History of Mill Road

Timeline of Mill Road

This is from a leaflet by the "Capturing Mill Road" project - see website.

Timeline of Mill Road, Cambridge

History of Mill Road 1830-1850

by Allan Brigham, published in Mill Road News

Today, Mill Road is part of the inner city, an arterial road lined with shops, restaurants and homes. It also links and provides a focus for the adjoining streets of 19th century terraces. The wards of Petersfield and Romsey contain a population of 18,000, the size of a small town.

Private Road

In 1830, Mill Road was described as a 'private road leading to nowhere.' A track across empty fields, it ended in a footpath to Cherry Hinton, hence its name, Hinton Way.

The most prominent landmark was the windmill, providing flour for the people of Cambridge, most of whom lived half a mile away in what we call the 'historic centre'. Clustered near the windmill in the first Mill Road side street, seven houses had recently been built in Convent Garden. On Mill Road itself, there were just five houses.

Further along the track lay Polecat Farm, the last buildings until you reached Cherry Hinton. A farm sale in 1839 gives us a glimpse of Mill Road at this time, recording carts and farming tools, "a well shaped three year old nag, a promising black yearling cart colt" as well as a "strong brown cart horse, three ewes, twenty five guinea fowl, fifty head of poultry". Today this is the site of 'Cutlacks' and Romsey Terrace.

Horses grazed the fields,and wheat, barley and potatoes were grown. It was a flat landscape broken by hedges along the side of Mill Road, and the occasional haystack. In 1839 the local newspaper reported one of these had been set alight by a young boy, Robert Creek; only his age prevented him from going to trial, and instead he got a flogging from his father.

The one significant change in the 1830's was the new Union Workhouse, set in the midst of this rural scene. Built in 1838 to cater for the growing number of unemployed, elderly or orphaned, it provided a safety net from destitution, but under conditions that did not encourage residents to stay there any longer than necessary. Set back from Mill Road, it later became the Maternity Hospital and is now Ditchburn Place.


The demolition of the windmill in 1844 marked the first sign that the old agricultural order was changing. This was confirmed by the arrival of the railway in 1845, beginning the transformation of Mill Road and the reorientaqtion of Cambridge away from the river towards the new station. Emplyees needed to be within walkig distance of their workplace, and shops and pubs were opened to cater for them. In 1847 the "enterprising engineers" J & I Headly also moved their iron foundry from the town centre to be near the railway so they could focus on "the Foundry, Engine Building and Railway Works for which they solicit their orders." In 1849 they built the only locomtive to be built in Cambridge, something unimaginable just twenty years earlier.


In 1830 Mill Road had been identified with and named after the 'old technology' of the windmill. By 1850 a very different economy was developing. The windmill was demolished, the Headly brothers were leading the way with the latest technology, and there were 50 dwellings on Mill Road housing 199 people. But despite the changes of the last 160 years, Mill Road still ends with the footpath to Cherry Hintom.

Condensed from Mill Road, Cambridge: 1823-1851 on the Capturing Cambridge website.

This is taken from Mill Road area Conservation Area Appraisal - This document dates from June 2011.

Development of the Mill Road Area

The Conservation Area is defined by Mill Road, an important historic route (Hinton Way) that leads out of the city centre towards the eastern edge of Cambridge. The area was still fields until the Inclosure Act of 1807, after which new roads were incrementally laid out at right angles to Mill Road, although most of these did not appear until the 1860s or even later. Mill Road is so named because it led out of the City towards a windmill, which was located somewhere near the present site of Mill Street. Ditchburn Place, the oldest surviving building on Mill Road (and surprisingly not listed) was built in 1838 as the Parish Workhouse, and at about the same time some terraced houses were built in the Covent Garden area around the site of the windmill on the south side of Mill Road. What is now the cemetery was then in use as the University Cricket Ground, the land being converted to a cemetery in 1848, involving the demolition of the Barnwell New Church. The construction of the first railway line to Cambridge in 1845 (the Eastern Counties line, later the Great Eastern) also had an impact on the area, with the new station being located just to the south of the Conservation Area. However, development was, at least initially, surprisingly slow. By 1859 the only buildings along the north of Mill Road were provided by a short stretch of properties to the east of Covent Garden. There were a few buildings on the north side, with the Eagle Foundry on the site of the present Council Depot, with a row of cottages on the south side, which stood in virtual isolation. To the north of Mill Road in the St Matthew's area, Norfolk Street was established with, to the north, a number of streets of small cottages, which were demolished in the 1960s.

