How Duce’s pit became worth a fortune – a short tale of land and property in East Cambridge

Cambridge used to have a prominent local brick-making industry – to the extent that the the pale brick colour of the bricks became fairly well known in the industry in comparison to the red bricks of elsewhere, such as the northern industrial towns, or the granite of Aberdeen. Author Michael Rosen recorded an audiofile for Historyworks on Cambridge’s brick and tile industry that grew up between Newmarket Road and the Cambridge-Ely railway line.

Above – the old brickworks that were turned into a rubbish dump by Mr Duce. Photo from Britain From Above by Historic England <<– Click here to see more images of the area from the mid-20thC.

As the raw material needed for making the bricks became exhausted, the now worthless land was sold on. The Duce family appear to have acquired the site and turned it into a tip and scrap metal processing plant. That move appeared to make Owen Richard Duce a wealthy man – enabling him to purchase and restore Coldham’s Hall, on the Suffolk/Cambs border.

Above – Owen Richard Duce, 30 July 1971, from the Bury Free Press in the British Newspaper Archive.

It turns out that Richard Duce married the daughter of one of the Coulson family of builders. The Saffron Walden Weekly News of Friday 13 November 1936 announced the birth of Greta Pauline Duce to Marjorie and Richard Duce.

In one sense this is little different to the families of academia intermarrying – thinking the Darwins, Jebbs, and Keynes families. Same thing, different economic sphere? By 1942, Duce had branched out into the world of scrap metal, gaining a licence from the Government to do so.

Above – Richard Duce advertising for iron and steel scrap. SW Weekly News, Fri 15 May 1942 in the British Newspaper Archive

Further expansion of Duce’s industrial activities

It looks like he had acquired a lease on some private railway sidings at Devonshire Road (where housing now is) – and where the Disused Stations website goes into more detail about what used to be in and around Cambridge Railway Station. <<– This is well worth browsing through if you are interested in Cambridge’s industrial history.

Above – advertising to engineers from his railway sidings address, then owned by the London, Midland, and Scottish Railways. SW Weekly News 23 Jan 1948 in the British Newspaper Library

Almost a decade later, the advertisements had gotten larger – this from 1951 in the British Newspaper Archive

Much of his disposal and scrap metal recycling business functions still took place off Newmarket Road – expanding outwards as technology enabled new white goods such as electric cookers.

Above – from SW Weekly News 10 Jan 1964 in the British Newspaper Archive.

The regular adverts from the Saffron Walden Weekly News also reflects the economic links between Cambridge and the north Essex market town nearby.

The Newmarket Road site sold off

Mr Duce sold most of the site in the late 1960s to a property redeveloper. It wasn’t until 1970 that any work got going.

Above – Cambridge Evening News 20 Feb 1970 in the British Newspaper Archive.

Note there would be a general election shortly after, and a few years later the catastrophe of the coal miners’ strike that brought down Sir Edward Heath’s Government, the country having endured three day weeks and electricity rotas due to coal shortages and delivery drivers (road and rail refusing to cross picket lines.

The site was further sold on in 1972 – note the property mark ups!

Mr Duce said he bought the site in 1948 ‘for a matter of a few pence’ eventually selling it on for over £100,000 in the mid-1960s at mid-1960s prices! That was according to an article in the Cambridge Evening News of 21 Sept 1972 – the not-great image below clearly showing the last gasometer of the old Cambridge University and Town Gas Works, and the Chimney of the old Pumping Station – now the Cambridge Museum of Technology.

Above – the Cambridge Evening News reporting the further sale of the rubbish-filled pit that went for £300,000

The article itself is revealing in that it shows plans to turn some of the site into a shopping centre which fell through. Furthermore, it shows that Summerfield Developments bought the site in 1968 but did little with it despite grand plans. In 1972 the site was bought by J Coral Estates – which explains the name “Coral Park Trading Estate” which became familiar in the 1980s & 1990s as that firm succeeded in building a series of warehouses on the site.

Above – from the Cambridge Evening News 21 Sept 1972 in the British Newspaper Archive, confirmation of the changing hands of the old brickworks, then Duce’s Tip – and today the Cambridge Retail Park.

“Won’t out-of-town car-fed shopping centres kill the town centre’s retail trade?”

This was a debate had within Cambridge Labour circles at the time – and one that carried on all the way through to the 2000s.

Above – Cambridge Evening News 09 Jan 1976 in the British Newspaper Archive

Cllr Jack Warren (Lab – Abbey) a former soldier, vs Cllr Ruth Cohen (Lab – Newnham), the economist. One speaking out for the small businesses unable to compete against the large traders, vs another speaking for the consumers looking for the best products at the cheapest prices.

The site remains a retail and warehouse park – one inevitably hit by the rise of online shopping. It was recently acquired by RAILPen who are looking to redevelop the site in the face of further rising land prices and a speculative bubble on science and technology laboratory spaces. Their first proposals for part of the Newmarket Road site was published recently.

It remains to be seen what happens to the rest – in particular if any expensive land remediation is required, given the years worth of waste thrown into it in the mid-20thC.

Supporting my future research on the story of Cambridge the town

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