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.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
Fordham, (fn. 1) lying over four miles (7 km.) north of Newmarket and thirteen north-east of Cambridge, covered 4,204 a. until Landwade's 127 a. were incorporated in 1953, thereafter 1,753 ha. (4,331 a.)., (fn. 2) within borders that form an irregular oblong, but with substantial projections to north, west, and south. (fn. 3) The incurving boundaries to the east and south largely follow those of former open fields. The western and northern projections, the former towards Wicken partly bounded on the south by part of Burwell's New River, consist of fenland formerly intercommonable with Soham. With extensive fields and crofts in the north-west of the parish, that common was formerly subject to the jurisdiction of a Soham manorial court, but after its inclosure in the mid 17th century was held to lie parochially in Fordham. (fn. 4) Between those two extensions there lay on the north-west side Clipsall field, mostly in Soham, but part of which had long been included within Fordham ecclesiastically. (fn. 5)
The parish lies predominantly upon the Lower Chalk, overlaid in a few places by the Middle Chalk, and traversed from south to north by a strip of alluvium along the gently winding northward course of the river Snail, which divides into several channels as it flows past Fordham village. A wider strip of river gravels touching the river extends from the eastern boundary towards the site of the village, (fn. 6) placed almost centrally within the main block of the parish. The land is virtually level, declining almost imperceptibly from c. 15 m. along Fordham's south-eastern side to 5 m. or less in its north-west. Watercourses bounding Chippenham and Snailwell fens on their north and west, which in places form the parish boundary, drain south of the village into the Snail, whose courses have occasionally been adjusted there, altering its distance from the modern Fordham Abbey, to suit the landscaping of its park. (fn. 7) North and west of the village other drainage channels run into the Snail and into Burwell New River from the former fenland. From the 1970s the Snail was frequently polluted by outflows from Newmarket's sewage system: repeated attempts were made in the late 1980s to cleanse and protect the river. (fn. 8)
No ancient woodland survives, although in the 19th century the narrow Underdown plantation, (fn. 9) 16 a., was laid out by Chippenham fen along the south-east boundary, while Abbey wood, 13 a. in 1930, was planted beside the Snail south of the village and east of the well-timbered Fordham Abbey park. (fn. 10) Most of the east and south of the parish, which remains arable farmland, was cultivated until inclosure in the 1810s under a triennial rotation, while the belt of fen drained by the 19th century to the north-west supplied common pasture, part until the 1650s, the rest until the 1810s. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Fordham was notable for nursery gardens.
Traces have been found in Fordham, in the form of weapons and tools, both flint and metal, and pottery, of human activity and probably settlement, from the Early Bronze Age to the Iron Age, (fn. 11) also a few burials. (fn. 12) From the Roman period, besides crop marks, there survive fragments of wall plaster and tiles, suggesting that villas stood to the south and west near Biggin and Block Farms in the 2nd to 4th centuries A.D. (fn. 13) Three 8th- or 9th-century 'book clasps', possibly shrine ornaments, found near Fordham may be associated with the religious community supposedly then at Soham. (fn. 14)
In 1086 Fordham was probably inhabited by 24 peasants and one servus. (fn. 15) By 1279 the village contained c. 140 houses, occupied by c. 135 manorial tenants. (fn. 16) There were 38 people paying the fifteenth in 1327. (fn. 17) In 1377 c. 340 paid the poll tax (fn. 18) and in 1523-4 c. 65 the subsidy. (fn. 19) Numbers grew rapidly from the 1570s, possibly doubling by the mid 17th century. (fn. 20) Ministers reported 240 (adult) communicants in 1603 (fn. 21) and still 370 in 1676, (fn. 22) when Fordham had c. 120 dwellings; barely 15 of them had more than three hearths, and 55-65 only one. (fn. 23) From a peak c. 1680 the population may have fallen by a third or more by the mid 18th century, only recovering from the 1760s. (fn. 24) By 1801 it had reached 700, and rose steadily thereafter, most rapidly in the 1820s, to a fresh peak of 1,584 in 1851, despite some emi gration. (fn. 25) Numbers had fallen to 1,191 by 1881. Then, however, a sluggish growth resumed, the population rising to 1,326 by 1901 and 1,475 by 1931. Partly through new building it reached 1,667 by 1951 and, growing fastest in the 1960s and 1980s, 1,969 in 1971 and 2,204 by 1991. (fn. 26)
