What the war was really like for the borough of Cambridge
One of the finest books I’ve ever read – and also one of the most little known, is Cambridge at war – by Jack Overhill edited by Peter Searby. If you want to get a copy of the book, head to the Cambridge Central Library and go to the Cambridgeshire Collection on the third floor next to the cafe. It’s well worth the effort.
I knew next-to-nothing about Cambridge’s experience of the war other than what Fonz Chamberlain had summarised in his blogpost here. Part of the problem searching online for the borough’s experience is that search engines immediately go into ‘Cambridge University’ or ‘Cambridge University Press’ mode – or worse, “What was Kate wearing at this ceremony?” mode. Hence you’ve got to be more thorough with search engine terms.
I was going to write “Jack was a local shoe repairer and, if I can call him a ‘working class intellect’ – he studied for a degree via correspondence course at the London School of Economic and Political Science.” But in his own words, he said:
He was also an amateur (not in the patronising/pejorative sense) writer, who wrote several books but none made him into a household name. When you look at the short biography of him at the Trumpington Local History website, you begin to wonder how someone with a clear intellectual talent spent most of his adult life living in a house that had been condemned by the borough council as unfit for human habitation.
Reading through his diaries – did what he wrote match what was – is in the archives?
Turns out much of it did – in particular the air raids on Cambridge. Furthermore, I unearthed the borough’s official logbook of every single air raid on Cambridge that the Luftwaffe carried out on our city. With the kind permission of the county archives, they allowed me to take screenshots of the pages covering the conflict. You can read them for yourself here.
I counted 31 people killed, 71 injured and over 1,500 bombs and munitions dropped on Cambridge. That’s a ***huge*** total compared to what I had previously thought. Other than the incidents on Vicarage Terrace and Mill Road, I didn’t think much of the city was affected. Turned out half my childhood neighbourhood got hit. It was Jack’s diaries that pointed me to this – from which I unearthed the file of the borough surveyor with all of the claims for the repair bills resulting from bomb damage.
I also stumbled across this map – the plan for the defence of Cambridge in 1940 in the face of expected fascist invaders.
The letters ‘A, B…etc refer to the company units of the 5th Cambridgeshire Battalion (Home Guard) responsible for defending each different sector of the city.
The plan is discussed in the book ‘Defending Cambridgeshire’
There are things I want to fact-check, like his entry on 23 Sept 1941 where he cites a policeman telling him that Cambridge’s population had risen from 74,000 to 230,000 in 1941. Which makes me wonder where all of the people were living. We know that various parts of the city were handed over to the military, and just as with the First World War temporary accommodation/buildings were put up. In my neighbourhood there were a number of semi-circular ‘nissan huts’ that are visible in the post-war aerial photos
The image above (and here) from Historic England’s ‘Britain from above‘ series shows the dark military huts on the left in this view of Lichfield Road’s prefabs in South Cambridge – with Coleridge School in the background. Remember that when these photos were first published, this would have been the first time many would have seen their homes and towns from such a viewpoint. Strange to think that today for half a week’s average wages you can buy a drone and capture similar photos.
Cambridge – shaping our city
As part of my -smartphone-and-selfie-stick-filmed series, I paid a visit to Jack’s neighbourhood. Have a look.
As I discovered in the video, Jack’s house no longer exists, and some of the streets in his neighbourhood have been built over. But I did find a couple of photos in the county archives that illustrate the conditions he lived in.
This is – or what was Doric Street, just off Saxon Street between Hills Road and Trumpington Street in the ‘Newtown’ part of Cambridge that is now anything but new. But it was the first bit of new housing built outside the city’s historic core, hence its name.
Jack and Jess
The style of Jack’s writing also gives the reader a fascinating insight into the lives of his wife – Jess, and also of their two children, also called (little) Jack and (little) Jess. There’s something that really brings out their real life characters – in particular ‘little Jess’ who wanted to become a teacher. Given their low incomes, the fees they were due to pay were eye-watering, and thus dependent on a loan or grant from the borough council. Ditto the fees for the dentists – with Jack snr forgoing his treatment to pay for that of his family. With that context I wonder what Jack snr would have made of the new NHS. Even now I still wonder what became of Jack’s daughter little Jess – did she achieve her ambition of becoming a teacher?
Jack’s diaries also bring out the ‘psychological exhaustion’ of the air raids and air raid warnings. Night after night of continual sirens meant that few people in Cambridge could get much sleep in 1940/41. Being ‘uncensored’ diaries, every so often you come across the complete despair and hopelessness of the situation as it seemed to them at the time.
One of the reasons why I like going for primary sources – as well as books that continually and expertly refer to primary sources is that you get an ‘uncensored’ view of events in history. Had I not gone to primary sources, I’d still be of the view that Cambridge was relatively untouched by the Second World War. The archives and primary sources prove otherwise.