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.
The first authentic reference to Wisbech occurs c. 1000, when Oswy and Leoflede, on the admission of their son Aelfwin as a monk, gave the vill to the monastery of Ely. (fn. 1) In 1086 Wisbech was held by the abbot, and rated at 10 hides, of which 1 hide and 1 virgate with 2 ploughs were in demesne. It was by no means one of the wealthiest of the Ely manors, its value (£6 T.R.E., 100s. in 1086) being below that of Ely itself and of more than half of the manors in the two hundreds of Ely. The fisheries were important. One belonged to the manor. It rendered 1,500 eels, and two fishermen in the vill paid the abbot 13s. 4d. and 14,000 eels. Another fisherman produced 5,000 eels for the abbot of Bury St. Edmunds, 8 fishermen rendered 5,260 eels to the Abbot of Ramsey, 3 rendered 4,000 to the Abbot of Crowland and 6 rendered 3,500 and 5s. to William de Warenne. The Abbot of Ely had soke of all the men of the vill. They comprised, besides the fishermen already mentioned, 15 villeins with 10 acres each, 13 sokemen, who had always been attached to the land, sharing 2½ hides, 17 cottars and 2 serfs. (fn. 2) Some of these men may have been members of the same household, and some households may not have come within the scope of the Domesday survey, but it seems that in 1086 there may have been some 65 to 70 families, or about 300 to 350 persons, in Wisbech manor. It must be remembered, however, that Wisbech, which is the only one of the Marshland vills of the Isle to be mentioned in Domesday, probably comprised the whole area from Tydd Gote down to the far end of Upwell at Welney.
At the formation of the see of Ely in 1109 the vill was divided. The manor later known as that of WISBECH BARTON went towards the endowment of the bishopric, while that later known as WISBECH MURROW (fn. 3) was retained by the convent. (fn. 4)
The manor of Wisbech Barton remained uninterruptedly in the hands of the bishops, except during vacancies in the see, (fn. 5) until 1652. It was then granted to Nathaniel Andrews and John Bancks, (fn. 6) and later purchased by Secretary Thurloe. (fn. 7) At the Restoration it was returned to the bishops, and the Church Commissioners are now lords.
In a survey of the manor made in the second year of the episcopate of Bishop de Fontibus (1221), the demesnes, including 140 acres of nova purprestura, amounted to 794 acres. (fn. 8) In 1251 during Bishop Northwold's episcopate there were 719¼, rated at 5 carucates. (fn. 9) By the latter date some reclamation had been carried out; we hear of 47 novi feoffati at Waldersea and 3 at Rumere (fn. 10) in the upper fen, (fn. 11) and there was pasture estimated at 20 acres. This pasture was situated towards the sea and was held by the bishop in severalty; its value depended on whether it had been recently flooded. The results of the great marine flood of 1236, when hundreds of lives were lost in Wisbech and its neighbourhood, (fn. 12) are evident in the numerous references to messuages, especially in the New Market, totally destroyed by the sea. In 1251 there were four fisheries, and a water mill, a horse mill, at which the customary tenants were obliged to grind their corn, and a newly constructed windmill. South-west, from the Horseshoe as far as Wryde in Thorney, stretched the great Heye or High Fen, common to the vills of Wisbech, Leverington, Newton, Tydd St. Giles, Elm, Outwell, and Upwell. In 1251 there was faldage worth 21s. 7d., and stock consisting of 24 cows and 2 bulls, 360 ewes and 240 wethers and hoggets. (fn. 13) In spite of the floods, the number of tenants increased between 1221 and 1251. While the six holders of knight's fees or fractions thereof remained constant, the 25 free and customary tenants of 1221 had grown by 1251 to 36 free and 92 customary tenants. The total rents at the latter date were £37 15s. 3¼d. Some abnormal customary services are recorded. Thus at both dates the customaries might be required to find a boatman to convey the bishop by fresh water to his next manor, the lord providing the man's food. This might involve a journey to Somersham (Hunts.), Ely, or Brandon (Suffolk). Efforts to repair the flood damage are shown by the half day's labour required in 1251 ad desiccandum campos, the day's digging on 'Ramesinedik' and inside and outside around the castle, and the day's labour for repairing the park of Barton. The customaries in 1251 had also to provide guards for prisoners in the castle jail, or if that was unserviceable to keep them in their own houses. They were to provide bedding (pannos scilicet chalones) for guests arriving at the castle or else to take such guests into their own houses. (fn. 14)
At another survey made in 1356 (fn. 15) the rents were only £28 10s. a year and further damage from floods, in some cases from upland waters, is recorded. The sites of the castle and of Barton manor house were valued at only £2, and there were many ruinous houses which would cost more to repair than they were worth. Seven hundred acres of land and pasture in Waldersea also were left unvalued, quod superfluitas aquarum fere omnibus annis totaliter superfluit, and the repair of Waldersea Dyke was considered to cost more than the land was worth. (fn. 16) At this date there were two windmills, worth £1 each, and the four fisheries, specified as those of 'Upstaven', 'Lathermere', 'Wellenee', and 'Hedmere', all let to farm, produced £3 6s. 8d. The livestock and produce were valued at £52 13s.
