Category Archives: History

Peas Hill – A Fishy Tale

Peas Hill – ‘A fishy tale’

The past five years have seen the Peas Hill area of Cambridge turn into a popular foodie quarter.   First Jamie’s Italian, then CAU, Aromi, Zizi’s and new kid on the block The Pint Shop, opening its doors in November.

Yet food and Peas Hill have had a close connection for many centuries

The street housed the fish market from 1572, when it was moved from the Market Square.  The street’s name deriving from ‘piscaria’, the Latin for fish market.

The fish market was important, and dealt in a great variety of fish: salmon, Colchester oysters, as well as mackerel, herrings, sprats, eels, jacks, and other fresh-water fish and thrived until the 1930s.

Peas Hill looking towards the Market

Peas Hill looking towards the Market

B.Pea.K3 31883 B.Pea.K30 4329

However, that was not the end of fish selling in Peas Hill. The Sennitt family, a well-known Cambridge butchers, poulterers and fishmongers, had a shop in Peas Hill selling wet fish, pheasants, partridges, pigeons and rabbits in the 1950s and 1960s. Followed by a branch of MacFisheries was still trading in the 1970s.

Of course Peas Hill is not a hill, but rising 50 foot above the rest of the town it was selected, along with Market Hill, as a good location for a market because it was higher and drier than the rest of a damp and generally low-lying town.

Being in a central part of the medieval town the Peas Hill area is steeped in history.

An Augustine Friary once dominated the landscape. Bounded by what are now Wheeler Street, Bene’t Street and Free School Lane. The Friary played an important part of town history for over 250 years.  Founded in 1290 and suppressed in 1538. A casualty of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII.

The Perse Boys School, originally called the Free School, was founded within the site in 1615. Hence Free School Lane.  The Whipple Museum is partly housed in the large hall of the original Jacobean Free School. The school moved to new premises in 1890.

In 1760 the Vice Master of Trinity bought up much of the Friary land presenting it to the University as a Botanic Garden.  The Gardens were to remain there until they moved to their current home in 1831 and the site was used to build University Departments and took on the name of the ‘New Museum’s Site’.

In the 1800s Mayor Mortlock, a banker, and 13 times Mayor of Cambridge, bought land facing Peas Hill.  He went on to build what was until recently Barclays Bank, in Bene’t Street, now Zizi’s.

In 1807 Edward Gillam, also a banker, leased land from Mayor Mortlock and built 10 Peas Hill, a find merchants house.  Soon to open its doors as The Pint Shop.  He went on, rather contentiously, given its proximity to Mortlocks Bank, to open a room in his house to found The Cambridge Bank.

However, Edwards’s banking aspirations were not realized as he died in 1815.

Various local bankers then leased the building, although not run as a bank and a variety of people rented the property.

In 1912 Francis and Co Solicitor a renowned local law firm leased the building and stayed there until 1986 when they merged with Mills and Reeve.

The Cambridge Arts Theatre, founded in 1936 by John Maynard Keynes, has a major presence in the street and was once ‘the’ place to have afternoon tea looking over the rooftops of Cambridge.

However, one of the street’s most unusual features cannot be seen: its extensive cellars running beneath the street, covering a quarter of an acre. Two of the tunnels are 100yds long. They were once used as wine vaults and during the Second World War as an air-raid shelter. Another blog piece will cover this secret history.

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Buildings tell a story

I am not sure how many people walking along the Haymarket off Northampton Street, look up at the building just past the Punter public house that is inscribed ‘ Free School – Supported by voluntary subscription.’

For several years I have been intrigued by this building and wanted to know more.  Over the summer I did some research on the building and although information was in short supply did manage to find out more about when and why the it was erected.

In the 19th century, mass education was hotly debated nationally and locally. Funded by a combination of charitable subscriptions and governmental grants, school buildings sprang up all over the county.  By 1857 the government were alarmed to note that the Education Grant had increased to about half a million. By comparison the Crimean war had cost about £70 million and the Royal Stables were granted tens of thousands of pounds. A review was set up to find a cheaper way of delivering mass education.

Looking at the Castle Hill area in Cambridge, Boy’s School, the building of which survives today, was built on Pound Hill in 1812.  This started life in the Friends Meeting House in Jesus Lane in 1808. Known at St Peter’s, Castle End, then Pound Hill Boy’s School and later St. Giles and St Peter’s Junior Mixed School, it closed in 1924 with pupils moving to St Luke’s.

Photo from Cambridgeshire Collection

Enid Porter said ‘Castle Hill was popularly known as The Borough – the burgh or fortified place – and anyone born within its boundaries was called a ‘Borough Boy’ (until 1912 a public house of that name stood at 19 Northampton Street).

St. Giles’ Infants school opened in Albion Row in 1826, closing in 1938. Children were admitted to the Infants school at 2 years old, child care being very useful for working parents with large families, moving to the boys or girls school at 6 years.   To gain admittance children had to be accompanied by a parent or guardian and have an admission paper issued by a ‘subscriber’ or Clergyman of the Parish of St Peter or St Giles.  Children were required to come to school clean and neat.  We do know that ‘subscribers’ to the schools’ insisted that all pupils attend Church on Sunday.  Scripture and the learning of the Catechism formed a prominent part of the curriculum.

St. Giles’ Girls School opened on Pound Hill, opposite the Boy’s School, in1845 and closed in 1930.

The Log Books are not very helpful about the school days of the children of Castle End but are pretty revealing of the life of the area.  They are most particular in listing punishments (generally for lateness and unauthorised absence) and those reasons for absence. Exclusion from school was a regular form of punishment.

Castle End was a close-knit community.  Its mainly working class residents crowded into insanitary houses in airless courts and yards. Infectious diseases could spread easily in the closely packed housing in St Giles and St Peter’s.  Measles, scarlet fever even smallpox caused children to be absent or parents kept children at home for fear of catching anything.

Attendance was also affected by the weather. Wet boots dried rock hard in front of the fire overnight. When children tried to pull them on over chilblains caused by the cold, the pain was exquisite. Many poor families did not have enough boots for all the children at the same time.  No good excuse in the school teachers’ eyes.

A very common cause of regular absence was due to children helping out at home.  At the girl’s school, numbers reduced every Friday afternoon and Monday morning as children of local laundresses helped fetch and carry linen from the Colleges.

Children would not return promptly after the summer break as they were helping with the harvest.  Children would help fetch and carry food or drink to parents working in the fields or even assist with gleaning and caring for smaller siblings whilst parents worked.

As Castle End was on the rural outskirts of the town there is mention of trips to Madingley Woods to gather bluebells and half days picking blackberries.

Children are also noted to  ‘absent’ themselves to attend other local events such as the Volunteers’ Review (troops passing through Cambridge), fireworks on 5 November and parades.

However, Sunday School treats were a regular feature of the year with tea and games being organised in nearby fields such as those of Mount Pleasant and at Trinity College Cricket ground.

The poverty of the 19th century Castle Hill area seems in stark contrast to today. Boasting several fine dining establishments and two nationally renowned museums the area has lost its densely populated and insanitary yards.  Yet this is the area where Cambridge began – bridging the town and the countryside and playing host to a Roman fort and a medieval Castle.

Those ill shod children whose parents were scrapping a living could never have imagined that two centuries later Kettles Yard would be an internationally renowned modern art Centre and the old White Swan Inn a museum telling the social history of Cambridge.

Although if they were to sit, once again, on the seats in the ‘old bar’ of the Folk Museum they might just be able to conjure up memories of story telling on cold winter nights as they warmed their feet by the large open fire.


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.


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.

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.