History of Gwydir Street

See also Buildings and houses in Gwydir Street.

Brief history of Gwydir Street

This history explains where some of our street names come from. See if you can spot them!

The area was originally part of the estates of Barnwell Priory.

After the dissolution of the monasteries, the lands came into private hands - the Wendy family of Haslingfield (1553 - 1655) and the Butler family (1656-1759). The Butlers sold them to Thomas Panton, chief groom or equerry to King George II (note the Panton Arms in New Town). All this time, the area was farmland.

Thomas Panton's son, 'Polite' Tommy Panton, succeeded in 1806 in having Parliament pass the Barnwell Enclosures Act, which paved the way for the development of the area. He died without direct heirs, and the land passed to his niece, Baroness Gwydir (see Where the name "Gwydir" comes from). She was the daughter of the Duchess of Ancaster. Her son sold off much of the Barnwell land, including the Gwydir Street area which was sold to the Rev Dr James Geldart in 1809. See Wikipedia article.

Baroness Gwydir

The coming of the railway in 1845 signalled the transformation of the whole area from quiet country to bustling town. On 19 December 1867, the Rev Richard John Geldart (?son of James) sold some of the land to Joseph Sturton, a wholesale chemist of Fitzroy Street.

The land was then parcelled up into plots. A builder would buy a plot of land, build a few houses on it and sell them. As you walk down Gwydir Street, you can see the different building styles every few houses. This gives the area its slightly crooked charm, as opposed to terraced housing in the northern England, where the whole street was built at once, by the same builder. Some of the Gwydir Street houses have dates on them, such as 1869, 1870, 1875, 1876, 1879 and 1883.

Date on house

The houses were sold to landlords, who rented them out. The unplanned and virtually overnight erection of countless dwellings brought with it many disadvantages. Overcrowding and primitive water supply and sewage disposal led to the spread of disease. A typhoid epidemic of 1888 was traced back to an inhabitant of Sturton Street and the area was a haven for villains. The degenerate nature of the area at that time resulted in a host of voluntary agencies being set up, ranging from co-operatives to temperance societies. The appropriate authorities also decided that the church of St Andrew the Less was too distant and too small to provide the necessary Christian influence in the area. Accordingly, St Matthews Church was built in 1866 and St Barnabas Church on Mill Road in 1880.

Educational facilities were provided by the Old Schools Trust and the church. From 1870 onward, a variety of Sunday schools and day schools in Norfolk Street, Sturton Street and York Street catered for the needs of children of all ages in the community. The primary source of education for adults of the area was the Mill Road Free Library which was opened in 1897, its previous site having been on East Road. Today, most of the schools and the library no longer exist, or are used for some other purpose, but we still have Brunswick Nursery, St Matthews Primary School and Anglia Ruskin University, serving not only this area, but far beyond.

Dales Brewery

The population of West Barnwell (as our area was called) in 1871 was 6,585. Those who lived in the area were, on the whole, employed in unskilled or labouring work for the colleges, railway or building trade. Girls usually went into service. Many were unable to find work at all. A limited survey of 1906 suggested that unemployment in the St Matthews area accounted for 20% of the figure for the whole of Cambridge.

By the late 1880s the transformation from open field to town was virtually complete, in that the majority of the area was built up and densely populated. As the area developed, so did the facilities, an adequate system of water supply and main drainage coming into existence at the start of the twentieth century.

The population fell throughout the twentieth century. In 1911 it was 5,732, and by 1961 it had fallen to 4,165. In the mid twentieth century, the area was considered for 'slum clearance', for redevelopment and road plans. This never happened. In 1976 the GIA (General Improvement Area) was launched, giving grants to people to improve their houses.

The Bath House

Recent history includes the bollards in Gwydir Street and Hooper Street which stopped the local roads being used as a short cut by traffic, the redevelopment of the Bath House, Dales Brewery and the Pye site to provide places for small businesses and local groups, and a certain amount of new residential building. The area is no longer considered a slum!

