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  • Writer's pictureDoug Chapman, MA

A Brief History of Parker’s Piece in Cambridge

What is Parker’s Piece?

Parker’s Piece is a green space in Cambridge city centre that’s regarded by many as the birthplace of football.

Reality checkpoint on Parker’s Piece on a frosty morning

Parker’s Piece History

This central, open park looms large in the lore of Cambridge. At approximately ten hectares and nearly entirely cleared, Parker’s Piece sits comfortably between some of the busier areas of Cambridge and offers a pleasant spot for lunch or a quick break from touring the city. The land upon which the park sits was originally owned by Trinity College until 1613, and Parker’s Piece takes its modern name from a cook at the college who leased the land in the previous century. Parker’s Piece is almost an entirely open space, and the most noteworthy landmark in the park itself is the lamppost situated at the centre, at the intersection of the walking paths. This cast-iron lamppost is surprisingly famous: it’s called the Reality Checkpoint, and it dates from its placement here in the 1890s. While there are numerous theories surrounding the origins of its name, perhaps the most well-known is that it’s so-called because the lamppost marks the boundary between the ‘bubble’ of the university in the centre of the city, and the ‘reality’ of the outside world.

It's in the history of Parker’s Piece, however, that the park truly comes alive. The space has a strong claim to be the precise location where the modern sport of football was invented. It had been a favourite location for sport in the city for centuries, and by the 1800s the park had become a hub for the games of proto-football that had been played from at least the 16th century. A set of rules governing the matches was agreed upon by local representatives in 1848 and posted up on the trees that surrounded the park. These ‘Cambridge Rules’ would go on to grow in popularity over the following decade and a half. In 1863, the nascent Football Association used these rules as the basis for the original official rules of association football, and the very first game using those rules was played here in that same year.

bicycle and Parker’s Piece

The first modern association football game is not the only significant event to have happened on Parker’s Piece. On the 28th of June 1838, a feast was held here to celebrate the coronation of the young Queen Victoria. It was, naturally, a grand affair that was said to have seated 15,000 people (with many more standing) at long tables that branched out from a large, central pavilion, like spokes on a wheel. You can imagine the excitement and energy of the crowd, not to mention the prodigious amount of food that must have been served. Smaller echoes of this grand past can be seen here today. The park is still ideal for games of football or other sports, and Parker’s Piece is still routinely used to host visiting attractions and events.

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