A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.
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Reach was probably already being used for loading goods for transport along the lode into the fen waterway system before 1100; by 1125 the abbot of Ramsey had secured confirmation of his predecessors' enjoyment of a litus, perhaps a landing place, there. (fn. 1) By the 1150s Reach was among the destinations, along with some East Anglian boroughs and ports, to which tenants of that abbey's Huntingdonshire manors might be ordered to carry corn on horseback. (fn. 2) Goods were loaded either at the common hythe, mentioned in 1443 and 180 yds. long, built up from chalk rubble at the north-west end of the green, (fn. 3) or in up to six basins constructed on watercourses leading off each side of it. (fn. 4) In the mid 15th century, and perhaps the 16th, corn being taken to Ramsey abbey from its Burwell manor was shipped through Reach. (fn. 5)
In 1279 and 1318 Ely priory's customary tenants at Reach, though owing five harvest boons and a few other labour services, including carting manure, had, like those holding of Walden abbey, possessed only small 'cotlands' of a messuage and, at most, 1-3 a. each. (fn. 6) Presumably they supported themselves mainly by trading or crafts. In the late 15th and the 16th centuries inhabitants at Reach often bequeathed keels, named like ships from saints, or half shares in them, also lighters and barges; (fn. 7) some appar ently had only lighters. (fn. 8) Some Reach men worked as watermen both in the 17th century (fn. 9) and in the 19th, (fn. 10) although by the mid 18th only small ships and barges came up to Reach with merchandise. Trade probably continued on a small scale into the early 19th century: one merchant mentioned at Reach in 1769, (fn. 11) who also farmed there, was bankrupt in 1782, when his warehouse was for sale. (fn. 12) Another Reach 'merchant' sold his farming stock in 1804. (fn. 13) In the early 19th century goods subject to tolls assigned to the Swaffham fen drainage commission and levied also on Reach Lode included clunch and lime, coal and turf, sedge and corn, and brick. (fn. 14) Following the opening of the CambridgeMildenhall railway in 1884, (fn. 15) navigation on the lode dwindled away.
Ely priory had leased a fishery at Reach in 1318, (fn. 16) and an Exning manor had another, in Reach Lode, in the 1440s. (fn. 17) A Cambridge fishmonger was visiting Reach in 1574. (fn. 18) In the 1580s one Reach man had a fishery there with a fishing boat and nets. (fn. 19) But the most important local product loaded at Reach from the Middle Ages was the clunch dug in its quarries. One was attached to Upware manor in 1331. (fn. 20) About 1300 Ramsey abbey had boats from Reach carrying chalk, (fn. 21) and clunch shipped from or through Reach was used by the 1280s in building Cambridge castle, (fn. 22) and also in the 16th century for work at Cambridge colleges. (fn. 23) In 1367 Ely priory rented out five limekilns at Reach. (fn. 24) From the 1420s it gave its tenants leave to dig clunch in crofts near such kilns. (fn. 25) Sometimes in the 15th century it granted as copyhold land in the pits at Reach near the kilns, (fn. 26) also limekilns themselves, (fn. 27) presumably sited then as later around Church Hill. During the 15th century lime made at Reach was bought for building at Kirtling Castle. (fn. 28) In the early 16th century some Reach men bequeathed limepits and 1/2-a. or 1-a. plots of 'acreland in the quarry' and of 'pit ground'. (fn. 29) Reach limekilns were mentioned in 1589. (fn. 30) When Swaffham Prior was enclosed, 1807-8, (fn. 31) much of the part of its Ditch field lying just south of Reach, which was often called from the 13th century Reach crofts (fn. 32) or field, (fn. 33) and where the 'broken clunch land' lay, was divided in 1807 into small pieces of 1 a. or less amongst quarry owners. They had requested that their allotments should be sited in the exact positions that they had previously occupied. (fn. 34) In 1861 possibly up to two thirds of the hamlet's workforce were available for digging clunch. (fn. 35) By the 1880s quarrying had overrun most of that area as far as the Stonepit road set out in 1807 to bound the Reach allotments, (fn. 36) but ceased in the 20th century.
