All posts by Tamsin Wimhurst

Tours of the House

The house is now closed to tours as we undertake conservation work to the interior,  before  opening to the public in 2019.

If you would like to keep in touch with the project (including hearing about open days we’ll be putting on during the conservation phase), volunteer, or put your name down on our waiting list for tours when we reopen, please e-mail


Haircuts, Collars & Colours

Transcribing the Diaries & notebooks of FR Leach

“The best furnishings are at All Saints: stained glass and exceptionally rich all-over painted decoration by the William Morris firm and its local follower, Frederick Leach.” [Pevsner’s Cambridge]

David Parr worked for Frederick Leach’s Cambridge firm of master decorators and, as can be seen in the David Parr House, must have been heavily influenced by the methods and style of his employer – enough to take his day job home with him and apply his skills to the fabric of his own house.

Having offered some time to Tamsin at the David Parr House, she put me in contact with Shelley Lockwood who has access to a collection of handwritten diaries and notebooks which she needed to be transcribed in order to gain insight into the working practices of the FR Leach firm. Having been taken on a tour of the David Parr House by Shelley, I felt keen and ready to begin the task ahead: reading scans of the documents and transcribing them into a typed and accessible format. I must confess that I was a little naïve about the magnitude and complexity of the task…

The diaries document the day to day tasks and expenses of a man travelling locally and further afield, gaining experience and knowledge of his craft, managing his workers, meeting clients as well as meeting and assisting such craftsmen of the time as William Morris. Both Jesus College and All Saints Church show evidence of the hand of Fred and his team under the tutelage and supervision of Morris. When you visit just these two local examples of the work, you encounter the breathtaking beauty of hand painted wall decoration, realised through great perseverance and skill.

I think it is the juxtaposition of such achievements with the daily records presented in the diaries and notebooks that makes the task of transcribing challenging. I want to discover the creative process behind the decorative works but the documents are more complex – a record of a working life – so Fred has his haircut, buys new collars, purchases daily provisions including “Beer for men” as well as writing “Colors (sic) used B Umber Green Chrome Blue Vert B Sienna”; he then writes daily when he is away to his wife Mary Ann, friends and clients and you realise that he is communicating with William Morris but it is just slipped into the daily record:
Rec’d cheque 39.12.0 Morris sent rect to Dº & wrote to ma 2£ cheque

There have been times when I have called upon Shelley’s knowledge and experience to assist me – we meet on a regular basis to discuss what I have completed – in particular a moment when I could proceed no further as Fred had started a new system in 1867…I envisage he did this as a way of making a to-do list and crossing out items that were completed; for me that meant his hard to read pencil handwriting became illegible as he quite emphatically crossed through each item. Shelley’s calm manner pointed me to the legible letters and encouraged me to build on those to make sense of the words and phrases. I have to confess there are still some question marks where I haven’t quite understood!

The best moment for me so far was discovering in the 1867 Notebook Fred’s sketch of the Fairford Angel in a church in Gloucestershire which he executed on one of his many trips around the country. This is shown below alongside a photo of the original wall painting where you can see his skill in celebrating the original by representing the figure in a vivid and naturalistic way.
I look forward to more occasions like this when the extraordinary leaps off the page hidden within ordinary lists, facts and figures.
Julie Stephenson

FR Leach’s sketch, 1867 Notebook.
FR Leach’s sketch, 1867 Notebook.
Angel wall painting, St Mary’s Church, Fairford, Glos
Angel wall painting, St Mary’s Church, Fairford, Glos

So much more than dusting!

How CAMdfas volunteers are helping to record the contents of the David Parr House


It all began back in the Autumn of 2014 when Audrey took a tour of the David Parr House which was included in the Curating Cambridge event.  Audrey told our group of what she had seen and we (the CAMdfas Dusting Divas) decided to offer our services for any aspect of the project which would prove useful.

The timing was also right for the group as we were in the final stages of our latest project.  We had already dusted and checked ancient books in two Cambridge University libraries and we all felt the David Parr House project offered a different challenge.  It was an opportunity to be involved in a very interesting venture from its beginnings.  We hoped it would bring new experiences and we would learn more about local and social history through finding out about the house, its contents and the people who had lived there.

