A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 8. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1982.
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The former civil parish of Kneesworth, (fn. 1) lies some 16 km. south-west of Cambridge. It was united in 1966 to its western neighbour Bassingbourn, (fn. 2) upon which it had depended ecclesiastically, having been previously described as belonging to Whaddon or Wendy parishes, (fn. 3) since 1400, when it was, however, already reckoned as a separate vill for civil purposes. Kneesworth formerly stretched for 4 km. from north to south. It comprised a squarish northern block, bounded to the south by the ancient Ashwell Street and to the west by the Old North Road, and a narrow strip, under 1½ km. wide though 2½ km. long, running south beside that road almost to the Icknield Way. It covered 997 a. until 1894 when c. 117 a. at its south end, gradually built over during the growth of Royston, were transferred to Hertfordshire and incorporated into that town. Thereafter Kneesworth included 879 a. (fn. 4)
The parish lies upon the Middle Chalk to the south and the Lower Chalk to the north. In the southern strip the ground is gently rolling, between 30 and 45 metres; in the northern part it rises sharply eastwards from the road to over 35 metres, before sinking again towards Melbourn. No ancient woodland survives, but the well-timbered grounds of Kneesworth Hall included c. 20 a. of trees by 1795, (fn. 5) and a belt of trees follows a stream which, rising from springs west of the Hall, flows north to form the north-western boundary. The parish economy has always been entirely agricultural, apart from what custom arose from traffic along the Old North Road. That road was turnpiked under an Act of 1710. (fn. 6) A tollgate was erected at Kneesworth by 1714. (fn. 7) A weighing machine was installed there in 1815, and the gate was still standing in 1871. (fn. 8) The road was finally disturnpiked in 1876. (fn. 9)
The name of Kneesworth suggests that it originated as an isolated farmstead in the AngloSaxon period. (fn. 10) It was first recorded as a separate settlement in the 1210s. (fn. 11) The hamlet had 28 taxpayers in 1327, c. 40 people owned wool in 1347, (fn. 12) and 76 paid the poll tax in 1377. (fn. 13) There were only 15 taxpayers in 1524, (fn. 14) and only 16 or 17 houses under Charles II, (fn. 15) a number increased by 1801, when there were 120 inhabitants, to 24, including up to 6 near Royston. (fn. 16) The hamlet and the adjacent farms had 148 inhabitants in 1841 and 164, occupying c. 30 houses, by 1851. (fn. 17) Numbers there fell from a peak of over 200 in 1861 to 173 by 1871. Meanwhile, following the opening of Royston station, building raised the number of dwellings in the parish close to Royston from 18 in 1861 to 71 by 1871 and almost 150 by 1891, when Kneesworth itself had only 119 inhabitants. (fn. 18) Its population fluctuated around 90 from 1900 to the 1940s, and was only increased to c. 140 in the 1950s by the arrival of over 50 Service personnel and their families. (fn. 19)
The houses at Kneesworth stand by the crossroads where the Bassingbourn-Meldreth road crosses the Old North Road. There are a few 17th- or 18thcentury cottages, timber-framed and plastered, one still thatched, and two terraces of 19th-century cottages face one another across the main road. The Red Lion inn near the crossroads, recorded as a farmhouse in 1795 (fn. 20) and still open in 1977, occupies a timber-framed 17th-century house with an overhang. Another public house, the Hoops, was converted into a club c. 1910. (fn. 21) Further north North Farm has a 5-bay 18th-century front in red brick diapered in blue, with plain angle pilasters and a moulded cornice. By the 1960s (fn. 22) military married quarters were built each side of the Meldreth road, and another housing estate was laid out on the Bassingbourn side just north of Bellevue Farm.
