Archives (Crown Copyright) – Frida Knight’s security service file 086

If you thought Puffles was the first cuddly political creature in and around Cambridge, well it turns out Frida’s political puppet show got there long before. The other thing that’s of note is that she married biochemist Bert Knight (who also has a security service file archived here) shortly after returning to the UK – with two children born before the end of the war. An obituary of Bert Knight and his life of science can be found here. It turns out that they both retired to Cambridge in 1970. Originally I assumed she returned to Cambridge on his death rather than his retirement.

Browsing through the rest of the file there doesn’t appear to be anything that would concern national security, and by the early 1950s it appears the security services had ceased their close surveillance of her. We get a sense from her file of her day-to-day political organising with the communists in the UK. Of the local names that are mentioned in her file is that of Rajani Palme Dutt, also a lifelong communist who was born on Mill Road and went to The Perse. One for the Mill Road History Society?




Cambridge City Council recommends demolishing East Anglia’s WW2 headquarters


How come no one spotted this?

The flats are currently owned by Clare College, Cambridge, and the College has applied to demolish them and replace them with a different set of student flats.

In the council’s briefing pack, it states:

“The existing buildings are prominent in the street scene along Chesterton Road and Hamilton Road by virtue of their scale and massing, however they are not Listed and are not identified as Buildings of Local Interest and are excluded from the conservation area.

The demolition of the buildings is acceptable in principle and they have not been identified by the Urban Design and Conservation team as being of particular architectural merit or cultural importance. Moreover, the buildings could be demolished under permitted development, subject to prior approval as to the method of demolition only.”

http://democracy.cambridge.gov.uk/documents/s39993/170970FUL%20-%20Report.pdf paragraph 8.6.

Not of cultural importance? ***Really?***

Let’s have a look at the history shall we?

390513 St Regis Flats Advert Air Raid Shelter.jpeg

These were some of the first flats built in Cambridge with air raids in mind. They came purpose built with air raid shelters designed in.

St Regis as East Anglia’s regional headquarters during World War 2.

Local historian Mike Petty MBE writes as follows:

During the Second World War the building became the base for the Regional Commissioner for Civil Defence, Sir Will Spens, the Master of Corpus, from which plans were made on how to cope in the event of invasion. They were responsible for emergency civil defence throughout East Anglia, being particularly active during the extensive bombing of Norwich”

The building was kept on as a regional resilience headquarters. Hilda Reed describes what it was like working in the building here.

“Meh – just a dumb block of flats – let it go”

Could do – nod it through and not make a fuss about it.

I mean, it’s not like they’re demolishing King’s College Chapel or something like that. And think of all of the money that goes on community facilities.

How and why did the conservation officers miss this one out?

Who knows, but it’s something English Heritage may want to take a view on. Either way, I’d be interested to know if there is a method of submitting information to a planning committee prior to its consideration of a matter where key pieces of historic information have not been considered by and/or available to officers when making their recommendations.

Furthermore I’d be interested if councillors are able to consider information on a planning application that is not put in front of them by council officers but where they are aware of other material considerations about a site where they are due to make a decision.

“Should they demolish it or not?”

In this specific case, I’m more annoyed that they have not properly considered the historical aspects rather than on the merits or otherwise of the building as is. I guess my case is that we’ve got to call out the council on the stuff that’s not picture-postcard stuff as well as the things that are, so that due processes catch the really nice things that might otherwise fall through the net.

“Can I do anything?”

You can email your city councillor via https://www.writetothem.com/ or contact any of the city councillors on the planning committee who will ultimately have to decide on the case – see http://democracy.cambridge.gov.uk/mgMeetingAttendance.aspx?ID=3266 for those councillors. But please ****keep your correspondence polite****.

So…how is the current planning and political system going to provide Cambridge with the civic amenities it needs?


…and if the current planning and political system can’t provide it, what changes to both need to be made?

Cambridge hero Eglantyne Jebb wrote about the problems Cambridge’s municipal authorities faced in the 19th Century in her book about Cambridge’s social problems – I transcribed part of one of the chapters covering it here.

In terms of what Cambridge needs as a rapidly growing city, Eglantyne’s analysis and conclusions are worth studying, not least because her writing on 19th Century Cambridge was at a time when no one was really in control of how Cambridge ‘the town’ expanded, least of all with a very strong sense of public interest. For the first half of the 19th Century Cambridge was a proper stinking rotten borough as far as democracy was concerned. Another Cambridge hero, Professor Helen Cam of Girton described just how rotten we were in her history of Cambridge – see the final two paragraphs here.

“In July 1852 the Conservative candidates were returned by an exceedingly narrow last-minute majority, and a select committee of the House of Commons after a brief investigation declared the election void. In response to an address from both Houses a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the existence of corrupt practices in the Cambridge elections.”

Note this corruption by the Conservatives happened before the Labour Party was even invented. It was the Liberals that lost out at a time when the franchise was still very limited. But if we get the expanded Museum of Cambridge that I want for the city, the Rutland regime will inevitably feature!

“Yeah – how are you going to pay for it?”

…is the inevitable question that always applies to any civic idea. Because at the moment it feels like local councils have absolutely no money to pay for new amenities – whether through raising money through any form of local taxation or government grants.

“Have local councils ever had sufficient powers to raise such funds?”

In Eglantyne Jebb’s time in Cambridge, the biggest restraint was that of ‘rate payers’ – what would ultimately become council tax. The WikiP page on local government rates and their history is here. Then as now, ‘the rates’ were based on property. Thatcher made a disastrous attempt to have a single flat rate – the dreaded Poll Tax, which brought her down. It wasn’t just the principle of ‘the Duke paying the same as the dustman’ that people opposed, but also that the first bills ended up being far higher than politicians had anticipated. Finally there was the boycott.

It was the backlash from the rate payers that meant Cambridge did not get:

Personally I think it’s a shame we got neither, but having some sort of democratic oversight was not wrong in principle. I can’t help but wonder whether Sir Horace, given how prominent he was in society at the time, could not have launched an appeal fund to help reduce the burden on rate payers.

Revamping The Grafton Centre – again

This will be the third revamp it’s had since it was completed in 1984. See Josh Thomas in the Cambridge News here. Why another revamp? And are architects to blame?

They’re right about the demolition of the Victorian slums. You only have to read what Eglantyne wrote about Wellington Street and surrounds, or what local teacher Leah Manning (who later became a Labour MP), wrote about New Street School on the other side of East Road to know what a hole that part of town was 110 years ago.

My comment on the design failures was more to do with people’s walking route into and out of the centre rather than on whether it looked nice or not.

170928 Existing GraftonPlan

The current plan of the site shows too many ‘dead end’ or underused routes – essentially everything with a thin dotted line. Stagecoaches reduction of services over the past couple of decades has not helped at all – the purpose-built bus-stop of 1995 is now hardly used. In part because East Road is one big traffic jam for several hours a day.

The massive historical context with The Grafton 

I wrote about it here. Politically it was a very controversial move to turn the area into a major regional retail area, one that had first been discussed by the Holford Wright report in 1950. It took 35 years before it was completed. Imagine living under the shadow of that much insecurity in your neighbourhood for such a length of time. One former councillor attributes the decision to the decline of the Conservative Party in Cambridge in the 1980s & early 1990s – something from which they show no signs of recovering from locally.

1980 was also when the Co-op sold their iconic building on Burleigh Street to Grosvenor, which also entailed the loss of the co-operative hall.

