Thursday, 20 April 2017

An Expanding City: Post-Medieval Living on the Outskirts of Cambridge

Stourbridge Common, just a ten minute walk from the West’s Garage site, was home to one of the largest fairs in England. The Stourbridge Fair began in 1211 as a small fundraising event for the Leper Chapel of the Abbey, and thus becoming one of the most renowned medieval hubs of entertainment and trade. Throughout the month of September, the annual fair would bring travellers, tradesmen, and even nobility to buy and sell wares and foods of all types. By the 18th Century, the fair was in decline as urban housing was overtaking the area, and set storefronts became the more modern way of buying and selling goods, with the final fair taking place in 1933 – a single ice cream stand.

The Stourbridge Fair helped to bring prosperity to the city of Cambridge for 800 years, in part aiding in the overcrowding of Central Cambridge.  As the city became more overpopulated, areas were enclosed, railways were built and development expanded outward. The area of Newmarket Road and River Lane was dominated by the Town Gaslight Company, and the Cambridge Corporation sewage pumping station, the chimney of which you can still see soaring high above the River Cam. The surrounding area was generally focused upon industry, both small local smithies and large brickworks companies, with domestic workers’ housing intermingled between the industrial complexes.

Our excavation site rests on the corner of Newmarket Road and River Lane. One of the earliest Ordnance Surveys we have of the area is the 1888 Town Plan. This plan seems to illustrate a row of small houses along River Lane with an entrance to a central courtyard and another collection of houses along Newmarket Road with an entrance off Newmarket Road into an internal courtyard with a waterpump. The Abbey School and its play grounds resided along the north-western edge of the site. The area farther north-west of the site is the remaining Priory Land. This site remained widely unchanged until 1964 when the last of the buildings were demolished to make way for a car park and expansion of West’s Garage.
We have uncovered portions of multiple post-medieval brick walls, and remains of outbuildings that match up well with the 1888 Ordnance survey map. One fairly well-preserved example is the complete basement of a residence along Newmarket Road. This basement was 3.8meters by 3.8meters with brick walls, parts of which were still covered in plaster where multiple paint colours could be seen, and a fully in-tact brick floor. There were two sets of brick stairs, clearly showing a re-model of the cellar; the first set of stairs seemed to lead into the cellar from the outside of the building, but these had been bricked off for the new set of stairs to be built inside the cellar against the north-western wall, curving up to the now non-existent ground floor. Both sets of stairs had wooden beams set across every other row of bricks that were keyed into the adjoining walls. Along the north-eastern wall there was also a set of inner brick forms that could have been a possible oven; a more modern boiler was uncovered during excavation that could possibly have been an updated heating system for the house.

While 14.5 square meters may not seem like a lot of living space in our modern age, this house was the common size in post-medieval England; most likely being two stories tall. We can see on the 1888 Town Plan that the majority of the housing in the immediate vicinity was of similar size, and each building may have even housed more than one family at a time, which was a common occurrence during the post-medieval period.
We’ll keep you updated on new discoveries each week, so make sure to check back as we #DigDeeper.

2014. Wests Garage Site-Student Housing; Heritage Statement. Beacon Planning.
2017. The 800-year-old story of Stourbridge Fair. University of Cambridge.

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