Some land in Kneesworth belonged from the 13th century to the lords of Whaddon, descended from Hardwin de Scalers's son Hugh, and their successors until 1720. (fn. 23) The principal manor in Kneesworth, however, was that held of the honor of Richmond as ¼ knight's fee c. 1235 by Martin the chamberlain and Ralph of Dunton. (fn. 24) Ralph's portion was probably that divided in 1302 between four co-parceners, and in 1346 between eight, holding 1/8 fee, not traced later. (fn. 25) Martin, whose family held elsewhere of the Veres, (fn. 26) was recorded from 1228 to 1253. (fn. 27) His lands descended by 1269 to Jordan Chamberlain (d. c. 1273), (fn. 28) whose son and heir John died c. 1294, leaving as heir a son John, (fn. 29) still under age in 1302, when he held 1/8 fee at Kneesworth. (fn. 30) John died without issue in 1310, and his brother and heir Martin, then aged 18, (fn. 31) after 1322. (fn. 32) In 1336 Martin's son William entailed 190 a. in Kneesworth, Whaddon, and Bassingbourn, later called CHAMBERLAINS lands, on his issue. (fn. 33) In 1346 that 1/8 fee was in the hands of Sir John Curzon. (fn. 34) William Chamberlain died c. 1351, leaving as heir his daughter Cecily, who married Andrew de Bures (d. 1369). (fn. 35) Bures survived his wife and William his son by her and obtained in 1367, while holding her lands by the curtesy, a release of them from her father William's sisters, the coheirs to them. (fn. 36) He settled them in 1368 upon his second marriage to one Catherine. (fn. 37) In 1387 Catherine and her second husband Philip Bluet released the estate, called also BRACHE manor, for a rent charge to Bures's son Andrew, then of age. (fn. 38) Andrew the younger died late in 1412, and was succeeded by his son and namesake, (fn. 39) who in 1426 sold Brache manor to Henry Lyndeby, a Londoner. (fn. 40) In 1464 Lyndeby's widow Joan granted it to William Horn, a London draper (fn. 41) (d. 1469), who left it, enlarged by purchases, to his son Thomas. (fn. 42) Thomas granted the reversion in 1474 and full possession in 1475 to William Felton or Chapman of Sudbury (Suff.), (fn. 43) but recovered a life-interest after disputes in 1482. (fn. 44) By 1493 William Cheyney was lord. (fn. 45) Soon afterwards Brache manor was acquired by the Lady Margaret Beaufort, who in 1506 included it in the endowment of her foundation, Christ's College, Cambridge, (fn. 46) which retained the lordship thenceforth.
The lease of the demesnes, at first let to local yeomen, was acquired c. 1610 by somewhat dubious means by Thomas Nightingale, (fn. 47) whose family retained a beneficial lease of them until the 19th century. (fn. 48) By the late 18th century the college's land had become inextricably confounded with the Nightingales' own property, and Christ's was glad to agree in 1819 to exchange its Kneesworth land for 102 a. in Meldreth, then being inclosed, which remained on lease to the owners of the Kneesworth estate until 1879. By 1773 the college estate had no house, but only a barn, later removed. (fn. 49)
The Nightingales' estate, which by 1700 included most of Kneesworth, was founded by the lawyer Geoffrey Nightingale (d. 1620). (fn. 50) He served as steward of Richmonds manor, Bassingbourn, from 1577, jointly with his son Thomas after 1603. (fn. 51) The neighbouring yeomen frequently employed Geoffrey in their lawsuits. (fn. 52) Some former clients alleged that he promoted such litigation and assisted the borrowing from London usurers needed to finance it, and then bought up the lands which the resulting debts obliged them to sell. (fn. 53) Thus in 1600 he acquired over 200 a. in Bassingbourn and Kneesworth, formerly belonging to the ruined Burman family, (fn. 54) and between 1598 and 1600 bought over 360 a. from Thomas Bolnest, (fn. 55) along with the 'gentlemanly' house which Bolnest's father William had built at Kneesworth, (fn. 56) and which later became the Nightingales' family seat. Thomas Nightingale occupied it, and was farming at Kneesworth soon after 1600. (fn. 57) He was created a baronet in 