“You’ve identified a massive concert hall & conferencing venue, a revamped Guildhall, an expanded civic museum, an Olympic-sized swimming pool and leisure centre and a metro system/light rail-underground as major needs for Cambridge”


“Who pays?”

Somebody else.

“Such as?”

****Tourist day trippers. Buy to leave property buyers, foreign investors buying property pricing out locals, people who drive loud, noisy polluting vehicles, the 1%, cram colleges, multinational corporations and generally anyone I don’t like.****

Therein lies part of the problem proponents such as myself face on the ‘who pays’ front. You can’t design a structure of payments based simply on people one individual (me) happens to have issues with. In anycase, those on the receiving end of such charges one way or another find their way around them.

Even under the existing regime for business rates and council tax, Cambridge has to surrender the vast majority of what it collects to be redistributed to other parts of the country that could never hope to raise the sorts of sums Cambridge can raise from its local economy. So even though Cambridge can raise the money nominally, the current system doesn’t allow Cambridge to keep what it collects. Despite rhetoric from Conservative ministers about allowing local councils to do just that, they never answered the question of what happens to those local areas that would struggle to raise revenue to pay for services the law requires them to – especially in the face of ministers planning to scrap central government support for local services.

Thus we’re back to relying on the goodwill of developers and/or pleading with the use of Section 106 developer contributions. Or through private philanthropy. Just because The University of Cambridge is nominally a state institution does not automatically mean it and its member colleges & institutions act in the interests of the whole of the city. For example they have effectively shut out the low-paid staff they employ from living on one of their newest, biggest developments.

“But Cambridge is such a great city!”

No it’s not.

Great cities have powerful, competent municipal authorities that run public services, administer planning and manage the city’s transport. Cambridge’s current structure of local government designed by Conservative ministers currently looks like this.


Yes, I’m giving Tory ministers a kicking but given that they have been in office for the past seven years, the buck stops with them. That does not absolve the previous Labour administration from their failure to overhaul local government structures in particular in Gordon Brown’s years. Also, if it was a Labour (or Lib Dem) administration that had overseen the above mess, I’d have given them both metaphorical barrels too. As far as I can tell, there is no ideology that underpins the diagram above, constructed by Edward Leigh of Smarter Cambridge Transport.

Thus not only is Cambridge City Council extremely restricted on revenue raising and borrowing, it cannot even:

  • influence, let alone run its own hospitals
  • have full oversight of the local police and other emergency services
  • run its schools and colleges
  • run the transport system

Cambridgeshire County Council run the transport system, and most of the schools are en route to being run direct from the Department for Education via the academies system. The gripe Cambridge has on transport is that the Conservatives have a majority on the county council (thus complete political control) yet don’t have a single county councillor representing anywhere inside Cambridge city itself. Thus the model of local government completely disenfranchises residents that live within the city.

One example of how this split materialises on public services is with nurseries – the county council planning on big cuts. Yet the residents of Cambridge City in their entirety elected councillors from parties that are against said cuts.

One of the two parties protesting above. Thus Cambridge is in this strange position of having cuts imposed on services such as libraries and nurseries which not a single city-based councillor stood on a platform for election supporting.

Re-discovering some of the useful things we did in the past


I found this on Cambridge Market recently. I wonder why we stopped producing them because having such an official guide for the city – in particular for new residents (esp given the increased level of population churn) would be really useful for people. This version from the 1960s now reads as a really useful historical document.


For me this page is brilliant: These are the people that run Cambridge.

This was before the restructure of local government in the mid-1970s that took schools & libraries out of the city council’s hands. Who are the equivalents of these officials today? What are the structures that hold them to account?

“So…who has that grand vision for municipal government then?”

I can tell you who doesn’t – Eric Pickles

Recall this in 2010 – certainly a controversial appointment following the 2010 general election. After four years, Lawrence Hardy of the University of East Anglia had this to say about the impact of Pickles’ planning policies. Note his point about the spread of standard corporate developments. That’s not to say previous eras didn’t have their own identikit designs. But then as Sid Moon sketched in the Cambridge News in the mid-1930s, with design there is no pleasing everyone.

350105 Guildhall designs cartoon pleasing everyone

Sid Moon in the Cambridge News via the Cambridgeshire Collection’s Newspaper Microfiche Archive – on the furore of designing a new guildhall in Cambridge.

One name mentioned in the history books is Joe Chamberlain for his work in Birmingham. The reason why having positive ambitions for local councils and cities matters is because of the challenges of things like climate change. In the USA it’s particularly acute as some states and cities find themselves diametrically opposed to the policies of the incumbent in the Whitehouse. But cities have unique responsibilities – in particular on emissions. Hence why that question is now a global one. As far as Cambridge is concerned, what’s the point of Cambridge City Council having climate targets when it doesn’t have the powers to achieve them? Because some of those civic amenities such as a light rail underground will be needed to deal with greenhouse gas emissions – especially if it is to grow at the rate ministers and senior politicians want it to in these very uncertain times.

My Cambridge 2050


Future visions/plans of Cambridge such as the ones listed at https://www.cfse.cam.ac.uk/cambridge_visions_2065_published/view have all too often lacked the ‘human’ element, perhaps being too descriptive or focusing on one particular element. What if it was written in the style of the old ‘Life in the day of…’ columns in the Sunday Times? Noting that predicting the future is notoriously difficult thing to do.

“I’m sitting here writing my memoirs in one of Cambridge’s famous tea houses. They’ve experienced something of a renaissance of late as the popularity of coffee went into decline following Brexit and the great implosion of 2020. Coffee became too expensive so we all switched to tea.

“I’m meeting up with my sister in law to pick up her grand children from school. They are my great niece and great nephew. I never had any children of my own. I never married. Do I regret it? Of course. But that was in the days before they found a cure for my anxiety and exhaustion. It came too late for me, so I give what support I can to the next generations in my family and wider community.

“The school they go to is a nice local school. All of our schools are run by the city council now. We’ve not had private schools since the Great Nationalisation Act brought in under the Commissars – oh, Corbyn and McDonnell. Following Brexit we had a great implosion of our economy. Inequalities were so great and public services so underfunded that civil disorder broke out everywhere. Despite attempts to give the nation-wide privatised security guards full policing powers under the so-called G-4orce Act, day-to-day life temporarily seized up. Rather than risk a full on civil war, the government fell – hence the brief rule of the Commissars.

“Fortunately Cambridge escaped the worst of the disturbances – and before long the people insisted that Parliament remain in power – curtailing somewhat the worst excesses of the rule of the Commissars. The most damaged areas were the shopping areas – mainly the ones selling luxury and designer goods. Funnily enough no one touched the bookshops – which speaks volumes. The colleges remained unscathed give or take a bit of graffiti here and there. Students past and present seemed to make their way to the gates and walls of their colleges to keep out the crowds.

“The students however, didn’t give their colleges blank cheques. In return for saving the colleges, the students demanded some very big changes on how things were done not just inside their colleges, but outside too. The work that the Cambridge Hub had been doing in Cambridge’s council estates had an impact across the colleges – no longer were they prepared to walk on by in the face of the symptoms of what had become one of the most unequal places to live in Europe.

“To their credit, many of the students went out of their way to get us townfolk involved in shaping the future of this new ‘Great Cambridge’. Some bright sparks had gone through my ancient scribblings online about town history (or Herstories as they called them) and resolved to put right the historic wrongs.

“That’s why we have that magnificent Museum of Cambridge up on Castle Hill – essentially the rebuilt courthouse.

