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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Though technically outside the Borough until Chesterton was taken into it in 1911, the castle (fn. 1) dominated it physically and administratively for centuries. It was used in emergencies as a military stronghold, periodically as the place for the county courts and therefore for parliamentary elections and judicial assizes, and continuously as the county prison. That it was also the sheriff's administrative headquarters is attested, amongst other evidence, by a unique passage in the Barnwell Book. The writer says that the list of rents and dues compiled by him (about 1240) rendered it unnecessary for the prior or his tenants 'to go to the castle to scrutinize the sheriff's roll there'. (fn. 2)
The Norman castle, erected in 1068, was of the motte and bailey type. It covered some 5 acres; 27 houses were destroyed to clear the bailey, and the motte, which rises to some 80 ft. above the river, was an artificial mound within which Anglo-Saxon gravestones have been found. (fn. 3) It is probable that the earliest structure was of wood, but presumably a stone erection replaced it before the time in the 12th century when the pipe rolls record expenditure on works there. This expenditure amounted to £43 in 1156–77, £23 under Richard I, and £60 under John. (fn. 4)
The strategic importance of the castle diminished after 1215; in the records of Henry III's reign it is mentioned almost entirely in connexion with royal government and justice. It played no part in the campaigns of the Barons' Wars, nor was it, apparently, in a condition to be used for a royal residence. Neither Henry III in 1258 and 1267 nor the justices who held the inquiries into rebels' lands in 1268–70 stayed there. (fn. 5) Edward I, however, determined to make it an efficient stronghold. The Exchequer records (fn. 6) tell the detailed story of the way in which an up-to-date building was constructed between 1286 and 1296. This castle had a curtain wall, and a moat, fed by water from a spring in the north-west corner of the bailey; (fn. 7) a great hall; a gatehouse with a barbican; and five towers, including the great tower on the mound. (fn. 8) The particulars of the materials used, (fn. 9) the transport, the provenance of the labourers and their rates of pay, are of much interest. Building went on steadily in 1286–9 and was then suspended; on 4 October 1291 Edward ordered an immediate resumption of work. (fn. 10) In 1293 he spent two nights in the castle, presumably to inspect the works; the first and last king to stay there. (fn. 11) From the military point of view, the subsequent history of the castle hardly seems to justify the £2,525 that Edward spent on it. (fn. 12) The camera armigerorum (fn. 13) cannot have been in constant use, though the castleguard money was regularly exacted. (fn. 14) Architecturally, the gatehouse, the only portion surviving by 1606, and known to us through Cotman's fine drawings, testifies to the quality of Edward's work; to the Cambridge folk of the 17th and 18th centuries it was 'the castle', and a French visitor in 1672 described it as dominating the town. (fn. 15) But in fact its survival was due to its use as a prison.
Orders concerning repairs and upkeep continue through the following centuries; it is interesting that those of 1331 are directed not to the sheriff but to the Mayor. (fn. 16) An inquest into the defective state of the walls and towers and houses was held in 1367, (fn. 17) and two tons of stone were purchased to mend the castle walls in 1523. (fn. 18) This must refer to the curtain wall. Eighty years earlier the practice of using the castle as a quarry had been initiated by Henry VI, who authorized the taking of stone from the great hall for the building of King's College. Later grants were made for the building of Sawston Hall, of Emmanuel College and of Magdalene College. Unlicensed plunder was responsible for other losses. (fn. 19) Humble folk were in the habit of 'digging down' the bank to the south and west and building their cottages on the slopes or even in the moat, (fn. 20) and in the early 17th century lawsuits disputing the ownership of such holdings (fn. 21) and the herbage rights over the waste slopes to the south produced depositions giving a number of topographical details. Not only squatters' rights, but the rights of the lord of Chesterton manor, within whose bounds the castle lay, were questioned by the Crown. The castle site had come to be little more than a neglected area occupied by a few local government buildings when in 1643 it once more acquired military significance. Fifteen houses were cleared away, and the earthworks to the north and west were remodelled according to the latest military science. Brick barracks were built on the site of Edward's great hall. According to Bowtell, who surveyed the works in 1785, 'three strong, though irregular bastions' were added on the verge of the Norman ditch, measuring 17½ ft. in height and 70 in breadth at the base, made of gault and firm white clay. (fn. 22)
But in 1647, by vote of both Houses, the works were 'slighted' (fn. 23) and in course of time the Cromwellian barracks became in part a Bridewell for petty offenders, in part the gaoler's house, until the new gaol was built in 1862.