Most of the new residential development appears to have started from the 1870s onwards when the former Barnwell Open Fields were purchased by Joseph Sturton from the Geldart family, both of whom are commemorated in the street names. St Matthew's Church was built to the designs of Richard Reynolds Rowe in 1866, initially to serve the residential streets which already existed to the west. The Emery Street area was developed from the 1870s onwards on land owned by Corpus Christi College. Flower Street, Blossom Street and the site of what is now Anglia Ruskin University, were all developed on land which had once been used as a large nursery garden. To the south of Mill Road, St Barnabas Church was completed in 1880, and at about the same time St Barnabas Road was laid out on land belonging to Gonville and Caius College, which owned most of the land in this part of Cambridge. The southern boundary of the area was built up when Devonshire Road was extended after 1890. Most of the buildings along the west of Mill Road were therefore provided in the 1880s and 1890s (some retain date plaques confirming the date of construction) and although there are several long rows of terraced houses, mainly on the north-west side, other groups of commercial buildings were also purpose-built with ground floor shops below residential accommodation. There were also a number of buildings in industrial uses, principally the Eagle Brewery and Bolton's Warehouse in Tenison Road. The Library was built in 1897 and Dales Brewery, in Gwydir Street, was added in the early 1900s. Hughes Hall was built in 1894. The former Playhouse (now Sally Ann's) was opened in 1913 as the first purpose-built cinema in Cambridge, and the Bath House was added to Gwydir Street (close to the junction with Mill Road) in 1927 as a public bathing facility. The former workhouse was converted to a maternity Hospital in 1946, and then more recently converted yet again, and substantially extended, to become Ditchburn Place Sheltered Housing.

The development and growth of Romsey Town mainly took place between 1880 and 1900, and mirrored the development to the west of the railway line as detailed above. Part of the map of 1886 shows, for instance, that Great Eastern Street had been developed with terraced houses and that the adjoining streets – Cavendish Road, Sedgwick Street, Catherine Street and Thoday Street – had been laid out but only a few houses had been built. Beyond these streets were open fields and allotments, crossed by old footpaths that led to the uninhabited Coldhams Lane and Coldhams Common where coprolites were mined. For each terrace, the width of each house was crucial, for if over 15 foot it was possible to provide a separate front hallway, allowing some privacy to the front parlour. Front bay windows were also added to the more up-market houses, often lived in by train drivers, who earned more than the more lowly railway workers. The 1886 maps also confirm the existence of two large houses, both set back from Mill Road. To the north, The Lodge occupied a large site between Cavendish Road and Sedgwick Street (which appears to have been totally redeveloped in the 1920s), and to the south, Romsey House, which may have given its name to the area. This survives on the corner of Coleridge Road and Mill Road and is currently used as a language school. From the 1880s (one of the remaining buildings is dated 1882) a site to the north of Mill Road was developed as an Isolation Hospital. Now called Brookfields Hospital, after the small stream which runs across the site, further buildings were incrementally added including the largest building which faces Mill Road. This was built using distinctive polychrome brickwork and appears to date to 1892 – it may have been designed by E Wareham Harry, the Borough Surveyor. Other interesting buildings also date to this period, including the Salisbury Club (for the Conservatives), which was built in 1891 by FA Mullet, with a further section being added to the west in 1909. St Philip's Church in Mill Road is dated 1889, and St Philip's School in Ross Street was built close by between 1894 and 1898 to the designs of W M Fawcett. St Philip's Junior School in Thoday Street was built between 1889 and 1894 by J S Redding and Son, Cambridge. In 1891 a new Methodist Church was built on Mill Road to the designs of W Wren of Cambridge. This was later (1906) substantially extended. Of the commercial buildings, the Royal Standard Public House was built in Mill Road around 1880 and was acquired from Charles Armstrong-Ors by the Star Brewery in 1892. All of these buildings are already on the City Council's list of BLIs.

The provision of further houses in the next twenty years, along with shops, schools, churches and other facilities, gave the local residents all they needed. As this was the period when Britain's Empire was at its most powerful, many of the new street names reflected the various countries then under British control, such as Suez, Malta, Cyprus and Hobart. By 1921 the area had over 7,000 residents, most of whom worked for the railway as drivers, guards, boilermakers, platelayers, fitters, firemen and clerks. Other men worked in the building industry and some of them helped to build the new Labour Party Clubhouse in Mill Road, which was opened by Ramsey Macdonald in 1928. When many of the residents supported the General Strike in 1926, the area became famous for its strong union membership and socialist leanings, and was often referred to as 'Red Romsey'. Whilst it lay close to the City Centre, it felt quite isolated from the University buildings, dons and students, with the line of the railway quite literally creating a barrier.