It was a warm and bright spring afternoon when Tamsin welcomed us for a discussion and our first look at the David Parr House.  How dark it seemed after the bright sunlight outside but as our eyes adjusted, we found it hard to take in our surroundings.  We all knew this type of terraced house but the décor was far beyond our imagination.  What to look at first?!  What we thought was heavily patterned wallpaper in the William Morris style, turned out not to be wallpaper at all, but skilful hand painting.  Wood panelling and stained glass were in the hallway.  The furniture, pictures, etc. were all of a bygone age.  The more we saw of the house and the more Tamsin told us of its history, the more eager we became to play a part in its preservation.  Would we be up to the challenge?  Our experience of book dusting and noting bookworm had not prepared us in any way but we were keen to learn new skills and be part of this project.

In July 2015 work started at the house in earnest with learning the cataloguing protocol, practising with the camera and light box and light dusting.  We began upstairs in the back bedroom.  A decision was made not to catalogue the large items of furniture or the wall and floor treatments.  This simplified things slightly but it was not a simple job.  Space is very limited.  Many points needed to be discussed and agreed before pencil went to paper in the practice cataloguing book.

To our horror, nothing seemed easy.  Even erecting the light tent proved beyond our capabilities at first!  We worried constantly that we were not cataloguing items correctly and our photographic skills were not too good either.  The only part we excelled in was the light dusting.  However, practice makes perfect (or so we hoped) and, as time went on, we grew in confidence, each taking a role we were comfortable with: Wendy was our leader, Diane was very organised and had the neatest hand-writing, Sue was good with the camera, Audrey was a whizz with the fiddly numbering system and Pam was an all-rounder.   But what a time it was taking us!  A whole morning could be spent on recording the contents of a box or drawer.  What was the best way to photograph a handkerchief?  By itself or in the drawer in which we found it?  Such decisions!  Exclamations of “Do you remember this?” and “Ooh look at that!” were constant.  Newspapers recording events such as the Queen’s coronation in 1953, old paper bags from Cambridge stores which are no longer in business, hand embroidered tablecloths – we are never certain of what we are going to find.  A jigsaw puzzle had to be completed so we could photograph and record it.  Luckily it consisted of only a few pieces but we are still in dread of finding a 1,000 piece one!

We met every Thursday morning from July to December from 10:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.  There are no facilities at the house so we took advantage of the café opposite (Hot Numbers) for a coffee and comfort break.  The unusually mild autumn meant we could continue much further into the cold months than originally anticipated.  This enabled us to complete work in the back bedroom and to start work in the front bedroom.   The back bedroom had been characterised by lots of small objects in boxes and drawers, the front bedroom was a change of items as well as setting – a cupboard full of paper ephemera, newspaper cuttings, special birthday cards and drawers of needlework and textiles.


By mid-December it really was too cold to stay in the house any longer and so a new phase began – being trained to input the data we had recorded onto a catalogue database called Modes.   We took it in turns to practice entering records.  Our efforts were displayed on a large screen.  This was a great help as what one of us had forgotten, another had remembered.  Little by little, facts fell into place.  We did not claim to be computer experts but we felt confident in using a computer.  That was until we were faced with a laptop with a built-in mouse pad which seemed alien after our own home computers.  Shelley’s patience never wore thin and with her encouragement we began to make headway.


In the early months of 2016 we continued to meet at Shelley’s warm house and, sustained by her delicious coffee, we began a further stage in our volunteering work – research.   Boxes of items salvaged from Frederick Leach’s City Road workshops required emptying, and the contents needed cleaning and recording.  Brushing off years of dust, we uncovered numerous tins and jars containing varnish and paint, a wealth of ‘tools of the trade’ many bearing the names or initials of their owners which gave them a special significance.  There were pieces of jewelled-coloured stained glass, carved wood, books and journals.  Many of the items left us guessing as to where they came from and what their use could have been.  Hopefully, our research would provide a few answers.   We found a watercolour of battleships in a bay at sunset or sunrise (we weren’t certain) but it had the artist’s name and was dated 1915, there was a wooden box containing a jointed wooden figure wearing a cloth apron together with a small painted wooden table (a mechanical toy, may be), then there was a beautiful gilded wooden cherub head with wings which had ‘left bottom’ written on the reverse side.  Where did that come from?  Our research is only just starting but we look forward, with the help of Google and Grace’s Guide,  to unveiling a few mysteries.


