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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This large parish (fn. 1) is of a different type from the others in Wisbech hundred. Its nucleus is an island of gravel, not very perceptible except from the west, but rising to 25 ft. above sea-level, or some 15 to 20 ft. above the surrounding fen. Reclamation has proceeded outwards from this nucleus, resulting in an oblong area some 6 miles east to west by 4 miles north to south. The parishes near Wisbech, whose nuclei are on sites just behind the 'Roman Bank', are quite differently constituted, with narrow frontages to the Bank and long extensions into the fen. Since, moreover, Thorney is on peat and not on silt fen, the orchards and market gardens which are such a feature of the Wisbech area are largely absent, (fn. 2) potatoes, cereals, and sugar-beet taking their place. There is also a larger area of pasture. (fn. 3)
Thorney is the only village in the Isle to have been for a long period the sole property of an occasionally resident landlord (the successive earls and dukes of Bedford), and the conspicuously neat aspect of the planned 'estate village' contrasts abruptly with that of its neighbours. The Bedford family has earned a reputation for enlightened estate management, especially in the matter of housing, and at the present time the limits of Thorney, though undefined by any natural landmark, are sufficiently discernible from the superior quality of the buildings within them. By the end of the 19th century over 300 cottages, of a total of some 450 in the parish, had been provided by the dukes, who made a practice of leasing them on direct weekly tenancies so as to avoid the drawback of the tied cottage. (fn. 4) The first village schools, the water-supply, and the fire station were also provided at the sole cost of the landlords. There is probably no village in England with a more extensive display of well-designed Victorian cottage architecture. The work of house-building has been energetically continued by the Thorney Rural District Council. Although this body controls one of the smallest areas in England, as regards both population and rateable value, (fn. 5) it had up to 1939 provided 34 houses, which with 14 built by private enterprise represented 8.1 per cent. of the total. This proportion was far above the average for rural districts of the size of Thorney, and slightly above the average for the country at large. (fn. 6)
The munificence of a great landowner has not hindered the rise of a strong community spirit; it is interesting to note that two of the five Community Centres sponsored by the County Council have been established at Thorney village and Wryde Croft. (fn. 7) The Rose and Crown Inn was acquired by the People's Refreshment House Association in 1899 and was one of their earliest properties. (fn. 8)
Francis, 4th Earl of Bedford, was granted the right to a market and two fairs at Thorney in 1634, (fn. 9) a privilege which was renewed to Wriothesley, 2nd Duke, in 1716. (fn. 10) The market was discontinued in 1830, but the fairs, for horses and cattle, were still much patronized in 1879; (fn. 11) they were held on 1 July and 21 September.
The village is situated where the main road from Peterborough to Wisbech (A 47) is crossed by that from Whittlesey to Crowland (B 1040), somewhat west of the centre of the parish. The former road is now one of the main cross-country routes of England (Leicester-Norwich); it was turnpiked from Peterborough to Thorney in 1792 and on to Wisbech in 1810. (fn. 12) In the 14th century there was a monastic grange at Wryde, (fn. 13) in the east centre of the parish, and there is a certain amount of diffused settlement, known generically as Wryde Croft, along the road leading north from the main Wisbech road towards Gedney Hill; also at Knarr Fen, along the droves south of the Wisbech road; and at Thorney Toll on the eastern boundary. All these places have modern chapels and schools. (fn. 14) The railway from Peterborough to Sutton Bridge, opened in 1866, (fn. 15) crosses the centre of the parish, with stations at Thorney and Wryde. The line from March to Spalding (1867) (fn. 16) crosses thenortheast corner and has a station (French Drove and Gedney Hill) just across the Lincolnshire border.
French Drove and French Farm in the extreme north of the parish recall the settlement in the 17th century of French and Walloon refugees, who helped in the reclamation and long remained an important element in Thorney. The refugees were first admitted on condition of being allowed to sell at any market, and of being exempt from service overseas for 40 years, and from subsidies and fifteenths. (fn. 17) They held services in the church under their own pastors, (fn. 18) who kept a separate register from 1654 to 1727. (fn. 19) The settlement was fairly large; the register shows an average of 29 births a year in 1654-63, 37.9 in 1664-73, and 26 in 1764-83. After this date numbers began to diminish, partly no doubt owing to intermarriage and absorption in the general community. In the 10 years 1714-23 there was an average of only 7.9 births per year, and 7 in the last 4 years to 1727. (fn. 20) Cole, writing in 1744, mentions that French was still spoken by the descendants of the refugees in private conversation, (fn. 21) and a court roll of 1748 shows 7 French names among the 28 jurors. (fn. 22) Gardner's Directory of 1851 (fn. 23) shows a few names, such as Barron, Bellamy, Charity, and Provost, which may be of French origin, but these have now died out.
