…and if so, what would it look and be like?
Anglia Ruskin University hosts the Labour History Research Unit in Cambridge, and I know a number of their staff. One of the things that has struck me about the unit and the local history scene in and around Cambridge is the amount of overlap there is as far as local political and civic history is concerned.
Furthermore, I’ve had a number of conversations with people about the lack of a large civic museum that tells the story of the City of Cambridge – the focus of the Museum of Cambridge being shaped as much as by the ancient building it is in as well as the influence of one of our greatest local historians, Enid Porter. It’s as if you can breathe in the history of the building as you walk through it. And it always needs our support – do consider joining the Friends of the Museum.
An expanded Museum of Cambridge
Some of you will be familiar with my calls to expand the Museum of Cambridge onto Castle Hill and the Shire Hall site – rebuilding the long-since-demolished Assizes Court (where proclamations of new monarchs were read out – but is now a car park).
Cambridge Assizes Court on Castle Hill – Photo: Museum of Cambridge
It remains to be seen what the plans are for the site following the controversial planned move of Cambridgeshire County Council.
The time it would take to bring such a project to fruition – if it ever came to fruition, is likely to be years. In the meantime, what to do?
The Gawthrope-Marshall Institute of Cambridge Local History?
Earlier this year we lost two of our most prominent civic titans in Cambridge: Mayor Nigel Gawthrope and Sir Michael Marshall of the Marshall Group of Companies. In one sense the backgrounds and histories of the two gentlemen could not be more different. One was rock-solid working class Labour, and a lifelong trade unionist and shop steward. The other was a longstanding Conservative who graduated from the University of Cambridge, and was knighted. Yet they both cared passionately about Cambridge and during Mayor Gawthrope’s mayoralty, would often see each other at civic events. Sir Michael was one of the attendees of Mayor Gawthrope’s memorial service at Great St Mary’s Church earlier this year – a service I also attended representing the Blue Plaque’s Committee for Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire, of Cambridge Past, Present and Future.
As a student of local history (I’ve only been studying it for a few years, and the content is so great it would be decades before I could consider myself having mastered it!) one thing that strikes me is how easily our civic heroes are forgotten. It seems that great names are only remembered when widely-used institutions are named after them. Such as the Kelsey Kerridge Sports Centre and the Frank Lee Centre. Or even the Ida Darwin Hospital. (Or for that matter, Addenbrooke’s).
“Who was Frank Lee?”
A student at Downing College, Sir Frank Lee would go onto become a civil servant in the old Colonial Office before moving to The Treasury in the early years of WWII. His WikiP page is here. As Vice-chair of the United Cambridge Hospitals, Sir Frank came up with the idea of providing recreational facilities for staff at what was known at the time as the “New Addenbrooke’s” – site of the current hospital, sometimes described as the ‘hospital in the park’ as it was surrounded by countryside at the time. Today it’s probably best described as the hospital surrounded by the failure of successive governments in transport and town planning.
Alderman Kelsey Kerridge on civic philanthropy
He was more than just a sports centre as I wrote in this blogpost. He was a very successful sportsman and businessman alike before going into local politics. When he stepped back from politics, he – like many before and since, stayed involved in civic life.
“He foresees it as an essential public service for succeeding generations, and stresses to potential benefactors that it will be “good for themselves, good for their children”.
…said the writer of an article on Ald. Kerridge in the Cambridgeshire Collection. (My emphasis). Kerridge himself said:
“When I start anything, I want to finish it. I don’t like giving in. All I want to do is to see the first brick built there. I shall know then that it’s going to be finished. Then I can have some peace and quiet.”
Can we have more people in Cambridge with the same attitude towards civic projects that Alderman Kerridge had?
“The Gawthrope-Marshall Institute of Cambridge Local History” – an idea?
For a start, my initial vision for something like this would be a small institution financially endowed so that it can function independently and not be continually dependent on the grants of local grant funding bodies, charities or public sector institutions local and national. That’s where other local institutions have struggled.
With the recent passing of Mayor Gawthrope and Sir Michael still being fresh in the minds of many of us that knew them both, I’d like to think that such an institution in itself would be a fitting memorial for two men who did so much to build bridges between town and gown in our city. Furthermore, the are more than enough people in and around Cambridge who would want to see such an institution succeed – and its output need not be restricted to ‘high academia’.
Using local history as a source of content for art, drama, music, and more – as well as a source of support and stability for local libraries and archives.
I see such an institution as supporting the likes of the Cambridgeshire Collection while keeping it as part of our public libraries service provided by local democracy in the form of local councils. Efforts to increase financial support from the public – for example through Libraries Extra membership has so far had very limited success.
We’ve also seen examples of local history being turned into plays – Clara Rackham and the General Strike of 1926 in Cambridge:
…and into music as well: Rachel Caldwell’s song about the legacy of Lady Ida Darwin.
…and who could not be moved by this performance at the Cambridge Guildhall for HMD.
Helen Weinstein of HistoryWorks in Cambridge has got a whole host of case studies and projects where her company has turned local history into something living and breathing. In the case of the under-construction north-south cycle route through Cambridge – The Chisholm Trail, she has already started work for the Greater Cambridge Partnership on Chisholm Tails, safe in the knowledge that sometime in the future people will take for granted that route just as we take for granted the existence of say the Cambridge-London railways or the M11.
The amount of written content to analyse is huge – and Cambridge needs someone or something to co-ordinate it that will be immune from the turbulence of public sector grant funding.
Whether it’s the cuts of recent years or the turning on of the taps in times gone by, the turbulence and insecurity of funding can be just as damaging. I’ve seen the impact this can have on a workplace culture in grassroots projects during my civil service days. It can lead to project paralysis. Hence having a financially endowed institution that is insulated from such things would go a long way.
The British Newspaper Archive Online is a wealth of information, even though the scanning of the large majority of Cambridge newspapers to its database remains work in progress. (Note to self. Start a petition to prioritise Cambridge!) Fortunately another civic hero of ours, John Pink – the founding father of Cambridge Public Libraries, started keeping copies of every single local daily and weekly newspaper published in Cambridge.
So the Cambridgeshire Collection has all the hard copies. Another civic legend who followed in his footsteps is librarian and historian Mike Petty MBE, who in the 1970s & 80s converted those newspapers into microfiche so as to reduce the damage to the fragile originals.
Then there is the back catalogue of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society – once one of the most active civic societies in Cambridge in the days before TV & Radio. Sir Geoffrey Keynes & Eglantyne Jebb were both members. Their back catalogue has been digitised and you can browse through it here. You can also join the society here.
The Cambridgeshire Association for Local History also has a large (though slightly smaller) back catalogue going back to the 1950s. This is the local history society I’d recommend for the generalist/curious resident. (See membership details here).
So…those are some of my initial thoughts. Could it work?