How new technology changed Cambridge in 20th Century. Ft The Co-operative movement


On how changing technology drove changes in social habits in Cambridge

One of the things you notice when going through old local newspapers is how the public announcements of meetings list venues that don’t seem familiar to the present day. In Cambridge, the papers of 100 years ago list venues such as St Andrew’s Hall, Alexandra Hall, The New Theatre, The Festival Theatre, The Bull Hotel, the Lion Hotel, County Hall, the Co-operative Hall and Fitzroy Hall. That’s quite a list of large meeting places that no longer exist. The same is true with cinemas. Hobson Street cinema, the Victoria Cinema, The Kinema, the Playhouse and even the Arts Cinema: all gone.

A massive technological change with each generation

It is so easy to forget and become complacent about the impact of technological changes. It was only in the 1960s that local newspapers in Cambridge started publishing TV schedules. My late grandparents, whose lives pretty much covered most of the 20th Century were born into reasonably high society in British colonial India around the outbreak of the First World War. Their childhoods were very, very different to the lazy summers of the late 1980s and early 1990s in South Cambridge – which was almost as much of a bubble as the gated communities of colonial times that they grew up in. By the time both died in the early Millennium, the internet and email was the norm, as was cable and satellite television.

The time period I’m currently going through with old local newspapers for me had two major technological differences that for us today are ever so easy to forget. The first involves the consumption of politics, and the second involves music.

Politics – you had to be there to hear it yourself, or you had to read extensive write ups in the newspapers

I don’t know how people with soft voices made themselves heard in the days before electronic amplification. Local newspapers are full of meetings and protests that broke up in disorder because no one could keep people quiet. This was particularly the case when Cambridge University undergraduates gatecrashed meetings involving national figures they didn’t particularly like. Both Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party, and Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst faced attacks from what can only be described at the time as the self-appointed militant youth wing of the Conservative Party. Such individuals regularly found themselves involved in the town-gown scuffles against local townsfolk, who became increasingly irritated at ‘public school jackanapes’ that all too often involved the smashing up of local shops and businesses. There’s a huge data-mapping exercise for someone to go through the local newspapers with all of the local court reports and number-crunch the students and colleges listed to see which college was the one that had the worst behaving students over time!

With the newspapers of 100 or so years ago however, for me their reports are historical treasures. Simply because they are ever so detailed. Broadsheet-sized and in tiny fonts, they contain detailed reports and often transcripts of exchanges between speakers at public meetings. The screenshots in the debate on the design of our current guildhall reflect some of that detail. By the 1960s however, articles had shrunk to the size that we are now more used to seeing on local news websites.

Popular music

It’s strange to think that the ability to replay music and sound has been widely available for a time period of less than a hundred years. My grandparents’ generation probably wouldn’t have had access to recorded music on vinyl records until their late teens. What Florence Ada Keynes’ generation would have made of our generation wandering the streets with wires plugged into our ears one can only wonder. Therefore to experience music, one really had to be there.

Cambridge in the 1880s: The mission hall or the public house

Cambridge1886 NationalLibraryScotlandMap

Cambridge 1886 by the National Library of Scotland

As you can see above, the area north-east of Parker’s Piece (labelled bottom-left) was and still is incredibly densely packed as far as house design goes, but doesn’t have the population density it used to have. It was into this that the Grafton Centre was controversially plonked in the early 1980s. East Road, that runs south-west to north-east wasn’t the most pleasant of places in town. Bordering it were the now long-since-cleared slums of Cambridge. More detailed maps show the regular appearance of both pubs and also of mission halls. As both Ellice Hopkins in the 1870s/1880s, and Eglantyne Jebb in the early 1900s wrote, the dark, damp and cramped housing in this part of Cambridge was a death trap – in particular to babies and young children. Eglantyne’s figure cited from official figures was an infant mortality rate of 1:8 across the city – so it would have been even higher in the slums. Today it’s closer to about 3:1000.

The growth of the big screen.

Cambridge’s big screens weren’t the monster multi-screen complexes that you see today. They were smaller but exquisitely decorated. This is the Playhouse on Mill Road.

The old Playhouse, Mill Road, Cambridge

The Playhouse, Mill Road, Cambridge. Courtesy of The Museum of Cambridge

The wonderful facade was demolished in the 1960s to make way for a small supermarket. For the past 40+ years it has been the Salvation Army Shop, “Sally Anne’s”. You can read the full story on Capturing Cambridge here.

The Victoria Cinema in Market Square moved site as local historian Fonz Chamberlain shows with old photographs in his article here. Today, the site is a Mark’s & Spencer shop.

‘You going to the cinema to watch the news?’

Just the concept of going to the cinema to watch the news seems mind-blowing today in a world where we can watch HD video on our mobile phones. During the First World War there were newspaper adverts to see war reports from the front line.

160728 The Somme Victoria Cinema

From the British Newspaper Archive, an advert for a video war report from The Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Remember that the Government brought in censorship after the outbreak of the First World War. Thus such reports wouldn’t have been the objective, hard hitting reports showing the horrors of trench warfare. Remember too that this was a very new technology for people. At the time, the technology to record audio and visual footage had not been developed. So footage like that below would have been accompanied by a pianist.

The first day of The Somme, by British Pathe. 

