Public Health and Utilities

Town & Gown Rivalry <- Introduction -> The Cambridge Phenomenon
The earliest record of street cleaning in the country was the charter of 1267, followed by the charter of 1268 which tried to control crime, improve trading standards and keep the streets clean.

The Statute of Cambridge reinforced the mayor and bailiffs' responsiblity for street sanitation.

In 1544 the town got an Act of Parliament passed to improve street paving. Again all householders were responsible for the area in front of their property but there were proper penalties and supervision arrangements, including the Vice-Chancellor, mayor and bailiffs. This remained in force for nearly 250 years.

An Act for the better paving, lighting and cleansing of the streets was obtained in 1788 after much effort and immediately the first gas lamps were set up and the first street paved with cobbles - Petty Cury. The stream down the middle of Trumpington Street was diverted into channels on either side (which still exist). The University had to provide two-fifths of the cost and then an interest-free loan of 1,500 in 1792. The Pavement Commission (later Improvement Commission) lasted 100 years.

In the mid-1500s the town was filling up with labourers hoping for even the low-paid work available with the University. Slums were developing, with townsmen converting all available property without regard to recent building regulations. The carrier Thomas Hobson was one such. [1901 Police Station] In 1628 he endowed a workhouse for the poor and rogues - the Spinning House. It later became the University's prison for prostitutes. After the University gave up the right to imprison them in 1894, it was demolished, along with the adjacent town gaol or tollbooth, and in 1901 new Police and Fire stations were built there. A new town gaol had been built on Donkey's Common in 1827-8.

The 1901-c1964 Police Station, now City Council offices ->

An outbreak of plague in 1630 showed the state of poverty in the town. The VC, Dr. Butts and the mayor, John Sherwood, organised the care and feeding of the poor. Pesthouses for isolating the infected were built on Butt's Green . This is an example of the University's long-standing policy of assisting the town's poor as an act of charity, not because of any compulsion by law. [Support for Wintercomfort is a more recent example.] In the plague of 1666 the pesthouses were erected on Coldham Common.

Water supply

The Franciscan Friars constructed a town drinking water supply from Bradrusshe, now Trinity Conduit Head off Madingley Road, in 1327. They bought a strip of land one mile long and two feet wide from 17 different landowners. The lead pipe crosses Madingley Road around Conduit Head Road, through fields and gardens and crosses the river opposite the north end of Trinity's Library. Sidney Street was long known as Conduit Street because of the public supply the Dominican Friary provided there (now the site of Sidney Sussex College). King Henry VIII assigned the conduit rights to Trinity College in 1538. The supply is still available from a tap in Trinity Great Gate, though no longer considered fit for drinking, and still partly supplies the Great Court fountain.

In 1574 Dr. Andrew Perne, Vice-Chancellor, suggested that a stream be diverted from Nine Wells near Shelford through the town and the King's Ditch to relieve the "corrupt air". Dr. Perne's scheme was implemented in 1610 as the New River. It was a joint enterprise of Town and Gown - Thomas Hobson was just one of the group who planned and carried out the scheme. It was dug from Vicar's Brook near Long Road to the conduit head at the end of Lensfield Road, where branches supplied the fountain in the Market Place, ponds in Christ's and Emmanuel grounds and Pembroke. The Market fountain, known as Hobson's Conduit, is now at the Lensfield Road conduit head.

The Cambridge Waterworks Company was formed in 1853 by the Provost of King's and the Master of Trinity.

The Roman Bath Co. opened its ornate premises in Jesus Lane in 1863. The bath was 56 feet by 22 feet, with water at 62 degrees F. It wasn't successful and was leased to the Pitt Club by the end of the year.

A new piped water supply from wells at Fulbourn was started in 1891 but in 1907 it was found to be contaminated by sewage from the Asylum.

These days the Cambridge Water Company's supply is still based on wells in Fulbourn.

Gas supply

Gas was introduced about 1822 by John Grafton, of Grafton House, Maid's Causeway. He made gas from oil for street lighting in 1823 in a building on the Barnwell gravel pits, a little later changing to gas from coal, from a building in Gas Lane, near St Matthews Street. Later he moved to the present site in River Lane, for coal deliveries by river. An Act of 1834 converted his company to the Cambridge Gas-Light Company and one of 1867 converted it to The Cambridge University and Town Gas Light Company. (Its HQ & showrooms have evolved into the current British Gas showrooms in Sidney Street.) Later that year a new local company, the Cambridge Consumers' Gas Co. undercut the older one for the street lighting contract but couldn't begin to deliver on time, and the old company bought them out.

Gas production ceased on the Riverside site in 1969. North Sea gas was introduced in Cambridge as a priority due to the number of student suicides (North Sea gas being far safer). The remaining gas holder was reputed to be the largest in East Anglia. The site is due to be redeveloped.

Electricity supply

The first public supply was in 1891 from Baily, Grundy & Barrett's shop in St. Mary's Passage (2 doors down from Ryder & Amies) to the immediate area, using a gas-powered dynamo. (The shop survived until 1973.) The next year the electricity generating station in Thompson's Lane opened. For the first two years the power was only used for lighting during darkness. In was one of the earliest stations to use Sir Charles Parsons' innovative steam turbine. In 1893 the company tendered for a lamp in the middle of Parker's Piece. The station closed in 1966. As it had produced at 200 Volts, 25,000 consumers had to be converted to the national 240-250 Volt standard. The site was redeveloped into luxury housing around 1990.


The National Telephone Company exchange was set up in 1892 at the north-east corner of the market square (where a restaurant now is). A trunk line to London was installed in 1896. The exchange moved to Alexandra Street, off Petty Cury, in 1909. The current exchange was built nearby in 1957 at the rear of the Post Office though the main exchange is now in Long Road, which also houses the main trunk exchange for the region.

Town & Gown Rivalry <- Introduction -> The Cambridge Phenomenon
Cambridge : History