Soham Grammarians - 2015 Luncheon Talk

Reflections on eight decades of looking back on Cambridgeshire history
A talk to Soham Old Grammarians, 3rd October 2015
by Mike Petty MBE SG57

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Mike Petty

This is not the first time I’ve spoken from this stage to this august gathering. The first was something over 50 years ago – part of a surprise 6th Form Revue updating you on what the school was really like. Perhaps some of you were there.

 And that was not the first – that seems to have been in 1958 in King Melon and Princess Caraway – dressed up in a frock.

At least this does not name other members of the cast. click here for cast list

Looking back with rose-tinted (bloodshot) eyes I recall writing my memories of my first day at Soham Grammer School. I wrote of the view of that grand house as we approached form the bus. The essay came back covered in red ink corrections.

Apparently it was a Grammar, not Grammer, school. But at least it showed somebody had read it


However the real first memory is of walking through Conservatory – it would be demolished very soon after - and under that arched walkway to the dining hall. There RAT and Sid (then Mr Peter Taylor and Mr Sidney Saunders) read out the names of those allocated to 1S and 1T.  Archer, Ashwood, Bashfield, Butcher … but no ‘Petty’.  It taught me a valuable lesson.

Later I was allocated to the practical side – woodwork (I made a tray, others made tables), Technical Drawing – I got two marks (out of 100) – ‘He did very little, but put his name on the paper neatly’. Finally they realised that I had no ability in that regard. I was little better at ballroom dancing – we had lessons at Ely High School after school. Off we trooped in our uniforms and army boots – for we were the first of Soham’s Army Cadet Force.

And once we had mastered the rifle and drill we went on an expedition behind the Iron Curtain, crossing the border when armed troops searched each carriage and guards on the track passed bullets through the window.

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It was a very long journey by ferry and train – no planes in those days - to Prague. And a very brave thing to do, for it included girls from Ely High School. On the way back we had a long overnight stop in Nuremberg – recorded by Michael Page; what he did not record is how we toured the night-time bars, looking for staff, when one of our number became seriously ill on the way back. He had to be left behind in the care of one of the teachers. Some things are perhaps better allowed to slip from the memory.  [Dick Bozeat recollected this visit in his 2015 talk]

[Staff in this group appear to be Peter Askem, Michael Ades, Lionel Hart and Dick Bozeat]

After school I went to Cambridge – not the University.  But the City Library at the back of the Guildhall. And I had used a library – the one here at Soham. Once they realised I could not plane I was switched to history and English; we studied Hamlet and in the school library there was a wonderful two-volume analysis – of which one volume was missing. But it was enough to scrape through.

On the first week at Cambridge I arrived early and explored. I discovered a cupboard. It was piled from floor to ceiling with books. They had been collected for over a century but had never been sorted.


As I searched the shelves I discovered Granddad’s book.

He was a very clever man, he could catch every mole in a farmer’s field, but would not do so – because then he’d be out of work.

But he had a book – a book that brought the past to life for him, a History of the Fens by James Wentworth Day.
There was also a history of my village written by a former vicar that had been revised in the 1950s by the teacher who took me through primary school – and typed up by the Isle of Ely County Library, for in those days typewriters were state of the art.

 I borrowed a typewriter from an upstairs office (and forgot to return it).

For a decade I worked through all those books, cataloguing and recording what each had to tell.

And I shared it with people who had forgotten that the collection existed – it had disappeared from public view just after WWII.


It was not just books – there were newspapers dating back to the 1700s.

Hundreds of pictures – engravings. 


And postcards – including one that I found I also had at home. It dated from the time I’d visited an Auntie in Holbeach.

I had looked at it and noticed it was out of date at the time I’d received it.

Unknown to me I had been collecting Cambridgeshire material since 1949 – eight decades ago.





There were maps of the Fens before the Fens were drained with the islands on which Manea, Chatteris and Stretham stood. I attended a WEA class at Haddenham on the 'Drainage of the Fens.' That is a dangerous thing to do. I met my future, and present wife.