The David Parr House reopens for tours in April when it is warmer and so we shall also return to the house then to continue the recording.

Wendy, Audrey, Diane, Sue and Pam aka The Dusting Divas

I would like to take this opportunity to thank our wonderful volunteers for the time and effort they have spent on helping us at the David Parr House this year. They have tackled numerous tasks, often in difficult conditions, with unfailing good humour and enthusiasm. Their commitment and willingness to getting stuck in has made my job as volunteer co-ordinator so much easier and more fun. Thank you! Shelley Lockwood

This research series written by Natalie Baerselman le Gros will explore the David Parr House in its journey from private space to public institution. In doing so we allow a rare insight into the various considerations and contemplations of this fledgling space including matters of conservation, the presentation of various histories and methods of public dissemination. 

Presenting the House Museum

The phenomenon of the house museum relies on the spaces’ role as a home. However, one house is rarely home to only one person or peoples before it is made public. Many of our great national houses are typical of this, having been lived in for centuries before being opened to the public. Locally, for example, the Wimpole Hall site has been inhabited in some manner since Doomsday times. The house we see today was home to numerous families since 1650 until it was donated to the National Trust in 1976 by another Elsie. There are notable exceptions to this for example, another local institution, Kettle’s Yard House, designed for public consumption from the off. The House Museum is a complex space telling multiple stories, following numerous timelines on many overlapping layers. These spaces incubate the lives and memories of the families that inhabit them, they map the history of the property, its renewal of ownership, its evolving footprint, bending to technological development. For the public-making of such a complex space to be successful and comprehensible it is typical for an institution to choose a single significant narrative to represent within the property and to the general public.

Number 186 was the home of David Parr for 40 years, from 1887 to 1927. As you walk through his house you can feel his influence, his fingerprints on every surface, his creativity in every sunlit room. He brought the ornamental style of the grand houses and public buildings that he worked on, to the quaint spaces of this Cambridge terrace. Here he lived with his wife Mary Jane, of whom little is known, until his death in 1927. The house is his life’s work, his catalogue raisonné, evidence of exquisite skill and keen aesthetic sentience. However, the house was also home to David’s granddaughter Elsie, who we know moved into 186 after his death to care for her grandmother. Subsequently the house cradled Elsie’s own family, including her two daughters, for an even greater length of time. Through-out that near century one would expect significant alteration considering the vast changes in fashions and trends throughout that period and the hosting of so many new personalities. However, the house’s artistic significance endures and succeeds the temptations of new bold interior design trends. That is not to say that Elsie and her family are invisible or silent residents in Number 186’s history. Her presence is felt just as keenly throughout the house, not only in its mere existence today but through her own subtle additions. For example: in the dark-toned over painting in the hallway and floral wallpapers in her daughter’s rooms; in more mundane trappings such as modern telephone lines, doorbells and guttering. Also in her belongings: her coat hangs in the hallway, a score sits on the piano, her wedding photo is framed on the wall. These personal touches evoke the activities of everyday life perhaps hanging up her coat as she returns from a visit to the local shops or teaching her children to play the piano.

The melding of these two world’s, David’s and Elsie’s, epitomises the overlapping nature of the House Museum. The significance of the David Parr House, as discussed in a previous blog post, is the product of David’s own creativity. As a result, if its current custodians were to chose a narrative to present to the public, the logical decision would be that of David Parr. However, to make this decision disregards Elsie’s role as protector, caretaker and conservator of her grandfather’s creation. Significance also lies in Elsie’s maintenance of Parr’s spectacular interiors and her adaptation of those spaces as her daily lived environment. Rarely do we see such significant evidence of the lived quality of a house museum, despite that being what separates it from the traditional museum. To return to an earlier example, in the public-making of the Kettle’s Yard house, Helen’s bedroom (Ede’s wife) was closed from public viewing, the only private space in the house. Today its aesthetic has been manipulated to match the rest of the house and thus it has been opened to the public. Therefore, at Kettle’s Yard there is a problematic dichotomy of public and private and thus the imagined functional liveability of the house. The Parr House, in this early public state, is the most honest version of a house museum. We can see how Elsie has been forced to update the space for modern comforts and technological advancement. We can see aesthetic choices she has made as a resident, accommodating her family. Amongst all this we see reverence of the past, conservation of creative marvels, and the protection of family legacy.

