Wicken: Charities for the poor

Pages 574-575

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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When giving 96 a. to Spinney priory in 1322, Mary Bassingbourn charged it with substantial charitable duties. It was to maintain seven poor men in an almshouse at Wicken, giving each daily a halfpenny loaf and a herring, shoes and linen for underwear yearly, and a woollen coat (tunica) every other year, also 200 turves a year each for heating. The prior was also to distribute similar amounts of loaves and fishes near Wicken church to each of 1,000 poor people, eventually at the anniversary of her death, unclaimed food going to poor Wicken villagers. (fn. 1)

By 1395 the priory was finding those duties burdensome: in 1400 Margaret Peyton alleged that the seven almsmen had received nothing for four years. (fn. 2) In the late 1410s the villagers repeatedly complained that the priory left the almsmen, whom the lord of the manor claimed to name, to starve. It had substituted peasen for wheaten bread and halved the number of herrings in the general distribution. In the 1410s the prior, when distributing the food, was sometimes escorted by up to sixteen men armed with staves and pitchforks. (fn. 3) In 1419 the priory obtained leave from Mary's heir to commute the distribution of food into giving a rent of 13s. 4d., out of Wicken manor, in penny doles to the neediest inhabitants of Wicken, Soham, and Fordham. The seven almsmen, chosen by the prior, were still to receive weekly corrodies of bread and ale, (fn. 4) not, however, recorded later.

Their almshouse, apparently standing at the west end of the village, (fn. 5) was probably represented by the almshouse occupied by eight families in 1664. (fn. 6) It comprised in 1837 a row of seven tenements under one roof, still maintained by the parish, at the north-west side of the village green. In the 1830s the overseers placed poor widows in them rent free. (fn. 7) In the mid 19th century the almshouses accommodated elderly people, mostly women, sometimes with their families. (fn. 8) The long, thatched building at 'Row green' was half-derelict, housing only four old women, by the 1880s and empty by 1896. It was then demolished and the materials partly used in 1897 to build of brick, by public subscription, on the same 1/2-rood site the Diamond Jubilee Almshouses, which comprised four single dwellings and two double ones for married couples. Thereafter controlled, under a Scheme of 1901, by the parish council, (fn. 9) but still unendowed, those almshouses were in poor condition by the 1970s, (fn. 10) and were again rebuilt in 1991-2 to provide three old people's dwellings. (fn. 11)

In 1634 James Hales, the last of his family, left £10 to Wicken's poor, the interest to be given on Midlent Sunday. (fn. 12) Other 17th-century bequests in money for the poor, still held by the parish in the 1780s, included 10s. a year from William Jarvis (d. 1639), briefly lost 1688-99 and no longer paid by the owner of the property charged after 1800, and 5s. a year each from John Jarvis (1635), Christopher Jarvis (1652), and Peter Jarvis (1699). Those bequests have also not been traced after 1837. Others of £10 each from Miss Talbot and John Layton had been invested by 1783 in land in Burwell. The 1¼ a. allotted at its inclosure in 1817 (fn. 13) still belonged to Wicken parish c. 1900.

The parish also still then owned, (fn. 14) as probably from the 1660s, two lots, c. 1½ a., in Sedge and Edmunds fens, and 1½ a. of Lammas land in Fodder fen. Its grazing was usually let by candle auction in the 1830s, when the combined rents, then £4 5s. and by 1863 £13 4s. 6d, were given in cash among the neediest poor. (fn. 15) About 1860 the parish annually gave the poor the rent of 2 a. then, as still in the 1890s, let as allotments. (fn. 16)

When the fens were divided in the 1660s, (fn. 17) c. 15½ a. at the west end of Edmunds fen were reserved to provide turf for the poor. In the 18th century they were each allowed to dig up to 4,000 turves in that 'Poors' ground'. (fn. 18) By the 1830s, when the poor still by custom dug turf there for firing, the peat had been almost worked out, (fn. 19) but the land was still mown yearly for sedge on the third Monday in July until the 1920s. Traditionally each poor man might have as much sedge as he could cut that day, unaided, starting from the edge of the lode, between dawn and sunset. (fn. 20) In the late 20th century the parish still owned that land, which was managed by the National Trust. (fn. 21)

Wicken's other modern charities derived from Miss Mary Hatch (d. 1858). In 1856 she built, on a small plot north of North Street and just west of her school, three almshouses, onestoreyed, but triple-gabled, of red brick, stonedressed, in Gothic style. As she had promised, her will, proved 1858, gave £800, a third for building costs, to endow them. She intended them for well-behaved, Anglican widows and widowers, aged over 60 or disabled. From any surplus income after maintenance costs, each should receive 2s. 6d. a week, 10s. quarterly for fuel, and 10s. yearly for clothing. (fn. 22) In the late 19th century the almspeople, usually widows, regularly received weekly half-crowns. The coal and clothing allowances declined until the 1860s, as the available income was reduced from c. £30 to £24 a year by 1870 and to £20 by 1910. Those almshouses remained under Anglican control after 1894. About 1950 there were only two almswomen (fn. 23) and lack of fully qualified applicants left all three almshouses briefly vacant in 1953-4. (fn. 24) Weekly allowances to almswomen shortly ceased, and, following a Scheme of 1976 allowing the occupants to be charged contributions towards maintenance, the charity's income arose by the 1980s mainly from their rents. It was by the late 1980s c. £1,800 a year, by 1995 almost £4,500, accumulated, after covering a £29,500 housing association loan, to fund repairs. In 1994-5, when two dwellings were vacant, new grants and loans, with £7,500 of charity capital, permitted the provision of central heating and the addition of bedrooms to two of the previously unpopular one-roomed dwellings. (fn. 25)

