Victoria County History



A. P. M. Wright & C. P. Lewis (Editors)

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'Girton: Introduction', A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 9: Chesterton, Northstowe, and Papworth Hundreds (1989), pp. 115-118. URL: Date accessed: 23 November 2014.


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GIRTON lies almost 3.5 km. (2 miles) northwest of Cambridge. (fn. 1) The ancient parish covered 1,691 a. in an approximate rectangle, its southern boundary towards Madingley being heavily indented. In 1934 it gained from Histon parish 58 a. at the north end of Girton village street, since the 17th century attached to the Cottons' manorial estate, and including by 1800 houses that were part of Girton village. (fn. 2) Another 139 a. were added to Girton in 1953, partly from Histon to the north, partly from Impington to the southeast, including most of the closes around the ancient hamlet of Howes. (fn. 3) In 1985 Girton's south-western boundary was altered to follow the line of the new motorway bypassing Cambridge to the west, involving a net loss to Girton of 107 a. (fn. 4) The parish, thereafter covering 721 ha. (1,781 a.), (fn. 5) steadily and until the 1980s still successfully resisted attempts to transfer to Cambridge city the dormitory suburb occupying its most urbanized south-eastern portion. (fn. 6)

Girton, whose soil lies upon gault overlaid in places by gravel, is virtually flat, mostly lying under 15 m. (c. 50 ft.), save for a slight rise to c. 25 m. (c. 80 ft.) at Bunker's Hill in the southeast. (fn. 7) Beck brook from the west, probably so named by 1430, (fn. 8) and Washpit brook from the south, so named by 1800, supposedly from the village sheep dip, (fn. 9) meet west of the village to produce a formerly marshy area. No ancient woodland survived in the 20th century. Until then Girton was devoted mainly to arable farming, formerly on a triennial rotation. Its open fields were inclosed in 1808. Girton College, one of the first two colleges established for women at Cambridge, was installed in buildings in the south by the main road in 1873. (fn. 10)

Traces of inclosed fields cultivated in the late Bronze Age and Roman period were found north of the village in 1975, (fn. 11) and a cemetery close to the college in 1880. Containing at least 225 burials, including 130 cremations, it was in use from the second century A.D. to the early AngloSaxon period, indicating the presence of a probably poor settlement. The finds, however, also included masonry and sculptural fragments from a possibly substantial monument. (fn. 12) A neighbouring barrow by the road was destroyed c. 1745. (fn. 13)

By 1086 the village was inhabited by 32 peasants and 2 servi, (fn. 14) and in 1279 had c. 90 landholders. (fn. 15) There were 56 taxpayers in 1327, (fn. 16) and 196 adults paid the poll tax in 1377. (fn. 17) Girton may have shrunk slightly in the later Middle Ages. Only 45 people paid the subsidy in 1524, (fn. 18) and there were only 34 households in 1563. (fn. 19) The population probably grew again in the early 17th century before declining c. 1650. (fn. 20) Under Charles II c. 40 dwellings housed III adults in 1676. (fn. 21) Following a further decline c. 1700, perhaps almost halving the population, 25 households numbered 130 people in 1728. (fn. 22) The population increased again only after the 1760s, as the birth rate began to exceed a fairly stable death rate. (fn. 23) In 1801 there were 232 inhabitants in 47 families. Thereafter numbers grew steadily, most rapidly in the 1810s and 1850s, to reach 326 by 1821, 413 in 1851, and a peak of almost 470 in the 1860s. (fn. 24) The shrinkage of the village thereafter was balanced by the increasing numbers at Girton College, which grew from 70 c. 1880 to almost 170 soon after 1900 and over 200 in the 1930s. In the village numbers had probably fallen to c. 375 by 1891, (fn. 25) but growth resumed after 1900 as new building on the approach from Cambridge and later in the village itself (fn. 26) raised the number in private households to 536 by 1921, 1,863 in 1951, c. 2,950 in 1971, and c. 3,120 in 1981. (fn. 27)

Unlike its western neighbours Girton parish straddled the Roman road leading north-west from Cambridge, a turnpike between 1745 (fn. 28) and 1874, (fn. 29) although the village lies over 1 km. to the north. Only in the early 13th century was a settlement established on the road itself, just east of the side road leading to the village. The hamlet, called Howes by 1279, (fn. 30) either from the nearby barrow or from the slight rise on which it stood, (fn. 31) was recorded by 1219 when it had some surrounding arable. (fn. 32) It was still inhabited in the late 14th century. (fn. 33) Its crofts and closes extended into Impington, (fn. 34) Chesterton, and Cambridge. The hamlet was not recorded as such after 1600, and c. 1800 the closes, then almost all belonging to the Cottons' manorial estate, contained only one or two dwellings. (fn. 35)