Since 1647 the site has served purely civilian purposes. From the days before the Conquest when the shire moots were held on the Maiden Borough, the old name for the Roman Camp, (fn. 24) the county courts assembled there and the county elections, and indeed for many years the Borough elections, were held there. It is called the Shire Hill in 1626. (fn. 25) Soame Jenyns declared at the time of the election of 1780 that 'he only escaped by accident from being trampled to death in the castle yard by a mob of all the sectaries in the county'. (fn. 26) In 1797 Pitt wrote to the Duchess of Rutland urging her to see that 'our friends' turn up in force at the meeting in the Castle Yard, to oppose any proposals put forward by the Yorke interest. (fn. 27) It was presumably the building of the County Gaol in 1807 that led to the county elections, like those for the borough after 1832, being held on Parker's Piece. (fn. 28)
The Shire House.
The king's justices visiting a county sat in the county court, (fn. 28) so that a Sessions House was needed on the hill. Presumably the Edwardian hall served the purpose so long as its roof was on, but a Shire House, with a small court for criminal cases and a larger one for civil cases, was built in 1572 by Roger Lord North, who also built a small house for the juries to sit in. (fn. 29) Hamond's plan in 1592, which shows the gallows in the depression below the Castle Mound, represents the Common Law Court as having an arched portico supported by four columns; Bowtell says it was of wood, on a brick foundation. It served the justices of assize until 1747, when the Shire Hall in Cambridge Market Place was built. The new Shire Hall stood in front of the Town Hall—a position which had, apparently, been coveted for it by North in 1571. (fn. 30) It was elevated on pillars 11 ft. high, (fn. 31) so that the market stalls could continue to occupy the ground below. In this building the courts were held, the county authorities being granted the use of the Town Hall and its parlours as required. (fn. 32) But, as Carter said in 1747, (fn. 33) the Shire House in the Market Place was 'not very commodious', and in 1776 Ewin thought it ought to be pulled down. (fn. 34) Though the addition of a spacious gallery with other alterations in 1777 was said to add 'greater decorum and ease' to the conduct of the assizes, (fn. 35) the courts finally' moved back to Castle Hill. In 1842 the Gatehouse was pulled down to make room for the Shire Hall designed by T. H. Wyatt and D. Brandon, in which the assizes were held. (fn. 36) The Shire House in the Market Place became part of the Town Hall. (fn. 37) The Local Government Act of 1888 meant a need for more extensive offices, and a fine County Hall was opened in Hobson Street in 1914. (fn. 38) This in turn proved inadequate, (fn. 39) and in 1931–2 a New County Hall designed by H. H. Dunn was erected on the Castle Yard site, with the materials and on the space released by the destruction of the County Gaol.