Thorney Mill is mentioned in a 1470 commission de walliis et fossatis, (fn. 24) and the manorial appurtenances in 1787 were stated to include as many as ten mills, though some of them may have been for drainage purposes only. (fn. 25) A windmill still stands in the village on the Peterborough Road, but is now derelict. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Wing family, descendants of Vincent Wing the astronomer, were agents to the dukes of Bedford. John Wing (1752-1812) was in 1788 the subject of scurrilous attacks in connexion with a proposed new tax on the North Level. (fn. 26) Two companies of volunteer infantry, numbering in all 145 men, were raised between 1803 and 1805. (fn. 27)
The manor house, commonly called Abbey House, (fn. 28) is situated to the west of the church and is a large stone structure of various dates. The east wing is of the second half of the 16th century and was probably erected soon after the site of the monastery was granted (1550) to the 1st Earl of Bedford. It retains some original stone-mullioned windows, including a pleasant two-storied oriel with gabled top, on the south side. The east front was altered in the 18th century, and the brick chimney-stacks are probably of the same period. The main portion of the house is to the west, and is a particularly good example of mid-17th-century work. There is reason to believe that it was designed by John Webb, the nephew and pupil of Inigo Jones, as it has a marked similarity to his work at Thorpe Hall, Peterborough. (fn. 29) There is a fine staircase rising to the garrets, with turned balusters and ball and acanthus cup finials. Several of the rooms, particularly the dining-room, retain their panelling, and there are some good woodenframed doorways. The house was enlarged towards the north in the 19th century. The roofs are covered with stone slates. To the north of the house is a 16th-century barn.
Thorney, as an 'estate village' near the stone belt, contains more examples of good domestic architecture than most villages in the Isle. The following houses, besides those above-mentioned, date from the 18th century. In Whittlesey Road: Nos. 1 and 2, and J. W. Harrison's premises. In Wisbech Road: Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 7A, and 14 to 17. Also Park House, and the premises occupied by Hugh Cure, and (outside the village), Willow Hall and Prior's Farm. St. Vincent's Cross, in the north-west corner of the parish on the road to Crowland, dates from the 15th century; it is now headless.
During the Middle Ages what is now the parish of THORNEY was of little or no account except as the site and home farm or demesne of the abbey, (fn. 30) and references to it apart from the abbey are very scanty. The boundary with the Ely Cathedral priory property in Wisbech Murrow was adjusted in 1248. The Prior and Convent of Ely recognized 200 acres between the dike dividingThorney and Wisbech marshes on the east, the alder wood of 'Estdelf, 'Bingebrigge', 'Midfentre' and 'Eldethorneyweye' as Thorney property. Thorney in return quitclaimed 400 acres of marsh called 'Eldegore' to Ely. (fn. 31) A manor of Thorney is mentioned c. 1458, (fn. 32) and the abbot had the right of free warren in his demesnes, although the recorded breaches of this may equally well refer to his share of Whittlesey Mere or other possessions in the neighbourhood as to Thorney itself. (fn. 33)
In 1291, when the abbey was at the height of its prosperity, its temporalities in Thorney were valued at £46 19s. (fn. 34) In 1539-40 the value had fallen to £34 13s. 4d. (fn. 35) This does not suggest an important estate, when allowance is made for the monastic buildings themselves. It is significant that no part of those buildings was converted into a church until long after the Dissolution, and that no grant of a market at Thorney was ever made to the abbot. The surrender was signed by the abbot and twenty monks, who may perhaps have had some 100 persons dependent upon them as servants and farm staff; these with their families would not have amounted to more than a fairsized village.
Robert Moulton or Blyth, the last abbot, like many of his contemporaries demised portions of the abbey lands shortly before the Dissolution. The site of the monastery itself was leased for eighty years from 1538 to Walter Williams or Crumwell, (fn. 36) of Chatteris, the lease being converted into a twenty-one-year term by the Crown in 1541. (fn. 37) In 1550 the site of the monastery and its possessions in Thorney were granted outright to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, (fn. 38) whose family held them until 1910, when the 11th Duke sold the Thorney Estate to the tenant farmers. (fn. 39) In 1545 the keepership of Thorney Chase was granted to Edward Elryngton. (fn. 40)
A survey of 1574 (fn. 41) shows 240 acres of upland ground, 160 acres of wood with 1,000 oaks worth £500, and an unspecified amount of pasture worth 6s. 8d. an acre with £100 worth of timber. The total annual value of this part of the estate was £200. There were also 16,000 acres of fen, formerly dry but at the time of the survey waterlogged. The ground of the fen was worth 6d. an acre and the reeds and willows growing on it £200. The timber and what remained of the monastic buildings were valued at £1,000. (fn. 42) The total area of the estate, upland and fen, was put at 17,760 acres. This estimate coincides almost exactly with the area of Thorney parish before the recent changes of boundary which was 17,802 acres of land and 40 of water. The Elizabethan and modern statutory acres, however, are not necessarily equivalent. If, as Browne Willis says, the moat surrounding the precincts was a mile long and 20 feet broad, (fn. 43) the precincts themselves must have contained about 40 acres.