Until the 19th century settlement in the parish was concentrated along a main street, (fn. 27) whose eastern part was called from the 14th century to the early 17th the 'hey' (fn. 28) or 'high' street', (fn. 29) still its name in the 1850s. (fn. 30) It forms part of a road running west from Mildenhall (Suff.) through Soham towards Ely, and lies west of the point where that road crossed one southward from Isleham, possibly called c. 1400 Moor street. (fn. 31) By the 20th century that eastern section of the main street was renamed Church Street after the village church, which stood south-west of that crossroads. As it led west the street ran slightly north-westwards to cross the Snail by a bridge called the Stone bridge by the 17th century, as c. 1800. (fn. 32) The street then bent a little southwestward before curving more sharply north-west to form a road towards Soham. That western part beyond the bridge was called by 1400 Carter Street, (fn. 33) and the 2 ½-a. green along its north-eastern side by 1800 Carter Street green. (fn. 34) The larger Feast green, in 1656 part of Pool Fen common's 15 a. and covering until inclosure 7 a., lay south of Carter Street's eastern part. (fn. 35)
Ancient closes around the village, covering in the 1810s c. 225 a., and its crofts (fn. 36) stretched some way south from the main street as far as a back lane. They were bounded on the east by the modern Collin Hill (fn. 37) and Peachey Street, then still uninhabited, whereas there were already dwellings along Mill lane, so named by the 1740s, (fn. 38) possibly the Dam street recorded c. 1380-1550. (fn. 39) Mill lane runs parallel to the Snail, there called the Dam in 1656, and links the main street to the back lane and a water mill on the Snail beyond. The back lane, probably the Paddock street mentioned c. 1550-1800, (fn. 40) was also styled Mill lane c. 1820, (fn. 41) but River Lane by 1870. (fn. 42) It extended west, crossing the Snail by a bridge called by 1530 Paddock bridge, rebuilt in the 1840s, to a small group of houses standing by the 1650s by White lane, around the small Market Street green, (fn. 43) from which a road led south-west toward Burwell. Those houses lay at the south end of Market Street, which ran north-west to form a back way for the crofts west of Carter Street, to which it was linked only by minor lanes, such as Sharmans lane, mentioned c. 1820. (fn. 44) Market street itself had been so named by 1440, (fn. 45) probably not from a trading function, but from its leading into Newmarket way, (fn. 46) which ran south past Fordham priory, later the site of Fordham Abbey, through Exning towards Newmarket. The village plan thus eventually formed a quadrilateral of streets and lanes, though before the 19th century only its northern edge was well populated. The half of the land inclosed by those streets that lay west of the river was by 1800 traversed by the New Path, once Gunnings lane, leading stepwise south-west from the bend of Carter Street to Market Street green. (fn. 47)
Few of the timber-framed houses that once lined Fordham's streets have survived the fires that sometimes ravaged the village. One in 1601 destroyed 13 dwellings from the high street to Market Street. Another in 1712 burnt many more between Mill lane and the old vicarage. (fn. 48) The 19th century still saw fires destroying many farmhouses, especially in the 1840s, (fn. 49) and cottages: twelve cottages were lost in one fire in 1853, six more in 1858-61. (fn. 50) Among the few houses remaining from before 1750 is a late 16th-century timber-framed one under a queenpost roof standing south of Carter Street, brickcased in the early 19th century and given four sash windows below dormers with a central doorway, later pedimented. One room retains 17th-century panelling. A late 16th-century timber-framed barn and warehouse, weatherboarded under pantiles, of six bays with mullioned windows in its west wall, survives by the bridge west of that house. The once threebayed, possibly 17th-century Chequers public house, where Carter Street turns north-west, was also brick-cased over its timber frame and extended to east and west c. 1830, when its street front was sashed under segmental brick arches. The Crown inn, at the far east end of the main street, occupies another two-storeyed, timberframed house, probably 16th-century. Though refaced after 1800, it has inside clunch fireplaces with arched openings on two floors. (fn. 51)
