The First Hundred Years

Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology 1858-1958

by Harry Browne

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was dismissed by Ruskin with impatient contempt and by William Morris with the words, 'wonderfully ugly'. Certainly the cotton machine complete with scarabs, the 'cricket catapulta, for propelling the ball in the absence of a first-rate bowler' demonstrated the ingenuity of British engineering but hardly the triumph of Victorian design. The need for the engineer to be controlled by some aesthetic principles seemed obvious to many, who like Ruskin were disturbed by the mass ornament and, as one contemporary said, by the 'the sins committed against good taste'. From this Victorian concern to marry art and engineering sprang the movement to found Schools of Art to which the present College owes its existence.

In both Oxford and in Cambridge attempts had been made to start a School of Art in the fifties but by 1858 the attempt in Oxford had failed. Cambridge, however, in this as in so many other things in advance of her sister town and university, held on October 29th of that year 'a Soiree with an inaugural address by Mr. Ruskin'.

Ruskin on 'sight'

This must have been a solemn affair with six speeches in addition to an hour's lecture on the philosophic basis of a School of Art by Ruskin himself. He read the speech for, as he endearingly explained, if he spoke spontaneously he was likely to become confused. Certainly his speech, which was published, has no signs of confusion.

He argued that the most important thing was to teach Sight, and not to try to teach Art in relation to any particular trade. In one passage he says: 'we want, in this sad world of ours, very often to see in the dark - that's the greatest gift of all - but at any rate to see; no matter by what light, so only we can see things as they are'.

His main complaint was that people no longer see and he illustrated this by an account of his recent stay in Turin where he went particularly to study the Veroneses. 'It generally happens that the best pictures are the worst placed', and the best picture was hung at considerable height over a door. In it there is the Queen of Sheba - 'the queen is one of the loveliest of Veronese's female figures; all the accessories are full of grace and imagination; and the finish of the whole so perfect that one day I was upwards of two hours vainly trying to render, with perfect accuracy, the curves of two leaves of brocaded silk.... What especially impressed me, however, was that none of the ladies ever stopped to look at the dresses in the Veronese. Certainly they were far more beautiful than any in the shops in the great square, yet no one ever noticed them. Sometimes when any nice, sharp-looking bright-eyed girl came into the room I used to watch her all the way, thinking 'Come, at least you'll see what the Queen of Sheba has got on'. But no - on she would come carelessly, with a little toss of the head, apparently signifying 'nothing in this room worth looking at - except myself', and so trip through the door, and away'. Curious to think of the great Victorian prophet watching so dourly and so self-righteously, yet this story does underline what he rightly regarded as the main purpose of art teaching, or perhaps of teaching of any kind.

Ruskin, then, pointed the way for the growth of a School concerned with these basic principles; its subsequent history, in which the School has been re-shaped in order to meet changing needs, has done nothing to obscure this fundamental purpose. Within the College, Art has always had an important place and has served to balance the new arid growing technical departments which the College has developed. Ruskin was speaking, after all, in the heyday of Victorian prosperity, and German and American competition had not yet appeared to challenge Britain's industrial supremacy. That national challenge may be seen, as it were from afar, in the changing structure of the School which Ruskin founded.

Early Days

The School opened at 9 Sidney Street on November 1st 1858. There were Classes for Ladies (Elementary and Advanced) and for Gentlemen (Advanced), held in the morning and in the evening there was a Gentleman's Special Class and an Artisan's Class. Artisans paid 2s a month and Gentlemen and Ladies paid 5s. The School was maintained by voluntary subscriptions, fees and a government grant and run by a committee of subscribers. The tours outside Cambridge which are now so much a part of the life of the College seemed to have existed embryonically then. In 1860 two hundred students went to Coton to sketch and in 1863 when a party went to Waterbeach an illuminated barge accompanied the boats home.

By 1862 the School had moved to special rooms in the Guildhall and in 1889, a few years after the appearance of industrial depression for the first time since the founding of the School, the Technical Instruction Act was passed, a sign of the recognition of the need to improve technical education to meet the new German challenge. The Cambridge Borough Council made an annual grant of 100 and built a small institute for technical education in East Road. At the same time the School's independence was partly lost for the Council elected four members to serve on the Governing Body. Victorian self-help and the cult of the amateur was gradually disappearing.

