Why did we not get Belcher’s grand guildhall for Cambridge?


What the Cambridge Independent of 14 October 1898 tells us – warts and all

Something that’s become a bit of a personal obsession for me is the case of Cambridge’s unbuilt guildhalls – which I blogged about here.

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

…which reminds me, I’m still waiting for the Royal Academy in London to get back to me regarding the original version of this painting – something which the Cambridgeshire Collection tells me they don’t have a copy of themselves.

“So, what do the ‘papers say?”

For the TL:DR types:

  1. Councillors lacking courage – putting the vote out to a meeting of ratepayers
  2. The costs of other capital works – such as the sewerage schemes taking priority in the minds of the rate payers

“Are you calling the councillors cowards?”

No. The decades preceding this debate were times of huge upheaval for Cambridge (and the country generally). It wasn’t just industrialisation and the symptoms of this that councillors had to deal with, but they were also still adjusting to the terms of the recently-passed Cambridge University and Corporation Act 1894, which restricted the powers that Cambridge University authorities had over non-member citizens of Cambridge. That in part was the work of a very courageous 17 year old called Daisy Hopkins, who I wrote about here. Only today I got hold of a history of the first 200 years of a local legal firm called Francis & Co. (amongst other names). Today they are better known as Mills and Reeve – whose offices occupy  the large modern glass building overlooking Station Road Corner on Hills Road. This legal firm was one of the firms involved in the Daisy Hopkins case.

“What else were councillors having to deal with?”

When you look my previous blogpost on the accounts of Cambridgeshire County Council 1914/15, you get the real sense of just how quickly the provision of public services was growing and diversifying. When compared with today, we often assume that some of the entries are the preserve of central government, or perhaps no longer think of them as public services because they have been privatised – like gas, electricity and water services.

Politics was also very different back then – reflecting on the technology of the era as much as anything. People like me take it for granted that we can sent a message on social media to one of our councillors and have it responded to almost instantaneously – depending on the commitments of said councillor. But in the days before the internet – and even before TV & radio, the only way to find out about politics was through newspapers or by going along to public meetings. That’s not to say all of the public meetings were packed out. Public attendance at council meetings going by the newspaper archives was at best, variable. But it’s worth remembering that the balance of local vs central taxation was very different to what it is today.

“Cracking painting – but what did Belcher have in mind behind the glamorous facade?”

The plans in the Cambridge Independent of 07 October 1898 which the Cambridgeshire Collection allowed me to photograph today, give us a hint.


This is the ground floor plan looking southwards. I’ll be heading back with my big camera to get a better scan of this in the next few days. Things that stand out in this ground floor are the presence of the lower hall, both a gentlemens and ladies cloakrooms. On the west-facing side there are three shops, and facing the market square there is the important weights and measures office. You also have the school board office and the rate collector too. At the top end facing east you have the sanitary inspectors and the medical office. Then finally on the ground floor at the top you have the public library.


This snapshot of the first floor plan shows the council chamber on the right hand side – pretty much where committee rooms 1 & 2 are now.

This plan also shows the incorporation of both the police courts (today known as the magistrates courts) and also the county court – which since I last looked was opposite the Zion Baptist Church on East Road, where the old drill hall for the Cambridgeshire Regiment used to be.

The large hall at the back is as it currently is today, with the old library now part of Mr Oliver’s restaurant chain. Actually, it has a really nice cocktail bar in there if you go in at the right time. (ie when it’s not crowded).

“So…Belcher’s plan didn’t involve the complete demolition of the entire site then?”


Part of the site had already burnt down some years before – as this photo from the Museum of Cambridge shows. It was on this site that a new public library was built – which is still there today.


…but was switched to the Lion Yard in the 1970s. The current occupier of the site is a Mr J Oliver…


…which has a nice cocktail bar on the left, but I still like to think of it as our free library!

“So…all of that would have been kept in Belcher’s plan?”

Yes – as you can see in the foundation stone in the photo above, the library building was completed in 1884 – some 14 years before Belcher laid his plans out in 1898.

“Sounds splendid! So why didn’t we get it?”

To give you a better idea of what we didn’t get, Colchester’s current town hall was designed by Belcher – the same architect.


