Leys School Farm and Laundry


300 dpi Descreened Scan The Leys Farm - from Methodist Recorder supplement April 8 1897.jpg

Leys Farm, “two miles out in the country” (The Methodist Recorder, April 8th, 1897)

The top end of Hurst Park Avenue (from numbers 54 and 55 upwards), Highfield Avenue, Orchard Avenue, Leys Avenue and numbers 73 to 145 Arbury Road are all built on land formerly occupied by Leys Farm and Laundry which was bought by Cambridge Estates Limited on October 14, 1927. The vendors were the children of Elizabeth Sell Swann (died February 19, 1926): Charles Swann, Margaret Morgan and Isobel Cole. Elizabeth Swann had inherited the land from her mother, Eliza Roe, who died in May 1889.

The abstracts of title to houses in Orchard Avenue we have to hand show that Eliza Roe made her will in February 1885. She was married to George Hartwell Roe, who had died in October 1874. George Roe was a jeweller, watchmaker and silversmith who had premises in Market Street, Cambridge and then moved around the corner to 7, Market Hill in September 1843, the business remaining there for several decades (Cambridge Independent Press September 2, 1843).

The Roes and Swanns are buried in Mill Road Cemetery.

The 1838 enclosure map shows Eleanor Sparrow and Robert Sparrow as separate occupiers of the various copyhold and freehold plots where Leys Farm was later established. We know that Robert Sparrow died on December 12th, 1847 and was buried at St Andrew’s, Chesterton. The Cambridge Chronicle and University Journal, June 12th, 1852, announced the sale on July 1st of two plots of land “by direction of the Executors of the late Mr Robert Sparrow.”

The 1852 sale included 38 acres “together with the BRICK-KILN, &c, in various Lots, some of which will front the road leading to Milton, and others the road leading from Chesterton to Histon [ie Arbury Road].” The plan below that accompanies these sales particulars clearly shows that plot 10 in the sale is the land that later became Leys Farm.

1852 Brickworks sale 1 - Cropped.jpg

Part of the plan that accompanies the 1852 sale when the Sparrow trustees disposed of the land. Leys Laundry Farm later developed on lot 10 and Leys Road on lots 8 and 9. Austin Close, having been the site of the Jude family’s garage for many years, now occupies the bottom right-hand corner of lot 8. Lot 7 is occupied by the top of Mulberry Close and some houses in Arbury Road. Lot 6, with its visible clay diggings and kiln (discussed in our geology section), is now mostly part of Mulberry Close and the area behind the shops in Milton Road. Lots 3 to 5 are shops and houses in Arbury Road (Cambridge University Library: Maps.PSQ.18.13).

The 1927 sales particulars refer to a “Conveyance on Sale by trustees for sale with the concurrence of mortgagees dated the 7th day of December 1857”. George Roe is one of the parties to this and it may mean that he bought the land in 1852 and paid off a mortgage 5 years later. We know that he was there in early 1859 because the Cambridge Chronicle of January 22 reported that “coming from his farm at Chesterton” he was witness to an assault and called to court as a witness on the January 15.

The Roes evidently let the land for most or all of the time they owned it. The census for 1861 lists John Moore with his mother, brother and sister, with John farming 27 acres, and employing two men and a boy. While the address is not specified, in 1871 John and his mother are listed between Manor Farm and Milton Road in “Harbourer Road” and that would seem to place them on the plot. John is described then as “Farmer of 30 acres employing 3 men”. Laundry Farm as sold in 1927 was only 24½ acres: if we have the right man on the right plot he must have been renting some additional land. There were several other nearby plots of former Sparrow land (lots 7, 8 and 9 on the 1852 plan above, where Leys Road and the adjacent part of Arbury Road are). Two of those would make it up to 29 acres; all three would amount to just over 31.

In the Cambridge Chronicle and University Journal, November 14th 1874 , John Bester announced that he had moved his rose nursery from Grantchester Walk to Milton Road. An Ordnance Survey map of the 1880s shows this nursery on what was later known as Leys Farm; a plan that accompanies the 1885 sales particulars for Hurst shows the land in question as “Besters Farm”.

