What would a massive Cambridge Living History Fair look like?


i.e. one based in Cambridge that is even bigger than the one held at Wood Green or the East Anglian event I was at today

I had a nice day out in Stowmarket at the East Anglia Museum of Living History for their annual living history fair. It took about an hour to get there by train on a line that really could do with some serious investment in – if anything to spread the money being thrown at Cambridge and support the Suffolk economy.

A pleasant walk from the station, I got there late so missed the morning displays. The people doing the re-enactments were all splendidly dressed, with close attention to detail. Those really passionate took part in various re-enactments, such as showing us visitors what it was like for knights in armour facing a wall of arrows from archers.

No one got hurt, even though it looks painful! (I slowed the video down)

I also put together this sped up video medley of all of the participants in the closing parade.

A shame that the audience felt very small for such a big event, but in one sense it was just as much a social for those taking part as it was for us watching.

I’ve put a few more photos up on Flickr too.

“Could Cambridge do something similar?”

It sort of does at Wood Green Animal Shelter, which is a bit of a trek away – splendid a venue as it is. There is also the week of events with the Cambridge History Festival in the early spring of each year – run by the Museum of Cambridge.

For something similar to what I saw at Stowmarket today to work in Cambridge would need a number of things. Money and a competent organiser (i.e. not me) to start with. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, two options that are available include moving the Wood Green event to central Cambridge (easier said than done) or growing the Museum of Cambridge’s event. Again, easier said than done. Furthermore, it might be that the organisers of the said events don’t want to move or change – and who am I to tell them?

It’s not that Cambridge isn’t short of history, it’s more that the history of the town has not been publicised to the extent that the town is familiar with it. Furthermore, our civic historical institutions are struggling – badly. Being underfunded by the county council really isn’t helping, but that is a party-political decision for which individuals have to choose whether to hold their county councillors to account for it and/or other spending decisions that they are making.

Me asking Cambridgeshire County Council a public question on funding the Cambridgeshire Archives Service.

Growing the local historic communities before putting on a big event

This remains one of my biggest personal local issues in Cambridge. I wrote about it on my main blog here in 2016. The reason being is we’re not going to have a strong civic core that can respond to how the city is growing unless more of us have a stronger understanding of how Cambridge the city got to where it is today. Ditto knowledge and understanding about politics, public policy and public administration. I’ve criticised the science communities in the past for seeing themselves as somehow ‘separate’ from politics and public policy. Could one make the same case for the history of science in Cambridge? I think they are on stronger ground there, but the bit that is missing is the contributions from a number of eminent scientists to local democracy in Cambridge. One of the most prominent of these was Sir Horace Darwin – co-founder of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, one of Charles Darwin’s sons and Mayor of Cambridge 1896-97.

Sir Horace Darwin Mayor Cambridge1896-97.jpg

Civic Legend: Sir Horace Darwin as Mayor of Cambridge, from the book “Horace Darwin’s Shop: A History of The Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company

He was the first mayor to make a big effort to bridge the gap between town and gown. The only other Horace I can think of is Peg Leg Horace from Cops & Robbers.

The continued absence of that shared story remains a problem

You can’t see the floor in my bedroom for all of the history books – bookshelf space ran out ages ago. I’m still at this research stage on something that I fear will be far longer than a single book. Thus one of the outputs will have to be a publication similar to Stephanie Boyd’s book The Story of Cambridge which conceptually and for it’s market is a fine book. Understandably it has a large University of Cambridge focus so inevitably misses out on people who I’ve since discovered had a huge impact on the history (or herstory) of Cambridge.

The importance of re-enactment societies

One of the things the East Anglian event got spot on was scale. They covered the historical spectrum from the Romans through to the Cold War, with pretty much every major historical epoch included. Because participants take part over two days, they camp overnight in tents reflecting the historical time they are re-enacting. Thus in the parade you don’t see all of the participants. Spread over a wide site with outdoor and indoor space meant being prepared for the best and worst of the weather. Finally, there was something really impressive about seeing so many people all dressed up, passionate and knowledgeable about the subject area they were showcasing.

Dressing up like that costs money

Some of the late medieval era longbows that the archers were using were ‘proper’ long bows, made by specialist craftspeople. Thus they didn’t come cheap. One of the public announcers said that the most expensive ones cost over £2000. Furthermore, they were far from the easiest pieces of equipment to master. The strings of the bows are far tougher than what many of us see and may have experienced in modern archery. I was surprised to see even some well-built members of the public really struggling to draw the bow string back to its full limit.

