What Lost Cambridge rediscovered in 2021 – a review and summary

The emerging local plan for Greater Cambridge (City and South Cambridgeshire) provided an impetus to explore previous local housing and transport plans. After nearly two years away from the camcorder, I started producing some vlogposts again – until an unexpected heart attack brought that to an abrupt end. Fortunately for me, the staff at Addenbrooke’s and Royal Papworth saved my life. Again. So if you’re willing and able to support either hospitals, see Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust or the Royal Papworth Charity.

Above – which also reminds me of my own crowd-funding page – and a huge thank you to those of you who have supported me financially this past year.

A busy year with lots of blogposts despite the limited archival access.

Lockdown in Winter 2020 meant that January started with little movement outside my front door. Which also resulted in me publishing a number of blogposts on the theme of political corruption in Cambridge in the early-mid 1800s, and the battles between the Tories (accused of being corrupt) and the Whigs (later the Liberals – who demanded political and constitutional reforms).

The struggle between the Tories and the Whigs in early-mid 1800s Cambridge

I started off with a short piece featuring Henry Gunning, a Whig supporter who would later be elected to the revamped Cambridge Borough Council. It was a piece from his diary that featured an angry mob going after religious dissenters with such violence in the late 1700s that a number of them simply emigrated to America.

I didn’t intend to go this far back when starting this blog, but the evidence made this unavoidable. Cambridge’s population started growing significantly at the start of the 1800s – at a time of significant political corruption and huge fortunes being made from both the slave trade and the growing colonies. It’s one of the reasons why the Museum of Cambridge is reappraising its own collections because having shop signs of former tobacco retailers is one thing, but examining the supply chains that made this deadly addictive commodity available so widely – one that was grown by slave-owning producers – is quite another.

As it turned out, I discovered the case of former Cambridge Borough MP Sir Alexander Grant (Cons) who was a former slave owner. When introduced to the people of Cambridge on Parker’s Piece in 1840, the launch was gatecrashed by anti-slave trade protesters – most of whom probably would not have had the vote given how small the franchise was in those days. The problem was that the Whigs/Liberals had selected such a poor public speaker as their candidate (in the days when public speaking really mattered) in Thomas Starkie, that Grant was elected. This was two years after he received a fortune from The Government as compensation from the abolished slave trade regarding his previous holdings. Accordingly one of the radical newspapers in town, the Cambridge General Advertiser tore into both Tories and the University over this state of affairs. For those of you with access to the British Newspaper Archive (or willing to buy a subscription), over 600 pages have been digitised of the Cambridge General Advertiser, covering what the demands for political reform were. It was on the pages of the local newspapers that the local politicians engaged in verbal sparring.

The struggle between the parties involving the pro-Rutland/Mortlock, and the pro-Reform factions in the local press lasted for decades.

The man who (with the help of several other prominent persons) smashed the Mortlock corruptocracy was George Pryme MP. He was the first Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University, and clearly maintained an interest in the politics of the town. His successor would go onto become one of the most prominent ministers in Victorian England – Professor Henry Fawcett, husband of Millicent.

One of the families lined up against John Mortlock and his benefactor the Duke of Rutland was the Foster Family. It was the former Mayor, Ebenezer Foster who fired off a letter that is still relevant to today, which I transcribed here.

Above – Ebenezer Foster demanding the complete reformation of the House of Commons – amongst other things.

Calls for reform did not stop there.

The somewhat forgotten figure of Cllr Henry Thomas Hall (1823-94) is someone who needs a historical rehabilitation – not least as the councillor who backed our first municipal librarian John Pink in developing the library service with speeches, votes, and donations of books to the library. Cllr HTH is just as an important figure in the history of Cambridge’s libraries as Mr Pink is. HTH did not stop at libraries, founding a debating society in the slums of Barnwell, and smashing royalist taboos in the council chamber by claiming it wasn’t divine provenance that healed an ill Prince of Wales.

Inequality in Cambridge in the mid-20th Century.

Cambridge Labour glamour couple David Hardman and his wife Freda were one of the prominent inter-war activists in Cambridge – both securing election to Cambridge Borough Council, and Mr Hardman coming very close (by Cambridge standards) to winning the Borough seat in the 1929 General Election that saw Ramsay MacDonald’s minority Labour Government take power…just as the US Stock Market crashed.