We were shown this in our GCSE History course in the mid-1990s and our teacher pointed out that some of this footage could not have been filmed on the front line because the trenches were far too shallow. But the impact of both video and sound to an audience who had not seen video footage before would be the equivalent of having the video below as a news report following the various wars that the UK & USA took part in in the early 2000s. (This being a critique/comparison of the media rather than the rights and wrongs of going to war).

Above – video footage linking the theme of Team America World Police to footage of the deployment of modern day ordnance.

The big difference between then and now I assume, is that audiences would have come streaming out of the cinemas discussing what they had just seen, and perhaps some would have gone to a local pub or cafe to talk about things further. i.e. it must have been a shared experience versus how we consume the the news today, where we have multiple – almost infinite outlets of varying degrees of trustworthiness. (Which is worse? A regime of censorship or of ‘fake news’?)

Take a different example – from World War 2 and the liberation of Singapore

Here’s Lord Louis Mountbatten (cousin of King George VI) taking the surrender of the Japanese

This is incredibly significant to the people of Cambridgeshire at the time because two entire battalions of the Cambridgeshire Regiment were captured in the fall of Singapore in early 1942, weeks after landing to help defend what was supposed to be an impregnable fortress. Note Mountbatten saying that the 100,000 soldier that were assembled outside Singapore were poised to take the place by force had the Imperial forces not surrendered beforehand.

Cambridge local news – every week, another big social gathering

dorothyballroomThe above is the old Dorothy Ballroom, now a branch of Waterstones in Cambridge. In the interwar period there would regularly be photographs of such social gatherings

280127 Abbey Imps Beaconsfield Hall

The above is the old Beaconsfield Hall on Gwydir Street opposite The Alex Pub. From the Cambridgeshire Collection’s newspaper microfiche archive in the Cambridge Chronicle. 

The old Alexandra Arms  was  named after Queen Alexandra, consort of Edward VII (1901-10). We also had Alexandra Hall which I recently found out was inside the old YMCA. The above shows the Cambridge Chronicle promoting a new technique of photographs using flashbulbs. The Abbey Imps were a local branch of the Young Imperial League. Beaconsfield Hall, named after the Earl of Beaconsfield, formerly Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, was a social hall run by the local Conservative Party, which as an institution at the time was huge.

Old YMCA.jpg

Cambridge YMCA, now buried under the Lion Yard Shopping Centre.

Cambridge’s lost concert halls

I wrote about these almost a year ago – see here. The part of Cambridge’s town history that needs writing up in a readable/digestable format is the decline of many of the social institutions that were prominent in town. One such organisation was the Cambridge & District Co-op.

The above was Burleigh Street – where Primark now is. The site was sold off to Grosvenor Estates in the 1980s – I assume because the Co-op Supermarket had moved to the Beehive Centre before selling off their supermarket operation to Asda following a corporate restructure in the late 1990s that led to the closure of all of its big supermarkets and department stores. The post-war decline of the Cambridge & District Co-operative Society is worthy of a post-graduate thesis in itself.

Did you know the Co-op movement has its own political party?

I didn’t until fairly recently – wondering why the likes of Ed Balls described himself as ‘Labour and Co-op’ when he stood for election. Turns out that the Co-op Party has been going for over a century, and signed an electoral pact with the Labour Party in the 1930s to stand candidates to represent both parties. In Cambridge recently, Luton MP Gavin Shuker gave a speech about the Cambridge and District Co-operative movement.

As a self-help and a social institution, the Cambridge & District Co-operative Society was huge. At its peak, I estimate about one in every five people in Cambridge in the inter-war period was a member, with profits reinvested into the community. As well as events in its large hall – the Co-operative Hall inside those splendid buildings, they had big shows such as the one below on Midsummer Common.

380715 Co-op MidsummerCommon show

Co-op Exhibition on Midsummer Common, in the Cambridge Press & Chronicle in 1938, Cambridgeshire Collection Newspaper Archive. 

A line of investigation:

“To what extent did the development of the motor car (and the road network) along with less population-dense housing estates, and the television affect Cambridge’s social fabric?”

I don’t mean this as to be harking back to a rose-tinted past that never existed. Those housing estates in places like King’s Hedges, Arbury, Abbey, Coleridge and Queen Edith’s in Cambridge were created on the back of the reports from Ellice Hopkins, Eglantyne Jebb and others as a means of ‘designing out poverty’. Look back at the old map at the top – much of the housing and workshops on the east side of East Road have been completely demolished – replaced by the post-war St Matthew’s Estate and Anglia Ruskin University’s post-war and post-millennium new buildings.

Motor cars and supermarkets

In the 20 years preceding the opening of the Grafton Centre in the early 1980s, the area experienced an extended period of decline – something that I think must have crushed the local co-op movement with it’s headquarters in the middle of it. Knowing that at the same time much of the population was moving out, and new much larger supermarkets were springing up that were much more accessible by car (such as Sainsbury’s on Coldham’s Lane) that didn’t have the same values or social infrastructure must have had a knock-on impact. Cambridge also went from having a Tesco in town (where the City Council’s housing department now is, originally a branch of Herbert Robinson the motoring company), to four very large supermarkets that now dominate the town. Fulbourn, Newmarket Road, Milton and Bar Hill. At the peak of the boom of the last decade, it was estimated that £1 in every £10 was spent at Tesco – though that figure varied. It’s only been in more recent years that I’ve notice supermarkets playing a more prominent role employing their own community development workers to help organise and sponsor community events.


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