The city of Cambridge: The growth of the city

Pages 109-111

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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Growth Of The City

Cambridge is essentially a town that has originated from the two bridgeheads that guarded the crossing of the Cam by the Roman Road—the Hadstock or Huntingdon Way of the Middle Ages: what has recently been described as the 'spine' of the town. (fn. 1) The ground plan of its nucleus is based on the junction with this road, just south of the bridge, of the road coming north from Trumpington—the High Street of the Middle Ages. The position of the earliest settlements was determined by the gravel ridge where dwellings were above flood level. The names Peas hill and Market hill today preserve the tradition of an elevation now obliterated, whilst north of the river the Roman camp was planted on the one high spot where the chalk outlier rose to over 70 ft. (fn. 2)

It has been suggested by Arthur Gray that the waters of the Cam were artificially directed to serve as outworks to the north and south of the river crossing at a period when Middle Anglians and East Anglians were contending for mastery, (fn. 3) and the further hypothesis that the King's Ditch was the outer line, and possibly the last of a series of ditches constructed to defend the crossing, may well be valid. (fn. 4) The line of the ditch is best seen on a map; (fn. 5) the two 'gates', probably toll barriers, were Barnwell Gate, where the Hadstock Way crossed the ditch, hard by the present site of Christ's College, and Trumpington Gate, where the High Street crossed it, at the top of Mill Lane.

Archaeological evidence indicates early postRoman settlement on the market site, and probably there was a substantial settlement round the market and St. Bene't's Church well before 1066. (fn. 6) The green belt separating the two centres of population is, as Gray showed, easily traceable down to 1279. (fn. 7) The alluvial strip was not suitable for buildings until it had been raised by the accumulated deposits of centuries. (fn. 8) If we judge by the churches, of which St. Clement, St. George (later Holy Sepulchre), St. Michael, St. Edward, St. Botolph, and St. Peter (later Little St. Mary) were probably there by the end of the 11th century, (fn. 9) the line of the medieval High Street (now Trinity Street and King's Parade) was preferred to the Hadstock Way, later known as Conduit Street inside the ditch and Preachers' Street outside it, and today represented by Sidney Street and Regent Street. It was in the 13th century that the made land between the High Street and the river began to be built on. Milne Street, running through the parish of St. John Zachary (mentioned in 1217), contained many dwelling houses later to be replaced by religious houses and University hostels. (fn. 10) In the 12th century St. John's Hospital had been erected on a 'very poor waste place'. (fn. 11)

Apart from the houses within the King's Ditch, the settlement round Barnwell Abbey, whither the Austin canons moved in 1112, (fn. 12) is on land inhabited in pagan Anglo-Saxon times, and there is evidence of an equally ancient origin for the little settlement at Newnham. (fn. 13) St. Radegund's nunnery was also outside the ditch, and in the 13th century the Dominicans' house was outside the Barnwell Gate, as St. Peter's Church and College were outside the Trumpington Gate. Thus apart from the old castle end, there were four suburbs to the east and south when the survey of 1279 was made.

Maitland (fn. 14) has familiarized us with the picture of the small urban nucleus of medieval Cambridge surrounded by the open fields so beautifully depicted by Loggan in 1690—lying in the form of threequarters of a rough circle, of which the fourth quarter is made up of the vill of Chesterton, only to be added to the others in 1912. If the circle was ever complete, it may be that the Chesterton segment was subtracted when William I built his castle on the site of the Roman camp and made it the governmental centre of Cambridgeshire. Chesterton was one of the very few royal manors in the county. However that may be, the proportion of open arable to built-up area was something like 23 to 9 until the end of the 18th century.

The survey of 1279 fills 45 closely printed pages of the Rotuli Hundredorum, (fn. 15) as against the half page that Domesday Book allots to Cambridge. It enumerates, parish by parish, every house, shop, and void place in the borough. In 1279 there were 3 parishes north of the river and 14 south. There were 17 churches, not counting those of the religious houses, but as yet no college. There were 76 shops or stalls, 48 of them in the parishes of St. Edward and St. Mary by the Market. There were 5 granges, 6 granaries, 3 water-mills, 2 windmills, and 2 horsemills. There were 535 messuages, and the householder of every one is named, with the rent that he paid to his landlord, if he had one, and the dues that he paid to the town bailiffs if his house was rated to the hawgavel and so contributed to the fee farm.