The first proposal to redrain the Thorney fens was made in 1626 by Robert Tipper and John Gason, (fn. 44) and from 1630 (fn. 45) Francis 4th Earl, the first of his family to take an active interest in the Thorney estate, and his fellow Adventurers, accomplished a good deal with the professional help of Vermuyden. (fn. 46) In the early days of the 4th Earl's tenure (1629) only some 300 to 400 acres around the site of the abbey, let at £300 a year, were cultivable. (fn. 47) The market grant of 1634, and the re-edification of the church between 1636 and 1638, show how rapid was the progress of draining. The earl is said to have spent £100,000 on the work, making himself practically bankrupt. The area was declared to be drained at a Session of Sewers held at St. Ives in 1637, (fn. 48) but the following year the excuse offered for not collecting the £20 ship money due from Thorney was that the place was inaccessible in winter. (fn. 49) More over, floods continued to cause great damage in some years, notably at the end of 1672, when a west wind backing south caused the upland waters to overflow all the country between Crowland, Spalding, Wisbech, and Ely. Many cattle were then drowned and houses flooded, and the colza crop, planted to provide lamp oil and also used in wool manufacture, totally lost. (fn. 50) Damage on a similar scale occurred in 1770, when the north bank of Moreton's Learn burst at Abel's Gull. After this a farm of 407 acres at English Drove, Thorney, several miles from the breach, had to be let at £20 for the first and £200 for the next six years, the tenancy to be determinable if there was a fresh breach. (fn. 51)
Nevertheless, under Francis's son William, 5th Earl and 1st Duke, Thorney had risen sufficiently to be considered a town by the traveller Gregorio Leti, who mentions that the earl had tamed six stags in his park here 'with a continual noise of drums, harps and other musical instruments', and presented them to Charles I to draw the royal coach. (fn. 52) At the outbreak of the Civil War the earl (fn. 53) was made General of the Horse in the Parliamentary army, but after the failure of an attempt at mediation he joined the Royalists and his estates were sequestrated. (fn. 54) There is no record that the estates were granted out, and they were in any case restored in July 1644 after the earl had returned to the Parliamentary cause.
After the Restoration the drainage and improvement of the Thorney estate began to justify itself; most of the corn used in the ducal household at Woburn, and many of the bullocks, came from Thorney. (fn. 55) In the middle of the 18th century the manor was for a short time leased to the Markham family. (fn. 56) About this time Cole remarked that 'within these 20 years [1724-44] Thorney is quite another thing from what it was, being handsomely adorned with many good buildings, and particularly with a very noble Inn as big as a College'. (fn. 57)
Between 1583 and 1787 the manor of Thorney was on many occasions the subject of family settlements among the Russells. (fn. 58)
The later history of Thorney is uneventful, but of some interest as that of a compact agricultural estate of 20,000 acres carefully administered. (fn. 59) At the beginning of the 19th century the estate showed a profit. Its average income was then nearly £10,000. The agricultural depression of the last quarter of the century was, however, severely felt. Deficits were incurred in five years between 1879 and 1895, (fn. 60) and the proportion of net to gross income fell from 42 per cent. between 1816 and 1835 to 19 per cent. between 1876 and 1895. At the end of the century the average income was only about £5,000 a year, representing only 21/7 per cent. on new capital outlay with no allowance for death duties. But the duke could claim that he had never evicted a tenant, and that Thorney was a healthy village with a minimum of crime and no pauperism. Thorney in fact came as near as any in the country to the ideal of 'a wealthy landowner understanding the economics of agriculture, a farmer master of its practice, a village not over-populated, (fn. 61) with pure water, decent houses, allotments and a school' instanced by a present-day writer as 'the most successful experiment in social organization that England had so far seen'. (fn. 62) The various earls and dukes of Bedford are said to have spent nearly £2 million in all on their Thorney estate. (fn. 63)
It is not known how the spiritual needs of the abbey tenants in Thorney were provided for in the Middle Ages. Neither rectory nor vicarage is mentioned in the Taxatio or the Valor Ecclesiasticus. (fn. 64) In consequence of the terms of the grant of the abbey estates to the 1st Earl of Bedford, the abbey church when it was restored to religious use in the 17th century was treated as a donative of the Russells. It continued to be so treated until c. 1894. (fn. 65) The advowson was with the Dukes of Bedford until the sale of the estate, and has subsequently been with the Bishop of Ely. (fn. 66)
There are Anglican chapels at Wryde Croft (1877) and Knarr Fen (1890). (fn. 67) There is also a mission church at North Side, served by the clergy of St. Andrew's, Whittlesey. It is an iron building erected c. 1902 (fn. 68) at the cost of the 11th Duke of Bedford and dedicated to St. Guthlac. There is another Anglican place of worship at Willow Hall (c. 1930).
