Medieval Cambridge Market Square


…and the digitisation of long lost articles on the history of Cambridge

I was in the Cambridgeshire Collection earlier today and discovered the undigitised copies of the Cambridgeshire Association of Local History‘s past publications. I browsed through about 65 years worth of records and articles – so by no means went into any detail. I’ve also pondered about the digitisation of the proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society‘s publications which go back to 1840. Turns out you can search their digitised publications here.

The one that I thought would interest you was the article on Cambridge’s medieval market by Peter Bryan and Nick Wise in their 2002 edition.

CambsAntiqSocCambMarketSqMedievalBryan2002 Cambridge’s medieval market by the Cambridge Antiquarian Society

In the grand scheme of things, the Cambridge Antiquarian Society covers things too far into the past for my interest. My general take is that if there are no photographs, I struggle to relate.

“Yeah – where’s our market place wedding cake of a guildhall?”

Ah – Belcher’s Masterpiece? Still struggling to locate any original unfortunately.


John Belcher’s unbuilt design for Cambridge’s guildhall in 1898. The story of why we didn’t get it is here. Again, note the importance of digitisation. Note that Cambridge’s market square has changed and evolved over the centuries. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that a big fire got rid of the buildings in the middle of the current Market Square.

Even as late as the early 1970s, Cambridge did not have a permanent market – cars would regularly park in the middle of the square until Mayor Mrs Jean Barker – later Baroness Trumpington – got rid of the cars because she had a positive vision of creating a permanent market. And had the courage to face down the powerful motoring lobby. Cllr Barker was a Conservative councillor for Trumpington ward for many years in the 1960s & 70s.

The future of the square?

This is something a team involving Helen Bradbury, Professor Peter Landshoff and architect Melanie Hey have been working on. Last I heard was this article in March 2017 setting out the options. Personally I’d like to see pop up/fold-away market stalls along with this style of bins that are bigger underground than they are above it.

Amsterdam’s way of dealing with high volumes of litter. When will Cambridge follow?

Beyond that, I’ve called for the Guildhall to be revamped as described at the end of this blogpost, in time for the centenary of Florence Ada Keynes’ mayoralty, which will be in 2032. Thus you could:

take the best of Belcher’s design

raise the existing council chamber to rooftop height, creating space for a state-of-the-art lecture theatre for up to 500 people

place a glass dome on top of the council chamber

open up the top of the council chamber as a rooftop cafe/bar and charge ***lots of money*** for people to have tea and cake / wine and canapes looking over to King’s College Chapel.

And back to digitisation

Or rather the stuff that was published ages ago and has been long forgotten about. The importance of digitising with text-recognition is in the literature reviews – it is so much easier to search with the internet than in the days before the internet. One of the things that strikes me comparing the older to newer articles is the much wider number of references in the newer articles, and thus the length of the articles. The older articles have far fewer references and are much shorter in length. The changing quality of paper is also notable. But remember that when the first authors of the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History, and before that the Cambridgeshire Local History Council were first publishing in the early 1950s, the UK still had rationing.

Cambridge Gas Works – does it count as heavy industry?


The Britain from above photo database is ***wonderful*** – especially for a place like Cambridge where too much of our nice civic stuff has been demolished unnecessarily to be replaced by bland identikit stuff that could have been built anywhere. Not that the old gas works were a particularly nice place to be considering the pollution – nor were they much different to the gasometers and buildings elsewhere. But there was a lovely article by Cambridge historian Allan Brigham in the 2004 CALH Review (no.13) where he wrote extensively about the Cambridge gasworks and the lighting of our town in Victorian times. Turns out it was a chap called John Grafton who was largely responsible for lighting our town with coal gas – but not apparently who various bits of that part of town is named after. That going to landowner at the time the Duke of Grafton. Personally I think we could rename The Grafton Centre after John Grafton because it would pay tribute to someone who shaped our city ***and would cost nothing*** (other than the cost of a plaque or two!) Here’s Allan Brigham’s FB page on John Grafton.

