Thug burns down possible venue for a possible Cambridge Atheist Tabernacle Choir. 1986.

And Cambridge lost yet another live music venue in a decade where they fell like skittles

It was one of Cambridge’s most loathed buildings in some respects – the old Primitive Methodist Tabernacle on Sun Street/Newmarket Road.

“I almost rejoice at the destruction of one Cambridge edifice! …I write with special feeling about a quite exceptionally ugly structure.”

Wrote Cambridge Evening News columnist Christopher South. I wonder what he makes of the contemporary buildings featured in Hideous Cambridge.

For some reason the building has intrigued me for years – I don’t remember what it looked like as I was too young to remember before it was burnt down in an arson attack – just months before Spitting Image, whose founders started up in the same neighbourhood as the Tabernacle – and also in a former non-conformist religious building (you can see it here), released their chart B-side Atheist Tabernacle Choir (don’t click if easily offended – it’s Spitting Image from the 1980s) which accompanied Santa Claus is on the Dole in the winter of 1982, peaking two positions short of the top 20. The programme’s archives are now at The Cambridge University Library.

Back to the Cambridge Tabernacle

From the Cambridge News via Mike Petty’s archives.

Above – the old Sun Street Tabernacle built by the Primitive Methodists off Newmarket Road in 1876. If you have a colour photo of this, please let me know only the paintwork according to historical descriptions is quite something.

With buildings like this, one of the first places I look to find more information is the British Newspaper Archive. In what must be one of their most dullest of articles – even accounting for the time, the Cambridge Independent carried an extended feature about Primitive Methodism in Cambridge commemorating the laying of the foundation stone of the Tabernacle in June 1876…one which is so dull I’m not going to transcribe it! I picked up the date from a website about the movement, which had the date of the Tabernacle’s establishment. The description of what the building should have looked like is worth noting though.

A Chapel and Schoolrooms for £3,000 in 1876

Above – from the British Newspaper Archive here, if you’d like to read the article (£Requires Sub).

The sum the movement purchased the site for, along with the construction costs, would ultimately be too much for them to bear, and they would be forced to sell up in the early 20th Century. But we learn of the name of the architect (which means in principle it is easier to find copies of the plans if they still exist).

“It has long been felt to be utterly inadequate for the necessities of [Barnwell]; hence the resolve to build a new chapel, and an eligible site being obtained on the Newmarket Road, the erection of a large and commodious chapel and schoolrooms at a cost, including the land, of upwards of £3,000 has been commenced. The land, with the property on it, was purchased at a cost of £900. The plan has been drawn by Mr W. Ranger, architect, of 3, Finsbury Pavement, London, and its style will be Romanesque.

“The building will be Fifty-three feet by Thirty-five feet [15m x 10m]” and will consist of a basement, on which will be a schoolroom of thirty feet by thirty-two feet. Above this will be a chapel, which is intended to seat between give and six hundred persons. Its height from the floor to the wall-plate will be twenty-four feet, and it will have a partly opened roof, and will be supplied with galleries on the three sides, all fitted with good open benches, and will be lighted by sixteen side windows, and by one double and one circular window in front. It will be approached by a flight of stone steps in the front.”

Cambridge Independent Press, 10 June 1875

What do you do after such a big ceremony? In their case the crowds went to the recently-opened Cambridge Corn Exchange for a ‘Monster tea party’. When you consider the numbers attending, and mindful of both Cambridge’s existing and growing population, one can understand why the movement at the time had the confidence it did to take on such a large financial burden.

The article also mentions the previous chapels.

The Sturton Street Chapel established at a time the population around Mill Road was rapidly expanding is featured in Capturing Cambridge here. Then in World War 2 it was one of the few places in Cambridge to take a direct hit from a Nazi air raid on the town. It was rebuilt and was in operation until fairly recently until sold off to a private religious college.

The Panton Street Chapel was sold off even earlier than the Sturton Street site – the current building dating from 1874 but sold off to another Christian denomination in 1911.