Above – Cllr Freda Hardman (Lab – Cherry Hinton) and Cllr David Hardman (Lab – Romsey)

In November 1938 Freda Hardman made her pitch to the voters of Cherry Hinton, which I wrote up here. Sadly their marriage ended in divorce, Freda running off with a US surgeon at the end of WWII. David left Cambridge not long after, putting this broken marriage behind him and winning the Darlington seat at the 1945 general election.

Postwar Cambridge had even greater housing problems than pre-war – even though the town did not suffer bomb damage to the extent that the blitzed cities did. As the army demobilised, homeless residents took over the abandoned buildings and squatted them. Such was the scale that there was little the authorities could do about it. One reader of this blog – Denise Massaro, whose family were one of those occupants, sent me a copy of a photo where they lived.

Above – from Denise Massaro – occupied Nissen Huts in Cambridge from 1946.

Postwar Cambridge built the houses, but not the community facilities – which started declining at an alarming rate.

And we’re still awaiting the creation of a new major park for North Cambridge despite this plea in the mid-1970s.

By the mid-1960s, many residents had been moved out of the slums of central Cambridge out onto the estates of places like Arbury. The problem was that few community facilities had been built to go with the housing. With changing social habits such as the rise of the television, worsening car traffic and poor public transport links, it became harder for existing facilities to remain open. I blogged about:

This matters today because of the launch of consultations on future local development plans and transport plans. So I started a series on the old plans.

Historical development plans for Cambridge

The big three are:

Of the three, Davidge didn’t have the chance to get going – war breaking out meaning that some of his proposals we are still waiting for. He put an end to ribbon developments and also helped safeguard a number of open green spaces such as Cherry Hinton Hall, and the Gog Magog Hills.

Parry Lewis was rejected in its entirety – councillors unwilling to address the problems of housing and the economy with massive housing growth that was happening up the road in Peterborough, which now has a population of over 200,000, the number that Parry Lewis had in mind. Appointed by a regional quango, Parry Lewis eventually got shafted by local government in the early 1970s, reflecting broken political and administrative structures.

Holford & Wright has been blamed by some for our existing housing problems, limiting housing development and building heights.

The continual debate on Cambridge’s post-war future

The Cambridgeshire Collection has folders of newspaper cuttings from the 1960s & 1970s that detail the problems everyone faced in deciding Cambridge’s future. They make for incredible reading – and there are more than a few Ph.D theses waiting to be written on this.

Looking back, one of the biggest causes was a broken local government structure. The Royal Commission of 1966-69 on local government in England came up with radical proposals for the future of Cambridge. The victory by the Tories at the 1970 general election was the difference between a Greater Cambridge unitary and the system we have today.

Above – the proposed boundaries for a new Greater Cambridge Unitary Council from the Royal Commission for Local Government in England 1966-69.

One of the areas that still fascinates people is the Kite – where The Grafton Centre is. The shopping centre was recently put up for sale on the back of Debenham’s implosion. That sales reps have been marketing the site as suitable for science labs reflects the utter failure of the original vision – but perhaps one that the councillor behind it, Cllr John Powley (Cons – Castle) could not have foreseen. Ironically, the proposals from the community at the time in 1976 looks far, far better when analysed today.

Above – the community alternative to The Grafton.

Lost concert hall plans, lost proposals

In the end, both city architect Gordon Logie and economist John Parry Lewis were frustrated both by councillors and by broken systems and structures. But they were not the only people.

Gordon Logie also had a vision for what Cambridge in the Year 2000 could be like.

Left – Mr Gordon Logie: Cambridge City Council’s principal architect and chief town planner throughout the 1960s.

While his proposals were incredibly controversial and opposed by many, he was one of the few who had a grand civic vision that he hoped could inspire people with new civic amenities with a new concert hall at the centre of it. Contemporary critics might say his thinking was limited by being car-centric. But the political demand for wider roads and more car parks was very difficult to resist.

I also had a look at more recent proposals such as:

There is still more to discover, but it will be interesting to see what the new Local Transport & Connectivity Plan looks like when it is published in spring 2022. How will it compare to previous transport plans?

Supporting my future research on the story of Cambridge the town

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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