The 1881 census shows Bester in Arbury Road, aged 34,  with his wife Mary, their two young children, his elderly parents, and a nurse. John is listed as “Nurseryman and farmer, 10 men and a boy”.

However, at the end of 1887, a new tenant, the Leys School, was in occupation. According to John Harding, 2012, A Methodist Education: The Leys Under Moulton and Barber 1875-1914, “at Christmas 1887 the school farm and laundry were closed and moved to the fields near the Arbury Camp in Chesterton.”

Less than two years later, disaster struck the farm. The Cambridge Independent Press, August 23rd, 1889, published this account:

Fire.–A farmstead and laundry at Chesterton, occupied by the Leys School, Cambridge, caught fire about mid-day on Monday [ie August 19th], the outbreak being caused by a defective flue leading from the engine house to a barn. Fortunately plenty of water was obtainable from a pump and cistern on the premises: but, though assistance was rendered by Supt. Whitchurch and some of his subordinates, the flames were not overcome before considerable damage had been done to the building and a barn and part of the laundry machinery destroyed. The premises are in the hands of the executors of the late Mrs Elizabeth Roe, of Market Hill, and the damage is estimated at £500. Both the buildings and the plant were insured.

Evidently the farm was restored but its operation was kept under review. A sub-committee was appointed by the Governing Body in October 1896 “to consider as to the advisability of continuing the farm”. Their notebook, held in the school archive,  reports that the sub-committee, “Having considered in detail the matters referred to it [recommended] … That no steps be taken at present to dispose of the farm and laundry.”

A year later, an article about the school in the Methodist Recorder, April 8th, 1897, reported that:

Two miles out in the country there is a farm on which sheep and pigs and poultry are raised. It is a dairy farm with fifteen milking cows. It includes a kitchen garden, an orchard, and a great laundry. There is no costly elaboration of farmyard management and appliances, but just so much as is necessary to ensure cleanliness and sweetness, and perfect wholesomeness of production. All the milk required for the Leys, and a large portion of the vegetables and fruit consumed, come from this small farm. All the washing is done with the best appliances, including a Bradford hot-air closet, in the laundry adjoining the farmhouse.

More sub-committee notes from July 1899 report that:

The sub-committee (HM [Headmaster], Hon. Sec and Bursar) met on Thursday July 27th and visited the farm. The bailiff [Charles Free, see below] explained the sanitary arrangements and said he deemed them sufficient.  He further said the cow sheds needed rebuilding. It was decided to do nothing until Mr ? Vinter could inspect and advise.  It was decided to continue the sanatorium for the present.

We know a little about the people who lived and worked at the farm and laundry during the school’s tenure. In the 1891 census, the first during the school’s occupancy, there were:

  • Charles Free, 47 – Farm manager
  • Susan Free, 42 – his wife
  • Thomas Spalding, 54 – Farm Servant
  • Alice Spalding, 44 – Laundress
  • Phoebe Spalding, 21 – Laundress
  • Alice Spalding, 15 – Laundress
  • Eleanor Wallinger, 19 – Laundry Maid Domestic

Ten years later Charles and Susan are still there, as well as a niece also called Susan Free, plus the senior Spaldings, the younger Alice and a grandson called John Rich, aged 4.

The 1911 census (the last we have available under the hundred-year rule), shows that the School still ran the laundry and the farm. Listed at Leys School Farm were:

  • Charles Free – Farm Bailiff
  • Susan Free – his wife
  • Susan Free – niece: butcher’s book-keeper

Listed at Leys School Laundry:

  • Frederick Metcalfe – Taxidermist
  • Amy Metcalfe – Laundress, Leys School
  • Shirley Hugh Metcalfe, their 13-year-old son

More excellent finds by the Leys School Librarian and Archivist in December 2020 mean that we now have an even better idea of what the farm and laundry looked like. The following two photographs come from a school prospectus / photo album that she has dated to between 1906 and 1913.

