A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.
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Mepal is one of the smaller villages of the Isle, 8 miles from Ely and 4½ miles from Chatteris, and is situated on a loop in the main road which connects the two. The parish is crossed diagonally by the Old and New Bedford Rivers, which are spanned by bridges north-west of the village. These bridges carry the Ely-Chatteris road. They are the only important road bridges over these rivers in the Isle.
A great fire in the village between 1861 and 1871 was a contributory cause of the large decrease in population (510 to 397) that occurred in that decade. (fn. 1) In consequence of the fire there are few buildings of architectural interest in Mepal. Mention may however be made of Ash Cottage, a timber-framed thatched house dating from the 17th century and later, and of the early-19th-century Octagon House, whose unusual plan recalls the rather earlier 'Round House' at Little Thetford.
The open fields were inclosed in 1854 under the general Act of 1845. An area of 442 acres, including a few old inclosures, was distributed among 22 persons or institutions. The largest allotments were made to the Dean and Chapter of Ely (138 acres), Richard Bryan (72 acres), and William Cole (31 acres). (fn. 2) The Dean and Chapter's allotment was subdivided between their two tenants, Caius College and William Cattell, who received 89½ acres and 48½ acres respectively.
Mepal is not individually mentioned until the reign of John; (fn. 3) in early days it was perhaps reckoned as part of Sutton or Witcham, which lie close to it on the north-west edge of the high land. The first recorded landowner is Ralph de Saham, who held 1 fee under the Bishop of Ely at some uncertain date. (fn. 4) Subsequently Baldwin de Colne held ½ fee here of the Bishop of Ely. In 1321 Richard Frevyle, parson of Long Stanton St. Michael, who was presumably a trustee, conveyed the manor and advowson to William de Colne, (fn. 5) probably Baldwin's son. William held the manor in 1346. (fn. 6) In 1359 Joan, Sir William's second wife, held Mepal for her life, with reversion to John de Colne, their son; William Mochet was their tenant. Sir Henry Colvile, a member of the well-known family of that name at Newton, acting as agent for the prior and convent of Ely, obtained a conveyance of the manor from John de Colne, saving the interests of his mother and her tenant. In 1360 Joan de Colne released all claim in the manor except an annual pension of 20 marks. (fn. 7) The manor was alienated to the convent under a mortmain licence of 1309, (fn. 8) and was valued on alienation at £4. The purchase transactions cost the convent £254. About two-fifths of this sum was subscribed by the prior and twenty-two monks of the convent, and the residue raised by heavily mortgaging the manor itself, and by such surprising devices as the sale of kitchen utensils and old vestments. (fn. 9)
The manor was rated at ½ fee in 1428. (fn. 10) The receipts derived from it were £11 11s. 2d. in 1429, £5 in 1435, £5 13s. 6d. in 1437, £5 in 1440, and £9 15s. in 1467. (fn. 11) Thus its value in the 15th century was low. Just before the Dissolution it produced £11 14s., less 8d. for the repair of Aldreth causeway (in Haddenham) and £1 in bailiff's fees. (fn. 12) The manor house was then on lease for £5 to Thomas Jetherell as heir to his father John, who had received a thirty-year lease in 1521-2. (fn. 13) Other rents realized £5 10s. 8d., the sale of timber 16s. 8d., and perquisites of court 6s. 8d. on an average.
