Cambridge Transport – how did we get to here?


On how historical knowledge can help inform future policy making

I promised Sarah Nicmanis, one of the organisers of Cambridge’s Changing Conversations event series that I’d write a blogpost on a small workshop I hosted at their event on transport, where Nicola Terry and Emma Fletcher spoke about the problems and possible solutions.

Before I begin, the person who probably knows more about Cambridge transport history than anyone else is local historian and former Anglia Ruskin University lecturer Tony Kirby, who is on the council of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society. In the grand scheme of things, I’m a newcomer to all of this.

As far as modern Cambridge is concerned, the coming of the railways is the one piece of industrial transport infrastructure that shapes our city more than any other. Prior to that, the Roman Road – Via Devana, and before that the river, were what influenced the shape of our city. I discuss this through Peter Bryan’s book “Cambridge – shaping our city” below.

When plans were made for a railway to be built between London and Cambridge, there was an almighty political squabble at our end on where the railway station for Cambridge should be located. The screen-grab below from Railways to Cambridge: actual and proposed, by Reginald B Fellows/Oleander Press in 1976 shows the various sites proposed.


Map: Where would you have built Cambridge’s railway station in the mid 1800s?

Personally I’d have gone for No.8  with a railway line straddling Hills Road then tailing off towards East Road and Newmarket Road before heading north – mindful that at the time, much of the land between Mill Road and Hills Road was open fields.

Prior to the railways, Cambridge’s main slums were in the town centre – around Castle Hill, in and around Lion Yard, along Newmarket Road, and also in the ‘Newtown’ part of Cambridge between the Botanic Gardens and Lensfield Road. With the arrival of the railways and Cambridge’s rapid population growth, it was Chesterton and Mill Road that saw much of the housing growth.

Cambridge gets trams

In the late 1870s, a number of local entrepreneurs got together to form the Cambridge Street Tramways Company. It’s history is wonderfully described in the book of the same name by SL Swingle that you can find in the Cambridgeshire Collection in Cambridge’s Central Library (3rd floor).


Horse-drawn trams – because electric trams hadn’t been invented yet

The trams ran from Cambridge railway station through to the city centre, round Market Square, down King’s Parade & Trumpington Street, left at Lensfield Road, down Gonville Place past Parker’s Piece and down to East Road where the trams were kept overnight inside a building called… The Tram Depot. In recent decades it has been a pub/restaurant and a favourite of Anglia Ruskin students.

Proposed electrification and expansion

This is how the Cambridge Independent’s cartoonist reacted to the proposed electrification in the early 20th Century.

Cambridge Trams electrification spoof cartoon.JPG

There were plans to extend the lines down Newmarket Road and further down Hills Road, and even into Chesterton. But the plans never came about because the company was losing money hand over fist to the newly invented motorised buses which could transfer more people, faster and cheaper than the horse drawn trams. One of the children who would often race – and beat the horse drawn trams running down Hills Road was a certain John Maynard Keynes, who lived just off Hills Road down Harvey Road during his early years.

In the end, the company was wound up in the High Court – despite attempt by campaigners to persuade the council to invest in electrifying the tram.

140206 Tramways Wound Up

Roads, motorcars and bicycles

As far as the students are concerned, the Cambridge University Cycling Club can trace its roots back to 1874. All things cycles start appearing in the Cambridge local press towards the end of the 19th Century – as Mike Petty’s archive notes show. Two of the most prominent cyclists in the city around that time were women – Florence Ada Keynes and Maud Darwin, the latter a daughter-in-law of Charles, the botanist. Both were early converts to the bicycle – noting that at the time both arrived in Cambridge, the modern bicycle hadn’t yet been invented!

As far as the motor car is concerned, Tony Kirby’s article on Cambridgeshire Road Transport 1900-1939 for the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History Review no.25 (2016) does far more justice to the subject than I do. But note in the run up to the First World War we start seeing articles about badly driven motor cars – at a time when being drunk in charge of a horse was perhaps a more familiar road traffic offence!

Cambridge: Problems with cars and drivers since 1909.

The inter-war period

With the invention of cars and bikes came with it the problem of where to park these things, along with creating and responding to new offences associated with both. It is in this time that we start seeing changes in patterns of town planning along with growing complaints from residents about the behaviour of motorists. The problem is that the car park wasn’t invented at the same time as the motor car.

“So…where are we going to put all of these cars then?”

