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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THE NINETEENTH AND TWENTIETH CENTURIES
The period 1815-37 was one of general depression. At the beginning of 1816 wheat was sold on the Ely market at 52s. 6d. a qr.; already in May it reached 76s., and rose to 103s. in December. (fn. 1) Wages averaged but 8s. to 9s. a week and showed no response to soaring prices: many had no work at all. Such was the background of the Ely and Littleport riots of May 1816-the unorganized outbreak of a mob 'crazy with hunger', (fn. 2) designing, by raids upon food and drink stores, (fn. 3) to give point to their vague demand for 'the price of a stone of flour per day'. The outbreak began at a Littleport benefit club, meeting in a public house, and threatened to spread to Ely. (fn. 4) Special constables were sworn in at Ely and a small body of dragoons (fn. 5) was summoned from Bury to overawe the rioters. In fact little bodily injury was inflicted on either side. The Ely magistrates, led by one Metcalfe, minor canon and precentor, were conciliatory: enfeebled labourers would probably have capitulated forthwith, but for the unaccustomed access to free drinks. Some of the disorders were committed by mere boys, though there were also despairing men who 'might as well be hanged as starve'. (fn. 6) Certain of the instigators were men of better economic standing: (fn. 7) such was the unfortunate John Dennis, whose influence in checking the wilder elements marked him out as a ringleader. Much capital was made by Chief Justice Christian (fn. 8) out of the 'great wages' of the leaders and the expenditure of the moneys extorted upon liquor rather than bread. Between 70 and 80 rioters were arrested and a Special Commission was appointed for their trial at Ely. Ultimately only 5 suffered execution; (fn. 9) 5 were transported for life; 1 for 14 years; 3 for 7 years; and 11 were imprisoned in Ely jail.
Agrarian conditions were bad in 1829: Ely labourers 'no longer able to maintain themselves by the sweat of their brows', were driven 'to the scanty pittance derived from parish funds'. (fn. 10) The memory of 1816, however, deterred Ely citizens from any participation in the risings which occurred elsewhere in 1830.
During these difficult years parish authorities showed themselves experimentally progressive. Though only qualified success was attained, the way was paved for modern reforms. Paid officers increased in number and efficiency; the committee system grew; public meetings were more frequently summoned and at times demanded a poll; road questions and new public services evoked greater co-operation between the two parishes; lighting and watching improvements were discussed; under the new Poor Law the modern era in local government was inaugurated. Of these activities road problems and relief aroused most interest.
Road problems brought joint parochial action. The turnpike system, first adopted by the city in 1763, (fn. 11) for the road between Ely and Cambridge, proved unsatisfactory within the city itself and its immediate environs; hence, in 1817, the two parishes reassumed responsibility for St. Mary's Street. In 1832 and 1836 joint committees discussed the Old Mile Stone Road (fn. 12) and the road across Padnal Fen to Prickwillow. A new paid officer, the Collector of Surveyors' Rates, appeared in 1836. It was in connexion with St. Mary's Street that lighting by gas was first proposed. Much controversy ended in a final poll, postponing the imposition of a general gas-rate until 1838.
Serious increase in unemployment led St. Mary's parish, in 1822, to levy a labour rate. (fn. 13) Three years later the activities of churchwardens and overseers were submitted to the monthly guidance of a parish committee of twelve members. In 1834 weekly committee meetings were inaugurated. (fn. 14) In October 1835 the vestries were still awaiting instructions from the central Poor Law Commissioners. Though relief conditions hardened, inadequate wages forced St. Mary's vestry, aided by the Feoffees, to purchase bread and flour in large quantities, for distribution according to scale, to families with five children or more. The new Poor Law union was presently created, (fn. 15) and at first used the existing Ely workhouse. (fn. 16) In 1838 this building was sold, a much larger, white brick and stone institution having been erected on the Cambridge road. (fn. 17)
In the middle years of the 19th century Ely farmers had not that stimulus to rapid change which great industrial centres offered. General inclosure of the open fields-the 'Ely Fields', in St. Mary's parish-did not come here until the final award was made in August 1848. (fn. 18) The first steps were taken in 1844, when a public meeting was called (fn. 19) and three Commissioners were appointed, under the General Act of 1837. (fn. 20)
Population had grown more'rapidly in the city of Ely than in the surrounding country-side: the heavy deathrate brought the city within the terms of the Public Health Act of 1848, (fn. 21) which compelled the appointment of a local Board of Health. An official investigation was ordered.
