A ramble through the hollowing out of employer-backed social institutions in Cambridge, and the rise of local online-based networks in their place

For those of you following my research project Lost Cambridge, you’ll know that I’m currently going through about half a century’s worth of newspaper archives. Accordingly, I’m picking up on a host of things that I hadn’t really expected to find out about or even intended to find out about. Having just watched a programme on BBC4 about Paisley’s huge mills in Scotland, (with No.1 Spinning Mill being demolished in a crime against industrial architecture) it reminded me of something I was thinking about in relation to the collapse of the Co-operative movement in Cambridge.

“Collapse of the co-op in Cambridge? But they have stores everywhere!”

I’ve still not figured out what went wrong with the Co-op Society in general, but something very very bad happened over an extended period of time. And that was before they tried their hand at banking. I wrote about my brief work experience stint there in the mid-1990s and even then I could see all was not well. Not well at all. Compared to what the Cambridge & District Co-operative Society was in the early 1930s, today all that effectively exists is a brand. (They are rebuilding – which is a point I’ll end on).


The old Co-operative buildings on Burleigh Street – demolished by Grosvenor in the mod-2000s as part of a re-location of John Lewis while the Grand Arcade project was redeveloped. The site was then taken over by Primark.

SaleOfCo-op Burleigh Street_ArchivesRecord1980

Only now have I found out how the Co-op ended up relinquishing such fine buildings. Turns out in 1980 they sold the property to Grosvenor Estates – the firm in the headlines recently over family trusts and inheritance taxes.

The only reason I can think why the Co-op would have sold that site was because they moved to a new supermarket at the Beehive Centre. According to Ian Kitching the Co-op finally moved out of Burleigh Street in 1996.

More than just a shop and offices, but a social centre too

The photo-mosaic below (click for detailed images) from the Cambridge Chronicle on various dates throughout the 1920s show the sorts of events the Cambridge & District Co-operative Society Ltd organised. Images from the Cambridgeshire Collection’s newspaper microfiche archive.

Fashion shows, civic parades, children’s fetes, formal dinners – and note the numbers of people taking part: hundreds. And the Co-op wasn’t the only organisation to do this. Heffers, the bookshop below in 1939.

390123 HeffersSportsSocialClub

Staff associations also had their big events.


Cambridge University staff used to have huge ballroom dances – this at the old Dorothy Cafe that is now Waterstones Bookshop.

Furthermore, there were significant tributes from employers for employees who had volunteered for or were conscripted into the armed forces during the First World War.

Given the sheer numbers you get the sense of the scale of the disruption that firms across the country will have faced. Note one of the templates used by Eaden Lilley and Chivers and co – two of the biggest employers in the area. Before the rise of the totalitarian dictators the symbol had much more peaceful connotations.

Public sector social clubs

The biggest and possibly most well known one in Cambridge is the Frank Lee Centre, which serves Addenbrooke’s Hospital and is open to staff and their families. I had my 18th birthday party there in the late 1990s. Also well known is the Cambridge University Sports and Social Club. It’s very well known in dancing circles as a venue for dance classes on its upstairs hall. In the private sector, Marshall’s has its own social club. Finally, Cambridge University Press had The Cass Centre – which was sometimes used by local civil service employers – certainly when I was there just over a decade ago. It remains to be seen what will happen once Cambridge Assessment move into their new site that was the old Press Factory. But these are the exceptions.

In the grand scheme of things, the large traditional working class social clubs that were subsidised by (or at least branded by) employers seems to have gone. Even the old trade union networks and political social clubs are a shadow of themselves. The only one that still functions is the Cambridge Working Men’s Club. The Romsey Labour Club closed – how and why I will never know but it should never have been allowed to. The Salisbury Club and Cherry Hinton Road Conservative Clubs are now more known as venues that can be hired out rather than as political hubs – reflecting the decline of Conservative politics in Cambridge over the past 30 years. While Cambridge Labour Party are able to host large private gatherings in Alex Wood Hall, the Liberal social presence buildings-wise, and that was once huge, has disappeared completely.

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This building was leased to the Cambridge Liberal Club for 21 years – a grand venue on Downing Street opposite Pembroke College.

“Perhaps people don’t want to socialise with those that they work with”

I worked for one of the large banks in a small office in Cambridge (long since closed) during my “year out”. I didn’t really know what a ‘Gap Year’ was until I actually got to University – when I met people who must have been the inspiration behind this chap. I remember once I had settled down thinking whether I could imagine myself spending the next 40 years of my life in that organisation or even industry. To which the answer was ‘no’. At the same time I remember the attitude generally was that the people there didn’t socialise with each other. I promised myself I’d never work in a small office as a career choice.

The crushing of workers (for want of another term) by firms in pursuit of profit has meant the cutting back on ‘non-essential’ expenditure

Look at the rise of the zero-hour contract and short-term contracts. Nothing shows more contempt for staff more than being ‘on demand’ for a firm who makes no consideration for an outside life you might have. Or being on one 3-month contract after contract knowing that at any point, your employer can simply let you go with no redundancy payment. I saw this shortly before I joined the civil service. What saddens me today is that these are the practices of firms that used to have much better terms and conditions for their frontline staff.

