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.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
Witcham is a parish and village in the Isle, 5 miles west of Ely. The village stands on a hill and has a picturesque appearance from the Ely road, its houses grouped around the church with its low and massive tower. It was formerly situated on a by-road in the centre of its open fields, and provided a text-book example of the nucleated village settlement typical of the East Midlands. The construction of a satellite airfield at Sutton during the Second World War, in connexion with Witchford aerodrome, has, however, somewhat altered the layout. This airfield blocks the former high road to Chatteris, so that traffic now passes through Witcham village, along the road from the Horse and Gate cross-roads to Mepal. During the Second World War also, a hutted camp was built along the north side of the Sutton road. The camp was later used as a Polish Resettlement Centre and as a Women's Land Army hostel.
The men of Witcham formerly enjoyed common rights in the fens to the north (see Welches Dam). This fact gave the parish a confused boundary, which was considerably altered in the past century. In 1806 it was reported that Witcham and Coveney were separated by 'an ancient Ditch or Dike called the Division Dike', maintained by the occupiers of land on the Coveney side. The bounds of Witcham had last been perambulated about 1750. (fn. 1) In 1885 detached parts of Witcham were transferred to Coveney, Manea, and Mepal, and detached parts of Ely St. Mary, Ely Trinity, and Witchford were transferred to Witcham. This still left one part of Witcham parish, 124 acres in extent, detached. This fragment was joined to the main portion in 1933 (fn. 2) when the intervening parish of Witcham Gravel, formed in 1896 by County Council order, was thrown into Witcham.
The fields of Witcham as specified in a 13th-century grant to Ely priory were north, east, and south fields, Shakelond and le Slade. (fn. 3) In course of time other fields are named. Burnt Hill in the north-east of the parish occurs as 'Burnewrthehil' in 1215-19. (fn. 4) It gave its name in the 16th century to Burn Hill Field. (fn. 5) The Market Way, now a by-road leading east from the village towards Ely, also occurs in 1215-19. (fn. 6) It gave its name to Market Way Field, which with Burn Hill Field is mentioned in the Parliamentary Survey of 1649. (fn. 7) In 1353 the men of Witcham bound themselves not to claim rights of common in Heathcroft, (fn. 8) now an unidentified area.
In 1649 the demesne included 45 and 55 acres respectively in Burn Hill and Market Way Fields; also 40 acres of pasture at Swarm Haugh Closes in the south-east corner of the parish by Wentworth crossroads, and four closes comprising 15¼ acres near the site of the manor house. (fn. 9)
The final inclosure took place under an Act of 1838. (fn. 10) The award mentions Market Way Field south of the village and Burn Hill Field on the east of the parish, together with Wardy Way and West Fields north and west of the village and Littlebury Field between the village and Burn Hill Field. Wardy Way, now represented by Wardy Hill Road, first occurs in 1311. (fn. 11)
An area of 1,032 acres (excluding roads, drains, &c.) was inclosed and divided amongst 74 proprietors. The principal allottees were the Dean and Chapter of Ely who received 157 acres. These were divided amongst 3 lessees, of whom William Saberton obtained the largest share. Robert Poole received an allotment of 114 acres and Thomas Saberton 78 acres in his own right and 2½ acres jointly with Elizabeth his wife. (fn. 12)
Witcham possesses several interesting secular buildings. These include the Hall, an 18th-century building, 'gothicized' early in the 19th century, with casement windows and an embattled parapet. It has a gateway and barn. A farm-house 150 yards west-south-west of the Hall is probably of the late 16th century, with some mullioned and stone-framed windows.