1628, and died in 1645, leaving his Kneesworth estate with the Christ's College lease to his third son Geoffrey (fn. 58) (d. 1681). Geoffrey's son and heir Edward (fn. 59) owned c. 725 a. there in 1695. (fn. 60) In 1720 he acquired from the Harleys, in exchange for land in Whaddon, c. 100 a. in Kneesworth, formerly owned by Sir Henry Pickering, lord of Whaddon, and the Turpin family land. (fn. 61) Edward died in 1723. His eldest son being insane, he left the estate to his second son Edward (fn. 62) (d. 1750). The latter's eldest son Edward (d. 1782) also growing mad, it was managed by 1761 by his mother Eleanor and brother Geoffrey (d. s.p. 1771), (fn. 63) after whose death Eleanor, to retain control, brought Edward home from his madhouse. He shortly killed her in a fit of rage, (fn. 64) and the estate passed to the next brother Gamaliel, a former naval officer (d. 1791). His son and heir Edward (fn. 65) assumed in 1797 the family baronetcy, dormant since 1722, and died in 1804. (fn. 66) He then possessed c. 880 a. in Kneesworth, including the college land, c. 130 a., (fn. 67) and almost 200 a. in Bassingbourn. (fn. 68) His son, Sir Charles Ethelston Nightingale, sold most of the Bassingbourn land c. 1814, (fn. 69) and the Kneesworth estate, 897 a., in 1831. (fn. 70) The purchaser, William Mason, retained it from 1832 to 1848. In 1849 it passed to Biscoe Hill Wortham (fn. 71) (d. 1895), whose son and successor, the Revd. B. H. C. G. H. Wortham, died in 1928. (fn. 72) In 1918 his family trustees had sold most of the farmland to J. R. and C. R. Jarman, whose family had been its tenants since the 1880s and still occupied much of it c. 1970. (fn. 73)
Kneesworth Hall, possibly remodelled by the Nightingales c. 1600, (fn. 74) was in the 1890s a 3-storey house with over 20 rooms. B. H. Wortham lived there until the 1880s. It was offered for sale in 1897, (fn. 75) and acquired with the 46 a. of park around it in 1900 by Sidney Holland, from 1914 2nd Viscount Knutsford. He bought another 140 a. from the Worthams c. 1903. By 1904 he had rebuilt the Hall as an Edwardian mansion. (fn. 76) After he died in 1931 it was inhabited by his widow Mary (d. 1947). (fn. 77) In 1948 it was sold to trustees who opened there a boys' approved school, whose management, with the ownership of 100 a. around the house, was transferred in 1967–8 to the county council. It was still open in 1977. (fn. 78)
The arable of Kneesworth belonged partly to landowners from other vills. The Scalers family and others from Whaddon had strips there c. 1200, some of which they gave to hospitals at Royston. (fn. 79) There were also a few freeholders living at the hamlet, such as the families of Brook, Orable, and Street, which flourished from the 13th century to the early 15th. (fn. 80) By the 1420s the Brooks' land had descended to the Turpins. (fn. 81) The largest estate within the hamlet was probably that of the Chamberlains. In 1513 the demesne of their former manor, after enlargement, contained c. 131 a. of arable, including one block of 19 a. called Brache piece, and 4 a. of closes. (fn. 82) In 1320 Martin Chamberlain had leased out for a money rent, on a life term, 7½ a. once held in bondage. (fn. 83) By 1500 four copyholds of 20 a. each, rented at 1s. an acre, were held of his successor. One had been given to the vicar of Whaddon, another was already divided into three. In 1493 one man also held as copyhold 72 a. of inclosed land, perhaps part of the demesne. (fn. 84) Copyholds of Brache manor were not recorded after 1582, (fn. 85) and thereafter the only copyhold in the parish was 87 a. held of Shingay manor, whose lords were still claiming rents from it in the 18th century. (fn. 86)