In 1541 the manor was formally transferred to the dean and chapter of the new foundation. (fn. 14) In 1623 Sir Miles Sandys was tenant of the manor, and was in dispute with the dean and chapter over rights of common. (fn. 15) By an agreement between the dean and chapter and certain tenants in this year the commons, fens, and marshes had been inclosed and fines changed from arbitrary to certain (see Sutton). (fn. 16)
By 1649 the manor house with its demesnes had become so far separated from the manorial rights that it was necessary to value each independently. The demesne measured 231 acres. Of this area, 80 acres were arable, valued at £36 5s., 51 acres pasture, valued at £37 18s., and 100 acres fen, valued at £27. Some of the demesne had been encroached upon to make the New Bedford River. The timber was valued at £5, and there was a decayed fishery called Barr Load. To the manor proper was due the sum of £28 6s., about equally divided between rents of assize and rents reserved on leases. It was stated that improvement (presumably by drainage) would raise the revenue to £106 3s. (fn. 17)
In 1650 Robert Croxton bought the whole estate from the Commissioners for the sale of Church lands. The manor was stated to be worth £15 16s., a sum presumably representing pleas and perquisites of court and the like; Croxton paid £237 for it. (fn. 18) The price exacted for the manor house and demesne was £744 10s. The manor house when purchased by Croxton was a timber framed building consisting of a hall, parlour, and buttery with three chambers over, a kitchen wing of two stories, outhouses, gardens and orchards amounting to 3 acres, and various closes, mostly contiguous, amounting to 132 acres. There was also a small cottage tenanted by Richard Lancaffe, and 140 acres of fen or 'new allotted' ground. All these premises had been let by the dean and chapter at Michaelmas 1649 for twenty-one years to Miles Carter for £5 and 12 quarters of wheat yearly. This was presumably a beneficial lease, as the improved value, due to the recently completed drainage and the construction of the Bedford River, was £111 13s. (fn. 19) Miles Carter was apparently undisturbed, and some time before 1661 sold his tenancy of the manor and demesnes, with a 'frish' called Mepal Holt, to John Lord and Elizabeth his wife, who in that year petitioned the dean and chapter to admit them as tenants. (fn. 20) A later lessee was James Halman, Master of Caius College, who in 1702 bequeathed his lease to the college for various benefactions. In the early 18th century the college were paying the dean and chapter an annual quit rent of £5 with 2 quarters of wheat, a calf and a boar. The fines payable for renewal were £70 in 1710 and 1717 and £87 in 1724. The estate then consisted of the manor house with outbuildings, a dovehouse, orchard, and 4 cottages, 80 acres of arable, 20 of meadow, 55 of old pasture, 80 of fen, and a sheepwalk for 300 sheep. (fn. 21) The Manor Farm was in 1702 sub-let for £85 a year. Halman's bequest was valuable to the college. The rent paid by the under-tenant rose steadily from £95 in 1710 to £432 10s. in 1866, and the fine on admission from £70 to £900. In 1871 the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, as successors to the dean and chapter in the lordship of the manor, bought out Caius College for £5,500. (fn. 22)
Mepal Holt, which originally included 60 acres, but some of which was 'cut away' by the Adventurers, was in the early 18th century on lease to a Mr. Carter, perhaps a descendant of the Commonwealth lessee of the manor, at £2 a year, with fines for renewal of £9 to £10. In 1716-7 the growing timber was sold to him for fencing for £30. (fn. 23)
The rectory, like the manor, was never a wealthy one; it was valued at £1 10s. in 1217, £2 6s. 8d. in 1254, (fn. 24) £3 6s. 8d. in 1291, (fn. 25) and £2 16s. 8d. in 1535. (fn. 26) In 1562 the value was stated to be the same as in 1535, subject to a pension of 6s. 8d. to the bishop. (fn. 27)
In 1553 an acre of land in the tenure of Thomas Smythe provided lights in the church. (fn. 28)
The advowson of the church was originally with the bishop. In the early 14th century it was in the hands of the Colne family as episcopal tenants. (fn. 29) Since the transfer of the manor in 1360 (see above) it has been continuously with the Prior and Convent and their successors the Dean and Chapter of Ely. From 1735 to 1844 the rectory was held with the vicarage of Sutton (q.v.), and since 1922 has been united with that of Witcham. (fn. 30)
The church of ST. MARY consists of chancel, nave, north vestry, south porch, and a double bell-cote on the west gable. The material is rubble and flint with Barnack stone dressings. The chancel and northern slope of the nave roof are covered with stone slates and the rest of the roofing is tiled. The nave and chancel date from the first half of the 13th century, and the fabric retained its original form until the 19th century. The present porch is modern, but it probably had a medieval predecessor.