Since the amount paid in hawgavel in 1279 was practically unchanged since 1086, this evidence gives a valuable clue as to the location of dwellings at these two dates. In the Castle End there were 73 houses in 1279, 22 of which paid hawgavel and were, therefore, presumably, on sites inhabited in 1086. In the parishes of St. Mary the Great, St. Bene't, St. Edward, and St. Botolph, the region round the market, there were 159 houses and 59 shops: of these 63 holdings paid hawgavel. In St. Clement's parish there were 40 dwellings of which 15 paid hawgavel; in St. Sepulchre's and All Saints' parishes only 3 out of 22 paid it. Outside the ditch, in the Barnwell suburb, there were 95 houses, only 20 of which paid hawgavel. Outside Barnwell Gate, there were 12 houses of which 2 were liable; outside Trumpington Gate, there were 28, of which 3 were liable, and across the river at Newnham 20 houses, of which 1 only was liable. (fn. 16) Besides this suburban growth, a new quarter of the town had come into existence within the ditch, between the High Street and the river. Milne Street ran through it parallel with the High Street, and it was served by St. John Zachary. Along the river a row of hithes had grown up between the Great Bridge and the mills. The concentration of the Jews in the parts opposite St. John's hospital had given the name of the Jewry to the neighbourhood of All Saints' and St. Sepulchre's churches, (fn. 17) and the name of Vicus Judeorum to what is now All Saints' passage. (fn. 18)

The survey, as we have seen, indicates the existence of four suburbs. A careful study of two of them about this time has been made by H. P. Stokes. (fn. 19) His map of Cambridge outside Trumpington Gate in 1270 shows the ribbon development either side of the road after it has crossed the King's Ditch into the Eastern Fields. There are five University hostels, two on the site soon to be occupied by Peterhouse, and two on the other side of the road where Pembroke was to rise in the 14th century. Besides several smaller houses, those of three wealthy burgess families of Cambridge are traceable, whose names occur on the list of the Mayors and bailiffs of Henry III's reign. The Ailsham house was to pass to Peterhouse; the Le Rus house with its Chapel of St. Lucy had been acquired by the Friars of the Sack in 1258, and the St. Edmund's house, with the chapel whose dedication had given its name to the family, was to be occupied by the Canons of Sempringham in 1291. (fn. 20)

Outside the Barnwell Gate, St. Andrew's Church may go back to Saxon days, but it is first mentioned by name in 1200, and the Dominican Friars' house, the forerunner of Emmanuel College, was building in 1238. (fn. 21) The survey of 1279 expressly states that there were several private houses on the site before the friars came, (fn. 22) but there is little information about them; the suburb cannot have been so popular for residence as that near St. Peter's Church. Two University hostels were located along the road. On the west side, well beyond Langrith Lane (now Downing Street), was Rudd's, first mentioned in 1283. It later became the Castle Inn. On the east side stood St. Nicholas, first mentioned in 1393. (fn. 23)

No such details are available about the much more populous suburb that stretched out along the Newmarket Road towards Barnwell, nor do the maps of the 16th century onward extend so far.

The 14th-century subsidy rolls give some indication of the growth of the town a generation later. The taxpayers of the tallage of 1304 (fn. 24) are listed by parishes, and the outstanding feature of the list is the filling up of the green belt. The four parishes round the market with Holy Trinity contained 234 taxpayers, the three parishes in Castle End, 49. The parishes of St. Clement, St. Sepulchre, and All Saints in the Jewry, however, contained 135, whereas in 1279 there had only been 62 houses in that area.

The returns for the fifteenth of 1314–15 (fn. 25) are by wards. The ward beyond the bridge contained 40 taxpayers; the Heyward, along Hadstock Way, 50; Trumpington Ward along the High Street, 98; Market Ward, 122; Milne Street Ward with Newnham, 65; Barnwell Ward, 29; and the ward this side the bridge, 65. And whereas the average rate of tax due was 2s. 1d. a head in the less eligible Trumpington Ward, and was 2s. 11d. in the prosperous Market Ward, it was 3s. 4d. in the ward this side the bridge. Here wealthy newcomers like Roger of Harleston built their houses. (fn. 26) The green belt of 1279 was the fashionable quarter of 1314. On the other hand, there were some large private houses with gardens in the region between Milne Street and High Street where Gonville Hall and Trinity Hall, King's Hall and Michaelhouse were to be built. Some belonged to churchmen like the Prior of Ely, and some to laymen like Niel of Thornton, Simon de Brune, or Sir John of Cambridge. (fn. 27)

