Cambridge prepares for war – 1936-39: Part 2

Continuing from Part 1 here. The screenshots are from the Cambridgeshire Collection – please visit and support them because without our archives, we lose so much of our collective history.

Below the headline at the time of the Munich Crisis included a photo of the Mayor of Cambridge’s air raid shelter, along with the distribution of gas masks.



…with local residents in Chesterton on camera. And arrangements were made for fittings all over town.


Ronald Searle was called on to satirise things.


…which wasn’t easy given how anxious people were.


In the meantime, opposite the Zion Baptist Chapel were the first signs of sand bags.


Hastily assembled sandbags outside the old Drill Hall on East Road reflect the state of the town in late 1938, as open spaces near the premises of large employers – such as the old PYE works in Chesterton here, had workers digging air raid shelter trenches.


The crisis in almost real time

Going through the newspapers one after the other, you get the real sense of tension and crisis.

Yet when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich, he was praised.


This was Mr Chamberlain’s reception on his return to the UK.

…followed by an appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with The King.

But not everyone in Cambridge was convinced.


Above – Eva Hartree, Harris & Clara Rackham, Joseph & Dorothy Needham, Hugh Fraser & Jessie Stewart, (Frida’s parents) Francis Cornford amongst others signed a letter expressing their doubts, and calls for stronger measures to oppose the fascist aggressors. The Cambridgeshire Trades Council and Labour Party slammed the Conservatives for appeasing fascism, while Fanny Johnson, several decades before the press officer for the Cambridge Suffragists, praised the people of Czechoslovakia.

The part that surprised me was the news that volunteers from the UK were flown over to Central Europe to oversee the implementation of the Munich Agreement.


What an awful mission to have been asked to undertake. But it meant people couild put their gas masks away.


Left wing activists in the meantime stepped up moves towards friendship with the USSR.


…as locals were very quickly reminded of the nature of the regime Chamberlain had signed a treaty with.

381028 Nazis arrest Jews 1938

As a country, it was on the front pages. note too the further tensions between Britain and Japan with the HMS Sandpiper headline.

Into 1939 and a musical superstar arrives in Cambridge

The African American singer Paul Robeson arrived in Cambridge in 1939 for a concert at The Regal.


10 years later the National Union of Miners invited him to give a concert in Edinburgh.

…but the fears of air raids would not go away. Hence this double spread article and adverts.


…while a delegation from Spain told Cambridge about the realities of modern warfare.


…as deeper air raid shelters were dug on Midsummer Common.


Munich repudiated – war inevitable


…quickly followed by conscription for young men – mindful that the voting age was 21.


…as Ronald Searle tells one evil dictator to ‘talk to the hand’ because cricket is back!


…but the break didn’t last long. Searle was called up to join the Royal Engineers.


In the meantime, the Cambridge Corn Exchange hosted its most famous headline name ever, ever, ever. Winston rocked up.


Churchill at this time was still seen as a political outcast.


But not for long. Also that summer, the deposed president of Czechoslovakia was invited by the Liberal Party to their summer school in Cambridge.


It was on 24 August when it became clear war was inevitable.


…despite attempted reassurances.


The sand-bagged building is the old police station next to Mandela House – in those days the premises of Herbert Robinson’s motor store, one of the few modern buildings that also had a secure basement converted into an air raid shelter. The next day, evacuees from Islington and Tottenham in London arrived.


…as schools and colleges dug more trenches and air raid shelters. Below is the old Cambridge County High School for Boys – today’s Hills Road Sixth Form College.


Being so close to the railway station, the school was inevitably at risk. Anti aircraft guns were stationed on Hills Road Bridge according to Jack Overhill, a local swimmer, cobbler and diarist. Furthermore, the junction with Hills Road Bridge and Cherry Hinton Road was also fortified by the Home Guard as an important road junction to be defended in event of an invasion.

Yet the war did not stop Florence Ada Keynes from completing the new Guildhall.


…and despite its proximity where Cambridge would have made its last stand on Castle Hill in an invasion, the Cambridge and County Folk Museum acquired its wonderful Georgian shop window from demolished premises in Bridge Street – the window now part of the Enid Porter room of the Museum of Cambridge.


In the meantime, Cambridge carried on digging.


…sobbering given that around two years later, this corner of Parker’s Piece would be hit in an air raid that set the old Perse School for Boys in flames.

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