Being reminded what things were like when you had to pay for everything – while grappling with new technologies


Plotting out which long lost institutions laid the foundations for the public services that we take for granted today.

For those of you who read my previous blogpost, I set out the journey from primitive small state to the place we’re in today – something I feel is going to change again in within the next decade or so.

In order to get to the starting line where (For me at least) things get interesting, I have to do what Eglantyne Jebb did in her study of poverty and multiple deprivation in Cambridge back in 1906 – she spent the first two chapters explaining what happened between 1800-1900 (you can read them here).

180730 Eglantyne Jebb Cambs Collection_2 Small Pic

Civic hero: Eglantyne Jebb, who founded Save the Children. (Cambs Collection)

In my case, I need to go into more detail because some of the institutions that Eglantyne’s audience would have been familiar with are ones that my audience today may not be familiar with – for example the Cambridge Town Association and the Cambridge Improvement Commissioners.

The Cambridge Town Association

This seems to have been a business association that was just as much about socialising as it was about improving things for the business community in town.

470116 Cambridge Town Association_1

Above- from the British Newspaper Archive.

470116 Cambridge Town Association_3

Looking at their accounts, much of their expenditure is spent on prosecuting those who had committed offences against member businesses.. They weren’t the only such group established in town in the mid-1800s.

491229 Cambridge Assoc Prosecution of Felons 1849 founded 1839

Founded in 1839, the local association for the prosecution of thieves and felons was founded. And not without precedence. Theft of livestock was clearly a big issue in Cambridge remembering that in the early 1800s the population was under 10,000. We know this because Eglantyne Jebb taught us this in her book. But in 1795, Cambridgeshire had its own association for dealing with horse and sheep thieves and other associated felons, vagabonds, rogues, and ne’er do-wells.

950613 Camb Assoc for prosecuting horse thieves and felons 1795

The pub has since been absorbed into King’s College according to Pub History, but the Gotobed family – or surname is one that pops up throughout the 1800s. As it should as according to another website the surname originates from these parts at a time when most people didn’t have beds to sleep in.

“Hang on a minute – why did they have to pay for the prosecutions?”

That’s the first thing that struck me when reading the article – why was business spending so much on legal fees? But then we remember that this is the mid-1800s, and the communications revolution facilitated not just by the railways, but also by the telegraph (a sort of text messaging but using really thick wires using really heavy kit that you can’t take with you) was still in its early days. Thus local towns and villages did not benefit from the munificence of big state spending big sums. At the same time it was also around the time when the very wealthy did not pay much in the way of tax on income (or tax generally) at all.

Improvement Commissioners – Parliament-approved chaps who improved things

It’s very rare to find pieces of legislation being tabled in Parliament (particularly primary legislation) being concerned with a single municipality. But before modern local government, the way that large projects could be undertaken was for the backers of said project to obtain an Act of Parliament to gain the necessary powers to carry out a given project. This was the case with the railways – and still is with High Speed 2. Amongst other things this gives the company promoting the project the powers to raise the money, and the authority to acquire land on which to build on. What it doesn’t guarantee however, is success.

Prior to the more efficient functioning of modern local councils – first formed following the 1835 Municipal Councils Act, the standard approach was for Parliament to approve the creation of improvement commissioners (as explained by Parliament here) who could raise money locally to pay for whatever improvements were authorised in the legislation.

What made things more complicated in Cambridge was the presence of the University and its colleges – who didn’t like the idea of being compelled to pay for stuff. The 1800s in particular marked an era of conflict between university, ecclesiastical and secular local governmental institutions as to who had jurisdiction over whom. Again, these were only resolved through Acts of Parliament – and not before a scandalous front-page-headline or three had been printed. One such comical case around this time was that of Edward Smith of Fen Ditton, who succeeded in making ecclesiastical authorities looking very foolish (despite the excruciatingly high fine) that led to a change in the law and the removal of the church authorities’ powers in this area.

Roads, sewers and paving

One part that I’ve still got to get my head around is the use of varying terminology over the centuries. The Corporation of Cambridge, Cambridge Improvement Commissioners, Cambridge burgesses, Cambridge borough councillors, Cambridge County Councillors, Cambridgeshire County Councillors – it’s almost as confusing as today’s set up.

As mentioned in my previous blogpost, things like roads and sewers were paid for by local authorities taxing people who could afford to be taxed – the rate payers. In at least two points in Cambridge’s history, the rate payers managed to club together to form a local ratepayers association – I’ve found evidence of one in 1883 (below) and another in 1907.

830331 Cambridge Ratepayers Assoc of 1883

This was at the time the Liberals and the Tories were tearing lumps out of each other politically. Young Conservatives at the time had a particularly nasty habit of smashing stuff up around election time, or paying street drinkers and vagrants to get absolutely hammered then standing back and watching them unleash their violence. Even when they won the seat of Cambridge in the 1885 general election they still went round to the Cambridge Reform Club on Green Street and smashed up the properties and premises of various prominent town Liberals. Five years earlier they had prevented Cardinal Manning and co from making the case for temperance, shouting him out of the Guildhall large hall in 1880. (This is the same hall that Cambridge still uses today for election counts!)

The model of local accountability.

I covered this in an earlier blogpost but it is relevant here: before the First World War local residents knew exactly who ran the town. Every year a civic guide was published describing who did what – and furnishing them with the contact details lest you desired to go round the house of the Chief Constable or the Borough Member of Parliament to give him (it was chaps only in those days) a piece of your mind. This is what Cambridge was like in 1913 – the year Eglantyne departed from Cambridge to volunteer as a nurse in the Balkan Wars.

The most important thing was that the decision maker for each of the major public services was listed – all the way down to the head teacher of the local primary schools, and all the way up to the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

Had war not broken out…

…it is quite possible that this model of local government could have developed further as both the working classes and women agitated for more political power (not just the vote) but also substantial improvements in public services – which at a time of extreme inequality in the Edwardian period meant getting the rich to pay their share.

Technological change alongside the growth of the state

We’re going through our own age of huge technological change – we only have to think about the impact of The Internet and mobile communications over the past twenty years to realise how far we have come. Yesterday while moving stuff around in the loft, I found a folder from my final year in secondary school from the mid-1990s. On the inside folder was the name and local home phone number of lots of friends from school. Today, if people want to get in touch with me they normally use a social media channel that I generally pick up on a mobile. I very rarely use phones to speak into. 20 years ago my siblings complained about the phone not stopping ringing.

Looking at the 100 years Eglantyne was looking at in the run up to her study, they were going from a time when Napoleon had just been defeated, to where experiments with internal combustion engines were being made to power war machines (ships, tanks/armoured cars and aircraft) that would, amongst other things transform the UK’s foreign policy – in particular regarding the Middle East where large deposits of crude oil were known to exist. We’re still living with those consequences.

The point here is that technological changes required the development of new infrastructure to facilitate it. For example the development of gas, and the positive impact of modern street lighting in part led to the construction of the gas works on Newmarket Road.

Cambridge Gas Works

Cambridge Gas Works, with the Sewage Pumping Station next door. The former is now a supermarket (they should have saved one of the big gas holders for local history’s sake) and the latter is now the Cambridge Museum of Technology. (From Britain From Above)

When you get new technologies, it always takes time for the law to catch up – especially with safety. In the case of gas safety, Cambridge learnt the hard way when the largest of the gas holders caught fire in 1869. This was the result. But then perhaps we can say the same with social media today and the investigations on the misuse of online technologies to influence elections in a clandestine manner.

Now: How do you map all of that and arrange it in a way where it reads as a compelling story?


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