The date at which WITCHAM was given to the church of Ely is not known. The Domesday commissioners found, however, that it had always formed part of the demesne of the church. When given and in 1086 it was worth £5. In 1066 it had been valued at £7. This reduction in value was due no doubt, here as elsewhere in the Isle, to Hereward's rebellion. In 1086 it was assessed at 4 hides 1 virgate. Two hides were in demesne, with 2 ploughs and enough land for another. There were 12 sokemen with 2 hides less 1 virgate, who could not grant away their land without the abbot's permission, 2 villeins with 10 acres and 2 bordars with 5 acres each. These 16 men had 4 ploughs. There were also 4 cottars and 5 serfs. (fn. 13)
Witcham remained with the convent after the formation of the see in 1109, and experienced the uneventful history of such villages. The only landmarks in its history are the usual ones in Ely conventual manors- the grant of free warren to the prior in 1252, (fn. 14) its confirmation together with that of other manorial perquisites in 1417, (fn. 15) and the formal transfer to the dean and chapter in 1541. (fn. 16) In 1302-3 Thomas de Lenne is stated to have held 1/12 fee in Witcham of the Bishop of Ely. (fn. 17) The bishop was lord presumably in his capacity of titular head of the convent, for there is no other evidence of episcopal interests in Witcham. The same fraction of a fee was held by de Lenne's successors, Hervey Pelet and Thomas Laushille, in 1346. (fn. 18)
The convent seem to have kept the manor in hand all through the Middle Ages, and many grants to them in frank almoin of property in Witcham are recorded in documents in the Dean and Chapter muniment room at Ely. (fn. 19) Most of them are quite small in amount. In 1343 Edward Chesewyk granted 4 acres in return for half a gallon of convent ale daily. (fn. 20) More important grants, for which licences to acquire in mortmain have been preserved, were made in 1314 and 1364. (fn. 21) The former, comprising 7 messuages, 163 acres of land and 19 of meadow, and 21s. of rent, in Witcham and Ely, came from Geoffrey de Fresyngfeld, a relative of the then prior. In 1371 it was stated that the convent had recently acquired three parcels of land, 'Crispestenements', 'Fotestenements', and 'Huythecroft', value £1 annually, without licence. (fn. 22)
Witcham was not, however, a very valuable manor. In 1291 it was assessed at £27 13s. 10¼d., (fn. 23) a figure slightly below that for Wentworth. The 'Long Roll' of 1324-5 (fn. 24) shows a demesne of 2 carucates, producing £23 19s. 3½d. Expenses in that year amounted to £21 14s. 3½d. As at Witchford there was considerable trade in wool and fells, 85 skins being sold. A mid14th-century extent (fn. 25) shows a total value of only £11 7s. 8d., including a mill worth £2. The manorial dovecote needed repairs to the value of £2 6s. Later accounts show in some cases rather higher figures. Total receipts in 1367 were £23 10s. 11d., including 1s. 4d. (with 3s. 4d. in arrears) from a small fishery at 'Pylgrymesee', (fn. 26) and in 1452 £17 11s. 2d. (fn. 27) On the other hand certain ministers' accounts at the Public Record Office, whose detachment from the Ely series has not been accounted for, return £9 16s. (1429), £5 17s. (1435), £8 3s. 4d. (1437 and 1466). (fn. 28) A roll of 1527-8 (fn. 29) shows receipts of £13 19s. 10½d., the lowest sum received from any of the convent's Cambridgeshire manors except Mepal and Wisbech Murrow. In 1541, when taken over by the dean and chapter, the net receipts were £12 16s. excluding the rectory. (fn. 30) Out of this were allowed 1s. 6d. as contribution to Aldreth causeway, £1 for bailiff's fees, and £2 13s. 4d. pension to a former vicar. The manor house was let to William Gibson for £5 6s. 8d. a year. The Parliamentary Survey of 1649 (fn. 31) shows that the manor house had been pulled down: its site was a 4acre close of pasture with a 'great barne' of timber, thatched. The fines were arbitrary, but usually paid on a yearly valuation. The tenants had the right to fell timber, and courts leet and baron were held. The yearly value was stated at £11 6s. 4½d. The £5 6s. 8d. yearly rent for the site of the manor was resumed in 1661, when Michael Holman of Chatteris (q.v.) had a 21-year lease. From the early 18th century the Wright family were tenants at the same rent. The manorial estate then comprised 67 acres of arable, 60 of pasture, and 10½ of old inclosure (including meadow). An area of 191 acres in Byal and Widden Fens was let to the same tenants at the additional rent of £3 5s. 6d. The fines for renewal were £45 in 1710 and 1717 and £60 in 1724. (fn. 32) The size of the estate was much reduced during the 18th century, terriers of 1745 and 1766 showing only 45 acres apart from the site of the manor house. (fn. 33) In 1785 Richard Wright, the then lessee of the manor, was drawing £123 7s. 6d. a year in rents from his sub-tenants. (fn. 34) Subsequent lessees include Mrs. Elizabeth Martin (1851) (fn. 35) and William Saberton (1863). (fn. 36) The latter, a member of a family still represented in the district, was a prominent farmer. The Church Commissioners, representing the Dean and Chapter of Ely, retain the lordship. (fn. 37)
The church has always been in the gift of the Prior and Convent or Dean and Chapter of Ely. Its value was £10 in 1217 and £13 6s. 8d. in 1254. (fn. 38) It was given by one of the early bishops of Ely to the chamberlain to provide clothing for the monks, an arrangement confirmed by Bishop Northwold, who instituted a vicarage probably just before his death in 1254. (fn. 39) The appropriation was confirmed by Bishop Balsham in 1276. (fn. 40) In 1291 the rectory was returned at £13 6s. 8d. and the vicarage at £4 13s. 4d. (fn. 41) In 1535 the value of the vicarage had risen to £8 10s. 11d.: (fn. 42) the rectory was not separated from the other spiritualities of the convent but seems to have decreased in value, as it was let six years later to Nicholas Kyme for £7 10s. only. (fn. 43) A long series of beneficial leases of the rectory, at £5 18s. with 4 quarters of wheat, exists at Ely. (fn. 44) The first recorded lessee is John Thorogood, who was succeeded in 1618 by John Millett of Barley (Herts.). After the Restoration the lessees changed frequently until 1696.
