Cllr Dr Alex Wood of the Cambridge Labour Party


A high profile councillor so popular that Cambridge Labour Party named their new headquarters after him

I made a short video about Dr Alex Wood in the 2017 election campaign, with a view to writing a longer blogpost about him. This is it.

It was very hot that day!

Dr Alex Wood: Scotsman, physicist, presbyterian, socialist, and Cambridge borough councillor

261013 Dr Alex Wood election photo portrait

Dr Alex Wood in the Cambridge Chronicle in 1926, from the Cambridgeshire Collection

Dr Alex Wood’s wiki page covers his work as a physicist and as a fellow of Emmanuel College. What it doesn’t cover is his role as a preacher at St Columba’s Church on Downing Street, Cambridge. It also doesn’t cover his work as a councillor and parliamentary candidate for Cambridge Labour Party. Dr Wood stood for Parliament representing Labour three times in Cambridge. First he was up against Sir Douglas George Newton in 1931, and then against Lt Cmdr Richard Tufnell in the 1934 by-election (when Newton was shuffled upstairs to the Lords) and in the 1935 general election.

Alex Wood the preacher

Dr Wood was a preacher at St Columba’s Church on Downing Street. For a century, the adjacent church halls have been used for a wide range of activities from dance and exercise classes through to political meetings covering campaigns such as Votes for Women all the way through to the European Union referendum on Brexit. The church is part of the United Reformed Church.


Wooden tablet in St Columba’s Church, Cambridge, dedicated to Dr Alex Wood.

I spotted the above tablet in the main church building during a music rehearsal when we hired out the hall. At the time I knew of Dr Wood as a politician but less as an academic and a preacher.

“What do the news archives say?”

A fair amount actually

340509 Dr Alex Wood Parkers Piece

Dr Alex Wood on Parker’s Piece in 1934, in the Cambridgeshire Collection

One of the things to to remember with Dr Wood is that he didn’t drink. It went with the territory of his religious beliefs – alcohol is banned from United Reformed Church premises and was from the predecessor churches prior to the merger that formed the URC in the 1970s. On Cherry Hinton Road at the bottom of the hill the ‘New Cherry Hinton Free Church’ was built in 1906. It became the Congregationalist Church in 1926 and then the United Reformed Church in the mid-1970s, before being sold off and taken over by the Greek Orthodox Church, of whom local ward councillor and current Cambridge Mayor George Pippas is one of the senior figures.

The Cambridge Temperance Movement to ban alcohol – prohibition

Much has been written about prohibition in the United States, but in the UK there was also a huge movement calling for the prohibition of the production and sale of alcohol. One of the things I always remind myself when going through the archives is that the people I am reading about were living in a world where there were no televisions and very few home entertainments.  Looking at the maps in Cambridge of the late 1800s, the two buildings that appear most regularly are the pubs and the church mission rooms.

As a result, you had a number of preachers and missionaries wandering around town preaching about the ills of drinking. One of those was Ellice Hopkins who I blogged about earlier. In 1884 she published a book about her experiences of life in the slum communities of Cambridge – it’s digitised here. A fascinating read, from page 97 she starts talking about the social issues she has observed and starts discussing how the town collectively can start dealing with them. In many senses, Eglantyne Jebb’s book Cambridge – A brief study of social questions published in 1906 both retraces Ellice’s steps but covers what I call the first social scientific study of poverty and multiple deprivation in Cambridge. Accordingly, Ellice’s proposals are much more thought through and advanced than Ellice’s are. As Eglantyne’s book was published before the formal founding of the Cambridge Labour Party in 1913, one could say that in that vein, Dr Alex Wood as a politician is following in that tradition. As late as 1939 (Alex wood died in 1950) he was taking part in and chairing meetings of temperance movement meetings.

“How big was the temperance movement in Cambridge?”

They had their own hotel on Mill Road/Devonshire Road, and owned a number of temperance cafes across town. One of the points of contention was whether they should expand ownership of such premises, but the demands of running such a network of places proved too much for activists to want to take on.

Many churches had their own temperance organisations within them. It was one of the issues that seemed to unite Christians from across the religious spectrum. Note in the early 1900s there were many things that divided Christians across the country, and Cambridge was no exception. In the run up to the 1906 general election Cambridge was hosting political meetings on, for want of another term ‘Antidisestablishmentarianism’ and the Church of Wales, alongside issues with the role of churches in the Education Act of 1902 which favoured some churches but not others.

Cambridge Red Cross Society

Cambridge had numerous Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) across town, and Dr Alex Wood was the commandant of Cambs No.7 Detachment. 170509 Dr Alex Wood Red Cross Commandant Cambs 7 Branch

Dr Alex Wood of Cambs No.7 Detachment in 1917, British Newspaper Archive.

Note the above would have been during the First World War – at a time when the 1st Great Eastern Hospital was running at peak capacity following the carnage at The Somme, and would be further stretched by the casualties coming in from Passchendaele.

Dr Alex Wood the pacifist

Much of what follows comes from Mike Petty MBE’s military scrapbook here.

Dr Wood chaired the Cambridge Peace Council, and was a passionate anti-war activist. He spoke out against the rearmament plans that the Conservative-led national government was undertaking in the mid-late 1930s. It might sound short-sighted today, but in the 1930s the memories of the First World War were still very strong in people’s minds. They could not have had the foresight about what 1939-45 would be like. Furthermore, much of the anti-war protesting going on in Cambridge at the time was more about an international alliance with the Soviet Union in an anti-fascist league.

Throughout the 1930s, Dr Wood campaigned against rearmament. Note his opponent in the 1934 and 1935 elections was Lt Cmdr Tuffnell for the Conservatives, which makes for interesting reading.

Finally in 1938 he denounced war and preparations for war at a packed meeting in what we now know as Alex Wood Hall on Norfolk Street – Cambridge Labour Party’s headquarters. The building was once a maltings and a small factory prior to Labour taking over the building. Or at least that’s what the old maps say!

Dr Alex Wood on housing

One of the issues that he regularly came back to was on housing. It’s an issue still with us today. In Dr Wood’s day they were dealing with slum housing/clearances as well as homelessness.

390428 AlexWoodCambridgeHousingShortage2

From the British Newspaper Archive

The quotation above by Dr Alex Wood in 1939 could easily have been made by Daniel Zeichner MP, who like Dr Wood stood for Parliament in Cambridge. Housing was an issue that Ellice Hopkins wrote about in the 1880s and over 130 years later remains a stubborn problem that won’t go away.

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