Shire House Law Courts

“There was a prison on the site before the old county council pulled it down and built Shire Hall on it. It was turned into a hotel before the former Mayor Palmer abolished the county council in the pre-Brexit reforms. Unfortunately for him, the Commissars got rid of his mayoral post. Thus we now have a single council at The Guildhall. Quite unexpectedly though, the Commissars and Mayor Palmer got on splendidly – and Palmer was kept on as Chairman of the light rail delivery company. Thus he spent the next decade working on and delivering the much-needed underground light rail.

“That wasn’t the end of the building either – we also got our guildhall overhauled too. We made good Sir Horace Darwin’s dream of 1898, giving John Belcher’s design a refresh while maintaining much of the structural integrity of Charles Cowes-Vosey’s guildhall built under the chairmanship of the Mother of Modern Cambridge, Florence Ada Keynes.


“You can’t see it in this drawing, but behind the roof is the rooftop cafe and bar and the big glass dome on top. We got the existing chamber behind the facade raised up to the top, creating a void that gave us a new state of the art lecture hall that is extremely popular with academics and the private sector alike. The rooftop cafe bar more than pays its way – tourists and wealthy locals more than happy to splash out with some of the best views in the city.

Cam Castle

Built in the style of Norwich Castle, but with far more windows and more colour and patterns in the brickwork, we built a new home for the Cambridge and county archives.


“Local historians and archivists were outraged when developers reneged on a promise to build a new home for the archives in the banking crash just after the millennium. Although the men involved are long gone, there is a big exhibition of the worst culprits who exploited the town over the centuries, culminating in the frenzy of speculative developments completed before Brexit.

“Cam Castle was named after the historian Professor Helen Cam of Girton and later Harvard. Many people still think it’s just an abbreviation of Cambridge Castle, but it’s only when they see the big display and statue of Professor Cam that they realise we named one of our main historical attractions after a history professor. At the top of the Castle is another cafe bar with some of the best views of the city looking south. What it’s done is extend the tourist trail of the city as people head in their thousands to enjoy the castle, museum and parkland on that site.

Cambridge’s new legal quarter

“It wasn’t all ‘smash up the post war concrete blocks’ with this newfound love of Cambridge’s town history. The awful bland and cheaply built offices round the back of the Shire Hall were demolished and replaced by a new quarter for the magistrates, county and crown courts alongside a massive new joint law faculty for the University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University – the first of its kind. A number of big legal firms also moved to the quarter that were housed in buildings inspired by the unbuilt court houses of the 1950s and 1960s.

“Despite some complaints from traditionalists, the court houses proved to be very popular with students, lawyers, academics and researchers alike. It was the students that came up with the idea of a joint faculty for both Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University, marking the start of what would be a number of joint activities bringing students from many different backgrounds together. Many people said it couldn’t be done, but the young people proved them all wrong.

Cambridge’s new grand concert hall – Florence Hall

“I described Florence Ada Keynes as the Mother of Modern Cambridge. It wasn’t until after Brexit that Newnham College – where Florence studied when she first arrived here – commissioned a project exploring the local work of their local graduates. From that project spun out a number of different projects, including the construction of a brand new concert hall for over 2,000 people on the corner of Hills Road and Gonville Place. It was ideal – the land was owned by Cambridge University and within walking distance of Anglia Ruskin University on East Road, the railway station, the main underground interchange, the bus routes, car, bike and pod parks and even local hotels.

“Inspired by the Sala Sao Paulo in Brazil, the hall has a movable ceiling allowing the panels to be adjusted to suit the acoustics of whatever show is on stage. It wasn’t all smooth going in the planning. The hotel next door vigorously opposed the scheme due to its size and impact. Or rather, it did until one of the colleges bought the hotel’s holding company, after which the opposition evaporated.

Cambridge Light Rail Underground – a model for other towns and cities

“The one thing the promoters of the light rail didn’t predict was the cultural impact it would have on our small but growing city: It made us more outward-looking to our siblings in the fens. The light rail link to Ely had an extension built – a westward spur that linked it to the towns of Ramsay and Chatteris. Suddenly a whole host of facilities and attractions that were otherwise hidden in the market towns were available to tens of thousands more people. Wisbech and Haverhill benefitted too – Wisbech once again becoming a jewel of the fens.

The three ladies of the three lakes

“The Three Lakes Country Park between Romsey and Cherry Hinton – a nature reserve and before that a large cement works (Cambridge did have some heavy industry once!) has since become a very popular country park. We named each of the lakes after three of the most prominent women in the town’s history – Clara Rackham, Eva Hartree and Leah Manning. Clara was one of the longest serving councillors in our city’s history – starting off her work campaigning against the absolute poverty of pre-WWI Cambridge and finishing up protesting against nuclear weapons in the 1960s. Eva was our first woman Mayor of Cambridge. She also formed the group of women that set up the first civic receptions for refugees fleeing the rise of fascism across Europe – at a time when too many press barons and politicians were going over to the continent to sing their praises. Leah Manning, another anti-fascist who fought in Spain, was one of the first women to be elected to the House of Commons – serving briefly in 1931 and again in Clement Attlee’s government. Despite representing constituencies outside of the city, she maintained her main home here.

Eglantyne Country Park

“One of the problems that Cambridge struggled with for centuries was poor air quality. The great smogs of 2020 seemed to coincide with the riots and civil unrest. The city responded in part by electing a swathe of Green councillors who, taking full advantage of the powers granted by the Commissars forced the new Great Cambridge Council to ban all fossil fuel cars and to shut down the airport at the same time. The move was incredibly unpopular with the business community until they realised just how few people actually used the airport. They had more of a problem with the local flying schools, but the overall result was the transferring of what was left of the aviation industry out to Mildenhall on a new north-eastern spur of the light rail. They got lucky because the light rail system ended up bringing in far more revenue than anyone had expected, thus the extensions were built relatively quickly.

“With the removal of the airport at Cambridge, much of the housing demand was met by the construction of what you can either call South Abbey or North Cherry Hinton. Fortunately it’s all brought together by a very large country park that also links to the Three Lakes. We named the country park after Eglantyne Jebb –  the founder of Save the Children, and the woman who transformed modern charity campaigning. Before she became famous for her charity work, she researched and wrote the first social scientific study of poverty and multiple deprivation in Cambridge – making her a hero to geography students across the city. Two of her policy recommendations included significantly improved housing design and build, and also for people to have access to the countryside and fresh air. This was also something not lost on the residents of Milton who finally secured for Cambridge a much-needed rowing lake, thus removing a very sore spot in the city of rowers ploughing through wildfowl swimming on the river.

The Coleridge Symbolist Movement

“The secondary school students ran away with this concept after staff at the Museum of Cambridge said to teenagers across the city that big art movements all had to start somewhere. It was an exhibition by some Year 8 students at Parkside Coleridge that came to embody the transformation of a divided and unequal town to a thriving and united city. What was really nice was that it wasn’t affluent ‘opinion formers’ who led the movement, but teenagers from Cambridge’s mainly working class communities.

“The biggest difference they made was persuading the entire city that art and culture wasn’t something only to be passively consumed, but something that we could all actively participate in. Obviously that didn’t suit everyone – there was some kickback from some in their ivory towers who couldn’t think of anything worse than engaging with the general public. Their view was that the public was there to pay, listen, applaud and go home. But the changing ethos of the city meant that hiding away in an ivory tower hoarding knowledge and talent away from the wider public was less and less acceptable.