From the late 18th century some wealthier villagers built themselves new houses, usually of grey brick, of two storeys with three-or fourbayed fronts, moulded classical doorcases, and, eventually, 16-paned sash windows. Two such, Moston and Washington Houses, both slateroofed, survive south of Church Street. (fn. 52) On Mill lane, whose west side was already well built up at inclosure, are several similar early 19thcentury houses, one with a porch on Ionic columns. Off New Path, Walton House, also early 19th-century, on an L-plan, has a five-bayed front in which four segmental-arched windows flank a central round-headed one. The late 18thcentury, partly timber-framed, Biggin Farm in other old inclosures south of the Abbey, built and thatched, as a cottage orné, has Gothick windows and doors in its wings. West of the Newmarket road stands the 19th-century Fordham House, originally built to a standard three-bayed design in brick with segmentalarched windows on its south front. Near it stands a (presumably moved) late 17th-century timber-framed barn of six bays. A few other farmhouses, some with dependent cottages, were similarly built out on the former open fields after inclosure, as at Slate, later Leechmere, Farm to the east, and Lark Hall Farm to the west. (fn. 53) At Block Farm, amidst 17th-century inclosures in Fordham's western projection, there was already a farmstead c. 1800. (fn. 54)
Most of the other houses along the older village streets are of 19th-century brick, including a few terraces of cottages: by the 1850s local farmers and builders had put up 10-12 together in 'yards' along the streets, originally named after them. (fn. 55) The number of inhabited houses in the parish grew from 186, many subdivided, in 1831, when rates were levied on 106 houses and 210 cottages, to 336 by 1851. (fn. 56) In the mid 19th century most inhabitants still dwelt within the traditional bounds of the village. There were, apart from the dwellings around Fordham Abbey, only a few groups of cottages, 10-12 at most, at farmhouses outside the village, mostly in the former fen to the west. In the 1860s there were 110-120 dwellings along the main northern street, with another 60-80 mostly humbler ones on the lanes to its south, of which only Mill Lane with 25-35 was heavily built up. The number of houses on Market Street declined from a peak of c. 80 in 1861 to 55-65 in the 1870s. In 1871 c. 625 people, almost half the parish population, lived along the northern street, c. 275 others on the adjoining lanes, and as many on Market Street. (fn. 57) By the 1870s the reduced population had left 25-30 houses empty, compared with c. 300-5 inhabited ones. (fn. 58) Some late 19th-century cottages went up east of Mill Lane, where one house is dated 1901. In 1910 there stood on the village streets and lanes c. 80 houses and c. 235 cottages, almost all rented. Some 160 of those dwellings were on Church and Carter Streets, almost 40 on Mill Lane, whose previously empty east side was built up in the late 19th century, and c. 45 on Market Street; (fn. 59) on its eastern side Fordham's prosperous nurserymen were building themselves substantial, sometimes redbrick, houses, one dated 1893, including the Townsends' Shrubland House. (fn. 60) Subsequent growth, after absorbing unoccupied houses or their sites, 94 houses being built 1892-1922, had by the 1920s raised the number of dwellings to 380-400, and by 1951 to over 500. (fn. 61)
Few new houses were built beyond the confines of the ancient village before the 1930s. By 1950 some ribbon building had occurred along the north side of the Mildenhall road, and later facing Fordham Abbey's park west of the Newmarket road. (fn. 62) Some bungalows put up by 1960 south of Murfitts Road, which connects the northward prolongations of Carter and Market Streets, still formed in the 1990s the northwestern edge of the built area, though there was a caravan park to its north-west from 1970. The largest new development (fn. 63) was the building in the 1950s and 1960s, near the parish's eastern boundary, each side of the Mildenhall road, of a large council estate, (fn. 64) mostly of semi-detached houses, still separated from the village by a small gap in the 1990s. A similar council estate was put up from the 1950s along Sharmans Road, followed by closes each side; that on the south, partly of bungalows for old people, was built c. 