Defining the House Museum…

The House Museum is a steadfast feature in the cultural landscape. It forms the backbone of many renowned tourism institutions, such as the National Trust and English Heritage. Although not without exception, the House Museum is often a formerly private residence, posthumously opened to the previously uninvited public for their exploration. In spaces imbued with the actions, events and memories of past inhabitants, these ‘Homes’ (as distinct from ‘Houses’) offer the visitor a view to a way of life, or a certain person’s way of life. This presentation is concerned with the communication of narrative and creating an air of authenticity in order to facilitate a tangible experience of a time gone by, relatable to one’s own existence. Said House is often noteworthy in some manner, perhaps once home to an important figure or the place of some momentous event. This connection lends the House a significance that deems it not only worthy of being made publically accessible and preserved for future generations but also of its partnering with the term ‘Museum’. This significance is often characterised as its ‘Spirit of Place’.

The ‘Spirit of Place’ is a largely woolly term, employed excessively by the likes of the National Trust as exemplary of a property’s significance. Aside from the term forming the first principle in the National Trust’s conservation manifesto, under the umbrella of ‘significance’, it is often applied with little to no definition or explanation. In most instances it serves as a justificatory term that goes little further than to say there is just ‘something about the place’, perhaps an anglicised derivative of ‘Je ne sais quoi’…

The David Parr House differs from what might be considered a ‘typical’ House Museum in that it is not the home of a famous artist, historical character or aristocratic figure. The house is not exemplary of spectacular architecture, bygone or contemporary. Nor is it the site of an important meeting, a scientific discovery or meaningful event. Its uniqueness, its significance, is derived from its normality, its everyday relatable nature. The visitor can revel in the familiarity of this house, it differs little from their own. David Parr was an artist of extraordinary talent yet a man of ordinary nature. His home, no grander than mine or yours, was transformed through his vision into something of a treasure trove. We are used to the grand estates of the National Trust, the enviable acres of English Heritage but the David Parr House is unexpected, a physically manifested juxtaposition between the unassuming outside and the incredible inside. Here-in lies the root of the House’s ‘Spirit of Place’ and the justification for its conservation and protection for present and future generations.

The core fundamental characteristic of the ‘House Museum’ is not made obvious in its title, yet it is one that is similarly fundamental to the David Parr House and which defines its significance. Its most crucial feature lies in another juxtaposition, that is, both the union and opposition of House and Home. This juxtaposition designates the House as a vessel, an object whilst the Home implies inhabitation on a personal level. It is the conveyance of a sense of homeliness that makes a House Museum a success. Jim Ede, the father of Kettle’s Yard, attempted to craft homeliness to promote the appreciation of art in everyday life. Whatever you feel about Ede’s success in this, the David Parr House is undeniably a shining example. 

It is indeed the comforting homely-ness of the David Parr House, its believable live-ability amongst the exquisite decoration, which makes it significant and distinct from the typical House Museum. It is an admirable ideal of what all similar institutions strive for, yet it is exemplary of what is all too often lost in the public-making of a space. However, I believe this home’s enviable raw materials pose a bright future for the David Parr House.

Natalie Baerselman le Gros is a graduate of Central Saint Martins and the University of East Anglia. Her interests lie in the phenomenon and formation of the House Museum and its potential as an exhibitory and communicative space.

Read more by Natalie at or follow @natalielegros on Twitter.





A Gilded Grave

Image credit: Shelley Lockwood
Image credit: Shelley Lockwood

A blustery day found me staggering across uneven ground and stumbling over corner posts that had become dislodged from the stone grave kerbs in St Andrew’s churchyard in Chesterton.  I had gone in search of the grave of Frederick Leach, Cambridge artworkman.  I knew from a photograph taken several years ago by fellow Leach researcher, Robert Halliday, that I was looking for a tallish stone bearing three names: Frederick Richard Leach (1837 – 1904), his wife, Mary Ann Leach, nee Goodenough (1838 – 1909) and their fifth child Walter Perry Leach (1870 – 1934).  I found it after about twenty-five minutes of searching – it would have been quicker if I had been able to resist reading all of every gravestone I saw!