“Did we get everything right?”


“For a start we didn’t properly crack the inequalities issues. We also got torn to pieces across the piece for being all ‘middle class is magical’. We were an easy target – especially after the turmoil of Brexit. But in the face of those verbal and written attacks, people were more inclined to stand up for each other.

“Brexit as predicted by many, did not solve society’s problems. Brexit was just a symptom that forced us all to accept just how polarised we had become, and how hard the task would be (and still is) to overcome those divisions. Many on the left assumed that the rule of The Commissars would solve it all. ‘Everything will be fine after the revolution!’ they said. It wasn’t – though Corbyn and McDonnell did far far better than anyone had expected – myself included. But such was the pressure on the pair of them that both of them passed away shortly after Parliament reasserted control.

“In the end, we got what we always get with Europe: a bit of a fudge. The UK simply went on being what it always has been: Not quite in Europe but not quite out of it either. But at least the EU realised that it too could not carry on with business as usual. Oh – and the world somehow survived Donald too.

Some important decisions looming on the future of Cambridge

With a series of important decisions coming up, I’m going to be filming and reporting from a number of meetings in and around Cambridge over the next few months. I’m grateful for the support I’ve had from members of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations – in particular for the local plan and the Greater Cambridge Partnership meetings. I’ll also be reporting from a number of local committees and meetings of full council which are outside of this. Please consider supporting my work.


Please see the video below where I explain why I need your support

Greater Cambridge Partnership

The new name for the Greater Cambridge City Deal, they have just launched The Big Conversation. Part of me is like “Yeah – what http://www.smartertransport.uk/ said”. The agenda for the meeting on 20 September in Cambourne is here. Note the item on the 10 year strategy and look at it closely. The strategy document is here. What I want to see is a systematic timetable of consultation events with school children and students at our further education institutions. I don’t want it to be ad hoc and piecemeal, I want it to be properly planned and considered – and one that involves the staff and perhaps the parents of those institutions too. I also would like to see something that gets participants in touch with their local councillors to help reinvigorate local democracy.

Cambridge City Council

A relatively quiet September (See the calendar here), 19 October is the next meeting of the Full Council – though do check closer to the time to see they have not moved the time. The Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s latest newsletter (see here) has some interesting updates on local council issues – in particular on planning applications. If you are interested in local planning applications in Cambridge, sign up to their planning portal. You can find out which planning applications have been submitted. Note to self, ask the council to produce a video guide on how to use the portal. (Failing that, produce it myself).

Cambridgeshire County Council

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are lining up their activists to challenge the Conservative-led council over proposed cuts to nursery services and also further looming threats to the libraries service. They’ve got no room for manoeuvre on archives as they have said publicly that the service is currently being run at a statutory minimum. (See my video of my Q to the council here). 17 October is the next full council meeting – have a look at the calendar of meetings here.

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Mayor and Combined Authority

They finally have a website up at http://cambridgeshirepeterborough-ca.gov.uk/ with their list of looming meetings listed here.

Outside of Cambridge City – parish councils in South Cambridgeshire

For those of you in South Cambridgeshire, outside of Cambridge City, the list of meetings at South Cambridgeshire District Council is here. The extensive list of parish councils that surround Cambridge City is here.

Mayor James Palmer’s speech on the future of Cambridge Transport

One of the more notable speeches that took place over the summer was that by the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, James Palmer. You can watch it in full below.

The list of videos from the event, including an extended Q&A session with The Mayor, local councillors and representatives of Smarter Cambridge Transport and Cambridge Connect Light Rail can be seen here.

Civic campaign groups

Groups and individuals within these groups have over the years supported my community reporting in and around Cambridge, for which I am extremely grateful. I am listing them because they have been taking an active part in the processes and meetings on the future of Cambridge. Therefore they are more likely to be informed about what is going on than most. They also state on whose behalf they are campaigning for. It is up to you to make your own judgements on their statements and representations to our elected institutions.

Cambridge Connect Light Rail

Cambridge Cycling Campaign

Cambridge Past, Present and Future

Federation of Cambridge Residents Associations

Rail Future

Rail Haverhill

There are also a number of neighbourhood-specific campaign groups organised online such as the Coton Busway Action Group and Save the Westfields.

Furthermore, there are also a number of Cambridge City-based neighbourhood groups and forums such as the Queen Edith’s Community Forum (also covering south Cherry Hinton and south Coleridge wards). In East Cambridge there is also Abbey People. There are also a number of smaller groups hosted under the umbrella of the Cambridge and District Council for Voluntary Services.

Local political parties

At some stage we have to engage with the political system. Some people choose to do that through campaign groups. Others through political parties. The four parties represented on Cambridge City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council are:

Cambridge and South Cambs Conservatives

Cambridge Green Party

Cambridge Labour Party

Cambridge Liberal Democrats

Alternatively write to your local councillors or local MP via https://www.writetothem.com/. If you don’t get in touch with them, they won’t know what your opinions are.

Local reporters and journalists

It’s not just me who goes along to meetings. Cambridge is blessed by a number of very talented and hard working reporters who go to some very long meetings on cold, wet, windy nights in November to provide much-needed scrutiny of our public bodies. You’ll find the following worth a look:

Josh Thomas – Cambridge News

Ben Comber – Cambridge Independent

Hannah Olssen – BBC Cambridgeshire

Tara Cox – Cambridge News

Richard Taylor – independent cameraman & blogger

John Elworthy – Cambridgeshire Times

They can also all recommend colleagues who also report from council meetings and on local democracy.

I’ll finish it here for now – chances are I’ll be doing a further posts with more groups and organisations – and independent bloggers and commentators too.


Eglantyne Jebb shoots Rees-Mogg’s foodbank comment clean out of the water


It’s lovely when one of your heroes demolishes arguments from a contemporary politician from beyond the grave.

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s words are below.

Interestingly, The Trussell Trust who run many of the country’s foodbanks countered Rees-Mogg’s claim that foodbank use had risen due to Jobcentre referrals in this statement below:

i.e. 95% of claims were not as a result of referrals from the Job Centre.

Senior Labour MP Angela Rayner wasn’t impressed.

Then there’s the ‘Christian Charity’ argument.

And to have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens, I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are.”

As quoted in The Guardian above.

Now, I’m not going to go down the road of saying that religious people would have to invent the poor to enable them to do good things. That would be stupid and also historically inaccurate. Certainly at a local-to-me-in-Cambridge level anyway.

Recently, Jacob Rees Mogg was in hot water with the liberal media over his comments on abortion, taking the line of the Catholic Church on that specific issue. Two lines of challenge have been both opposition in principle to his views on women’s rights, and also his selective quotations of his political red lines based on the bits of a religion he agrees with. Paragraph 1947 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church effectively repudiates Rees-Mogg’s neo-liberal economic policies given the impact such policies have had on growing wealth inequalities over the past few decades. Talking of inequalities, he is one of the most highly paid MPs in terms of ‘extra curricular activities’ – check out those entries in his register of interests.

“What’s Eglantyne Jebb got to do with this?”

Eglantyne Jebb founded an organisation called Save the Children. You may have heard of them.


Cambridge hero Eglantyne Jebb as an undergraduate at Oxford in the late 1890s

When Eglantyne came to Cambridge with her widowed mother, Tye, to live close to Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, the Cambridge Classicist, Eglantyne was nominally Conservative in her politics. By the time she left Cambridge for good just after the outbreak of the First World War, she had transitioned through to liberalism all the way to being a supporter of the co-operative movement at a time the Co-operative movement (and the Co-op Party) were reaching their peak. People familiar with Eglantyne Jebb’s charity work are generally less familiar with her political work that preceded it. This article that she wrote in December 1914 asking what the war will result in, demonstrates her conversion to the belief that our economic future would be a co-operative one.

