I’ve been trying to find out more information about the old club that I read once sat opposite The Alex on Gwydir Street. It was built at a time when membership levels and activities of local political parties and movements were increasing to such an extent that they were able to build their own premises and run vibrant social clubs. It’s a tradition that has declined across many towns and cities in the post-war era along with the decline of other social institutions such as Sunday worship – reflected by the number of closed and converted/demolished churches and chapels across town. I can’t think of any social institution with its own premises established to support a political party that still exists in Cambridge as an overtly and primarily political institution. Not least now that we are in lockdown due to the pandemic.
At the same time, the study of local history and of local institutions may become more important over the next few years as we go through a period of huge social change following the collective experience of lockdown and also of the huge number of untimely deaths caused by the pandemic – a figure that has now exceeded 100,000 people. Will we find that there is a stronger desire for the general public to socialise out and about with each other in the near future compared with before we went into lockdown? And what will become of all of the empty shop units given the implosion of so many high street names? – Debenhams being the last anchor store of the Grafton Centre, to go into liquidation.
The Beaconsfield Club opens – 1884
Capturing Cambridge tells us of the year that it opened. This made cross-referencing with the British Newspaper Archive straightforward, and we find that at the end of the year they had their opening dinner in November 1884.
The guest of honour was the candidate Robert Uniacke Penrose, who was the first MP to serve Cambridge in modern pre-WWI times – by which I mean from the Third Reform Act 1884 which reduced Cambridge Borough’s presence in Parliament from two seats to one. He would hold onto the seat until the Liberal landslide of 1906 that brought Stanley Buckmaster KC to the borough. RUP’s speech is an interesting one as it happened just after the passing of Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative Prime Minister who was created the Earl of Beaconsfield, and of whom the club (and the pub down the road & over Mill Road bridge, which is still there) was named after. It’s something that I’ll transcribe at a later date as it provides an interesting reflection on some of the values at the time – in particular collective volunteering for a cause, and also the concept of the Working Class Conservative of the late 1800s.
The club house
Above – The Beaconsfield Club in the Cambridge News, via Mike Petty’s Archives.
I’d like to think someone somewhere has got photographs of the interior of the building, The site of the building is opposite The Alex (The Alexandra Arms – named after the then popular Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexandra, who was the eldest daughter of the King of Denmark).
You can see Beaconsfield House in relation to The Alex, and also the red-brick building in the foreground which is where Cambridge 105 has its radio studio. (You can catch my short local history talks on Cambridge 105 with Alex Elbro normally on the third Friday of the month just after lunch time. Back episodes are also available to download.)
Early days of the Beaconsfield Club
We find that by 1887, the annual report of the club showed 250 members and a small surplus in their accounts. This from the Cambridge Chronicle.
Above – from the Cambridge Chronicle in the British Newspaper Archives. Do any names stand out?
Interestingly this took place less than a year after the 1886 general election which crushed the Liberal Party over the issue of Home Rule for Ireland. Combining Ireland along with law and order issues were a major part of the opening motion from Mr Charles Turner.
The club grew fast enough and grew its profile quickly, enabling it to host annual balls at The Guildhall
This was a time when the Conservatives were in the ascendency – mindful that the expansion of the electorate from the Third Reform Act a few years before had brought in many more citizens into the franchise – even though this still excluded 40% of the working male population, as well as excluding all women. This is one of the reasons why I think Michael Bentley coins Victorian politics brilliantly with the title of his book below.
Above – Politics Without Democracy by Michael Bentley.
As with such large social clubs, special interest sub-groups formed. These included music…
….plant and flower shows…
…and day trips to the seaside.
Peak social membership
In the interwar period Cambridge’s population continued to grow, from around 40,000 towards the end of the 19th Century to around 70,000 by the 1930s. (Cambridgeshire Insight has the historical population statistics). This is in part reflected in the packed halls for the New Year’s Eve events in 1938/39, mindful that there may still have been a sense in the air that war had been averted due to the Munich agreement.
Around the corner from the Beaconsfield Club was – and still is, the HQ of the Cambridge Labour Party – renamed after Dr Alex Wood, the longtime leader of the party (and parliamentary candidate in 1931 & 1935) in the first half of the 20th Century.