As has been seen (fn. 28) there is evidence of stagnation, if not retrogression, in the 14th and 15th centuries. The colleges and University hostels were taking up more and more of the space between the High Street and the river. The building of King's College cut Milne Street (now Queens' Lane) in half, but Henry VI provided Garret Hostel Lane as an alternative. Salthithe also disappeared, and the Church of St. John Zachary shared the fate of All Saints by the Castle, which had been closed after the Black Death. (fn. 29) A large vacant space, tenanted by bleating sheep, awaited for many years the building of Henry's College. (fn. 30) In 1446 the town bewailed the loss of population and trade resulting from the encroachments of the colleges; (fn. 31) but in the multiplication of vacant places it was sharing the lot of many other 15th-century towns.

With Lyne's map of 1574 (fn. 32) we reach a cartographical picture, but one that does not extend to Barnwell. All the colleges are there, except Emmanuel, Sidney Sussex, and Downing. Houses are thickest along the 'spine' and along the road ascending Castle Hill as far as the empty churchyard of All Saints. But behind the street frontage there are unoccupied spaces—on Pound Hill, and between Preachers' Street and the High Street, where there is a large garden area. The site of the Grey Friars is almost empty, there are no houses along Walls Lane and the slopes below the castle are unoccupied. The ditch has been covered over in Mill Lane, but is open all the rest of its course. The School of Pythagoras is to be seen beyond the river.

Hamond's magnificent map of 1592 (fn. 33) is the basis for most of our detailed knowledge of the town layout for earlier as well as Elizabethan times; in especial for the market area. Most of the hithes along the Cam have disappeared. The open spaces are being encroached upon; tenements are being added as well as subdivided, which gives point to the complaints of the University and the exhortations of the Privy Council. (fn. 34) Houses are appearing on the castle slopes and the space behind Magdalene College is losing much of its garden ground. But outside the ditch future compensation was to be secured twenty years later, when, in 1613, the town acquired, in exchange for Garrett Hostel Green west of the Cam, the 25 acres which had in 1587 been leased by Trinity College to Edward Parker, the college cook. Parker's Piece, later the scene of feasts and parliamentary elections, is one of the finest open spaces of any town in England. (fn. 35) The map of 1634 shows Perse's Grammar School in what is now Free School Lane, Hobson's Workhouse, and his conduit in Trumpington Street. (fn. 36) There is now a continuous row of houses along both sides of Walls Lane, where the ditch is crossed by many little footbridges.

Loggan in 1688 (fn. 37) shows in the north the Cromwellian earthworks on Castle Hill, and in the south Pembroke Piece. The space between Bridge Street and Trinity Street has become the congested mass of small courts condemned by the health inspector in 1849; a condition practically identical with that shown a hundred years later in Custance's map of 1798. (fn. 38) No trace of the former wide garden space with trees remains; even the name of Green Street is taken from Oliver Green. (fn. 39) By 1798 there is no room left within the ditch; there is a crop of houses all along Walls Lane to the Newmarket Road, but otherwise there are fewer differences than might have been expected. (fn. 40) All the evidence goes to show that the four suburbs of 1279 had hardly increased their built-up area when the Inclosure Acts of 1801 and 1807 came to permit of natural expansion.

The map of Cambridge in 1830 (fn. 41) shows the first fruits of inclosure. Downing College is in occupation, to the south, of St. Thomas' Leys and the Marsh where Gunning remembered gownsmen shooting snipe. (fn. 42) Houses are to be seen along the Newmarket Road beyond Jesus, and along the Huntingdon Road beyond the Castle. But these were merely beginnings.

Between 1801 and 1841 the population of the parish of St. Andrew the Less, Barnwell, had risen from 252 to 9,486; more than the whole population of Cambridge in 1801. (fn. 43) A new town had sprung up between Parker's Piece and Barnwell. The names of the streets in this area give the date of origin: Fitzroy, the family name of Lord Euston, University burgess 1784–1811; Burleigh, the Cambridge carrier who furnished horses and wagons for military service in 1798. (fn. 44) The other great extension was to the south of Parker's Piece.

