The beginnings of New Cambridge in 1800s by Eglantyne Jebb: Part 2


Part 2 of Eglantyne’s chapter on the history of Cambridge the town in the 1800s. 

If you’ve not read Part 1, it’s here.

“To pull down some, at any rate, of the worst courts, to force on to improved lines the building of the town, to drain it, to provide it with water — these were amongst the tasks of the last half of the nineteenth century.

“The old corporation, alarmed by the enquiry of 1833, resolved to endeavour by “every lawful and constitutional means of resistance to defeat any design that might be in contemplation for wresting from them their ancient charters, liberties, and franchises.” In vain. The Municipal Reform Act of 1835 rescued the town from their domination, and vested its government in a Town Council representative of its citizens and responsible to them for the management of their affairs. The chief provisions of this Act have remained substantially unchanged to this day. It was codified with sixty other statutes in 1882, and legislation since that date has been concerned more with the powers than with the organisation of municipal bodies.

“The details of the municipal franchise cannot be entered into here, but, speaking very roughly for the sake of brevity, those men and women are burgesses who pay the rates, and are not in receipt of relief from them. Burgesses are entitled to vote in the municipal elections of their Ward, and they are, with the exception of women, qualified to hold office as councillors, aldermen, or mayor, Each Ward elects councillors, the number of whom must be either three or a multiple of three. Formerly Cambridge was divided into five Wards, each of which elected six candidates ; now it is divided into ten, each of which elected three, and, in addition, six university councillors are elected, two by the council of the senate, and four by the colleges and halls.

“The councillors in their turn elect aldermen in the proportion of one alderman to three councillors, and the council as a whole elects the mayor. The Cambridge Town Council therefore consists of forty-nine members, i.e., thirty -six councillors, twelve aldermen, and the mayor. The mayor holds office for one year, the councillors for three, the aldermen for six. The Council appoints the town clerk, the treasurer, and the other municipal officials. The Town Council exercises its powers through committees appointed for specific purposes, which have, however, to submit their actions for the approval of the Council as a whole. The Cambridge Town Council has fifteen such committees.

“The functions of the Town Council are increasingly numerous. Amongst others may be mentioned the appointment and supervision of the police, the execution of sanitary regulations under the Public Health Acts, the maintenance and improvement of thoroughfares and sewerage, the provision of a water supply, the establishment and maintenance of public buildings. It has wide powers as regards housing, and is now the local authority for elementary education.

“We are apt to accept, like the air we breathe, those advantages, some of which we inevitably profit by every day of our lives, and which we owe in part or entirely to municipal activity. This activity was, of course, at first directed to dealing with the more obvious and elementary needs of town life, such as the maintenance of order. Within seven months of its own appointment, and in spite of outcries about the expense, the Watch Committee had established the police force, which, under the supervision of this committee, has reached its present high state of efficiency.

“The maintenance of order has been further facilitated by successive improvements in the lighting of the streets, and, as time went on, the Iron band of the bye-laws began to force the disorderly growth of the town into some sort of symmetry. The later streets branching off the old country roads were laid out at intervals more monotonously regular, at right angles more cruelly exact. The poet Gray, when he spoke of “the quiet ugliness” of Cambridge, might have been speaking in prophecy about the now Cambridge of the era of the bye-laws.

“But this introduction of the ruler and measuring tape was, at any rate, a feeling after method, and it was accompanied by some real improvements ; the need of human beings for light and air was no longer suffered to be overlooked in the construction of their dwellings. Only, however, in recent years has the building of towns come to be looked upon as an art. The words ” garden city ” now make us dream of the possibility of building them in such away as to retain for their inhabitants some at least of the advantages of country life. Too late ! Our town is mostly built. We address ourselves to the task of undoing, rectifying, improving. Bit by bit it is to be hoped that the worst courts in Cambridge will be swept away. Some tenements facing within a few feet a high wall, and with no outlet at the back, will doubtless have disappeared before these pages are in the reader’s hands ; and perhaps as time goes on means may suggest themselves of making fresher and more beautiful our dreary wastes of small houses.

“Meanwhile, public health is safeguarded with a care which is constantly increasing, and is amply justified by its results. One of the greatest public works which has been carried out was the establishment in 1895 of a new sewerage system at the cost of about £155,000. A low-level system of sewers collects the sewage of the whole town, which is pumped to near the surface at a spot to the north-east of the town, and carried out to a sewage farm by an iron pipe two miles in length. We have also now a complete system for the house-to-house collection of refuse which is taken to the refuse destructor at the Sewage Pumping Station.

