Digitising old documents for new generations learning about Lost Cambridge

I’m in the process of scanning, digitising, and uploading much of my collection of old and very old documents and things that I’ve acquired over the years – and more recently with the help of those of you kind enough to subscribe/donate towards my research. You can see the results of my recent uploads here. I’ve uploaded over 80 separate items in the last month (May 2022). Which is also a reflection of not being able to go far from home due to still being in cardiac rehabilitation following my heart attack just before Christmas. Not a good look in my early 40s.

“By studying the past, we learn how to improve”

Below – a silhouette of the late Ian St John (Liverpool FC, Scotland) from a video by Liverpool Football Club just before his death – this was the final scene of a walk through with him and contemporary players.

For those of you of my generation, Ian St John was a familiar figure as a TV football pundit with a hugely-watched magazine show Saint & Greavsie – I’m more familiar with the players of that era than I am with those of today, which shows both how much I followed football at school, and how little I follow it today!

This was also around the time Cambridge United started their rise up the leagues in the early 1990s, a time when I was a frequent spectator at The Abbey. You can read about the history of the club at https://www.100yearsofcoconuts.co.uk/ As a child I never quite understood why the club played a song over the tannoy that we sang at primary school either. (Only when we won as it turned out – which also explains the Monty Python number “Always look on the bright side of life” from The Life of Brian – which only made sense when we had to study the film in my first year at University and how it reflected colonialism!

One of the things that has regularly come up over the years is the debate over a new ground for the football club. So far that has not happened, but is something that is now being debated again as part of the emerging local plan for 2030-41. One thing that has struck me over the decades is that irrespective of how well the club has performed, their attendances have always been limited not just to stadium capacity, but the very poor transport infrastructure in the Abbey part of Cambridge. It will be interesting to see what difference the new Chisholm Trail and Bridge make.

Introducing people to Cambridge’s past through old maps

One of the things I’ve learnt is how fascinated people are with maps of old from places they are familiar with. This map is from the Cambridgeshire Development Plan – Notes on the City of Cambridge 1952.

Above – the proposals for Cambridge in 1952 following the Holford-Wright Report. You can compare it with the large map produced by the pair in their 1950 Development Plan for Cambridge which I’ve uploaded here.

One of the first things that still intrigues me to this day is the interchangeable use of the terms “Cambridgeshire” and “Cambridge County”. This was also at a time when there were significant debates on the future of local government, the sense that the existing arrangements were obsolete for the time.

The history of Cambridgeshire in maps that was produced for the 1960s Government reforms (which I digitised here) shows how small Cambridge Borough was originally, and indicates the debates that were happening about what should be in what became the new tier of county councils in the then new legislation that created them.

Above – the recommendations ended up with Royston in Hertfordshire and Newmarket remaining in Suffolk.

The bigger picture which regular readers will have seen before, is the one that includes the historical county of Cambridgeshire along with the former shire councils shaded in the four colours, and the even smaller district level councils that were created from mergers in the mid-1930s.

One thing worth noting is that Cambridge’s municipal boundaries have remained the same since the 1930s. Since the refreshing of Cambridge City Council’s legal powers and structures in Sir Edward Heath’s reforms of the 1970s, it turns out that the number of city councillors has also remained the same at 42.

I found this out from the guide to the new structures from 1974 from HMSO which arrived recently and which I digitised here. This is the bit that relates to Cambridge.

It’s worth noting that the census figures differ somewhat – see Cambridgeshire Insight here – because the census was taken in some years during Cambridge University’s vacation. Which complicates comparing like with like. The figure for 1971’s census is around 99,000 people (term time) while in 1981 (outside term time) it was 91,000 – then back up to 101,000 in 1991, and closer to 125,000 in 2011. We find out later this year what the figure will be for 2021, but I expect it to be closer to 140,000 given the house building in the south and western edges of the city.

Cambridge’s sphere of economic influence

A couple of people commented that a ‘circle line’ stands out as being needed just by looking at the map below, which is from the 1966 Cost-Benefit Analysis by Lichfield, digitised here.

A similar approach to the above was also adopted by Professor John Parry Lewis in his assessment in the early 1970s. You can read vol. 1 of his Cambridge Sub-Regional Plan here.

Both of the above-maps give us an insight into why the Royal Commission on Local Government in England and Wales of 1966-69 digitised here decided to reshape local government almost from scratch and create two separate unitary councils for Greater Cambridge, and Greater Peterborough.

When you put all of these together, it starts to make sense as to why they did this. And it is something that planning and transport experts need to look back at again now that they need to come up with solutions that take into account of our urgent need to overhaul our infrastructure to meet the threat of the climate emergency – and get rid of fossil-fuel-based transport. Again, history shines a light on this too. Take Thomas Sharp, one of the first modern town planners and his recommendations for dealing with the demand for infrastructure to meet the needs of the ever-popular motor car.

Below – from Town and Country by Thomas Sharp, 1931, p79, which I digitised here.

Above – you can see Mr Sharp analyses where petrol stations should be just as today’s generations are trying to decide where best to place things like electric charging stations for electric vehicles. Our existing fossil fuel infrastructure didn’t get there by accident. It required a huge amount of effort, planning, investment, innovation, and people to build it. I don’t think we appreciate collectively just how big an effort that was – and how an even bigger effort will be needed to dismantle it and recycle as much of the materials as possible for a more sustainable age.

Is this new age going to require a new civic mindset?

Some of you will have seen the alarming headlines about changes to the Ministerial Code that the Prime Minister has proposed – ones that potentially make him more powerful and don’t deal with the criticisms that people far more qualified than me have made. But is all things ‘civic’s new? Turns out it isn’t, as C.S.S. Higham from 1932 tells us here.

What would the equivalent of the above look like today? Some 90 years later.

“They may have been scoundrels but at least you had heard of them!”

The Cambridge Blue Book of 1937 – you can just make out mesdames Webber and Hartree – Eva being our first female Mayor of Cambridge (1924-25). In that book includes lists of all of the main decision making posts and who occupied them – along with the name of the head of the household that lived in every single house in the borough. And ditto every single business too.

One of the many complaints today about local politics is that decision-making institutions have become so fragmented that it is hard to keep track of who is responsible for what, and who meets where and when. The Blue Book paints a picture of most if not all public services being owned and run locally, irrespective of whether public, private, or voluntary sector. (Pre-NHS there was *a lot* of the last). Today, some of our essential suppliers – such as water and sewage (Cambridge Water Company and Anglian Water) are privately-owned with no AGMs enabling ordinary people to buy nominal shares and cross-examine executives. Turns out we were warned about this too..

Below – from the Labour Research Department of the Labour Party from 1987 (digitised here), which evaluated the previous six years of privatisation by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government.

As with any historical source, one must take into account the party-political viewpoint of both the authors and the institution when analysing this or anything that involves party politics

The point about the above is that irrespective of your viewpoint on who should own and run public services, decisions taken by the state inevitably have an impact on communities that depend on them – whether intended by politicians and policy-makers, or whether unintended/unexpected consequences.

Which is why (and I’ll conclude with this…)

…it is ever so useful to look back at history and original historical documents to get a feel for what previous generations coped with, and what their situation was when making decisions that affect us today. What were the assumptions they made? What were the very prominent problems that they had to deal with? What sort of pressure was coming from local and national public opinion? What sort of corporate pressure was there, and where was it coming from? By digitising and uploading these decades-old and often long-forgotten documents, I hope more people will be able to read them and not only come to their own conclusions, but use them to inform any actions they take when engaging in local democracy and community action to improve things whether it’s close by or further afield.

Food for thought?

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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