The Annals of Cambridge – Charles Henry Cooper’s comprehensive record of our city

If you have the time and the patience, the history of Cambridge up to the year 1857 compiled by the Town Clerk covers pretty much everything there is to know.

One of the greatest men to ever serve Cambridge town and gown was Charles Henry Cooper. He was both our town clerk (today, the Chief Executive of Cambridge City Council only with more responsibilities and a higher profile) and our borough coroner. It was in his role in the latter when he slammed Cambridge University over the existence of The Spinning House – the University’s private prison where it unlawfully locked up women without trial who it suspected of being sex workers, that in my view makes him one of our civic heroes – and that is aside from the huge amount of work he did to compile the five volumes of the Annals of Cambridge – various institutions having digitised and uploaded them to the Internet Archive.

The volumes and the years they cover are:

…and cumulatively they run into thousands of pages.

Professor Helen Cam’s summary

Professor Helen Cam was the first woman to be appointed a professor at Harvard University – headhunted from Girton College, Cambridge.

480508 HelenMaudCam to Harvard

Lost Cambridge Hero – Professor Helen Cam. From the British Newspaper Archive.

Professor Cam’s history of Cambridge the town was part of a commission for the Victoria County History Project, a memorial to Queen Victoria and one of the longest running historical commissions ever. It is still going. While all the men in the colleges of Cambridge (bar Newnham and Girton) divided up the college histories between them, it was left to Professor Cam to write the history of Cambridge the town. Which she did splendidly in about 150 pages. Click on the link above if you want to read it.

The Cambridge Antiquarian Society

One of the least well-known but one of the most important and longest running of civic societies in Cambridge is the Cambridge Antiquarian Society. Both Professor Helen Cam and Mr Cooper were members and contributors to its annual publications. The study of all things antiquarian was incredibly popular in Victorian and Edwardian times, and people as influential as John Venn (inventor of the Venn diagram) to Eglantyne Jebb (you know who she is) were members. News from their meetings and events would be featured extensively in local newspapers.

How to read Cooper’s work with the British Newspaper Archive

The first thing to remember with Charles Henry Cooper is the time that he was writing in. It was a time of significant social and economic change. Cooper’s remarks on the Spinning House case with Elizabeth Howe’s inquest give us a sense of what Cooper considered standards to be so low as to be incompatible with this new, exciting and progressive era of scientific discovery and moral enlightenment they were living in.

Essentially it’s a case of going to the contents which list the entries chronologically and pick out the headlines that interest you. So if we take Volume 4 and the year 1836 here, we find that Cooper has stated that this was the year the Borough of Cambridge established a police force for the town.

360301 Camcitco watch cttee appoints first police 1836 Cooper IV

Above – from Annals of Cambridge Vol. 4 by Charles Henry Cooper

This entry tells us that what is now Cambridge City Council established a police force for the town using powers granted by Parliament under a new piece of legislation – The Municipal Corporations Act 1835. The concept of Parliament passing enabling legislation for new public sector organisations is an important one – it underpins so many of the public services of today. You can draw a direct historical line from this piece of legislation to the Great Reform Act of 1832 and through to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. The Municipal Corporations Act was the start of modern local government. It is that significant.

It was also a result of the Municipal Corporations Act that the borough councillors were able to commission and establish Cambridge’s first police station – which I wrote about here. The dates that Cooper gives means either through purchasing your own subscription, or going to a public library (which generally have corporate subscriptions that the public can use) you can search the British Newspaper Archive to see what was written at the time. In the case of Cambridge’s new police force, we have the announcement of the site of the first police station – by the river.

360513 First police advert Cambridge 1836

…and we also have…

…an invitation to tailors to provide the first police uniforms.

380203 Police uniform tenders 1838

Both from the British Newspaper Archive.

The theme throughout the mid-late 1800s is one of Parliament passing enabling legislation and the borough council responding one way or another on how to implement its requirements. This is how Cambridge got its public libraries – it was an Act of Parliament – the Libraries Act 1850. Cambridge was only the seventh borough to make use of that legislation – but it was the driving force of our first borough librarian, Lost Cambridge Hero John Pink, that created the libraries service and gave it such solid roots.

John Pink Cambridge Librarian FriendsOfCentralLibrary

Mr John Pink – a civic legend and founder of Cambridge’s first municipal library

Cambridge – protesting against foreign wars since 1775

The townfolk would be proved right – that war would continue at great cost for another eight years…and Britain would still lose.

Townfolk was also on the right side of history presenting a petition calling for the abolition of the slave trade on the back of a public meeting in Cambridge.

920210 Cambridge petition to House of Commons against Slave Trade 1792 Cooper IV

Mr Cooper even spotted actions by the university authorities which he knew would look awful in future times. In what was an account of Cambridge’s population (just 6,131 in 1749) shows that even in those times, conditions in the town gaol were horrific – even by the standards of the time.

490801 Population of Cambridge Gaol Town Crier Whip 1749 Cooper IV

…but it was the whipping of women that disturbed Mr Cooper, as the footnote below shows.

490801 Population of Cambridge Gaol Town Crier Whip_2 1749 Cooper IV

“Why didn’t anyone extend Coopers work to the present day?”

Good question. Perhaps it was the workload that was required, or demands of emerging technologies that created new burdens on local historians and librarians, or simply that local history ceased to be of interest in the face of major societal upheavals that were the two world wars. Given how much bookshelf space in bookshops is handed over to military history, it’s easy to forget that there are other areas of history that are all too easily forgotten. Local civic history is one of them.


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