And I also met the tutor, a don from Sidney Sussex College. He was a very good teacher – he appeared not to be aware of information about the Fens that I discovered as I plodded through those thousands of forgotten books.

So we brought the class from Haddenham to Cambridge Library and spent an evening indexing newspapers. It started an idea and by 1974 we had recorded the news for every village in Cambridgeshire, 1770-1899.


One important discovery was that Soham had been nearly obliterated in 1944 when that ammunition train exploded.

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 One of the men who ran when he heard the blast was Walter Martin Lane1 of Ely.
Like Bridges, Gimbert and Nightall he ran towards the scene with his camera to record unique shots of the devastation.

Three years later in 1947 he did the same thing, this time to record the devastation of the 1947 floods around Haddenham when over 100 miles of fertile fenland disappeared under water. mjp-floods-house.jpg

Homes had been swept away. I was around then – but I’d heard nothing about it. Now I’ve talked about it for over 40 years.

The pictures had been displayed at the time to raise money – now I show them to raise awareness.

Because Walter passed the pictures to the Cambridgeshire Collection for safe keeping. It made a good story for the Cambridge News and was picked up by BBC local tv who sent down a camera crew to interview him.
We put the pictures on display at Cambridge Guildhall at an exhibition opened by the Mayor – who praised the City Librarian who’d arranged it – I’d caught him in those few minutes between his return from a liquid lunch and the red light going on above his office door to show he was in a Meeting and he found £30 to pay for the printing of photos.

Other displays followed, increasing public awareness of just what was hidden in that back room.

Plans had been drawn up for a new Cambridge Central Library. That library finally opened in 1975 – just after local government reorganisation had transferred responsibility for libraries from the City to the newly-enlarged County Council.

When draft plans had been drawn up in 1963 there had been no mention of the words ‘Cambridgeshire Collection’.

When the building finally opened in 1975 there was a suite of two rooms where for the first time people could see something of the range of material that belongs to us.

It is was recognised as a major education resource - English Heritage funded a Homerton College video showing trainee teachers how to use libraries to discover material about their local heritage.

It is a lesson that has been forgotten.



There was a teaching area for class visits.


Anglia Polytechnic University endorsed its value with the award of an Honorary Fellowship. mjp-anglia.jpg


And the Open University launched their project to share some of the excellent dissertations compiled by their students on disk.

For of course technology was advancing – Pye presented audio copying equipment and we acquired computers – the first from the Cambridge News.

Indeed in the 1990s our readers had more access to technology than they do today.

Computers supplemented the detailed catalogues and indexes that had – almost magically – appeared in the intervening decade – of books, illustrations, newspaper stories, even to actors appearing in Victorian playbills.



Over the next 25 years some 1,000 people made use of it every month; some studying buses, some drainage, some poetry, some ghosts.

Not just youngsters – one familiar face was the fondly-remembered RAT, pursuing his interest in his home village.



We spread the word through talks, books and articles, broadcasts on the new BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, resulting in the award of the profession’s highest accolade. It was a very stimulating and rewarding period.

But things change. When I left the library in 1996 I took as my leaving present a trip in a hot air balloon – it would remind me of all those ‘Management’ meetings.

For ‘Management’ were planning changes I could not endorse, and neither could I stop.

I do not need to talk more of the Cambridgeshire Collection for Chris Jakes has already entertained you with his own memories.

He came straight out of Soham Grammar School to make that journey daily down the A10 – though he had to come from Prickwillow first!


And he has gone on to receive the Dorothy McCulla award. Dorothy was local studies librarian at Birmingham who called a meeting to establish a Local Studies Group within the Library Association in the 1970s. We were concerned that this aspect of our profession was being ignored.1

We gave evidence to the Blake Commission – one of those Government enquiries that itself has been forgotten.
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Birmingham Library has probably the finest collection of local material and had a good number of staff.