“Since 1855 the town has been supplied with water from wells at the foot of the Cherry Hinton Hills. The water from this source is of excellent quality, but some disquietude has recently arisen on account of the report issued to the Local Government Board with reference to the risk of its pollution by the sewage of Fulbourn Asylum. Regard is had to our milk and food supplies, with a view of detecting and preventing adulteration or contamination.

“Dairies are subjected to inspection, the market is visited by food inspectors, and the public analyst tests the samples submitted to him. A whole series of precautions also are directed against the spread of infectious diseases: compulsory notification, the isolation of patients at the Borough Infectious Diseases Hospital and elsewhere, school closure, pre- cautionary measures with regard to persons exposed to infection, disinfection, etc. As a result certain diseases have almost disappeared, while the average longevity of the working classes has greatly risen.

“The success of municipal government in dealing with the more pressing problems of town life, such as the maintenance of order, lighting, drainage, etc., has led to its sphere of action being constantly widened. The Free Library is an instance of what we owe to its activity in quite a different direction to those already indicated. Two years after the Public Libraries Act was passed in 1851, the Cambridge Town Council availed itself of the facilities it offered, and it would be difficult to overrate the benefit conferred on the town, not only by its central library but by its branches in different districts. The last great accession to the powers of the Town Council were those conferred in the matter of education by the Act of 1902.

“The new sense of citizenship which called into being our modern municipal institutions has, however, found expression in other spheres besides that of municipal activity. From the first the increase of the urban population made manifest the necessity for corporate action ; later, the growth of the slums provoked philanthropic effort on behalf of the distressed poor. Previously the lot of the urban poor had called forth little but hopeless commiseration; they were regarded as being placed under circumstances necessarily unhealthy and inevitably evil in their influence. With increasing population, however, the conditions of their lives became more and more intolerable, till this unpractical attitude had to give way under the pressure of accumulating troubles.

“In the middle of the century, when the evils of slum life had had time to bear their bitter fruit, there came an outburst of philanthropic activity. It is since that date that the greater number of our philanthropic societies have been started in Cambridge. And like most forms of progress the progress of philanthropic work is a progress of integration and differentiation, that is to say, our societies are year by year working in closer connection with each other, for we realise that they are only dealing with different aspects of the same problem, and that without each other their work is incomplete, while at the same time their number constantly increases as they specialise more and more on different lines, and work more exclusively for different immediate purposes.

“Thus from many sides our social problems are being attacked, and the following pages will give some idea of the wide ramifications of social work. Is therefore enough being done for the improvement of life in the town ? The rent map at the end of the book is designed to give some idea of the degrees of poverty and wealth in Cambridge. And if the first map indicated the way in which our problems originated, the second shows us the aspect they present to-day. The town is not only a new town : it is also poor.

The houses of the town have been divided into five classes according to their estimated rentals.

  • Class A contains houses with rentals over £50 per annum.
  • Class B contains houses with rentals over £25 and not more than £50.
  • Class C contains houses with rentals over £15 and not more than £25.
  • Class D contains houses with rentals over £8 and not more than £15.
  • Class E contains houses with rentals of not more than £8.

Eglantyne Jebb - 1906 Rental Map Cambridge Study in Social Questions

Above: Eglantyne’s rental map (right-click & open in new tab) which was produced for her by Gwen Darwin – a granddaughter of Charles Darwin the botanist. She became Gwen Raverat on marriage and would go on to become a highly regarded artist and woodcarver printer in her own right.

“The map shows the averages obtaining in the different streets. And it has been calculated as regards the municipal borough that about 7 per cent, of the total number of its houses belong to Class A, about 12 per cent, to Class B, about 15.5 per cent to Class C, about 44 per cent, to Class D, and about 21.5 per cent to Class E. It was necessary to include amongst the houses those used as shops, offices, etc., most of which naturally appear in Classes A, B, and C, making up indeed considerably over half the houses in the first class.

“In a place the size of Cambridge considerations of distance do not enhance the rents of certain localities quite so disproportionately as in larger towns, and this makes it more possible to take them as being roughly indicative of income, or more correctly, of expenditure. As, however, the income of a family cannot be very well taken as a proof of its wealth or its poverty, we should hardly be justified in calculating the proportion of the population occupying the different grades of houses and reckoning them as (1) rich, (2) well-to-do, (3) not poor, (4) poor, (5) very poor. Such a calculation would also involve the assumption that the average number of persons to a house was the same throughout all grades of society, the servants in the bigger houses counterbalancing the larger families and the lodgers in the cottages.

