Author Archives: The Real Cambridge

About The Real Cambridge

There is more to Cambridge than Colleges. A rich and vibrant social history and one steeped in contrast, and often, conflict, with its more famous academia.

The Lost Cinematic Palaces of Cambridge

The Playhouse, Mill Road

Cambridge’s first purpose built cinema opened in 1913, closing in 1956, in part due to the Entertainment Tax.  It became Fine Fare in the 1960s and is currently a Salvation Army shop.

In 2012

Initials carved into the soft red brick by people queuing along Covent Garden

The Tivoli, Chesterton Road

Cambridge’s second purpose build cinema opened in 1925, closing in 1956 as a consequence of the Entertainment Tax.

The Rendezvous – later the Rex, Magrath Avenue

Part of the roller skating rink was converted to the County Rink Cinema in 1911. It closed in 1972 and was demolished in 1979.

Kinema, Mill Road

Build in the mid 1800s as Sturton Town Hall; it opened in 1911 as The Empire Cinema.  In 1916 it was renamed The Kinema and became purely a cinema.

It showed its last public film in 1979 and has been demolished to make way for student flats.

The Central, Hobson Street,

Open 1929 showing Cambridge’s first ‘talkie’ it closed as a Cinema in 1972.

The New Theatre Cinema, St Andrew’s Street

The New Theatre converted to a theatre cinema in 1938, closing in 1956 before being demolished in 1960/1.

Arts Cinema, Market Passage

In 1933 trading as The Cosmopolitan cinema.   This cinema closed in 1999 and is now ‘B’ Bar.

The Regal, St Andrew’s Street

The Regal opened in 1937 and was the largest Cinema in Cambridge.  It closed as the Regal in 1997. It now houses Wetherspoons on its ground floor and the delightful Picturehouse Cinema on its upper floors.

The Victoria, Market Place

The Victoria opened in 1930; however, it seems to have traded as a cinema prior to that.  It closed in 1988.  Fortunately its Art Deco façade was retained when Marks and Spencer demolished the rear of the building for its new store.


Cambridge – a brief Cinema History

The recent BAFTAs made me think about cinema history in Cambridge and the number of local cinemas that have vanished in recent years.

In 1896 the first moving film was shown in London. But it was not until 1913 that Cambridge got its first purpose built cinema, the Playhouse.

The Playhouse, Mill Road – now Salvation Army Shop

But Cambridge residents were not unaccustomed to the new technology.  By 1910 several halls in Cambridge had Cinematography licenses.

In an age before television the popularity of cinema was enormous.

The picture houses brought the rest of the world to its audiences. Pathe newsreels of local and national events, film serials such as Dr Fu Manchu in the 1920s, Flash Gordon and Batman and Robin in the 40s and 50s attracted all ages to the excitement of the moving screen.

Local Cambridge undergraduates also sought out the cinemas.   In February 1912 a local newspaper reported that undergraduates had misbehaved, causing seats to be broken. As a result Mr. Hawkins published a notice in the Cambridge Daily News stating that, in compliance with the wishes of the majority of the patrons, the Empire was in future to be open to Townspeople Only.

The Kinema, Mill Road

By the mid 1930s people were in search of a better cinema going experience. Opened in 1937, The Regal was the largest cinema in town seating 1,869 and with a modern café over the entrance. The Victoria could seat 1,500.  They were modern and efficient whereas Halliwell, the famous film writer and critic, described the Playhouse as being ‘knobby, antique little place out in the suburbs, with gas radiators which always smelled dangerous without giving off much in the way of heat.’

The Victoria Cinema, Market Square – now Marks and Spencer

The Mill Road cinemas declined in popularity with people out of town and those wanting a clean, modern experience. Yet they remained well loved and used by those in the immediate area.

The Kinema particularly is still remembered with much fondness. Despite the fact that it was often referred to a ‘the Fleapit’.  It was a kind of mecca for all the poorer children who went there on a Saturday to escape into a fantasy world of cinema heroes.

A post about Cambridge Cinemas now and then coming up.