The church, which was described by Cole as a 'very mean and poor building', (fn. 31) is noteworthy as the only parochial one in the Isle without either tower or spire. An early restoration took place in 1849 at a cost of £600. It was executed under the supervision of James Hastie 'the talented clerk of the works' then 'going forward for the restoration of Ely Cathedral'. 'Much merit' was said to be 'due to the respected rector, (fn. 32) and to Mr. William Vipan (churchwarden) for this spirited restoration'. (fn. 33) There was also much restoration in 1876-84 and again in 1905 under W. D. Caroe. (fn. 34) The vestry was added in 1908. The fabric remains a good example of a small village church of the 13th century.
The chancel has an east window of three lights with plate tracery, which has been renewed on the exterior; there is a rather clumsy modern hood-mould of 13thcentury character. There are diagonal buttresses with one set-off, and there is a similar buttress in the centre of the north and south walls. There are two plain lancets on the north and south, the latter having modern hood-moulds similar to that of the east window. There is a blocked low side window at the west end of the south wall. On either side of the east window on the interior is a 15th-century canopied niche. There is a piscina and credence recess with a plain rectangular aumbry. The chancel arch is two-centred and of two orders with moulded caps and bases to the responds.
The nave has two windows on the south side consisting in each case of a pair of plain lancets partly renewed, with a modern hood-mould. The south doorway has a plain two-centred arch with a continuous chamfer. There is a large single lancet in the centre of the west wall with a modern hood-mould and diagonal buttresses with one set-off. In the north wall is a modern two-centred arch opening to the vestry, and to the west of this two small windows each of two plain lights, which are modern insertions; there is no evi dence of ancient fenestration in the north wall. The vestry, which projects at right angles to the nave, has a plain window with two uncusped lights in the north wall and diagonal buttresses with one set-off. In the west wall of the vestry is a plain chamfered doorway. The modern porch has an outer doorway with continuous chamfer and diagonal buttresses with one setoff. In the east and west walls is a lancet. The walls are internally faced with brick.
The bell-cote, which is very effective, is corbelled out on the west and has a gabled top which has been rebuilt. All the roofs are modern and poor.
The font has a plain square bowl, probably of the 13th century, with slight traces of colour, and a modern shaft and base. Most of the windows are filled with clear glass.
The plate includes a silver chalice of 1569 and paten of 1570. (fn. 35)
The bell-cote contains one bell, uninscribed, cast in 1849.
The registers begin in 1659 and are complete.
A congregation of 'United Protestant Dissenters' numbered about 60 in 1851. Their chapel dated from 1846. (fn. 36) This building is now used (fn. 37) as a Baptist chapel, but the congregation is not in association with the Baptist Union. The attached Hiam Memorial schoolroom dates from 1922. (fn. 38)
In 1846-7 there was a Sunday school in Mepal, held in the church, and attended by about 20 boys and 30 girls. The master and mistress received £6 a year, the total annual cost being £8. (fn. 39) Such children as wished to receive daily education had to go to the endowed school over the hill at Sutton until 1875, when a Church school was built in Mepal village for 81 children. The National Society granted £25 towards the cost of £550, and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners gave the site. Proposals for this school had been made as early as 1872, but were not immediately realized since some of the inhabitants wanted a School Board. (fn. 40) The school was enlarged in 1914 by the addition of a new classroom, for which the National Society granted £9. It was improved in 1947 at a cost of £283. The school became one for junior mixed and infants in 1937, reverted to an all purposes school during 1939-45, and again became a school for junior mixed and infants in 1948. The average attendance was 45 in 1938. (fn. 41)
Alexander Aspland, by his will dated 1723, gave 6 acres for charitable purposes. In 1837 this was let by auction for £13 per annum, of which the churchwardens paid out £10 16s. to non-paupers in sums of about 3s. No books were kept. (fn. 42)
The Charity Commissioners reported that 81½ acres in Sutton 'supposed to have been the remainder of certain fenland after divers allotments had been made in pursuance of a decree of the Court of Chancery' (1624) were let for a sum varying between £122 and £160, according as the land was to be in pasture or arable. About £14 of this sum was given indiscriminately to the poor of Sutton and Mepal in money, and in providing coal at the rate of 25 bushels for each family. (fn. 43)