History of Beaconsfield Club, Gwydir Street

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Blue plaque made by St Matthews School - click on it for large (readable) version

Blue plaque

The Beaconsfield Club no longer exists.

The Beaconsfield Club was mentioned in the Spalding directory of 1904 and the Spalding directory of 1913.

One directory says "The Beaconsfield Club, Gwydir Street, is a structure of brick, erected in 1884 by a limited liability company, as a working man's club : there are now (1892) 500 members : political meetings are also held here."

In the Kelly directory of 1916, Charles Long is the secretary of the Beaconsfield Club.

Albert Biggs emailed me in 2009. He lived at 29 Gwydir Street, where he was born in 1925.

In the early 30's I was a member of The Young Britons (Conservatives) meeting at the Beaconsfield Hall and my father was a member of the Conservative Club also meeting there.

Mary Naylor emailed me in 2010.

My Nana, Florence Thompson, helped run the Young Conservatives at the Beaconsfield club. I have a newspaper cutting from Cambridge Chronicle 28/8/1929, with picture, which describes an outing of 250 ladies from all branches of the Conservatives that left from Park Side in 8 Ortona buses. My Nana, her sister Kate from Kingston St and sister Blanche Ellis a piano teacher from 176 Gwydir St are in one of the pictures.

From Cambridge News 25 April 1963

One more place where people can obtain a drink in Gwydir Street - thought this time they have to be a member - is at the Beaconsfield Conservative Club near the corner of Milford Street. The club was founded in 1884 and lets out its imposing hall next door - once the scene of famous local dances - for use as a furniture warehouse. University and city judo clubs meet in rooms over the actual clubroom. It is here that a record of chairman and secretaries of the club are commemorated, with a special place emphasising the services of a very distinguished member and trustee, the late F J Howlett. A member of the club for 57 years, Mr Howlett served on the committee for 55 of them and was secretary for 29. When he retired in 1952, he was made an honorary member.

From Jo Edkins, resident of Gwydir St.

When I first moved to Gwydir Street in 1979, the Beaconsfield Club was no longer used by the Conservative Party. It was a social club. The building was very run down, with windows stuffed with insultation in a vain attempt to reduce the noise. It was unpopular locally. The discos would go on until 3am or later, and every time anyone opened the door to leave, you could hear the very loud music. The burglar alarm would go off frequently in the middle of the night, and continue until the police could find the caretaker who lived a long way away. There were occasional fights in the middle of the street, as people leaving met other young people leaving other parties, and the police had to deal with it. Finally in one of these fights, a policeman was assaulted, and they decided to take action. They made representations to the magistrates to get the licence to sell alcohol removed, which was successful. The Beaconsfield Club could no longer continue, and in 1984 it was demolished, and the present Beaconsfield House, with flats in, was built in its place.

From Lost Cambridge:

The decline and fall of The Beaconsfield Club - Petersfield, Cambridge 1982.

Posted on February 8, 2021 by Cambridge Town Owl

I've been trying to find out more information about the old club that I read once sat opposite The Alex on Gwydir Street. It was built at a time when membership levels and activities of local political parties and movements were increasing to such an extent that they were able to build their own premises and run vibrant social clubs. It's a tradition that has declined across many towns and cities in the post-war era along with the decline of other social institutions such as Sunday worship - reflected by the number of closed and converted/demolished churches and chapels across town. I can't think of any social institution with its own premises established to support a political party that still exists in Cambridge as an overtly and primarily political institution. Not least now that we are in lockdown due to the pandemic.

At the same time, the study of local history and of local institutions may become more important over the next few years as we go through a period of huge social change following the collective experience of lockdown and also of the huge number of untimely deaths caused by the pandemic - a figure that has now exceeded 100,000 people. Will we find that there is a stronger desire for the general public to socialise out and about with each other in the near future compared with before we went into lockdown? And what will become of all of the empty shop units given the implosion of so many high street names? - Debenhams being the last anchor store of the Grafton Centre, to go into liquidation.