It started off with some landowners clearing out old and unused buildings in the town centre. This is how the Lion Yard car park came about.

(C) Francis Frith Collection

This from the Francis Frith Collection shows the arrow furthest to the left pointing at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, and the arrow next to it further to the right pointing to the patch of land that I think was once a music hall, now being used as a car park. As time went by, more buildings in those back streets were demolished before the 1970s wrecking ball smashed the area to pieces in order to create the city centre that we are more familiar with.

Park Street car park, Queen Anne Terrace and New Square car parks also sprang up – as did the smaller one at Adam and Eve Street off East Road. New Square was turned back into grassed fields once the new Grafton Centre car park and shopping centre opened in the 1980s – but not without stiff local opposition. There’s an exhibition in the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Central Library that summarises the fight locals put up to protect their neighbourhood.

“And the buses?”

Again there was an almighty row over where to put all of these buses that until 1925 were stopping on King’s Parade, to the chargrin of the University fellows. I only found out recently that it was the first Woman Mayor of Cambridge Cllr Eva Hartree who played a decisive role in selecting Drummer Street as the location for the new bus station. But not without a fight – people didn’t want anything built on Christ’s Pieces. But Mrs Hartree got her way and the central bus station was built. That said, locals must have learnt something about campaigning because when Professor Holford planned on building a new spine road across the pieces, opposition to it was so strong that it was never built.

Cambridge Development Plan Holford 1950 HiRes

The Holford Wright Report of 1950 – the map

I blogged about the Holford Wright Report here. Essentially I think his analysis is sound, but his policy proposals – in particular with all of the roads for motor traffic, were not. But conspiracy theories abound regarding pro-car anti-municipal transport (trams and suburban rail) surround why post-war UK went down the road of private cars and away from public transport.

Want to read the digitised version of the Holford Wright report? You can – Cambridge City Council published it here – they just didn’t tell anyone! It took a certain civically-minded dragon fairy to unearth it.

Puffles: Because every city needs a dragon

Motorways and dual carriageways – and another bridge over the River Cam.

In 1934, Dravidge published his regional plan for Cambridgeshire – which in those days was not the whole county that we know today, but what is in effect Cambridge, South Cambridgeshire and a bit of Huntingdonshire.

1934 Cambs proposed infrastructure improvements

Dravidge’s plan – a new ring road and some upgraded road and rail junctions – some of which we are still waiting for. See the set of maps here

More maps of post-war Cambridge plans

See the photo set here

For me, the reason why these maps are so important is that it allows the public and policy makers to ask:

“What have we tried in the past and why didn’t we get them?”

For example:

  • Why didn’t we get the footbridge over Cambridge railway station linking to a new bus station off Rustat Road?
  • Why is Foxton still waiting for a bridge over the A10 over 80 years after Dravidge first proposed it before the Second World War?
  • Why didn’t we get the suburban network of segregated cycleways mentioned in the 1960s?

HIstory of #localgov for Cambridge

In the 1960s, this is how Cambridge planners imagined the Cambridge of 2011

Notice the extensive growth of the city towards Shelford, the expansion of Histon and Impington, and the very deliberate gap between Cherry Hinton and the rest of Cambridge, and the merging of Cherry Hinton with Fulbourn.

You also get things like this:

HIstory of #localgov for Cambridge

Around the time Dravidge wrote his report, there was huge debate on how Cambridge should expand. The borough councillors wanted the borough boundaries to expand far further than they actually got. The last time Cambridge’s local authority boundaries were re-drawn was in the mid-1970s when the whole of England went through the same process. Ministers generally take the view that local government restructuring is something the country needs like a hole in the head. (Please don’t mention Brexit!)

For me, examining where Cambridge goes from here (or how it chooses to expand) has to be informed by the debates and arguments people had in the past. For a start it will force us to re-examine arguments that might have been sound back then, but may not be sound today. (Alternatively they may well still be sound today – in which case we can act accordingly and not re-hash the whole thing).

Now, I’ve missed off loads and loads in this – the Beeching Report that took out lots of branch lines that might be useful today, through to Thatcher’s privatisation of local buses that did away with local co-ordination and comprehensive information on local public transport – leading to a massive information gap. I could go on. But I hope this is food for thought.

Interested in Cambridge’s history beyond Cambridge University and its colleges? See Lost Cambridge on Facebook at

Interested in where Cambridge goes from here and want to be kept informed of future council meetings & decisions? See Democracy Cambridge


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