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Brimley Road, Essex Close, Durnford Way and the South Arbury Self-Builds...

In 1981, the Arbury is Where We Live! book revealed the story of the 1950s South Arbury self-build houses to the community:

Mrs Heath talked about the building of Essex Close:

I'm going to take you back to the beginning of 1950. One evening my husband was looking at the 'Cambridge Daily News' and he saw an announcement in it to say there was going to be a meeting for anyone who was interested with a view for people who were unskilled to get together to build their own houses. My husband thought what a good idea so he and his brother went along and when they came home they were so excited to tell us they had become registered members of what was to be known as the Cambridge Self-build Society. Thirteen men from all walks of life - someone who worked for the Local Authority, someone who worked in a shop, my husband who was a Post Office engineer - in fact from everywhere. There were three skilled men, two were plumbers and knew about building and an electrician.

They went to several meetings to discuss different things and Mr Negus who was an architect designed a very simple design house.

Eventually they heard they could have some plots on what was known as Arbury but none of us had ever heard of Arbury or what it was. We knew Arbury Road so we came to have a look at what we could see. We stood by the last house which was opposite the Manor [Farm], of course there was no Manor School then, and looking across we could see barren fields and allotments as far as we could see, then Gilbert Road and between Arbury Road and Gilbert Road going round in a circle to Histon Road there were no houses at all. Just fields and allotments. Two people kept pigs and that's all. You can imagine the difference that's grown up in 25 years or more.

Second time we came to have a look things had progressed, one house was started to be be built, it was in the corner off Leys Avenue, also the Council were putting in roads and also there were pegs going up everywhere to show plots of land where houses were going to be built.

We got our plot sorted out from the Council and they thought it was an adventurous, good scheme and loaned us quite a lot of money to buy the plots of land and we started to build. The men bought a second-hand cement mixer, some scaffolding, some spades and all different bits and pieces they needed to put the footings in.

The Council gave us the name of the place where we going to live, which was Essex Close.

One of the men got some floodlights from somewhere so they shone out like beacons and they continued to build the houses in the winter nights. Eventually the first house was finished after a lot of teething problems and we were very excited about that. It is now 32 Brimley Road, the first house that was completed. Mr and Mrs Allen moved in and they still live there. Seven families still live in the self build houses, we are amongst them.

1953, when we started building, it was the same year that Sir Edmund Hilary and a Sherpa called Tensing climbed Everest and conquered it. Tensing meant 'achievement', so we called our house 'Tensing'.

It is a unique group of people; there has never been another group in Cambridge. There are people who have built their houses on their own but there has never been another group of people who got together in the spirit of friendship and real hard work, to build their own houses.

In 1986, Sara Payne, of the Cambridge Weekly News, revisited the subject of the South Arbury self-builds for her hugely popular Down Your Street series.

1953... it was the year of the Queen's Coronation. Ask a group of families on south Arbury what the year meant to them, and they'll tell you it was the year they started building.

Nothing so special about that you might think, but what this group did was something unique in Cambridge. They formed a special association and helped each other to build their own homes.

The houses they built over a period of three or four years were among the first houses to be built on Arbury. Twelve houses were built, four of them in Brimley Road, one in Durnford Way and seven in Essex Close...

A Cambridge businessman, Mr D Sunderland, was the man who thought of the idea. He invited people to the inaugural meeting and then, once the association had been set up as a limited company, he represented it at talks with the City Council.

It was the council who owned the 171 acres of land on which South Arbury was developed. They had bought it from St John's College, who had acquired it from the Chesterton Hall Estate.

The Self Build Housing Association, together with the City Council, had originally envisaged 50 self build houses. The plan was modified and enough land for 20 was acquired.

At the end of the day a total of 12 houses were built.

... Mr Kenneth Allen [a member of the self-build association], a retired local government officer who built his home in Brimley Road, remembers that Carlton Way was not made up. It was so muddy in the winter that they had to make their way via Histon Road.

Self-building work started in 1953, with the first brick being laid on June 16, 1953. The first houses were completed in February 1956.

The City Council, who clearly applauded the scheme, advanced loans to the company which were subsequently repaid, members having taken out mortgages.

The houses remained in the ownership of the company until they were all completed.

The men agreed at the beginning that they would try and work a 25-hour week on the site. They pretty well kept to this target even though most of them had full-time jobs. They used the services of a surveyor and technical consultant, Mr Lawrence Negus, who designed the houses for them.

His brief had been to design semi-detached houses of above average quality. At the end of the day each self-built semi-detached house cost its builder about £1,250 for a house that at the time was worth £2,000. It represented a considerable saving.

The satisfying work was arduous though. The team had to learn how to lay bricks and build a wall. They learnt by practice, by building a little wall, and then knocking it down they mastered the art.

Often they had to be on the site at 7am to receive deliveries of bricks before going on to work. The bricks were sometimes still warm from the kilns.

Part council housing, part private housing Brimley Road is one of Arbury's most established roads, being nearly thirty years old.

It is strategically situated near Arbury School, and shops are handy at Arbury Court via Redfern Close and Carlton Way.

Working on the South Arbury self-builds in the early 1950s.

In 1954, the Housing Committee turned down a request for a quarter of an acre of ground on the estate to be sold to the County Council for the building of a house for the Chief Fire Officer. The reason given was the limited amount of ground available. 


  1. I wonder how many huge 1950s, 60s , 70s and 80s housing estates have commanded the interest and dedication the dear old Arbury has!


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