We are reasonably certain that the School gave up farm and laundry by 1917. The following advertisement appeared in the Cambridge Daily News on Saturday February 17th that year:

TWO OLD HORSES for sale.– Apply., WILDERSPIN, Leys Farm, Arbury-road, Cambridge.

Ernest Wilderspin was the farm foreman. On August 10 the same year the Cambridge Daily News reported from the Cambridge Tribunal (John Bester was a member) that considered exemptions from military service:

Mr. Charles R. Alder (Stetchworth Dairy) applied for exemption for Ernest Wilderspin (32), married, of Leys Farm, Arbury-road, Chesterton, stockman and farm foreman, who also drives motor trolley four nights weekly for station work. Mr Alder said there were 63 head of cow stock and upward of 200 pigs on the farm. If this man were taken, he would have to sell the whole of his cow stock.– Exemption until November 9th was granted.

Whether Ernest was called up we do not know, but conscription obviously caused problems as fourteen months later, on October 5, 1918, an advertisement appeared in the Cambridge Daily News:

MAN wanted, not eligible for Army, able to drive and help with stock: cottage and garden found–Apply, Leys Farm, Arbury-road, Chesterton.

The final sales particulars show that when Cambridge Estates bought the land in 1927, Charles Alder was the last tenant. Kelly’s Directory for 1896, 1904 and 1916 lists him as the manager of Stetchworth Dairy, which had premises in King Street, Market Street and Bridge Street in Cambridge, as well as in Rous Road in Newmarket (where he is listed in the 1901 census).

In the 1911 census Alder, (Dairyman, Partner) was resident with his family in Aldham House in Union Road (now Union Lane). Charles Malyon, in Aldham House in the Parish of St Andrew’s, Chesterton, Cambridgeshire Gardens Trust Newsletter no. 20, May 2006, tells us that the freehold of Aldham House was conveyed to Ralph Lord in 1891 and to Alder in April 1918. Ralph Lord had established Aldham House Dairy and we assume that Alder, or Stetchworth Dairy, took over that business. At some point between 1911 and 1917 he took on Leys Farm and the laundry. He built a new Leys Model Laundry that opened in 1926 on part of the Aldham House garden. That business survived through various changes of ownership until the early 1960s when the Cambanks flats were built there.

Charles Alder PC 469.17 - Copy.jpgCharles Richard Alder and Lucy Aveline Alder. Charles was a farmer, dairyman, laundry owner and Town and County Councillor: he was the last tenant of Leys Laundry Farm. Charles and Lucy are listed in the 1911 census at Aldham House, Union Road, aged 46 and 43, with their daughter Lucy Dorothy Braybrooke Alder (17) and “General domestic” Emily Florence Savill, 34 (Cambridgeshire Collection, Cambridge Central Library, PC469/17 and PC226/1).

The end of farming came when Cambridge Estates Ltd bought the land from Elizabeth Sell Swann’s executors for £4,500 on 14 October 1927. Elizabeth’s will had been proved on May 21 1926. As these sales particulars (515/SP873) from the Cambridgeshire Archives show, the auction had taken place in May 1927.


1927 sale Laundry Farm plan.JPG

Cambridge Estates Ltd bought the land from Elizabeth Sell Swann’s executors for £4,500 on October 14, 1927. The Company had bought Hurst three weeks before.

Laundry Farm plan from 119 Arbury Road bundle - small.jpg

This plan, from title documents to a house in Orchard Avenue, shows in deep pink the land bought by Cambridge Estates from the trustees of Elizabeth Swann in 1927. Leys Farm extended from what are now the back-garden boundaries of Hurst Park Avenue north of number 53 to Arbury Road, and from the backs of the gardens of Highfield Avenue to those of Orchard Avenue and Leys Road. The two-acre, three-rood, thirty-pole orchard is a prominent feature.