The Beaconsfield Club opens - 1884

Capturing Cambridge tells us of the year that it opened. This made cross-referencing with the British Newspaper Archive straightforward, and we find that at the end of the year they had their opening dinner in November 1884.


The guest of honour was the candidate Robert Uniacke Penrose, who was the first MP to serve Cambridge in modern pre-WWI times - by which I mean from the Third Reform Act 1884 which reduced Cambridge Borough's presence in Parliament from two seats to one. He would hold onto the seat until the Liberal landslide of 1906 that brought Stanley Buckmaster KC to the borough. RUP's speech is an interesting one as it happened just after the passing of Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative Prime Minister who was created the Earl of Beaconsfield, and of whom the club (and the pub down the road and over Mill Road bridge, which is still there) was named after. It's something that I'll transcribe at a later date as it provides an interesting reflection on some of the values at the time - in particular collective volunteering for a cause, and also the concept of the Working Class Conservative of the late 1800s.

The club house


Above - The Beaconsfield Club in the Cambridge News, via Mike Petty's Archives.

Early days of the Beaconsfield Club

We find that by 1887, the annual report of the club showed 250 members and a small surplus in their accounts. This from the Cambridge Chronicle.


Above - from the Cambridge Chronicle in the British Newspaper Archives. Do any names stand out?

Interestingly this took place less than a year after the 1886 general election which crushed the Liberal Party over the issue of Home Rule for Ireland. Combining Ireland along with law and order issues were a major part of the opening motion from Mr Charles Turner.


The club grew fast enough and grew its profile quickly, enabling it to host annual balls at The Guildhall.


This was a time when the Conservatives were in the ascendency - mindful that the expansion of the electorate from the Third Reform Act a few years before had brought in many more citizens into the franchise - even though this still excluded 40% of the working male population, as well as excluding all women.

As with such large social clubs, special interest sub-groups formed. These included music ...


... plant and flower shows...


...and day trips to the seaside.


Peak social membership

In the interwar period Cambridge's population continued to grow, from around 40,000 towards the end of the 19th Century to around 70,000 by the 1930s. (Cambridgeshire Insight has the historical population statistics). This is in part reflected in the packed halls for the New Year's Eve events in 1938/39, mindful that there may still have been a sense in the air that war had been averted due to the Munich agreement.


Around the corner from the Beaconsfield Club was - and still is, the HQ of the Cambridge Labour Party - renamed after Dr Alex Wood, the longtime leader of the party (and parliamentary candidate in 1931 and 1935) in the first half of the 20th Century.


Note both Conservative and Labour parties had their own in-house bands and entertainment groups at the time.

" and why did the society collapse?"

First we need to look at what became of it prior to its demolition. Mike Petty MBE spotted the article that explained why the club finally closed - their alcohol licence was refused by the local council due to repeated complaints from neighbours.


By the late 1970s the society had ceased to be an overtly party political society - like a number of other institutions. The newspaper report linked above makes for very grim reading. A club in the middle of a residential area playing loud amplified music with poor noise insulation, thugs regularly gathering and having fights outside, people spewing vomit in the street, you can see why Cambridge Magistrates not only refused the alcohol licence, but also refused the premises licence, which meant that the venue could not hold events either. Thus the venue was condemned to closure almost overnight.

"How did this former bastion of Working Class Conservatism decline into a hive of anti-social behaviour?"

We can but only speculate. It's worth noting the following though.

Post-war Cambridge wasn't the place that we are familiar with in the early 21st Century with its millions of tourists, and a reputation for the thriving life-sciences and tech industries, and a confident, liberal, multi-cultural city. (Scratch the surface however and you find Cambridge is the most unequal city in the country - with Abbey ward next to Petersfield having a life expectancy ten years lower than Newnham ward, West Cambridge.)