As the Eyre rolls report, there were often escapes into sanctuary at All Saints by the Castle, St. Giles, or Chesterton Church. (fn. 40) It would seem that in the Edwardian castle the tower to the east of the mound contained the prison, under the Constables' Chamber. (fn. 41) In the 14th century the castle gaol received not only county prisoners but also those committed by the Vice-Chancellor, though the Borough protested that this was against their liberties. (fn. 42) The grant of the castle 'saving the gaol' to the Earl of Cambridge in 1340–1 indicated its dual character; it is expressly stated that the sheriff is to have free access to the gaol at the gate of the castle. (fn. 43) Thenceforth the gatehouse was to be the castle gaol until the end of the 18th century. By the 16th century the office of gaoler was clearly distinct from that of sheriff and several indentures of appointment are extant. (fn. 44) The upper floor of the gatehouse came to be reserved for superior prisoners, notably debtors; criminals were housed below. (fn. 45) In the 17th century both Roman Catholics associated with the Gunpowder Plot and Protestant dissenters were imprisoned there. (fn. 46) One of the more notable dissenters was Francis Holcroft, ex-fellow of Clare and nonconformist preacher, detained there 1663–72, who had a gentleman's agreement with the gaoler whereby he was let out after dark on Saturday nights, on the understanding that he was back before daylight on Monday, so that he could minister to his pastor-less coreligionists in the county. (fn. 47) Buck's print of 1730 shows the gatehouse in good repair with the gables of the gaoler's house visible above the battlements. In 1759 the Cambridge Chronicle relates how the criminals in the lower gaol filed off their irons, broke fourteen locks and a massive bar across the door, and had almost escaped when the debtors in the upper prison heard them and gave the alarm. (fn. 48) In January 1776 Ewin visited the gaol on behalf of Lord Hardwicke, who had heard reports that it was very cold and had sent in some coals. There were then nine debtors and four felons in the gaol itself and one inmate of the House of Correction or Bridewell. Three of the debtors were breakfasting with the gaoler's family (next door to the Bridewell), and the other six had a warm room with a good fire, whilst some of the felons had been admitted to the House of Correction so as to be warmed by the gaoler's fire. (fn. 49) Howard visited the gaol and the Bridewell soon after, and reported well of them, on the whole, but observed that there was no chaplain. On his second visit in 1782 he especially commended the keeper of the Bridewell as attentive and humane. There were then fifteen debtors and three felons in the Gatehouse. (fn. 50) Nield's account in 1802 describes the 'Low Gaol' as containing four strong rooms and the 'High Gaol' as containing a kitchen and other offices and above them six rooms for the debtors. The Castle Yard was spacious but not available for exercise because not secure. Though there was a chaplain, the prisoners complained they had had no divine service for four months. (fn. 51) He noted that a new gaol was building, 'upon a plan similar to that at Bury St. Edmunds and by the same ingenious architect'. (fn. 52) The design was octagonal, surrounded by a lofty wall, based on the latest Benthamite theories. It was completed by 1807. The last remains of the Edwardian curtain walls were demolished along with the Bridewell, by order of the justices of the peace, (fn. 53) and the gatehouse became the picturesque ruin drawn by Cotman in 1818.
The new County Gaol by the end of the 19th century was standing idle, as Huntingdon Gaol was now adequate for the criminals of both counties. In 1919 arrangements were made to fit it up as a branch repository of the Public Record Office, (fn. 54) and records began to arrive there in the following year. (fn. 55) In 1928 the site was acquired for the use of the county council, the records were sent away in 1929 and 1930, (fn. 56) and the present County Hall was built with the bricks from the gaol. The surrounding grounds have been laid out as a small park.
Until 1855 the market (fn. 57) was an L-shaped space, which is today represented by the east and south sides of the market square. To the west was a block of houses only removed by the fire of 1849. The space to the south was occupied by market stalls until leased to the county as the site of the Shire House. The public announcements nowadays made from the gallery of the Guildhall were formerly made from the steps of the Market Cross (fn. 58) or, after its destruction in 1786, from some inn balcony. Near the Market Cross was the Bull Ring, which served as an enclosure for the pillory and the stocks, as well as for bull baiting. The fountain in the market, mentioned in 1429, was later replaced by the fountain of Hobson's Conduit, and in 1855 by another fountain, since greatly altered.
