“I heard it through the Cambridge Grapevine” – resisting comprehensive redevelopment in The Kite pre-Grafton Centre

I purchased four copies of the old Grapevine Magazine – Cambridge’s Community Paper from the late 1970s. It was associated with the old Grapevine Bookshop on East Road that Roy Hammans took and Simon Knott uploaded many moons ago. This was a pioneering institution that was the campaigning base for many groups making the case for things we take for granted today. The recently acquired magazines over 40 years old show us what we lost.

Cambridge 1982: Grapevine Bookshop

Above – via Simon Knott by Roy Hammans back in August 1982.

The Cambridge News featured more of Mr Hammans’ photographs of The Kite in this feature here.

“In a bid to hold off the workmen, a consortium of university dons and business people bought a former grocery shop, 56 Fitzroy Street – which became home to the Cambridge Free Press publishing company – declaring that they would not sell up at any price. In May 1981 Dr Lisa Jardine, the consortium’s leader and an English don at Jesus College, told the News: “They [Grosvenor] can build all around us if they like – in fact I’m looking forward to our little shop becoming a part of the shopping precinct with a large glass dome over the roof”.

Cambridge News 04 Oct 2013 by Stephen Bevan.

Dr Lisa Jardine – mentioned, was the late historian Dr Lisa Jardine CBE, mentioned in a footnote by Ian Kitching’s history of The Kite here.

Old Barnwell, The Kite, The Grafton Centre

For me, this is one of the most interesting areas of Cambridge as far as town history is concerned. It has been an area of huge social change over the past 200 years, starting from when Cambridge’s urban population started expanding at the start of the 19th Century. The landowner Jesus College allowed slum housing to be built, creating all of the social problems we associate with 19th century industrial towns.

I’ve written a number of previous blogposts on The Kite – such as this one in 2017. Various people and organisations worked to undo the damage of the decision to allow slum housing to be built. One of the earliest was Ellice Hopkins whose fundraising efforts led to the foundation of St Matthew’s Church and the Cambridge Workingmen’s Club.

The Kite was also the site of Cambridge’s first birth control clinic founded by American social reformer Lella Secor Florence – who along with her husband the economist Philip, joined the Cambridge Labour Party in the 1920s in the decade that they lived in Cambridge.

Cambridge City Council’s architect Gordon Logie came up with a series of plans to turn various swathes of The Kite into a new shopping precinct in the 1960s. A previous generation of civic activists led by Dr Alice Roughton, who lived next door to the house Eglantyne Jebb lived in on Adams Road, went head-to-head with him to oppose his plans while at the same time presenting their own plans.

The politician who finally pushed through the comprehensive redevelopment of The Kite, and the construction of The Grafton Centre, was the leader of the Cambridge Conservatives, the late Cllr John Powley (Cons – Castle 1967-78). Cllr Powley later stood for Parliament, first in Harlow where he lost to Dame Leah Manning’s protege Stan Newens, and then in Norwich South where he won in 1983. According to the late Liberal/LibDem Councillor Colin Rosenstiel who went head-to-head with Cllr Powley over The Kite, the legacy of Cllr Powley’s policies over The Kite were a major factor in the long term decline of the once mighty Cambridge Conservative Association. Cllr Rosenstiel explained his case in 2001 in this thread.

The Cambridge Grapevine – bookshop and magazine

Growing up in 1990s Cambridge we were not encouraged to get involved in politics and local democracy. Even at sixth form college when the candidates came to campaign for votes in the 1997 general election, we were given the message that it only mattered if you were over 18. I missed that election by under six months. In one of our human geography lessons in the late 1990s, I remember my teacher mentioning how awful the comprehensive redevelopment of The Kite was when we covered it as a theme. It was one of the few times she showed a hint of a party political opinion about a local issue. To this day I wonder what would have happened had we had some more local case studies not just on that but also generally throughout our schooling years. Because I knew next to nothing about The Kite and Cambridge’s social history until I returned to Cambridge from my civil service days. But what I found reminds me of my time in Brighton in the early 2000s when I was a volunteer at the old Brighton Peace and Environment Centre which in those days was next to The Komedia on Gardner Street.