Frozen Cam

It may be frosty outside but Britain has largely escaped the savage winter weather that affects much of Europe at present.

Yet some British winters have gone down in the annals.  Of those, in Cambridgeshire 1895 and 1963 stand out.

Reporting the icy conditions in 1963, The Cambridge News recalled the ‘freeze-up of 1895’, ‘which lasted for six weeks, beginning in January.  A tremendous blizzard with snowdrifts hedge high was followed by a sudden but short thaw and then six weeks of severe frost.  There was skating on the Cam from Midsummer Common to Ely and skating on the roads.

Living on the edge of the Fens, where winter skating has a long tradition, many local people had their own skates – either proper boots or just blades that fixed to their shoes.  So on the few occasions when the Cam has frozen over sufficiently to allow safe skating, everyone took advantage.

Skating on the Cam near St John’s College 1963

It is hard to imagine that on the same ground where Jack Hobbs played cricket, ice skaters would pirouette in 1963.

Skating on Parker’s Piece 1963

The 1963 freeze-up didn’t please many.  Angry letters to the Cambridge News complained about people not clearing the pavements in front of their shops and houses.

‘Disgusted Ratepayer of Cambridge’ complained in a letter to the paper, ‘When I came to Cambridge in 1926, it was an offence if your frontage wasn’t cleared by 10 o’clock.’  He went on to say, ‘I was managing a shop on Mill Road at the time, and I had not got round to clearing the frontage by 9.50m.  A policeman came into the shop, looked at his watch, and politely reminded me that the pavement was to be cleared by 10am.’

The Cambridge News of January 1963 reported ‘ Children and Shoppers’ having to walk into the City as the weather ‘stopped buses and transport throughout Cambridge’ and ‘Many Building Workers’ being laid off.  William Sindal Ltd, builders, had apparently already been forced to lay off 70 men due to the conditions ‘with more to join that number if the current conditions prevail’.

That same year the WRVS came to the rescue of ‘Villagers Stranded in the City’ one weekend, most of whom had come into the City to go to dance halls and the Cinema.  They took 50 blankets to the Police Station where a canteen had brewed tea for those marooned.

Being temporarily stranded in the City Centre last Saturday night I did wonder what would happen to those people who were struggling to get back to the villages.  Taxis were in short supply and the night buses suddenly became most popular option.

Camaraderie quickly springs up amongst people trapped in such a situation.  Like the baker who survived the icy waters when the Titanic sank, strong spirits helped warm the soul and other parts.


Fitzbilliies – a sweet passion

Cambridge University is renowned worldwide for it’s architecture and learning, however the town has it’s own acclaimed treasures.

Standing slightly off the beaten track is a small family run business renowned for creating structures of a different kind, with skills that have been passed down through the decades

This shop caused Stephen Fry to tweet about its demise resulting, thankfully, in its restoration as one of Cambridge’s best loved cake emporiums .

A.E. Mason established Fitzbillies, a bakery and patisserie, in 1922.  Recognizable by its distinctive art nouveau frontage, the shop has had five owners to date, all of whom have baked with a passion for traditionally made fine foods.

Mr. Mason ran the establishment until 1951, when W. G. Day took over until 1980.

The shop really took off when Clive and Julia Pledger took over in 1980.

Producing the traditional gooey delights of Chelsea buns steeped in syrup and deliciously chocolaty sachertorten, the shop had local people and undergraduates queuing up outside the shop on a daily basis.

Such an array of traditionally made cakes, breads, meringues, biscuits, and savouries provided the perfect extravagance, all carefully wrapped or boxed by one of the surliest woman I have ever met.  But still we all came back for more.

Under the Pledgers the shop grew and a sandwich shop was opened in Regent Street as well as a small stall in the newly opened food hall at Eaden Lilley in 1984. Too there was a thriving mail order business and outside catering for weddings and College functions.

During that time the Pledgers also starting making award winning chocolates.

It was recorded that in 1984 Fitzbillies were making 3,000 Chelsea buns a week.