The municipal buildings of Cambridge have always, so far as is known, stood in the market. From an early date there must have been a building in which the courts and assemblies were held and town treasures preserved, and this may well, as Atkinson suggests, have been erected over the toll booth in the market, (fn. 59) on a spot covered by the present Guildhall. (fn. 60) This early building has been identified with the Jews' house or synagogue granted to the burgesses in 1224 by Henry III to serve as their gaol. (fn. 61) From 1225 to 1238 this was shared with the Franciscans who in the latter year were granted the whole of it by Henry III. (fn. 62) When the Franciscans migrated to Hadstock Way about 1267, (fn. 63) the burgesses appear to have recovered it and used it for their Guildhall. The discovery of a Jewish gravestone on the site strengthens this supposition. (fn. 64) The Tolbooth is first mentioned in 1322, (fn. 65) when a writ was affixed to its door. It is probably the same building as the Guildhall alluded to in the first surviving treasurers' roll for 1347. (fn. 66) In 1386 a new Guildhall was begun, and completed in 1387. (fn. 67) No treasurers' accounts exist for the years between 1347 and 1423, and in 1424 there are charges for removing benches 'from the new Guildhall to the old Guildhall'. (fn. 68) The 'old Tolbooth' is again mentioned in 1486. (fn. 69) Further work was done on the building in 1491. (fn. 70) It seems, then, that the building sketched by Essex in 1781, that served the town until 1782, was of 15th-century origin.
The Guildhall was a two-story building supported on arches and open below on three sides, (fn. 71) so that market stalls might stand there. In the hall (22 by 17½ ft.) apprentices were enrolled, courts and Common Days held, and private as well as public festivities celebrated. A parlour for the aldermen, with a fireplace, is mentioned in 1569, and there was a kitchen and pantry. (fn. 72) By 1781 it was a draughty and rickety chamber (fn. 73) and in the following year it was pulled down and a new Town Hall erected from the designs of James Essex. Part of the cost (£2,500) was defrayed by the creation of a number of honorary freemen. (fn. 74) The building completed in 1784 included a hall (72 by 28 ft.) with a room for the Four and Twenty; an aldermen's parlour, which still survives, was added in 1790. (fn. 75) A bridge connected the Town Hall with the Shire House. When the Shire Hall on Castle Hill was built, the Shire House in the market-place was added to the Guildhall. (fn. 76) In 1859 it was decided to add an Assembly Room which would hold 1,400 persons, and the present large hall was completed in 1865, the floor below being used for the Town Library, transferred there from Jesus Lane in 1862. (fn. 77) In 1884 the library was further enlarged by a reading-room, and in 1895 a building for the County and police Courts was added on Guildhall Street, the former Butcher Row. (fn. 78)
In 1933, after considerable discussion, it was decided to rebuild the Guildhall on the ancient site. (fn. 79) The Guildhall of 1782, which had been considerably modified internally in the sixties, was destroyed, (fn. 80) along with the Shire House of 1747 and the remains of Tanners' Hall, and more space to the west was acquired by pulling down the row of houses fronting Union Street (Peas Hill). The present Guildhall was completed in 1939, after the designs of Mr. Cowles Voysey; it masks the older buildings to east, north, and west, and has a fine frontage on the market, with a balcony from which on 8 May 1945 the end of the war in Europe was proclaimed.
The history of the town gaol begins in 1224 when the burgesses paid 40 marks to Henry III to have a grant of the house of Benjamin the Jew to serve as a town prison, at an annual rent of 1 mark. (fn. 81) When in 1238 Henry rescinded this grant in favour of the Grey Friars he allowed the bailiffs 10 marks out of the Borough farm to build a new gaol. (fn. 82) This is presumably the building mentioned as the king's prison in Cambridge in a writ addressed to the town bailiffs in 1248. (fn. 83) It is impossible to say where this building stood, though it was probably near the Guildhall or Tolbooth, located after 1267 in the Jews' house. (fn. 84) From 1502 onwards, however, the name Tolbooth seems to be appropriated to the prison. A will of that year makes charitable dispositions for 'the prisoners in the Tolbooth'. (fn. 85) It seems probable, therefore, that after the new Guildhall was built the old Guildhall or Tolbooth became the gaol and the original Jews' house thus reverted to its 13th-century functions. (fn. 86)
