27 June 2013

Finding more than Hobson’s Choice
in a few quiet corners in Cambridge

A view of Sidney Sussex College from Green Street, Cambridge, on Wednesday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

I spent an afternoon in Cambridge yesterday [Wednesday 27 June 2013] after the annual conference of Us (USPG) came to a close at the High Leigh Conference Centre in Hoddesdon.

I had a few hours on hand before catching a flight at Stansted, I had some shopping I needed to do before going on holidays, and I wanted to drop into Sidney Sussex College too.

At this time of the summer, Cambridge is busy with graduation ceremonies and bustling with tourists. But it is always a much better choice to spend a few hours strolling through the streets of Cambridge in the warm glow of summer sunshine than sitting around over endless cups of coffee in an over-heated departure lounge in the airport.

I had a late lunch in Baroosh, previously the B Bar, in Market Passage and just a few steps away from Sidney Sussex College.

Hobson Street behind Sidney Sussex College takes its name from Thomas Hobson, who gave Cambridge Hobson’s Conduit and gave the English language ‘Hobson’s Choice’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The street behind Sidney Sussex College, running from the junction with Sidney Street and Saint Andrew Street at Christ’s College to King Street, is Hobson Street. Hobson’s Passage is used to store bins and as a narrow shortcut between Hobson Street and Sidney Street, where it emerges between Waterstone’s bookshop and a former cinema.

The street and the lane take their name from Thomas Hobson (1544-1631), who built a conduit to supply water to much of Cambridge in the early 17th century but who is best remembered outside Cambridge for the phrase “Hobson’s Choice.”

Thomas Hobson lived in Chesterton Hall, had extensive estates in Grantchester, and was one of the great benefactors of Cambridge.

A blue plaque on Hobson House at 44 Saint Andrew’s Street recalls Thomas Hobson and ‘Hobson’s Workhouse’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

A blue plaque on what is now Hobson House at 44 Saint Andrew’s Street mentions his workhouse, the Spinning House, also known as “Hobson’s Workhouse,” where the poor were housed and given simple work such as spinning.

Between 1610 and 1614, Thomas Hobson built Hobson’s Conduit as a watercourse to bring fresh water into Cambridge from springs at Nine Wells, near the village of Great Shelford, at the foot of the Gog Magog Hills.

However, the whole plan was originally the brainchild of the Master of Peterhouse, Andrew Perne. Cambridge was plagued by the plague in the 16th century, when many of the university staff and students were dying as the townspeople, making no distinction between town and gown. They slowly realised that the plague was killing people not because of God’s condemnation or judgment, but because of poor sanitary conditions. The ditch around the town was clogged with sewage and rubbish and was a major cause of disease.

In 1574, Perne proposed diverting a stream from Nine Wells through Cambridge. At the same time, he also proposed digging the King’s Ditch to improve sanitation. The design was revived by the Master of Sidney Sussex College, James Montagu, and was built at the expense of the university and the town.

What remains of the conduit flows beside Trumpington Street and past Brookside, where it is at its widest. An octagonal monument to Hobson at the corner of Lensfield Road was once formed part of the Market Square fountain but was moved in 1856 after a fire in the market. The flow of water runs under Lensfield Road, and then along both sides of Trumpington Street in broad gutters towards Peterhouse and Saint Catharine’s College, and also Saint Andrew’s Street. The conduit currently ends at Silver Street.

The waterway came to have Hobson’s name because not only was he involved in building it, but he also endowed the Hobson’s Conduit Trust for its maintenance. The new river was dug from Vicar’s Brook near Long Road to the conduit head at the end of Lensfield Road as a joint venture between the university and the city. There the flow of water was divided into four separate branches with different functions.

The east side of Trumpington Street, where Hobson’s Conduit is known as the Pem ... on the other side it is the Pot (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The original Trumpington Street branch still functions as sluices along Trumpington Street, where it is known on the east side as the Pem (after Pembroke College) and on the west side as the Pot (after Peterhouse).

