Local residents, town-based students and young people protested throughout the 1980s at the closure of many of Cambridge’s town arts and music venues – at a time when Cambridge University and institutions saw us townfolk as about as welcome as the bubonic plague. With political and university authorities doing little in their eyes at a time of national political strife, young people decided enough was enough – and took direct action.
Above: From the Cambridgeshire Collection, a report from the Cambridge News of unrest on East Road, Cambridge, where violence erupted at the derelict Cycle King Warehouse (long since demolished).
Cambridge was losing venues hand over fist in the post war era. At various points, we lost:
- The Dorothy Cafe and Ballroom
- The YMCA/Alexandra Hall
- The Victoria Cinema
- The Kinema on Mill Road
- The Playhouse on Mill Road
- The bowling alley on Mill Road
- Beaconsfield Hall, Romsey
- Romsey Labour Club
- The Carioca
- …amongst other places.
At the same time, a number of churches were also closing their doors due to declining congregations – in part driven by slum clearances and the movement of people out to the new housing estates in places like Arbury, King’s Hedges and Coleridge wards. The population density of these estates was lower than the central slums that the likes of Eglantyne Jebb and Ellice Hopkins described in their books of 1906 and 1884 respectively. There was a risk that the Cambridge Corn Exchange might also close due to the cost of renovating it, while the much-publicised concert halls of the new Lion Yard failed to materialise – rather the periodically rebranded nightclub that is today Ballare was what they got instead.
Another night club bites the dust – in a ball of fire
Columnist and BBC Cambridgeshire radio presenter Christopher South had a column in the newspaper in those days, and wrote about the Primitive Methodist Tabernacle on Newmarket Road that was later converted into a night club called the Carioca – which burnt down in 1983 in suspicious circumstances.
Mike Petty quoted some of Christopher South’s comments in his cuttings guide for Newmarket Road.
“After more than a century of almost unremitting dreariness the Methodist Tabernacle in Newmarket Road is being pulled down. The hideous old bulk of a chapel wore sunlight like a shroud. The foundation stone was laid in 1876 but within 14 years the congregation shrank and in 1909 there was talk of selling it. It struggled on and in 1941 was given over to the storage of furniture. Later it became the Carioca nightclub and its face daubed with appalling blue and orange paint.” [Mike Petty’s archive]
Shortly after the occupation, the building was demolished.
The leader of Cambridge City Council, Chris Howard (Lab – Cherry Hinton) is quoted in the article above, but the building at the time was county council property – having been compulsorily purchased for the purposes of widening East Road to create a dual carriageway. Howard put some of the blame on slow-moving county councillors – though note that the ruling Conservative administration had lost control of the county council earlier that year to the SDP/Liberal alliance in local elections. You can see who the city councillors (and their city-based county counterparts) were on the Cambridge Elections website here, constructed by the late Colin Rosenstiel and maintained by Keith Edkins.
This was also a time when Cambridge Conservatives were still active (Robert Rhodes James, the MP for Cambridge was the last Conservative to represent the city in Parliament) – and they had their own extremists to deal with.
Of all the hills to stick your political flag on in Cambridge…Note in those days they published full addresses too.
“Recap is a non-political organisation.” Yeah right. You want to give the state power to execute people. How much more political can you get? Councillor Graham Edwards (Cons – Queen Edith’s) who was one of the last Conservative councillors to serve on Cambridge City Council, sent a letter back to the ReCap group telling them where to go. Half a century earlier and Cambridge Labour was fighting off infiltration from the communists, which is a story in itself.
‘Tell us what you want, what you really really want!”
Cllr Chris Howard convened a meeting of interested and concerned parties to try and come up with some solutions – one of which was to make the large hall in the Cambridge Guildhall complex open to young people. A couple of weeks later and the first rock concert was played there following the occupation. At the same time, the Cambridge News wrote an op-ed deploring the lack of amenities for young people and for the city in general
Opinion: Cambridge Evening News in December 1985 calling for far better leisure and entertainment facilities. As far as the city centre goes, we’re still waiting over 30 years later.
This was followed up by more highly publicised meetings.
One of the causes of tension was that Cambridge University and Colleges put on their own closed entertainments that barred townsfolk. Given that this was in the middle of Margaret Thatcher’s cuts to public services – which hit Cambridge hard, the inequalities were very visible to the general public. In those days, the statistic we were taught at school in the mid-1990s was that 40% of Cambridge’s economy was in the health or education sectors. The domination of high-tech and life sciences is actually a much more recent phenomenon than many people realise.
Proposals for a new night club – 1986
****Give us our upside down flying saucer you scoundrels!!!!****
The plan was to turn the underpass on the south side of Elizabeth Way Bridge/Newmarket Road Junction into a night club.
But Cambridgeshire County Council said ‘no’ – and it was their roundabout.
To cut a long story short, one of the areas of town that was available was the derelict Cattle Market site that was about to be closed in its entirety and left for dead for the next fifteen years. Today, it’s the site of the bland, corporate Cambridge Leisure Park owned by Land Securities.
The Cattle Market identified
The Cattle Market – a functioning livestock market was built just south of the railway bridge over Hills Road by the junction of Cherry Hinton Road. Prior to that, until the end of the 1800s livestock was brought into the centre of Cambridge to be traded. So you can see why they moved it all out of the town centre. When it was built, that part of town was still largely countryside, though new homes on ‘The Rock Estate’ were being built. At the bottom of the hill of Cherry Hinton Road was the Rock Dairy – providing milk for town and gown. By the late 1970s many of the old railway buildings had been cleared to make way for a very rough piece of waste ground that was rebranded as the Park and Ride. I’m old enough to remember being driven up there in the family car to get on the bus into town as it was cheaper than to get a normal bus there and back, and cheaper than parking in the town centre. Remember this was recession UK mid-1980s. Everyone was having sand kicked in their faces in Cambridge – even the affluent, which explains why the city’s Conservative Party utterly imploded in the 1990s following decline from the top in the 1980s.
There was enough space on the plot of derelict former railway land for both a new nightclub and the park and ride. One of the benefits of having the night club built was that it enabled the proper resurfacing of the half the site of the car park.
The Junction itself wasn’t something that the local councils splashed out huge amounts of money on. Look at the original building today and you’ll see it is basically a square building made of concrete blocks with a roof plonked on top of it. This was the days before lottery grants that covered much of the cost of the extensions. But it did the essentials and as a result became one of the main nightclub venues of the 1990s, as well as the city venue for up-and-coming bands and artists.
Don’t forget that it was the town’s teenagers that got us this venue
It might not be fashionable to say it, but those teenagers and young adults who campaigned and protested against the decline of arts and music in Cambridge showed a huge amount of courage in the face of a very hard-hitting recession. They were the ones that did the peaceful campaigning at the start, organising the fund raising concerts and protest gigs, and were also the ones that stood up to be counted when politicians and adults refused to listen to them. The occupation wasn’t a standalone event as the newspapers of the time indicate – there was a long lead up to get to that point.
I’m not going to pretend that all of the young people at the time were angels in the 1980s. Neither was my generation a decade later – where the issue became one of clamping down on underage drinking that had the unforeseen impact of driving the teenagers of the 1990s (including me) into the hands of drug dealers because dealers didn’t ask you for ID before selling you their products. A quarter of a century later and one of Puffles’ academic chums on Twitter, Dr Suzi Gage is leading on a project called Say Why To Drugs as part of her research into substance abuse and mental health.
The 1980s and 1990s were a time of huge social and economic change in Cambridge. The city that you see today is in part the result of the social activism of the teenagers and young people of those decades. As local historians it’s important we record this.