Image credit: Shelley Lockwood
Image credit: Shelley Lockwood

The headstone is decorated with swags and a cherub similar to the carved wooden cherub in the Leach family archive which is attributed to Frederick’s younger brother John McLean Leach (1839 – 1908).  John outlived his brother by four years.  He spent most of his working life at Lichfield cathedral, working for the firm of ecclesiastical sculptors, Robert Bridgeman.  It may well be that John had a hand in designing and carving his brother’s headstone.

Frederick Leach’s firm specialised in the highly ornate interior decoration of churches and civic buildings in the second half of the nineteenth century using colourful stencil work and carved and gilded decorations.  One of the most lavish examples of his gilding work are the 880 cast lead gilded stars on the ceiling of the Old Hall in Queens’ College, Cambridge.  It is now possible to take a virtual tour of this glorious room thanks to Google Streetview.


Among the items salvaged from Leach’s City Road workshops was a beautifully soft gilding brush and a box of gold leaf.

City Road boxes
Image credit: Shelley Lockwood

Completely fanciful, I know, but as I looked back towards Frederick Leach’s final resting place, I couldn’t help but find it entirely appropriate that his was the only headstone which appeared (thanks to a particularly bright orange lichen) to have been gilded.

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Shelley Lockwood

Pencil Tin

DPH Pencil Tin 3

This beautiful ‘pencil tin’ was given to me by Ann, the great-granddaughter of David Parr.  It is made from tin and decorated with a beautiful floral pattern.  It has the initials ‘D D P’ within a brown shield near the bottom …

DPH Pencil Tin 2

… and ‘Pencils’ written within a scroll on the side.

DPH Pencil Tin 1

Both inscriptions are hand-painted with the lettering of the word ‘pencils’ slightly more crudely executed than that of the initials.

When the tin first came into my possession I’d assumed that all the decoration on it had been painted by hand. I’d  jumped to that conclusion without taking a good look at what I was holding, and on closer inspection it was wrong.  In fact the tin had been adapted – the intricate pattern of flowers was a transfer on to which someone had carefully painted the lettering to personalise it.

DPH Pencil Tin 4

This begs the question: which of the D D Parrs did this, senior or junior? Both have the same  initials: David Daniel Parr (senior) and his son David Douglas Parr (junior).  The tin was given to Ann by her uncle, David Douglas, which would suggest that he executed the work.

Whatever the tin’s provenance it is still a beautiful object made more so by the dents and markings from years of handling and use.

Inside the tin … more of that next time.


The ‘highs’ of research


I had a lead: high up in All Saints’ church were painted the names of the decorators who carried out the pattern work that covers nearly every inch of its walls. There was plenty of evidence that this was a commission given to F R Leach,  so I expected to see his name. But who else’s might be there?

Armed with a camera and details of the location – west window, north side, within the chequerboard pattern – I set off to discover and photograph the names. The church was hosting the Anglian Potters’ Christmas exhibition, so I was a bit distracted at first. When I finally got started, I realised that the zoom on my camera was not up to the job – try as I might I could not see any sign of writing.  Luckily, the invigilator for the pottery show, Carolyn, had a better zoom on her camera. After much patient searching and crouching at a very awkward angle, Carolyn managed to get a good photo of the names – and I was very excited by what was revealed.

All Saints names 2

‘D Parr Senr: 1871’.  This was not what I had expected.  Our man, the owner of 186, actually painted the church interior and did it in 1871 when he was only 16 years old.  This was the earliest piece of evidence of David Parr working for the F R Leach firm, at an age when he was no doubt an apprentice. I already knew he was an apprentice at this time from the 1871 census, but there it stated that he was a ‘joiner’s’ not a ‘painter’s’ apprentice. How do these two pieces of information fit together?  Only more research may help answer this.

Underneath ‘D Parr Senr.’ was another surprise –  ‘D Parr Jnr 1908’ –  David’s son who ‘reproduced’ the design work (probably when it was repainted due to the damage done by emissions from the gas lighting).  I did have evidence that David’s son followed him into the painting profession but it was wonderful to see that he followed in his father’s footsteps so closely.

All Saints names 1

This is one of those discoveries that ultimately poses more questions than it answers – but for me these are always the most exciting, indicating where next to focus my research.


