How a ratepayers’ rebellion finally sank John Belcher’s magnificent guildhall plan. 1913.

Much as I’d like to see Belcher’s design of 1898 improved, upgraded and built, I can’t fault the councillors of the day for trying again in 1913 to get it built.

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

Above – John Belcher for Mayor Horace Darwin – voted down in a ratepayers’ referendum in 1898. From a small photo in the Cambridgeshire Collection. The hunt for the original continues.

John Belcher’s original report is worth a read – I transcribed it here.

It was nearly four years ago that I started researching Cambridge’s unbuilt guildhalls. The story of them is one that continues to fascinate me – not least because those involved over the centuries had such strong opinions – whether those who like me wanted (and still want!) something magnificent for Market Square, vs those that want to prioritise something else to those who simply want to lower council expenditure.

My take is that Belcher’s design can be considered work in progress, and that in this day and age it should be possible to raise a large chunk of the funding through private subscription given the wealth Cambridge supposedly generates for the economy. Civic leaders in the past – such as Sir David Robinson with the Rosie Maternity Hospital, Baroness Trumpington a with the Frank Lee Centre, and Cllr Kelsey Kerridge have demonstrated what is possible. (Note all three figures were Conservatives!) Indeed, out of all of the buildings that look over Parker’s Piece, Kelsey Kerridge’s sports hall is one of the most prominent. It was also a prominent music venue in the 1980s & 1990s with old skool rave nights being hosted there. I’ve blogged before about how a permanent Mayor’s fund could fundraise the capital costs for a new round of civic building construction.

Guildhall designs past

181009 Guildhall unbuilt etching 1857

Charles Henry Cooper, Town Clerk made the case for this design in the 1850s but in the end we only got the large hall built, opened in a grand ceremony in 1862 and still serving our city well over a century and a half later. The guildhall front came up again in the early 1890s but Mr Fawcett’s design was deemed not grand enough! Mr Belcher’s design was deemed too grand and too expensive – not just in 1898 but also in 1913, as I have just found out.

June 1913 – councillors vote to build John Belcher’s scheme.

Councillors voted through expenditure on not just the Guildhall, but also the purchase of land that would then be turned into new recreation grounds at Romsey (Vinery Road) and Newnham (Lammas Land) – both of those grounds are still open to the public today.

Screenshot 2020-05-04 at 09.12.09

Before the ink had dried on the minutes, a well-organised group of campaigners got together to protest against the expenditure on The Guildhall…ironically held *in* the Guildhall that they didn’t want improving.

Screenshot 2020-05-04 at 09.23.27

A reminder that well-organised and very focused campaign groups can have an impact – positive or negative, on a town. And the consequences of those campaigns can last for a very long time.

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Note the context for the enlargement of The Guildhall as was – was the increasing demands on local councils to deliver a greater number of public services through new Acts of Parliament.

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Note the complaint from Cllr Stearn above at the lack of space for Cambridge Borough Council’s Education Department – which in those days was responsible for primary/elementary schools in Cambridge.

Such was the effect of the protests that councillors agreed to suspend the plans for the time being, and seek alternative proposals.

Screenshot 2020-05-04 at 09.22.27

Ald Whibley, leader of the Liberal Party in Cambridge and something of a forgotten civic titan of the time, moved the suspension. Six months and nine days later, news came through of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo. The first shots of The Great War had just been fired.

Supporting my future research on the story of Cambridge the town

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