Colchester local historian Andrew Phillips and the Friends of the Colchester Moot Organ took the above photo and give a brief history of their townhall here. Cambridge could have had something like this but bigger.

“[*Heart breaks*]”

Exactly. But there were good reasons for the time for Cambridge not getting something like the above.

“Such as?”

The city was in the process of being properly sanitised with a decent sewer system. That was costing a fortune and the feeling of ratepayers was that the new guildhall front was an extravagance too far.

“Surely that was better than what was there?”

Let’s remind ourselves of what was there until the current Guildhall was built.


“How could anyone be happy with that pokey little town house? This is Cambridge!?!”

The above, from the Museum of Cambridge (though I first saw the image on Fonz Chamberlain’s Cambridge Historian site – a treasure trove of things) shows what the city spent the best part of half a century arguing over. I’ve never got my head around why the current Guildhall was effectively built in two sections – you can see the building on the right (sometimes called “Peas Hill”) already built, with Charles Cowes-Vosley’s design for today’s Guildhall effectively an expansion of that building.

“What else does the newspaper say?”

Let’s have a look at the headline.

981014 BelchersGuildhallDebate_p1.jpg

First of all the decision of whether to go ahead was effectively put down to a local referendum – a formal meeting of the local ratepayers. Again, remember the year was 1898 so comparisons with today’s council tax payers are not so straight forward. Furthermore, councillors wouldn’t put such expenditure to a meeting of local ratepayers unless it was a significant item – or (I’m assuming) if the council group in power had a small majority or weak support.

“The body of the hall was densely crowded by an assembly of ratepayers who manifested their enthusiasm by frequent shoutings, stampings, ejaculations [!!!] and applause”

A colourful choice of language!

One thing of note that is an incredible aid to historians is that journalists of the day wrote down the contents of public meetings verbatim – and newspapers published them as such. Hence unlike the reports of today you could get a real feel of the mood at meetings. In this case it felt like the rate payers did not share the foresight of the senior councillors and aldermen pushing forward this scheme. The above screenshot shows Ald. Kett saying that Mr Belcher’s plans would cover the civic needs of Cambridge for the next two-three generations. So anywhere between 40-70 years.

Belcher’s design having no benefactors

Ald. Kett also stated that Belcher’s design did not benefit from any wealthy benefactors – something that really should not be a problem for the Cambridge of today if our city is as great as ministers of governments past and present tell us it is. Cambridge has enough wealthy residents and more importantly, firms who between them could more than contribute towards new and/or improved civic buildings to bring Cambridge into the 21st Century.

Cambridge’s poo problem

Cambridge had growing human waste issues similar to that of London that in the 19th Century they built a new pumping station. This is now the Cambridge Museum of Technology and it is ***wonderful*** (but hardly anyone knows about it!) It is pretty much the last industrial-age (and big scale) chimney in the city. My friend Claire who volunteers at the museum took me around there in 2015 to see what’s left of the pumping station and the furnaces that burnt the city’s waste. Basically it’s hard to understand Cambridge’s industrial past without visiting this place. So go and like them on FB to see what’s on now and in the near future.


“Why was Cambridge’s poo problem an issue?”

Such was Cambridge’s population growth that the waste was beginning to overwhelm the sanitation and sewer system. One of the arguments against Belcher’s plan was that the huge amount of maintenance required for the system (that was needed urgently) took priority and was going to cost a lot more than was originally anticipated.

The future of Cambridge’s prosperity

Let’s have a look at this snapshot below:

981014 BelchersGuildhallDebate_p7Detail.jpg

It’s a question we might want to ask of ourselves today:

“What sort of people are we – the people of Cambridge, today?”

How does the above snapshot (and the text in it) relate to the Cambridge of today?

This brings me onto the Greater Cambridge City Deal – which has just appointed an interim chief executive today, and also of the preparations for the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough executive mayor, for which various people are now jostling for their parties’ nominations.

Do the plans for the city deal, and the pitches by the would-be candidates for the county mayor match the potential that Cambridge has?

This for me is where my passion for history as a subject crosses paths with my interest in politics and democracy. What are the lessons from the case of Belcher’s guildhall plans? How are they applicable to the proposals in the city deal and for the county mayor? What sort of city do we want to become over the next generation or two so that we can hand over to future generations something that we can all be proud of?

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