Girton and Madingley c. 1800

Figure 8: Girton and Madingley c. 1800

Girton village lay east of and parallel to Washpit brook, along a slightly curving high street running south-west from the old Histon boundary. From the north end a road runs towards Oakington, while at the middle a lane leads east to the parish church, then turns southeast to link the village with the main road. That side road and another leading south-west from the village's south end, by 1800 called Duck End, were left to follow their old sinuous courses at inclosure. (fn. 36) Church Lane, so named by 1498, (fn. 37) runs south from the church to Duck End as a back lane parallel to the high street, from which Dodford Lane, mentioned in 1353, (fn. 38) led west. The village's ancient closes extended for almost 1 km. south from the former Histon boundary, but by 1800 the southern part beyond the lane to the church was occupied by only one farmstead and a few cottages. One clunch-built row of cottages survived at Duck End in the 1980s, when the only other private houses dating from before 1800 were Binfield, a timber-framed thatched house with dormers, dated 1755, just north of the Old Rectory, and one or two 18th century cottages. Of c. 30 houses recorded at inclosure only 15, mostly plain grey-brick cottages, remained c. 1950. (fn. 39)

The number of inhabited dwellings in the parish increased from 30 in 1801 to over 60 by the 1820s and c. 90 in the 1850s, (fn. 40) of which 45- 50 stood along the main street, 8-10 at Duck End, almost 20 on Church Lane, and some 10 on other lanes off or linking them, such as Hicks Lane and Rooks Lane. (fn. 41) From the 1840s two substantial farmhouses stood by the turnpike, Howe Hill Farm, built c. 1850 opposite the junction of the main and side roads, (fn. 42) and Grange Farm, rebuilt after a fire in 1849. (fn. 43) Between 1841 and the 1880s there were six dwellings at Bunker's Hill, near the site of Howes, and by 1880 c. 15 houses stood along the road from the village towards Cambridge. (fn. 44) At Girton College the original small central block of 1873, designed by Alfred Waterhouse, was extended eastward and westward in the 1880s, c. 1900, and c. 1930, to designs by his descendants. (fn. 45) Its extensive grounds covered 37 a. along the main road by 1910. (fn. 46) The village shrank a little c. 1900, 4 cottages being demolished by 1910, leaving only 37 houses on the high street and c. 30 more on the lanes, but 23 stood on the road towards Cambridge and c. 20 by the former turnpike. (fn. 47)

By the 1920s (fn. 48) ribbon building along the Cambridge road, encouraged by fragmentation of ownership in that area, had begun from the south-east: 12 houses stood there by 1923, and more extensive development occurred from the 1930s. A line of large detached houses was put up facing the college along the main road, but the new housing estates planned elsewhere consisted mostly of semi-detached suburbanstyle houses. Near the village Pepys Way, laid out by 1933, leading west from Church Lane, had over 40 houses by 1950, while on the Woodlands estate south-west of the high street c. 25 were built between 1934 (fn. 49) and 1938. Nearer to Cambridge the Thornton estate was begun south-east of the college by 1937-8. (fn. 50) The long Thornton Road, one side of which was finished by 1938, had 50 houses by 1950. The large south-eastward extension of the estate along a north-south road in the land transferred from Impington in 1953 was gradually completed between the 1950s and the 1970s, partly in neoGeorgian style. In 1947 a large council housing estate, including from 1972 many old people's bungalows, was begun between Pepys Way and Duck End. (fn. 51)

From the 1950s the village itself grew considerably, partly through infilling, both along the old streets and lanes and in new closes built off them. An extensive housing estate, mostly of the 1960s, was put up off the high street north of Dodford Lane, while Gretton Court, a large block of 60 flats for prosperous retired people, was built north-west of Duck End by 1977. (fn. 52) By the 1980s, save where open spaces had been preserved as allotments or for recreation, virtually all the ancient village crofts were built over. To the 100 houses in the parish c. 1900 40 had been added by 1921, 75 more by 1931, 363 by 1951, and 332 in the 1950s, making c. 1,300 by 1961. Growth slowed a little thereafter, only c. 140 houses being built in the 1960s and c. 165 in the 1970s. (fn. 53)