History of Mill Road end of Gwydir Street including Dales Brewery

The section of Gwydir Street from Hooper Street to Mill Road wasn't developed until the 1870s because there was a proposal to build a spur from the Railway Station to Clarendon Street. Once this was rejected, the plots of housing land went on sale and were bought by developers, some as multiple plots such as Lorne Terrace and Gothic Terrace while others were bought individually. The plots were all a little wider than previously developed. Some of these individual plots were built a little taller with increased specifications and details obviously in an attempt to make this section of the street even more up-market and profitable. 175 for example has a double-sized front window and curved windows in the front bedroom and its first occupant in 1881 was Mr James Burton, a 46 year old blind man who lived there with his wife and two domestic servants. However within ten years, it became clear that the western side of Gwydir Street was regarded as much less desirable than the east, possibly because of the presence of the Workhouse at the end of the garden. In 1891 No 175 was occupied by William Beasley, a 75 year old Bricklayer, his wife and five grown up children who are listed as a traveller, 2 painters and a stay-maker - no domestic servants then and I wonder where they all slept! It is estimated that rents on the west side of the street were between £8-25 per year but on the east £8 was the maximum. No 184 Gothic House, on the east side of the road, is the largest of the houses near Mill Road and has always remained up-market.

Fronting onto Mill Road on the east side of the road was a large imposing house owned by a doctor that was demolished in 1927 for the Bath House allowing many occupants of Gwydir and the surrounding streets their first access to hot, personal-use-only baths. The Bath House was still in operation into the 1970s.

In 1874 the Brewery at the top of Gwydir Street was owned by Pitson & Newman and passed to Percy Dyball and in 1880 John Pamplin took it over, no one seemed to be able to make a go of it and in 1889 it was closed and used as stabling. Finally in 1902 Frederick Dale moved his brewery from behind the British Queen on Histon Road into the premises that still bear his name. Dales expanded rapidly following the award in 1911 of the best beer at the Brewers International Exhibition. A seven-foot replica of the trophy stood on the roof until the 1960s. In 1912 buildings were expanded and several houses were bought: 181, 179 (neither of which survive) 177 and 175 to house employees and to acquire their gardens to build onto. The water required for brewing was taken from a bore hole (180ft deep into the lower green sand, very pure) and still exists in the garden of 177. Half of the garden of 175 became a brick-built bottle store and was finally re-acquired back as a garden in 2000. Dales also bought Nos. 188,190 and 192 as well as the orchard in what is now the Gwydir Street car park which was used first as stabling for the delivery horses and drays and more recently vans and lorries. The concrete plinths near the side of No. 192 are where the petrol pumps stood.

By 1946 there had been some modernisation to many of the houses. Many had a bath and geyser fitted in the third bedroom upstairs but toilets were still outside in a shed. Cooking was mostly done on a range with only a cold water tap in the kitchen and fireplaces were still in everyday use, coal was the common fuel, central heating still being many years away as were fitted carpets. Flooring was lino covered with rugs and the houses were so cold that during the winter, water froze in the glass beside the bed. Washing was done with the help of a gas boiler and tub but since brewing day was also Monday, beware the smell when hanging out the washing!

Sold to Whitbread in 1955, brewing ceased in 1958 and the site was used as a depot and stores. By the 1960s Gwydir Street was still an unfashionable area, housing was cheap and many properties were rented. Whitbread closed the site in 1966 and sold the site to the Council who used empty houses to re-house many people from the Kite which had become very run-down as its future was undecided. When the Arbury Estate was opened in the 1970s many council tenants were re-housed there and more properties on Gwydir Street became available for sale. The Brewery buildings were let to several different organisations including a foreign language school. In 1982 after a vociferous debate it was decided that these buildings were not suitable for housing development and the current arrangement of antique shops, offices and stores was developed.

People's memories

From an email correspondent, Jim:

Although not a Gwydirian (?) I had many a cleansing session at the Public Baths and remember exiting the Kinema by the rear exit to come out almost under the Dales Clock. Sometimes with the connivence of a mate already inside we would enter the cinema by the same rear door but don't tell anyone, will you.