A Cambridge resident gives a picture of late-Victorian life in Cambridge outside the university in his account of the Technical College then. He was himself an apprentice around the turn of the century earning two and six pence a week in the building trade, working from six in the morning to half-past five at night and then going along in the evening to what is now the Drill Hall in East Road where there were classes in Building Construction, Architectural Drawing, Woodwork and Wood Carving. Although it is impossible to regret the passing of such a restricting regime of work and study yet such a self-imposed discipline must have weeded out the reluctant student and made the survivors morally well-equipped to succeed in their chosen fields.

There was also, he says, a hut off East Road where there were classes in other subjects including cookery but neither or these two centres had any encouragement from the central government - both depended upon local support and interest.

The Balfour Act

In 1902 Balfour's extensive and farsighted Education Act further changed the status of the School, for the County Council was made responsible for Higher Education although the Borough continued its grant and still housed the School. Its present home, the Collier Road site, was first opened in 1909, paradoxically enough, by the foremost representative of one of England's major industrial rivals, the American ambassador, the Hon. Whitelaw Reid. Thus 1959 marks the fiftieth year in what will obviously be its permanent place.

The war of 1914 stressed Britain's changed place in the world's economy and the Education Act of 1921 in its pioneering of day continuation schools pointed once again to the need for systematic technical education. The prospectus of 1923 of the Cambridge and County School of Arts, Crafts and Technology gives evidence of the changes which have taken place. There is still a strong Department of Fine Art but also a Department of Commerce and a Department of Day Continuation Classes providing courses for apprentices in building, printing and in scientific laboratories. The remaining department was of Arts and Technology. The voice of Ruskin can still be heard in the assertion that 'the School is the centre of Further Education, vocational and humane, in the Borough and County of Cambridge'.

Expansion between the wars

The history of the school has been one of continual growth. The twenties saw a large increase in the number of part-time day students from 50 in 1921 to 130 in 1930; in evening students from 253 to 1,106 and the appearance for the first time of the full-time student who now plays such a great part in the life of the College. In 1921 there were 15 and by 1930 there were 117.

These last figures are evidence of the development of the Trade School from which so many of the present departments in the College have grown. A prospectus of 1932 says: 'The Day Trade School has been specially designed to train boys and girls for employment in skilled industries. Although no guarantee at the end of the course is given, it is not anticipated that there will be any difficulty in finding posts for students who have maintained a satisfactory standard of work throughout the course'. How strongly the grim figures of unemployment in the early thirties emerge from that sentence. In the Trade School there were courses in building, commerce, cookery, dressmaking, engineering, printing and woodwork. Students normally entered at the age of 14, staying two years and spending roughly one-third of their time on their trade and the remainder on general studies.

By the end of the thirties, the number of full-time students had doubled and the note for the new decade was struck in the foreword to the Prospectus for 1941-2. 'The Cambridgeshire Technical School (the 'shire' first appeared in 1932) is organised to meet the industrial, commercial and general aesthetic needs of Cambridge and the County. It is the centre both of adult education and of social and recreational activities. With 'the cramped accommodation and inconvenient railway service', referred to in an Inspector's report of 1931 this must have been a difficult ideal to achieve, but the new buildings recently opened and the pressing parking problems of the College suggest how both difficulties have been got round.

The second world war and afterwards

The war saw the College carrying out contract work for the Government and acting as a trainee department for the Ministry of Labour, beside carrying on its normal work but perhaps the most development came immediately after the end of the war when the Engineering Department ran a full-time course for Gas Engineers which was attended by students who were receiving a Further Education and Training grant from the Ministry of Education. For this was a fore-runner, in a sense, of those 'sandwich' courses which have now become so important in advanced technological education. In this kind of course students spend six months at the College and six months in industry over a period of three or four years and then qualify for the Higher National Diploma in Electrical or Mechanical Engineering. This is indeed a far cry from the Technical Instruction Act of 1889 for under this new and most generous scheme students are paid their full wage by their employers over the whole period of the course. The development of such schemes as this has been one of the most hopeful signs in recent educational developments.

The expansion in numbers and in range of course - for now most departments offer courses up to degree standard - have been matched by changes in the site which might well interest an educational archaeologist. The original Edwardian red-brick was shared with the County Girls' School, although the connecting door was out-of-bounds. Another wing was added in 1925 and this was further extended in 1931 until just at the outbreak of war the girls were moved to Long Road and the College took over their rooms. The pre-fab, that war-time makeshift appeared in 1947 to make up what is familiarly known as 'the colonnade' and more formally, the English and Social Studies Department; the new, and more solid, buildings became available in 1956 and 1958. The result of this piece-meal development is a variety of buildings representing different styles and variable outpourings of the public purse. A third extension is now under construction and fourth is being planned. Eventually the whole of the area between South Street and Broad Street, when the inhabitants have been re-housed, will see new buildings belonging to the College.

