The city of Cambridge

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

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'The city of Cambridge', A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959), pp. 1-2. British History Online [accessed 23 June 2024].

. "The city of Cambridge", in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959) 1-2. British History Online, accessed June 23, 2024,

. "The city of Cambridge", A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959). 1-2. British History Online. Web. 23 June 2024,


Cambridge, the county town, and since 1951 a city, owes its position to the crossing of two natural lines of communication. The Cam, constituting a river route from south-west to north-east, was a main artery for traffic through the Fenland until the railway period; (fn. 1) as the Recorder of Cambridge said in his speech to James I in 1615, 'This river, with navigation to the sea, is the life of traffic to this town and county.' (fn. 2) It was the chalk and gravel ridge that determined the line of the road which continued the Worsted Street to Huntingdon. Known in the Middle Ages as Stoneway or Huntingdon Way, (fn. 3) it crossed the river by 'the one bridge in England which gives name to a county'. (fn. 4) Roads from St. Neots and Ely join the Huntingdon Road west of the bridge, and to the east roads from Newmarket, Bishop's Stortford, Ware, and Baldock converge on the city.

To the end of the 18th century the built-up area of Cambridge was concentrated round the castle site north-west of the bridge and the market-place south-east of it, roughly 1 mile long and ½ mile broad, surrounded by the town fields which stretched east and west for 3½ miles. Outlying settlements at Barnwell downstream and Newnham upstream were only absorbed by the expansion of the 19th century which, beginning along the Newmarket Road, extended the built-up areas southwards and northwards both sides of the river until the houses of Cambridge in 1951 extended 2½ miles southeast of the bridge and a mile to the north. In 1912 and 1935 the Borough boundaries were successively extended to include the whole of Chesterton and Cherry Hinton and parts of Impington and Milton, Fen Ditton, Great Shelford, Trumpington, and Grantchester. (fn. 5) The remains of the medieval town fields are to be seen south-west of the Huntingdon Road and in the various 'pieces' and college playing fields. 'Medieval Cambridge is largely separated from the expanding Cambridge of today by a ring of open land formed by the Commons and the Backs.' (fn. 6)

It was counted a day's journey from London to Cambridge in the 14th century, (fn. 7) and in 1702 a coach took 15 hours. (fn. 8) The first coach ran from Cambridge to London in 1653. (fn. 9) From 1663 onwards turnpike trusts were improving communications, (fn. 10) and between 1724 and 1797 a series of Acts for improving the road between Cambridge and London and other main roads was passed. (fn. 11) By the second half of the century there was a daily coach service to London, with others running to Birmingham, Norwich, Yarmouth, and all the chief centres of East Anglia. (fn. 12) In 1837 ten different coaches left Cambridge for London every week day, and two for Oxford. (fn. 13) The last stage coach left Cambridge in 1849. (fn. 14) The first milestones in England since the Roman occupation were erected along the London road by Trinity Hall in 1729 and bore the college arms; the first, at Trumpington Ford, was over 12 ft. high. (fn. 15) There was also a regular boat service from 1774 and proposals for a canal to link the Cam with the Thames by way of the Stort were being mooted, but they were opposed both by the Corporation and the conservators of the Cam. (fn. 16) The suggestion of a railway was also resisted from 1825 to 1842, when the first Act was passed. (fn. 17) Not until 1845 was the line from London to Norwich opened by the Great Eastern, (fn. 18) and then, owing to University influence, the station was placed over a mile from the centre of the town, and a subsequent project for a line over Coe Fen with a station on Sheeps Green or Midsummer Common was abandoned as likely to spoil the beauties of the place. (fn. 19) The Great Northern, Midland, and London and North Western lines, opened in 1847, 1851, and 1862, linked Cambridge with most of the surrounding country. (fn. 20)

The first mention of a post office operating in Cambridge was in 1672, when the postmaster asked to be exempted from quartering militia. The present building, which also houses the automatic telephone exchange, is situated in St. Andrews Street and was opened in 1934, about 150 yards from the site of the previous office at the corner of Petty Cury. A telegraph service was first provided by the Post Office in 1870, and the telephone service instituted by the National Telephone Company in 1892 was taken over in 1912. (fn. 21)


  • 1. H. C. Darby, The Cambridge Region, 162.
  • 2. Cooper, Annals, iii. 70.
  • 3. P.N. Cambs. (E.P.N.S.), 30–31.
  • 4. Maitland, Township and Borough, 37.
  • 5. See maps in Darby, Cambridge Region, 178–9, and W. Holford and H. M. Wright, Cambridge Planning Proposals (Cambridge, 1950).
  • 6. J. B. Mitchell in Darby, Cambridge Region, 180. This is clearly illustrated in the photograph reproduced below, plate facing p. 287.
  • 7. Parliamentary writs de expensis.
  • 8. J. E. B. Mayor, Cambridge under Queen Anne, 115.
  • 9. Cooper, Annals, iii. 454.
  • 10. A. Gray, Town of Cambridge, 140; V.C.H. Cambs. ii. 85.
  • 11. Cooper, Annals, iv. 182, 186, 207, 365, 460.
  • 12. Ibid. 273, 331. By 1776 the journey to town could be done in 8 hours, and by 1788 there was a daily return service: Cambridge Chronicle.
  • 13. The Cambridge Guide (1837), 266–71.
  • 14. A. Gray, Town of Cambridge, 185.
  • 15. Ed. Conybeare, Highways and Byways in Cambs. 160; Hist. of Cambs. 235.
  • 16. Cooper, Annals, iv. 403, 432, 437, 502.
  • 17. A. Gray, Town of Cambridge, 184; Cooper, Annals, iv. 586, 601, 632.
  • 18. Cooper, Annals, iv. 677.
  • 19. Camb. Chronicle, 22 Nov. 1845.
  • 20. Cooper, Annals, iv. 695, 697.
  • 21. Ex inf. Postmaster-General, quoting: Peover Papers, 1672; Min. 389/1932; Eng. 360/1870; Nat. Telephone Co. Jnl. Oct. 1907.