Striking local history gold after lots of digging


Looks like I have a very long reading list over the summer – and note some of the differences between documents covering local contemporary history vs more distant local history.

I spent today in the Cambridgeshire Collection where I asked about all the academic works that had been deposited in the collection over the past century-and-a-half. If you’ve not been, they are tucked away on the 3rd floor of Cambridge Central Library in Lion Yard/Grand Arcade. You can:

  • Purchase old photographs
  • Purchase maps
  • Arrange for group visits
  • Book expert talks on the collection.

Email them at cambridgeshire.collection [at]

If anyone has any ideas on how to help them raise money/go about digitising their collection of 55,000+ photographs and their thousands of as yet unseen negatives, do get in touch with them. Failing that, email your local county councillor via and tell them that local history matters.

You can access their online library here, though their search engine can be temperamental!


When I did a keyword search for “Thesis” nothing came up (above). Yet when I tried the same in the library itself on one of their systems, I struck gold. Suddenly and unexpectedly I was faced with pages and pages of results from all of those researches and academics who had deposited their findings, before (in the main) moving onto other things.

A wealth of information on the history of Cambridge the town, the depth of which is known only to a few people

In the grand scheme of things, us local historians are rubbish at publicising and republicising our work and research. The stereotype is that archivists by their nature like being left alone, burrowing away at the huge amount of information they have in their custody. They tend not to be the sort of person you seen in front of huge audiences speaking passionately and with conviction about the subject of their hearts to spellbound crowds.

“But given that there are so many history books being published, how much more is there to know? I’ll die if I read another Tudor book!”

Just as two different people can go to the same event and come away with two very different accounts (Eg a sporting event) the same can be the case with historical sources. One of the things that strikes me with Cambridge is that our town’s history has not been written about by anyone other than in a superficial or surface level context. At the other end of the spectrum you have extremely specialist books that cover a very narrow issue in incredible detail. I’ve read detailed books on things like trams, trains, cycling, through to employers such as Cyril Rigeons, Eaden Lilley and Robert Sayle (all of whom were civic figures who founded firms that bore their names) through to the large private schools with long histories. Less so the state schools.

You also have ward histories – Romsey Town and Arbury are two that stand out. There are also compilations of various communities that have moved to Cambridge over time – refugees fleeing the fascists in Spain and Germany, through to the diverse communities that have made Cambridge their home in the post-war decades.

“Yeah – but what about King’s College and punting!?!? And complicated stuff like high-tech things that boffins work on to make profit for the economy?”

Therein lies the problem with Cambridge: The writers of books (or the people that set the titles) all too often assumed that ‘Cambridge’ was ‘The University’. The reality always was anything but.

“You mean Cambridge is more than just about the colleges and splendid chaps?”


One of my local historical heroes, Eglantyne Jebb, who would later go on to found Save the Children, wrote what in my view is the best concise summary of the history of Cambridge the town in the 19th Century. It’s in her book Cambridge: A brief study in social questions – digitised here pp13-35. In it she says that Cambridge over that century more than quadrupled in size, and the Cambridge of 1900 was a very different town of 40,000+ people than it was when it was a town of just 9,000 a hundred years prior.


Thus we find in the bundles of theses and dissertations deposited in the Cambridgeshire Collection, titles such as:

  • The influence of the River Cam on the development of Cambridge (Martin Lown, 1970)
  • The development of the Cambridge Newspaper Industry 1744-1936 (Graham Last, 1970)
  • History of public libraries in the city & county of Cambridge 1850-1965 (Brian Hutchin)
  • The growth of working class housing in Cambridge during the 19th Century (Paul Hulley)
  • Gas lane and Blossom Street – a study of life and social work in a working class parish of Cambridge (Catherine Russell 1976)
  • Terraces housing in Cambridge 1815-1845 (Catherine Bond 1987)
  • The changing character of Mill Road, Cambridge 1880-1960 (Caroline Biggs 1997)

That gives you just a hint that a fair amount of the research to questions that I have, has already been done. All I’ve got to do in one sense is the mother of all literature reviews of those secondary sources.

“Secondary sources? A bit condescending?”

Quite the opposite – secondary sources are essential in historical studies. From my perspective I’ve found them incredibly useful as signposts towards primary sources – accounts written at the time say by journalists or writers that were at the event taking place. Remember much of what I’m looking at with my work involves people taking part in public meetings, many of which were attended by local newspaper reporters who would quote who said what verbatim. Secondary material also provides an analysis or an explanation of why something happened or why a wonderful plan was not built.

Moving from people to faceless institutions

One of the things that strikes me with the evolution of Cambridge the city after the 1960s was how individual people or groups of named people seemed to be far less prominent, and ‘faceless institutions’ seem to become far more prominent.

The above from the Cambridge Independent Press via the British Newspaper Archive (£) lists the appointments of the key officials who made Cambridge the town function. Organist, Town/Common Crier, Bacteriologist, Gas Tester, Inspectors of nuisances, hackney carriages, canal boats and provisions – Cambridge had them all!

From the 1980s onwards, I notice more documents and studies that are published in the names of institutions. From the 1997 general election, we find even more from short lived ‘partnerships’ and quangos set up by the Labour Government. This reflects a demand from ministers in Whitehall to see early results from the substantial increases in spending, and the lack of confidence in local government as a whole to deliver what ministers thought needed delivering.

Unlike the works of individual writers, the corporately-produced documents even today are very dry reads. At the same time in the Labour years 1997-2010, departments and organisations were coming out with so many documents and publications that it’ll be a challenge for future historians to work out what the real impact of the policies, and of that administration really were. Even now, it’s too early to tell from an historical perspective. Even more tricky is the move to all things online – and with social media. Who within organisations is archiving those all important social media posts that influenced changes in even local policies? For example, what impact did the Cambridgeshire Local Area Agreement 2008-11 have before Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles scrapped the entire system with the stroke of a pen in 2010/11? Here’s one for 2006-2009 for Cambridgeshire – does it mean anything to anyone today almost a decade later? Note we are in political circumstances that back then would have seemed out of this world.

Anyway, I’ve got over 10 pages of manuscript scribblings of a host of documents to read through. Chances are I’ll be spending a lot of time in libraries this summer!




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