About 1300 the fields of Kneesworth were said to lie fallow every fourth year. The lord of Whaddon then exercised sheepwalk over them, although some owners had inclosed crofts which they claimed to keep permanently under cultivation. (fn. 87) The south field near Ashwell and Ermine Streets, recorded c. 1200, (fn. 88) and the north field named in 1320 (fn. 89) were only two of more than 15 fields and furlongs into which the arable was divided in the 14th and 15th centuries. (fn. 90) One, called by 1389 Each year's land, (fn. 91) containing some 'inland', was perhaps continuously cultivated. Meadows such as Longmead lay by the stream forming the northern boundary and the moor or common, covering before 1830 c. 20 a., was upon the eastern border. (fn. 92) In 1695 South field, also called c. 1725 Road field, occupied the elongated southern strip and covered c. 243 a. North field adjoining Whaddon covered c. 375 a., and Middle field between them c. 410 a. (fn. 93) Besides the 1,025 a., by local measure, of common fields there were then also 200 a. of inclosed pasture. (fn. 94) In 1806 there were said to be 791 a. of open arable and 166 a. of such pasture. (fn. 95) Some land in the north-east of the parish was still then formally intercommonable with Whaddon and Meldreth. (fn. 96) In 1347 Kneesworth had rendered c. 60 stone of wool to the royal levy; 22 stone came from 6 substantial men, providing over 3 stone, and another 28 stone from 15 others, supplying 1–3 stone. (fn. 97)
The village was moderately prosperous between 1500 and 1700. Of the £50 taxed in 1524 one man had £20, but 8 had £2 to 10 marks, and only 6 were taxed on £1. (fn. 98) Under Charles II 6 or 7 of the houses had 2–4 hearths, as many as had only 1 hearth each. (fn. 99) In the 16th century the Brache demesne had usually been let to local farmers for terms of up to 30 years at moderate rents. (fn. 100) From the late 16th century most of the land in the parish was gradually absorbed into the Nightingale estate. Of some 30 landholdings recorded in 1513, five belonging to neighbouring manors, few remained independent by 1628. (fn. 101) In 1695 Edward Nightingale leased c. 305 a. of his 725 a. to farmers, keeping most of the rest in hand. Another 100 a. belonged to the lord of Whaddon, 20 a. was glebe, 67 a. was owned by the Archers of Bassingbourn, and 82 a. at the south end partly by Royston men. (fn. 102) By 1795, out of c. 945 a. in the parish, of which 35 a. were said to be balks, c. 19 a. belonged to churches and colleges and c. 46 a. near Royston to other owners. The rest, belonging to Sir Edward Nightingale, was divided into five farms, Lordship (282 a.), North, later North End (73 a.), Burman's (99 a.), Turnpike (188 a.), and Lion (76 a.) farms, all apparently run from farmsteads, including the Red Lion inn, standing by the Old North Road. (fn. 103)
The traditional system of cropping was still probably in force. About 1606 a farmer, who was leasing 33 a. 'to halves' from Geoffrey Nightingale, had sown 5 a. with wheat and rye, but 10 a. with barley, and 11½ a. with pease and lentils. (fn. 104) In 1809 one farmer's crops included 25 a. of wheat, 40 a. of barley, and 49 a. of oats. (fn. 105) The Nightingales exercised sheepwalk, nominally for 500 sheep, 200 for their own and 300 for the college estate, over the whole parish. (fn. 106) In the 18th century each farmer was entitled to have 25 sheep, and to 12 nights' folding of the landlord's flock of 300–360 sheep, kept by a shepherd who was permitted to run 30 ewes of his own with it. In 1782, however, Gamaliel Nightingale forbade his tenants to keep any sheep or use the foldage, because they had neglected his instructions to sow trefoil and clover for the flock. (fn. 107) Sainfoin was also sown before 1805. (fn. 108)
The Nightingales began from the 1760s to encroach on the open fields, inclosing land near the Hall, and ploughing up part of the moor by the 1790s. (fn. 109) Sir Edward Nightingale refused, however, to have Kneesworth dealt with under the Bassingbourn inclosure act, (fn. 110) but, after acquiring the glebe there by exchange, became the sole landowner in the northern part, (fn. 111) where the traditional cultivation was soon ended without legal formalities. By 1819 hardly a vestige of the old balks and field ways remained, and new field boundaries had been established. (fn. 112) The southern field, where others still had land, was inclosed following an agreement of 1839. Under the award of 1842 170 a. of the 230 a. there was assigned to William Mason, the Nightingales' successor. The rest was divided among nine others, none obtaining over 15 a. The allotments near Royston, made mostly to Royston men, were later built over. (fn. 113)