In 1988 Fitzbillies was named best British food shop in ‘Courvoisier’s Book of the Best’.

In the same year  the mail order business extended to the Web – receiving two orders on the first day, one from Australia the other from America.

Sadly, after their marriage break up and despite Julia’s tremendous efforts the shop struggled and in 1991 there was a new owner of Fitzbillies – Penny Thompson. Penny had been working in the shop as a general assistant and one can imagine had become as passionate about the place as so many other owners and customers alike.

During her time at Fitzbillies Penny was able to rent the shop next door and turn it into a restaurant (that shop had previously been Heffers Penguin bookshop, closing in 1985 after 28 years of stocking only Penguin books,  after which it was a ladies boutique for a short while).

But the story appeared to end in 2011, when both closed.

Stephen Fry’s Twitter plea to save Fitzbillies was heard abroad. That and his wife, Alison’s fond schoolgirl memories of the delights of their sticky buns lead Tim Hayward, food writer and broadcaster to invest in 52 Trumpington Street – and so a new era began …


Cambridge – Sin City

Sin City – Grotesques in Hidden Cambridge

In his book on Cambridge Nikolaus Pevsner describes Magdalene Street as having ‘the best group of pre-classical domestic architecture in Cambridge’.

Most of the present buildings originate from the 16th Century, although they have all had subsequent additions and alterations.  The buildings were merchant’s houses or Inns.  Given Magdalene Street’s proximity to the buzzing Port of Cambridge this was once a thriving commercial centre-playing host to many European traders.

In the early nineteenth century it was reported that there were 31 Inns and beer establishments between Bridge Street, Quayside and Magdalene Street.

Magdalene Street boasted 5 inns. The Cross Keys Inn, Pickeral – dating back to 1540, The Swans, Plough Arms and The King’s Head. The Yards attached to these Inns were where the beer was brewed.

Whilst today only the Pickerel Inn survives there remains some tell tail signs of spirits from the past.

Today at 25 Magdalene Street we find a very respectable and classy ladies clothing shop.  Selling adorable and quirky designs from Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood (to name a few).  But if you can manage to drag your eyes away from the tempting baubles in the shop window and cast your eyes upwards you will be in for a surprise.

Carved ‘grotesques’ or brackets support each of the overhanging floors. These carvings leave little to the imagination.  Local lore will tell you it was a brothel and was used by Samuel Pepys – a student from across the road.  Students and ladies of the night seemed to go hand in hand at one time in Cambridge.

However, it is more likely that the figures were a protection against witchcraft – a wandering witch would take fright – as well she might!


Cambridge – house of correction

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.

In 1894 an 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.


Cambridge beginnings

Although Cambridge is renowned world-wide for its University, there was a time when it was almost as famous for its trading links and annual Fair.  The centuries the River Cam provided a crucial physical link with other parts of East Anglia and the Continent of Europe.  Cambridge became an important distributions centre and seat of one of the largest Fairs in Europe.  The old Roman road that runs through the town also played a considerable role in shaping the Cam Bridge (now Magdalene Bridge).  The siting of the Cam Bridge was crucial to the development of the town, and the need to protect this river crossing resulted in the erection of a Roman fort overlooking the bridge. Thus for both geographic and strategic reasons Cambridge became a convenient stopping place for travellers and merchants.

As early as 43 AD the Romans built a fortified camp at Castle Hill, and in 300 AD they laid out a new Roman town.  They also built a system of canals that linked Cambridge with other Roman settlements in the Fen.  However, it was the Danes who really put Cambridge on the trading map when they arrived in 80 AD.  Interlinking waterways that connected with the River Cam offered river travel as far a King’s Lynn and the Wash.  When the Vikings arrived with their more sophisticated boats and established trading links with Asia and Europe, the town took off as an inland port and international trading centre.  The Danes built a settlement by the bridge and erected wharves there and then went on to urbanise Cambridge.  On the south side of the river, on the current site of St John’s College, they laid out symmetrically arranged streets and a new market place.  The Church of St Clements in Bridge Street, has Danish foundations.

The Cam Bridge