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The origins of the Cambridge Independent

Mike Petty piece on The Cambridge Independent Press, Cabridge Market. Scans from Mike Petty
Mike Petty piece on The Cambridge Independent Press, Cabridge Market. Scans from Mike Petty

The weekly title returns after 35 years.

Mike Petty piece on The Cambridge Independent Press. Scans from Mike Petty
Mike Petty piece on The Cambridge Independent Press. Scans from Mike Petty

Your new Cambridge Independent can trace its origins back to the early 1800s as Cambridge Independent Press.

In 1813 a Huntingdon woman, Elizabeth Hatfield set up a paper entitled the Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette and Northamptonshire General Advertiser, later adding 'Cambridge' to the masthead in 1815.

The early copies were printed in London but in 1818 her 23-year-old son Weston Hatfield transferred its production to Cambridge and started a new paper, The Cambridge Independent Press and Hertford Mercury, or Wisbech, Ely, March, Whittlesey, Royston, Stortford, Hitchin and St Alban's Advertiser.

The titles soon combined and the Cambridge Independent Press was established.

Though readership soared, the problem of ensuring they were actually receiving payment for copies sold proved difficult. By 1824 the paper was £1,500 in debt and bankruptcy was only averted after a number of Whig gentlemen advanced sums to keep it afloat and ensure themselves a medium through which they could voice their opinions in opposition to that of the older-established Cambridge Chronicle and University Journal that favoured the Tory cause.

Its readers appreciated the opportunity for a different slant on the news; one correspondent remarked in October 1827,"a great portion of the town and county of Cambridge are indebted for much information and bringing before the public many things that would never have appeared.

They were not afraid to publish the truth as they saw it and as a result the editor was arrested and charged under the Riot Act. He was acquitted, justifying the right of his paper to observe and attack the conduct of people whose conduct was reprehensible.

Soon the Cambridge Independent Press was outselling any other Cambridge title; indeed it was one of the largest provincial newspapers in Great Britain"and for typographical excellence and perspicacity challenged comparison with any newspaper in the Empire". By 1864 its title proclaimed The Cambridge Independent Press, Huntingdon, The Metropolis, the counties of Cambridge (and Isle of Ely), Huntingdon, Bedford, Northampton, Lincoln, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Hertford. It was printed by steam power at the offices at 11 Market Hill, Cambridge.

At that time it was priced at fourpence - the equivalent to more than £5 today - but was placed every week in the hands of at least 20,000 persons. For the squire would pass his paper to the vicar, the vicar to his curate, the curate to the churchwarden, the warden to the shopkeeper, the shopkeeper to the barber and the barber would impart the news to those lesser mortals who could not actually read. Men would gather by the light of a candle to be regaled by stories of the goings-on around the world. This sharing of news continued - before the Second World War an old lady bought a copy of the Independent every week and after reading it loaned it to four neighbours. Later the paper was sent to a son in Newcastle who then forwarded it to a brother at Plymouth. From there it went to another brother in Melbourne, Australia, who then sent it to a brother in Canada - reckoned to be a distance of 18,000 miles.

Today the Cambridge Independent Press is readable on computers around the world for many of its files from 1839 to 1939 may be searched and read on the British Newspaper Archive website - britishnewspaper archive.co.uk - while the original volumes are preserved in the Cambridgeshire Collection at Cambridge Central Library in Lion Yard. It includes a volume for 1818 which was acquired by auction in 1909. Cambridge University Library also wanted to secure it for its collection but agreed not to bid unless the price soared beyond that the borough librarian could afford.

Both recognised then, as now, the importance of the day-by-day record of the contemporary local scene.

The Independent commented on the important issues of the day - Cambridge Corporation was condemned as corrupt; there was the reform of the poor law that saw the construction of Union Workhouses, such as the one down Mill Road, and the growth of new transport systems - the railway that arrived in Cambridge in 1845.

With the massive change in local government that saw the establishment of parish councils, the Independent travelled to Sawston, Fulbourn, Shelford and Trumpington to interview the newly-elected chairman about the issues facing their community in 1896.

Communities were impacted by the Great War which saw local papers reporting on the news sent back home in letters to parents from sons at the Front. But as restrictions on newsprint hit home the traditional rivalry of local papers could no longer continue. By then there was another major title on the scene, the Cambridge Daily News and its sister title, the Cambridge Weekly News. In 1916 the two weeklies merged, with the more prestigious Cambridge Independent Press continuing to be the main title. In 1934 the older Cambridge Chronicle and University Journal was also merged.

The Independent kept up with the changing times, regularly publishing photographs from 1927 and in 1929 launching the 'Robin Fellowship', aimed at younger readers. It was an instant success with 4,300 enrolling in the first six months, the first of whom was Sybil Rayner of Cherry Hinton Road. In 1964, it gained a new look with a four-page 'Picture Parade' and a special feature for women. In 1977 it became the first paper in Britain to be printed by the D-Litho method in place of the use of hot metal, improving the quality of reproduction and making working conditions easier and cleaner for staff.

But the world of newspapers was constantly changing to meet evolving conditions; on January 29, 1981, the Cambridge Independent Press bowed out to make way for a Weekly News series of free newspapers.

Now it is back.

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