Uncovering the Past


The weather was not promising for a morning of gardening.  It was that misty fine rain that seems to soak you more than you feel it should the moment you step out into it, but I was meeting Rosemary and Ann (David Parr’s great grandchildren) at Mill Road Cemetery to uncover his grave so there was no cowering inside. Luckily, once on my way the rain stopped and, helped by Mary and Robin who carried out the research to find the grave, we began to cut away the long grass that overwhelmed it.


What we found underneath was a simple grave, no headstone, just four stone surrounds beautifully inscribed with the simple words:

In loving memory of
David Daniel Parr died December 6th 1927 aged 73 years
Also his wife
Mary Emma Parr died November 13th 1949 aged 89 years

The grave gave up this hidden inscription quite quickly once Mary produced her essential grave-clearing tool – a small brush, which gently removed years of dirt and lichen.


The bold, elegant, finely carved letters perfectly reflected the life of David Parr – a man of dignity and style.


As we worked our way around the inscription it was noticeable that the carving in memory of David Parr’s wife had been done, as might be expected, by another’s hand. The lettering was not as large, deep or regular, and was harder to make out even when cleaned.


We had  a satisfying and enjoyable morning uncovering the grave and it is always a treat to visit Mill Road Cemetery.  It was created in 1848 when the City’s churchyards were overflowing and new space was needed to bury the ever-increasing population of Cambridge. A plot was chosen on land that was at the time on the outskirts of the City, but is now very much in its centre.

The layout was designed by Andrew Murray (who also created the Botanic Gardens on Trumpington Road) based on the fashionable belief of the time that a cemetery could be a much-needed green ‘breathing space’ for a city.  The design was to be as much a ‘garden’ as a cemetery, somewhere you could walk and enjoy the environment around as well as contemplate those who found their last resting place there.

This legacy lives on today as all those who happen to find their way to the cemetery appreciate – it is a place where nature can breathe among our concrete streets.  If you are nearby and have never discovered it make time to go, it is worth it.  Further details can be found on the Mill Road Cemetery website.

Robin, Rosemary, Ann and Mary
Robin, Rosemary, Ann and Mary


Distant Memories

Old Tige 4

My heart missed a beat … would it be there … I turned over the LP … yes!

‘Tige you were faithful, faithful to the end
Tige how I missed you. You were my best friend.’

This refrain popped into my mind and refused to go away – I wished that Elsie’s record player worked so I could hear it again.

I had been looking through the selection of LPs we have at the David Parr House when I came across a Slim Rodgers’ tribute to Jim Reeves called ‘Distant Drums’.  This immediately transported me back to my childhood bedroom, lying on my bed with my blue, box record player on the floor, replaying one of the few 45s that my parents had and constantly repositioning the plastic arm to the beginning, making sure the needle was just right.

The song I was playing and replaying was ‘Old Tige’ – the B side to the single  ‘Distant Drums’ and much better in my view than the A side.  In the 2 mins and 58 seconds that it takes to play there are goring bulls, a faithful dog, a near drowning, floods, reunions, loss.  Your emotions are wrung out and the pillow damp with tears.  I hope that this will not spoilt it for you.  If you are feeling strong, have a listen and enjoy the man with the ‘velvet voice’.

Old Tige 3

Click here to get the full story behind the song – but be warned it does involve a car crash, a broken bridge and a guardian angel!

‘Post’ Note

DPH Alsop Advert

Whilst doing the research on the Alsop firm for the last blog I looked up in the local newspapers and came across this 1898 advert. Maybe the person employed made the fences that surround the back garden of the David Parr House.

But, it was the advert that was underneath that really caught my eye.

DPH Alsop Advert-001

Where were the hedgehogs to be put to use?  Inside or outside?   What damage were the beetles causing?  Where were the hedgehogs going to come from?  Did people in the past sell them for such chores?  More research needed!


DPH Pieter Photos

This beautiful photo is of the top of the railings that surround the back garden at the David Parr House. Shrouded in the remains of copious amounts of bindweed and taken with the autumn sun shining through, it shows the beauty in even the most humdrum of objects. Seeing this made me look back in David Parr’s notebook to find out what he had written about the fence: the entry shows where he got it from and for how much:

‘The Iron Fencing of Back Garden was
Made and fixed by Alsop & Sons East Road
During October 1904  Costing £9 9s 2d.’

