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Mill Road tales and mysteries revealed at Open Cambridge



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Which Mill Road backstreet used to have a sausage factory, a bakery, a slaughterhouse, and a builder’s yard? What was the Sally Ann charity shop before 1956, and what are the name-carvings and strange circles engraved in the wall? Where in Mill Road could you buy horse beans and tiger nuts as a children’s treat in the early years of the last century? Who was the one man executed in Cambridge’s town gaol?

From the Mill Road History Society Collection
From the Mill Road History Society Collection

This year’s digital Open Cambridge heritage weekend ( September 11-13) will offer viewers a chance to log on and learn more about the city and beyond. The Mill Road History Society has teamed up with Open Cambridge to present a series of six intriguing films presented by local historians keen to share their knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, the buildings and people of one of the city’s most famous roads.

Society members, Ian Bent, Caro Wilson, Jo Costin and Julia Ewans present illustrated talks on some of their favourite Mill Road places.

Ian explores The Playhouse, the first purpose-built cinema in Cambridge and Covent Garden, Mill Road’s oldest side street. Caro takes viewers on a fascinating journey around Donkey Common where the swimming pool is today. She also explains more about corn, fruit, and carpets at 175 Mill Road. Jo loves the stories from the cemetery and invites viewers on an adventurous virtual tour. Julia has dusted off her building report of the Bath House and shows viewers around the site.

Mill Road bridge in the 1960s
Mill Road bridge in the 1960s

The six films include:

Covent Garden by Ian Bent

Many people are familiar with the Drama Centre at the end of Covent Garden, with its vibrant dance and theatrical shows, but few know it began as the drill hall for the St Barnabas Boys Brigade, who used to parade down Mill Road on Sunday mornings. A quiet side street nowadays, from the ’30s to the ’70s it was full of noise and bustle, with a sausage factory, a bakery, a slaughterhouse, and a builder’s yard.

Playhouse by Ian Bent

Everybody remembers the Sally Ann charity shop. Many people still remember the Fine Fare supermarket before it. But not many now remember what it was before 1956 – and yet that was the building’s finest hour! Have you seen the name-carvings and strange circles engraved in the wall at the top of Covent Garden? Do you know how they came about?

The Bath House by Julia Ewans

Where you could have lots of hot water for four pence, but the towels were far from fluffy.

175 Mill Road by Caro Wilson

Where in 1889 did some boys steal silver and copper from the till, and Banbury Cakes from the counter? Where in Mill Road could you buy horse beans and tiger nuts as a children’s treat in the early years of the last century? This former corn merchants now sells fruit and veg, but did you know that Red Rum once visited?

Donkey Common by Caro Wilson

Find out who was responsible for planting the limes along the north side of Parker’s Piece. If your tastes are more macabre then learn about the one man executed in Cambridge’s town gaol.

Mill Road Cemetery by Jo Costin

You might walk your dog in Mill Road Cemetery, or use it as a shortcut to get to the shops, but did you know that there are hundreds of fascinating stories to be told of those who are buried there? From Robert Sayle, who founded Sayle’s Drapery (now taken over by John Lewis) to popular Victorian children’s entertainer Funny Fred Hall, from soldiers to coach drivers, and everything in between, there are stories to suit all interests. This virtual walk offers an introduction to the cemetery, covering not only some of those who are buried there, but also some of the cemetery’s history and artwork.

Mill Road Cemetery
Mill Road Cemetery

Caro Wilson, secretary of The Mill Road History Society, said: “It has been good discipline for me to put together two presentations from the excellent research that can be found on capturingcambridge.org/projects/mill-road-area and I have learnt a great deal in the process. I hope the viewers enjoy the stories and information the Mill Road History Society has provided for Open Cambridge this year, and that they are inspired to browse the website further and to get in touch with us with any reactions to what we’ve done, or stories of their own to share.”

For more information on this year’s Open Cambridge, visit opencambridge.cam.ac.uk .

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