Have we forgotten more about Cambridge’s past than we are aware of?


What do you do when what I thought was going to be a fairly narrowly-defined project finding photos of lost buildings becomes something far, far greater?

It’s easy to be disparaging and condescending towards local history – especially when compared to the big battles and struggles we often associate with GCSE-level history courses. I remember wondering why anyone would want to do a local history version of the GCSE in the mid-1990s when the alternative was the 1914-1939 and ‘gunz ‘n’ stuff’.

Actually, as it turned out I found the modern history course to be quite depressing because the scale of death was and is beyond the comprehension of the human mind. I ended up becoming far more fascinated by the historical figures implicated in the run-up to the First World War to the extent that having viewed so many photographs of them, I can’t take modern dramas of the people concerned seriously. That or they miss out small but essential details, such as the accents some of the individuals spoke with. Pre-WWI royals in particular had native speakers of various languages educating young princes & princesses. One of the most prominent, Sydney Gibbes who taught the children of the last Tsar, is mentioned on the WikiP page as being brought into improve the accents of the children. What the page doesn’t say, but historian RK Massie does in his epic book, Nicholas & Alexandra, is that the children started speaking English with a strong Hiberian Scottish accent because that was the accent their Scottish nanny spoke English with. So if you see/hear reproductions with the five royals speaking English with a Russian accent, well according to Massie, they’ve got that historical bit wrong. Ditto with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany (who the UK went to war with in WWI) spoke English (his mother was the Princess Royal – Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter Vicky) as fluently as he did German.

“What’s that got to do with Cambridge?”

In my mid teens I compared studying all of that with the prospect of standing in a ditch covered in mud trying to find fragments of pottery near somewhere like Flag Fen to find out a little bit more about how Fenlanders eeked out a miserable living in mud huts. Princesses, palaces, royal bling and gunz, vs mud huts in the cold rain and smashed bits of pottery. It’s no contest to your average teenager, is it?

As I’ve mentioned in other blogposts, my take is local history as a concept undersells and under-promotes itself. Much of that for me is to do with the underfunding of the sector, something I wrote about in my contemporary blog here.

This Lost Cambridge blog started off as some photosets of old buildings since long gone.

“How can you forget something that you weren’t aware of in the first place?”

Individually not aware, but collectively having some sort of access that few have taken up and been able to widely publicise their findings?

The more I share the various things I’m finding, the more interested those around me (locally and in my online networks) are becoming in what are really ‘rediscoveries’. The materials were always there – someone had to put them there in the first place. It’s just that one way or another, we made them not so easy to find, and as a result it became easy to forget about them. Hence why digitising our archives is ever so important: It makes searching for things much more efficient.

“So…how big are we talking about? This Lost Cambridge thing?”

At dreamland utopian scale?

But failing that:

  • A monster new book (or series of books) filling in the gap between…WWII and the present day
  • A handful of plays/musicals aimed at secondary schools to produce for themselves
  • A series of art commissions using the old photographs and descriptions as inspiration pieces for people to produce large pieces of art reimagining things like The Old Kite as in this example
  • More things to celebrate Cambridge’s music scene in the 1960s which was far more radical than perhaps we care to accept
  • Some short films and documentaries
  • Some proper statues of the great women heroes of Cambridge
  • Exhibitions of proper, decent annotated maps of Lost Cambridge that tell the story of how the town grew.

In the grand scheme of things, it’ll probably end up as lots of tweets, a few blog posts, lots of photographs and maybe a printed pamphlet and a few public talks, then everyone can go home again.

Yet I want it to be something so much more than that – not least because the most important things -the content, the materials and the stories are all there.

It’s like when I was reading through the newspaper transcripts of some of the prominent court cases of over 100 years ago, these things write themselves as drama scripts. You don’t need to re-invent them. Not only can you tell a great story, you don’t need to try and make stuff up because the stories themselves are as compelling, inspiring and heartbreaking in their own right.

But if Lost Cambridge is to get off the ground properly for me to spend the next couple of years of my life on it, it’ll have to involve working with other people – people who share in that vision of creating things that are energising and inspiring for the general public so that they can share in our history, and so that we can use the learning from it to influence our democracy and local public policy.

This is where local history can be incorporated into Emma Mulqueeny’s excellent recommendations for digital democracy – Page 9 of this document summarise the recommendations. One of them is compulsory political education on how our democracy functions. At a local level in and around Cambridge, the one theme that would have the biggest impact is the role women in Cambridge played in the fight for votes for women. To narrow it down further, I’d go specifically for Florence Ada Keynes’ ultimately successful campaign in securing the right for women to vote in, and stand as candidates in local council elections. She was our city’s first ever woman councillor and one of the first women mayors too.


