About the Guildhall

History of The Guildhalls

From medieval times: Gaols, monasteries, markets and toll booths


Henry II grants the burgesses of Cambridge possession of a house belonging to a Jew named Benjamin for use as a town gaol. The “Jew’s House” is sited in what is now the Guildhall site.


The old synagogue, formerly a Franciscan monastery, becomes a toll booth for the market which is already in place on the market square site. The market thrives and develops over the next four centuries.


The Tolbooth, now too small for the burgeoning market, is demolished. A new Tolbooth is built, also going by the name of “Town” or “Guild” Hall, and is again sited next to the Jew’s House gaol.


Queen Elizabeth gives the gaol from the town to the University. The townspeople object, and a court battle ensues.


The court settles in favour of the townspeople, who are ordered by the judge to “enjoy the Jayle as they formerly have done”.

Eighteenth century: New buildings, public subscriptions and a time capsule


Part of the market site is given up for the construction of an elegant new “Shire House”, of classical design.


The old Town/Guild Hall is demolished and a new Guild Hall, designed by James Essex, is built on the site, at a cost of £2,500. The money is raised both by public subscription and the sale of titles for 30 guineas each. The new building, of reasonably modest design, has an Assembly Room, linked to the Shire Hall, an Aldermans’ Parlour, a Common Counsellors’ Parlour and Kitchen, with commercial premises (including a coffee house) on the ground floor. A time capsule, featuring an inscribed piece of stone, pig skin and some coins, was laid in the foundations. The stone now stands outside the entrance to the Small Hall in the present Guildhall.


The Jew’s House’s use as a gaol ceases, the building now dilapidated. It is demolished, after at least 500 years, in 1800. This clears the area for private and commercial development, which was to go on to restrict development of the site by the Corporation until the 1930s.

The Victorian era: Piecemeal development of the Guildhall


Improvements made to Shire House.


With a new Shire Hall being built on Castle Hill, Shire House is given to the municipality to operate with the Guild Hall. Local traders are not impressed, with a letter of the time to the Cambridge Chronicle describing it as “that wretched Town Hall” that has “long (…) been a disgrace to Cambridge”.


A Council Committee is formed to address the problem. Architects are invited to submit plans for a new building, to include an Assembly Room, a Public Library and  Reading Room and a School of Art. Twenty schemes are submitted, despite difficulties with the constricted site.


Local firm Peck & Stevens’ design is selected, and work begins. The design is of “Palladian-Italian character”. Despite frustrations caused by leases adjacent to the planned new buildings not yet having expired, the new Hall and Library are completed the following year. The press reports that Cambridge now has “a building of which our good old town may well be proud”.


As space surrounding the building is finally acquired by the Corporation, a domed Reading Room, with an entrance on Wheeler Street, is added, designed by George MacDonnell.


As further space is freed up by the demolition of older buildings, a new three-storey building with a Police Court, Mayoral chambers and an Employment Exchange is built, to W M Fawcett’s design. Shire House gets a new Council Chamber on its upper floor.


A corner of the site still occupied by corn merchants is gutted by fire. At last, the Corporation is able to expand into this south-west area, with extended library accommodation. The construction is believed to have finished by 1916.


The last of the privately-owned Peas Hill houses fall into Corporation hands, so the whole of the site is redeveloped, to the design of Charley Cowles-Voysey.


Protests follow, with townsfolk objecting not only to Voysey’s design but also the £150,000 budget allocated to the project. Despite objections, the project goes ahead.


The building – the design and construction of which remains largely unchanged to this day – is completed. The planned official opening has to be cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II.