Note both Conservative and Labour parties had their own in-house bands and entertainment groups at the time.
“So…how and why did the society collapse?”
First we need to look at what became of it prior to its demolition. Mike Petty MBE spotted the article that explained why the club finally closed – their alcohol licence was refused by the local council due to repeated complaints from neighbours.
By the late 1970s the society had ceased to be an overtly party political society – like a number of other institutions. The newspaper report linked above makes for very grim reading. A club in the middle of a residential area playing loud amplified music with poor noise insulation, thugs regularly gathering and having fights outside, people spewing vomit in the street, you can see why Cambridge Magistrates not only refused the alcohol licence, but also refused the premises licence, which meant that the venue could not hold events either. Thus the venue was condemned to closure almost overnight.
Jo Edkins, a local resident who moved to the area just before it closed, provides further testimony:
“When I first moved to Gwydir Street in 1979, the Beaconsfield Club was no longer used by the Conservative Party. It was a social club. The building was very run down, with windows stuffed with insulation in a vain attempt to reduce the noise. It was unpopular locally. The discos would go on until 3am or later, and every time anyone opened the door to leave, you could hear the very loud music.
“The burglar alarm would go off frequently in the middle of the night, and continue until the police could find the caretaker who lived a long way away. There were occasional fights in the middle of the street, as people leaving met other young people leaving other parties, and the police had to deal with it.
“Finally in one of these fights, a policeman was assaulted, and they decided to take action. They made representations to the magistrates to get the licence to sell alcohol removed, which was successful. The Beaconsfield Club could no longer continue, and in 1984 it was demolished, and the present Beaconsfield House, with flats in, was built in its place”Jo Edkins on the history of the Beaconsfield Club
“How did this former bastion of Working Class Conservatism decline into a hive of anti-social behaviour?”
We can but only speculate. It’s worth noting the following though.
Post-war Cambridge wasn’t the place that we are familiar with in the early 21st Century with its millions of tourists, and a reputation for the thriving life-sciences and tech industries, and a confident, liberal, multi-cultural city. (Scratch the surface however and you find Cambridge is the most unequal city in the country – with Abbey ward next to Petersfield having a life expectancy ten years lower than Newnham ward, West Cambridge.)
There were a host of things that affected the entire area – not least the closure of many prominent employers such as the Pye works, the brick works and the gas works in the 1960s & 1970s. The planning blight that resulted from the decades of uncertainty of the future development of Cambridge couldn’t have helped either – with the proposed maps showing big roads ploughing through residential communities in the style of colonial administrators in the Foreign Office drawing red lines on maps to delineate new international borders in the interwar era. Not surprisingly, many people resisted – successfully. Today you can see glimpses of what the planners were hoping to achieve as some of the completed construction works now sit awkwardly as standalone pieces – such as Park Street Car Park (built to serve an inner spine road), and Elizabeth Way Bridge, built to serve a dual carriageway link from Trumpington Road, through to Cambridge Railway Station, through to East Road and to Chesterton. This would have involved ploughing up Gwydir Street amongst others.
The slum clearances of the St Matthew’s Estate inevitably removed hundreds of people who might otherwise have been in walking distance from the premises – though it’s not clear how many of the residents removed from the area were actually members. The with the expansion of the Cambridge College for Arts & Technology – today Anglia Ruskin University, the social fabric of the ward began to change – one from working class to an intellectual middle class that perhaps had different values.
Finally the growth and development of electrical consumer goods – when the club opened there were no electrical sound systems to amplify loud music or to play back recorded music. The club house was a place where men in particular would go to socialise after work – a routine that my uncles in London were more than familiar with in North West London. But the growth of the television and other home comforts – combined with the disturbances outside perhaps made going to the club a less appealing alternative. Combined with the economic decline and the closure of the large employers such as the Cambridge Gas Works in the mid-1960s, the Brickworks in the early 1970s, and the Pye factory a few years later, must have had a devastating impact on the local neighbourhood.
The best people to describe that are those who live and work in the area today – the Petersfield Area Community Trust. The old council depot is being redeveloped as The Ironworks – with a mix of council houses and eye-wateringly expensive new homes for the private market. The redevelopment is also the subject of a local art and history project by HistoryWorks.