The Alsop firm was started by John Thomas Alsop, and was working out of 85 East Road by 1882.  John took his sons into the business and renamed the company ‘The Britannia Works’ after the Britannia Inn over the road from his premises, and next door to his shoeing forge. The company seemed to be able to make anything in iron – they advertised as being wheelwrights, blacksmiths, art iron workers, fence makers and could even construct you a caravan.  One of their specialities was horse-drawn preacher’s caravans which travelled around the country, decorated with biblical texts.

Here is a photo of Alsop standing by the wheel of one of the missionary caravans his company made.

Alsop cavaran

This one was for the ‘Caravan Mission to Village Children’.  It was made to the traditional gypsy design and painted maroon, with religious texts inscribed on the side, possibly in gold.  Arthur Alsop was John’s artistic son and he did the signwriting on these caravans.


Here is the caravan in action in 1893 with two of the missionaries sitting outside their tent. The idea for the production of these caravans may have come about because John Alsop was also a lay preacher for the Plymouth Brethren.

But, getting back to fences, the firm also produced some of the iron posts and railings that so define the edges of the Cambridge Commons. Alsop ironwork can still be seen on Coldham’s Common, the Backs, Sheep’s Green and the City Cemetery.

One of John Alsop’s grandsons called him ‘a great dandy and always very well turned out, a good tradesman but not such an efficient businessman’.  He must have done something right though, since the Alsop firm was sold in 1912 to a Mr Donald Mackay. It is still in business today, still in East Road, still with an iron works where you can still get anything that your garden or house might need – though I am not so sure about a missionary caravan!


Find out more about the Caravan Mission to Village Children 

For a lovely pamphlet on iron works see if you can hunt out: ‘Cambridge Iron Founders’ by K Alger, A Brigham, B Hockley and J Wilkinson. Cambridge Industrial Archaeology Society



‘Swiftly see each moment flies,
See and learn be timely wise,
Every moment shortens day,
Every pulse beats life away,
Thus thy every heaving breath,
Waft thee on to certain death,
Seize the moments as they fly,
Know to live and learn to die.’

This quote that David Parr chose to put on his parlour wall seems to have been a popular verse of Victorian times.  Earlier on in the 19th-century it was used as an inscription on decorative crockery, especially on lustreware produced in the northern potteries of Sunderland and Newcastle. These plates, plaques and jugs could be thought of as a more lasting equivalent of modern-day greeting cards, where a sentimental or thoughtful verse is printed for the receiver to ponder over.  But such pieces were not just given to individuals as gifts…

DPH Blogs

This particular verse seems also to have been popular within Masonic circles, and several collections from various lodges contain jugs decorated with the inscription.

DPH Blogs 6

It was also found printed in various publications including a magazine dated 1827 called ‘The Christian Gleaner and Domestic Magazine’.  This seems to have been aimed at those in domestic service and hoped to:

‘educate a certain class … Readers are multiplying in every class of society and it is of growing importance that each should be furnished with reading not only beneficial in its tendency, but adapted to their particular circumstances and sphere.’ 

The verse was clearly felt to be of suitable content for servants, along with other articles such as ‘Bad Effects of Sloth’, ‘How to Clean Decanters, Cruets and Bird Fountains’ and ‘A Hot Sunday Dinner That Keeps Nobody at Home’ (a hint to employers to allow their servants to go to church on Sundays).

With the verse being so much about the passing of time it is not surprising that it could also be found on watch and clock faces. Indeed, the earliest reference found from 1766 reports that these lines were ‘composed by a lady for a gentleman’s watch’.

Swiftly see each moment flies,
See, and learn! Be timely wise!

(Here I think the punctuation says quite a lot!)

A Shaker-designed clock with the verse inscribed on its face swaps around the words of the last line to read: ‘Learn to live and know to die’, whilst on another clock face the sentiment  is further changed to read: ‘Learn to live – prepare to die’.


Was this the cleverest guinea pig in Cambridge?

Rosemary (on left) with her pet rabbit and guinea pig.  Photo taken in the garden of the David Parr House in the 1950's
Rosemary (on left) with her pet rabbit and guinea pig. Photo taken in the garden of the David Parr House in the 1950s

I have had quite a few guinea pigs as pets in my lifetime. The first ones when I was a child, then several when my children were young (they were then the pets of choice). The main memory of my guinea-pig days is having to chase them madly around their ‘run’. This happened each evening when we put them away in their hutch to protect them from night-prowling foxes and cats. Often it would take two or three of us to do it, one holding up the run, another fielding them, while the third was the catcher. The guinea pigs seemed intent on escape or at least getting as far away from us as possible. Yet now it has become clear that I never fully appreciated the potential of these creatures as entertaining companion and pet.

