Thomas Hobson: Hobson's Choice and Hobson's Conduit


Thomas Hobson was the man in charge of organising the exchange of messages between London and Cambridge in the late sixteenth, and early seventeenth century. For this, he stabled about forty horses at an inn, situated where St Catherine’s College chapel sits now. As he owned more horses than he ever needed, he decided to start renting out the horses, as well as riding gear, to academics and undergraduates. He was the first person ever to run such a business in England! Hobson soon noticed that customers always wanted to hire the fastest and strongest horses, which left a few horses tired and overworked, and others unused. So, Hobson devised a new system, in which he placed all his horses in a line, and offered the customer only the horse at the front, a bit like the taxi ranks of today! The choice was “take it, or leave it”. The phrase Hobson’s Choice, meaning exactly this, was commemorated by the poet Milton who, living in Cambridge at the time, probably used Hobson’s horses! Hobson was famous in Cambridge not just for his horses, but also for his philanthropy. He donated money to the Town and University to bring fresh water into the city centre, through a conduit, to a big fountain in Market Square.

For Hobson we have a set of lyrics already composed by the CBBC's Horrible Histories songwriter, Dave Cohen here.  

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

Who was Thomas Hobson?

Thomas Hobson & Son. There are two people called Thomas Hobson we are talking about. The father was born in Tudor times and he lived a long time,  1544 to 1631, thus a toddler in the reign of Henry VIII, becoming of age and running his business in the reign of Elizabeth I and dying during the reign of Charles I. 

He delivered post and newspapers between Cambridge and London, on a Horse! 

This job had the title of ‘courier’ because he was in the business of carrying messages.

Mr. Hobson also hired horses out to people like rental cars today!

He ran an inn for people to stay over where the horses were stabled.  He also made money from his pub. Look in the picture where he has his hand in his money bag!

Hobson also spent money on projects to help others, in his role as a philanthropist, funding the water works known as ‘Hobson’s Conduit’. This is a makeshift set of ditches bringing clean river water to the people in Cambridge. There was a fountain for drinking water in the market place.

Another project of philanthropy was a place called ‘The Spinning House ’ which was founded by Thomas Hobson to house the poor of Cambridge who could not afford food or accommodation.  It became a workhouse for girls and women and although the intentions were good to help the poor it was a terrible place.

What legacies has Hobson left the City of Cambridge? Can you find his name on a building or street? What about his water fountain and ditches? See if you can spot any signs of him next time you are out and about!

Stable Manager and Postmaster

Thomas Hobson was a manager of a stable behind the George Inn, located behind what is now the gates of St. Catherine’s College on Trumpington Street. His other job was making sure mail got safely from Cambridge to London and back via horse. His employees were essentially 17th Century Postman (like Postman Pat, but with without the van and his black and black and white cat.)

Horse Monger

But Hobson was also incredibly entrepreneurial, which means he was good at thinking of ways of making money. He owned around 40 horses in his stables, far more than he needed to deliver the post. So he started to hire out the horses for students and teachers at the University to ride. One person at the time described them as ‘Hackney Horses’, referring to Hackney cabs - the predecessor of today’s taxis.

Hobson’s Choice

Have you heard of Hobson’s Choice? This saying comes from Thomas Hobson’s business of renting out his Horses. Because all his customers wanted the strongest and fastest horse, Hobson realised they got tired out far more quickly than the slow horses that people didn’t want to hire if they were travelling, especially if they were going all the way to London. To solve this problem, Hobson came up with a clever plan. Instead of allowing his customers to pick out their own steed Hobson would line the horses up and the customer had to pick the next one in line by the stable door or none at all, a system a lot like modern day taxi rank!

The expression ‘Hobson’s choice’ was made popular by poet John Milton (1608-1674), who studied in Cambridge from 1625 to 1629 after Hobson’s death in 1631. Milton immortalised Hobson by memorialising him with poems called “On the university carrier”, “Another on the same” and “Hobson epitaph” which depict his life and death in Cambridge.

Have you seen Hobson’s name around town? Today two streets in Cambridge are named after Hobson, the Hobson’s Passage and the Hobson Street, which show his importance within the city. At number 44 Saint Andrew’s Street, where Hobson used to live, you can now find a bright blue plaque commemorating his work. The play “Hobson’s Choice” by Harold Brighouse made the expression known world-wide.

In 1712 the newspaper of the time called The Spectator published an article in memory of Thomas Hobson describing his policy in the following way:

“(...) when a man came for a horse he was led into the stable, where there was great choice, but he obliged him to take the horse which stood next to the stable-door; so that every customer was alike well served according to his chance, and every horse ridden with the same justice: from whence it became a proverb, when what ought to be your election was forced upon you, to say Hobson's choice.”