There were a host of things that affected the entire area - not least the closure of many prominent employers such as the Pye works, the brick works and the gas works in the 1960s and 1970s. The planning blight that resulted from the decades of uncertainty of the future development of Cambridge couldn't have helped either - with the proposed maps showing big roads ploughing through residential communities in the style of colonial administrators in the Foreign Office drawing red lines on maps to delineate new international borders in the interwar era. Not surprisingly, many people resisted - successfully. Today you can see glimpses of what the planners were hoping to achieve as some of the completed construction works now sit awkwardly as standalone pieces - such as Park Street Car Park (built to serve an inner spine road), and Elizabeth Way Bridge, built to serve a dual carriageway link from Trumpington Road, through to Cambridge Railway Station, through to East Road and to Chesterton. This would have involved ploughing up Gwydir Street amongst others.

The slum clearances of the St Matthew's Estate inevitably removed hundreds of people who might otherwise have been in walking distance from the premises - though it's not clear how many of the residents removed from the area were actually members. Then with the expansion of the Cambridge College for Arts and Technology - today Anglia Ruskin University, the social fabric of the ward began to change - one from working class to an intellectual middle class that perhaps had different values.

Finally the growth and development of electrical consumer goods - when the club opened there were no electrical sound systems to amplify loud music or to play back recorded music. The club house was a place where men in particular would go to socialise after work - a routine that my uncles in London were more than familiar with in North West London. But the growth of the television and other home comforts - combined with the disturbances outside perhaps made going to the club a less appealing alternative. Combined with the economic decline and the closure of the large employers such as the Cambridge Gas Works in the mid-1960s, the Brickworks in the early 1970s, and the Pye factory a few years later, must have had a devastating impact on the local neighbourhood.

Petersfield today

The best people to describe that are those who live and work in the area today - the Petersfield Area Community Trust. The old council depot is being redeveloped as The Ironworks - with a mix of council houses and eye-wateringly expensive new homes for the private market. The redevelopment is also the subject of a local art and history project by HistoryWorks.

From Capturing Cambridge:


CC&J 9.12.1887
: Cambridge Beaconsfield Club.—On Tuesday evening, musical and dramatic entertainment, was given by members of the club in the club rooms, Gwydir Street. Cambridge. A pianoforte solo by Miss Marshall, and a cornet solo by Mr Scargall were admirably rendered. The song "Maggie," was nicely sung by Miss Fuller. The same remark applies to the comic songs "Mo More" by Mr. Duncombe, and "Put it down to me,’ by Miss Daisy Clarke, who also gave, in response to loud cries of encore, "Oh, I Say, " "They all love Jack" and "The Lass of Richmond Hill,’’ were given in good style by Mr. Bright and "Old Brigade," by Mr. Coppins. A laughable sketch entitled "Quarter of hour with John Bull," written specially for the occasion by Mr. E. A. Meaken was then played. and was followed by a dramatic scene, entitled Cherry Bounce," the acting in which reflected great credit on the performers. The characters were represented as follows: Mr Oldrents, Mr E. A. Meaken: Gregory Homespun (his man servant), Mr. W. Unwin; Gammon and Spinach (farmers), Messrs. J. F. Tarrant and T. Smith, respectively; Doctor’s Boy, Mr. A. W. Fullers and Mrs. Homespun (mother to Gregory), Mr. J. Rumsey.

