The shambles of Cambridge Borough Council’s deliberations on a new guildhall in the 1890s

Cambridge could have had a much more ornate guildhall built in the Edwardian Baroque style had councillors gotten their act together in the 1890s. As it turned out, they would spend several more decades squabbling over designs before Florence Ada Keynes just got on and got the present one built in time for it to be used for World War 2. It didn’t make her popular though – the design was universally hated. But opponents had no alternative design to gather support around. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that demands on councils and council buildings would expand dramatically during and after the First World War as society demanded ‘homes fit for heroes’.

The article below is from the Cambridge Chronicle of Friday 16 September 1892, from the British Newspaper Archive here.

920916 Fawcett Guildhall Rejected 1892.jpeg

“The Guildhall and Building Committee reported that in accordance with the resolution the Council the 14th July last the Committee had interview with Mr. [William Milner] Fawcett, and finally directed him prepare elevation for the proposed alterations and additions to the Guildhall. This has been done and duly submitted for the approval of your Committee, who now beg to lay the same before the Council with the following recommendations: —

  1. That the elevations be adopted;
  2. That the Committee be authorised to invite tenders for carrying out the designs in such sections as they may be advised.

“Alderman Whitmore also proposed the adoption of this report. He said the matter had been many months—So might say years  before the Council, and, after various alterations, thought they had now got perfect set of plans. He did not think they could have a better building for the sum of money they had to lay out. It would be that was first decided to expend £16,000 but alterations were made in the plans, and it was resolved to expend £21,000 on the whole building, instead of £l6,000 on one portion.

“The proposition was seconded by Alderman Taylor.

“Alderman Finch said that everything except the elevation had practically been approved the Council. It was thought that the new building would compare favourably with others to the Town. 

“Alderman Balls stated that he must express his opinion that the elevation was very modest. [Hear, hear.] It was not very pretentious building, and he did not think it was a building which reflected much honour to Cambridge. [Hear, hear.] But he must say this on behalf of the Committee, that they were limited as to the outlay.  He wished the authorities of the town could see their way to expend more money upon the building. That was done for once and for ever pretty well, and an important town like Cambridge with such a large square, and with such an opportunity of showing off building well, would never boast, as a member of the Council for taking any credit for the building.

“Councillor Nichols could not help thinking that the front elevation was very meagre and not to the purpose. He thought the elevation was not worthy i town of Cambridge. [Hear, hear.] He moved, as an amendment, “That this matter be referred back to the Committee to consult the architect with a view improving the front elevation.”

“Ald. Deck seconded the amendment. He did not think that the elevation was of sufficient Importance for such a town as Cambridge. He believed the only thing they could do was to increase the grant and let the people have something worthy to look at. Towns of less size than Cambridge had far more handsome buildings.

“Councillor Campkin supposed if the report was carried the Council would committed irrevocably to the plans. Was it so? ,

“The Mayor: I think that position. The matter has been before so long. that it is desirable to get on with it as quickly as possible

“Councillor Campkin remarked that even if the plans were adopted they would spend a great deal more money than was at first expected.

“Councillor Spalding thought that some members objected not so much to the elevation as to the spending of the money. They ought to have a decent town hall, and they ought to consider the convenience and comfort of their officers.

“Alderman Balls observed that the Council had no desire to delay the work. There were only two courses they could take. One was to increase the grant, and the other was to keep the money that was allowed and intimate to the architect that perhaps he could improve the plans for the same outlay. He said it was no credit to the architect or to the town and he did not care to live to see such a miserable building. [Hear hear.]

“The Mayor: The Council has already passed the plans.

“Councillor Bond hoped that the disapproval did not refer to the plans of the building next to Guildhall Street. The feeling of the Council that they should have a more imposing front, and an expenditure of another £1,000 would accomplish that.

“Councillor Vinter stated that if it was contemplated to vote for an improvement of the frontage he would vote against the plans because he was not at all struck with them. He did not think the front worthy of the ancient Borough of Cambridge.

“Councillor Wootten: We have somewhere plans we paid £100 for. [Laughter.]

“The Mayor: That is not the question before the council

“Councillor Wootten said if the plans before them did not suit they had several below in the town clerk’s office, and they might have one of those up. [Laughter.] They had paid for no end of plans. The one before them was like an engine shed on the Great Eastern Railway. [Loud laughter.]

“Councillor S.L. Young remarked that he would rather the Council should pay an additional £5,000 for a better looking building, because it was to last for all time. It was not nice to see dormer windows facing a magnificent square they had. He hoped the Council would not tolerate them. [Hear, hear.]

“Councillor H.M. Taylor thought the frontage was too small for a really fine building.

“Councillor Bell believed the plans would work out better in material than on paper.

“The Mayor fully appreciated the feeling which had been expressed by the Council that the elevation towards the Market Place was not good enough or wide enough. The only reason why they could support the designs was that it was as much as they could expect for the sum voted by the Council.

“At the same time, if some more money could be devoted for the purposes of the building they might get something worthy of the position. He thought the building which they were now to put up should not be anything less than a creditable building. [Hear, hear]. He hoped if the matter went back to the Committee, the Committee would be authorised to have a better and grander design submitted to the Council, regardless of what the cost might be. He [The Mayor] quite agreed with Councillor Bell that they could not fairly judge the building from the drawing. In order to judge better they should have a perspective drawing, and he would like to see one submitted to the council. The amendment was then put to the meeting, and carried by a large majority.”


The design below from William Milner Fawcett was what was proposed. It did not cover the entire width of the Market Square – existing buildings formed part of that front, hence it appears much more narrow.


Above – William Milner Fawcett’s design for Cambridge Guildhall, 1892.

The design by Fawcett was rejected by councillors mainly on the grounds that it wasn’t grand enough. Six years later and councillors would reject the design below by John Belcher for Sir Horace Darwin, who commissioned it as Mayor of Cambridge in 1896/97.

181009 Colour Photo Belcher Unbuilt Guildhall Horace Darwin 1898 Cambs Collection1.1

Above – John Belcher’s design for a new guildhall in Cambridge – rejected in 1898.

The above design was rejected on the grounds that it was too expensive at a time when rate payers were still paying off the expenses of the town pumping station and sanitation system. You can see the pumping station in Cambridge with many of its original engines and furnaces at what is now the Cambridge Museum of Technology. The museum is also hosting a talk on the history of Cambridge Railway Station on 09 September, when author Rob Shorland Ball will be talking about his ground-breaking book on one of Cambridge’s finest buildings, and the neighbourhood around it.


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