Up to the establishment of the Tabernacle, the arguments and splits between the various religious sects and denominations is hinted at in this summary of the movement in Cambridge in the early-mid 1800s. Furthermore, the establishment of the movement is tied up in the political and religious responses to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

Where the Tabernacle was

The National Library of Scotland’s historical mapping facility (it’s wonderful!) locates it for us.

Above – Britain From Above digitised this photograph from 1920, from which I extracted the detail shown. On the far right you can see the Tabernacle from the rear. On the left is the older Christ Church of Newmarket Road. Between Christ Church and the Tabernacle is a building labelled a Mission Room. This is the magnificent Festival Theatre building, one of Cambridge’s oldest public buildings.

Finbow and Sons take over the Tabernacle

Above – a lovely photo from the Cambridge News here.

The site was acquired by Bert and Cyril Finbow’s furniture removals firm – the former being a hugely influential member of the once mightly Cambridge Conservative Association.

Civic Titan – Alderman Herbert Finbow (Cons – Coleridge 1955-67)

Mike Petty discovered this biographical piece in the Cambridge Evening News of 27 May 1968. Ald Finbow served as Mayor of Cambridge in 1968/69. You can read about Mayor Finbow here.

When the Finbow’s disposed of the site, it was taken over and opened as a night club and music venue – at a time they were falling like skittles.

The Carioca

John Gaskell of the Cambridge Evening News wrote this article via Mike Petty as he visited the club in 1980, two years after it had opened.

“The club offers its members a restaurant, a disco and dance floor, food and drink at reasonable prices, a second floor games room with pool tables, bar billiards, darts, juke box and assorted skill machines and free admission before 10pm, with membership of just over 10p a week.”

“On Mondays, the club plays host to the Cambridge Jazz Club which with the aid of an Arts Council grant attracts some of the best jazz players in Europe as well as local talent. Wednesdays and Saturdays are for over 25s. Thursday night is given over to games with the club fielding several teams in local leagues. From the end of next month a disco will fill the currently vacant Friday night.

Cambridge News 20 May 1980 via Mike Petty

Interestingly it was run as a members club, seemingly targeting a slightly older market than some of the other clubs in town – noting that the opening of a new night club at Lion Yard having had an impact on numbers.

“From bread of Heaven to Fast Food in one plummet”

I found a copy of Christopher South’s cutting article while researching the history of the Cambridge Junction here. Brilliantly yet damningly written by someone who not only loathed the building and what it was built for, but utterly despised the economic activity being run out of it at the same time – one that would also have been despised by the building’s original fund raisers and worshippers.

“Let us not be sentimental. Let us face facts. After more than a century of unremitting dreariness the Methodist Tabernacle in Newmarket Road is not so much being pulled down as being put out of its misery. This is not demolition, this is Euthanasia.

“It was big enough to hold a holy host of worshippers, but their brave hymns must have echoed thinly in the high barn of a place and among its pitch-pine pews.

Christopher South in The Cambridge Evening News, 02 Dec 1985, via the Cambridgeshire Collection

Comparing the fate of the Tabernacle with a similar chapel in Walthamstow, converted into an adults-only cinema, he noted the Cambridge building had another 35 years to wait ‘before its seedy nemesis arrived’

“It was turned into a night club and its face daubed with appalling blue and orange paint like some shy spinster got up as a whore. I am not the best person to consult for an opinion about the quality of any individual nightclub since it is fairly well known that I loathe the whole damned lot of them”


Christopher South in The Cambridge Evening News, 02 Dec 1985, via the Cambridgeshire Collection

Did anything get left behind with the redevelopment?

Above – Sun Street on G-maps running along the bottom of the image above.

You can see the Grafton main car park spiral exit at the top, the old Festival Theatre building on the right with the shallow and wide pitched roof, and Mackay’s – itself a Cambridge town institution at the top left. Sun Street has been mentioned as the site of a possible bus station. As for the Tabernacle, there’s a sort of hint at the larger pointed roof at the front, noticeably larger than the others. Otherwise, the chapel, along with the mission rooms and small pubs and breweries have made way. What post-pandemic Cambridge looks like once Lockdown is lifted remains to be seen.


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