Miss Hatch also in 1858 left £400 to support an annual distribution to the deserving poor of coal in November, and £300 likewise to provide blankets, shirts, and petticoats at Old Michaelmas. (fn. 26) Of those funds, managed together and invested to yield respectively £8 and £6 a year, the coal charity was given in the 1860s in 1-2 cwt. each among up to 100 old people, especially widows, and 40-80 large families. The clothing charity, after going briefly in ready-made clothes, was by the 1880s distributed directly in flannel and calico bought at local shops. In 1900, when the charities' incomes were £10 and £8, the combined total was, as from c. 1925, spent on coal and clothing materials in alternate years. From c. 1940 clothes rationing led to the whole income being usually given in coal among large families and the old and sick. (fn. 27) Although there were few applicants except pensioners, clothing was again apparently given in the 1950s. A Scheme of 1958 allowed a wider use of the combined income, including small cash gifts. In 1994 the charity was wound up, the capital going to improve the Hatch almshouses. (fn. 28)


  • 1. C.U.L., Add. MS. 3824, f. 197 and v.
  • 2. Lamb. Pal. Reg. Arundel, pt. i, f. 103.
  • 3. C.U.L., Doc. 3974 (3), ct. rolls 4, 6, 7, 9 Hen. V.
  • 4. Cal. Close, 1419-22, 39-40.
  • 5. Cf. C.U.L., Doc. 3974 (3): 4 Hen. V.
  • 6. P.R.O., E 179/84/437, rot. 87.
  • 7. 31st Rep. Com. Char. 178; C.R.O., P 172/3/1; cf. C.R.O., Q/RDz 69, p. 118 (no. 436).
  • 8. e.g. P.R.O., HO 107/1763, f. 305v.; RG 10/1601, f. 104.
  • 9. Char. Com. file 62352, corr. 1896-7, 1901, 1954, and Scheme 1901; Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1900); M. Knowles, Hist. Wicken, 82; A. Day, Wicken, 23-4, with illus.
  • 10. Camb. Ind. Press, 8 Feb. 1973; Ely Standard, 25 Apr. 1974; 20 Mar. 1975.
  • 11. Ely Standard, 24 Nov. 1988; 12 Mar. 1992; Newmarket Jnl. 30 Mar. 1989; 4, 18 July 1991.
  • 12. P.R.O., PROB 11/176, f. 316; cf. ibid. PROB 11/164, f. 464.
  • 13. Char. Don. i. 98-9; 31st Rep. Com. Char. 178-9; cf. P.R.O., PROB 11/184, f. 184; C.R.O., P 172/1/2, s.a. 1699.
  • 14. Char. Com. file 62352, letter 1896.
  • 15. 31st Rep. Com. Char. 178-9; Char. Digest Cambs. 1863-4, 410-1; cf. C.R.O., P 172/3/1; ibid. Q/RDz 9, p. 71.
  • 16. e.g. Camb. Ind. Press, 12 Jan. 1861. p. 5; 18 Jan. 1862, p. 5; Char. Com. file 62352, corr. 1896.
  • 17. Below, econ. hist.; cf. Cambs. Local Hist. Counc. Bull. xxxvii. 7-9.
  • 18. C.U.L., Doc. 3974 (3), ct. bk. v, ff. 53v., 111; cf. C.R.O., Q/RDc 69, p. 118.
  • 19. 31st Rep. Com. Char. 179.
  • 20. Char. Com. file 62352, corr. 1896, 1927; Cambs. Local Hist. Counc. Bull. xxxvii. 8; cf. T.A. Rowell, 'Hist. Wicken Fen', pp. 232-3.
  • 21. e.g. Newmarket Jnl. 13 Mar. 1986; 11 Apr. 1991.
  • 22. C.R.O., P 172/25/8, pp. 22-36, 68-9.
  • 23. Ibid. P 172/25/1 (accts. 1859-1953); cf. ibid. P 172/ 25/9; Char. Com. file 62352, corr. 1898.
  • 24. Char. Com. file 62352, corr. 1953-4.
  • 25. Ibid. files 205315, Scheme 1976; accts. 1952-95; 202314, minute 1994.
  • 26. C.R.O., P 172/25/8, pp. 65-6.
  • 27. Ibid. P 172/25/2-3 (accts. 1859-99, 1900-32); cf. Camb. Ind. Press, 1 Jan. 1870, p. 8; 31 Dec. 1870, p. 5; Char. Com. file 62352, corr. 1899, 1934-5, 1942, 1949.
  • 28. Char. Com. file 62352, corr. and Scheme 1953-8; 203214, accts. 1952-95; minute 1994.