Capturing Cambridge
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19th century Mayor's chair

Jew’s House / Synagogue / Gaol / Tollbooth / Guildhall / Town Hall

History of the Guildhall Cambridge

The earliest buildings on the modern Guildhall site included two connected with the Jewish community.

See Enid Porter’s article: The Guildhall

The Cambridgealive web site notes:

1224:  Henry II grants the burgesses of Cambridge possession of a house belonging to a Jew named Benjamin for use as a town gaol. The “Jew’s House” is sited in what is now the Guildhall site.

1270:  The old synagogue, formerly a Franciscan monastery, becomes a toll booth for the market which is already in place on the market square site. The market thrives and develops over the next four centuries.

Alison Taylor in Cambridge The Hidden History p.89 notes:

The Jewish legacy of domestic buildings in stone was also the origin for the only significant public buildings other than churches to have a long and important history in Cambridge. The stone-built house of Benjamin the Jew was used as a gaol from 1224. The adjacent synagogue was given to the Franciscans who occupied it for about 50 years despite unhappy relations with their neighbours, until they acquired the site that was to become Sidney Susses. The synagogue then became the Town Hall, generally known as the Tollbooth as collection of market tolls was a major function. It served until 1374, being then replaced with a simple meeting room over open arches, where stalls were held. The gaol next door continued in use.

1386: The Guildhall or Tolbooth was rebuilt in 1386, and though it appears to have been diminutive in size and unpretending in its architecture, the building then erected continued in use for just four hundred years. Like almost all medieval Town Halls, it consisted of an upper storey supported on arches, the space below being open to the Market Place (T D Atkinson pp 81-94 in A Nelson, Early Cambridge Theatres 1994)

1488-9: Likewise as rewards given various persons playing in the commonhall 8d

2s as rewards given to the same earl’s [=Oxford’s] entertainers … in the guildhall

1530-1: Item payd for v players at the gyldehalle by the commaundement of Master Mayer iij s iiij d (Cambridge Town Treasurers’ records)

1547-8: Item to players at the hall by the comaundement of Master Mayer Mr Chapman & Mr Rust ij s [possibly for acting companies] (Cambridge Town Treasurers’ records)

1552: For ij brydalls [marriage feast] kept in the Gulyld halle, ij s (Cambridge Town Treasurers’ records)

The Queen’s Men, acting company, visited Cambridge with some regularity from 1561-2 and 1596-7 and must have played often in the Guildhall. (A H Nelson p.90)

1562: Item, of Thomas Clarke for a brydale kept in the hall, xx d (Cambridge Town Treasurers’ records)

1567-8: Item paid masen [= Mason] for plaienge at the guilde hall at the comaundement of master maier & the counsel xiij s iiij d [possibly for acting companies] (Cambridge Town Treasurers’ records)

1569-70: Item to Gibbons [William Gibbons, town piper and father of celebrated composer Orlando Gibbons] for playeinge at the hall vpon Hocktuisdaie xvj d (Cambridge Town Treasurers’ records)

1601: Queen Elizabeth gives the gaol from the town to the University. The townspeople object, and a court battle ensues.

1607: The court settles in favour of the townspeople, who are ordered by the judge to “enjoy the Jayle as they formerly have done”.

1611: Item to the town waytes … for musicke at the hall xvj d

1619: Item, to Ireland Mason for mendinge the witches gaole 10s 10d

This ‘witches gaole’ was just part of the ordinary felons’ quarters as shown by the entry in the Treasurers’ Accounts for 1620:

For amendinge the particion between the Witches gaole and the other fellons gaole.

1747: Part of the market site is given up for the construction of an elegant new “Shire House”, of classical design.

The 18th century Guildhall building

1782: The old Town/Guild Hall is demolished and a new Guild Hall, designed by James Essex, is built on the site, at a cost of £2,500. The money is raised both by public subscription and the sale of titles for 30 guineas each. The new building has an Assembly Room, linked to the Shire Hall, an Aldermans’ Parlour, a Common Counsellors’ Parlour and Kitchen, with commercial premises (including a coffee house) on the ground floor. 

Ada Keynes writes about the foundation stone from this time. Its position was lost until the Essex building was demolished to make room for the next Guildhall. The foundation stone from 1782 was then discovered in its original position, about 18 inches below floor level. It still had two small coins underneath, just as described in the volumes of Horace Walpole’s correspondence. William Cole had composed the inscription on the stone and he had written about this to Walpole. The stone is peculiar; it came from a quarry at Barnack and must have been much older than other stone used in the building. It has been thought that it might have been a threshold for a medieval doorway, or have been salvaged from the ruins of Barnwell priory.