In 1535 Cromwell refers specifically to 'the king's prisonne called the Tolbothe'. (fn. 87) In 1601 the queen leased the Tolbooth, by its old name of the house of Benjamin, to the University, and a lengthy lawsuit ensued, resulting in its recovery by the Borough. (fn. 88) In 1605 it was in the charge of one of the town bailiffs. (fn. 89) This may have been the usual arrangement. It was there that the one Protestant martyr who suffered at Cambridge, John Hullier, was lodged for three months in 1556 before he was burned on Jesus Green. (fn. 90)
In 1620 the gaol is described as consisting of two divisions, the witches' gaol and the felons' gaol. (fn. 91) In 1632 it was enlarged, by the addition of Tanners' Hall, to serve as a house of correction, but this was given up before 1668. (fn. 92) A debtors' hall, first mentioned in 1637, was turned into the gaoler's house in 1661. (fn. 93) As at the county gaol, the upper floor of the gaol was reserved for the debtors, (fn. 94) but by the second half of the 18th century the whole building was in a very bad state. Carter called it 'a shocking place to be confined in'. Howard, who visited it in 1776, described the accommodation for criminals as a cage above and a hole below 'in which one miserable object was confined'. There was no fireplace, water-supply, or courtyard for exercise. (fn. 95) Six years later, Plumptre wrote to Hardwicke that the building was so ruinous that the gaoler had given notice. (fn. 96) Nield's account in 1802 reports with satisfaction that the cage had fallen into the hole; (fn. 97) but by this time a new town gaol had been built behind Hobson's Spinning House (fn. 98) at a cost of £911 10s. 1d. (fn. 99) The old gaol became a public house, the 'Town Arms', whose owners had paid £140 for one of those 999-year leases that characterized the Mortlock régime. (fn. 100) The town had a bad bargain; the gaol in St. Andrew's Street was abandoned in 1829, and replaced by the exceedingly costly structure on the south-east side of Parker's Piece, (fn. 101) the debt on which was not paid off until 1847. (fn. 102) This spacious and commodious building came well up to the standards of the municipal commissioners in 1833; they reported that it contained eight yards and eight dayrooms and could accommodate 47 criminals at a time. In 1832 208 prisoners had been housed there and there had been no deaths. (fn. 103) This third gaol was pulled down in 1878 under the provisions of the Prison Act of 1876, and since then the prisoners have been sent to the county gaol. (fn. 104)
From the 16th century at least, a number of bequests were made for the prisoners in the Tolbooth and the castle. Payments to be made yearly under the wills of Thomas Cosyn and Laurence Moptyd, both Masters of Corpus, (fn. 105) John Hessewell, Mayor, (fn. 106) and other benefactors had been discontinued long before the 19th century. (fn. 107) Others survived, and at least one charity for prisoners in Cambridge was founded as late as the 19th century. In 1836 bread was given to the prisoners in the town gaol by the Corporation and several colleges. The income of all the surviving prison charities, which amounted to nearly £23 in 1951, is now used by the Discharged Prisoners' Aid Society. (fn. 108)
Spinning House and Parish Workhouses.
The Spinning House, a somewhat notorious Bridewell or house of correction, originated as a charitable trust founded in 1628 by Thomas Hobson, the carrier, (fn. 109) to serve the needs both of the University and the Borough. Further bequests in the 17th and 18th centuries increased the endowment. (fn. 110) No real attempt had been made to carry out the provisions of the Elizabethan poor law until 1596, when Borough and University had combined to open a house of correction and purchase stock for giving employment. (fn. 111) The building erected with Hobson's benefaction in St. Andrew's Street was meant to serve the double purpose of providing textile work for the decent unemployed and correction for the unruly vagabond and rogue. (fn. 112) In the latter capacity it had replaced the Bridewell in Tanners' Hall by 1668. The house of correction finally triumphed over the workhouse. As late as 1802, however, the keeper was a woolcomber employing other workers beside the prisoners (fn. 113) and in 1813 Bowtell bequeathed £500 to the trustees for putting out poor Cambridge boys as apprentices. (fn. 114) Well before this the Spinning House had become associated specifically with the correction of prostitutes and served as the Vice-Chancellor's prison for that purpose, the town crier being hired to flog such women at 1s. a head. (fn. 115) Dr. Ewin, after visiting the county gaol in January 1776, went on to the Spinning House and reported to Hardwicke that he had found six young streetwalkers