The Report (fn. 22) showed a rapid increase in mortality between 1841 and 1848, (fn. 23) from 24.1 per mille to 32.6 per mille. Of these deaths 61 per cent. were of children under five; (fn. 24) this fact was attributed, in part, to the wide use of narcotics. Of the total deaths 68 per cent. were preventable. Despite the improved agricultural situation, over half of the total 1,552 houses in the city were poor dwellings, rated below £5. The suburb of Little London, in Holy Trinity parish, had experienced a very rapid recent increase of small houses, partly because Ely had become the junction for three railways. Although situated on much lower ground, 'Potter's Lane and Common Muckhill' now 'yielded the palm' for insalubrity to Little London. Density of population, low diet, insufficient clothing and ventilation, contributed here to the ill effects of open ditches, into one of which drained 'all the piggeries and privies', through 'stinking gutters'. Even in many of the main streets of the city no drains existed. Water derived from the river was much polluted. The cathedral looked down upon an improving landscape, yet this agricultural community languished under a mortality to be expected only in 'the densely packed and ill-conditioned towns of the manufacturing districts'.
As a result of this official report, though in face of considerable opposition, a Board of Health for Ely, consisting of 15 members, was elected in 1850. (fn. 25) The Board assumed various functions hitherto performed by parish and manorial authorities. The abolition of the civil jurisprudence of the bishop, in 1836, (fn. 26) facilitated the gradual development of modern conceptions of local government, through a transitional phase of provision of certain public amenities by private enterprise. Gas-lighting had already thus begun in 1835. The Corn Exchange Company erected its building in the market-place in 1847, taking over on lease the agelong episcopal control of the market. (fn. 27) In the open, pillared front of the corn exchange a special buttermarket was held. A weekly cattle-market also developed. (fn. 28) The city water-reservoir was completed in 1854 and was apparently under the aegis of the Board of Health. (fn. 29) A cemetery was laid out on a part of the New Barns estate under control of a Burial Board. A Mechanics Institute was established in 1842, under the patronage of bishop and dean. In 1851 it had a library of nearly 2,000 volumes. Party politics and controversy were 'rigidly excluded'. Elementary schools increased in number and offered improving facilities. The Feoffees, about 1850, adopted a permanent system of allotments on part of their fen property: (fn. 31) some 400 poor citizens were enabled to rent these cheaply. The Feoffees, about the same time, erected a double row of sixteen almshouses in St. Mary's Street; others were later built near the waterside. (fn. 32) Considerable modernization of houses and shops took place in this period.
Under the general Local Government Act of 1894 the present Urban District of Ely was created, with a council of thirteen persons in 1900. (fn. 33) The Urban District included the two city parishes, the College Precincts, and the hamlets of Stuntney, Chettisham, Prickwillow, and Adelaide Bridge. (fn. 34)
In the 20th century the principal interest of Ely remains agricultural, with stress on traditional specialities. Poultry-farming and pig-breeding have increased in significance. City industries are essentially ancillary to agriculture. Brewing (fn. 35) and brick-making have now extensive markets; boat-building and basket-making are of local import. More recent developments include the manufacture of jam and potato-crisps, portable buildings, farm gates and agricultural machinery, and, above all, beet-sugar. This last industry employs many hands, both in the culture of the beet and in its later processing. The beet-sugar factory, (fn. 36) opened in 1925, is one of the largest in England: during the summer months it deals also with the refining of imported sugar.
Changes in parochial structure and organization have occurred. The Isle of Ely Review Order, operative on 1 April 1933, (fn. 37) effected a net reduction of 2,083 acres in the area of Ely Urban District, but only diminished the population by 87. The area is, therefore, now 14,659 acres in 1951. (fn. 38) By the Ely Urban District (Union of Parishes) Order, operative on 1 June 1933, (fn. 39) the parishes of Ely Holy Trinity and Ely St. Mary, with the Intermixed Lands common to them, were combined to form the single parish of Ely Holy Trinity with St. Mary, having an area of 14,626 acres and a (1931) population of 8,199. Ely College (33 acres, 95 population) was constituted a separate civil parish, within the Ely Urban District. The Urban: District Council numbered fifteen in 1950. (fn. 40)
In 1918, the Urban District Council bought from the then Ecclesiastical Commissioners the rights of the bailiff of the markets. (fn. 41) The rights of the bailiff of the fairs were similarly purchased in 1933. (fn. 42) The Council has acquired extensive free fishing facilities along the river. The far bank of the river, long known as 'Babylon', has been laid out as moorings for yachts and pleasure craft. The palace green is leased by the U.D.C. for use as a public open space. The Council controls the water-supply, obtained from the chalk 8½ miles away, and also owns an open-air swimming-pool.
During the first half of the 19th century Ely showed the marked'rise in population characteristic of the whole country. Until about 1851 the population of Ely Trinity maintained the traditional proportion of about double that of Ely St. Mary; thenceforward the difference diminished, until in 1931 equality was almost reached. Changes in parish boundaries (fn. 43) affected population statistics, though not very markedly. Chettisham was included in St. Mary's civil parish, and Stuntney in that of Holy Trinity, as in early days. In 1951 the population of the city was 9,989-an increase of 20.4 per cent. over the population of 1931. The proportion of houses occupied by more than one family was not large at any date after 1801.