The Mellish Clark buildings

The well-designed modern buildings in which the Engineering, Science and Building Departments have recently been re-housed have been named after Alderman Mrs. Mellish Clark to commemorate her unique record of service as Chairman of the Governing Body for thirty-five years.

Although the College is primarily a centre for advanced education some classes are available for amateurs of music, drama, modern languages and domestic subjects. Music and drama, in particular, have shared in that expansion which has marked the last ten years and there have been many successful productions such as The Master Builder, The Alchemist, The Merchant of Venice and amongst the operas, The Magic Flute, Carmen and Cavalleria Rusticana. Again, the enthusiast has been catered for in those educational visits abroad which have become so much a part of the life of the College and in the sailing and ski-ing parties, and tours to study architecture and painting, often in Ruskin's own beloved North Italy.

The College today

Today the College has over 500 students who come full-time and over 5,000 part-time and a staff of over 100, together with more than 300 visiting specialists. Much of the expansion has taken place in the last ten years as the need for trained engineers, scientists and technicians has grown. In 1948 G.C.E. classes were started with a handful of students: last year there were 200 full-time and over 500 part-time G.C.E. candidates at Ordinary, Advanced and Scholarship Levels. The reality behind these figures is clear: the College has become the means by which the adult who wishes to start a fresh career, or the pupil from the secondary modern school, is given a chance to enter a university, training college or profession which otherwise would have been closed to him. The personal - and national - importance of this hardly needs stressing. From those whose education began in a Secondary Modern School the College has indeed produced a number of State Scholars.

Within the College the range is indeed wide for art student jostles with scientist, engineer with linguist, and economist with historian; West African with the boy from the Fens and Public School with Village College.

The range of students is matched by the range of courses. It is now possible to read for a degree in arts, science and economics at the College: specifically in zoology, botany, physics, chemistry and mathematics, in geography, modem languages, classics and English. A student coming to the College can take the highest professional qualifications in engineering, building, applied science, accountancy, banking, public administration and for work as a company secretary, in art, in design and in architecture.

Apprentices come one day a week from engineering, printing, building, catering, bakery, from university and research laboratories, local government, horticulture, agriculture, retail trades and from architects' offices to take qualifications and to improve their differing skills.

All this may suggest the many-sidedness of life at the College. It is a long way from that small establishment in Sidney Street and the social distinctions between gentlemen and players which existed there. This is the work of a century and a catalogue of social and educational changes in that time. But, perhaps, what it is most of all, is the record of the achievement of Cambridgeshire in making the College a major centre for advanced technological and professional education, without losing sight of the civilised ideals Ruskin expressed at its opening.


Drill Hall

On the site next to Wellington House, on the City Centre side of East Road, opposite the Zion Baptist Hall. Subsequently used as part of the Royal Mail Sorting Office and demolished in 1993. From 1999 there have been applications to build a hotel on the site.

Long Road Sixth Form College

The County Girls' School moved from what is now the Ruskin Building, off Collier Road, to Long Road, subsequently becoming the Cambridge High School for Girls and then Long Road Sixth Form College.

HORSA prefabricated buildings

The Government's Hut Operation for the Raising of the School [leaving] Age in 1947-8 aimed to create rapidly extra accommodation in response to the school leaving age increase from 14 to 15. [It went up to 16 in the 1960s.] CCAT's long row of HORSA buildings next to Mill Road Cemetery contained many departments over the years, culminating in the mid-1980s with mainly Computer Services and Computer Science. In 1986 the County Council decided that the asbestos in the roof made them unsafe and they were demolished. (Fortunately the Sinclair Building became available and Computer Services moved there.) Around that time the buildings and the adjacent row of huts were collectively known as Death Row. The HORSA buildings in the nearby Parkside School were demolished c1995 as part of that site's redevelopment.


The third instalment was the Bryant building, opened by and named after the distinguished historian Sir Arthur Bryant, College Principal from 1923-1925. The fourth instalment was the Coslett building. South Street no longer exists, having been replaced by the campus car park and further buildings. The last row of houses in Bradmore Street was replaced by the Swinhoe Hall of Residence in 1991/2.

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