East Anglia Living History Fair 2017 in Stowmarket

This archer in particular had a wonderful technique – making the whole thing look effortless even though it was anything but. 

The lesson for me from the Stowmarket event for history re-enactment events was to do them as accurately as possible, to do them at scale, to make them fun, and ultimately but most importantly, think health and safety always. All of these people from what I could see knew what they were doing, were properly drilled and were well prepared.

A military theme to many reenactments, but history is far more than just about men fighting

In the archery demonstration, we were given a quick history of archery in East Anglia. We were told that in the 100 years war, there were only 16 pitched battles. Which left a lot of soldiers with a lot of down time. In the case of archers, many of the best ones would take part in competitions up and down the country – knowing that the top prize in such events was the equivalent of at least 6 months of wages. Such events were a big deal.

For somewhere like Cambridge, there is a lot that people can dress up as and reenact far outside the realms of warfare. Furthermore, with the development of newspapers we can go back to original source materials and look at who the women were that were making it into the newspapers and why. As laws were liberalised regarding women’s participation from the mid-late 1800s, there’s about 150 years worth of the past that’s waiting to be unpicked by someone – because hardly anyone else has written about it.

Not being restricted to gender stereotypes etc.

This for me is an important thing to raise – not least on the back of the horrific treatment local resident Prof Mary Beard has faced. Participants didn’t feel they had to be restricted to the historical gendered roles. We saw that with the archery. The body language of the women archers before they had even fired the arrows demonstrated they were expert markswomen.

Furthermore, in terms of ethnic and religious diversity, we find many examples of people from all over the world – as this by the National Archives mentions regarding Elizabeth I. The National Maritime Museum has this on the crew of Nelson’s HMS Victory. Just north of Cambridge in the village of Soham, we had Olaudah Equiano the author. From the mid 1870s, Downing College became known for its intake of Indian students. Local newspapers (in particular with motoring and cycling offences) were quick to note when foreign students found themselves up in court for minor offences such as parking in the wrong place. Finally, England had diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire and their rivals, the Persian Empire since the times of Elizabeth I. I still remember my surprise at seeing two very large paintings of Queen Victoria and her heir the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) dating from the 1870s inside the Sultan’s former palace at Topkapi in Istanbul in 2001 – until I remembered that this was not long after the Crimean war and although declining, the Sultan was still seen as the ruler of an important power. (This interesting article from The Spectator in 1878 illustrates the problems Lord Salisbury had when trying to negotiate a peace in the economic & political interests of the UK when Russia was at the door of Constantinople (now Istanbul. Salisbury, who became the last Prime Minister to serve from the House of Lords was the uncle of Eleanor Sidgewick of Newnham College, Cambridge). On disabilities, sometime Cambridge resident Henry Fawcett was blinded in a shooting accident ages 25. He still went onto become MP for Brighton and then Hackney, becoming a minister in Gladstone’s administration as Postmaster General (which was a very big deal in those days). Finally, given the casualty levels of the First World War, newspapers at the time featured schemes enabling the permanently disabled to get back into work.

On the other hand, if you are dressed up as a knight in full plate armour (we were told not to use the term ‘suit of armour’ which apparently is a Victorian abomination), no one really knows who or what is behind the metal visor. So wear what you like 🙂

When and where

The problem with existing events is that being in the early spring and late autumn, they don’t lend themselves easily to the outdoors. The firing of canons and muskets was one of the things that had the ‘wow!’ factor. So for the camping bit you’d need something somewhere big and outdoors. Note that Cambridge has historical form for having big camps in parks, whether during the two world wars all the way through to the Folk Festival. As a summer event/weekender, somewhere like Cherry Hinton Hall or Milton Country Park would be best bets as possible venues – especially public transport-wise. The limited publicity and train services to Stowmarket I feel had a negative impact on audience numbers. I felt they deserved a bigger audience for what they put on.

Could it be part of a retimed Cambridge History Festival? Quite possibly, but not for the next few years. Much work needs to be done within Cambridge to build up our civic history societies and networks before putting something like the Stowmarket event on.







One thought on “What would a massive Cambridge Living History Fair look like?

  1. Some good thoughts here. Cathy Moore, who runs the Cambridge Lit Fest, has just launched the Wimpole History Fest with the National Trust. Held at Wimpole Hall this first year there were reenactors, theatre and a large programme of speakers, me among them. Perhaps worth getting in touch?


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