Mill Road Depot closure is a regret, but it’ll be a home for a new community

PUBLISHED: 13:58 02 June 2018

Allan Brigham, barrow by Queens Picture: A Pearce

Allan Brigham, barrow by Queens Picture: A Pearce

ILIFFE

I first walked into Mill Road Depot in 1974, looking for a job.

I had no intention of staying in Cambridge, and never thought I’d end up writing a history of The Depot!

Two hundred years ago this was fields in the middle of the countryside on a road that ended in a footpath to Cherry Hinton.

Then it became the workhouse vegetable garden, and later an iron foundry and coprolite mill. But it has been the council depot for a long time.

In December 1905 a new storeyard on three and a half acres of land was opened behind the library on Mill Road. The whole thing, the land, buildings and the construction of a railway siding, cost £9,000. What is it worth now?

A report listed what the storeyard was for: storing materials for the repair of the roads, housing and mending vehicles, and keeping appliances in readiness for any contingencies that forethought may suggest.

There were few buildings. On the railway side a siding had been built to bring granite and cement into the yard.

And on the Kingston Street side of the yard there was a long range of buildings, as now, including a cart shed for water carts and refuse carts, a stable and a building for the two steam rollers, a blacksmith’s shop, a vehicle repairing shop, a carpenter’s and wheelwright’s shop, a dresser’s shed where old setts – paving stones – were chipped and given a new lease of life, a parks section for the culture of plants and flowers that help to beautify the many open spaces in Cambridge and a mess room.

When I walked in here in 1974 I’m not sure the depot was a lot different from the set up in 1905. A gatehouse, buildings down one side, sheds, and parked vehicles.

I’d come to Cambridge for six months to earn some money so that I could go travelling, and didn’t have much luck until I met a couple of road sweepers piling up a heap of leaves.

They looked shocked when I said I couldn’t find work, and said: “You can’t have tried the council.”

There were no gates, and no job applications or references. I just walked in, asked for the sweeping foreman and got sent to a shed where the car park is now.

Roy Pleasance, the foreman, took one look at me and said: “If you are outside the Corn Exchange at 6am tomorrow you can have a job. If you don’t turn up I never want to see you again!”

It turned out the last person he had taken on never turned up, and the one before that had left the depot with his barrow and was never seen again. They found the barrow on Parker’s Piece.

Getting up for 6am was a shock, but I made it, met my new mate Ernie Hart, who was a lovely man who took me under his wing, bought the tea twice a day, told me what to do, told me off if I hadn’t done it, and was immensely proud that he kept the city centre clean.

I thought he was old, but he was only 55, which I now think is young. Working with Ernie taught me that what makes a job is the people you work with. The laughs, the moans, the intimacies about family life.

Eight years later Ernie retired. In 2012 the city had become home long ago, and I retired myself. But in those early years my memories of the depot were few as we kept our sweeping barrows in the city centre. The depot has changed completely since then. Personally I regret the closure of the depot – it has been too much part of my adult life, as workplace and as Mill Road resident.

But nowhere stays the same for ever, and probably people regreted the loss of the fields, or the closure of the iron foundry back in the 19th century. There is going to be a new community there, and it is a relief to see council housing being built, not more student flats.

It is the support staff and those on the tools on the lowest pay who do the actual jobs that keeps Cambridge going. Ironically the key staff are those in high visibility jackets out on the streets – despite being dressed in bright uniform, often invisible to many.

We hear a lot of publicity about high-tech industries creating a successful city. But without those who empty bins, clean streets, maintain beautiful parks, look after car parks, neither visitors nor businesses would flock here.

Allan is writing a history of the Depot for the Mill Road History Project. Any memories or photos welcome: Townnotgown@btinternet.com

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