Over a very long life, Thomas Hobson became one of the best-known names of his time. For decades he carried the goods of Cambridge townspeople and scholars up and down the London road in his great ox-drawn wagons. The wagons set out regularly from Hobson’s yard on Trumpington Street (a site now occupied by St Catharine’s College) to take the three-day journey via Ware to the Bull at Bishopsgate. He inherited this business from his father in 1568, and by the time he died in 1631, had seen three generations bringing their goods and packages to be loaded up.

That would have given him temporary fame, but an idea for a new business project brought him immortality. He decided to branch out, and offer a regular horse hire service. There was a need. Few townspeople could afford to keep their own horse. In addition the undergraduates, mostly gentlemen’s sons, were used to riding for recreation, though only the richest of them could afford to stable their own horses in Cambridge.

Hobson’s second good idea, and the one that counted, was to control the hire, to preserve his valuable animals. He would hire them out strictly in rotation. Each horse would get a decent rest, and the young gentlemen who hoped for fiery steeds on which to race or show off, would have to take Hobson’s choice of horse: that is, they would have no choice at all. If the slowest nag in the stable was the next out, that was what they would get. The ploy quickly became famous, and ‘Hobson’s Choice’ entered the language to mean ‘no choice’. Probably the soberer sort of customer liked the assurance that they would get a well-rested, reliable animal rather than one ruined by careless students.

Hobson’s name in Cambridge is also preserved in the parts of a scheme to bring fresh water to the centre of the town. People often had cause to complain about the rubbish and foulness in the King’s Ditch, which bounded the south and east sides of the town. (It crossed under Trumpington Street where the Pitt Press and Fitzbillies now stand.) A plan to divert water from the Vicar’s Brook northwards, alongside the Trumpington Road and into the Ditch was effected in 1610. It seems that people then suggested the fresh water might also be good to drink, in preference to that from some of the wells and pumps in town. More work was done, to construct additional channels and pipes and to build an outlet, or conduit, on Market Hill. (It now stands at the corner of Lensfield Road.) Why are the new stream and the conduit named after Hobson? He was certainly a benefactor, giving property to help maintain the system, but so were other men. Perhaps in addition he was one of those ‘people’ who pushed to get the whole thing done, using his many contacts round the town to lobby for the project? The open channel in Trumpington Street, for watering animals, was a very handy feature for Hobson himself.

He used some of the profits of his business to go in for property development, which was not popular with everyone. With a rising population, there was a demand for small houses for folk coming into Cambridge from the countryside, to make their fortunes. But many of the better-off residents, gown as well as town, were worried that the new-comers would be poor people with no skills or savings, who would end up begging for support from the parish rates. Hobson and others like him were blamed for encouraging the influx and for building their new properties with thatch roofs – a great fire hazard in built-up areas.

Maybe it was to redress this, that Hobson gave a particular legacy to the town: he provided land and properties in St Andrew’s Street for the building of a house (afterwards called the Spinning House) ‘as well for setting the poor people to work … as for a house of correction for unruly and stubborn rogues beggars and other poor persons who should refuse to work’. The Master was to be a weaver, who would supply wool and flax for the inmates to spin into yarn. (As time went on, the House became more and more a jail, and was used by the University to lock up town girl’s accused of prostitution. After particularly notorious cases in 1891, the University’s power was given up, and the Spinning House closed. It was demolished in 1901 and a police station built on the site.)

Hobson finally died in January 1631, commemorated also in a facetious poem by the poet Milton, who suggested Death had for years pursued Hobson up and down the London road, only catching him when a plague outbreak prohibited all transport. He was buried in St Bene’t’s church. There are several representations of Hobson, all showing a robust bearded figure, some clutching a bulging money-bag to symbolise the profits of his labours.

Thomas Hobson’s enterprise and business acumen certainly earned him a fortune and some of this he gave in charitable bequests to the town. It may be that the power of persuading others was an even more important factor in his legacy.