Mayor of Cambridge hosts railway summit shortly after the new station opens

Today’s politicians were not the first to struggle with the options available to them to improve Cambridge’s transport links.

The most comprehensive history of Cambridge’s railway station, lines, and the people who made them is Rob Shoreland-Ball’s book on Cambridge Station. I won’t go into detail over the squabbles between the college land owners and the railway companies and Mr Shoreland-Ball covers this having had access to the college archives. It took eleven years from. the publication of the first prospectus of the Great Northern Railroad to the opening of Cambridge’s station in 1845. (Although surveying of the land for a railway had begun in the 1820s).

Above – The Chronicle announcing the GNR’s prospectus.

In the late autumn of 1845, after the railway station had opened, the Cambridge Independent Press announced what we’d call today a summit of the great and the good to examine the opportunities for linking new railway lines to the existing station, and town generally.

The article states:

“We refer, with satisfaction, to the list of names appended to the requisition. It is an assurance that the subject will be at length taken up by our fellow townsmen, with that spirit which its importance deserves. A preliminary meeting was held on Monday last, to fix the day and make the necessary arrangements for the public meeting; and as all parties interested in the 17 more lines proposed to pass through our town, are invited to attend, we may expect a goodly array of engineers, solicitors, secretaries, and agents; we may also expect a very long sitting and a very long report.

“But that our friends may be enabled to follow the various speakers, it will be essentially necessary that they provide themselves with a railway map (one can be bought at small cost,) so that they may travel from Cambridge to York — Hull or Worcester — Oxford, Harwich, or Colchester — as the case may be.

“It is proposed after the merits of the various lines have been laid before the meeting, to appoint committee to further into details, and report to a future meeting, which lines they recommend for the support of the inhabitants, with their reasons for such recommendation.

“We trust the subject of a central railway station will not be lost sight of, and that a committee, or the same committee, will be empowered to confer with the various companies this point. There must be no imaginary engineering difficulties, no coquetting with this company or that; but all must be square and above-board — the single object being the welfare and benefit of the town at large.

“In questions of this nature, would urgently remind our fellow townsmen, that no party feeling is or ought to be involved — no petty jealousies allowed to intrude; and we believe they will not; the operations of commerce and profitable engagements in business, are the surest palliatives to political rancour; and how much this has subsided, the various municipal elections now progressing throughout the country, and which excite scarcely a passing remark, are a pleasing illustration.

“The future prosperity of this town is deeply implicated in the effect of railway legislation during the ensuing Session of Parliament; and it shall not be our fault, if our readers are not urged to a hearty co-operation in making the town of Cambridge — that which its position eminently entitles it – to the centre for railway communication for the adjacent counties.”

The men meet at the Guildhall

Above – Rowland Morris Fawcett, councillor and surgeon (and uncle of William Milner Fawcett, the architect) moved the motion to form a committee to examine the various proposals for new railway lines.

There were a number of significant figures on the committee – including town clerk, antiquarian, local historian and borough coroner Charles Henry Cooper. Also on the committee is Henry Rance, who almost bankrupted himself building one of the most grandest of town houses in Cambridge ( “Rance’s Folly” – sadly demolished).

For the Whigs/Liberals, the presence of Professor George Pryme, the former MP for Cambridge Borough, as are Ebenezer Foster and son – whose bank building at the junction of St Andrew’s Street & Hobson Street remains one of the finest examples of civic architecture in late Victorian Cambridge.

The Pemberton family is there – likely in the form of Christopher Pemberton the lawyer, as is Patrick Beales, the coal and corn merchant who built Newnham Grange (subsequently bought by George and Maud Darwin, which then became the site of Darwin College). Mr J Deck is likely Isaiah Deck The Younger – ‘de Jeune’ as he signed himself off. (Isaiah Deck was a pharmacist and chemist – I can find no other contemporary J Deck.)

The first meeting of 1846 – six college representatives turn up

Given their land-owning interests, perhaps not surprising. This was also just before the election of Prince Albert as Cambridge University’s Chancellor – at a time when there was significant pressure for the institution to reform. The election of the Prince Consort – one of the more enlightened royals of the time, was very restricted on what he could do in the affairs of state, ministers not wanting to have someone ‘foreign’ advising on government policy. Therefore the post of Chancellor of Cambridge was ideal as it got Albert out of the way and gave him something substantive to do. Reform followed a few years later – and is arguably one of the reasons why Cambridge’s focus moved towards the sciences.

One of the lines that highlighted in the first meeting of 1846 is a proposed Oxford-Cambridge line. Because of the failure to protect the line in the Beeching-era cuts of the 1960s, we’re going through this process all over again with East West Rail.

I still wonder what the impact would be on the lines north of Peterborough if the routes to Lincoln and York from Cambridge still existed, mindful of the economic problems the East Midlands has faced in recent decades.

The sites they discussed for new stations in Cambridge

In the end only the current railway station was built as a large passenger station – despite the many proposals that were made in the mid-1800s. The maps below from Reginald B Fellows in 1938 (you can find cheap copies of the reprint in the 1970s here) reveals attempts at where the Town Gaol was by Parker’s Piece (before all the houses were built) and also this attempt for one at Silver Street – blocked by the University.

What the articles indicate is that there was some input and oversight from the civic figures of the town. However, local government was still in its infancy, and Cambridge was still affected by corruption in local democracy. At the same time, the rapidly-growing population was giving rise to slums, something that the political mindset of the time still did not know how to deal with. (i.e. relying on various forms of charity). A time of huge economic and social change, a time of huge opportunities, and a time of some soberingly large challenges as well. The decisions these men took are ones that still shape our lives today.

Food for thought?

If you enjoyed this article and are interested in the history of Cambridge the town and the people who made our modern city, please support my research in bringing their records of achievement to wider audiences. Click here if you would like to make a donation or take out a small subscription to support my ongoing work.

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