in a state of utmost misery and want. They had been there six months, having been apprehended either by the proctor or the High Constable; they had been passed home but returned again. They had no fire and nothing but what they could earn by spinning or beating hemp. Ewin called on the Vice-Chancellor who, he said, would probably send something to keep the girls warm while the hard weather held. He also persuaded him to send in bedsteads so that the inmates should not lie on straw or on the ground. The large window was always broken again as soon as mended, and the gaoler, 'a humane and diligent man', told Ewin that anything of value placed in the house would be burned or destroyed by the prisoners. (fn. 116) Three years later, in the spring of 1779, 17 women were crowded into the workroom which had neither fireplace nor sewer, and an outbreak of fever resulted which so alarmed the Vice-Chancellor that he ordered all the women to be released. Two or three of them died in a few days. As a result two rooms had been added before Howard paid his second visit in 1782, but there was still no fireplace. A lunatic was confined there in addition to the other prisoners in 1779. (fn. 117) Nield in 1802 described the whole prison as very dirty. (fn. 118) In 1812 and 1821 considerable sums were spent on the building, the money on the second occasion being quite improperly taken from Bowtell's apprenticing fund. (fn. 119) In about 1836, though the building was in good repair, the charity commissioners found many faults in the administration of the trust and its property. (fn. 120) A Chancery action against the trustees had been begun in 1833, and under a scheme for the charity made in Chancery in 1852 the northern part of the building became the Vice-Chancellor's prison for prostitutes and the southern part a lock-up and police-station for the town. (fn. 121) Before this, the Borough magistrates had stopped committing prisoners to the Spinning House when the new town gaol opened in 1829. (fn. 122) In 1897 the whole building was handed over to the Borough and in 1901 it was taken down and the present police station was built on its site. (fn. 123) After 1897 the income of the original trust accruing from rents and stocks was employed on education and charitable institutions for the care or reform of women. (fn. 124)
The Spinning House had ceased to be used as a workhouse from 1807; stores of flax and wool were no longer kept there. (fn. 125) After the Act of 1723 parish workhouses had been instituted in all the parishes of Cambridge, either separately or jointly; their history has been traced by Dr. Stokes, who has located a number of the actual buildings, and sketched the condition of the inmates. (fn. 126) The proposal that a workhouse for the whole town should be established was turned down in 1727 and again in 1750. 'The several parish workhouses went on with their differing methods and with their increasing cost.' (fn. 127) Finally in 1836 all the parishes of Cambridge were united in one Poor Law Union and in 1838 the Central Union Poor House in Mill Road was built for 250 inmates. (fn. 128)
The earliest circulating library in Cambridge was opened in 1745 by Robert Watts in a bookshop on the west side of Trumpington Street, in St. Edward's parish. It was carried on by his son-in-law, John Nicholson, and his grandson and great-grandson, both of the same name, from 1807 onwards at 1 Trinity Street. The library was closed in 1822. (fn. 129) A Book Club founded in 1784 'for promoting useful knowledge' had a library of more than 2,000 volumes. It met weekly at the Black Bull Inn. Its membership was, however, limited to 50 and it came to an end in 1841. (fn. 130)
In 1853 the Borough Council voted to adopt the Public Library Act of 1850. In a town meeting on 1 March 1853 the proposal was carried by a majority of 873 to 78, (fn. 131) and the Town Library came into being in 1855. It began with a reference library, housed in the temporarily unused Friends' Meeting House in Jesus Lane.
A lending department was opened in April 1858, and in 1860, after considerable debate, a newspaper reading room. In 1862 the library moved to its present quarters under the Guildhall. In 1872 children were admitted. Branches were opened in East Road in 1875 and Mill Road in 1897. The central reading room was added in 1884 and the reference room in 1916. Open access to the shelves was granted in 1922.
In 1950 the library contained over 70,000 volumes. It includes a most valuable collection of prints, maps, posters, cuttings, and other memorials of the history of the town. The collection owes much of its value to the first librarian, John Pink, who held the post from 1855 to 1906. (fn. 132)