Now it has virtually unmanned. It is something that has been repeated across the country.

As part of my leaving package I hired an office on the Management corridor and I continued to visit right up to the end. On the final occasion I was reading newspapers when the power failed and the entire building plunged into darkness. That was the time to walk out.

For within months of my leaving the Collection I had established on the third floor was literally torn apart including the teaching area where school parties would come and talk. The office with its porthole through which I could chat to readers was sledge-hammered down.

 The Collection reopened on a different floor with less space for users,  but an expensive state-of-the-art, fire and air-conditioned store room to ensure the material would take longer to crumble away.

However the pressure on books is by people reading them, so ‘Management’ removed the card catalogues that listed what there.

They have been replaced with a computerised version that needs a degree to use and omits much of the information.  Of course that computerised catalogue is available to researchers around the world – it is gratifying to know my hours of work have not been wasted. But people visiting the collection also have to go on line to discover what it stored away on the floor below. However Chris to his credit has managed to stop them burning those cards so one day we may once more be more easily able to discover what was acquired between 1855 and 2000.

 Then Cambridge Central Library was redesigned once more and just as in the 1960s the new plans had no mention of the Cambridgeshire Collection.

Yet when Princess Anne finally reopened it again years later – thanks to more Management bungling – the Collection was back where it started in the 70s, though in much smaller space and with even fewer staff – now just Chris and a small team of part-time helpers.

As for me I took that balloon trip, paid a visit to the University Senate House to collect an Honorary Degree – for Cambridge University geographers appreciated just what a resource the Collection represented


 -  and had a trip down to the Palace where I shared a few words with Prince Charles – standing in for the Queen at the Investiture, about working with a young Prince Edward on that ‘Crown and Country’ programme about the Fens during which he visited the home of one of those who had been flooded out and filmed his story – which was marvellous for the family. mjp-prince-edward.jpg

Of course 1997 was the 40th anniversary of those floods so there were other tv and radio programmes and lots of talks. That was one of the concessions Management had made – I could have copies of pictures I used in my lectures and there were an awful lot of talks. I taught WEA and Madingley Hall classes – including Outwell where one of the group went on to take a Cambridge University Diploma in Local History – but not Haddenham.

Often I will speak to about four groups a week, some Academic – like this afternoon, others to people with severe learning disabilities, to the blind, the disadvantaged, to the National Trust but mainly just ordinary local folk whose families have shaped this county. Each week, October to May for the last ten years we’ve held ‘Fenland History on Friday’ meetings at Ely. Sometimes the speakers are Emeritus Professors, other times folk giving their first public presentation. Why not you?

I compiled various books mostly in association with the Cambridge News with whom we always worked closely – any pre-war picture you see in the News probably came from the Collection and I can guide researchers to any of the photos the News itself has taken since the 1960s.


And I wrote newspapers articles for the last 30 years. Throughout the noughties it was seven articles every week.  They detailed the engravers and photographers of whose work is housed in the Collection, promoted new publications being compiled by local researchers  and – most important – gave a platform for other people to share their memories or seek information – granddad never recorded his memories but scores of other people have shared theirs through my column – something often recalled at their funerals.

You may never have read them. But I’ve put them on your computer so they will be there when you – or your grandchildren discover them.


Within the last decade there has been a revolution – so much material is now available online, including files of Cambridgeshire newspapers and – via the University Library I have on my laptop every book published in English from 1470 to 1700 – including scores of drainage reports.

It is something depicted in this Matt cartoon – and this is the library [pointing at an iPad]:


No – this is a library – a place where people come together to seek and to share information:


In the olden days people would come up to the library desk and ask for help. There might be nothing written on their topic but so often, sitting in the room, there would be somebody researching that topic – libraries don’t just put people in touch with information, they put them in touch with people.

So many people are beavering away in front of the computer screen producing books of great merit only to find book shops won’t stock them. Nobody knows they are there – unless the Collection tracks them down.