The long series of 14th- and 15th-century bailiffs' account rolls of Wisbech Barton manor (fn. 17) give many interesting details. As might be expected, the halfdrained fenland which at that time made up so much of the estate was excellent grazing. The net receipts on stock usually amounted to some £10 a year, and in the early 16th century the sale of wool and fells often reached £7 or more. More surprising is the export of corn, which, especially in the early part of this period, sometimes reached extraordinary proportions. A net profit of £115 18s. 4d. on grain was made in 1322. There are violent fluctuations in this item of revenue, due no doubt to bad harvests, but the general tendency is downwards, the net profit being £36 11s. 6d. in 1419 and only £9 19s. 10d. in 1492. The manor was occasionally a liability to the bishop, as in 1320. Normally, however, it was an asset. The profit fluctuated from £15 in 1331 to £82 5s. 3d. in 1517. When let, the rent was usually £35, which presumably shows the average estimated profit. (fn. 18) The amount kept in hand as demesne varied considerably-198 acres in 1408 but only 15 acres eleven years later, and as much as 250 acres in 1492. The expenses of the dyke keeper (custos fossatorum) occur regularly but vary greatly in amount, occasionally approaching or exceeding £5. (fn. 19) Scouring old dykes or digging new ones cost 2d. or 3d. a perch, the labourers' wages being 4d. a day. A 'drainage tax' of ¼d. or ½d. an acre was levied to pay for the work. (fn. 20).
The survey made by order of Bishop Alcock in 1492-3 (fn. 21) sets out in great detail the legal privileges attaching to the manor. The lord had the right of sac and soc, utfangthef, infangthef, tumbril, frankpledge, escheats, chattels of fugitives, deodands, wrecks, and treasure trove. It was stated that these had been held without contradiction since the reign of Edgar. (fn. 22) There was a Saturday market, assize of bread and ale and a fair in connexion with the feast of St. Peter. The bishop levied 4d. toll on all ships, not of the liberty of Ely, which entered or left the port.
The demesnes amounted to 1,137 acres. The four fisheries, one of which is specified as a sea fishery, (fn. 23) had increased in value to £4 16s. 8d. There is no reference to any lands or buildings laid waste by the sea, and the greater part of the manor had been parcelled out into large fields each divided into a multitude of small tenancies. These tenancies varied in number from 5 in Wisbech Holmes Field (rents 6s. 8d.) and in Herne Field (rents 3s. 5d.) to 81 in Oldfield (rents 35s. 2d.) and 77 in Wheatmaths (rents 46s. 9d.). Many of the field names survived until the 17th century, and some to the present day. The inquisition post mortem (1641) on William Edwards records that he held a pasture called Snelling, in Harecroft Field, land in Oldfield abutting on Bramble Lane on the west and Deadman's Lane on the east. He also held a messuage, cottage, and lands in Sandilands, near Core Corner, and property in Tydd St. Giles. (fn. 24)
The annual value of the bishop's manor in Wisbech in 1540-1 was £115 13s. 9d. (fn. 25)
The 1492 system of land tenure closely approximates to that of another survey, taken in 1792, when there were about 600 proprietors. (fn. 26) This survey, accounting for about 15,100 acres, (fn. 27) recorded rentals of £993 17s. 7¾d. on a total property value of £13,550 10s., including £2,980 mercantile stock in the port and the proceeds of the customs and excise. After 1792 values rose rapidly, the real property in the borough being estimated at £28,333 in 1815. (fn. 28) Inclosure was gradual and piecemeal, as reclamation proceeded, and no formal act or award for Wisbech St. Peter is known. The final inclosure of the commons, droves, and wastes in Wisbech St. Mary took place in 1833, (fn. 29) when only 181 acres, out of more than 10,000 in the parish as then constituted, remained to be so treated. About 5 acres each went to the bishop and to the dean and chapter of Ely as lord of the manor and impropriators respectively, 14 to the vicar of Wisbech in lieu of tithes, 26 to the overseers for the benefit of the poor, 44 were divided amongst the owners, numbering about 30, of common rights, and 86 were sold to defray the costs of the Act.
At the beginning of the 19th century a distinction was still made, in the Waldersea area, between 'high lands', which had been much improved by stocking and pasturing and were worth up to 40s. an acre, and the fen proper, which though drained fetched 15s. an acre only. In the 1730's, however, the fen had been worth only 2s. to 3s. an acre, and within living memory had been very wet, 'belly deep of a horse', until midsummer. (fn. 30) A 'manor' of Waldersea was leased to Lord Saye and Sele in 1776 for £30 a year; (fn. 31) its value had been returned separately from Wisbech as early as 1591, when it was £8 16s. 4d. (fn. 32)
In 1801 the arable acreage of the two parishes was 5,989, oats (3,340 acres) being by far the most prominent crop. There was an unusual proportion (1,164 acres) under rape and turnips. (fn. 33) At the tithe apportionment in Wisbech St. Mary (1840), out of a total of 9,599 acres, 5,615 acres were recorded as arable, 3,748 as meadow and pasture, and 55 as marsh and common. (fn. 34)
Two rentals of 1632 and 1778-9 are of some interest as showing the manorial organization then in force. At the former date a demesne let at £16 a year is recorded, and two fisheries worth £5 16s. Various other lands, mainly in Waldersea, produced £17 5s. 7d., and there were quit rents of £42 17s. 8d. payable twice yearly. At the latter date these rents, held by Mr. Mayer as executor to Mr. Wensley, had gone up to £94. (fn. 35) Barton Farm, the descendant of the demesne land, was let at £32. Peter Thompson, a Wisbech rope-maker, held a windmill at the nominal rent of 1s. 9d. The Revd. Charles Gretton of Springfield (Essex) held 600 acres in the High Fen for £11 5s., the low rent probably being due to the poor drainage. (fn. 36)
Manorial courts were held until 1922. (fn. 37)