Of Girton's public houses the White Horse was established in the 1760s. In the 1880s it provided the village's clubroom, closed c. 1910. (fn. 54) The Old Crown, probably opened in the 1840s, and the George and Dragon, started by a blacksmith in the 1850s, both on the high street, (fn. 55) were both still open in 1984. The former was rebuilt in 1938 in country club style. (fn. 56) From 1829 the village Feast was customarily held off Dodford Lane near the White Horse, in the week following the first Sunday after Trinity. (fn. 57) By the 1930s it lasted for three days in June, when the village recreation ground was regularly hired to a small travelling fair (fn. 58) until 1939. Attempts to revive it in the late 1940s petered out. (fn. 59) Regular prize-giving by Miss A. M. Cotton (d. 1883) to her tenants in the 1850s for growing flowers and fruit and for keeping their cottages neat developed into a horticultural show. (fn. 60) A society started to continue it c. 1885 was still active in the 1890s. (fn. 61) The village had a reading room by 1885, (fn. 62) and a free parish library by the 1890s. (fn. 63) In 1910-11 £600 was given to build near the church a small village institute, later mostly used as a men's club. A women's institute occupied from c. 1920 a former Army hut on the high street. From c. 1950 the old school, renamed the Cotton Hall, was also used as a village hall. (fn. 64) In the late 20th century the village had several social clubs for all ages and sexes, besides sports clubs. (fn. 65)

A cricket club founded in 1852 had been restarted in 1884. (fn. 66) In 1912 the parish council acquired from the county council Church Piece, 6 1/2; a. east of the church, for a recreation ground, on which a small sports pavilion was built in 1913. (fn. 67) After its requisitioning between 1940 and 1945 the ground was expensively developed in 1948-9 with facilities for cricket, football, tennis, and bowls. (fn. 68) A large new pavilion was built there in 1970-1. (fn. 69) The Girton Golf Club, founded in 1936, used 68 a. north-west of the village as a nine-hole golf course from the 1930s, buying it in 1965 and land for another nine holes in 1975. (fn. 70)

From the 1950s the Animal Research Station of the Agricultural Research Council, working mostly on cattle, was housed in buildings by the main road north-west of Howe Hill Farm. (fn. 71) Despite local opposition (fn. 72) the central third of the land south of the Huntingdon road was taken in the 1970s for the intersection of the Cambridge western bypass (M 11) with the northern bypass. The latter, under construction in 1975-7 (fn. 73) and opened in 1978, (fn. 74) sweeps eastward across the middle of the parish, separating the old village from the suburbs to its south-east.


