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New blue plaques tell the story of Cambridge’s Victorian residents





Historian and Cambridge resident Helen Weinstein has organised an exhibition of handmade blue plaques, on display from now until the May bank holiday, along Gwydir Street and Kingston Street, in an area which used to be known as ‘Sturton Town’.

The plaques – which have mostly been made by children from St Matthew’s Primary School, with some made by other members of the community – tell the stories of the residents who lived in these streets from 1891, not long after the houses were first built.

Residents of Petersfield with some of the work for This Is Our Street!, a street exhibition telling the story of Petersfield. The Cooling-Wood family. Picture: Keith Heppell
Residents of Petersfield with some of the work for This Is Our Street!, a street exhibition telling the story of Petersfield. The Cooling-Wood family. Picture: Keith Heppell

The neighbourhood just off Mill Road, which runs between the former Victorian Workhouse (Ditchburn Place) and the railway line, was not built until the 1870s, soon after Joseph Sturton – a chemist on Fitzroy Street – bought the land in 1869 and divided it into building plots.

So by the time of the 1891 Census, almost all of the plots in these new streets had been built on, with renters occupying the houses.

Helen, who has been working on this project for five years, beginning with Ainsworth Street in 2019, said: “I’m a historian and I have a big passion for trying to share my love of history with a wide audience.”

She was able to put this passion to good use when primary school children who were studying the Victorians asked her some questions.

The children subsequently realised that there was plenty of Victorian history right on their doorstep.

“They devised a project that they would make something to share with the local community, telling who lived in each house in the Victorian period,” said Helen. “It’s a really lovely project.”

The information describing who lived where was taken from the 1881 and 1891 Censuses – “mostly 1891 because the whole of the neighbourhood that we’re working on had been built”, explained Helen, who is also creative director of media production company HistoryWorks.

“Each child was given just one house that they’re in charge of and they have to write a blue plaque as if it was for a famous person, but they write it for somebody who’s a bootmaker or a dairy man, or a laundress or a dressmaker…

“It’s based on factual information, because on the Census it tells you who the head of the household is, how old they are, where they were born, what their occupation is, who they’re married to, who else is in the household, how many children there are in the house, what ages they are, whether they go to school or whether they’re already working.”

Residents of Petersfield with some of the work for This Is Our Street!, a street exhibition telling the story of Petersfield. From left, Elias 10, Adam 9, Ruben 12 and Evelyn 10. Picture: Keith Heppell
Residents of Petersfield with some of the work for This Is Our Street!, a street exhibition telling the story of Petersfield. From left, Elias 10, Adam 9, Ruben 12 and Evelyn 10. Picture: Keith Heppell

More than 300 houses along Gwydir Street and Kingston Street have blue plaques displayed on them.

“The Blue Plaque Project, on one level, is just a glorious way of sharing real historical evidence with the wider public,” said Helen, “and having children as the kind of conveyers of some of that joy of the past.”

Tony Davies, headteacher of St Matthew’s Primary School, said: “Walking down Gwydir Street is a really touching experience, seeing how the community has supported the project and displayed the children’s work.

“I always wanted St Matthew’s to be at the heart of the community and this has been a fantastic way of bringing our local primary school and the wider community together.

“I therefore hope that the exhibition has played a part in bringing residents together too, seeing how we are all part of a shared history that is ongoing.

“Huge thanks to Helen Weinstein at HistoryWorks, and the Family History Society, and Gwydir Street Friends for supporting this work.”

Helen, in collaboration with Gwydir Street Friends and members of the local community, also staged a pop-up street exhibition and family weekend event at the new Mill Road Community Centre last week as part of the Cambridge Festival.

For more information, visit gwydirstreet.co.uk/history/festival.



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