Chris produces lists of new publications that are then assessed by the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History. And I have the privilege of presenting awards – to individuals, groups and to schools.

Many youngsters are researching the Great War to learn something of its impact on their community. There are now very few people who remember. But who remembers that BBC Radio Cambridgeshire produced a detailed series of programmes in which they records the memories of people who have now faded away. And who remembers that those tapes were presented to the Collection for safe keeping.

This week I attended a gathering of the great and the good – the Mayor, the Lord Lieutenant, even the Queen (albeit Elizabeth I, not II). It was at Great St Mary’s to celebrate the opening of a new exhibition looking at the history of the city that features research by local schoolchildren. Amongst all the thanks and acknowledgements, there was no mention of the Cambridgeshire Collection.


There is an illustrated guide to the books, newspapers, maps, pictures, posters, tape recordings and the rest online. But it’s on my website, not the County Council’s.


Eight decades on the Collection is once more hidden away largely (un)appreciated. In 1985 I published a paper in the professional journal ‘Library Management’ in which I described it as an ‘Albatross Inheritance’. It is the world’s finest collection of printed material on Cambridge, its county and the fens. It has been collected for 160 years, has been acknowledged in scores of books and hundreds of projects. But it would be easier if it were not there.

Following Czechoslovakia I went abroad another time, this time to Sardinia at the invitation of Italian Librarians where I spoke at a conference entitled ‘La Memoria Lunga’. I did not speak Italian but my words were translated by one of our users, a man who himself was the subject of a book – he had been one of the agents dropped into Occupied Europe during the war.

I concluded by saying that unless we took more pride in our heritage within a few years it would be only La Memoria Lunga – only the memory would linger.

Now there are plans to remove the Cambridgeshire Collection from its home in Cambridge Library and relocate it to a tin shed beside Tesco petrol station in Ely.
It would be handier for Chris – almost on his doorstep, only by then of course he would be hoping for the opportunity to pursue his interests as I have done – funded monthly by those generous pension payments you’ve made for nearly two decades.

But the plans were been leaked and have provoked tremendous protest from around the county with the Cambridge MP recalling the importance of the Collection in his own career.

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This resource collected by the people of Cambridge for the last 160 years should stay where it was born – in Cambridge’s public library where even Soham schoolboys can use it as of right, with no formalities and sit, side by side with undergraduates, parents and grandparents.

There they will find material relating to that remarkable institution that once paraded through the streets of Soham as it marched into history. Its Grammer School.


6th Form Revue at Old Boy's Dinner

Andrew Cullum SG58  writes, 22 Oct 15: Mike Petty mentioned the 6th Form Revue when they appeared at the Old Boys' Dinner - I remember it well.  I think Dave Bloomfield was the instigator/producer.  I remember we did a sketch taking off staff making announcements after assembly. 

I remember I was Dennis Clark [Biology] complaining I am very displeased because someone has removed my special gas jar that I keep for my own private purpose.  We all knew what that was for as he never left the Bio lab from morn till night. 

Then there was Ned Sherrington giving out Civil Defence advice -  Don't forget boys Y-fronts prevent fall out!  There was lots of banter about Scouts and the Cadet Corps too came in for jokes.

I remember there were about six of us doing these sketches and Ed Armitage had promised us a chicken dinner, but booked numbers were strictly limited so we lost out.  The parting shot came from one of us who finished the sketch by pointing at Ed and saying: Hey you down there with the Beatle haircut, you promised us a chicken dinner but all we got was damn cheese rolls!

We thought perhaps we had crossed the boundaries of respect for the Head and spent the half term worrying about it but on the first day back he praised us for ad libbing in true TWTWTW style.

1 Walter Martin Lane: Beth Lane (née Theobald) tells the editor that Walter was a Fordham lad. He did not go to SGS, but his sons Brian (Beth's husband) and Russell did, also his nephews Rex and Roger.
2 [editor] According to the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals' website, Mike Petty received this award in 1993.

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