Hobson’s Conduit

Another great contribution to Cambridge life was Hobson’s Conduit. In the 16th and 17th Century increasing numbers of students and university staff were dying of plague due to the city’s uncleanliness. The master of Peterhouse, Andrew Perne first suggested in 1574 the idea of taking water from Nine Wells to clean out the King’s Ditch on the southern and eastern edges of town. A four year building project started in 1610, the small artificial river flowed along both sides of Trumpington Street towards St. Catherine’s College. See if you can spot the conduit on its way to Peterhouse next time you walk along Trumpington Street outside the Fitzwilliam Museum.

There is a funny lyric commissioned by Helen Weinstein at Historyworks, written by Dave Cohen, the song-writer for CBBC’s Horrible Histories, which is all about crashing on your bike in Trumpington Street.  You can find the lyrics and the sound files for the song on this website here. 

Although lots of people helped build the conduit, Hobson made sure it would run for years by providing plenty of money to the Hobson Conduit Trust to maintain its upkeep.

The fountain that was originally found at the end of the conduit in Market Square was made of stone and had special carvings.  The pieces are in the courtyard at The Cambridge Museum here.

The rebuilt conduit with a plaque with writing praising Thomas Hobson can now be seen at the junction of Lensfield Road and Trumpington Road, where it was moved in 1855. You can also see statues from the original fountain (which was also known as the Conduit Head and Hobson’s House) in the courtyard of the Museum of Cambridge.


The Spinning House

On St Andrew’s Street, diagonally opposite the pathway into Parker’s Piece,  once stood a building where no Cambridge woman would have wanted to end up – the Spinning House. It was founded in the 17th century by Thomas Hobson and came to be known as ‘Hobson’s Workhouse’. Workhouses were once commonplace in Britain, establishments designed to house people too poor to afford food or housing. Hobson’s Workhouse was a place where the poor, both men and women, were put to work spinning wool, giving it its more common name of ‘the Spinning House’. Hobson hoped it would allow the university and town’s poor to learn a trade, leave the Spinning House and escape poverty by earning money for themselves.

However, it soon became an institute specifically for young girls and women, symbolising all that was corrupt with the University, which employed its own men to arrest local girls who were then locked up there in terrible conditions and suffered dreadful treatment. There were a couple of famous cases of women resisting being incarcerated there. The Spinning House continued under similar conditions for more than 250 years before it was finally pulled down in 1901.



Thomas Hobson was born in 1544 and lived, for an impressively long time until 1631 – particularly when you consider that average life expectance in the late 16th century/early 17th century was only 40! Hobson had many jobs. His main jobs was as a courier, organising the carrying of letters on horse back between Cambridge and London.

For this duty he kept about 40 horses for those carrying the messages to use. He kept them at an inn, which he also owned and ran. It was located where St Catherine’s College chapel sits now! He soon realised that he owned more horses than his couriering business needed, so he decided to rent them out to those needing find a horse quickly. His main customers were academics or undergraduates, most of whom lived in London.

Hobson’s business was famous, and unique – he was the first person to run such a business in Britain! Not only did he rent our horses, but he also provided boots, bridles and whips, so that a man could immediately set out on his journey, and offered board to those who had used his horses, but had nowhere to stay in Cambridge.

Hobson quickly realised that customers picked the fastest and strongest horses, which left a few horses tired and overworked, and others unused. Hobson, therefore, devised a new system, in which he placed all his horses in a line, and offered the customer only the horse at the front, a bit like the taxi ranks of today! The choice was “take it, or leave it” – Hobson’s choice!

Hobson was well known in the area, and he was immortalised by the famous poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, who also lived in Cambridge. Milton immortalised Hobson by remembering him in his poems called “On the University Carrier”, “Another on the same” and “Hobson epitaph”. Inspired by these works, the playwright Harold Brighouse wrote the play “Hobson’s Choice”, which made the expression renowned world-wide!

Hobson was famous in Cambridge also for his influence in making the city more hygienic. He gave money to the university to build a conduit which brought fresh water into the city of Cambridge, to try and limit the spread of diseases like plague, which were killing many and moving quickly in the town’s unsanitary conditions.  The watercourse was known as Hobson’s Conduit, and, built between 1610 and 1614, some of it can still be seen, running along both sides of Trumpington Street! He also constructed a found, built in the heart of the Market Place although it was later moved, which allowed people access to this clean water.

