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A Brief History of Cambridge

Cambridge: the city of crocuses and daffodils on The Backs, of green open spaces and cattle grazing only 500 yards from the market square.

The Cambridge of Brooke, Byron, Newton and Rutherford, of the summer idyll of punts, 'bumps', cool willows and May Balls.
Yet Cambridge was important long before the University existed. Here, at the meeting of dense forests to the south and trackless, marshy Fens to the north, was the lowest reliable fording place of the River Cam, or Granta. In the first century BC an Iron Age Belgic tribe built a settlement on what is now Castle Hill. Around AD40 the Romans took over the site and it became the crossing point for the Via Devana which linked Colchester with the legions in Lincoln and beyond. The Saxons followed, then the Normans under William the Conqueror, who raised a castle on a steep mound as a base for fighting the Saxon rebel, Hereward the Wake, deep in the Fens at Ely. The motte of William's castle still stands and Ely Cathedral is visible from the top on a clear day.

The first scholars didn't arrive in Cambridge until 1209 and another 75 years passed before Hugh de Balsham, Bishop of Ely, founded Peterhouse, the first college. Clare (1326), Pembroke (1347), Gonville and Caius (1348), Trinity Hall (1350) and Corpus Christi (1352) were established in the first half of the fourteenth century. Ten more colleges were founded during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including Christ's (1505), King's (1441), Queens' (1448), Jesus (1496), St. John's (1511), Trinity (1546), and Emmanuel (1584).

History, Entertainment, The Boat Race, The Colleges, Queens' and Queen's, 10 Things You Really Didn't Want to Know, 20 Things you Did, Cambridge Shopping.

A Brief History of the Corn Exchange

Early Plans


The council decides to build a new Corn Exchange to replace the existing one on St Andrew's Hill, Downing Street, built in 1842 and now too small. The site of the Black Bear Inn and the adjacent building are purchased for £5,000. The building would also be used as an entertainment centre.


A competition is held for the design of the building, won by a local architect, Richard Reynolds Rowe.


An appeal brought by a local draper, Robert Sayle, is taken to the House of Lords (Attorney General vs Borough Council) on the right to spend money set aside for work on the market square, on a Corn Exchange.


1st December - contract is signed between the Corporation and the builder, William Elworthy of Upwell, in the sum of £5,276.

Putting up the Building


The foundations are dug down to the remains of the Priory of Friars Hermits, which had been on the site in the Middle Ages. The remains dug up by builders are given to a New Zealander to start a museum in New Zealand.


The foundation stone, made from Cornish granite from Cheesewring Quarry, is laid by the Mayor, John Death. The builders used a quarter of a million local bricks in yellow, red and dark blue, interspersed with bands of fancy tiles. A large statue of Jonas Webb of Babraham by Marochetti is erected by subscription of local farmers to oversee proceedings. It has now been moved again and erected in the village of Babraham.


The new building is opened is opened on 6th November after a civic procession from the Guildhall and a dinner for local dignitaries. The Mayor says: 'It was a building worthy of the borough…to be devoted to very useful objects of popular amusements.' A Promenade Concert is held on 8th November featuring the Coldstream Guards and a local choral society. A mistake is made during the playing of the National Anthem and later rioters attack the Mayor's house. The following trial attracts the world's press and results in crowds of sightseers to the building, interfering with the corn trading.


The first motor show is held in the Corn Exchange

Into the 20th Century


December groceries are moved to the Corn Exchange from the overcrowded shops in Petty Cury as queues block the street.


Sir Thomas Beecham conducts the London Symphony Orchestra.


Hundreds of rifles are taken to the Corn Exchange to be cleaned and repaired by local women.


The building becomes a popular venue for roller skating, wrestling and boxing. It is also marked out with four badminton courts and is used for county matches. A temporary wooden bridge is constructed above Wheeler Street from the Guildhall to the Corn Exchange for dances and balls.


Trading in corn ceases after a new corn exchange is built at the cattle market at a cost of £9,000. The building is hardly used and hired out as a warehouse.


The building is used for pop concerts, one day sales and exhibitions. In 1967 the hall can be hired for £10 10s a day (half price for locals).


It is decided that the building be converted to a concert hall instead of including one in the Lion yard redevelopment.


The council starts the search for a wealthy benefactor to pay for the conversion of the Corn Exchange - dropped two years later when nobody is found.


1000 pop fans go on the rampage after The Drifters fail to appear at the show.


Corn Exchange is closed after objections from neighbours to noise caused by live bands and complaints about the state of the building. 600 young people demonstrate to 'Keep Cambridge Live' by marching from Great Northern Pub in Station Road to the Corn Exchange. Roof restoration work is completed and during work crests are discovered in the metal arches, representing the city, colleges, and other unidentified people/organisations (believed to be farmers' clubs and merchants).

Converting the Building


The key is handed over to the builder to start the first stage of the conversion. This cost £210,000 more than estimated, due to unexpected problems.


Labour councillors threaten to quit if stage 2 and 3 of the conversion go ahead. Defeated by Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.


Councillors finally agree to finish the conversion.


Rotten roof timbers are discovered in September, despite all the work previously carried out to the roof.

Building is finally complete at a cost of roughly £4million after ten years of political wrangling and financial uncertainty.

An open weekend is held during November for the public to be shown around the building.

3rd December - the first concert takes place, starring Box Car Willie


4th February - special fanfare written by Professor Robin Orr is performed at official opening by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

More staff needed in March as bookings up by 30% on expectations!


Consultants recommended a radical reorganisation in which the venue was given more independence and control over how it ran, especially financial. A new post of Director was created to lead a more self-sufficient management and staff.


Consultants recommended a radical reorganisation in which the venue was given more independence and control over how it ran, especially financial. A new post of Director was created to lead a more self-sufficient management and staff.


The Corn Exchange is now described by the local media as a priceless public asset, has increased audiences by 50%, costs 30% less to run than in 1988, wins the Charter Mark for excellence in public service for the second time, is regionally and nationally renowned for its new music and contemporary events programme, is regularly grant-aided by the Arts Council of England, Eastern Arts Board, Eastern Orchestral Board & New Audiences Fund.