Guildhall and Market Square


The Market was an important place for the Jewish community in the 1100s who had dwellings located where the Guiildhall is now, and importantly had a Synagogue on this site where they lived and worked. Once Jews were expelled from England in 1290, the site has since been used as a Tolbooth and a Gaol for the market traders, before a building was erected for the Council that is the Guildhall today! The Coat of Arms of Cambridge shows the River Cam with boats, and is set above the Guildhall door. Although the Market was originally very different in layout to now, because a major fire in 1849 destroyed the wooden booths, it is still thriving. Now the Market is known for its stripey awnings hosting numerous stalls. Thomas Hobson, a local Inn-keeper and horsemonger, courier for the post and news in Tudor times, made an important improvement to the market in the early 1600s. Hobson donated money for a conduit to bring fresh water from Trumpington all the way to a fountain built to provide clean drinking water for the people of Cambridge. The remains of the fountain can still be seen today, looking now like a giant flower pot in the centre of the cobbled area.

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The earliest known property on the site of Cambridge Guildhall was the house of a wealthy Jew, named Benjamin.  Henry II later confiscated it from him in the 1220s for use as a town gaol.  The gaol presented very challenging living conditions and was described as ‘a shocking place to be confined in’ by Carter in 1753.  The lower room was known as ‘the Hole’, and the upper room, ‘the Cage’.  There was even a separate area for those accused of witchcraft!  Indeed with no fireplace, water supply or exercise yard, it is a wonder how people managed to survive in such an environment! The gaol was later involved in one of the biggest clashes ‘town and gown’ clashes between the University and town, when Queen Elizabeth I attempted to give the gaol to the university.  The town fought back against this decision, taking the University to court.  After a few years of bickering, the townspeople won, with the Judge ordering them to ‘enjoy the Jayle as they formerly have done.’ 

The adjoining synagogue, which was previously a Franciscan monastery, became a tollbooth for the market for people entering the town and market trading.  It was later demolished because it was too small for the market and was replaced with a new one, which went by the name of ‘town’ hall or ‘guild’ hall.   However, in 1782, this too, was knocked down and replaced by James Essex’s design, costing £2500. A time capsule, containing a pig skin, an inscribed piece of stone and some coins was placed in the building foundations.  The stone can be seen today in the present Guildhall, outside the entrance to the Small Hall.  When a new Shire Hall was given to the community in 1842, local traders were unimpressed and a letter to the Cambridge Chronicle described it as ‘that wretched Town Hall that has long…been a disgrace to Cambridge.’ Architects submitted plans for a new building and, a structure was created in 1861 that according to press reports ‘our good old town may well be proud.’ When more space was acquired, a new three-storey building was built in 1894, complete with a Police Court, Mayoral chambers and an Employment Exchange.  However, following a fire in the area of the site, used by corn merchants, and the expansion of the corporation, Charley Cowes-Voysey redesigned the whole site.  This resulted in an uproar from the townspeople due to both the design and £15000 budget.  The building was constructed in two parts, and if you look closely you can see a line where the bricks do not match as they ran out of money and had to suspend the works.  When they continued building, they were unable to buy bricks of the same sort! 

Although, Cambridge marketplace has always been the true, dynamic centre of the town, it has not always been the same in appearance.  It was initially L- shaped and much smaller than the market that we know today, confined to the space in front of the Guildhall, between the Market Street and Petty Curry.  The market has always been teeming with activity, with shambles selling meat, a corn market selling butter and poultry, garden market, fruit and vegetable market and a milk and herb market, around the market cross.  The peas market was located on peas hill (with the fish market at the bottom), which extended to the oats market. 

Sale of goods was not the only activity that took place on Market Hill, but it was also host to many exciting events.  There was a bull ring, where bulls were baited before a large crowd of townspeople.  Despite the fact they were banned from attending, many university students gathered to watch! Nearby was the stocks, where no doubt many Cambridge citizens amused themselves by jeering at the offenders. Alongside these activities traditional cock fighting took place on Shrove Tuesday and on Plough Monday the Hill came alive with Morris dancing. 

From time to time the undergraduates demonstrated or caused havoc in the market square. One such demonstration took place in 1898, when male students protested women gaining full membership of the university. Between 15000 and 20000 people enclosed the Senate on the day of the vote.  Banners were hung out of Caius College which slogans including, ‘GET YOU TO GIRTON BEATRICE, GET YOU TO NEWNHAM, HERE’S NO PLACE FOR YOU MAIDS.  MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.’  Unfortunately, the male opposition overpowered the women, with a resounding victory, and women could not officially receive their degrees until May 1948. On another occasion in 1902, students set fire to the marketplace.  This desire to cause trouble was partly in response to a sign saying that bonfires were not permitted on Market Hill.  It is not an exaggeration to state that every scrap of wood was hurled onto the fire.  According to the Cambridge Chronicle, ‘by early dawn nothing could be seen but a heap of ashes, and a wilderness of wreckage’.        

The main fire occurred in 1849, however, which devastated the marketplace and changed everything.  It took a while to fight, as initially the keys to Hobson’s Conduit could not be found. The expression ‘Hobson’s Choice’ originated from Thomas Hobson. Despite appearing to have a large stable of around 40 horses to choose from, he required hirers to choose the horse closest to the door to prevent them from becoming over- used! The conduit, which had to that point brought clean water into the marketplace was moved to Trumpington Road, and a new fountain was put up in the site’s centre in 1855.  Although the new fountain boasted a very elaborate structure, it only lasted less than a century before it weathered badly and was deemed unsafe.  It was replaced with the flowerpot like structure that remains today.  Although the fire was very destructive it cleared the area of buildings and paved the way for the council to re-design the marketplace to achieve the site there is today. 

Guildhall and Market Square


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