A General Improvement Area (GIA) was declared in Romsey Town in 1981 to encourage property owners to upgrade their terraced houses including the installation of inside toilets, new bathrooms, damp-proofing, and new roofs. Since then, despite some gentrification, the effect of student lets, and the gradual assimilation of families from a range of ethnic backgrounds, a strong community spirit still survives and is reflected in the support for various local groups including an active Residents' Association.

Today, the Mill Road Area remains an important local centre with a rich cultural and ethnic mix. There has been a change in the balance between the day-time and night-time economies, with some shops having been replaced by takeaways and other food outlets. The Bath House was saved from demolition in 1968 by the St Matthew's Neighbourhood Association and Friends of the Earth and is now in community use. The adjoining residential streets are popular and provide a variety of house sizes, whilst the close proximity of the City Centre and railway station add to the attractions of the area.

This document also included the following:

A Brief History of Cambridge

Cambridge is located at the highest navigable point of the River Cam from Kings Lynn via the River Ouse. A Roman settlement developed on a gravel ridge looking over the river to the south at the meeting point of four important roads. By the 2nd century a sizeable town had developed on an enclosed area of about 25 acres, the site being reused later by the Anglo-Saxons. In about 1068 William the Conqueror built a castle (of which only the motte remains), this leading to the rapid growth of the settlement, including the provision of churches – St Giles, St Peter's and St Bene't's Churches all retain Norman features. Monastic foundations soon followed, including the Augustinians priory of 1092 and the Benedictine nunnery of 1135 (now Jesus College). Other foundations were also established and many remain in some form or another as present-day colleges. Cambridge became important for its markets and guilds, as well as a centre for learning, which may have been the result of a migration of monks and scholars from Oxford in 1209 linked to an increasing demand throughout the 13th century for well trained administrators, who were needed for secular rather than ecclesiastical posts. Most of the teaching was done in a single complex of buildings, now called the Old Schools, which included the Divinity School, Law and Arts School, and the Library, completed in 1475. Initially the students were housed in rented accommodation but from the late 14th century individual colleges, usually grouped around a court, were built so that by 1474 there were 12 in all, rising to 15 at the time of the Reformation. The founders of these Colleges were kings (Edward III, Henry VI, and Henry VIII), queens and other members of the royal families, aristocrats and powerful civil servants. The new buildings were initially constructed in a clunch-faced rubble (unlike Oxford, which used locally quarried Oolitic limestone), but from the 14th century onwards brick became the material of choice. Outside the university and college buildings, much of medieval Cambridge has been demolished and redeveloped apart from small groups of buildings, such as the ones at the junction of Bridge Street and Northampton Street. A change of building style started in the mid 16th century and then developed in the 17th century into a rejection of the Gothic in preference for Italian-based motifs, such as mullioned and transomed windows and more classical details, following the example of Christopher Wren's buildings in Oxford and London. Later, in the 18th century, the buildings followed the Palladian principles of Lord Burlington, such as James Burrough's Fellow's Building at Peterhouse. In 1600 Cambridge had just 265 students in comparison to Oxford's 305, but by 1830 the numbers were 440 to 405, confirming Cambridge's increased capacity as more Colleges were built, including Downing College of 1807. Further buildings were added during the 19th century as Cambridge became an important centre for the study of the Arts, such as the University Library (1837) and the Fitzwilliam Museum (also 1837). In 1870 some 605 students completed their studies and by 1900 there were over 1,000, leading to the provision of a large number of new university buildings, some of them on the former water meadows to the west of the Backs, an area that is defined by Queen's Road and runs along the rear entrances to many colleges. By the mid 20th century, the city's population had risen to about 90,000 from about 38,000 in 1900. Much new housing was added between the wars and from the 1950s, new colleges, and extensions to existing colleges, were also constructed, mostly designed by prestigious architects. In the early 21st century, Cambridge has become not only an important university city but also a focus for tourism with an estimated four million visitors a year. In the last thirty years or so, Cambridge has also developed an international reputation for scientific research and development.

Return to index