Prior to that, the only significant parliamentary opposition to the Conservatives were the liberals – in fact they were in power from 1906 through to 1916. Her switch to the liberals – and to the Cambridge Liberal Party in particular, was driven by her social circle which included the Keynes family – in particular Florence and two of her three children, John Maynard the economist, and Margaret who prior to the latter’s marriage to Archibald Hill was also Eglantyne’s partner. The view we get of Eglantyne’s opinions stem in part from this article written in the run up to the December 1910 snap general election. The liberal-supporting Cambridge Independent wrote about how Eglantyne single-handedly ran Stanley Buckmaster KC’s campaign to get re-elected. He lost his seat to the Conservative Almeric Paget – who would later go onto become a fascist sympathiser. (According to that link in the referenced footnotes, he wrote the forward to this propaganda piece published just before the outbreak of WWII).

Helping the poor to become independent, not dependent on charitable handouts

Eglantyne, like a number of Christians in Cambridge, were struggling with entrenched poverty and deprivation in town. Ellice Hopkins in the 1870s was already raising issues in the local halls of power – and published a book shortly before leaving Cambridge on her findings. The nature of Cambridge in those days was that many areas where poor people lived were side-by-side streets where dwellers in expensive town houses lived. This is still visible today. Cross the road from St Barnabas Road into Gwydir Street and you move from town houses to terraced working class houses even though all you’ve done is cross Mill Road.

Being intellectually talented and very hard working, the women of Cambridge that Eglantyne socialised and worked with weren’t just providing relief for the poor in Cambridge through the Cambridge Charitable Organisations Society, they were also asking the people in power why the poor had no food in the first place. One of the first things that Eglantyne did was to establish a baseline. No one had done this before – we didn’t know what provision for the relief of the poor was already out there. So Eglantyne carried out a survey and published the results.


If you look closely above 82 Regent Street in Cambridge, you’ll see a blue plaque with Eglantyne’s name on it. I’ve written more about the publication here.

What she then did was revolutionary: She undertook the first social scientific study of poverty and multiple deprivation in Cambridge. You can read it on line in full here. Remember that there was still a school of [Christian] thought that blamed ‘ladies with loose morals’ as being a major cause of general bad stuff happening in town. That’s not to say she was the only person examining these issues. A number of her policy recommendations were already in place, for example slum clearances under the first of a series of Housing Acts. What her study did do was put policy rocket boosters onto attempts to deal with poverty and multiple deprivation. One result was Sedley Taylor setting up the country’s first municipal dental clinic in Cambridge and giving free treatment to all children at council-run schools. We named a primary school and a road with expensive houses on after him. The primary school got knocked down but the road with expensive houses on (Sedley Taylor Road) is still there.

It was on the back of all of this work that she got involved in local politics – elected to the board of education of Cambridge Borough Council. (The district/town/city councils had responsibility for schools in those days, and women could be elected by councillors onto such boards). It was this quotation that explains why Eglantyne switched to the liberals.

“I was a long time realising that social reform on the part of the Conservatives is like charity in the hands of Lady Bountiful – everything is to be made nice and pleasant, but the upper class [is] to be respected and obeyed’. The corruption at elections first opened my eyes and I came to believe that no social reform could be of use which did not promote the independence of the people”

Eglantyne Jebb in the Cambridge Independent Press, 08 July 1910. (Scroll to screenshots at end)

Rees-Mogg’s point about foodbanks is precisely the issue Eglantyne takes issue with. It may be good to see some people doing their ‘Christian duty’ to help the poor, but in Cambridge the Christians here that I’ve met over the years also have a habit of asking those in power why the poor have no food. Sir Brian Heap hosted a meeting on food security nearly 110 years after Eglantyne’s book was published, interestingly in the same church that Florence Ada Keynes attended in Cambridge. I went along to hear more than a few members of the church really going after a couple of speakers from the big food industry about their practices.

As the Trussell Trust has said on many occasions, food banks can only help alleviate the poverty that people face. They are not a long term solution to poverty – especially a poverty made worse by flawed government policies. This too was Eglantyne Jebb’s point in her campaigning. At the Cambridge Charitable Organisation Society they did a mixture of things – including finding jobs for the unemployed to providing limited financial handouts to those destitute. At the same time they were also lobbying politicians. This shows why history is ever so important: it means we don’t have to learn the same lessons again the hard way.

As a postscript…

Because of her work and legacy, the Church of England dedicated 17 December to her memory.

A hotel at Shire Hall? Only if we can rebuild the castle and courthouse as a city museum as well


Some thoughts on what to do with the Shire Hall site assuming Cambridgeshire County Council sell off the Shire Hall building to a hotel company

Some of you may have spotted Cambridge Independent’s front page.

170830 CambridgeIndyFrontpageShireHallHotel

Shire Hall currently looks like this

DemocracyCambridge Screengrab

So lovely I’ve used it as an image on my Democracy Cambridge FB Page.

Now, the site used to be many things. For centuries, it was a castle. Romans, Saxons and Normans all occupied it.

Ye olde Cambridge Castle

Then it was a prison

Images from the Cambridgeshire Collection and the Museum of Cambridge. 

…and not all of the prisoners came out alive.


An archival gem – and a morbid one. The last executioners of Cambridge County Gaol from the Cambridgeshire County Archive.

In the mid-1800s a lovely courthouse was built.


From the Museum of Cambridge – this should never have been demolished, least of all for an effing car park. But hey, 1950s architecture and all that…


Shire House Law Courts

An etched version from A history of Cambridge Architecture

So whatever happens to the Shire Hall building, one thing we can say is that the use of the site has changed, ebbed and flowed throughout history.

Others had plans for the site too. New law courts from 1956

New Shire Hall Courts Models

From the Cambridgeshire Collection’s microfiche archive, as buildings go I quite like this. 

But it never got built. So they tried again in 1967.

I only found these a couple of hours ago in the newspaper archives. Many tried tall towers after the construction of The University Library – only Addenbrooke’s Chimney managed to get away with it until after the Millennium.

“Where will the county council go?”

Somewhere less expensive. Personally I think it’s an opportunity for local government reform – and to get a unitary authority for (Greater) Cambridge. Personally I’d recommend relocating a ‘North Cambridgeshire Council’ to somewhere like Wisbech – if only to help provide jobs and ‘concentrate the minds’ of councillors to improve transport infrastructure up there.

“Will the site be sold of in its entirety?”

God I hope not, but I wouldn’t put it beyond the wishes of a Conservative-led council. Personally I’d prefer to see the site staying in public hands so that a local council could benefit from the long term rent that would come from it. Personally I think it would be a scandal if it were sold of – simply because the site is ripe for turning into a proper heritage site.

“What would you like to see?”

I’d like to see an expanded Museum of Cambridge alongside a restaurant, bar, and cafe. My premise is this:

Build an expansion to the Museum of Cambridge

The Museum of Cambridge – AKA The Folk Museum was the brainchild of local folk historian of Cambridge and the fens, Enid Porter. While Enid was very much the historian for the people of the rural fens, I like to think that founding trustee Florence Ada Keynes (yes, her again) represented us townsfolk. The problem is that the site the museum is currently on is far too cramped for what it wants to do. There is no room for new exhibits.