1 This history was completed in 1985. Other accts. of the parish include 'Girton: Hist. Survey of a Cambs. Parish', TS. 1952, revised 1973; copy in Cambs. Colln. Revised version cited here as 'Girton: Survey'.
2 Census, 1931; C.R.O., R 54/25/15; cf. C.U.L., MS. Plan 558.
3 Census, 1951; C.R.O., R 54/25/16.
4 S. Cambs. Par. Order (1984).
5 Census, 1981.
6 e.g. C.R.O., R 54/25/1A, pp. 143, 175, 182-3; R 54/25/1B, p. 204.
7 For the parish, O.S. Maps 6", Cambs. XXXIX. NE., SE.; XL. NW., SW. (1890 and later edns.); 1/25,000, TL 46 (1955 and later edns.).
8 e.g. P.R.O., SC 2/179/60, m. 3d.: 'Bek grene' (1430); cf. C.R.O., 588/E 19, f. 8: 'Broad Beck'.
9 e.g. C.R.O., R 57/10/6; cf. 'Girton: Survey', 1.
10 V.C.H. Cambs. iii. 491.
11 Proc. C.A.S. lxvii. 3-8.
12 Ibid. v, Rep. xli, pp. xx-xxi; vi, Rep. xlvi, p. lxxxv. Discussed, Fox, Arch. Camb. Region, 137-8, 246-9, 270-83; V.C.H. Cambs. i. 313; A. Meaney, Gazetteer of Early A.-S. Burial Sites, 65-6.
13 Lysons, Cambs. 44.
14 V.C.H. Cambs. i. 371-2, 395.
15 Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 457-9.
16 Cambs. Lay Subsidy, 1327, 66-7.
17 East Anglian, N.S. xii. 240.
18 P.R.O., E 179/81/163, m. 13.
19 B.L. Harl. MS. 594, f. 199v.
20 Parochial vital statistics from 1630s given, from par. reg.: 'Girton: Survey', 32, 60.
21 Compton Census, ed. Whiteman, 167; below, Analysis of Hearth Tax Assessments.
22 C.U.L., E.D.R., B 8/1, f. 15.
23 'Girton: Survey', 60.
24 Census, 1801-71.
25 Ibid. 1881-1931; cf. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1883-1937).
26 Below.
27 Census, 1951-81.
28 Godmanchester to Newmarket Heath Turnpike Act, 18 Geo. II, c. 23.
29 Annual Turnpike Acts Continuance Act, 34 & 35 Vic. c. 115.
30 Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 363, 366.
31 Discussed, H. M. Cam, 'Hamlet of Howes', reprinted from Girton Rev. Lent Term 1944, 1-4.
32 Cur. Reg. R. viii. 38; cf. P.R.O., CP 25(1)/23/12, no. 1.
33 e.g. Cal. Pat. 1370-4, 177, 503; 1381-5, 556.
34 Ibid. 1405-8, 11.
35 C.U.L., MS. Plan 558.
36 C.R.O., Q/RDz 7, pp. 11-12.
37 P.R.O., SC 2/179/75, m. 6.
38 Ibid. SC 2/179/34, m. 3d.
39 M.L.H.G. list; 'Girton: Survey', 38-9.
40 Census, 1801-61.
41 e.g. P.R.O., HO 107/1759; ibid. RG 9/1018.
42 e.g. C.R.O., 124/P 73; cf. ibid. 588/E 49A.
43 Camb. Chron. 29 Dec. 1849.
44 e.g. P.R.O., HO 107/69; ibid, RG 10/1659.
45 For its bldgs., V.C.H. Cambs. iii. 491-2; Pevsner, Cambs. 155.
46 C.R.O., 470/O 76.
47 Ibid.
48 O.S. Map 6", Cambs. XL. SW. (1927 edn.). For later developments, ibid. XL. NW., SW. (1938, 1950 edns.); 1/10,000, TL 46 SW. (1959, 1973 edns.).
49 C.R.O., R 54/25/1A, pp. 181, 214, 228; cf. Camb. Ind. Press, 7 Sept. 1934.
50 C.R.O., R 54/25/1B, sub Nov. 1937; Jan., May, Sept. 1938.
51 Ibid. R 54/25/1C, pp. 166-7; Camb. Evening News, 6 Oct. 1972.
52 e.g. Camb. Evening News, 24 Sept., 12 Oct. 1970; 8 Apr., 8 July, 6 Dec. 1974; 'Girton: Survey', 56-8.
53 Census, 1961-81.
54 C.R.O., Q/RLv 2, p. 23; Q/RLv 6, p. 261 (from card index); Camb. Chron. 22 Mar. 1806; 25 Mar. 1887; Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1858-1912).
55 Gardner's Dir. Cambs. (1851); P.R.O., HO 107/1759; ibid. RG 9/1018.
56 Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1858-1937); 'Girton: Survey', 55; photo. at Old Crown.
57 Camb. Chron. 17 Apr. 1829; 2 July 1897; C.R.O., R 54/25/28, May 1912; cf. 'Girton: Survey', 48-9.
58 C.R.O., R 54/25/1A, pp. 102-3, 118-9, 233.
59 Ibid. R 54/25/1B, sub June 1939; R 54/25/1C, pp. 153, 177; St. John's Coll. Mun., corr. June 1953.
60 Gardner's Dir. Cambs. (1851); Camb. Chron. 30 July 1883.
61 Camb. Chron. 20 Nov. 1885; 25 Feb. 1887; 27 July 1894.
62 Ibid. 8 May 1885.
63 Ibid. 9 Dec. 1898; C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/37.
64 Kelly's Dir. Cambs (1912); Char. Com. files; 'Girton: Survey', 54, 57; Camb. Evening News, 28 July 1976; C.R.O., R 57/25/22.
65 e.g. C.R.O., R 57/25/22; Camb. Ind. Press, 4 May 1960; 25 Apr. 1967.
66 Camb. Chron. 24 Apr. 1852; 19 Dec. 1884; 13 May 1887.
67 C.R.O., R 54/25/28, sub Jan. 1912, Oct. 1913; 'Girton: Survey', 54.
68 C.R.O., R 54/25/1C, passim.
69 Camb. News, 25 Apr. 1967; Camb. Evening News, 26 Mar., 7, 22 Oct. 1970; 18 Jan. 1973.
70 'Girton: Survey', 55; inf. from the Club Captain, Mr. H. J. Camden; cf. St. John's Coll. Mun., corr. Nov. 1928, Aug. 1938.
71 O.S. Map 6", Cambs. XL. SW. (1938 edn.); 1/10,000, TL 46 SW. (1973 edn.); cf. St. John's Coll. Mun., corr. Mar. 1954, Apr. 1959.
72 e.g. Camb. Ind. Press, 26 Mar. 1970; Camb. Evening News, 5 Feb., 22 June 1971.
73 Camb. Evening News, 22 May 1975; 17 Oct. 1976; 9 June 1977.
74 Ibid. 22 June 1979; 27 Feb. 1980, suppl.

Northstowe Hundred