The church of ST. MARY THE VIRGIN AND ST. BOTOLPH consists of north and south transepts and nave. The former are modern, but the latter consists of the five western bays of the great conventual church, which had a total length of nearly 300 feet. It was dismantled after the suppression in 1539 and the site granted to the Earl of Bedford. In 1638 the western portion of the nave was patched up to serve as a parish chapel. The aisles were destroyed and the arcades walled up, the windows from the aisles being inserted in this walling. The clerestory was also removed and the triforium openings filled with 15thcentury tracery from some other part of the building, possibly the clerestory. The whole was covered with a coved plaster ceiling. In 1841 the transept was added in tolerable imitation of 12th-century work. There was further restoration in 1888 when the galleries were removed and the church reseated. The old portion of the fabric is a splendid example of Romanesque design, resembling Ely and Peterborough, and dates from the beginning of the 12th century. In the 15th century the west front was considerably altered, a large window being inserted and the flanking turrets crowned with octagonal tops.
The chancel is arranged in the crossing, and there is a large pointed single-light east window with internal jamb shafts having moulded caps and bases. The tran septs have plain round-headed windows of Romanesque character, and there are lofty round-headed arches at the crossing. In the south transept is a large organ gallery added in 1888, the space beneath which is utilized as a vestry. The transepts are covered by a plain barrel vaulting and the crossing by a groined vault.
The nave (fn. 69) has arcades of five bays of early 12thcentury date with rounded arches of two orders, the outer with a roll moulding and the inner plain. The massive columns are alternately round and clustered with cushion caps and moulded bases; the responds are semicircular. The triforium has rounded arches of two orders with roll mouldings, springing from shafts with cushion caps and moulded bases. There are circular vaulting shafts running up the face of the columns. A small portion of the clerestory remains on both sides at the west end, but it is now entirely external; on the south it consists of a rounded arch with continuous roll moulding, but the northern section has billet moulding. Both openings are now blocked. The triforium is surmounted externally by an embattled parapet dating from the 17th-century restoration. The arcades and triforium are fitted with uniform windows of 15th-century date with three cinquefoiled lights. Both nave and transepts have high-pitched external roofs covered with stone slates. The west front is a very interesting composition and exhibits work of three distinct periods. It is flanked by large square turrets of the 12th century, which are surmounted by 15thcentury octagonal tops richly panelled and with embattled parapets. The rest of the façade is mainly of 15th-century date. The doorway is deeply recessed and of four orders with jamb shafts having moulded caps and bases. The wall on either side is panelled in two tiers, and above is a string-course with faces alternating with conventional flowers. In the spandrels is the date 1638, which must refer to the window above. There is an inner doorway with ogee hoodmould terminating in a finial. The large five-light west window is set within the arch of one much larger; it has an embattled transom with trefoiled lights below and cinquefoiled above and was inserted in 1638; there is an ogee hood-mould with finial at the apex. Above the blocked larger window is a string-course, and the spandrels are panelled. A stone screen connects the octagonal turrets, with nine canopied niches on its western face containing contemporary figures in good preservation; it is uncertain whom they are intended to portray.
The east window contains stained glass inserted nearly a hundred years ago which is remarkably good for its period. It depicts the miracles of St. Thomas of Canterbury and is a copy of some 13th-century glass in Canterbury Cathedral. In the lower easternmost window on both sides of the nave is late 15th-century Flemish glass; on the north is the Mocking, the Women on their way to the Sepulchre, and the Harrowing of Hell; on the south the Denial of St. Peter, the Supper at Emmaus, and the Pieta. The second, third, and fourth windows on the north have the following shields of arms respectively: Russell, early 19th century; John of Gaunt, late 14th century; and Henry VIII impaling Katharine of Aragon, first half of the 16th century. The second window on the south has the royal arms, of early 16th-century date. On the north wall of the nave is a marble memorial tablet to Ezekiel Danois, 1674. Danois was the first minister of the French Protestant refugees who settled at Thorney in the middle of the 17th century. The other fittings, including the font, are modern.