William Papworth then took the rectory and his family retained it until 1794. Terriers of 1745 and 1766 show 58 acres of glebe in 54 pieces. Another one of 1773 shows the same area of arable and 45 acres of fen. In 1808, when the rectory was leased to Thomas Maylin, the rent was raised to £6 13s. 8d. and 4 quarters of wheat. (fn. 45) The net value of the rectory seven years later was £386 5s. 6d., the glebe (103½ acres) being worth £151 11s. 3d., and tithes £310 9s. The vicar's stipend was then £39 18s., raised in 1820 to £42 and before 1851 to £100 net. (fn. 46) The rectorial tithe had then been commuted for £595, the vicarial for £116. In 1863 the glebe comprised 106 acres. (fn. 47) In 1851 there was a Sunday school of 27 children. (fn. 48)
The church of ST. MARTIN consists of chancel, clerestoried nave, aisles, south porch, and west tower. The material is rubble with much repair in brick; the roofs are tiled; the chancel was formerly thatched. The earliest part of the fabric is the chancel, which belongs to the first half of the 13th century, and the tower is of approximately the same date. The aisles were added early-in the 14th century, and about fifty years later a new east window was inserted in the chancel. In the 15th century the porch was added, the chancel arch rebuilt, and new windows inserted in the lateral walls of the chancel. In the latter part of the 17th century the west side of the tower was partly rebuilt in brick. The church escaped Victorian restoration and has been carefully repaired in recent years.
The chancel has a three-light east window with flowing tracery much renewed and a hood-mould; on either side are traces of former lancets. There are angle buttresses with one set-off. In the north wall are two plain lancets and a 15th-century two-light window with cinquefoiled heads under a square label; also a blocked 13th-century doorway with continuous chamfer and a hood-mould. There is in the south wall a buttress with one set-off. The fenestration of this wall consists of a 15th-century two-light with cinquefoiled heads under a square label, which has been much renewed on the exterior, then a plain lancet, and finally a two-light window with cinquefoiled main lights and trefoiled tracery under a square label. There is an internal string-course of 13th-century date. The 15thcentury chancel arch is two-centred and of two orders with semi-octagonal responds having moulded caps and bases. There is a double piscina with cinquefoiled heads and a plain octagonal central shaft; the central part of the heads has been renewed. There is a bracket on either side of the east window.
The nave has early 14th-century arcades of 5 bays on the south and 4 on the north; the first 2 bays on the south are on a smaller scale than the rest. All the arches are two-centred and of two orders with octagonal columns having moulded caps and bases; the columns on the north are more slender than those on the south and may be rather earlier; the eastern arch has been grooved for the insertion of a screen. The responds are semi-octagonal except the western on the south, which is in the form of a large corbel. The clerestory consists of three windows on each side, of three lights with trefoiled heads and a quatrefoil above under an external hood. The tower arch is of two orders with continuous chamfers and a hood-mould; it is prob ably of 14th-century date and above are indications of a larger 13th-century arch. There is a foliated cross, probably of the 14th century, on the east gable of the nave.
The south aisle has been much repaired with brick. The east window is of three cinquefoil-headed lights under a square head. There is a south-east angle buttress with no set-off and a similar one on the south; at the south-west is a plain buttress with one set-off. The first two windows on the south are of early 14thcentury date and consist of two plain lights; the remaining window on the south is a modern two-light with cinquefoiled heads under a square label; there is a plain lancet in the west wall, partially blocked in modern times. There is a plain brick parapet, probably of 17th-century date.