1788: The Jew’s House’s use as a gaol ceases, the building now dilapidated. It is demolished, after at least 500 years, in 1800. This clears the area for private and commercial development, which was to go on to restrict development of the site by the Corporation until the 1930s.

The gaol was relocated to Downing Place and then in 1829 to Parker’s Pieces.

See Enid Porter’s article: Crime and Punishment


1802: In this year James Nield, a prison reformer who visited all the gaols in the country, wrote about the state of Cambridge Gaol as it had been. “There was formerly a room below for criminals called the Hole, 21 feet by 7, and above a room called the Cage. No court-yard, no water, no allowance [for food]. On my visit, August, 1800, I had the pleasure to find the Cage had fallen into the Hole, and both were a heap of ruins.” (F A Keynes, p 11)


The 1934-9 building by C Cowles-Voysey replaced the 1746-7 building by Sharman and Barratt. The foundation stone of the earlier building survives though embedded in the wall on the first floor of the E. wing. On it is the baton inscription ‘Faxit Deus haec nova Gilda Aula Communitatis Villae Cantabrigiae, in ipsissimo Loco ceteris jam periclitantis et ruinosae, posita‘, dated 1782.

There is a Wikipedia entry.

1846: 2 March. Josiah Chater went with his brother and some of the Smart family to see the famous dwarf ‘General’ Tom Thumb. He paid a shilling for a ticket and enjoyed the show very much despite some noisy undergraduates.

1846: 30 Dec. Josiah Chater paid sixpence to see Waxwork Anatomical Models

1847: Josiah Chater heard Dr Grindrod speak on temperance.

1848: Josiah heard Dr Ross lecture on hydropathy.

1848 autumn: Isaac Pitman gave a talk on his newly-devised system of shorthand constructed on a phonetic basis. Josiah Chater attended the lecture and paid 5s for a course of instruction and 3d for a course book. Opinions of the method were mixed and Josiah found that the method got confused with a system he already knew. However, a ‘Society for Instruction in Phonography’ was formed.

1853: 21 September. The first Cambridge YMCA Conversazione was held here. They took place in the evening and consisted of musical items, short lectures and refreshments.

1854: 13 December. Second Conversazione. Josiah Chater sent a report to the Cambridge Chronicle.

1857: Josiah Chater had a lot to do with this year’s Conversazione.

1867: 28 March. Charles Dickens reading at the Guildhall

1869: 18 March. Charles Dickens reading from ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ and ‘Holly Tree Inn’.


1871 census: (back of Guildhall – Town Arms[?])

John Manning, 65, widow, musician, b Hunts

Mary A, 28, housekeeper, b Cambridge

Louisa, 18, b Cambridge


1872 Bazaar in aid of the Building Fund for the Cottage Home for Little Orphan Girls


1877: The Illustrated Police News 3/11/1877


This is a report about rioting during and after a performance by Dr Lynn at the Guildhall. The article doesn’t make it clear what Dr Lynn actually did!


At the beginning of the 20th century an annual ‘Our Sailors’ Grand Bazaar was being held at the Guildhall.

Annual Guildhall Bazaar


Zanzibar hoax 1905

In 1905 two Trinity students, Horace de Vere Cole and Stephen created a hoax visit by the Sultan of Zanzibar to Cambridge. On 2nd May they were met at Cambridge by coach and taken to the Guildhall to meet the mayor who was only informed of the visit that morning. They had lunch and were taken on a tour of the town. This had similarities to the 1873 Shah of Persia hoax.

Zanzibar hoax 1905

For more information see:

and Enid Porter’s article:

Riot and Rag


In 1908 the Guildhall was the venue for a protest meeting against the new Licensing Bill.

March 1908 meeting against the Licensing Bill

The Cambridge Independent Press (3.4.1908) reported that on 27th March a meeting was held at the Guildhall by local representatives of the “Trade” to put forward the motion: “That this meeting condemns the present Licensing Bill as in no way promoting Temperance, while the provision as to Time Limit confiscate Rights of Property acquired with the sanction of the State, and in reliance on the protection of the Law.”

