Abbey Estate


Cambridge is growing! The number of people living in the city is already 123,000, with nearly 30,000 more expected by 2020. People need homes and flats and new buildings are springing up all around the city. But this isn’t the first time builders have been busy. In 1801 there were just 252 people living in the Abbey ward, but by 1851 there were almost 12,000. In the 19th century new homes were needed for growing numbers of railway workers, craftsmen and shopkeepers. In the 20th century east Cambridge was newly built, including Abbey Meadows School in the 1950s & new estates nearby for families, with the adults working in firms such as Marshall’s Aerospace and Pye Electronics. There was a Co-op supermarket on Whitehill Road with flats above. Stories of people’s work and homes tell the story of Cambridge!

Do please download the pdf or full powerpoint presentation illustrating this subject which you will find  useful to use for a class:


Cambridge is in the middle of a housing boom. New buildings are going up everywhere, on the outer fringes of the city, around the railway station and at the new 70-acre Cambridge Bio-Medical Campus next to Addenbrooke’s hospital, the biggest medical research campus of its kind in the world. To the north-west of the city, the University of Cambridge is creating a £1billion development including new research facilities, 3,000 new homes, space for 2,000 post-graduate students, new schools and a nursery, shops and surgeries.

But this rush towards expansion and development is not new for Cambridge. The city has long been a pivotal focus for commerce and education. Although not a major industrial area, it has always been a prosperous trading centre and in the latter part of the 20th century the development of the Cambridge Science Park consolidated the city’s  worldwide reputation for incubating innovative new technology businesses. It was even nick-named ‘Silicon Fen’ in reference to Silicon Valley in California, home to many successful innovative high-tech start-up businesses.

Cambridge has been a place of human settlement for more than 2,500 years, since the Early Iron Age. The Romans also settled in Cambridge in around 43AD, calling it Camboritum, and building their fort at the city’s strategically important crossing of the River Cam. In 1068 William the Conqueror’s Sheriff, named Picot, built a castle at ‘Grantabrycge’, the early Norman name for Cambridge, later renamed Cantebrig. It was Picot’s wife Hugolina who founded the order of Regular Canons in 1092 which would evolve into the Augustinian Barnwell Priory in 1112.

At the beginning of the 19th century the population of Cambridge was about 10,000. By 1921 it had increased to almost 60,000 (and it has more than doubled since then). In 1800 the town had been surrounded by green fields, but by 1900 it was surrounded by increasing numbers of houses.

After the second world war ended in 1945, science and technology firms came to Cambridge, many to work with the University’s best brains, and engineering pioneers such as Marshall’s Aerospace flourished. As Cambridge prospered it attracted more people to live and work here, just as it does today.

The History of Fen Ditton and Ditton Fields

For more than 500 years, from 1412 until 1934 the parish of Fen Ditton's boundaries remained more or less unchanged. In 1934 the Fen Ditton Fields housing estate was transferred to the City of Cambridge, forming part of Abbey Ward in the late 20th century.

Until the early 20th century the parish's inhabitants depended on access to the river Cam for external communications. From the Middle Ages until around 1800 wharves at Fen Ditton and Horningsea provided landing stages for goods that were sold at Stourbridge Fair. The Fen Ditton docks and the Horningsea pier survived until 1845, but following the opening of the London to Cambridge railway line, they no longer served a commercial purpose and were closed.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the stretch of the River Cam running through Fen Ditton and Horningsea was used for leisure pursuits. Between 1965 and 1969 the bishop of Ely included the two parishes on his annual eight-day river progress. 

The railway line linking Cambridge to Fordham opened in 1884 and ran through both the western and eastern sections of Fen Ditton parish, and through Horningsea parish. Inhabitants of both parishes could either use the Fen Ditton halt to the south of the village, where the line crossed Horningsea Road, or the railway station at Quy. Passenger traffic ceased in 1961, and the line itself was closed in 1963. In 1971 the old hump-backed railway bridge and its raised embankment, over which Wadloes Road had crossed the line, were demolished. 

Between the 1930s and 1960s new house building was concentrated in the Fen Ditton Fields housing estate, with no substantial developments in Fen Ditton village. By the early 1970s, however, Fen Ditton Fields could not accommodate much further building.

Fen Ditton Fields

Fen Ditton Meadows separated the village from the Fen Ditton Fields housing estates, which lay within the parish until 1934. Most of the land bordered by the former railway line on its northern and western sides, and by Cherry Hinton brook on its southern side, was purchased by the City Council between 1918 and 1925. Newmarket Road runs through the middle of the east-west axis and Wadloes Road forms the north-south axis. The first council housing was erected between 1918 and 1939, primarily along Ditton Walk.

The population there increased from 321 to 437 between 1921 and 1931. In 1948 there were 564 houses on the estate, and by 1951 numbers had doubled to 1,153. This was achieved by filling in the entire north-western quadrant, and by laying out houses around the suburban 'ring-roads' in the north-east and south-east quadrants.

Between 1951 and 1955 a further 441 houses were built, the new developments being concentrated along Ekin and Keynes Roads, immediately to the south of Dudley Road in the north-east and along Rawlyn and Stansfield roads and Rayson Way in the south-west. By 1955 there were 1,594 houses on the estate. There followed a brief lull, with only 74 houses being built between 1955 and 1960.

In the early 1960s, 295 new houses were built, primarily along Howard Close and Wadloes Road. By 1967 there were 2,007 houses in the Fen Ditton Fields housing estates. Open spaces for recreation, such as that at the centre of Dudley Road, created a sense of spaciousness.

The original character of the estate has been retained in the late 20th century, with relatively little infilling. In the 1980s and 1990s new private housing developments were built east of Fen Ditton Lane and north of the city's cemetery on the Newmarket Road, with a large number of starter homes. In 1998 Abbey Ward, which included Fen Ditton Fields, had a population of 6,790. 

Discover More


Cambridge: the Shaping of the City, Peter Bryan. 2008 (first pub. 1999).

Memories of Abbey and East Barnwell, Caroline Biggs and John Durrant. 2002.

Cambridge Architecture, Tim Rawle. 1985.

Down Your Street: II East Cambridge, Sara Payne. 1984.

Cambridge New Architecture, editors Nicholas Hughes, Grant Lewison, Tom Wesley. 1964.

The Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England survey of the City of Cambridge. 1959.


Abbey Estate


On this page ...

In this section