I remember the Dewdrop Inn (now the Cambridge Blue) mainly because I had to wait outside on occasions for my Dad and Grandad to finish drinking. Their "locals" however were the Swimmer and the Midland I remember.

My boyhood, from about four to fifteen anyway, was spent at 49 Devonshire Road, the home of my Grandparents in those days, indeed my brother who still lives in Cambridge was born there, so I have wonderful memories of the area.

From Mike Petty's column "Memories" (Feb 19, 2003) in the Cambridge Evening News: (This is taken from the article below.)

In 1963, News columnist Erica Dimock surveyed Gwydir Street for her 'Down Your Street' feature. The terraced houses looked much the same as they had since they were built in the 1860s, but the atmosphere of the street had changed. It was becoming 'the Soho of Cambridge' as young families moved away to be replaced with people from Italy, Jamaica, Poland, Yugoslavia and a variety of other countries. One man who knew the street well was Harry Pateman, a magistrate. He had lived in the same house for 70 years and could remember when they had their own chemist's shop amongst the facilities on offer. The number of shops had declined but still included three grocery stores: Ernest Mills had been trading for 14 years, S F Cockell had moved there in the mid 1950s, and C Harpur's shop had changed hands only recently.

Sadie Segal's clothes shop

One newcomer was Sadie Segal who had brought her second-hand clothing shop from Norfolk Street, having been trading for 23 years, ever since she moved down from London during the war. But trade was not what it used to be, since people could now obtain almost anything on credit. Shoes would always be needed, and would always need mending. The British Shoe Corporation had its repair works in Upper Gwydir Street where some 1,300 pairs were repaired each week, as they had since 1914. But now things were changing and craftsmanship was being eliminated by new processes, stitching having been replaced by sticking.

Beer was an important part of the life of the street. Dale's Brewery dominated the area near Mill Road. It had been founded in the 1890s, when there were no fewer than 22 breweries in Cambridge. But by 1963 it was being used as a distribution depot by Whitbread and its landmark 7ft high cup, a reminder of the gold cup won for the best beer at the Brewers' International Exhibition in 1911, had been removed for safety reasons. Of the five public houses that had once traded, two were closed by 1963; the former Prince of Wales had been owned for a while by Peter Cook of Footlights and Beyond the Fringe frame and was then a Leslie Peck lodging house, the Gwydir Arms was a private house. The Brewer's Arms had a good darts team, but the Alexandra Arms had lost its once-famous skittles club and at the Dew Drop Inn the licensee, Leslie Peck, was lamenting the recent closure of the Embassy Ballroom in Mill Road, that had considerably reduced his custom. (The Dewdrop is now the Cambridge Blue.) The Beaconsfield Conservative Club had itself formerly hosted dances in its imposing hall, then being used as a furniture warehouse, but both city and university judo clubs continued to meet in upper rooms. (The Beaconsfield Club closed down in 1984 after it lost its licence becuase of complaints of noise and fighting.)

It is hard to associate urban Gwydir Street with exotic snakes, lizards or spiders, but they were a regular hazard for H W Barnes, director of Whitehead's wholesale fruit and vegetable warehouse. They had hanging space for 900 stems of bananas some containing creepy crawlies, a quite impressive sight, and something like seven tons were received and despatched each week. Although oranges and South African apples were still very popular there was an increasing demand for more unusual fruit and continental produce.

From an email correspondent, Don Halls:

I was born in Vicarage Terrace in 1927 and know the area well. Of course you are very aware that years ago Vicarage Terrace was bombed, nos 1 through 10 were wiped out and several of my childhood acquaintances were killed. I left England in 1950 and now live in Palm Springs Ca. My niece Mandy and her husband Nick ran the Cambridge Blue for some years up until about 5 years ago.

