Having been interested in family history for many years, I have found it a never-ending source of fascination and delight. My family has been in Cambridge for several generations, and over the years I have met a number of distant relatives living in the city, previously completely unknown to me, and good friendships have been forged.
These distant kinfolk have also provided me with a great deal of information on family members past, where they lived and how they lived, and so various locations in Cambridge have taken on fresh significance to me with the knowledge that Auntie/Uncle/Grandma/Grandad/cousin so-and-so lived there…
One of the most unusual locations to suddenly loom large and important in my life has to be the car park for Cambridge Tiles & Bathrooms Ltd in Newmarket Road.
I met Mrs Marian Stearn, whose grandfather, Ernest Prevett, was also my great-great uncle, about two years ago. Ernest had died a few years before I was born, but I had grown up with tales of him from my maternal grandmother, Grace Hinchcliffe.
“Uncle Ern”, as Gran always referred to him, seemed very familiar to me - as did other deceased members of her family. My grandmother had a wonderful way of recounting her past - she seemed to bring it all to life, and I would listen, agog.
Meeting Marian Stearn, after an appeal for information and photographs relating to the Prevett family in the Cambridge Evening News, was a tremendous stroke of good fortune for me. Marian, her sister, Sue, and brother, Thomas, happily shared their recollections with me and added many photographs to my family history collection. I filled several notebooks with information and my computer scanner worked overtime.
Ernest Prevett was born in Cambridge in 1886. As a young man, he went to France where he worked at a stables and was, for a time, a jockey. In 1910, he married Marguerite Tribe.
In 1920, Ernest and Marguerite came to England with their three children, Suzanne, Lucie and Ernest junior.
The family lived at No. 29, Occupation Road, where Ernest went into business as a cobbler. The Prevetts then lived (briefly) in Ross Street, and then rented a small shop at 183 Newmarket Road.
A page from Spalding's Cambridge street directory - the 1937-38 edition. Ernest William Prevett, boot repairer, is listed at 183 Newmarket Road.
The house was on three floors - cellar, shop and kitchen, and two bedrooms. The family ate their meals in the kitchen, which was behind the shop. There was no plumbed-in bath - a tin bath placed in front of the fire was used.
From the kitchen, stairs led down into an indoor passage and if you made your way down that you would come to the backyard - a tiny square of concrete with a few flowers and outdoor conveniences. Beyond the Prevetts' yard was Coopers' yard, where the firm’s various motor vehicles were parked.
There was a passage at the side of the shop between the Prevetts' and the Coopers'.
There were said to be old underground passageways beneath the Prevetts' shop, leading from the cellar - going to the priory and the Leper Chapel, either way. These were apparently blocked off and not visible at all. It was said that another passage led to Abbey House.
Said Marian: “I was only a child of course, but I used to get a funny feeling in the cellar - creepy! We had to go down there to get to the backyard.”
The house was said to be haunted - and several sightings of ghostly monks were reported by people not noted for vivid imaginings.
A 1950s view of the corner of Godesdone Road and Newmarket Road, showing the long-established business of J.H. Cooper & Son, furniture dealer, and an advertising hoarding where the Prevetts' shop had stood. Photograph: Cambridgeshire Collection.
Alongside his work as a general cobbler, Ernest Prevett also made shoes for Addenbrooke’s - for deformed/club-footed people. Marguerite would collect large sheets of leather for shoes and mending from Burleigh Street and wheel them home on her bike. The shoes were hand sewn.
"Grandad used to have a special implement called an awl to push through the leather and make a hole," said Marian. "All the shoes were hand-stitched and he had special needles to do the stitching."
Ernest used to skin rabbits and cure the skins for slippers and gloves. Cured skins were hung on various doors, including the coal hole.
Marguerite bred mice for some local labs.
There was a large, long window at the front of the shop, with a board at the bottom which had a hole in it. The Prevetts’ dog, Dimps, used to poke his head through the hole and watch people coming and going outside. “He was well known in Newmarket Road!” Marian smiled.
Marian’s brother, Thomas Matthews, recalled an advertisement on display in the shop for Phillips’ Soles, which featured a picture of Ernest Prevett at work.
There would be free trips to the cinema and circus, etc. These would be in return for advertising bills posted in the shop window.
Ernest is remembered as being a marvellous cook.
The family would go to the shop on Newmarket Road for Christmas, especially during the war. Ernest would have made a Christmas cake and, on the day, he cooked a big goose for Christmas dinner. Marian has strong memories of the war time King’s speeches:
“Everybody would listen to the King on the wireless and then cry!”
Several family members were away on active service.
Ernest was chief air raid warden for his part of Newmarket Road. He had a stirrup pump in the shop, which interested Marian. “I played with it once, and got told off!”
Of other local businesses, Marian particularly remembered WH Vellam’s supply stores at 171 and 173 Newmarket Road: “Every morning I’d go and choose an egg at Vellam’s. They used to have big sackfuls of raisins and sugar and old fashioned pats of butter…
“I remember John Alsop. He had a dairy off Newmarket Road and used to deliver the milk. Grandma used to have it poured into three jugs. I remember the milk was brought round at first in a big churn on a little handcart, a very nicely decorated handcart, and later Mr Alsop had a horse and cart.”
Ernest rented a large allotment on the corner of Henley Road. “He grew everything,” Marian recalled. “I would sit with him in his shed and we’d have a flask of tea! It was from going to Grandad’s allotment that I learnt my love of gardening."
After the shop was demolished (c. the mid-1950s) and an advertising hoarding erected in the space, Mr Cooper (of J.H. Cooper & Son) remembers his family, who lived in Godesdone Road, rented the ground behind the hoarding for a garden. But the garden subsided into the cellar of the vanished shop - taking the plants and concrete path with it!
The corner of Godesdone Road and Newmarket Road in 2007. Note that the advertising hoarding has now gone.