At this time of the year, the city council controls the flow of water through the sluices letting water flow in the open conduits in Trumpington Street between April and September, with feeds running into Peterhouse and Pembroke College.

The Market Place branch was completed in 1614, and brought fresh water to the Market Fountain in the centre of the Market Place. However, the flow of water to this branch was cut off in 1960.

Saint Andrew’s Street Branch, which was added in 1631, flowed from the conduit head along Lensfield Road and Saint Andrew’s Street towards Drummer Street. There it split into feeds running into Christ’s College and Emmanuel College, as well as a public dipping point. Much of the open conduit along Saint Andrew’s Street was covered in 1996, but it can still be seen the conduit opposite Christ’s College, where people waiting at the queue sometimes think they are stepping over a broken drain.

The Parker’s Piece Branch was the final branch. This ran from the conduit head towards Parker’s Piece to feed a cattle pond, but when the pond was filled in in 1827.

Bicycles outside Sidney Sussex College ... today’s equivalent of Hobson’s horses? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Hobson was also a carrier, delivering mail from Cambridge to London. He had large stables with 40 horses at the George Hotel on Trumpington Street, which is now part of Saint Catherine’s College. From there, he rented horses to university students and staff – perhaps horses then were the equivalent of bicycles in Cambride today.

Hobson’s practice in renting his horses has given the English language the popular, but often misused, phrase “Hobson’s Choice.”

Hobson’s choice is not “Morton’s Fork,” a choice between two equivalent options that may lead to undesirable results, nor is it dilemma, which is a choice between two undesirable options; it is not a false dilemma, where only two choices are presented although there are others, nor is it a Catch-22, which is a logical paradox.

When Hobson realised his best horses were being over-worked, he began a pattern of rotation requiring customers to choose the horse in the stall closest to the door. This prevented the best horses always being chosen and being overused.

His retort to objections was: “Take that or none,” or “Take it or leave it.” It was a choice that came to be known as Hobson’s choice.

Thomas Hobson was buried in an unmarked grave in the chancel of Saint Bene’t’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Hobson was a resident of Saint Bene’t’s Parish, and in 1626 he presented a large Bible to the church of St. Benedict. When he died in 1631, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the chancel of the church. Milton wrote two humorous epitaphs on Hobson, one which refers to the cart and wain of the deceased.

Saint Edward’s Passage ... an attractive and quiet corner of Cambridge, away from the busy throng of summer tourists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

I dropped into Sidney Sussex after lunch, and then I strolled back through the centre of Cambridge, along King’s Parade, and found myself browsing through second-hand books in a quiet corner of Saint Edward’s Passage. This alleywayruns from King’s Parade to Peas Hill around the rails of the Church of Saint Edward King and Martyr.

The green growth around the church, the white-walled houses, and the second-hand and antiquarian bookshops in this narrow laneway make it an attractive and quiet corner of Cambridge.

Saint Edward’s is known as the ‘Cradle of the Reformation’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In 1525, Robert Barnes preached the first sermon of the English Reformation in Saint Edward’s, which has been known since as the "Cradle of the Reformation.”

The chaplain at Saint Edward’s is a Royal Peculiar, outside the diocesan structures of the Church of England. The chaplain, the Revd Dr Fraser Watts, was one of the lecturers at the summer school in Sidney Sussex College organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in 2008, when he spoke about “True and False Holiness.”

“True and False Holiness” is not an example of Hobson’s Choice, of course. But if you are left waiting in departure lounges at Stansted Airport for the last flight, and most of the outlets have closed, you’re often left with Hobson’s Choice when it comes to coffee – a choice not between good coffee and bad coffee, but between whatever coffee is on offer (good or bad), or no coffee at all.

I’ll be back in Cambridge again next month, spending a week at Sidney Sussex for the 14th International Summer School of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, from 14 to 19 July.