I remember, as a child, walking with my mother through Mill Rd Cemetary to get from Norfolk Street to Mill Road, and going to the Playhouse movies. I well remember a store, a confectioner, named Hoppit and opposite was a print shop ownedby my sisters-in-laws, the Bigg Family. My family were for the most part stonemasons but my uncle Harvey Halls was for many years the publican of the Wheelwright Arms on East Road (he was by trade a wheelwright). The Wheelwright Arms was close to where Mackays is. There were two pubs next door to each other, the Horse and Groom and the Wheelwrights Arms. Opposite was the Brittania. Years ago it was said that one could not go along East Road and have a pint at each pub as there were so many.

A memory from World War II: "Some of the soldiers rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk were billeted in Cambridge stayed with families that lived in Gwydir Street. The soldiers were lined up in the road and each householder was asked how many bedrooms they had. It was expected that there'd be two adults to each double room and as we had two doubles and a single we took in two soldiers. They slept in a double bed and were still staying with us when the bombs dropped on Vicarage Rerrace."

From an email correspondent, Tim Futter:

There was a Freeman, Hardy and Willis' shoe and boot repair factory in Gwydir St. I believe this factory closed in the early 1950's. I think it had previously been somewhere near the Kite area off East Rd until sometime around the beginning of WW1. I know the factory existed on the Gwydir St site because my parents met there where they were employed until they married in 1948. My mother is still alive , although her memory can sometimes play tricks on her, but may be able to provide some information on the factory. I understand it was quite a thriving little factory. During WW2 my father spent many nights on fire watch on the roof of the building as part of his Home Guard duties. Come to think of it my Grandfather worked there as well and I believe the managers name was Freddie Alcroft.

From Cambridge news 25 April 1963 (click on it for readable version!):

newspaper clipping

CAMBRIDGE NEWS, Thursday, April 25, 1963 [page] 5

Where The Most Famous Cup In Cambridge Used To Stand

(continued from Page 4) ... that when the new houses and flats have been built in the area, trade will pick up again.

On the opposite side of the street is the Alexander Arms, which the Licensee Mr Owen Lloyd estimates to have been in existence forr at least 70 years. It used to have a famous skittle club but this was dissolved some years ago. Mr Lloyd's comment on the demolition in the area is that in spite of the fact of many of his customers have had to move elsewhere, they have returned their loyalty to the Alexander Arms, especially at the weekend, when business was very good. He also thinks that people are choosing many expensive drinks nowadays even to the extent that they tend to select the dearest of two light ales.

Long Service

One more place where people can obtain a drink in Gwydir Street - thought this time they have to be a member - is at the Beaconsfield Conservative Club near the corner of Milford Street. The club was founded in 1884 and lets out its imposing hall next door - once the scene of famous local dances - for use as a furniture warehouse. University and city judo clubs meet in rooms over the actual clubroom. It is here that a record of chairman and secretaries of the club are commemorated, with a special place emphasising the services of a very distinguished member and trustee, the late F J Howlett. A member of the club for 57 years, Mr Howlett served on the committee for 55 of them and was secretary for 29. When he retired in 1952, he was made an honorary member.

Old Memories

Someone else with very long records of service who still lives in Gwydir Street is 95 year old Mr Harry Pateman. A parcel foreman at the Cambridge railway station for many years, Mr Pateman was secretary of the King's Own Division of the Sons of temperance for 59 years, churchwarden at St Barnabas Church for 32 years and a Cambridge Magistrate for over 30 years. Having lived in the street for 89 years - in his present house for 70 of them - he can recall much of its past, including many of its early businesses and the erection of some of its houses. For instance, Mr. Pateman remembers when the brewery site was occupied by stables, when Gwydir Street had its own chemist and when Brown, the oil distributor, operated from the yard now used by A.A. Whitehead. Having known the street for all those years, My Pateman still does not think it has changed to any great extent since its last remaining fields were eaten up by housing development.

No Complaints

"It has not altered very much in appearance, but the people in it have changed," he says. "However, I have always been lucky, and have had good neighbours. I have no complaint at all about Gwydir Street."

