Coldham's Common


Coldham’s Common is one of twelve commons in Cambridge. In the Middle Ages the area of Abbey was rural with farms and the work done by peasants. They had strips of land where they grew their own food. Peasants had to work on their lord’s land growing the lord’s food. Cows and sheep and horses owned by the people of the community, were grazed on their commons for free. Over time, these strips of land and the commons were reorganized into fields, and surrounded by fences. This change was known as ‘enclosure’. Cambridge people, called ‘commoners’, were against losing their common land and so in 1594 they rose up against local landowners. Under the leadership of a commoner, Jake of the Style, they resisted enclosure and as a result the land is still for all the commoners today and is naturally grazed by cows and managed as a nature reserve for everyone to enjoy! A time that Coldham’s Common changed was when there was a rifle range made for training in WW1 and WW2, and the remains are known as “chalk hill”. A century earlier the Common became industrial for a while when dinosaur poo, (called coprolite), was discovered and huge holes were dug including the pond that is known locally as “dead man’s lake”. 

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In the Middle Ages, Coldhams Common was a place where peasants could keep their cows and sheep and go fishing. The life of a Medieval peasant was hard. Men and women had to spend hours every day farming on a strip of land where they grew food for their family. They also had to farm the Lord’s land, growing his food and harvesting his crops. Coldhams Common was a piece of land that no one owned. It was a space in which the common needs of the common people could be met.

Local people had five ‘rights to the commons’. The ‘common of pasture’ meant that they could graze cattle and keep horses on Coldhams Common. Peat could be dug to be used as fuel according to the ‘common of turbary’. The ‘common of estover’ allowed people to cut trees and bushes to build their houses and fix their roofs. Stones and minerals could be dug up as ‘commons in soil’. Finally, local people could fish in Coldhams brook according to the ‘common of piscary’. All of these rights meant that Coldhams Common provided food and materials for local people. The Common was a vital resource for peoples’ welfare

The fact that no one owned Cambridge’s commons meant that local landowners regularly attempted to claim them as their own. Laws were passed in the Houses of Parliament challenging the old system. The strips were to be replaced with fields. Even the commons were threatened as landowners tried to increase the area of land able to be farmed. This process was known as ‘enclosure’. Local people were often unhappy about enclosures.  They had rights to the commons and relied on places like Coldhams Common to provide food and material for housing and shelter. Protests were a regular occurrence. In 1594 a man called Jake of the Style led a group of Cambridge residents against an early attempt at enclosure and managed to stop farming for private profit on the commons.

In the 1850s, a precious mineral was found on Coldhams Common. The mineral, coprolite, was originally thought to be fossilised dinosaur dung. It was very valuable because it could be used as fertiliser. A committee of commoners allowed entrepreneurs to pay a fee and dig for the coprolite under the soil.

Cambridgeshire was one of the last counties to have its land enclosed. The last parish in the county to be enclosed was Hildersham which still possessed the old system of land use until 1899! However, most of the strips and common land were transformed in the 1800s. In the county as a whole, 23 acts of Parliament had enclosed 51,000 acres by 1801. Between 1802 and 1845 76 acts enclosed 140,000 acres. Enclosures meant a loss for the very poor but they increased the efficiency of farming and, some argue, contributed to an ‘Agricultural Revolution’.

In some parts of Cambridge cows are still grazed on common land to this day. Green spaces like Coldhams Common are survivals from a time gone by when life was very different for local people. Yet the idea that common land should be set aside for the enjoyment of all unites the past with the present. Even though people play football and walk their dogs on Coldhams Common today, rather than graze cattle and dig for coprolite, residents have always cherished the common and protected it as a space for everyone to enjoy.

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Segwick Museum, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EQ

Education Co-ordinator- Nicola Skipper-

Coldham's Common


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