My plan is to rebuild the old courthouse as an expanded Museum of Cambridge, maintaining the existing site as ‘The Cambridge & County Folk Museum’. Keep the latter doing what it does well, and have this new Museum of Cambridge as the museum that tells the story of our city. For a start we could house the only remaining tram in existence that trundled the streets of Cambridge – currently at the East Anglia Transport Museum in Ipswich. It could also be a wonderful place to display photographs from the archives, and artwork from the past. Furthermore, it could also host video/film displays from archives such as the East Anglian Film Archive – such as this one on proposals to redevelop Cambridge in 1962.

A rebuilt Cambridge Castle?

My take would be to rebuild a castle tower inspired by the drawings of the past, but have it designed and constructed so that it becomes taller than the top of Castle Mound – itself an ancient monument. That way you divert some of the crowds from a site at risk from erosion while putting a rooftop bar at the top that charges expensive prices for small glasses of wine like the Varsity Hotel does. Splendid views across the city and the building pays for itself.

A restaurant too?

Why not have two in competition with each other? One at ground level where the courthouse is, and another in the new castle building? With the other two venues nearby – The Castle Inn and The Architect Pub, it then becomes a place to go in its own right due to the choice available. Assuming the hotel gets built, the eateries have a new, built-in market every night of the week.

And a cafe?

The risk with the bars and restaurants is you price people out. Personally I’d like to see a cafe run in partnership with Cambridge Regional College or similar, effectively serving as a training venue that they have on their King’s Hedges Road site as well as being something that can serve the less affluent end of the market too. It may also be an outlet for the Cambridge Food Cycle team for things like making cakes and salads as a revenue earner for them.

Like the idea?

Feel free to share, comment and also let your county councillor know via https://www.writetothem.com/

Because I would love to see an expanded Museum of Cambridge to tell the story of our growing city.


How can local history influence the future of a town or a city?


Some thoughts on making use of our hidden histories (& herstories) to get more people involved not just in local democracy but on the futures of where we live. Cambridge and Cambridgeshire being my case study.

For those of you following my Lost Cambridge project, one of the things that I’m looking at is how to make everything I do ‘Me-proof’ on the grounds that the weakest link in all of this going forward is me. For a variety of reasons which I won’t go into here. My point is that my discoveries over the past few months show that however we as a city choose to follow this up, it’s going to take far more than one man and his dragon fairy to actually do it. I also don’t want some poor soul in 100 years time to stumble across all of this work and ask why no one did follow it up assuming I get run over by a bus or something. A question we often asked in the civil service when assessing project risk was what would happen if a key individual was run over by a bus: how would the project continue? This is actually a weakness of many ministerial initiatives – as soon as the minister is sacked, transferred or promoted, the project dies a very quick death as their replacement looks to stamp their mark of authority on their new teams.

Local history as a very long term project or program

My time horizon in all of this is about 15 years – i.e. between now and the centenary of Florence Ada Keynes’ mayoralty.

Florence Ada Keynes Dissenting Forbears NevilleBrown

Florence Ada Keynes shortly after her wedding to John Neville Keynes (parents of the Economist John Maynard Keynes) in Dissenting Forbears by Neville Brown.

“15 years – that’s a long time!”

Exactly – yet through it, it allows a program to grow as big as the city and the people want it to be, rather than having a very tight deadline to complete an unbelievably large and varied projects by.

It also means there is enough time for consistent branding to be developed, and something that projects developed by others can hook onto. Essentially the time allows for a significant amount of strategic planning – one where we can have a ‘year zero’ where we do that large information scoping and data collection exercise just to get a feel for what is out there. Because what I’ve found in the course of less than a year is that our civic history in Cambridge is far, far greater, more exciting and more interesting than many of us had realised.

Time for negotiations too

The reason why this matters is because a number of the colleges hold archives of letters and papers of people who were very important and influential in the shaping of our town and city. Some of the colleges are not actually aware they hold those papers outside of their archivist community. Others will have forgotten the part some of their former members played in how Cambridge the town grew, and more importantly how we improved the provision of social and public services as a result of the intervention of civic-minded individuals. The point being is that those individuals, as well as being part of the colleges’ histories are also part of the town’s history too. Once you’ve established that shared connection, then you can start talking about how to commemorate it. For example Florence Ada Keynes above was one of the earliest students at Newnham College – as were more than a few of the most prominent women social activists in the late 19th/early-mid 20th centuries. To pick two more individuals, Sir Horace Darwin, Fellow of Trinity College, founded the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company (which became a huge local employer, and whose offices on Chesterton Lane now house The Job Centre), and Sedley Taylor, (also at Trinity College) who paid for the first municipal dental clinic in Cambridge, and for free checks for all children at council run schools in 1907/08. Remember this was the time before the welfare state and most families couldn’t afford a dentist. Sedley Taylor Road, Cambridge? Yep, named after him.

Looming multiple centenaries.

We’ve missed a number of important ones – including the centenary of Florence Ada Keynes’ election to Cambridge Borough Council as the first woman in 1914. But there are a whole host looming, including:

  • 1918 – Representation of the People Act 1918 giving some women the vote for the first time, and also removed the property qualification on men who otherwise were still barred from voting.
  • 1919 – First women to win contested elections in Cambridge – Clara Rackham and Dorothy Stevenson
  • 1920 – the appointment of the first women magistrates (Florence Ada Keynes, Jane Harrison, Leah Manning and Clara Rackham)
  • 1923 – the appointment of our first woman police officer, WPC and later Sgt Annie Carnegie Brown
  • 1924 – election of our first woman mayor – Cllr Eva Hartree
  • 1929 – first elections that women could vote on equal basis with men following the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act. Thus the UK did not get Universal Suffrage until that Act was passed.
  • 1932 – Florence Ada Keynes elected Mayor
  • 1933 – Cambridge Refugee Committee formed by Eva Hartree and others, to organise the first municipal reception for refugees fleeing from the rise of fascism across Europe – most notably from Germany and Spain.

Those events above as standalone local events deserve some sort of centenary marking in their own right. As part of a story of our city – especially on civic and social progression, it feels far more powerful because all of these are ones that town, gown and village can celebrate together.

“Town, gown and village? That’s a new one?!”

We take it for granted that the wards of Trumpington, Cherry Hinton and Chesterton are part of Cambridge City as far as elections and public services go. But all of these used to have their own councils – Chesterton once being its own rural district covering both these villages and much of what we now know as South Cambridgeshire.

HIstory of #localgov for Cambridge

The civic boundaries of Cambridge used to be much, much smaller. But we grew.

How will this influence the future of local public policy?

One of the things I’ve felt for a long time is that we, the people of Cambridge do not have nearly as strong civic identity as we could have. Part of that is down to us not knowing our civic history as well as we could do. That in itself stems from the fact that the last person who wrote anything approaching a comprehensive history of Cambridge the town was Cambridge Labour activist, Professor Helen Cam CBE of Girton College, Cambridge.

IMG_3522Cambridge Hero Professor Helen Cam – historian and benefactor of Romsey Labour Club in Cambridge. From Cambridge Women: 12 Portraits.

In the case of this blogpost on the town’s history, I’ve already named figures from three Cambridge colleges – Newnham (Florence Ada Keynes, Eva Hartree), Trinity (Horace Darwin, Sedley Taylor) and Girton (Helen Cam).

“What did Helen Cam do?”

Wrote our civic history. Literally.