Of the five shops in Gwydir Street to-day - there used to be several more - three are grocery stores. S.F. Cockell's business formerly belonged to a Mr Kerry, and in years gone by had a long range of stables at the rear of the premises. It has extensively altered by Mr. H.W. Long, a neighbouring builder, and is now run by Mr. Cockell and his wife, who moved in six years ago from nearby Norfolk Street.

Dairy, Bakery

Although Mr Ernest Mills shop opposite Hooper Street junction has dealt in groceries for many years - Mr Mills has been there himself for 14 years - somee local people remember when it was a dairy. On the other side of the road, a contrast in the colour of the bricks at the top and bottom of the buildings indicates where a small group of shops has beeen pulled down and converted into private houses, while further along a large front window disguises a former bakery. C. Harpur's grocery has recently changed hands and the Norfolk Street Post Office was mentioned in a previous article which only leaves Sadie's to comment upon.

Sadie's Shop

Mrs Sadie Segal has not done business for very long, having moved there when her previous shop in Norfolk in Norfolk Street was demolished. She has been in the second-hand clothing trade for 23 years - ever since she moved down from London. Commenting that the trade is "not what it used to be" since people can obtain almost everything they want on credit nowadays, Mrs Segal adds that she does get a fair amount of customers wanting modern, fashionable clothing at very cheap prices. Not having moved too far away from her original premises, she has managed to maintain many of her regular and oldest customers.

Shoe repairer

Shoe menders

Several men with very long memories - well over 25 years - who are still working in Gwydir Street, are those emplyed by the British Shoe Corporation Ltd at its repair works in Upper Gwydir Street. At these premises, once a Salvation Army Hall, some 12 to 13 hundred pairs of shoes were repaired each week, for customers of shops as far afield as Chelmsford, Grays in Esex and Holbeach in Lincolnshire. Shoes have been repairs in this hall since 1914, and the present manager - his father was manager before him - is Mr. F.E.Allcroft.

Moving Out

Commenting that is it difficult to attract young men into the work nowadays, M. Allcroft points out that much of the craftsmanship has been elimiated by new processes. Stitching, for instance, has been replaced to a very large extent by sticking.

While the men in shoe repairs works have become more or less fixtures in Gwydir Street, another group of men will only be there for a matter of months, having moved in just before Christmas and due to move out again in the early summer. These are the men who work in the Post Office's temporary parcels office which was set up on the former premises of the Simplex Dairy Equipment Co Ltd, to ease the situation while building extensions are being made at the Mill Road Sorting Office. The Simplex buildings have been acquired by the City Corporation and will eventually be used for the rehousing of displaced business tenants in Cambridge.

40,000 A Week

Incoming parecels for delivery in the Cambridge Area amount to something like 3,000 a day, while taking the parcel traffic as a whole, the temporary office in Gwydir Street deals with something like 40,000 items a week.


Something like seven tons of bananas a week are received and redistributed by those working at the wholesale fruit and vegetable warehouse of A.A. Whitehead Ltd in Gwydir Street. A subsidiary of E.Pordage and Co Ltd, this site was taken over eight or nine years ago after Pordage's had acquired A.A. Whitehead's business in Gold Street. It now serves an area extending to Biggleswade, St Neots, Bishop's Stortford, Hertford, Saffron Walden, Thaxted and Dunmow, and deals not only in imported fruit and vegetables, but also with a considerable amount of local produce.

Hanging Space

The Director, Mr. H.W.Barnes, points out tht although oranges and South African apples are still extremely popular, he has an increasing demand for the more unusual fruits and for continental produce for sale to the area's many foreign visitors. Included on the premises are rooms which provide hanging space for 900 stems of bananas, each carrying about 100 bananas on each. As such, they make quite an impressive sight.

Another yard, not far from Whitehead's, is that used by Miller and Sons Ltd, for repair work to their fleet of vans - the responsibility for the last 13 years of Mr. A.J.Higgins. During the War, the site accomodated two Fire Service engines, and before that, a taxi service.

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