Mike Petty MBE digitises Cambridgeshire historical records


What an historical treasure trove that has been made available to a much wider audience!

If you asked most people who know something about Cambridge (and Cambridgeshire) local history, you’ll find most of them will have Mike Petty as the local historian they are most familiar with. Mike posted a link on the Cambridgeshire History FB page here announcing the digitisation of a whole host of materials.

As far as almost every single book ever written about the county since 1855 is concerned, Mike’s managed to put together this list which runs to 13,000 pages – this basically being the full catalogue of the Cambridgeshire Collection on the 3rd Floor of the Cambridge Central Library. As he states in big letters, Please don’t print this out! Mike also has this warning as well.

These days, with the savage County Council cutbacks to its few staff, the Cambridgeshire Collection is returning to the obscurity from which it was rescued 50 years ago. 

The political point here is that since 2010, successive administrations in Westminster and Whitehall (Conservative-led Coalition and Conservative majority since 2015) have imposed cuts of around 40% on the grant they give to local councils, with a view to phasing out the Revenue Support Grant in its entirety. (See this paper discussed by the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee on the issues).

Without the legal and financial powers to raise their own revenue, there is no way that local councils can support their local archives on anything more than a shoestring of a budget. This is why for our city and county at least, collectively we need to decide what to do in order to preserve the stories of the places we call home. This is one of the reasons why I wrote about how to make local history more popular with people. Furthermore, I wrote about learning from and being inspired by the civically-minded figures of the past that shaped the city that we know today.

Cambridge between the wars

One of the things we forget ever so easily was the impact of the First World War on local communities. Such were the scale of the losses – only 50 parishes across the country survived the conflict without anyone from their community failing to return home – that ‘Never again’ was in the minds of the population even as alarm bells started ringing very loudly in the mid-1930s. Have a look at these clips and note how close to the outbreak of war the anti-war protests were. After which, get hold of Jack Overhill’s diary and read a very opinionated viewpoint of a conscientious objector.

The Cambridge Antiquarian Society

The society was founded in 1840 – so 23 years to go to its 200th birthday. They are also online at http://www.camantsoc.org/. You can also see an online version of all of their publications at http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/cambridge_antiq/proceedings.cfm

It was from the above that I found out about an article on ‘The dual origin of the town of Cambridge.’ Turns out it was just a reference to a separate publication. Yet doing a general online search, it turned out that Google had already digitised it – it’s here.

Eglantyne Jebb and Florence Ada Keynes

I’ve stumbled across more publications written by two of the most talented and inspirational women ever to live and work in Cambridge. “Learn their names, recognise their faces, be inspired by their actions, then match their impact” is the slogan I’m running with for the #CambridgeHeroes.


Cambridge Hero Eglantyne Jebb was the first to research, write and publish a social scientific study on poverty and multiple deprivation in Cambridge. While the men at the University of Cambridge either generally ignored the poverty on their doorsteps or were inclined to blame ‘ladies with loose morals’, Eglantyne comprehensively myth-busted the whole area. Her conclusions cover education, training, town planning and the licensing of premises that serve alcohol.


Cambridge Legend Cllr Florence Ada Keynes – our first elected woman councillor and one of our earliest mayors of Cambridge. As well as being a politician and a campaigner for social justice, she wrote about the history of the borough of Cambridge.

With Eglantyne, the part of her epic on poverty in Cambridge that I’ve not yet been able to locate is her review of progress two years after publication. With Florence, one of the books she wrote according to the description in the catalogue says that she wrote about the time she was Mayor of Cambridge – something I’ve otherwise not been able to find.

Digitising tens of thousands of negatives and glass/lantern slides

This was something I discussed with Mike at the Museum of Cambridge recently. There is no way that the local history community as it is could even begin to fund a digitisation effort of such a large collection of photographs and fragile slides. At the same time…

Cambridge University is in the process of raising £2billion. As I’ve mentioned in a number of articles, it’s not just a numbers or money game. For me it’s about our city’s collective vision and culture. There’s no point in approaching the university or its colleges and holding out the begging bowl if the institutions’ cultures are of one where (as far as finances go) the bottom line comes first and only. Furthermore some of the solutions to the problems and challenges that Cambridge and surrounding areas face are not ones that money alone will solve. The Headteacher at Impington Village College, Ryan Kelsall told an audience of Cambridge businesses this very same thing very recently in the context of careers and skills for young people in Cambridge as the latter complained about skills shortages.

“What if we worked together?” Mr Kelsall to Cambridge businesses

Having been on an excellent tour of the digitisation operation at the University Library by Cambridge Digital Library staff in 2016, the first thing that struck me was that they had nearly all of the kit the city needed in order to digitise the county and municipal photographic, negatives’ and slides’ collections. (Something like this new concert hall idea on the other hand, will need money – lots of it!)

“Why do the photographs matter?”

Photographs – and images engage with our minds in a different way to words on a page. Whether it’s ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ to the ability of the image to convey something that words cannot in such a short space of time, images matter. Remember how this historical journey of mine started off life with me looking through a set of black and white photographs in the Museum of Cambridge. It was the photos of what we lost that hit me hard.

Interior of the New Theatre, Cambridge

***Hey! Give me back my city’s 1,500-seat theatre you vandals!***

Above – pictures from what was the New Theatre on Regent St (where Maplin & Sainsbury’s are now) were striking.

The old Playhouse, Mill Road, Cambridge

This is the old Playhouse Cinema on Mill Road – now Sally Ann’s.

A crime against Cambridge

The old Playhouse cinema with its heart & soul ripped out.


…and the shop today.

“How did we get from there to here?”

Digitising the records – and just as importantly making them searchable, means that more people can find answers to those sorts of questions. In the case of the lost cinemas and theatres, changing social habits and changes in technology led to their demise. It seems strange to think that people would go to the cinema to watch the news, but until just after WWII that is what they did. Jack Overhill’s war diaries regularly mention what he saw on the big news screens and what he thought of the heavily censored materials.

…and also…why are we still here with the same problems?

Cambridge 1951

St Andrew’s Street, Cambridge. This still image is from 1951 from the East Anglian Film Archive

Bikes, cars, buses and traffic…some things in Cambridge never change…or do they? Again, digitisation means more people have access to the source documents that explain why some things happened and other things did not. But just as it’s useful to digitise things, there’s also a role for explaining what’s there and making them useable. In this more recent example by Cambridge City Council – all of the local planning documents at https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/public/ldf/coredocs/, the volume of digitised documents is simply bewildering. Furthermore, we currently have no idea as to what progress checks and evaluations have been done on the expensively commissioned reports and studies. Even Eglantyne Jebb in the pre-computer age recognised the importance of progress checks. Not only that, she delivered one. My challenge for this week? Finding it!


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