Looking through the archives - a brief history of The Cambridge

19 April 2018 • Corporate

The Cambridge uncovers its archives in the run up to the launch of its new city centre store - a location the Society called home 134 years ago.

Anyone interested in social history can’t help but be fascinated by the humble beginnings of building societies which developed through a need for housing in 18th century England. What followed was a financial journey of start-ups and failures with newly formed Societies popping up, primarily in northern industrial towns with The Cambridge emerging in late Victorian England.

The early societies had purpose and an end date (known as terminating societies), so while being innovative for the time, their mission was short-term. Dr Arthur Scratchley, a graduate at Queens’ College, Cambridge changed this through his enlightened vision on lending and initiated the permanent building society concept which we all know today. That was 1845. Building Societies owe much to Dr Scratchley, author of A Treatise on Benefit Building Societies - who was described as an “outstanding actuary” of the time. While remaining in Cambridge Dr Scratchley, later a Fellow and Sadlerian lecturer, was not a board member, but he did have a close association with the Society which undoubtedly benefitted from his expertise.

Moving on to 19th January 1847 The Cambridge Permanent Benefit Society held its first meeting in the Town Hall on Magdalene Street, with the original purpose to make every man “his own landlord”. The Mayor, a brewer by profession, opened the meeting with a long speech, sharing his delight in that 100 of the 500 shares had sold in advance. A branch in St Neots soon followed (with its own board) and equally sold 70 shares in advance.

Like today, collectively, the executive board provided a range of expertise, offered up by business men of the area and quite independent of any political affiliation. Board membership was highly sought after, even though it was unpaid. Meetings were all-important, and strict financial penalties were handed out for late arrivals, no shows, forgetting a key and other misdeeds; today’s practice of sending one’s apologies was simply unacceptable.

The Cambridge effect is not to be underestimated. Whilst back in the day the town was slow out of the blocks with the ‘Building Society crowd’, ironically, its geographic position in East Anglia and association with a prospering University aided its growth and stability. As the University grew in reputation attracting academics and students alike it generated a workforce requirement to meet this expansion.  Many connected to the University lived in houses on the De Freville Estate with mortgages financed at preferential rates from The Cambridge in a joint arrangement with the University who subsidised part of the loan. By association, close links with the University remained and The Cambridge benefitted from academic skills and knowledge – something that continues today.

In the liberation of permanent building societies The Cambridge is a good example of the ‘survival of the fittest’, as 168 years later, we are still in the city and around the county. Its longevity is attributed to a number of factors and some good fortune played its part too.

It’s particularly pleasing their connection to Queens’ Cambridge continues today as their Chairman, Jonathan Spence is Senior Bursar at the College, bringing his valued expertise to the executive board which in turn benefits the membership.