CC&J 27.4.1888
: CAMBRIDGE CONSERVATIVE AND BEACONSFIELD CLUBS. GRAND FANCY FAIR. Many are the occasions on which we have had to speak of the vitality of the Conservative cause in Cambridge. Looking back for only comparatively few years, we have seen it steadily progress, and continuously flourish, until it has now acquired strength in the borough that it never possessed before, and supported by numbers of both ladies and gentlemen far exceeding what might have been expected some years ago. From small rooms in which a limited number of Conservatives could meet, the Party has had, several times, to acquire larger premises for the accommodation of its supporters; the rooms on Peas Hill having become too small, the Alexandra House was made into Club House; again, the membership of the Club swelled, and the present palatial premises of the Club had to be acquired. The circumstances under which the removal was made have already been described in these columns, and are fresh in the public memory. An equally important fact in the development of Conservatism in the borough the erection of the Beaconsfield Club in Gwydir-street, which is essentially the working men’s club. It has a long roll of members, and affords complete refutation of the doctrine, preached by the Liberals some years ago, that a Conservative working man did not exist. Of course this vast development of the Party, with the provision of handsome clubs to meet its wants, has involved considerable outlay, and both clubs are in need of funds, to extinguish their debts, and to provide for future contingencies, and it is with that object in view that a fancy fair has, during the week, been held at the Corn Exchange.
As means of raising money in aid of public institutions, perhaps no effort meets with so much support as fancy fairs. Their popularity is evinced in the large number of visitors they attract, and that they generally serve the purpose for which they are promoted. The decorations are charming to the eye, the music is pleasant to the ear, the social character of these displays cannot fail to "draw" and excellent opportunities are given for tastefully dressed ladies to extract substantial contributions from the sterner sex, and the lady visitors. This has been so in the present case, and we are glad to say that such a sum has been realised as will go long way to liquidate the debts which still overhang the Clubs.
There then follows a long description of the fair at the Corn Exchange and the people who attended it.

CC&J 2.11.1888
: Smoking Concert held at Beaconsfield Club

CDN 17.5.1889
: "Fitzgerald" Habitation of the Primrose League: Enthusiastic Gathering at the Cambridge Beaconsfield Club.
(CDN 11.5.1897)
Bohee Minstrels at Cambridge: Under the personal direction of Mr D Bohee, banjoist to T.R.H. the Prince and Princess Wales, the Royal Bohee Operatic Minstrels to give them their full title —commenced a week’s visit to Cambridge at the Beaconsfield Hall, Gwydir-street, last (Monday) night, when the room was well filled. The kind entertainment, unlike so many of its kind, is entirely free from vulgarity and coarseness yet contains an unlimited fund of wit and mirth that could not fail to appeal to any class of audience. The first part of the programme was composed of songs, serious and comic, all containing delightful refrains of the true plantation sort. Some of the artistes have really good voices and all, when blended in the choruses, produce an extremely pleasing effect. The second part of the programme partook more of the nature of a variety entertainment and in this direction the members of the troupe show their skill to the best advantage, many of them being accomplished comedians, and each being excellent in his especial line.

The Bohee Brothers (Wikipedia)

Mr Will Crowson gave a demonstration of what can be done with the aid of the bones, and Messrs Harley and De Marr, pantomimists and acrobats, afforded a highly diverting interlude, rendered all the more novel by the perfect silence the performers maintain during their occupation on the platform. Mr James D Bohee next played a popular march on the banjo, an instrument so often condemned as unmusical. We only advise those who hold this opinion to go hear The "Royal Bohee" and we feel convinced that they will change their opinion. Perhaps Mr Bohee showed his skill the more in his rendering of "Home sweet home" with variations which afforded more scope for his fingers to bring out the effects of light and shade, the soft passages seeming to whisper the air amid the silence of the room, and the crashing notes of the fortissimo resounding loudly above the accompaniment of the full orchestra. Needless to say, Mr Bohee was recalled on every occasion. The Bros Melrose were successful as vocal comedians, and Mr Wal Robbins scored greatly in his black and white sketch. The programme was brought to a conclusion by a new sketch entitled "The Sculptor’s Dream" which included the most realistic pictures of marble statuary, shown off the better by means of lime-light effects. The entertainment will be repeated each night during the week and Friday is to be a grand plantation night.

CIP 19.1.1900
: Children’s party – Tuesday was the occasion of the New Year’s party to the children of the members of the Beaconsfield Club, and the large room of the Club, in Gwydir-street, presented a very pretty aspect, with about 360happy juveniles present, including about 60 children of reservists engaged in the Transvaal campaign as special guests. The children assembled about five o’clock, and partook of an excellent tea. After the tea, the children were provided with amusements. The parents were admitted after eight o’clock, and dancing was participated in to music supplied by Messrs. Hoppett (piano), and Swornsbourne (violin).

Beaconsfield Club, J R James secretary
Edward Males, custodian

Beaconsfield Club
Sakura Bana Kai Judo Club

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