In Photographs: How Fisher House Survived Demolition

Updated: Jul 22

The Cambridge University Catholic Chaplaincy moved to its present location at Fisher House on Guildhall Street in 1924, after the Cambridge University Catholic Association purchased the Black Swan public house for £10,000. Photograph A shows the Black Swan, as it was then.


A black-and-white photo of the Black Swan, with the buildings beside Fisher House still extant.
Photograph A: The Black Swan. Source and date unknown.

Photograph B captures Fisher House much later – judging by the car, we might guess the 1950s or so. You can see the buildings that once flanked Fisher House, where now St George’s House and the Talos statue stand.


A black-and-white photograph of Fisher House, with the building on its left.
Photograph B: Fisher House. Source and date unknown.

Fisher House is proudly among the few buildings to have survived the redevelopment of our quarter of Cambridge’s city centre in the 1970s, when Lion Yard was built, and subsequently the Grand Arcade. Fisher House owes its survival to the opposition of Mgr Alfred Gilbey, Chaplain from 1932 to 1965. Following his death in 1998, Mgr Gilbey was Wikipedia-famously buried in the courtyard between the two buildings that comprise Fisher House, so that they could only be demolished over his dead body.


An early black-and-white photograph of an alleyway, taken from the first floor, looking towards The Red Lion.
Photograph C: The Red Lion. Source and date unknown.

So what did the city centre look like before its redevelopment? A clue lies in Photograph C, which captures the Red Lion, a galleried 17th century inn in Petty Cury, just around the corner from Fisher House.


Photograph D shows another pub, the Red Cow, which continued as a pub until 2014, but whose building survives. It was here that Thomas Merton used to drink; he matriculated at Clare College in 1933, though with little hint then of the great spiritual writer and thinker that he was to become. As relayed in Mark Shaw’s Beneath The Mask Of Holiness (2009):

The rowdy crowd Merton joined [...] drank excessively, roamed noisy bars with such as the Lion and the Red Cow, and pursued women at every chance.
A black-and-white photograph of Fisher House from the 1960s, taken from above, surveying the car park.
Photograph E: The present-day Fisher Square. Source and date unknown.

Photograph E is a fascinating view of the present-day Fisher Square from the 1960s, with Fisher House in the top-left quadrant. Top-left is the old house, with its two roof levels. Running down from it, centre-right, is the pre-1976 chapel; you can see the external staircase which offered access to it. Parallel to the chapel, across a courtyard, is the Fisher Room and Library. Of course, the new chapel and terrace had not yet been constructed. In the foreground, where Lion Yard and Fisher Square now stand, was a sprawling car park.


A black-and-white photograph of a car park situated on the present-day Grand Arcade, with the Guildhall in the centre.
Photograph F: From the present-day Grand Arcade. Source and date unknown.

In Photograph F, also from the 1960s, we are standing in that car park, on what is now approximately the main concourse of the Grand Arcade. Looming ahead, centre, is the Guildhall, and the chimneys in front of it belong to Fisher House.


The final set of photographs, collated in thumbnails below, are from the late Peter Soar, who chronicled the demolition of old Petty Cury and its environs with his camera in the early 1970s. Soar marvellously photographed Guildhall Street before and after the demolition of the building next to Fisher House. His photographs have been uploaded into three sets on The Golden Fleece website, and they are well worth a full viewing, including their notes on Soar’s life and project. You can read those notes here. We republish the photos with the generous permission of The Golden Fleece and Timothy Soar, Peter’s son.



You can use the arrows on the large picture or the thumbnails on the side to see the next picture, and click to expand.


In our small subsection of fourteen photos, Soar captures Guildhall Street in three moments. The first seven photos precede the demolition. The next three photos, the first from an unknown location, help to show Fisher House’s vulnerability during the redevelopment project. In the final four photographs, Soar revisits the completed redevelopment, including the new Talos statue next to Fisher House.

 

This collection of photographs was originally published between 21 October 2014 and 30 October 2020 as a series of Facebook posts (A, B, C, D, E, F) by Mgr Mark Langham, Chaplain at Fisher House. In July 2022, the series was edited and republished as a blogpost by Matteo Baccaglini, Pastoral Assistant, with additional commentary and the inclusion of more of Soar’s photographs.


Fr Mark Langham was the much-loved Catholic Chaplain to the University of Cambridge from 2013 to 2021. He had formerly been Administrator at Westminster Cathedral and spent five years on the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome. Fr Mark passed away on 15 January 2021.

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