In 1627 Thomas Hobson, the Cambridge carrier and livery stable keeper whose name and reputation begat the phrase ‘ Hobson’s Choice’, provided land to build a workhouse for the ‘poor people of the University and Town to work and as a house of correction for stubborn rogues and beggars’.
This was built on the site of the modern day Hobson House, St Andrew Street.
Hobson provided for 12 trustees to oversee the building and administration of the building. Six were townsmen; the remaining six were to be selected by the Vice Chancellor of the University.
The governors and master of the Workhouse were usually worsted weavers or woolcombers who received a salary of £30 a year. In return they had to provide stocks of wool, flax and other materials for indigent woolcombers, spinners and weavers and instruction in those trades. The area around the Workhouse became a centre for such crafts.
Throughout the 17th century the spinning house fulfilled Hobson’s aims, serving as a prison for the unruly and work shy and as a centre at which the poor and unemployed could learn a trade
However, the early 1700s saw it being used as a prison for petty offenders by the town magistrates and particularly for prostitutes arrested by the University Proctors. This usage by the University aroused much resentment among townsfolk.
By all accounts the building provided harsh accommodation. Sixty cells, six feet by eight, lined the narrow corridors on two floors. Each cell had a heavy door with a spyhole and a turntable through which food was passed. The windows were partially sealed with iron shutters; in winter, snow drifted between the boards. There was no heating, no light at night and a single pump in the courtyard for washing.
As if these conditions were not enough of a deterrent, Corporation accounts record a payment made to Horner Johnson, by order of the Vice Chancellor, for whipping girls, 10 shillings.
In 1846 a 19-year-old girl Elizabeth was arrested, gaoled, caught a cold and died within 10 days. Following the report of the inquest in The Times, many wrote to condemn the system. Indeed there was a concerted national outcry not only over the conditions at the Spinning House but also as to the exercise by the University of an extraordinary jurisdiction over townswomen.
During University Term time a Proctor would patrol the streets with two assistants, trailed by a coach and driver. Any woman could be suspected of wrong doing and seized upon. Those arrested underwent an immodest examination then were held in the Spinning House and brought before the Vice Chancellor for sentencing.
Notoriously in 1860 a group of young and respectable milliners were on their way to a party in Chesterton in the company of some undergraduates, when they were stopped and taken to the Spinning House, receiving sentences of imprisonment varying from 7 – 14 days.
Later that year a woman was arrested in the belief she was a prostitute but brought a case for wrongful imprisonment against the University. The publicity given these cases and the criticism generated caused the Proctors to issue warnings rather than make arrests.
However, in 1890 Dr Butler of Trinity College ordered the Proctors to be more severe. Between October 1890 and September 1891, 13 women were arrested.
On December 2, 1891, 17-year-old Daisy Hopkins was arrested for ‘walking with a member of the University’
Daisy was born in Ely in 1874. She came with her parents to live in Cambridge when she was 13.
By all accounts she was a known prostitute, warned many times by the Proctors. However it was reported that she was not soliciting at the time of arrest nor was the Undergraduate wearing his regulation academic dress.
A local solicitor defended her. Nevertheless, she was found guilty and sentenced to 14 days. However, this was not the end of the case.
The local and London papers were full of the unfairness of the case. The townsfolk sought contributions to a fund for her legal costs. There followed a long battle in the Court of the Queen’s Bench, the issue being that Daisy had been charged with ‘walking with a member of the University in a public street’. The Attorney General, acting for the University, had to concede that this, in itself, was not an offence; the charge, he argued, really was that she had been ‘walking for an immoral purpose’.
Counsel for the Town quickly replied that she had therefore been imprisoned on a charge which had in fact never been put to her. So she stood wrongly convicted. Parliament was then involved.
On June 18th 1893, after a third reading in the Lords, a Act was passed removing the power of the University to arrest women suspected of soliciting. Local magistrates were to become responsible for dealing with prostitution.
In 1901 the Spinning House was demolished. The Old Police Station stands on the spot where dozens of women had been half starved, half frozen and forced to scrub floors, many of whom committed no offence but being of the wrong sex in a public place.