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May 2012 Meeting Report

A Cambridge Grocer: Matthew's of Trinity Street, presented by Mrs Judy Wilson, OBE (née Matthew)

Judy told a packed meeting about the fascinating history of the high class grocers, Matthew’s of Trinity Street.  It was founded by David Matthew at 25 Trinity Street in 1832 in partnership with John Gent.  Soon David became the senior partner in Matthew’s and Gent, Grocers and Dealers in China and Glass.  His younger brother John arrived from London in 1832, becoming a partner in 1839.

The shop started by selling china, glassware, and fishing tackle, but soon diversified into selling a wide range of foods.  Unsurprisingly, but no doubt due to good marketing as well, the shop became very popular with both academics and students at the university colleges, which were all very close.  Perhaps a major boost was Matthew’s participation in catering for the enormous Coronation Dinner held on Parkers Piece for 15, 000 residents in June 1838.  Amongst other things the grocer supplied: 72lbs of mustard and 144lbs of salt.

When David left to take on his family’s brush making business, John Matthew, Judy’s great grandfather, took over the growing concern in 1849.  As was typical in Victorian families, he and his wife had 11 children.  When John Gent died in 1868, John became the sole owner of Matthew's and Son.  John’s elder son, Henry, also became fully involved in helping to run the prosperous business, but sadly died of “apoplexy” in September 1879 at the early age of 34.

John was very active in the community; a warden of All Saints Church and also a co founder of the YMCA.  On his death in 1889, his younger son Arthur took full control of the now prosperous business.  He also was very active:  cofounded a cycling club and also skated to Ely during one of the late 19th century cold winters.  The shop now boasted the 'cash railways', which were still in use in some large shops in the 1950’s.

Under Arthur’s leadership, Matthew's expanded into new premises at 14 Trinity Street (in the wine shop on the opposite side of the road), which became very well known for its fine selection of wines and sherries.  Arthur also founded the 'Oriental Café' at no 14, “A place of quiet refinement”, with the startling new innovation of having electric lights installed and a separate smoking room.  This became a very popular meeting place and fashionable rendezvous, and was said to exude a 'Palm Court atmosphere'.

Matthew's also made its own bread, initially in Green Street then at a bakery in Cherry Hinton.  The advertising feature of this bread was 'Sunshine Bread from dough flooded with ultra violet rays during mixing' . Matthew’s ran a fleet of horse drawn carts to deliver the bread and other produce in the Cambridge area.

Matthew’s supplied numerous grades of marmalade to cater for the breakfast tastes of the rich Cambridge undergrads, and also a variety of Chiver's produce, made just down the road at Impington.

Other produce sold in the Matthew’s shops were teas, coffees, biscuits, cheeses and baking ingredients.  Household items included a wide variety of brushes for the multitude of cleaning duties the house maids were required to carry out.v In the early 1930s these were rapidly superseded by that revolutionary new invention of the Hoover.

Arthur married Maude Illsley relatively late in life and built a house in Mount Pleasant, next to St Edmund's College.  Maude had the distinction of being one of the first women drivers, in 1915, driving a Rover.  On Arthur’s death at 67 in 1917, Matthew’s was managed by Bernard, Judy’s father, at the tender age of 17.

Under Bernard’s leadership Matthew’s continued to prosper and expand, with up to 150 employees.  In the early 1960s, with the growing competition from supermarkets and the increasing mobility of the 'consumer', the decision was made to sell the business to Harvey’s in 1962, with the understanding that the business would be maintained.  However, Harvey’s rather abruptly closed down Matthew’s in May 1964. Thus ended 130 years of an excellent traditional family business sadly unable to compete with impersonal modern supermarket shopping – 'if its not on the shelf we haven’t got it'.

Judy has recently published a book, “'Cambridge Grocer', about this important Cambridge family business, well illustrated with many contemporary photographs.
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