The plate includes a communion cup and paten of silver, 1709, inscribed 'Ex Dono Tho: Brecknock Minister Evangelii Thorney Abby', (fn. 70) and a shield of arms, a chevron between three lions the paws erased; a flagon of silver, 1876; an alms-dish of silver, 1750.
Virtually nothing remains above ground of the monastic buildings, but a 17th-century house about 150 yards to the south of the church has the remains of a moulded window of medieval date in the cellar; it probably formed part of the southern range. The vicarage possibly incorporates some of the eastern range. It is a good example of late 17th-century domestic architecture, and resembles in character many Northamptonshire buildings. There are brick chimneystacks of later date and the roof is covered with stone slates.
An Independent 'mission' was conducted by William Evenett, the Whittlesey minister, between 1815 and 1820. Mr. Wing, the Duke of Bedford's steward, was hostile, and threatened Mr. Harker, in whose house the mission was held, with eviction. The duke, however, was tolerant and Congregationalism for a time gained a foothold in Thorney. (fn. 71) It had died out by the middle of the 19th century. A Primitive Methodist chapel was erected in the village in c. 1880.
The village school, like most of the public institutions in the village, owes its origin to the dukes of Bedford. Its date of foundation is uncertain. Early in the 19th century a tradition existed that 'a schoolhouse was erected by a member of the illustrious house of Russell', (fn. 72) and it is possible that this was Wriothesley, 3rd Duke, who in 1727-9 paid several visits to this part of his estates and might, had he lived, have substituted Thorney for Woburn as the principal residence of his family. (fn. 73) Thorney as a ducal donative does not appear in the various inquiries concerning education made by the bishops of Ely at the end of the 18th century, but early in the next century the dukes were making an allowance of £20 a year for a schoolmaster's salary. (fn. 74)
By 1846-7 the Duke of Bedford had provided three schoolrooms, for boys, girls, and infants. (fn. 75) In all, 284 children (in a population of 2,159) were being taught, about a quarter of them attended both weekdays and Sundays, and the staffs and their salaries were on a generous scale. The staff consisted of two masters, three mistresses, and two paid 'monitors', who received £225 between the five of them. In 1850-1 the girls' school was rebuilt with an infants' department. (fn. 76) This building still exists, but the boys' school was rebuilt in 1875, in which year a Thorney School Board was formed. (fn. 77) The Board took over the management of the schools but the buildings remained the property of the dukes of Bedford until 1912, by which time the Thorney Estate had been broken up. The County Council then bought the village schools, and those at Knarr Fen and Wryde Croft (see below), for £800 including improvements. (fn. 78) The village schools, in separate buildings on non-adjacent sites, were run as separate departments; before 1910 the total recognized accommodation was 328, afterwards 273 (106 boys, 89 girls, 78 infants). By 1925 both school buildings were overcrowded. (fn. 79) In 1935 a new site on Wisbech Road was obtained and an all-ages school built to accommodate 160 senior and 150 junior children of both sexes. This was opened in 1940, and named the Duke of Bedford School. (fn. 80)
Other schools were built by the dukes of Bedford in the north-east and south-east of the parish at Wryde Croft (1866) and Knarr Fen (1880) respectively. Like the village schools, they were managed by the School Board, and later by the County Council, though they remained the property of the dukes until 1912. The original accommodation was 80 in each case; both were enlarged in the early years of the 20th century to enable the Wryde Croft School to take 156 and the Knarr Fen school 137. These figures were scaled down in 1910 to 140 and 112 respectively. The senior children from the Wryde Croft School were transferred to the Duke of Bedford School in 1944 and the remainder in 1945 when Wryde Croft School was closed. The buildings, though of iron and timber construction, have lasted well and are now used as a community centre. Knarr Fen School lost its senior children to the Duke of Bedford School in 1944 and was closed at the beginning of 1948. The remaining children were then moved to the North Side School. (fn. 81)
North Side School, transferred from Whittlesey to Thorney parish in 1933, was built by the Whittlesey School Board in 1877; the Duke of Bedford, who owned the site, contributed £200. The building originally accommodated 90 children, and, after enlargement and reassessment, 124. The average attendance, however, seldom if ever reached the latter figure. In 1936 the senior children were transferred to the Thorney village schools pending the completion of the new Duke of Bedford School, and only 42 remained on the books. These have since been reinforced by the children, some 35 in number, from Knarr Fen. (fn. 82)