“Still, perhaps sufficient evidence is offered to hazard a few comments on an opinion which is sometimes advanced — that there is a largo leisured class in Cambridge and comparatively little poverty. Small as the proportion of wealth appears upon the map, it gives far too magnificent an idea of its diffusion, because the houses are built so much less closely in the richer than in the poorer quarters. The same length of street would often contain three times as many houses in the slums as in the suburbs. Moreover, if we count an average of under two servants to every house rented above £50 a year, it seems impossible that the richer classes in the occupation of these houses should constitute over 2 per cent, of the total population.

“This proportion may appear large when comparison is made with other towns, but when comparison is made with other classes in the same town it cannot appear anything but extremely small. And though the figures furnish no evidence as to the intensity of poverty, we should feel inclined to infer from them that we must have, at any rate, a vast amount of what is sometimes called secondary poverty. There must be a large proportion of people who, though they may not lack the necessaries of existence (at any rate during the prosperous periods of their lives), still struggle along on incomes which can hardly suffice, even when wisely spent, to do more than provide them with these.

“Yet even if distress were non-existent, it would not alter the fact that we are all as citizens bound to make the best of our town. The recognition of our duty towards our town, as our town, irrespective of the claim of suffering and poverty, is characteristic of the citizenship of the present age. It was, however, the urgency of our social problems which first called this new sense of citizenship into being, and which still remains the most pressing reason for not neglecting the duties it involves.

“If anyone thinks that enough is being done to ameliorate the lot of the poor, he should turn from the study of the map to the study of the town, and acquaint himself with the lives of its poorer citizens. Intimate knowledge at first hand and personal experience will furnish an argument far more powerful than any which can be put forward in writing or illustrated by a map. Children are being brought up here under circumstances which we should hardly tolerate were our own children concerned ; men and women are daily succumbing to temptations which we in similar case would be powerless to resist ; lives are being wrecked by the rigour of harsh facts, from the ruling of which our own more fortunate circumstances have saved us.

“In our streets we meet occasionally with pitiful caricatures of men and women, poor puny wastrels, starvelings, degenerates, on whose faces the dull suffering of hopelessness has left its indelible stamp, and we meet with many more to whom life has never brought its full heritage, creatures of stunted faculties, of wasted and misused gifts, of poor and mean experience, prisoners of their circumstances, ground down by the difficulties of their lot, or ruined by its dangers.

“Are there human beings incapable of being saved from degradation ? With most of us it is an article of our faith that there are not. Then why do we still see about our streets men and women whose very faces tell us how low we have allowed them to sink ? Some people devote their lives to combating the conditions under which our fellow-citizens succumb. Most of us look on. We shuffle off our responsibilities on to a blind destiny, or have the impiety to cloak our indifference in religious phrases.

“Yet if we fail to root out the evils in our midst, it is not the means, but the will that is lacking. In the past the cry of the suffering poor had to be loud indeed before it could penetrate to our ears. But the past also shows that whenever the sight of their misery galvanised us into activity, those evils which we pronounced intolerable were, in fact, swept away. Thus the wretchedness of the urban poor can no longer be taken for granted, or their circumstances be regarded as unalterable. These circumstances have been by no means arbitrarily and cruelly imposed upon us. We have created them ourselves, and are responsible for combating them.

“Indeed, so far from town life being necessarily deleterious, it is questioned whether, especially in a small town, it may not be made eminently favourable to social progress, as the race adapts itself to its new surroundings, and as these surroundings are modified to meet its needs.

“In our great cities the problems created by unmanageable numbers and by the extremes of poverty and wealth seem overwhelming. But in a small community many of the difficulties of larger towns do not exist; experiments may be tried with greater safety, and reforms more easily carried through. Nor have we the drawbacks which often render small agricultural centres so dead, alive and unprogressive, while to some extent it is still possible for us to combine the advantages of town and country. Under these circumstances it is open to us, if we will, to build up a town life more ideal perhaps than the world has yet seen.

“The work has been begun. The standard of life has certainly been raised, and very real advances made. And the measure of success which has been met with in the past condemns us to severer efforts in the future. “Now understand nie well,” wrote Walt Whitman, ” it is provided in the essence of things that for any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary,”

“This greater struggle will be to secure even to the poorest citizens a good chance of a good life : to have no more victims of our social and industrial organisation : to sweep away the circumstances which impose unnecessary suffering, and are injurious to the normal development of mind and body, which create almost irresistible temptations, and may lead to moral perdition. This is the aim of the new citizenship — that none but healthy conditions shall ultimately obtain in the town for which we are responsible.”


Eglantyne Jebb – who also founded the charity Save The Children, shortly after she arrived in Cambridge in the early 1900s.

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