The report went on to say that the audience was a large one but there was ample space in the main hall so the arrangements for an overflow audience in the small hall were superfluous. “Hardly one of the speakers applied himself to any serious argument, but adopted a sarcastic or humorous line, and really at times the speeches were very amusing.”


Proclamation of Accession of George V 10.5.1910


Dismantling of shelter in front of Guildhall – date unknown

12/12/1912: When Mr’s Pankhurst arrived for a Suffragette meeting at the Guildhall the streets were impassable, 20 policemen were on duty at the entrance and the air was filled with the horrible stench of stink-bombs. Although the audience comprised a large opposition who created a good deal of uproar, the noise gradually diminished as her speech advanced and she was perfectly audible. Georgina Brackbenbury who took the chair had more interruption by the sound of a penny trumpet; its owner was a musician who produced notes mournful or joyous according to her words and achieved a flourishing Reveille. Afterwards crowds ringed a motor car waiting outside the Wheeler Street entrance, which had one of its tyres deflated. But Mrs Pankhurst was quietly conducted out by the Guildhall Street entrance and to the Lion Hotel. (Cam.News)

12/3/1930: A crowd of nearly 3,000 massed in front of the loud speaker which Pye Radio had installed in the main window of the Cambridge Guildhall. Business in the market was suspended and the lanes between the stalls were solid with people. In the shops and offices there was a general cessation of work; counters and desks were forsaken and faces appeared at every window. There was a cheer when the Cambridge boat crew drew level and overtook Oxford. Workers hurrying home eagerly bought copies of the special edition of the CDN and pictures are being shown at the Central and Tivoli cinema this evening. (Cam.News)

25/2/1932: Apart from the large hall and council chamber the Cambridge Guildhall is worn out and absolutely unsuitable. The accommodation in every department was deplorable – dark, dismal, horrid, unlit and unhealthy. On Castle Hill there was a fine new building being erected for the County Council who were planning to spend £8,000 on furnishing alone. Never since the war had prices in the building trade been lower; this was the right moment to consider rebuilding, councillors were told. (Cam.News)

4/6/1932: A new Cambridge Guildhall should be built on the corner of East Road and Parkside where the site is three times as large, meeting the requirements of the Corporation for many years. The existing Guildhall on Market Hill should be replaced with shops on the ground floor and offices and flats above, councillors have recommended. (Cam.News)

15/7/1932: Cambridge councillors say the municipal buildings should remain on the Guildhall site and not move to Parkside as had been proposed. It should be a worthy building, not surrounded by shops. With four floors they could provide 70 per cent more accommodation for officials but five would add to the dignity of the building and leave some surplus space that could be let and provide a source of income. But it must not overwhelm the market place. (Cam.News)

11/8/1933: The veranda or shelter over the main entrance of the Guildhall was disgustingly dirty and unsafe and should be removed, the Surveyor reported. It had been built in 1878 and the public should get used to the Guildhall without it because it would not be incorporated in the new building. Others said it was a useful shelter and should be maintained at all costs: the Preservation Society would be shocked if they allowed that ancient piece of architecture to be scrapped. (Cam.News)

19/9/1933: Cambridge Guildhall dated back to about 1782 and there had been various extensions. In 1928 the Corporation bought shops in Peas Hill to allow for rebuilding. The possibility of providing shops on the ground floor had been considered but this would not allow sufficient offices for the extra staff needed to cope with their increased duties, an Inquiry was told (Cam.News)

13/3/1935: A packed public meeting at Cambridge Guildhall voted against plans for a new building and called on the council to remodel the front to a more dignified style of architecture. Cambridge was a treasure house of architectural gems and they had no right to hand down to posterity a freak building, a flat and uninteresting example of early 20 th -century abominations. Another motion dealing with the question of shops on the Peas Hill side of the building received scant attention as most of the audience had left before the end. (Cam.News)

10/4/1935: Demolition work on Peas Hill for the new Guildhall has led to an architectural discovery of outstanding interest. It has revealed the residence and business premises of a well-to-do Tudor merchant which was subsequently divided up into a detached and two semi-detached houses. The magnificent front was covered up with lath and plaster in the reign of Queen Anne and finished with mock bricks. Dummy eaves were also added. Now each piece has been carefully taken down and numbered for preservation and re -erection. (Cam.News)

