Digitising and opening up the history of Cambridge (the town)


Taking advantage of leaps and bounds in communications technologies as applied to the field of history to find and share more of our civic and social histories. (I’m scanning and uploading images of v old books and pamphlets I’m buying off various websites to https://archive.org/details/@antony_carpen&tab=uploads)

Just over a decade ago, Margaret Thatcher was invited to unveil a new statue of the poet Rupert Brooke in Granchester, just outside of Cambridge. So when I started going through a copy of a collection of his letters, put together by one of his closest friends, Geoffrey, the younger son of Florence Ada Keynes, I was surprised to find he wasn’t this great Conservative hero that the unveiling of such a statue might give the impression of. As it turns out, he wasn’t much of a fan of the Tories at all.

The third of the images finishes with him raging in capitals: \


…on the back of having driven lots of liberal voters to the ballot box only to find his Tory opponents had more cars and drivers than he did. So when I stumbled across the existence of a transcribed speech he gave in Cambridge on ‘Democracy and the Arts’, I bought a copy of it. This is Rupert Brooke on the need for land reform.

180829 Rupert Brook on democratizing the land 1910

Note this was before the Russian Revolution and the collectivisation policies that were implemented there – with the huge loss of life. (The issue of land rights has not gone away either – as http://tlio.org.uk/ shows. Furthermore, the ongoing housing crisis is forcing policy makers to look at land reform given the failure of everything else they’ve tried.)

Democracy and the Arts

There are still some original copies doing the rounds online. But I’ve gone and digitised and uploaded my copy of the original speech to the Internet Archive, which you can read here. It’s a fascinating read, even now. Remember the context he was writing in was before the emergence of ‘big state’ as a provider of public services that we know today. One of the big political fights going on at the time was on increasing the role of the state through local government to provide more public services, and figuring out a means of providing for this. Also, at the time of making this speech, he was still only 23 years old. Four years later, Brooke would be fighting in the Royal Naval Division at the Siege of Antwerp. As this article explains, some of the myths that built up around Brooke were the result of the trustees of his estate withholding a host of materials, some of which have only recently come to light. A number of Brooke’s works are also in the Cambridge University Library. Hence one of the issues with the study of history generally is accessibility. It can’t be ‘re-writing history’ if the history was already written but hardly anyone had access to the primary sources! Hence the importance from my perspective of digitising and sharing (both publishing online and publicising) historical finds.

Not just bits of paper

Bits of metal too.

Other than ***Oooh! Bit of old Cambridge town!*** that I noticed, regular readers of this blog may recall I’ve written about the Cambridge Working Men’s Club and how it was founded – see here if you missed it – turns out the driving force behind the creation of the institution was Ellice Hopkins. No Ellice Hopkins, no Cambridge Working Men’s Club and no medal for Puffles to acquire in the 21st Century. So after a few exchanges as where best to deposit it…

…I’ll be taking it over to the Cambridge Museum of Technology for them to make best use of when they re-open in 2019 following a big Heritage Lottery Fund award.

Scrapbooks and miscellaneous files in archives….

…are the ones that seem to come up with the most interesting finds – as many an archivist will tell you.


The prints of this coat of arms from the scrapbook of the former town clerks of Cambridge are a particularly wonderful find. Below is an invitation to Borough Librarian John Pink to the opening of the Mill Road Library.


Without John Pink we’d have had a minimal record of the town, civic and social history of Cambridge. He genuinely was the founding father of our public libraries in town. Sad to say that national restructures of local government took the function away from the town and gave it to the county, where it has faced repeated cuts from successive Conservative and Conservative-led councils to the extent that the archives service alone is “Effectively operating at its statutory minimum“. (Hence the Cambridgeshire Collection needing all the support it can get).

Existing books on Cambridge history

There are a number of existing publications that have benefited from the Cambridgeshire Collection – such as Chris Elliott’s book Cambridge: The Story of a City and Mike Petty’s Images of Cambridge which both are useful introductions to people not familiar with town history. But inevitably – and this is no fault of the authors, there is no way they could have avoided references to Cambridge University and its colleges. Given limited page space and the huge presence of the colleges, the town history inevitably gets squeezed out.

With Mike’s book being first published in 1994, and Chris’s book being first published in 2001, neither would have benefitted from the leaps and bounds in communications technologies since the Millennium. The ability to do keyword searches in the British Newspaper Archive even on the very limited number of Cambridge newspapers that have been scanned, has already opened up a wealth of information previously lost to the sands of time.

Putting some historical substance onto the historical skeleton

This is where we as a city are collectively. The work by museums such as the Museum of Cambridge and the Museum of Technology mentioned earlier, and projects such as Capturing Cambridge, and groups such as the Mill Road History Society, and the Cambs Association for Local History, have gotten us to this point. And on shoestring budgets. HistoryWorks gives us a glimpse of some of the things that we could be doing more of with modern media. (See videos of some of their projects here).

But in order to step things up as far as town and civic history in Cambridge is concerned, I think we need one of these.





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