About 1830 the crops on the Kneesworth estate included, besides wheat, barley, oats, and rye, clover, sainfoin, trefoil, and tares. It then included two substantial farms of 408 a. and 264 a., the latter having 56 a. in Meldreth, Lion farm of 100 a., and five others of 40–60 a. (fn. 114) Following gradual consolidation there were by 1871 three farms of 361 a., 312 a., and 300 a., (fn. 115) and by 1897 two. Middle and Mill farm then had 488 a. of its 662 a. within the parish, North farm 302 a. of 318 a. Both had been let since 1882 to J. R. Jarman, and on his death c. 1902 they were divided between relatives who farmed all that land until the 1920s. From 1918 the farms were owned by their occupiers, of the Jarman and Armstrong families. (fn. 116) In 1955 there were two large farms of 771 a. and 232 a., and four smallholders. (fn. 117)
In the early 19th century 20–25 families at Kneesworth depended on agriculture for their living. (fn. 118) None of the 40 adult labourers in 1830 were unemployed, (fn. 119) and later the number required on the farms there, 67 in 1851, usually exceeded the number actually living there, c. 30 in 1851. (fn. 120) In 1871 28 men, 7 of them outsiders, were employed in coprolite digging. (fn. 121) In the 1860s the Kneesworth estate provided one labourer's cottage, usually fourroomed with a garden, to every 50 a. It owned 20 such cottages in 1897. (fn. 122) In 1925 the farmers employed 34 adult labourers; the 45 recorded in 1955 were probably partly engaged in market gardening. (fn. 123) Kneesworth had few craftsmen, one or two tailors from the 1850s to the 1870s, a carpenter until c. 1900, and just after 1900 a wheelwright. (fn. 124) It was said to have a hiring fair c. 1810. (fn. 125) In the 20th century the land outside the park was mostly devoted to arable farming. Wheat and barley remained the main crops; some cabbages were grown from the 1920s and sugar beet from the 1950s. Between 1885 and 1905 the area of grass rose by a third to c. 100 a., and by 1925 to 175 a., but the number of mature sheep kept fell from c. 1,450 in 1885 to c. 1,050 by 1925; 400 were still kept in 1955. (fn. 126) By the 1950s extensive glasshouses, covering c. 6 a., had been established just south of Ashwell Street. (fn. 127)
In 1269 Jordan Chamberlain leased a water mill at Kneesworth, or possibly the site for rebuilding it. (fn. 128) A windmill, owned by the Orables, which probably stood by 1349 on Mill hill in the south field, (fn. 129) was perhaps that acquired by Geoffrey Nightingale in 1598. (fn. 130) A mill house was recorded in 1795, but no mill was included in the Nightingale estate c. 1800, (fn. 131) although one was attached to a farm, presumably Mill farm, between 1841 and 1861. (fn. 132)
Although Kneesworth was still linked to Whaddon for some civil purposes in the early 14th century, (fn. 133) it was taxed as a separate vill in 1327, (fn. 134) 1381, when it probably had its own constable, (fn. 135) and later. (fn. 136) Courts baron, occasionally held for Brache manor until the 1580s, sometimes enforced agricultural practices, but had been lost to memory by the late 18th century. (fn. 137) From the late 17th century, Kneesworth, although it still paid church rates to Bassingbourn, (fn. 138) and named one churchwarden there every third year, (fn. 139) had its own poor rates. The cost of poor relief, excluding lawsuits, barely rose from £53 in 1776 to £60 in 1803, when only 2 adults received regular outside relief, although £16 were spent on inside relief for one person. (fn. 140) In the early 1810s Kneesworth, persistently spending more than the yield of its rates, paid out £100 a year on regular relief for up to 7 poor people. (fn. 141)