Cambridge democracy hero: Mayor Florence Ada Keynes

There is also the challenge of interviewing past local historical figures in Cambridge – in particular former councillors and politicians. In the grand scheme of things, I’m not cut out for it. I actually find the process of interviewing incredibly emotionally draining, hence only able to do short film clip style interviews. The importance of those interviews for me are spelt out in this interview of the late Simon Sedgewick Jell, former leader of Cambridge City Council under Labour, and later on county councillor for the Green Party. He was interviewed by Oxford historian Richard Johnson (who’s often back here where he used to study) for his co-authored book on 100 years of the Cambridge Labour Party.

It’s sobering to hear his voice now that he’s left us – I remember at the Cambridge Cycling Campaign hustings of 2014 when me & Puffles were standing in Coleridge, it was him for the Greens, Lewis Herbert for Labour, I think Rod Cantrill for the Lib Dems and me & Puffles as independents, taking Qs from members of the cycling campaign. Here’s the obituary written by the former head of Friends of the Earth, Tony Juniper.

In the grand scheme of things for something like this, I would want to work with someone who is a skilled interviewer. It’s something that would also take a fair amount of planning and research. In particular, I’m trying to work out the timeline of the influential urban planning reports on Cambridge that shaped our city. Ditto the restructures of local government that has left us with a city council holding far fewer powers today than its predecessor did a century ago.


From Cambridge Described and Illustrated (1897) I find this old plan of the old guildhall site fascinating.

Turned the other way around (north at the bottom, south at the top), Belcher’s plan of 1898 would have enabled a host of other municipal activities to have been hosted in one place.

We haven’t even begun to explore the opportunities with all things digital

Mike Petty MBE, Cambridge historian and former curator of the Cambridgeshire Collection at the time the current Princess Royal opened Lion Yard in the mid-1970s has put together this list (bit.ly/CambsCollection) of books and sources that are in the collection. He’s also the ideal person to speak to sceptical – often older audiences about the importance of, and opportunities with all things digital.

The four most significant differences digital has made for me as someone who experienced childhood without the internet, and then university & beyond with it, are the following:

Searching online

Text searches in the huge and ever-expanding British newspaper archive have been immensely useful. It’s not perfect by any means, but it is a treasure trove. Ditto with searching the catalogues as I slowly but surely master how to do proper searches on what can be temperamental databases!

Scheduling events in my diary

One of the reasons I didn’t do nearly as much stuff as I could have done in childhood was because no one told me or my friends that things were on and that we were welcome to take part. Being able to easily add events into electronic calendars means it’s much easier for me to at least know that stuff is happening.

Digital video

This for me is one of the big ones locally because it means that people who cannot attend events don’t miss out. That plus the record is there for as long as the likes of Youtube/Vimeo keep going. (Hence why local archives need to get up to speed on receiving digital collections).

Contacting/conversing online with expert historians directly

I’m not just talking about TV stars like Dr Janina Ramirez who for me has transformed through her research what actually happened in the middle ages (and busting a whole host of myths in the process), but the energy and passion she brings to it that I seldom see with other TV historians. Over the past few weeks I’ve been in touch with people who have done far more research than I ever could on both Eglantyne Jebb and Daisy Hopkins.

“Where do you start with trying to…curate all of this material?”

That’s what’s got me sort of stuck. What started out as a search for photos of old buildings led me to the newspaper archives that had some photos of old buildings, that also had interesting stories of things like Belcher’s Guildhall and the demise of Cambridge’s trams. This led onto further examinations of the politicians and political parties involved – and what motivated them…which led to looking at the construction of municipal Cambridge and what drove it…which identified poverty as a big issue…which also identified institutionalised sexism as an issue…which is where the likes of Florence Ada Keynes, Daisy Hopkins and Eglantyne Jebb come in as our civic patriarchy smashers.

…which then brings us to Frida Stewart/Knight who was trained as a musician, went off to fight the fascists in Spain, got locked up in occupied France, busted out of prison and evaded the nazis before escaping to the UK via Spain, Portugal and Ireland, before ultimately returning to Cambridge to write a wonderful book on the music of Cambridge in 1980.


Cambridge Hero Frida Knight – who drove an ambulance full of supplies from London to Spain in 1937 at the height of the Spanish Civil War.


Cambridge Music by Frida Knight, which interestingly does not restrict itself to classical music but goes far beyond, finishing up with the Cambridge Folk Festival of 1980 – the one that Don McLean played a live version of American Pie at. (You can hear it /view the video in the BFI unit in Cambridge Central Library on the 3rd floor – it’s wonderful!)

“And that brings us full circle too…?”

Music venues and dance halls – of which we’ve lost too many over the years and the ones that we do have are either too expensive for community groups or generally don’t meet the needs of our growing city. Which brings us back to the start.

“Very big project then?”



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