1967, (fn. 65) another on the north, 1975-80. (fn. 66) The council also from 1957 converted for housing old people a large 19th-century house, The Grove, once the Townsends', off Carter Street, but closed it in 1992. (fn. 67) By 1970 the south part of the former Church crofts was covered by a private development called Trinity Close. (fn. 68) Other small privately developed estates, some with houses closely set, were put up on the edges of the village, one in the 1990s built by the local housing association, Hereward Housing. (fn. 69) The total number of dwellings in the parish grew by c. 125 in the 1960s, and in the 1980s by c. 165 to 894 in 1991; a fifth of them, compared with almost a third in 1981, were council houses, but two thirds were owner-occupied. (fn. 70) In the 1980s and 1990s several individually designed larger houses were erected north-east of Carter Street, (fn. 71) and others along Market Street, including the 20 houses of Feast Close. (fn. 72) In the early 1970s planners proposed also to build over the western half of the village quadrilateral, around New Path and Ironbridge Path, the latter named from a 19th-century footbridge across the Snail, renewed in 1970-1 (fn. 73) with wrought-iron railings. Building there was thwarted, however, by the villagers' opposition, which preserved that well timbered area for their recreations. (fn. 74) A Fordham Society, founded in 1974 to help protect such local amenities, (fn. 75) remained active into the 1990s. (fn. 76)
Before inclosure Fordham was linked to neighbouring villages by ways, (fn. 77) some, such as those east and south-east towards Chippenham and Freckenham (Suff.), following gently curving parallel courses, called 'upper' and 'nether' or 'lower' ways, through the open fields. South of the village Landwade, Exning, and Newmarket ways diverged to lead to those places. The King's path, already so named by 1410, near which James I dined after hunting the hare in Fordham's fields in 1605, (fn. 78) ran eastwards 'under down', parallel to the Chippenham boundary. At inclosure one of each pair of parallel ways was selected for retention on a straightened line to provide the roads thereafter in use. Only the two alternative routes north-west towards Soham were both left unaltered. (fn. 79)
When the Great Eastern Railway's Newmarket-Ely line was opened in 1879, (fn. 80) it included a section running through Fordham west of the village, for which a station was then built, ½ mile along the road to Burwell, soon called Station Road. (fn. 81) That station was shortly afterwards linked by a junction to its south with the line running north-east from Cambridge to Mildenhall opened in 1884, (fn. 82) which entered Fordham by a cutting in its southern end and curved north-east across its former fen and moor. Despite extension in 1891 to handle growing traffic, Fordham station was again congested by 1905, but competition from motor transport halved passenger numbers in the late 1920s (fn. 83) and overall traffic was declining by the 1950s. The connecting lines to Cambridge and Mildenhall were closed in 1962-4 and shortly abandoned, and Fordham station was closed for passengers in 1965 and for freight in 1966, being soon sold and demolished. (fn. 84) The Ely line continued in use into the 1990s. (fn. 85) By the 1960s Fordham's streets were becoming crowded with fast and heavy traffic. (fn. 86) Market Street became especially busy as part of a main route north to Ely, carrying by 1984 7,000 vehicles each weekday, including c. 800 lorries. (fn. 87)
Fordham's chief inns from the 1760s, the Chequers and Crown at each end of the main street, and the Green Dragon, formerly the Bull, on Market Street green, (fn. 88) remained the most important public houses between the 1850s and 1930s, when there were also 4-6 beerhouses; c. 1910 three beerhouses stood on Carter Street, two each on Market and Church Streets, and one on Mill Lane. (fn. 89) By 1807 the Green Dragon had a clubroom, (fn. 90) which soon accommodated the Ancient Shepherds friendly society founded in 1846 with 30-40 members, (fn. 91) succeeding one with 30-60, recorded 1814-15. (fn. 92) In 1890 the Fordham Shepherds re-established their lodge, for a time absorbed in Newmarket's. In 1910 they owned 7 a. in Block field. (fn. 93) The Green Dragon had closed by the 1960s, (fn. 94) while the last beerhouse to survive closed in 1996, (fn. 95) leaving open only the Chequers and Crown, extended in 1973, (fn. 96) and a newly built public house by the junction of Market Street and Station Road.
