20 July 2017

Could ‘Hobson’s Choice’ ever be
between Limerick and Cambridge?

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, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Earlier this week I spent a few hours in Cambridge, visiting Sidney Sussex College, browsing in the bookshops, and enjoying a few of my favourite quiet corners, away from the tourists who throng the city on summer days.

I was on my way to the USPG conference in High Leigh and I had a quiet and undisturbed breakfast that morning in a coffee shop in Pety Curry, facing Christ’s College and the junction where Hobson Street meets the corner of Sidney Street and Saint Andrew’s Street.

Hobson Street runs from this corner behind Sidney Sussex College up 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.

Hobson Street and Hobson 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, who lived at 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, 2017)

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.

In 1610-1614, 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.

Cambridge was plagued by the plague in the 16th century, when many of the university staff and students were dying as well as the townspeople. The plague made no distinction between town and gown, and they slowly realised that it 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, Andrew Perne, the Master of Peterhouse, proposed diverting a stream from Nine Wells through Cambridge, and 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 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 along Saint Andrew’s Street. The conduit currently ends at Silver Street.

The waterway came to have Hobson’s name because he was involved in building it and because he endowed the Hobson’s Conduit Trust for its maintenance.

The original Trumpington Street branch of Hobson’s river 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.

Hobson House on Saint Andrew’s Street, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)
The 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 in the conduit opposite Christ’s College, where people waiting for a taxi sometimes think they are stepping over a broken drain.

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 Catharine’s College. From there, he rented horses to university students and staff – perhaps horses then were the equivalent of bicycles in Cambridge 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 a 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.

When his customers objected, his retort was: ‘Take that or none,’ or ‘Take it or leave it.’ It was a choice that came to be known as Hobson’s choice.

Hobson was a resident of Saint Bene’t’s Parish, which I treasure as effectively my parish church when I am in Cambridge. In 1626, he presented a large Bible to Saint Bene’t’s Church, and when he died in 1631, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the chancel of Saint Bene’t’s Church. Milton wrote two humorous epitaphs on Hobson, one which refers to the cart and wain of the deceased.

David’s Bookshop in Saint Edward’s Passage ... an attractive and quiet corner of Cambridge, away from the busy throng of summer tourists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In a humorous and interesting but intentional misinterpretation of the nature of Hobson’s Choice, the Limerick historian Seán Spellissy says the phrase ‘Hobson’s Choice’ found a second home in Victorian Limerick.

Timothy O’Brien, a large landowner in Co Limerick and Co Clare, had a townhouse in the Crescent, Limerick, and two beautiful daughters, Mary Jane and Emma Margaret. Both were courted by a young man, William Doyle Hobson (1823-1871), from Meylar’s Park near New Ross, Co Wexford.

William Doyle Hobson was a grandson of Lieutenant-General William Doyle, Deputy Adjutant-General in Canada, who died in Waterford the year he was born. For some time, William was unable to decide which of the Doyle sisters he would marry. Eventually, in 1850, he married the second daughter, Emma, who was then 18; her elder sister Mary Jane never married.

Emma and William were the parents of at least five children, and many of their descendants would continue both the Doyle and O’Brien family names. William worked with the Customs at the port of New Ross, but moved to Whitby with promotion. When he died in Truro in 1871, a widowed Emma returned to live in Limerick with her young family.

Emma died at Roseneath, Corbally, in January 1907 at the age of 74. She was buried at Saint Munchin’s Church, Limerick, where the funeral was conducted by Dean O’Brien and the Precentor of Limerick, Canon Eyre Archdall.

Within two months, her sister Mary Jane died on 25 March 1907 at Lanahrone House, Corbally, the Limerick home of her nephew, Frederick St Clare Hobson, Emma’s son and by now sub-sheriff and a magistrate for Co Limerick.

After Emma had married William Doyle Hobson, Mary Jane had lived in George’s Street and Barrington Street, Limerick, and then with her sister Emma at Roseneath. In her old age, Mary Jane had been taken care of by the children of the sister William Doyle Hobson had decided to marry.

Hobson’s Choice is rarely a matter of love or marriage, or of horses and carriage – or, for that matter, between Cambridge and Limerick. If you are left waiting in departure lounges at Stansted Airport when your flight is delayed for over an hour on a Wednesday might, I find I am 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.

Saint Munchin’s Church, Limerick … Emma Hobson was buried here when she died in January 1907 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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