A look back at Victorian life with The Cambridge

3 May 2018 • Our Insights

Imagine 19th century Victorian England and that Cambridge is a growing market town in a semi-rural region which until the railway network connected it to London in 1845, relied on the river and waterways for its significant transportation needs. It’s a picture book image of days long gone and a country mile from the city life we know today as we take a look back in time.

Despite the industrial revolution, Cambridgeshire remained predominately agricultural due to its easterly location and fertile soil but it did benefit from the arrival of improved tools and early machinery which lightened the manual load in farming. Land-workers made up the largest employment sector and produce sent to London and Manchester markets included grain, vegetables, fruit, and meat from livestock.

The University of Cambridge is on the map; established and growing in size and reputation, but female students didn’t arrive on campus until 1869 when Emily Davies founded Girton College, the first for women.

Home ownership, a reserve for the wealthy, meant the lower classes and artisans were likely to rent their accommodation (a room or two) for the equivalent of 27 pence a week, while others lived-in if working in service. Many land-workers gained homes from lower rent tied cottages, helping to secure a workforce for wealthy landowners.

Dickens and other writers of the time, help us to visualise Victorian wealth and hardship alike. But how does the cost of living then compare with today? An average wage for unskilled labour, for a regular working week of 60 hours was as low as 75 pence (in today’s money) whereas now we have the National Living Wage (25+) set at £7.83 per hour, with a working week of 40 hours being more widely accepted as the norm. Professionals of the time enjoyed annual incomes reaching hundreds of pounds and today an experienced Lawyer in Cambridge can earn £80,000. Unremarkably, the cost of living was low in comparison to now, with a dozen eggs costing five new pence whereas today you can pay £1.75. The Times newspaper costs two new pence and today you pay £1.60. A man’s suit would be £1.12 ½ and today you can buy a High Street suit for £79.

Inevitably as towns grew up houses were built and the arrival of public houses willingly followed, becoming a central social hub. Happily you could buy a pint of beer in the local for the reasonable sum of 3½ old pence and now you can expect to pay £4.50. Like today, there was a resurgence of gin consumption in the Victorian age but back then it was a drink of choice for ‘the poor’ and a welcome boost in sales for landlords. Gin was once described as ‘‘highly destructive liquor” which led to its prohibition in the 1700s.

As the need for homes grew rapidly, the humble beginnings of the first building societies arrived in Cambridgeshire mid-century. The Cambridge Permanent Benefit Society was established in 1850 and flourished over a number of years as it met local demand by issuing shares to fund mortgages. House prices were very attractive by today’s standards. A small house (2 up, 2 down) in Cambridge sold for the modest sum of £90 (1870); whereas now, Rightmove list Victorian terraced houses from £400k! But reassuringly The Cambridge Building Society remains equally committed to a largely similar business model today (minus the ballot system selection for mortgages).

The Cambridge took permanent offices in  Post Office Terrace in 1884 and remained there until 1967 when it set its sights on new premises at 32 St Andrew’s Street, a stone’s throw from its Victorian roots. This new building had bragging rights that included a large modern space for the customer of the time. By comparison the 1960’s was a decade described as ‘a period that changed a nation’, with the slump of the post-war years gone. The next chapter in The Cambridge’s history was in the making.

Fast-forward 134 years and the Society has gone full circle as they’re back on the same Victorian block in time for spring. The new Central Cambridge store continues their financial story, holding on to its values and purpose but using the best of technology to meet the challenges of mortgages in the modern-day housing market. They continue to find solutions for members by moving with the times as they have done since 1850.

Image credit: Cambridge Collection