Eglantyne Jebb’s history of 19th Century Cambridge – and the impact of huge population growth without the competent civic authorities to manage that growth
Even today, many people outside the city still associate Cambridge with a university that bears the name of the town that was there before it. History tells us there was a town long before the clerics and academics rocked up from Oxford. At the start of the 19th Century, Cambridge’s population was just under 10,000. By the end of the century it was over 40,000.
In her ground-breaking book “Cambridge: A brief study of social questions” published in 1906, Eglantyne, who remember was a graduate in history from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, wrote an extensive summary of the history of Cambridge the town in the 19th Century. What’s significant about her being the author is that many of the people in her social circle will have been some of the decision makers in Cambridge who were wrestling with the issues the town was struggling to cope with. Over two blogposts, I transcribed what she wrote in Chapter 2 of her book. The text reads as follows:
The Beginnings of The New Cambridge
“At the end of this work are two maps. These maps serve to show us at a glance the nature of the problems before us. The first illustrates the growth of Cambridge. It shows us that, as has already been said, a new town has come into existence during the course of the last century.
“In the history of our town we have a reflection in miniature of the social history of our country. The fundamental fact to which we trace back so many of our present problems is the increase of our urban population. The change has been stated thus : ” Today 77 per cent, of the whole population is living in towns, and only 23 per cent, in the country ; whereas even so little as fifty years ago the proportion was reversed.” In Cambridgeshire during the same period, though the population as a whole has but slightly increased, the urban population has trebled. This fact is in itself of serious import.
“A people habituated for hundreds of years to country life has had to adapt itself to a new environment and to new habits of life. It was impossible that the new town should spring up without the danger of grave evils accompanying its growth.Moreover, the transition from rural to urban conditions began to take place at a time when it could not fail to have deleterious results, because it was made under most unfavourable circumstances. Where a large number of persons are living massed together in a narrow space, it is only by knowledge, co-operation, effort, and the exercise of ingenuity that their life can be made in any way tolerable.
“A man cannot, for instance, simply by stepping outside his own door find himself drinking in the pure air in a realm constantly sweetened and purified by the beneficent action of nature ; he cannot take his bucket to the nearest brook for unlimited supplies of fresh water. Unpolluted air, pure water, wholesome surroundings, those things which are so essential to man, and which we are apt to regard as coming to him naturally and belonging to him by right, come to him by no means naturally in a town : he cannot obtain them for himself. He must owe them to the efforts of his fellow-townsmen ; they must be provided by corporate action. If they are not so provided he must go without them ; and what is true as regards such obvious things as these, is true also in varying degrees in numberless other instances.
“But in the beginning of the last century, when Cambridge began to grow with some rapidity, the simplest methods for rendering town life healthy and conducive to social welfare were very generally neglected or ignored. These methods required scientific knowledge, and ignorance prevailed. They required united action, and there was but little sense of corporate responsibility. The evils which attended the growth of the slums might have been mitigated through the working of an active spirit of philanthropy, or by the constraining power of high civic ideals, but both were alike lacking.
“The part generally taken by the philanthropist of the time is described for us in the terse entries which we occasionally meet with in Cooper’s Annals.
” In such and such a year a subscription was made for the relief of the poor in Cambridge and the neighbourhood.”
Doles, however, were powerless to remedy the real causes of suffering, if, indeed, they did not aggravate them. The part taken by the municipal authorities must be considered at greater length.
“The particulars are furnished by the report of the Commissioners, who, in the year 1833, held an enquiry into the state of municipal affairs at Cambridge, while popular feeling on the subject is illustrated by the sketch which forms the frontispiece to this volume, the work probably of some local caricaturist.
“The population of the town exceeded 20,000, but its government was vested in a small body of “freemen,” who numbered at that time 158, but of whom only 118 were resident. These men had in the previous fourteen years spent £480 0s. 11(2. out of the public funds for public purposes, and for dinners £1300. The funds of charities had been misappropriated, some of them had entirely disappeared and were lost to the town for ever. Corporate property had been alienated to members of the corporation. If it had not been for these alienations Cambridge would have been one of the richest corporations in England. One alderman had bought for a guinea land worth £150; another purchased for £40 two acres of land on the Hills Road which fetched £400 the following year. Some property in Bridge Street was leased on fines amounting to about £200, and for a rent of about £23; this property was improved by the erection of a small summer-house and sold for £3750. But it is unnecessary to multiply instances.
“The most notorious case was the sale of what shortly became the Regent Street frontage for a sum of £21 — a sale which was ” the signal for a general scramble among the corporators for waste land.” “As it was only corporation property ” explained a Common Council-man, who had had a voice in fixing the prices at which such land was sold, “I would not make the same calculation for a stranger as for a friend. I would make a little difference, and sometimes a great difference, in favour of a friend — because it was only corporation property ” ! He actually went on to say to the commissioners that he thought the corporation had a right to expend their income on themselves and their friends without being bound to apply any part of it for the good of the town. And though his colleagues disclaimed any such view, it was perhaps not without some degree of justice that the corporation was subsequently described as having been “uniformly hostile or indifferent to the interests of the town at large.”
