You’ll never believe what they wrote in old books about things happening today!

Or rather: “We’ve been here before.”

Over the past few weeks I’ve scanned and uploaded dozens of very old books up to the Internet Archive on a host of subjects, not just local history. One worth looking at is Radical Technology from nearly half a century ago. It’s exquisitely illustrated by Clifford Harper – you can see more of his illustrations here.

Above – a vision of collective gardens at the back of Victorian terraced housing.

I remember when I got to university coming across ‘zine-style publications that I simply had not been exposed to before. The screengrabs below are from the brilliant book and animation Persepolis (see the trailer here).

The late 1990s/early 2000s were a time of huge change in many ways for me – not least slowly trying to undo the damage that English literature classes at school under Thatcher & Major did throughout my childhood. Hence this.

No – I’m still not over it!

I’m also reminded of the saying that “Classics” are books you want to have already read but never actually want to read!

Many of the items I’m uploading were not designed to be read from cover-to-cover.

And some of them are very dull and technical by their nature – but form an important part of Cambridge’s local history. Take the Community patterns and spheres of influence in the old Cambridge County – this is the area Cambridgeshire County Council administered before the mergers of the 1960s & 1970s.

Above – useful comparisons for how Cambridge and villages developed economically up to the tech-and-tourist booms. Sir Ivor Jennings QC reminded Cambridge University in 1962 not to forget that Cambridge is a city and regional centre in its own right, and as an institution they had a duty not only to respect that, but support town in improving things for the many, not the few.

Part of this is from a theme that emerged with the rise of town planning as an academic discipline and a public service. Let’s take Thomas Sharp, the Town Planning pioneer in the early 1930s. He wrote Town and Countryside in 1932.

You can see the central image reflects a pattern that Cambridge adopted for its growth: protecting the green belt and allowing for increased densification both inside the city and housing growth in ‘new towns’ (New Waterbeach, Northstowe, and Cambourne) in the edges – with the assumption that a decent, reliable, affordable mass transit system would serve a commuting workforce. But multiple failures by ministers and local government has not seen the public transport or community infrastructure put in place.

Thomas Sharp’s plans applied. To Oxford.

Sharp’s book Oxford Re-planned – which I spent ages digitising, is in a different league (even though the greyscale images didn’t scan at all well. The colour maps and colour photographs are just exquisite).

Above – from Oxford Re-planned in 1947.

Others are ones where there are dozens of very cheap paper copies going on the second hand booksite where part of me thinks that various campaign groups could have a whip-round, buy up as many copies of the books about their movements/campaigns from the past, and donate them to charity shops or sell them on stalls at community fairs and fetes this summer, if only to remind people of what society has collectively forgotten.

Above – two examples, one from Blue Peter in 1989 that taught my generation of older Millennials/Xenials about the damage humanity is doing to the environment, and the 1968 centenary of the Trades Union Congress – not knowing that 20 years later it would be a shadow of what it was when the book was published. In the case of the Blue Peter Green Book, the challenge to buyers is: “How far have we progressed since this book was published?”

On transport – railways we could have had – and used to have

Some are highly localised – such as (left) this 40 year old number on the old Ely to St Ives railway, hinting at transport officers that re-opening this line might provide a guided busway extension, and new cycleway from St Ives to Ely. Thus providing commuters with an alternative when the train line between Cambridge and Ely is blocked or hit by signal failures. The one next to it is the 1938 version of Railways: Actual and Proposed. This is what we could have had! Other books such as Nathaniel Lichfield’s Cost Benefit Analysis in Town Planning featuring the colourful map around Cambridge stand out as a “what if?” thinking of a spiral/circle-line style light rail system to link up Cambridge with the surrounding towns. That and/or as I’ve indicated in other blogposts, a series of loops that stop at the villages (say between Cambridge – Haverhill – Saffon Walden – Duxford – Cambridge), that, as more loops are built, could share track for part of their journeys to increase passenger choice.

Others look at transport more nationally – and what we could have had, if politicians had not plumped with the motor car. Such as the Light Railway Transport League’s Towards and Ideal Transport from 1944.

They are still going as the Light Rail Transport Association, also on FB at LRTA membership also gets you the Tramways & Urban Transit Magazine – and also (given how much money we spend on buses), said magazine could have a wider readership too.

Above – publishers of public transport magazines are missing a trick not advertising their publications more prominently at public transport interchanges and stations. (No, they’ve not paid me to say it!)

“Remember what Cambridge used to be like in the olden days?”

The late 1800s started seeing the emergence of national conferences due to improved communications technologies (railways and telegraphy) enabling large numbers of people to meet in the same place. Cambridge, full of empty college rooms outside of term time was ideally placed to take advantage of this.

Above – the Foresters in 1894, followed by the National Union of Teachers in 1899. It wasn’t just Cambridge either. The Tories rocked up to Brighton for their annual conference in 1925 – conference season happening at the end of the main tourist holiday season when the weather is still nice enough on the south coast, but with enough vacancies in the hotels and holiday homes. These old guide books go into far more detail on what civic amenities & infrastructure were in the towns at the time than simply a list of visitor attractions aimed at the tourist market.

On education

I uploaded a number of very old books on schooling for both children and adults given the never-ending debates on this subject.

Above – the People’s Schools of 1939, Cambridge scientist Dr Joseph Needham vs the Nazis in 1942, and Tyrell Burgess’s Guide to English Schools just before a major overhaul including getting rid of most grammar schools and desegregating the gender divide. The latter is particularly important because if the impact these policies had on communities across the country. 15-20 years before I started secondary school, Cambridge’s state schools still had the grammar vs non-grammar split, and were segregated on gender lines. Not a huge amount of time had passed before I started secondary school.

I’ve still got more to go, and the ones I’ve done so far are at which usefully enables keyword searches once fully uploaded. Thus saving researchers a huge amount of time when looking for specific items and issues. (You can donate to the Internet Archive here).

“Why does all of this matter?”

Having the knowledge of what we tried before in previous eras and attempted by previous generations can help inform what we do and don’t do today. Furthermore, some of the barriers that previous generations faced may be ones that we can overcome with technological advances. On the other hand, there might be new barriers that previous generations did not have as a result of social progress – for example an abundance of cheap, local labour in the face of excruciating and grinding poverty & unemployment that nominally made construction costs much lower, but then at what social cost to a society that did not have the protections of health and safety laws, vigilant trade unions, and a National Health Service (irrespective of present underfunding – which is also why we need to fight for our public services). What you do with the information within the scanned pages, and any of the wisdom contained within it from previous generations…well…that’s up to you.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

%d bloggers like this: