History of St Matthews Area

We picked up this page of information when we bought our house in Gwydir Street in 1978. The GIA (General Improvement Area) was being set up, and this was provided by the city council for anyone interested in the area.

The History of the St Matthews Area

Prepared and written by Mr. Timothy Sewell for the Department of Architecture and Planning, Cambridge City Council 1976

Prior to the Cambridge Inclosure Act of 1807, the St Matthews area was part of the village of Barnwell in the parish of St Andrew the Less, and lay in an open field which was known as Bradmore Field. The boundaries of Bradmore Field were Gravel Pit Road (now East Road), the road to Newmarket, Cherry Hinton Road (now Coldhams Lane) and a private road (now Mill Road). In 1801 the parish had a population of 252 and it was estimated that there were only 79 houses in the parish, the majority of these being situated on the southern side of Newmarket Road.

The Inclosure Act resulted in the majority of the area, over 131 acres, being awarded to the "person or persons entitled to the Estates of the late Thomas Panton, Esquire". Land which ran alongside east Road and Newmarket Road was awarded in small parcels to individuals and to some of the colleges, and it was on these plots that building first took place after inclosure, although the settlement remained no more than a village with fields and orchards extending to the east. Land south of Mill Road in the proposed General Improvement Area (GIA) was awarded in the main to Gonvil and Caius College (sic.)

The coming of the railway signalled the transformation of the area from quiet country to bustling town. In 1845 the London to Norwich line was opened and formed the eastern boundary of the St. Matthews area. Infilling of the area was rapid. Josiah Chater, a local diarist of the time wrote "After 1845 the Mill Road area began to grow ... the Barnwell district grew too, with the coming of the railway, its numerous poor cottages crowded into insanitary courts..." Mill Road, once a quiet country road, became a main street. To the north of it was the cemetery (opened in 1848, formerly the University Cricket Ground), the Cambridge Union Workshouse (opened in 1838 and now the maternity hospital, its premises had previously been in Workhouse Lane, now Norfolk Street - and Staffordshire Place), and on either side of the road, there were a host of shops and eating places.

The unplanned and virtually overnight erection of countless dwellings brought with in 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 ready made haven for villains. The degenerative 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 to serve these requirements, and in 1870 the area became St Matthews district council. Similar reasons brought about the building of St Barnabas Church on Mill Road which was completed in 1880.

Educational facilities were provided by the Old Schools Trust and the church. From 1870 onwards 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 no longer exist or are used for some other purpose. The Brunswick Nursery, St Matthews primary School, the Further Education centres at Young and York Street and the Technical College serve the educational needs of not only modern day St Matthews but also the rest of the City and the County.

The population of West Barnwell (which almost corresponds to the GIA) 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 the 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. The majority of the existing terraces in the area were built between 1870 and 1890. As the area developed so too facilities, an adequate system of water supply and main drainage coming into existance after the turn of the century.

The street pattern changed only slightly after 1890. Devonshire Road, which once extended only a few yards to the south of Mill Road, now curves south and joins Tenison Avenue; in 1888, Sturton Street terminated where it met Geldart Street, but now travels on to New Street; in 1888 there was no Petworth Street, and Young Street was then Albert Street. At that time, Sturton Town Hall (the area had ben known as Sturton Town before St Matthews Church was built) was yet to become the Kinema; the Workhouse was gradually converted into a maternity hospital, and the extensive Covent Nursery was to be swallowed up by houses and a secondary school, later to become the Technical College. The only reminder of the nursery today are those street names inspired by it - Covent Garden, Flower and Blossom Streets.

Since the turn of the century, the population of the area has decreased. In 1911 it was 5,732 and by 1961 it had fallen to 4,165, a trend which can be explained to a certain extent by a reduction in the housing stock of the area.

Essentially the layout of the area remained as it was in the late nineteenth century until the early 1950's. It was then that the planning policies for Cambridge embodied in the Cambridgeshire County Development Plan were produced. There were two major recommendations in the plan which affected the St Matthews area. The first of these was that three areas between Broad Steet and Newmarket Road, areas of severe "blight", be designated Comprehensive Development Areas (CDAs) and subject to redevelopment, taking the form of housing, business and mixed use. The second recommendation was that, as a consequence of a proposed new Chesterton Bridge (Elizabeth Way), a road linking Newmarket Road and Brooklands Avenue would be required, its route taking in Newmarket Road/East Road junction, Sturton Street, Kingston Street and Devonshire Road. This route later became known as the Main Town Road. Other recommendations in the plan were improvements in educational facilities and the containment of light industry to land east of York Street.

Intermittent reviews suggested that the Mill Road shopping area would benefit from a car park situated in the Covent Garden area. The reviews culminated in a new Development Plan for Cambridge in 1965, which became known as the Town Map. The new plan did not affect the St Matthews area further. By this time, 1952 policies were being completed, notably CDA No.1, the area between East Road, Norfolk Street, St Matthews Street and New Street, had ben completed with a mixed scheme of houses, flats and shops replacing sub-standard terraces.

The Cambridge Transportation Plan (July 1972) pursued the idea of the Main Town Road but concluded that an alternative route alongside the railway would be preferable to the City's traffic requirements. the City Council's Statement of Objectives and Policies 1974 (th Blueprint) adopted this proposal, but by this time the proposed Mill Road car park, despite still being in the Town Map, was effectively dea. The Blueprint also proposed that a series of local plans be embarked upon, taking a more detailed look at the requirements of certain areas, and that GIA's should be declared in order to aid rehabilitation of areas.

Early on in the preparation stage of the Local Plan, it was decided to positively free properties from the blight of the now defunct Town Road. This was done in 1975. The Local Plan is ow, in 1976, nearing completion, and the GIA is being launched - hence the reason for writing this history.

Sources of Information:
     The Cambridgeshire Collection at the Central Library
     'Gas Lane and Blossom Street. A study of life and social work in a working class parish of Cambridge, 1875-1975' by Catharine Russell.

It's strange to find one's own memories becoming history... The Kinema was on Mill Road - long gone. The maternity hospital moved to the Rosie, on the Addenbrookes site, in 1984, and the building is now Ditchburn Place. The Technical College became a university and is now Anglia Ruskin - older people still tend to call it "the Tech". The Mill Road library has closed as such although the building is still there, next to the railway bridge.

The GIA (General Improvement Area) mentioned above was a great success. When we bought our house in 1978, we applied for a GIA grant. A man from the council came round to survey our house and comment on the changes we wanted to make. The grant was given to get the buuilding up to minimal buildings standards (for example, the kitchen had to be at least 65 sq ft, and all external walls had to be double thickness) and to give it at least 30 years more life. The grant was 60% of the cost of the allowable alterations. A lot of young couples were buying and renovating, like us, and even older existing house owners improved their properties. So the area was changed to a "desirable place to live"! It was called "gentrification" at the time.

Cambridge used to have horse drawn trams. The Tram Shed pub on East Road was the site of the Tram depot.

tram tram

This is the last tram on East Road, 1914


Ditchburn Place, on Mill Road, is now an old people's home. Before that, it was the Cambridge maternity hospital. This closed in 1984 and moved to the Rosie, on the Addenbrookes site. Before the maternity hospital, this was the Mill Road Workhouse. here are some pictures.

Workhouse Workhouse Workhouse

Recently, the Hindu arch has been installed here (2023):


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