The bridges were unsafe, the common quays dilapidated, the cattle market in St. Andrew’s Hill “oftentimes almost impassable,” there was no market house, and the market, having greatly increased, extended into all the streets adjoining the market place, to the great inconvenience of the inhabitants.
“They were under the care of the Council, and Coe Fen was cited as an instance of the way in which they fulfilled their duties. The mire there came up to the horses’ knees, and the medical men considered that if the common were not drained it would be fatal to the health of the town. It was therefore drained by subscription at a cost of £150, to which the corporation “liberally” contributed £10! The corporation also contributed £10 per annum (and the university about £1200) for the paving and lighting of the town. The police were inefficient and the magistracy were not respected. Professor Sedgwick, in narrating his experiences as senior proctor, said that he considered the police duties, both of the town and of the university, fell exclusively on him and his colleagues during term. He received no assistance from the magistrates, and, generally speaking, he never saw any indication of a street police. In short, the duties which the corporation acknowledged towards the town, little onerous as they appear to us now, had been greatly neglected.
“In the absence therefore of either civic or philanthropic effort directed to the improvement of social conditions, the new town began to grow up in a haphazard way, little care being taken to render it habitable. It grew up, as we have seen, round about the old country roads. At the same time new cottages were crammed into the available corners of the old town, and its courts and alleys were packed with a denser population ; and while the network of small streets spread further and further, questions such as those of drainage and water-supply were for a long time left to solve themselves.
“Under these circumstances the lot of the poor was wretchedly miserable, and if we wish to form some idea of the accommodation which was accepted as fitting for the working classes, there are still in Cambridge places from which we can judge of it. In some parts the streets are so close together that one would naturally think that the space between them was accounted for by the back gardens of the houses, and the passer-by would scarcely notice the low arches and narrow passages which give access to the huddled cottages in the intervening area. In one place, for instance, where there are two streets not more than 210 feet apart, there are not one, but two, intervening lines of cottages built between the houses facing on either street. The tangle of little cottages is more like a rabbit-warren than anything else.
“Even as late as 1849 it was calculated that one- sixth of the population of the town was living in small courts, alleys, or yards, many under conditions of terrible overcrowding, many in houses without drainage, without ventilation, without a water-supply.
“The report issued in that year to the General Board of Health reveals a state of things almost incredible to us now. At that time the Cambridge Improvement Commissioners (a body which was incorporated in 1788 and continued to exist till 1890) looked after the drains and sewers of the town, and were responsible for its paving, cleansing, lighting, etc. In 1819, however, a large area was still practically undrained. Over a period of twenty-five years previous to the enquiry, sewers had been constructed bit by bit, but on no general plan, and without the assistance of an engineer ; and ” although ” (to quote the report) “sewers exceeding two and a half miles have been constructed, from some circumstances unexplained they have not as yet been rendered generally available for the reception of house sewage.”
“The outfall of such sewers as there were was into the Cam, and fever of a typhus character constantly prevailed in the neighbourhood of the principal outfall at Quay Side. The scavengering of the town was given out to contract, and as it was to the contractor’s interest to do as little as possible the work resolved itself into little more than sweeping the paved streets with brooms. Many of the yards and streets, however, were not only unpaved but without a foot pavement; the inhabitants waded through mud and dirt to their houses, and they were practically without means of removing the heaps of refuse which accumulated in the courts.
“In the numerous cut de sacs the bad air remained stagnant, and often they were so narrow that light was wanting as well as ventilation. Large ponds in some of the yards and streets formed receptacles for dead dogs and cats. Drinking water was obtained from pumps, Artesian wells, Hobson’s conduit, and the Trinity College water-works. That derived from pumps must generally have been polluted. In some places, moreover, the inhabitants actually had to fetch it from a distance of more than a quarter of a mile ; in others they could obtain it on condition of buying coals or beer from the owner of the pump from which they drew it. Purity of water does not seem to have been much thought of. The parish pump was usually near the church. In the view of Trinity Church, printed for Ackermann’s ” History of Cambridge ” in 1815, a woman is represented pumping water from a pipe in the wall of the churchyard.
“Typhoid and scarlet fever, smallpox and cholera were the natural results of the condition of the town. In some parts of it fever constantly prevailed. “I feel it incumbent on me to state,” wrote the superintending inspector in 1849, ” that the sanitary condition of numerous courts and places is so wretched as to be a disgrace to humanity, and still more so to civilisation ; and I believe it next to an impossibility for their inhabitants to be healthy, cleanly, or even moral.”
Such were the beginnings of the new Cambridge.”
You can read the whole book online – digitised on the Internet Archive here.