The porch has an outer doorway with a two-centred arch of two orders springing from semi-octagonal responds having moulded caps and bases; there is a plain hood-mould. There are straight angle buttresses largely of brick. In the east wall is a blocked two-light window under a square label, and in the west wall a single light, also blocked. The plain inner doorway of early 14thcentury date has a continuous chamfer.
The north aisle has an east window of three irregular lights with trefoiled heads. There are diagonal buttresses at the north-east and north-west of one set-off and a similar one on the north, all much repaired with brick. The lateral fenestration consists of a trefoiled two-light with quatrefoil above, next a plain two-light, and finally a window similar to the first. The plain north doorway has a continuous chamfer. The west window is a plain single light. There is old coping on the east and west walls, but no lateral parapet. On the sill of the north-east window is a piscina and there is a bracket on the east wall.
The massive tower is of three stages. The west face and the return walling on the north and south were rebuilt, or at any rate refaced, in brick in 1691, as appears from the date cut on a brick beneath the west window. There is an original lancet on the west of the ground stage but no doorway. The second stage has a lancet on the north and south, the former now blocked, and the top stage a lancet on the north, south, and west. There are diagonal buttresses on the west with three set-offs, mainly of brick. The embattled parapet is of brick with stone dressings, and there is a small leaded cap.
The chancel has a modern braced rafter roof; the nave roof is of queenpost construction and modern except for the wall posts and brackets, which rest on stone corbels with demi-angels; the aisles have plain lean-to roofs, probably of 17th-century origin but much renewed; the porch roof is ancient and of collar-braced construction; there are some old timbers in the tower ceiling.
The 13th-century font has an octagonal bowl, the sides of which are carved with human heads alternating with grotesques and in one case a censing angel; it rests on five shafts with moulded caps and bases. The chancel screen is of very light construction and probably of early 16th-century date; the uprights do not run through in the ordinary manner. On the top is part of the parapet of the loft, with cinquefoil-headed openings; there are two bays on each side of the doorway with traceried heads. The wainscot has applied tracery which is largely modern, as is the base beam. The double doors, which do not extend above the level of the wainscot, are carved with arabesques above the transome. There is a most interesting stone pulpit of 15th-century date in the south-east angle of the nave, with its original base and stone steps; the three exposed sides have cinquefoiled heads, and the base is connected with the first column of the arcade by a contemporary dwarf wall. In the south-east angle of the nave, above the pulpit, are traces of wall paintings which are partly medieval and partly of the 17th century, the latter consisting of texts and borders in a fragmentary condition. At the west end of the nave is some 15th-century seating with plain poupée heads. There is a 17thcentury communion table and good early 18th-century altar rails with turned balusters. In the base of the tower is a dilapidated oak chest, probably of 14thcentury date. Most of the windows have clear glass, some of which is in rectangular leading.
The plate includes a silver chalice and paten, of 1669, and a silver salver of 1699, the gift of Dorothea Taylor. (fn. 49)
In 1851 the vicar (Revd. F. W. Packer) complained that 'this parish has been greatly neglected: and Dissent consequently has much prevailed, and laxity of principle'. A Wesleyan Methodist chapel had been established in 1813, and a Primitive Methodist chapel post 1840. (fn. 50) The former chapel was rebuilt in 1898: (fn. 51) the latter has not been otherwise encountered. In 1851 there were congregations of 90 and 19 at these chapels respectively. The former also had a Sunday school of 40 children. (fn. 50)
John Fernley was licensed as schoolmaster for the parish of Witcham in 1582. (fn. 52) In 1798 Witcham parish contained two schools, kept by Mary Alison (Anglican) and Mary Remington (Nonconformist). Neither was licensed, and the latter seemed likely to close owing to lack of support. (fn. 53) The National Society report of 1846 described a school which was open both weekdays and Sundays, with 69 children in attendance, 32 on Sunday only. There were a master and a mistress, who received £5 and £1 19s. a year respectively, but 'a schoolroom is wanted and the funds to support it'. (fn. 54) This deficiency seems to have been fatal: no school is mentioned in Gardner's Directory (1851) and no existing provision was reported when the question of a National Society grant for a church school was taken up in 1870. A school providing 90 places, with a teacher's house, was built and opened in 1873. The National Society granted £40 towards the total cost of £537 13s., of which about two-thirds was raised by subscription. (fn. 55) The land was bought from Clare College for £20. The school was reclassified for 73 children (53 mixed, 20 infants) in 1910, and again in 1939 for 35 juniors and infants, the reduction being due to the abandonment of the previous infants' classroom. There were 30 children on the roll in 1948. (fn. 56)