The Grafton Centre & The Kite, Cambridge


Past, present and future of a long-fought-over part of Cambridge

I was quoted in an article on The Grafton Centre’s revamp in the Cambridge News recently (see here) as it goes through an £18m refurb. The [loaded] question they asked was whether readers wanted to see it become like the Grand Arcade – to which the resounding answer was ‘No’.

The Cambridgeshire Collection has a mini exhibition on the 3rd Floor of the Cambridge Central Library in Lion Yard about the redevelopment of the Kite area of Cambridge which the Grafton Centre sits within. There are a number of online articles about the original construction of the Grafton Centre such as Ian Kitching here, photographer Roy Hammans here – also featured in the Cambridge News here, and a few snippets by Fonz Chamberlain here. There are also a few more photos by Norfolk Odyssey here.

The Kite as a slum area of Cambridge

For centuries, Cambridge University authorities had been trying to keep their young men (women were banned until the 1870s and didn’t get full rights until after the Second World War) far away from the streets of Barnwell, fearing they would be corrupted by ‘ladies with loose morals’.


From Philip Howell’s talk to Mill Road History Society in January 2017, you can see where the authorities suspected brothels were located. You can see ‘the sharp point of the kite’ in the top right corner where Sun Street meets East Road – today the Elizabeth Way Roundabout. The opposite end of the kite is where Parkside meets Emmanuel Road – also a roundabout but a much smaller one.

We know from both Ellice Hopkins’ and Eglantyne Jebb’s research in the mid-1870s and 1905-06 respectively that this part of town suffered from huge economic deprivation. Ditto with the testimony from local teacher Leah Perrett – later Dame Leah Manning MP who taught at the old New Street School where one of the little girls in her class died of malnutrition, leading to a political row around the time Eglantyne was writing her book. Eglantyne’s work is digitised here – one of the best social scientific studies on Cambridge I’ve ever read. Ellice’s book, which marked the start of a number of very talented women researching and writing about poverty in Cambridge is digitised here.

An area full of cottage industries of limited efficiency

In 1950, Professors Holford and Wright published their seismic plan for the future of Cambridge. On page 13 paragraph 71 in this digitised copy buried away on Cambridge City Council’s website that the dragon managed to find…

…they describe many of the hundred or so industrial ‘undertakings’ as being housed in small obsolescent buildings. Thus they made the case for comprehensive redevelopment just after the end of the Second World War. It would be another 30 years before the bulldozers finally went in.

A community left to perish over time?

This is something the Cambridgeshire Collection covers on its exhibition boards – local people continuously protested against what they saw as the deliberate running down of the area to make it easier to argue for comprehensive redevelopment. Looking at the photographs from the 1970s in particular, it’s not hard to see why people felt that way.

One of the institutions that made the area buzz was the Cambridge Co-operative Society Ltd. At their peak in the interwar period, they opened new premises on Burleigh Street which also included a large community hall.


From The Cam Magazine 1937 in the Cambridgeshire Collection. Both of these buildings should have been preserved. Instead, the only remaining building of the co-operative movement in the immediate vicinity is this one tucked away round the back.


If you look close up, the sign with the white background is a mosaic.

“Why a shopping centre?”

In the Victorian era, the centre of Cambridge experienced a significant amount of redevelopment. Many of the buildings in Cambridge built in that time have been described by 20th Century architecture critics as ‘mock or neo something’ – mock tudor, neo-georgian and so on. As far as the planners at the time were concerned, Cambridge around Market Square was at capacity, with only the redevelopment of the Lion Yard to go as far as comprehensive redevelopment was concerned. Given the trend of people using cars to get into town alongside the growth of Cambridge as a regional retail centre, planners looked for an alternative site where they could build a large car park to meet that demand. They picked The Kite.

It was something that writers in post-war Cambridge also felt – this from Bryan Little in 1960.

“Cambridge Discovered” by Little, B. W Heffer and Co. 1950.

Opened in 1984 and revamped in 1995

I don’t remember much about the original opening but by the time the extension with the cinema opened in mid-1995, it was very much the place to go for teenagers as I was at the time. One of the most significant things that today’s councillors and planners forgot – alongside transport ministers, is that a significant amount of shopping traffic for the Grafton Centre is bus-based. In my view, the reduction of bus services to the Grafton Centre since the Millennium has been one of the reasons for the centre’s recent decline vs the now extremely overcrowded town centre.

The lack of an anchor store following the collapse of BHS hasn’t helped The Grafton – but that said, as a chain it seemed to be struggling with the polarisation of clothing retail in particular: high-price brands vs discount sweatshop stores. Though if you look at the labels inside the clothing you’ll notice all too often that they are made in the same part of the world where workers’ rights are not a high priority.

What should the future be?

Better than what it is at present. Much depends on which chain becomes the ‘anchor’ store in place of BHS. Furthermore, it remains to be seen how the controversial ‘Marque 2’ development progresses. (See the proposals here and the snapshot below from the document that got planning permission).


More by Alison Brookes Architects here.

Personally I think there needs to be a large bookshop there – historically Heffers had a vibrant children’s bookshop there, but now nothing. For me though, the most important thing is the reinstating of decent bus services, and perhaps in the longer term one of the light rail underground links that heads out to Newmarket Road?






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