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Medieval pits and the ‘Spinning House’, Cambridge

By News

PCA are currently undertaking excavations in the rear courtyard of Hobson House, Cambridge.

Henley Construct are the contractor delivering the project to Rogue City Hotels who will run and manage the hotel. The Hobson will be a 56-suite luxury hotel and meeting space centred around an atrium space housed in a Grade II listed former police station. The hotel sits in a prime location on St Andrew’s Street in Cambridge’s city centre, opening in September 2022.

The excavations are located in the former drill yard of the 1901 police station. The removal of the modern concrete flooring revealed previous cobbled surfaces of the drill yard and a range of walls relating to the rear extension of the Spinning House in the 19th century, as well as the old town jail and police station.

The excavations also revealed a series of medieval and possible Saxo-Norman pits, most likely quarry pits to extract gravel for building activity in the vicinity. The pits were covered by a dark cultivation soil and suggest that the area was open and cultivated land, either at the back of properties along St Andrew’s Street, or prior to their construction.

Hobson House is a Grade II listed building, built in 1901 as a police station to replace a previous smaller police station and county jail as well as the ‘Spinning House’ on the same site. The Spinning House is the first recorded building on this site at St Andrew’s Street and was built in the mid-17th century as a workhouse for the unemployed, by a charity funded by Thomas Hobson (which also funded the construction of Hobson’s Conduit). The name ‘Spinning House’ referred to the occupation provided for the inmates, it was also known as the ‘Cambridge House of Correction’ or ‘Hobson’s Bridewell’. In 1788 century the town jail and small police station was added to the south side of the Spinning House.

In the 19th century the Spinning House was extended toward the rear and infamously received women who had been accused by University Proctors of corrupting male students, held until the University Vice Chancellor decided that they should be released. Reference is made to the ‘confinement of such lewd women as the proctors apprehend in the houses of ill fame, though sometimes the corporation send small offenders thither, and the crier of the town is often there to discipline the ladies of pleasure with his whip’

The power of the University Vice Chancellors right of ‘arrest and expulsion of lewd women’, continued unabated until it was finally abolished, following public outcry, and particularly the case of Miss Daisy Hopkins, by a statute of Parliament in 1893. The Spinning House was taken over by the borough and demolished along with the adjacent Police Station in c.1901. It was replaced by Hobson House, a new combined Police and Fire Station, designed and purpose-built by the architect John Morley. Click here for more history of St Andrew’s Street.

The Brockley Garden Archaeology Roadshow

By Education & Community, News

On Saturday 17 July PCA joined the Hillyfields Midsummer Fayre with ‘The Brockley Garden Archaeology Road Show’.  The Fayre is an annual and very popular event in Lewisham, which is where our London office is based. Our stall, which showcased finds from Lewisham and nearby Greenwich, was also part of the Council for British Archaeology Festival of Archaeology 2021, focused this year on exploring local places. Our stall was a great success, with many visitors stopping for a chat or bringing some of their own garden finds for examination. Unsurprisingly, there is a vivid interest in local history and the little fragments of the past that make up our daily work! We will definitely try to make our presence a recurring feature of the Midsummer Fayre and other local events.

Westminster Abbey

By News

An archaeological investigation was undertaken by PCA at Westminster Abbey in advance of a plan to construct a new building which will house welcome, ticketing and security facilities, allowing all visitors to follow in the footsteps of kings, queens and royal brides and enter the abbey by the Great West Door.

The construction project was delayed by the pandemic, but the archaeological fieldwork was completed last year and the results have just been published on abbey’s website. Click here to read the article.

This part of Westminster has been the focus for religious activity since 960AD, when a small Benedictine monastery was founded here. In the 11th century King Edward, later Edward the Confessor, enlarged the monastery and built a stone church. Later, in the 13th century, King Henry III rebuilt Edward’s Abbey in the new Gothic style of architecture. Our work exposed the full footprint of the Great Sacristy, an L shaped building constructed at this time.

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The Great Sacristy was the only part of Henry’s church to have been lost. It was discovered in 1869, when George Gilbert Scott (then Surveyor of the Fabric) instructed the Abbey’s mason Henry Poole to ‘remove from the North Green the earth and rubbish which had accumulated there for several centuries’. This work revealed the remains of the Great Sacristy, and Poole recorded the remains illustrating an L-shaped building with a square room at its eastern end.

The Great Sacristy would have been used to safely store vestments and other precious ritual objects and provide a space where the clergy could prepare before processing into the church.


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We found many fragments of medieval painted wall plaster, suggesting that the internal walls of the Great Sacristy were decorated with hand painted flowers.

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Our work demonstrated that stone from an earlier building, probably Edwards the Confessor’s church, was reused in the later foundations of the Abbey. A significant example of this was the discovery of an upturned stoup (a basin for holy water), incorporated in a buttress foundation. Edward the Confessor may have washed his hands in this as he entered his church.

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The site was used as a burial ground for many centuries. Prior to the construction of the Great Sacristy, this area was used as a burial ground for monks. This 11th century chalk-lined grave was one of hundreds of burials discovered. Others date from the 18th century.

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A Barnack stone medieval sarcophagus was found in a prominent position inside the Sacristy. This was initially thought to relate to a high-status burial, but it now appears that the sarcophagus had actually been reused to serve a drainage function within the building, possibly as a washing trough!

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After the monastery was dissolved c. 1540, the Great Sacristy was used as a domestic dwelling for administrative staff of the abbey. By 1616 the Sacristy building was described as ‘very ruinous and standeth in very great need of present reparations’. Repair work was undertaken in the 1710s and 1720s and the Surveyor of the Fabric at this time, the famous Christopher Wren, reported that ‘the houses on the North side are so close [to the Abbey], that there is not room left for the raising of scaffolds and ladders’. The Great Sacristy and the other buildings in the area were demolished the 1740s to facilitate much needed repairs to the Abbey’s nave and northern transept.

Post-excavation work will continue when circumstances improve, however with their re-opening the abbey have now been able to provide access to the archaeological site as part of their Summer Festival of Events (click here for details). Visitors will be able to see the remains of the abbey’s 13th century Great Sacristy which were excavated and recorded by PCA, and which will be preserved beneath the new structure.

Lucy Cavendish College Update

By News

Conservation is now complete on the exciting Roman metal vessel we found during excavations at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. The initial X-ray showed a solid vessel with an area of corrosion at the rim. Once the surfaces were carefully cleaned, this was revealed to be a very fragile broken iron loop handle.

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