The village feast, traditionally celebrated for one day about St. Peter's feast (29 June) with showmen's stalls, swings, and dancing, was still being held, though with declining vigour, in the 1860s and 1870s, latterly near the Green Dragon. (fn. 97) It was not recorded later. The vicar, however, from 1896 arranged a St. Peter's day procession to the church, including the village brass band, started by 1886, the fire brigade, and the Shepherds, (fn. 98) which was continued by annual 'hospital parades' into the 1940s. (fn. 99) The feast was briefly revived, 1978-83, as a village midsummer gala, expiring again in 1984. (fn. 100)
The 4-a. Camping close, still used for drilling in 1861, was in private ownership by 1700. (fn. 101) From the 1830s Fordham had a cricket club, (fn. 102) successfully reorganized in 1876. (fn. 103) In 1920 Mrs. Angelina Dunn Gardner gave 4½ a. north of Church Street for a recreation ground; (fn. 104) it was enlarged in 1928 with 4 a. given by Viscount St. Davids, a Fordham landowner in the 1930s. (fn. 105) The village cricket and football clubs used it in the 1920s, (fn. 106) as into the late 20th century, (fn. 107) when it also contained courts for the tennis club, and for the bowls club (fn. 108) a green laid out by 1924. (fn. 109) A pavilion erected in 1927 (fn. 110) was improved in 1972-3 (fn. 111) and another for cricketers built in 1975. (fn. 112) By its entrance stands the village war memorial, erected in 1921 with a small figure of St. George in bronze from Sir George Frampton's studio surmounting a Portland stone Tuscan column designed by Lutyens. (fn. 113) The statue stolen in 1991 for its metal (fn. 114) was replaced in 1992 with a close replica in fibre glass. (fn. 115)
From 1853 to 1860 the squire, curate, and farmers sponsored a mutual improvement society, with 120 members by 1855, providing winter evening discussions at the National school. (fn. 116) A village amateur dramatic society which performed at Christmas was started by 1866. Plays were written for it, and music for one supplied in 1877, by the local poet James Reynolds Withers (fn. 117) (d. 1892). Born at Weston Colville in 1812, he worked at Fordham as labourer and shoemaker from the 1830s, composing poems, often on rural life, from his youth onwards. He published two volumes, 1854-8, the first sponsored by his employer R. D. Fyson's wife, and three more in the 1860s, and for a time achieved nationwide notice. (fn. 118) The 18th-century 'Poet's Cottage', of clunch, single-storeyed with Gothick windows, his home from the 1850s, survives near the bridge over the Snail. (fn. 119)
A village Conservative club started c. 1886 had 173 members by 1887, and was still active in the 1890s. (fn. 120) A village institute founded in 1884, with 180 members, held its meetings, like other village entertainments since the 1860s, at the school. (fn. 121) In 1892 the Revd. Tansley Hall gave two cottages on Mill Lane with £500 to house and maintain the Institute. (fn. 122) The parish soon sold them, using the whole money to meet the £1,200 cost of building in 1897 north of Church Street the Victoria Hall and Hayward Institute, named from Hall's father-in-law and opened in 1898. Built of red brick, with a stone Gothic doorway flanked by Arts and Crafts floral panels in terracotta, the Hall contained a large hall 56 ft. long, thenceforth used for most village events, (fn. 123) which contained a stage until renovations in 1975. (fn. 124) In the late 20th century Fordham's numerous associations, catering for all ages and sexes, included, besides a horticultural society, (fn. 125) a Women's Institute started c. 1923, (fn. 126) a British Legion branch, occupying a pebble-dashed building of 1929 near the Victoria Hall, (fn. 127) and intermittently a youth club. (fn. 128) About 1991 the Fordham scouts were putting up an expensive new headquarters on Station Road. (fn. 129)
Fordham, which suffered outbreaks of cholera in 1853-4 (fn. 130) and of diphtheria in 1879, (fn. 131) had a resident doctor c. 1920-40. (fn. 132) By the 1970s it depended on medical facilities at Soham. (fn. 133)