Where Does the Term 'Hobson's Choice' Come From?

Hobson's Conduit (Conduit Head, Waterway Runnels and Hobson's Brook)
Trumpington Road, Cambridge

Scheduled and Listed: 1950
Grade: II*
NHLE entry: Listing details for Hobson's Conduit 

The famous phrase 'Hobson's choice' can be traced back to a Cambridge carrier who operated a livery stable delivering mail and providing transport to and from London in the early 17th century.

Thomas Hobson, who was born in 1545, recognised that his best horses were in most demand and that they were also the most overworked. He therefore devised a strict rotation system, only allowing customers to rent the next horse in line.

This 'take that one or none' ultimatum ensured Hobson's reputation as an astute businessman and city character, and the poet John Milton would later immortalise the expression 'Hobson's choice' in two commemorative epitaphs.

From stable-owner to city patron

Hobson's impressive rise from stable-owner to respected public benefactor can be charted through multiple designations on our National Heritage List for England. Perhaps his best remembered contribution was his encouragement and funding of the waterway system, Hobson's Conduit.

Constructed in 1614, the Conduit Head was originally built on Market Hill to improve the city of Cambridge's sanitation. It was moved in the 19th century following a fire - although today you can still glimpse the old fountain base at the centre of the market square.

Now on Lensfield Road in Cambridge, the Conduit Head structure stands over Hobson's Brook, commemorating the artificial watercourse that provided much-needed clean drinking water for the townspeople. The head - an impressive hexagonal stone structure with strapwork cresting, royal coats of arms and carved putti and beasts - is now listed at Grade II*, as are the waterway runnels. As one of the primary benefactors, Hobson's name is etched into the Conduit Head.

The brook runs to Great Shelford, and is protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Hobson is also remembered on the 'Nine Wells' obelisk just outside the village, a granite monument located at the source of the springs.

The legacy of Hobson's 'choices'

The fact that the 400-year-old water scheme is still so evident today, with conduit gutters ('runnels') running alongside some of Cambridge's principal colleges and the Fitzwilliam Museum, is a testament to Hobson's central involvement in the city and to the clever sponsorship choices he made.

Remarkably, Hobson is also connected with a third local landmark: Anglesey Abbey, just outside Cambridge, which Hobson acquired in 1627. He converted the derelict priory into a comfortable country house, preceding the affluent country estate we enjoy when visiting the Abbey today.

It is well worth keeping Thomas Hobson's name in mind next time you visit Cambridge. You might see the results of his 'choices' in the most unusual places …