By 1851 the movement out of the centre was becoming marked; the courtyards were being opened up and the fire in the market-place gave an opportunity for further clearance. Many families were removing to the neighbouring suburb of Chesterton, where, according to the census returns, (fn. 45) 200 new houses had been built in the last ten years. In the second half of the 19th century the chief extension was westwards over Newnham and southwards towards Cherry Hinton and Trumpington. The expansion northwards towards Milton and north-west along the Huntingdon Road did not come until the 20th century, (fn. 46) and Girton was still isolated by a wide belt of arable land when Emily Davies planted her College there in 1873, at the far end of what was once the hamlet called Howes. (fn. 47)


  • 1. W. Holford and H. M. Wright, Cambridge Planning Proposals, i. 3.
  • 2. J. B. Mitchell, 'The Growth of Cambridge' in Darby, Cambridge Region, 162.
  • 3. A. Gray, Dual Origin of Town of Cambridge. See also Collingwood and Myres, Roman Britain (2nd edn.), 393.
  • 4. Darby, Cambridge Region, 166; T. McKenny Hughes, in C.A.S. Comm. vi. 255; ix. 570–84.
  • 5. It is described in detail, Clark and Gray, Old Plans of Cambridge, pt. i, p. xxv.
  • 6. C. R. Fox, Archaeology of Cambridge Region, 246, 296; H. M. Cam, Liberties and Communities, 6.
  • 7. A. Gray, Dual Origin of Town of Cambridge, 1.
  • 8. T. McK. Hughes, 'Superficial Deposits under Cambridge', C.A.S. Comm. xi. 393–423.
  • 9. H. M. Cam, Liberties and Communities, 10 sqq.
  • 10. See below, p. 129.
  • 11. Maitland, Township and Borough, 161.
  • 12. V.C.H. Cambs. ii. 235.
  • 13. C. R. Fox, Archaeology of Cambridge Region, 246, 296.
  • 14. Maitland, Township and Borough, 4, see the map, ibid. 55.
  • 15. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 356–401.
  • 16. Maitland, Township and Borough, 101, 143–7.
  • 17. A. Gray, The Town of Cambridge, 63; and see above, p. 95.
  • 18. H. P. Stokes, Studies in Anglo-Jewish History, 115.
  • 19. H. P. Stokes, Cambridge outside the Trumpington Gates (C.A.S. Publ. 1908).
  • 20. V.C.H. Cambs. ii. 290, 254.
  • 21. H. P. Stokes, Outside the Barnwell Gate (C.A.S. Publ. 1915), 10.
  • 22. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 360.
  • 23. Stokes, Outside the Barnwell Gate, 12, 21.
  • 24. E 179/238/248.
  • 25. E 179/81/5. Printed in Bateson, Cambridge Gild Records (C.A.S. Publ. 1903), 151–7.
  • 26. See below, p. 123.
  • 27. Willis and Clark, Archit. Hist. iv, maps 8, 9, 23, 27.
  • 28. See above, pp. 12–13.
  • 29. See below, pp. 123, 129.
  • 30. A. Gray, The Town of Cambridge, 70–71.
  • 31. Cooper, Annals, i. 197.
  • 32. Clark and Gray, Old Plans of Cambridge, pt. ii, map 1.
  • 33. Clark and Gray, Old Plans of Cambridge, pt. ii, map 3. For detailed analysis see ibid., pt. i. 43–130.
  • 34. See above, pp. 13–14.
  • 35. Willis and Clark, Archit. Hist. ii. 407–9; Cooper, Annals, iii. 57–58.
  • 36. Clark and Gray, Old Plans of Cambridge, pt. ii, map 4.
  • 37. Ibid., map 6.
  • 38. For Hawksmoor's plan (1713) for opening up of the crowded centre of the town (on aesthetic rather than hygienic grounds) see F. A. Keynes, By-ways of Cambridge Hist. (2nd edn.), 95–100, with reproduction of plan.
  • 39. Clark and Gray, Old Plans of Cambridge, pt. i. 145.
  • 40. Ibid., pt. ii, map 7. The central portion of this map is reproduced above, pl. facing p. 76.
  • 41. Cooper, Memorials, iii, front.
  • 42. Gunning, Reminiscences, i. 40.
  • 43. A. Gray, The Town of Cambridge, 169.
  • 44. Cooper, Annals, iv. 462.
  • 45. J. B. Mitchell, 'Growth of Cambridge', in Darby, Cambridge Region, 176.
  • 46. Ibid., map on p. 167.
  • 47. This early settlement, which probably took its name from ancient burial mounds in the vicinity of Girton College, occupied an area now divided between Girton, Impington, and Cambridge, the town's end of which was 'apud le Howes', where the 'Travellers' Rest' now stands. See P.N. Cambs. (E.P.N.S.), 177; H. M. Cam, 'The Hamlet of Howes', Girton Review, 1944.