1/5/1935: The Guildhall Protest Committee criticised plans for a useless portico of a most ornate and incongruous style which could be ‘put on cold’ in from of the proposed facade of the new Guildhall in two years’ time if the town really wanted it. They maintained the main entrance should be on Market Hill. It would allow a terrace which would form a platform for addressing meetings on Market Hill and give a facade of distinction that the people strongly desire. There was also intense feeling regarding the question of shops on the Peas Hill side (Cam.News)

7/1/1938: The demolition of parts of the old Guildhall has meant that several annual functions have lost their normal home. But a Mayoral reception elsewhere than in the Guildhall must surely be unique in Cambridge history. It is symbolic of the happy relations existing between the Town and the University that the Old Schools should have been placed at the disposal of the councillors. Cars containing guests pulled up on King’s Parade and a lengthy walk under illuminated awnings led to the Dome Room. The Council Room, East Room, Syndicate Room and Regent House were in use but only the dais where the orchestra played for dancing was decorated (Cam.News)

14/1/1938: The old Shire Hall on Cambridge Market Hill, was erected in 1747. At that a time the 14th-century Guildhall which stood on the south of Butter Row was under repair. This was pulled down in 1782 to be replaced by the Guildhall built by James Essex. Now demolition has revealed a fragment of the medieval Guildhall. Two pieces of ancient oak carved with leaves are thought to date from 1386. They will be replaced in the new building (Cam.News)

24/6/1938: The new Cambridge Guildhall basement could be regarded as splinter-proof and it would not be difficult to render it gas-resisting, the Air Raid Precautions Committee heard. If not done they could be criticised for allowing a public building without adequate protection and could not ask other stores or factories to comply with such regulations. But it would need to have 25 feet of concrete, with earth on top, to make it bomb-proof. It was absolutely and entirely impossible. (Cam.News)

22/7/1939: The new Cambridge Guildhall will be opened on October 9 th by the Earl of Derby. The grand staircase is much more imposing than the old one, the new small room, complete with carpet, will be very convenient and the large hall improved though it is not nearly large enough for conferences, political mass meetings or big musical enterprises. The new Council chamber also seems on the small side and the aldermanic bench has been considerably shortened. (Cam.News)

28/7/1939: Cambridge Town council held its last meeting at Shire Hall while the Guildhall was reconstructed.The Library committee asked to use the Small Room as temporary reading room during the rearrangement of the Central Library. But it had a very expensive carpet that might get spoilt. The library might use the Corn Exchange annexe if the cycles were moved. Aid Briggs said that was not a proper alternative: “The fact is that we have had made a beautiful Guildhall, but must not use it”. The carpet could be taken up. But the Guildhall might not be finished by that time and it would be unfortunate if people were allowed in the Small Room before the rest were completed. The request was denied (Cam.News)

30/9/1946: The Honorary Freedom of the Borough was bestowed on the Cambridgeshire Regiment in recognition of its service in the South African War, for its superb professionalism during the fighting in Flanders and for its valiant fight in the Far East. That fight had not ended with the last shots fired in the defence of Singapore – in fact the courage that was now being recognised was the 3 and a half years of captivity that followed. In prison camps scattered all over the Far East they had suffered every hardship, lack of food, disease, cruelty, indignities and utter isolation. Among many ordeals the building of the railway in the grim jungles of Siam was singled out by the Mayor for especial mention. The full extent of their sufferings was being to be revealed. Padre J.N. Duckworth told the inspiring spirit and morale under the most terrible conditions. In August 1944 he had been in the “valley of the shadow of death”, 450 miles long through which they were constructing the Burma- Thailand railway, his audience were horrified to hear of the conditions and of the state of the men suffering ulcers, malaria, beri beri and dysentery. It had been August 13th 1945 when his particular camp had heard on their small Japanese radio of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, four days later it was over – “there was no flag waving or anything like that, just a long sigh of relief”. Now there was flag waving – and a particular flag had place of honour from the Guildhall flagpole – the blue flag of the 1st Battalion of the Cambridgeshire Regiment that had somehow been kept hidden from their captives during the long years of captivity. As the procession wended its way down Petty Cury it was the drums that marked their progress. And amongst the drums were some emblazoned with the Regiment’s honours won in earlier wars but lost in the fall of Singapore. Amazingly they had been found by a Dullingham girl, Mary Taylor during her work with the Red Cross and shipped back to Cambridge. In October 1946 they led the old men of the First War and prematurely old boys from the Second to the Guildhall to receive the Freedom they had fought to preserve. (Cam.News)

More information about the Guildhall as a theatre can be found:


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