In the 16th century some Reach men prospered by combining shipping, quarrying and lime burning, and farming, (fn. 37) often planting saffron. (fn. 38) A few were able to leave among their widows and children sums of up to £170-90, besides much silver plate, salts and spoons. (fn. 39) By the early 17th century the wealthier hamleteers, though still owning boats, were possibly concentrating more on farming, some keeping milking cattle. (fn. 40) In the late 18th century some Reach residents possessed 30-40 a. of fen in the neighbouring parishes. (fn. 41) In the mid 19th century ten or more farmers, mostly locally born and only three or four working over 50 a., were established at, and close to, the hamlet. Being mostly smallholders they did not usually require between them more than 20-25 labourers. In 1871 Reach provided 39 labourers for the coprolite diggings, (fn. 42) under way nearby since the late 1850s: 600 diggers came to Reach fair in 1859. (fn. 43) In 1861 an immigrant agent had employed 36 men in them. (fn. 44) The hamlet had few craftsmen: usually, besides a builder, (fn. 45) there were a shoemaker and two blacksmiths into the 1870s, one thereafter until the 1910s; after that decade likewise only one of 2-3 shops remained. (fn. 46) About 1970 eight men, only two of whom farmed less than 50 a., were themselves working c. 625 a., half under corn crops, in Reach parish. (fn. 47)
By the early 19th century the main relic of Reach's former commercial importance was its fair, held yearly on Rogation Monday. (fn. 48) Its control was claimed by the 1280s by the burgesses of Cambridge (fn. 49) under their charter from King John of 1201 which confirmed a traditional fair in that week. (fn. 50) In the 14th century the borough took two thirds of the tolls levied, the prior of Ely, allegedly by royal grant, one third. (fn. 51) After the Reformation all the profits of the fair were appropriated, despite objections from the dean and chapter of Ely in 1588, by the borough. (fn. 52) By 1500 it was hiring a house at Reach, perhaps to accommodate the fair court still hearing cases in 1508, when parties involved came from Cambridgeshire and Essex villages, besides a merchant, probably selling cloth, from Bury St. Edmunds (Suff.). (fn. 53) The mayor of Cambridge still formally held a pie powder court there c. 1750. (fn. 54)
About 1300 Ramsey abbey's bailiff at Burwell was buying at Reach fair iron to make ploughshares and nails for cartwheels, (fn. 55) while Ely priory then obtained iron and steel there. (fn. 56) In the early 14th century the Ely sacrist and his servants, attending that fair until the 1360s, bought mainly timber, pegs, and nails. (fn. 57) Ordinary trade may have been declining by 1400 when Ramsey abbey could no longer hire out sites for stalls, (fn. 58) while Ely priory had unlet plots in Reach market place in the 1420s. (fn. 59)
By 1359 the priory had had lettable places next to a horse market, (fn. 60) and the fair, styled the horse fair by 1432, (fn. 61) remained important for the sale of horses into the 19th century. The lines of beasts, then often fen-raised half-breeds, secured to stakes each side of the green, sometimes stretched for half a mile down the Burwell road. (fn. 62) Sales were partly of riding nags, but chiefly of carthorses. Wood was also still being sold c. 1830. (fn. 63) By 1838 general business was 'trifling', (fn. 64) but the large-scale marketing of horses, though sales were sometimes described as poor by the 1840s, (fn. 65) apparently continued into the late 1870s. (fn. 66) Even reduced selling of horses supposedly ceased c. 1920, but such sales occasionally occurred again in the 1970s. (fn. 67)
After 1900 the fair became chiefly a pleasure fair. Already in the 14th and 15th centuries several alewives, six to ten in some years, had brewed specially for sale at the fair. (fn. 68) In the 19th century beersellers at the fair did not require licences. (fn. 69) The presence of showmen with their stalls, together with dancing booths and in 1861 a photographer, was also reported from the 1850s. (fn. 70) By the 1860s police were patrolling the fair. (fn. 71) By the 1580s the mayor of Cambridge himself was proclaiming the fair open, riding thither along the bottom of the Devil's Ditch. (fn. 72) In 1769 the mayor and others of the corporation in their robes arrived by carriage at the market place. (fn. 73) The carriage procession continued in the 19th century. (fn. 74) By 1736 a corporate dinner, then regulated and abandoned after 1837 as too extravagant, was held after the proclamation in a house still called c. 1900 the Corporation house. (fn. 75) In the late 20th century, when the borough still received rent annually for the green, the fair was normally proclaimed, and pennies, £60 worth by 1989, were scattered among local children at the fair green, sometimes also, irregularly, at the hythe. The mayor of Cambridge still opened the fair in the 1990s. (fn. 76)