The stats are striking too. In 1840 Cambridge had 350 gas lights. In 1866 that rose to 660. In 1867 Cambridge burnt through 80million CuFt of gas per year. In 1900 that was 255million CuFt. In 1945 that rose further to 1,319million CuFt. So big numbers, even if I cannot visualise what a million cubic feet actually looks like.

One undigitised record leading to another one – this time digitised

In the late 1990s publications I stumbled across Margot Holbrook’s article on the Spinning House – reminding me that we need to digitise the written spreadsheets of all of the victims of Cambridge University – all women, who were unlawfully locked up by the University proctors and constables without having the specific legal powers to do so. Yet you could walk past the site of the where the Spinning House used to be and not notice there was once something there. It was the case of 17 year old Daisy Hopkins that finally castrated the men of the University, but there are a host of other women who resisted as best they could, whose stories are still hardly known today, but were well known locally at the time. Hence why a few years ago the Cycle of Songs project featured them.

Not just individuals, but the bigger picture

The fiendishly tricky part of this research of mine has been trying to make the link between purely local stuff with changes in national politics that had a direct effect on Cambridge – in particular new Acts of Parliament. This exchange in Parliament over whether to build a new railway line over Coldham’s Common in the late 1880s reflects how contentious such things were back then – and shine an interesting light on the passage of the HS2 bills currently going through Parliament – facing similar opposition.

On housing, there were a number of municipal improvement laws passed in the 1800s. Thus we go from the slow evolution from a few splendid chaps gathered around a table deciding on the city’s future to … a few splendid chaps gathered around a table deciding on the city’s future if you look at the city deal board or the combined authority! I jest. The thing with the very old history books is that they are much closer to the distant past than we are. It really is a case of there was less history to write up about in times gone by because…there was less of it! Actually, that’s not quite the case. Finding recent history books about non-University Cambridge is very difficult to come by. Because so few people have written comprehensively about our city’s history – especially since WWII, I’ve had to go back to some very old books to get a clearer picture. One such book is the Victoria County History Project – here’s the Cambridge pages: all 500 pages of it. (150 or so are about the town, the rest are Cambridge University-related).

The challenge now is to make the link between the when the laws were enacted to civic activists were taking action – either to change the laws or get existing laws enforced. Some of these inevitably relate to slum clearances. Strange to think now but just over 100 years ago, some of Cambridge’s most popular shopping streets were miserable slums. Petty Cury is but one example.

Cambridge’s post-war story

Again, these haven’t been digitised, but there are a series of lifestyle magazines in the archives that were published from the 1960s-1990s. It’s a fascinating read at a time of huge social change – something the county clearly struggled with as many old buildings were demolished. And some longtime problems had some radical solutions too – this from 1968.

Have a look at this article and the embedded video. In the same year, the Cambridge Ring Road (unbuilt) along with the city’s traffic problems were discussed. The list of events is also revealing – including listing societies that I never knew existed but which have been going on for over half a century – such as the Cambridge Cactus Club.

It’s in these monthly magazines that you also get pointers to things that were opened as brand new at the time – the University Graduate Centre by the Mill Pond through to major political upheavals of the time, such as the reorganisation of Cambridge’s schools. Prior to the late 1960s, local councils would provide a limited number of scholarships to local fee paying schools such as The Perse. Changes to the law meant that The Perse went fully independent rather than going fully comprehensive in the state system.

Making use of the research our forbears have already done

That in part is how I see it. Why re-write the whole thing when re-publishing and publicising is a much better route? And one that can be done in a manner that could not have been imagined by the people writing the original articles at the time. That said, it is some of the longest-serving and most well-known members of Cambridge’s local history community who are the most prominent advocates of digital history. Mike Petty’s digitisation of his notes at is essential for neighbourhood studies. Allan Brigham’s Town not Gown Tours FB page is one that links our civic past to contemporary local issues – and often controversial planning issues too.

Just as I see digitising our archives as being essential, I also see a lot of scope in republishing/reprinting and publicising long lost books – something that seems to be more common these days – and a much welcome development too.



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