I realised this when I was chatting with Rosemary, great granddaughter of David Parr, who grew up in the house. She told me how she would spend hours playing with and training her guinea pigs both inside and outside the house. The hallway was turned into an assault course with cardboard jumps and tunnels for the guinea pigs to run through. When Rosemary walked to the shops down Gwydir Street she trained them to follow her there and back. They would run by themselves from the front door around the side road to the back garden, and vice versa, for a titbit. One time Rosemary even made them a little cart that she attached to their backs, so they could pull it up and down the road. I can’t imagine such a sight on the streets of Cambridge nowadays. But maybe I am wrong –  there might be many gardens and streets in the City with well-trained, performing guinea pigs? (Do let us know!)

Another Cambridge guinea pig story is that of a lady who lived just off Grange Road who kept lots of ‘free range’ guinea pigs in her back garden. If you wanted one for a pet, that was where you could go to get one. When we visited we found the guinea pigs not only roamed the garden but some also roamed around the house. It was lovely to see someone who cared so much for them, and who gained such companionship from them.


All in the name


When I first saw this recently revealed sign at the City Road site in Cambridge, I thought it was the sign for Miss Nora Leach’s business as a hat maker. I first came across Nora Leach in Sara Payne’s excellent book Down Your Street Cambridge Past and Present II East Cambridge (Cambridge 1984). The reminiscences, captured by Sara Payne, of Mrs Hilda Desborough (who was born at no.23 City Road in 1910, the daughter of John Summerlin, baker) included the fact that Miss Nora Leach ran a hat shop from her home next door to Digbys (the other baker in City Road): “Miss Leach used to make her hats on moulds. My mother got all her hats there”, remembered Mrs Desborough.

Nora Leach was born Eleanor McLean Leach in January 1895, the eldest child of Barnett McLean Leach (1864-1929) and Ellen Elizabeth Leach, née Eccard (1868-1947), making her a granddaughter of Frederick Richard Leach, founder of the family firm and purchaser of 36 and 37 City Road in 1862.

Nora was the eldest of three children, her siblings being Jean McLean Leach (1896-1960) and Francis Leach (1898-1962). Their mother, Ellen Eccard, was Catholic and she married Barnett McLean Leach at the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs (OLEM) in Cambridge on the 25th of April 1894. At the 1901 census, the family was living at 17 Humberstone Road, next door to William George Pye, scientific instrument maker, but by 1905 they were in 36 City Road where Barnett had lived all his life until his marriage. Nora, Jean and Francis never married but I came across a reference to all three of them as godparents to Margaret Plumb who was baptised in the baptistery at OLEM on the 30th January 1936. Margaret’s ‘Memories of a Parishioner’ are contained in Catholics in Cambridge (ed. Nicholas Rogers, 2003). Nora outlived both of her younger siblings and died in 1968 at the age of 73.

A collection of picture postcards found at the City Road premises includes seven postcards dated between 1905 and 1925 addressed to ‘Miss Nora Leach, 36 City Road, Cambridge’. All the pictures are of churches in England and Nora clearly collected them as one card (from Lucy Worrall of 44 New Square, Cambridge) asks, ‘How many postcards have you got in your book?’ The only card from abroad came from Alkmaar in the Netherlands and is of the Accijnstoren. It is from Francis, her younger brother, and simply says ‘Here is where we are’.

But it was another of those picture postcards which made me think again about the uncovered ‘N.E.Leach, milliner’ sign. It was a colour postcard of St Nicholas church, Pluckley in Kent, addressed to ‘Mrs Maclean Leach, 36 City Road, Cambridge’ and began ‘Dear N’. A common diminutive of Ellen was ‘Nellie’ and Ellen’s middle initial was ‘E’ so I now think it possible that ‘N.E. Leach, milliner’ refers not to Nora Mclean Leach, but to her mother and that Nora learnt her craft from her mother. This would make the sign date from sometime after 1905 when the family moved from Humberstone Road to live at 36 City Road.

Shelley Lockwood