No – really. Pages 1-149 of the official Victoria County History – Cambridge (the town) were written by Helen. I bought my own printed version of the history for £1 when the library was disposing of old past copies of the county history.

Helen Cam History of Cambridge Town Contents

Over the page all of the colleges are divvied up between various male historians (bar Girton (Jean Lindsay) and Newnham (Dorothy Brodie). Only Helen, supported by Susan Reynolds covered the town. The last update to this was in 1959.

That means we’ve got coming up to 70 years of unwritten history coming up

In a nutshell. That plus there was only so much Helen Cam and Susan Reynolds could squeeze into those 150 pages.

There are other things that come up too that were contemporary for the time but for whatever reason have been forgotten. In part because so few comprehensive books on Cambridge’s history outside of Cambridge University and its colleges have been written and sold widely. I remain of the view that some of the academic theses I’ve read by local historians, academics and enthusiasts are good enough subject to topping, tailing and layout changes, for publication as books in their own right. Go into any bookshop in Cambridge however, and you’ll see just how few books there are on the story of our city. And even then, some of the more contemporary ones are dispassionate accounts of the rise of a specific industrial sector that follows the money rather than the people, written as publicity puff pieces rather than as histories with an honest critical eye. With history, what you choose to exclude is just as important as what you cover. Pretending that there are no negative consequences with some of the more recent developments is just as dishonest as pretending there were no good things that happened in developments in the 1960s & 1970s when we lost more than a few really nice buildings in the city.

“Why so much interest in the women?”

Because that’s the bit that’s been written about the least vis-a-vis the historical evidence that is out there. Rather than following the noise that is in the university guidebooks and photo-guides of college splendours with all of the oil paintings of old men on the gilded ancient halls, I’m following the silences and the absences.

That plus the institutionalised sexism of the University of Cambridge and the churches linked to them is ever so striking. Florence Ada Keynes as Mayor of Cambridge was barred from having a full degree from Cambridge University due to her gender, despite being Mayor of Cambridge in 1932/33. Ditto Eva Hartree in 1924/25. And also ditto for another Newnham College student, Lady Alice Bragg who was Cambridge’s third woman mayor in 1946/47. Have a listen to her speech here from The Guildhall Balcony awarding the Freedom of the City to the Cambridgeshire Regiment, a number of whom had only recently been liberated from the hell of Imperial Japanese Prisoner of War camps in the Far East. (I covered the Cambridgeshire & the Fall of Singapore in 1942 in this post). Ultimately, it wasn’t until 1948 that Cambridge University finally removed the gender ban.

Interested in finding out more on the social and civic history of Cambridge the town? The first place to look is the Museum of Cambridge. Florence Ada Keynes was one of the founding trustees of the Museum of Cambridge when it was founded as the Cambridge and County Folk Museum. They are on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/museumofcambridge/ and on Twitter at @MuseumOfCamb. The museum has social drop ins every Friday afternoon from 2pm where a different subject is showcased or featured. If you are interested in getting involved – in particular on the history and actions of the women, drop an email to the museum.

“And on influencing the future?”

It really comes down to this: The more you know about a place and the greater the connection you have for a place, the more likely it is (I believe) that you’ll want to make difference to that place. Whether standing up against damaging developments or pushing for more positive things to be built or take place. It’s so easy to forget but it was a group of passionate teenagers and young adults in the mid-1980s who pushed for a new music and arts venue to be built in Cambridge. That is why Cambridge has The Junction.

Who took the fun out of Cambridge? (& how do we get it back?)


On regular events and nights we used to have but no longer do

I’ve had a number of conversations with local residents and activists in recent weeks about all things leisure in Cambridge, and a number of things have come up as a result.

What happened to the regular club nights at The Junction?

The Junction, as well as being a major entertainment and arts venue is also a big part of our civic history – especially for teenagers and people in their 20s. Why? It was that generation of teenagers & young people who got it built in the 1980s.

Plans for The Junction music/arts venue. )4 Nov 1986

The above from the Cambridgeshire Collection’s newspaper microfiche archive is the Cambridge Evening News of 04 November 1986. Looking at it now, the underpass in the centre of Elizabeth Way roundabout would make for an awesome public space – whack a dome over it!

Yet the club nights that were regularly sold out in the late 1990s are no longer there. The old 70s and indie nights at The Junction are now at the much smaller Q-Club on Station Road Corner, which makes me feel that as a city we’ve gone backwards somewhat. That’s not to criticise The Junction as a venue or their staff. One of the things that they’ve struggled with – one that crosses more than two generations, is under-aged drinking. It’s a problem that goes far beyond Cambridge and one that we don’t look like solving anytime soon. I’ve seen secondary school children negotiating with street drinkers to buy alcohol from local supermarkets thinking “Yeah – why didn’t my generation think of that?!” while noting still that it’s easier for under-18s to get hold of illegal drugs than it is alcohol – just as it was for my generation growing up in 1990s Cambridge. I shrug my shoulders at those that squeal for the police and local councils to do more while voting in politicians that repeatedly vote for cuts to their budgets and/or refuse to vote for the necessary resources to enable public officials to carry out the duties they demand of them.

Cambridge’s population has grown by size of the town of Haverhill since 1990 – but has our leisure offer matched that growth?

I asked this question this time two years ago. The answer is still the same: no. Between 1990 and today, Cambridge should have built the equivalent of what Haverhill has, plus more given the improvements in transport access that the guided bus has given to the villages and towns in West Cambridgeshire.

What do we mean by “Cambridge is wealthy”?

People and politicians talk about the profitability of various firms (eg ARM Holdings), the number of tourists that visit Cambridge (while not considering the negative externalities of the model of mass tourism) and the amount of money Cambridge City Council returns to The Treasury from business rates. The problem is the municipal authorities don’t have the means to channel more than a fraction of that wealth into the functions that a city needs to function. Why does ARM holdings pay for a diesel shuttle bus from the railway station to its campus in Fulbourn rather than paying to re-open the railway station and upgrade the railway line that goes past its offices? There’s even a campaign to get it reopened for crying out loud!

“What’s that got to do with fun?”

Everything – people need to get to and from the places concerned – as I wrote in this blogpost. Finally – finally work as begun on our new ice rink on Newmarket Road. Flooding fenland fields in winter – which used to work in decades gone by no longer does in an era of climate change. If all goes well and the main bus route extends to the rink, I have an almost point-to-point bus link to said rink. Which is splendid even if the route is quite a long one. I get on, I sleep for 45 minutes, I get off, I get my ice skates on.

Land prices making some activities much more expensive

Some indoor activities inevitably need large amounts of indoor space. Basketball and rollerskating are two examples. One of our city’s best sports clubs, the Cambridge Rollerbillies needs a permanent and affordable home but is dependent on the availability of the Kelsey Kerridge Sports Hall. Cambridge United Women’s Football Club doesn’t even have a home ground inside the county, let alone the city. A disgrace to our city that needs rectifying. That two of our top women’s sports teams don’t have permanent homes in our city with decent facilities is a reflection of the institutionalised sexism in our city and in sport in general.

Where are the activities that mix young people studying at the city’s private language schools with young people at our secondary schools?

There are two things that worry me here. The first is that activities put on for visiting young people are inaccessible to young people that live here. The second is that visiting young people form friendships and future networks in our city that our young people are inevitably excluded from, while the private firms run off with the profits giving nothing back to the young people who call Cambridge ‘home’. It is not beyond the business networks in this city to do something about this if Cambridge is as innovative and forward thinking as we are told we are.