“What was the bookshop like?”

One of the great things about digitisation is it enables anyone with access to the Internet to see the original sources themselves. In this case P4 of The Grapevine No.12 from Nov-Dec 1979.

“Grapevine Bookshop is collectively run by a group of six people who make all the decisions regarding its policy and day to day running by general agreement.” Our aim is to provide a place in Cambridge where as large a range as possible of alternative literature can be found.”

“Apart from things of a general political nature we hope to build up comprehensive sections concerned with environmental issues, the women’s movement and women’s rights, Anti-racism and a stock of secondhand books. We also have a large selection of magazines, periodicals and pamphlets on a wide variety of issues.

“Another of our main aims is to provide an outlet for the publications of pressure groups in Cambridge. Already we have material from a large number of these including Cambridge Women’s Aid, The National Abortion Campaign. Friends of the Earth, The Community Relations Council, The Cambridge Campaign against Racism and Fascism, St. Matthew’s Neighbourhood Assn., The Chile Solidarity Campaign, Student Community Action, The Cambridge Empty Property Action Group, The Soil Association and Gingerbread.

“No other bookshop in town will stock this literature principally because there is no money to be made from it. If however there is a place which every group can use it will provide an ideal focus for information.”

The Grapevine No 12 – Nov-Dec 1979

Above – the bookshop described. This is almost identical to what the Brighton Peace and Environment Centre was like for me 20 years ago – local campaigns covering similar issues. I made it part of my routine to pop in several times a week to pick up leaflets, pamphlets, and magazines at a time when I was still coming to terms the differences between what school and church had taught me what the real world was about vs what it was actually like.

Alternative Cambridge – decades ahead of their time? Or was conservative and Conservative Cambridge just behind the times?

The above is a deliberately provocative headline mindful of the furore around the speech made by Liz Truss, the Women and Equalities Minister. Several of us (myself included) spotted that the transcript of the speech published on the Government’s website breached guidance on party political content.

….and earlier today, the transcript was redacted following a query by Mr Vickers of the Eastern Daily Press in her constituency.

Some of the issues that the local campaign groups of the late 1970s that are no longer with us sometimes feel very dated – such as the campaign against Pinochet’s regime in Chile. (Cambridge was one place that a number of refugees fled to and settled in). Others are still going. When we look at the issues in Cambridge today and compare them with the campaign groups of 40 years ago, so many of them are still relevant.

Cambridge at a time of huge social and political change

I don’t think we should shy away from acknowledging the party political context of the events of this time – nor should those of us who study history be afraid of acknowledging our own inevitable biases and viewpoints. My viewpoint is more tree-hugging eco-warrior than accountant-in-a-suit looking at securing maximum returns for the international property speculator that commissioned my services. A different way of analysing what happened to The Kite since 1950 purely through a financial lens would make for an interesting study – not least the financial costs the financiers took on as a result of the resistance from the community. The same goes for the party political costs.

According to Cllr Rosenstiel this was the move by the Cambridge Conservatives that started their long term decline, followed by the impact of further cuts to public services by John Major’s Government at a national level in the 1990s that all but destroyed the Cambridge Conservatives as a political force in the city. Twenty years later they still have zero councillors representing the city. Was it worth it politically? Could it have been avoided if a community-based model of reconstruction and regeneration had been followed rather than a big-money corporate model?

The magazines tell a story of the people by the people

In that sense, I don’t feel the need to add to it or do line-by-line interpretations. You can read the four magazines yourself and come to your own conclusions:

You may be surprised. And the postscript? The Kite is now a conservation area.

Above – Front page of The Grapevine in Nov 1979.


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