The Nelson Street Massiv and the Adult School Movement

Not so long ago I stumbled across a postcard featuring a group of Temperance campaigners in Cambridge.

Above – a photo of 50 years of the Cambridge Temperance Campaign

The Temperance Movement – the campaign against the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol, was huge in Cambridge – and in many other places. At its peak, over 3,000 people rocked up to a rally on Parker’s Piece – the above photograph being from the event in 1907. (See my blogpost here).

The suburb of Barnwell – where lots of interesting things happened. Far more interesting than the manicured lawns of the colleges!

I write in jest – in the grand scheme of things much has been written about the goings on inside the colleges in the 1800s. Far less has been written about the experiences of working class Cambridge in the Industrial Revolution in a century when the population of the Borough of Cambridge quadrupled. Barnwell / The Kite / that plot of land between East Road and Newmarket Road was one of the parts of town that saw slum housing go up to accommodate that growing population. The 200 year old neighbourhood of Newtown between Hills Road and Trumpington Road is another.

Above – a detail from the National Library of Scotland’s map of Cambridge from 1903.

To the right of the Sovereign Brewery on the map is Nelson Street. So despite its short length, Nelson Street had a very big banner to shout about. And with good reason. Just above the marker “B.M.47.1” (Does anyone know what that means?) is a shaded box indicating a property larger than most of the others. On the other side of Nelson Street is an oblong-shaped shaded box that is also larger than the other buildings along the road. Cross-referencing this with the British Newspaper Archive and we find that one of them is a school room, and another one is a mission hall.

Tensions in Barnwell

The social problems of Barnwell were well known to both town and gown. In the 1860s the first organised efforts were made to deal with the problems – detailed in this transcribed newspaper article from 1863. One of the first people to write about the problems of Barnwell was evangelical preacher Ellice Hopkins. She would later fundraise for a new church – St Matthew’s, and co-found the Cambridge Workingmens Club. Both institutions are still with us today.

Alcohol is the common thread linking the social problems of Barnwell. I’m assuming that the smaller of the buildings on the map above is the school room – a room that backs onto the much larger Sovereign Brewery. That in itself speaks volumes. The whole of that neighbourhood had breweries, public houses and drinking dens juxtaposed with school rooms, mission halls and chapels as pub landlords eked out a miserable living, barely making ends meet while trying to fend off Temperance campaigners trying to persuade drinkers to give up ‘the demon drink’ – one of the few things that made their miserable lives in poverty less unbearable. Both Ellice Hopkins and Eglantyne Jebb wrote contemporary accounts of the misery of life for the working poor and the destitute in that part of town.

Education as a means of self-improvement (and a distraction from drinking)

While doing research on past movements on adult education, I stumbled across this book.

It was published by the National Adult School Union, an institution that emerged out of the Midlands. It would later go into decline in the inter-war era as Mark Freeman’s essay explains, due to the availability of secular alternative providers, and greater alternatives for people to spend their leisure time on compared with the late 1800s. Think of the growth of cinemas and organised spectator sports for example.

The Nelson Street Adult School

The 1893 AGM of the Nelson Street Adult School was held in the old YMCA building off Lion Yard – Alexandra Hall being the main civic hall of that building before it was demolished in the 1970s.

Above – from the British Newspaper Archive, we find that over 100 people were on the books of the adult school and that it had an average attendance of 73 people throughout the previous year. At the turn of the century a few years later, the guest speaker was the Mayor of Cambridge, Alfred Tillyard, husband of the first woman newspaper columnist of note in Cambridge, Catherine Tillyard. We know so much about the social reform campaigns of the women of Cambridge around the turn of the century because Catherine wrote about them regularly in her 600 or so newspaper columns published weekly in the Cambridge Independent. (They just need a skilled researcher to go through the columns in detail!)

As we also see in this entry from the British Newspaper Archive, the Nelson Street Mission Hall was used for a variety of allied interests – in this case as a social venue for a campaigning event.

With a hundred people turning out to the Temperance Gathering, it’s not for nothing that I’ve labelled the participants ‘The Nelson Street Massiv’!

“What was the link between the Nelson Street Adult School and the National Adult School Organisation?”

In a nutshell: The Quakers – the Religious Society of Friends.

This blogpost with an extract by Rowntree and Binns from 1903 recalls the Quaker roots of the Adult School Movement. This correlates with the National Adult School Union syllabus from 1936 I posted about earlier today, one that takes contemporary issues and frames them within a religious framework.

What happened to that and other similar schools in Cambridge I don’t know. But Nelson Street no longer exists – it is buried somewhere underneath the Grafton Centre.


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