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04 May 2017

Happy Birthday - You Don’t Look a Day Over 400!

Alice Tranah, Bookseller at the Cambridge University Press Bookshop, writes about the history of the Cambridge Institutions of Press and Bookshop.

This May, the Cambridge University Press Bookshop team are in the throes of celebrating our 25th Birthday, so I thought I’d use my spot this month to put on my historian’s hat and write a bit about the history of the Cambridge Institutions of Press and Bookshop.

As you may have noticed, we have been Cambridge University Press Bookshop now for a quarter of a century, but the shop itself has been around for a great deal longer and selling books all the while; since 1581, in fact. According to the records investigated by George J. Gray in his 1925 lecture “Cambridge Bookselling and the Oldest Bookshop in the United Kingdom” (published by Bowes and Bowes in 1925) the shop was selling books even as early as 1508, but unfortunately this is not provable. Our first recorded bookseller is William Scarlett (yup, like the one in Robin Hood), who held this shop from 1581 to 1588.  The great thing is that it’s been all about the books here since books themselves were pretty embryonic, and this is something that it feels lovely to be part of. Sitting here in the shop today and listening to the floorboards creaking away, it is comforting to know how they creaked for generations of similarly sat booksellers before me.

Let’s do a bit of history. The first book to be printed in Cambridge, Henrici Bulloci Orato, was produced in around 1521 by John Siberch at the The King’s Arms (Arma Regia) house in what is now Caius Tree Court between the Gate of Humility and the Gate of Virtue. (You can find out loads more about these early printers in A History of the Cambridge University Press, 1521-1921 by S.C. Roberts, and in David McKittterick and Michael Black’s Press histories, available at our shop.) 

Cambridge University Press itself was born soon afterwards in 1534 with the economically-named Thomas Thomas as its printer. He was based just over the road on what was Regent Walk and is now Senate House Lawn, in an area where the ever-popular book devices were being sold by enterprising folk, first in manuscript form, and later as printed documents often made on site.

The humble nature of the Press in a small workshop in the centre of town continued really for about 100 years, gradually expanding out to a Friary near Free School Lane, a printing house on the corner of Queen’s Lane and Silver Street in 1655, a warehouse and foundry, and, in 1833 the Pitt Building, which now covers the island within Silver Street, Mill Lane, Trumpington Street, and Laundress Lane.

Over this time the University Printers were often acting as subcontractors for larger publishers, most famously for the Macmillan house which dominated University publishing in the nineteenth century. In 1846, 1 Trinity Street itself was purchased by Daniel and Alexander Macmillan for £6000 after the death of its previous proprietor, Thomas Stevenson; bookseller, Alderman, and Mayor of Cambridge. The Macmillans employed their nephew Robert Bowes as an apprentice. He would later become partner and eventually take on the premises.

It was at this time though that the diversity of the material published by the CUP began to grow to a point where it was becoming the printer of exclusively its own publications, led by books for schools, Bibles, scientific texts by University figures, and annotated undergraduate textbooks.

Another, less delightful, anniversary this May

It was after Robert Bowes became a partner in the shop that one of the most striking events took place in the city, featuring in prime position Macmillan and Bowes. This was the occasion on which members of the University decided just how far they were willing to go when it came to the rights of women scholars. Although able to study at the Colleges of Newnham and Girton, women were unable to have BA degrees conferred upon them as “proof” of this education. Unsurprisingly perhaps the younger generation of “gentleman” scholars objected strongly to such an outrage on the grounds that it would be a grave insult to the men who would immediately defect to Oxford in protest. It’s not entirely clear what they were going on about, but suffice it to say, there was a great deal of agitation and misogyny and general rumpus in the town and the measured response of the pro-women’s BA camp was as naught in the face of panicking male scholars. It was during the votes on this on 21st May 1897 that one of the more evocative photographs of the shop was taken, featuring at its centre the effigy of a female student on a bicycle hanging from the windows above the front doors and surrounded by banners of misappropriated Shakespeare quotations and hundreds of protesting students. It was all vividly described in the newspaper reports of the day, the majority of which scorned the protesters and their efforts:

“Prudishly perched upon a window-ledge of Caius College was the lay figure of a lady, her get up the epitome of all that the undergraduate says that he abhors in woman – goggles, red nose, sharp vinegary features, leering eyes, and blue stockings. She had a sister over the way, smiling a hideous smile and seated upon a bicycles in blue bloomers. The sister and her bicycle were suspended above the pavement with more regard for the ludicrous effect than for the safety of the pedestrians.” PAL MALL GAZETTE

Furthermore many of the papers also note, presciently, that it was shows of this kind by the “gentlemen” of Cambridge that demonstrated just how much the University needed to modernise, although it would take another 50 years to happen:

“whilst bonfire are blazing on Market Hill, and the word ‘saved’ is flaming up in gigantic letters out the front of Caius, I cannot help wondering if this will all help Cambridge. The woman BA at her worst would never be more puerile that the man BA whilst I have not heard that Newnham and Girton have hitherto distinguished themselves as the heroes distinguished themselves today!” DAILY CHRONICLE

“One of the most surprising things about the polling to me is that the old fogies, as they are called, were much more liberal than the younger University members, who were extraordinarily active and zealous in voting and in procuring votes against any change. Personally, I think this is the aspect of the contest that is really more serious than any other” SHEFFIELD INDEPENDENT

If you’d like to read more about this, I recommend Rita McWilliams Tullberg’s book Women at Cambridge, which covers the whole sorry tale of academic prejudice and politics in the nineteenth and twentieth century journey towards women finally getting a formal degree.

Moving on from such controversy and ridiculous behaviour, we enter the twentieth century and the while the shop was going through various incarnations and dealing with its various ghosts (more of whom later), Cambridge University Press was busy growing its catalogue with works by physicists such as James Clerk Maxwell and Edward Rutherford, through to the first in our ambitious historical series, Lord Acton’s Cambridge Modern History (1902) and early editions of the now-indispensable Cambridge School Shakespeare series.

In 1956 it began the publication of Joseph Needham’s momentous Science and Civilisation in China which is still much sought after today. In the 1960s and 70s the output of Cambridge University Press expanded to English Language Teaching, with a catalogue that is trusted and used the world over and includes the indispensable English Grammar in Use by Raymond Murphy, now in its fourth edition.

The shop remained Bowes and Bowes until 1986 when it transmogrified into Sherratt & Hughes and became a ghost spotters’ haunt (ha ha) with tales of a white lady or girl with long fair hair and a scent of violets who walks silently down the aisles and up the stairs, and a man in Victorian evening dress (a lady BA and protesting scholar, I reckon!). I’ve never spotted them myself, more’s the pity.

In 1992 the great day arrived when CUP opened its own special showroom and bookshop in Cambridge and we are all very glad that they did! 

Since then there have been a lot of changes in the world of publishing, with the development of e-books, open access, and online publishing. We have been through some changes too (although there is one member of staff here who was at work on that opening day – I won’t tell you who they are; you can guess!) and are still going strong, showcasing around 50,000 different titles in the shop and able to get hold of a huge backlist of print on demand editions which get those hard-to-find books right to the people who want to read them all over the world. We also grew a little in 2008 when we expanded round the corner into 27 Market Hill to bring more Education and English Language Teaching material to the people. 

We are proud to continue the fine old tradition of selling books here and contributing our bit to the fine history of 1 Trinity Street. Call in to the shop over May and see how we are celebrating – we’ve got some good stuff planned! 

For more news from the Cambridge University Press Bookshop, please follow their TwitterFacebook and Instagram pages. 

Public Relations Manager
Tel: +44 (0)1223 326194



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