Breweries, Bottles and Beer

The personal story behind the Museum’s most recent exhibition

I have been asked to write a piece on what inspired me to put together my small exhibition on the Cambridge drinks industry. Well, it’s not as if I’m much of a beer drinker or have any particular interest in brewing, so why has this now vanished local industry occupied me, on and off, for most of my life? That is something, when I thought about it, I don’t have any ready answer to.

I grew up in Cambridge in the 1950’s when the last of the breweries were still operating and one of my childhood memories is of the stale smell of the breweries near us on boil up day. It would lay over our part of the town like an invisible smog, so thick you could taste it and I never could decide if I liked it or not.

Couple that with the streets around our house being full of pubs that had flourished around and because of the breweries, some so dodgy that my mother would cross us over the road rather than walk by them, it all made a lasting impression on my young self.

Later, in my adolescence and much to the annoyance of my tidy mother I started to become a collector, not of anything in particular, but just so long as it was interesting and free, whatever it was, it would do. Fossils, old postcards, clay pipes, pottery and bottles. Much of this came from the rubble of the redevelopment blitz in the 50’s and 60’s, carried out on large swathes of the town, which, as long as it didn’t belong to the university, was, as is now, fair game for the developers.

The bottles were of particular interest because many of the Victorian and Edwardian beer bottles, ginger beer bottles and aeriated water bottles with complicated glasswork and marbles inside bore the names of Cambridge companies, links to the ghosts of an industry whose remains are still scattered around the town.

Vestiges of this past are everywhere if you have an eye. Broken Victorian glass bottles from a local aeriated water company embedded in the top of a graveyard wall. Clay pipes, stamped with local makers and pub names laying in piles of earth dug up from city centre road works. Repurposed brewery buildings, now shops, bars and offices. Out of place, industrial double doors in the middle of rows of Victorian terrace houses.

Cambridge has a rich past which is not just the university, as is now the common conception, but of a busy thriving town with its own interesting history. This is one often sadly overlooked.

I have long had my eye on the museum’s collection of bottles and bits that we keep in the bar, with a germ of an idea that it had potential. So, finding a gap in the programming of exhibitions in the Community Cabinet I have grabbed my chance to try and shed some light on a not insignificant but near forgotten part of our town’s history.

This post was writeen by John, a volunteer at the Museum of Cambridge.

Breweries, Bottles and Beer