At number 44 St Andrew’s Street, where Hobson used to live, there is a blue plaque commemorating his work.

Comment on Hobson in The Spectator:

Mr. Tobias Hobson, from whom we have the expression, was a very honourable man, for I shall ever call the man so who gets an estate honestly. Mr. Tobias Hobson was a carrier; and, being a man of great abilities and invention, and one that saw where there might good profit arise, though the duller men overlooked it, this ingenious man was the first in this island who let out hackney-horses. He lived in Cambridge; and, observing that the scholars rid hard, his manner was to keep a large stable of horses, with boots, bridles and whips, to furnish the gentlemen at once, without going from college to college to borrow, as they have done since the death of this worthy man.

I say, Mr. Hobson kept a stable of forty good cattle, always ready and fit for travelling; but, when a man came for a horse he was led into the stable, where there was great choice, but he obliged him to take the horse which stood next to the stable-door; so that every customer was alike well served according to his chance, and every horse ridden with the same justice: from whence it became a proverb, when what ought to be your election was forced upon you, to say Hobson's choice. This memorable man stands drawn in fresco at an inn he used in Bishopsgate-street, with an hundred pound bag under his arm, with this inscription upon the said bag:

 "The fruitful mother of an hundred more."

Whatever tradesman will try the experiment, and begin the day after you publish this my discourse to treat his customers all alike, and all reasonably and honestly, I will ensure him the same success

—"Hezekiah Thrift (Spectator, 10 October 1712)


 On the University Carrier

 who sickened in the time of his vacancy, being forbid to go to London by reason of the plaque

 Here lies old Hobson. Death hath broke his girt,

 And here, alas! hath laid him in the dirt:

 Or else, the ways being foul, twenty to one,

 He’s here stuck in a slough, and overthrown.

 ‘Twas such a shifter that, if truth were known,

 Death was half glad when he had got him down:

 For he had any time this ten years full

 Dodged with him betwixt Cambridge and the Bull.

 And surely death could never have prevailed,

 Had not his weekly course of carriage failed:

 But lately, finding him so long at home,

 And thinking how his journey’s end was come,

 And that he had ta’en up his latest inn,

 In the kind office of chamberlin

 Showed him his room where he must lodge that night,

 Pulled of his boots, and took away the light.

 If any ask for him, it shall be said,

 “Hobson has supped, and’s newly gone to bed”. 

From the Indenture of Feoffment, 30 July 1628, for the foundation of the Spinning House:

Thomas Hobson founded the place “in acknowledgement of God’s mercies and blessings upon his labours, and in testimony of his earnest and fervent wish to do good to the poor of the University and town wanting means to live upon, and settle themselves in some honest calling, and that they might thereafter be employed and set to work, and brought up and instructed in some trade or occupation, and thereby not only enabled to live of themselves, but by their labours become profitable members of the commonwealth”


Cambridge Spinning House, Rules and Regulations, 21 February 1854 – The Inmates:

“7. The meals shall be served at such hours as the Governors from time to time may direct.”

“9. The inmates shall not be allowed to see their friends during their period of confinement unless by order in writing signed by the Vice-Chancellor or some other Governor.”


Reporter relating a story from an inmate of the Spinning House, ‘The Cambridge Spinning House’, by the Special Commissioner of the Morning Chronicle, Cambridge, 27 January 1851.

“The cells are six feet in width by about eight feet in length…There are no glazed windows to the cells, the only light that is admitted being through the an aperture of about three inches square in the iron shutters which are placed on the outside of the window frames. There are no means of warming the cells, either by hot air or by fires, as in other prisons, for there are no fire-places in them…In winter the floors of the cells are often covered with the snow which drifts in through the casements.”

“It is,” said one of the unfortunate creatures, who had upon several occasions endured the horrors of the place, “a dark, damp, filthy, dirty, wretched, badly-managed place. There is no order kept, and no one man can keep ‘em in order…You are all huddled together, and sit among yourselves, talking and hearing all manner of bad language, blackguard stuff and slang”

Discover More


Museum of Cambridge, which holds Thomas Hobson portrait and stone pieces from the original fountain in Market Square

Museum of Cambridge, 2/3 Castle Street, Cambridge, CB3 0AQ


For a walking guide of Hobson's Conduit from the Guardian newspaper visit:

For more information on Hobson’s sanitary reforms

History pamphlet from Trumpington Local History Group with useful maps & illustrations:

Book on Hobson's Conduit:

Thomas Hobson: Hobson's Choice and Hobson's Conduit


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