A growing number of single workers, micro-businesses and start-ups

Some have gone into this because it’s what works for them. Others have found themselves ‘coerced’ into this route following the large-scale redundancies in the public sector with austerity. Either way, this change in working patterns means you don’t get to form the networks or friendship groups that you might do working in a large organisation in a large workplace. Note that one of the responses to this in a number of places is the creation of open space ‘hubs’. Individuals and groups can hire flexible work space with the professional office services they need. Although they may be working for different organisations in different fields, they are all in the same workspace and even the same large room/office space.

Lower population density plus a poor transport network

It’s also worth remembering that Cambridge was much more compact compared with today – although some of the high-rise developments is beginning to reverse some of this. It’s one of the reasons why grand churches like All Saints, Cambridge was decommissioned, or worse, like the Wesleyan Methodist Church on Hills Road, sold off and demolished.

The old Wesleyan Methodist Church – where Strutt & Parker now are. This would have made a wonderful community building had the landlords preserved it.

Essentially in a compact town it was much easier to walk or cycle to where you needed to get to. It’s strange to think so today, but until fairly recently many of Cambridge’s central districts had large working class communities. Castle Hill, The Kite with The Grafton Centre, Petersfield, Newtown, West Chesterton and Newnham Croft are all examples. Today, many people on mid-to-low incomes have to commute in from outside the centre or outside of the city. Without the transport network that the city has needed for decades, it means that fewer people are able to take part in post-work activities.

Finally…advertising. Local newspapers used to be widely read. No longer. 

I kind of feel sorry for the historians of the future in that they won’t have this wealth of local journalism to work with. I certainly get the sense that the larger work-based social clubs had a much higher profile than they do today. It wasn’t just the photographs of their big events, but the smaller things such as games and sports teams competing in local leagues. Imagine your local political party having an amateur football team. That. A pub vs a political party vs a local church vs a large private sector employer in the sport or pastime of your choice. This was normal.

“Has someone come up with alternatives? Especially in this social media age?” 

Certainly at the ‘young professionals’ end with both JCI Cambridge and Cambridge Young Professionals. Furthermore, Meetup has a number of self-organising groups – the most vibrant of these being the CamCreatives network. The groups can be very specific to a city and/or local economy. In Cambridge, some of the most popular are based around specialist industries – some even based around specific computer programming languages!

Given the more transient nature of our city, social media has become all the more important in organising work or profession-based events. Also, given the now huge land costs in Cambridge, the idea of any organisation owning their own premises is a non-starter unless they have a major institutional backer or have inherited property down the decades.

It was also why I came up with the idea of a ‘Cambridge Societies Fair’ in 2014 – which evolved into the Cambridge Volunteers Fair run on behalf of Cambridge City Council by the wonderful Cambridge Hub. The next one is on 21 October – have a look at all of the organisations taking part.

Some of the supermarkets – the Co-op included, have appointed community representatives and organisers.  At the moment, these are predominantly store-based. It will be interesting to see if Cambridge City Council is able to harness their collective influence for city-wide campaigns and actions. Stores/groups of stores in an area supporting local charities and causes is now a regular feature at many. Here’s an example from the Co-op (who I’m a member of). Note a number of workplaces also do ‘charity action days’ where their staff collectively volunteer for a day of work (eg a nature reserve that needs lots of spare hands for a blitz) to taking part in big charity races.

“Does this mean that ‘the good old days’ were better?”


One of the other things that bound people together was the risk of destitution. In the days before the welfare state, you and your family were one bad accident or injury away from disaster. Going through the newspaper archives has revealed to me a number of ‘shocks to society’ that ultimately central government had to deal with. One of those was all of those families across the classes that no longer had a father and main wage earner.

The other thing that I keep on reminding myself of is that the people who I’m researching were living in a time where there was no TV and no internet. Radio was still in its infancy too. Given that the quality of housing wasn’t great, you can imagine the incentive to get out and about – and stay out if you could. I’m always struck by the news reports of court cases of how members of the public were able to run round the corner to alert the nearest police constable to arrest a local ruffian and haul him before the judges.

With the growth of the inter-war and post-war estates, and the improving quality of housing, the incentive to go out and about (and travel greater distances) perhaps diminished. Why go out in the cold and dark when you’ve got a warm house and a TV to keep you occupied? This is one of the explanations given to be by a church historian recently.

The rise and fall of friendly societies

Before the welfare state and before the system of national insurance, there was a growth of ‘friendly societies’ through the 19th Century as a means for people to insure themselves against the bad things in life. One of the few that is still visible in Cambridge at a street level is the Cambridge Oddfellows Branch. I’ve always wondered what they were about until I read about an election hustings they hosted a few years ago. The unofficial FB page here. shows the interior of the hall that they host events in and that locals can hire out – essential in a town that has a shortage of hall space for evening classes and rehearsals. From Lloyd George’s reforms in 1910 until the forming of the welfare state after the Second World War, the friendly societies played a big part in the administration of national insurance.

“Does any of this have a bearing on future public policy?”

In terms of how to deal with loneliness and mental health issues, plus in terms of the stabilisation of communities, I think it does. Hence my personal interest in it. The economic policies of the neo-liberal years (i.e. post-1979) saw the decline of the traditional churches (seen as Tory strongholds) and trade unions in inner city communities (traditionally Labour strongholds). Policy-makers in social policy have been struggling to come up with ideas on how to deal with some of the negative fallout of the decline of these institutions such as bringing people together on a regular basis. Difficult to argue for state support for organisations in a world where if something does not make money/profit it is seen as bad or a drain on society.


Original source – A dragon’s best friend

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