Is classical music about being beyond grade 8 or nothing?

Some of you might remember me jumping up and down about a new concert hall (and ideally, grand ballroom) for Cambridge in this blogpost. i.e. the one I’ve told several of you that I plan to name after the Mother of Modern Cambridge, Florence Ada Keynes.


Hero: Florence Ada Keynes in the 1880s before she transformed our city.

We have the guildhall in Market Square because of her. Unfortunately, in the large hall built in Victorian times behind it, the organ in there is broken and needs the best part of £500,000 to repair it. That plus some serious work to improve the very poor acoustics in there. Not that it stopped Mrs Keynes aged 74 from facing down 2,000 angry people inside said hall in 1935 who were complaining about design issues with the then proposed guildhall. While this was going on, her son, John Maynard Keynes (the economist) was busy building The Arts Theatre (which he underwrote for what was £20,000 in 1930s money when King’s College refused to stump up the cash). When he was bored or needed a break from economics in the evenings, he could sometimes be found in the box office selling tickets – because it was his theatre and because it was fun for him!

On the music side, my take for the past decade or so has been that Cambridge needs an adults’ late starters orchestra. East London has one, and Cambridge is full of music teachers and music scholars. So what is stopping Cambridge’s classical music scene from making this happen? After all, you have a big music school in our city and it’s not as if classical music doesn’t have an accessibility and image problem re diversity. (Although the point is often made about how tickets to football matches can be just as, if not more expensive than a classical music concert – which then makes us wonder whether the problem is ticket price or something else).

Lots of summer activities for older people and younger people – but what about that gap in between?

I was talking to a few people who like me, fall into that group and also happen to be single and childless. What is there that is specifically organised for this demographic (late-20s to early 40s) in and around Cambridge? I was looking at some of the things put on for the summer in Cambridge thinking: “I’d ***love*** to do that but I’m not 13 anymore.” I’m also not old enough to qualify for the Mayor’s annual day out to Great Yarmouth – but am more than happy to campaign for the re-opening of the railroute that used to exist so that we can all go to the seaside by train like we used to in the olden days!

Can our larger institutions think beyond their own memberships?

Cambridge University on social housing:

This from the top two councillors in Cambridge City – Cllr Lewis Herbert, leader of Cambridge City Council and Cllr Kevin Price, executive director for housing and Chair of the Greater Cambridge Assembly.

I agree with both councillors – it is unacceptable for Cambridge University and its member colleges to behave in this way, pricing out the people who do the cleaning, bedding and catering inside their institutions. Astonishing that those on the college finance boards cannot see the positive impact that having such staff living in walking distance of their work places would have both on their work and on the health and lives of their employees. But as they are all too often outsourced to third parties, all too often the responsibilities go with them. For me a massive false economy.

Have some of our larger organisations stopped putting on some of the fun stuff of old?

I asked that question in this recent blogpost. The local archives make for fascinating reading in this regard. Given that they didn’t have TV or the internet 100 or so years ago, people had to find other things to keep them busy. In those days, some organisations built their own premises and hosted events in them. The Cambridge & District Co-operative Society was one such organisation. One Cambridge hero – Save The Children founder Eglantyne Jebb predicted shortly after the outbreak of the First World War that co-operation was the future. Read her full remarks from December 1914 here. Alas it was not to be, and the huge premises that were on Burleigh Street were sold off to the Grosvenor Estate Group and now host that symbol of low-cost-high-turnover turbo-capitalism, Primark.

“Doesn’t fun mean different things for different people?”

Yes – and dare I say it, we’ve lost our imagination and self-belief to build those things that could make our city much better than it currently is. I’ve been ridiculed enough over the concert hall idea. Note that we were told by 2016 we’d need a 50m swimming pool, a rowing lake, a community sports stadium and more – I read through old documents so you don’t have to 🙂 (Page 16 if you’re interested – the summary box at the end).

Yet as the 1986 newspaper article demonstrated, teenagers and young people came up with the idea of turning the big underpass by Elizabeth Way bridge into a venue – something that I’d never have had the imagination for. With not nearly enough diversity in local democracy nor a critical mass of the people that make up our city involved in how to make it function properly (not a new problem by anymeans), we miss out on the genuinely radical and imaginative ideas that could really make a difference. It’s one of the reasons I want the Cambridge Connect Light Rail to work. I’m still astonished that out of all of the candidates who stood for county mayor this year, it was the Conservative candidate James Palmer (who subsequently got elected) who pinned his manifesto to the mast of underground light rail. None of the others would back it.

“What about the free stuff?”

Wide open spaces matter.

Cambridge Crusaders vs Trumpington Tornadoes!

The pitch wasn’t nearly as nice as it is today, but we won 4-1 away in what was my first competitive football match as a centre-back. I was petrified…because I was 10.

But something as simple as removing the grass clippings from the open spaces actually makes a huge difference – especially to hayfever sufferers like me. Unlike my local park Coleridge Rec, the King George V playing fields in Trumpington had the clippings removed so I didn’t break out into a sneezing fit when I popped over on Saturday to see the Trumpington Youth Festival that was funded by Cambridge City Council’s South Area Committee allocation.

“Shouldn’t the city council be allocating some of this funding to each state secondary school to put on a summer festival in their local parks?”

Now there’s an idea.

The question is whether the schools would have the capacity to deliver it. These things are always easier said than done. Years of repeated cuts means that the capacity to deliver community events has fallen more and more onto volunteers. This inevitably means only those with the desire, the time and capacity to deliver such things take them up.

Talking to council officials, it was a group of young people aged 9-15 who put on the event in Trumpington. They went through the process of applying for funding and got it. I mentioned that learning how to apply for the money was an important part of the learning process, but also that there must be a simplified system we can put in place for the firms to donate funds say to the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation knowing that it will be used for such events. That or making a much better go of publicising the one that is already in place here.

And finally…

The *Wow!* factor.

Compared to where they were, Cambridge University has significantly improved its public engagement work in recent years. You could say that given that it used to treat the public like The Plague, an improvement isn’t hard. But many of the people who have been at the public-facing end that I’ve met have been utterly inspiring, and shows what we are capable of when we work together and put our minds to it.

Musicians in Cambridge working together could create not just a late starters orchestra but a new musical movement in Cambridge.

Dance groups in Cambridge working together could create the equivalent of a ‘May Ball’ where you had music and dancing of a different dance style in each hall/room/marquee.

Arts and college investment funds working with private donors and the local councils could give us that larger-than-the-corn-exchange concert hall (doubling as a conference centre that the business community regularly tells us we need). It’s not like we don’t have the technology to create a flexible but inspiring internal space.

At an even more basic level, we don’t need to sell out to developers all the time and leave pokey little patches of green in our new housing developments. Provide people with large open parklands like we used to. Let’s not become like London where we lose those open spaces as this report from 2006 shows what London lost.

What are your ideas?

You could say that ‘organised fun’ is a contradiction in terms – like planned spontaneity. There’s always been room for some sort of municipal provision for events ever since the Romans came up with the concept of bread and circuses to keep the people content…allegedly.

What are the things that as a city we’ve not even thought about? What are the things that could easily be put on and/or have low costs? What are the things that stop us from organising these things? Money? Poor transport links? Problems with publicity?

It reminds me of the criteria I wrote at the end of this blogpost on school sports: available, affordable, accessible, enjoyable, sociable. Do these apply to your ideas? Comments on a postcard please. (Alternatively in the comments box below on on Twitter & FB).