From 1835 it was included in the Royston poor law union, (fn. 142) and having passed with the Melbourn R.D. into the South Cambridgeshire R.D. in 1934, (fn. 143) lay from 1974 in the South Cambridgeshire district. Kneesworth had no parish council after 1894, but only a twice-yearly parish meeting, not always well attended. Following a request made in 1963 (fn. 144) it was incorporated into Bassingbourn for all civil purposes in 1966. (fn. 145)
Kneesworth had a chapel of its own by 1275, (fn. 146) probably that recorded in 1254 under Bassingbourn, (fn. 147) into which the hamlet was eventually absorbed for ecclesiastical purposes. The church of Whaddon also had claims over the hamlet. In 1359 5 marks were due to its rectory for tithes in Kneesworth. (fn. 148) In 1433 the vicar of Whaddon, its lord Thomas de Scalers, and 17 other Whaddon men obstructed and assaulted the inhabitants of Bassingbourn when they sought to beat the bounds of Kneesworth according to custom. It was claimed that the inhabitants of Kneesworth should pay tithes to Whaddon, not Bassingbourn, and attend church there. (fn. 149) In 1504 the impropriators of the two churches agreed that the disputed tithe portion be commuted for a pension of £1 out of Bassingbourn rectory, (fn. 150) whose farmer usually paid it to the vicar of Whaddon in the 16th century. (fn. 151) Payment was interrupted in the late 17th century. (fn. 152) In 1695 Bassingbourn rectory had c. 12 a. and Whaddon rectory 8 a. of glebe in Kneesworth. (fn. 153)
In the late 18th century the Nightingales paid the vicar of Bassingbourn 7 guineas as a composition for the small tithes of their Kneesworth estate. (fn. 154) When Bassingbourn was inclosed in 1804 its impropriator and vicar were allotted for their glebe and tithes in Kneesworth 128 a. and 29 a. respectively in Bassingbourn, at the expense of the Hatton estate, which received in return all the tithes of Kneesworth. (fn. 155) The Hatton trustees shortly sold those tithes to Lord Hardwicke, who resold them c. 1817 to Sir Charles E. Nightingale. (fn. 156) The tithes of Nightingale's estate were thus extinguished. Those of the 70 a. in Kneesworth owned by others were commuted, upon the inclosure of 1839, for tithe rent charges totalling £29 15s. (fn. 157)
About 1275 Kneesworth chapel had nine service books and one chalice, another being given soon after 1300. (fn. 158) Several books and vestments were stolen from it in 1439. (fn. 159) A chaplain was recorded in 1389, and a priest in 1406, (fn. 160) and money was left in 1518 to the priest of the chapel, who still occupied a house held from the lord of Brache. (fn. 161) A guild at Kneesworth had a stock worth £2 in 1524. (fn. 162)
The chapel of ST. MARY MAGDALEN, so named in 1439, (fn. 163) presumably stood on the site still called in 1795 the Chapel yard, c. ½ km. north-west of Kneesworth Hall. (fn. 164) Legacies were bequeathed for its repair, down to the early 16th century, (fn. 165) including £10 in 1513 from the London alderman, Thomas Kneesworth. (fn. 166) The chapel fabric, except for its 3 little bells and lead roof, was sold by the Crown in 1549, (fn. 167) and had long been decayed by the 1630s. (fn. 168) By 1800 all that remained was a stone doorway incorporated into farm buildings. (fn. 169) After the chapel was suppressed, the inhabitants of Kneesworth attended Bassingbourn church, (fn. 170) and their squires became down to the 20th century its principal benefactors. The Nightingales were usually buried there. (fn. 171)
In 1679 the vicar of Bassingbourn accused a Kneesworth widow of refusing to pay tithes to him or to come to church. (fn. 172) No organized dissent was recorded in the hamlet, then or later.
The day and boarding school with 21 pupils recorded under Kneesworth in 1835 (fn. 173) may have been at Royston, for no school was mentioned at the hamlet in 1841, (fn. 174) and fewer than 15 children there were at school in 1851 and 1861. (fn. 175) By 1867 a school had been opened, sponsored by the squire; (fn. 176) in 1871 it had perhaps 47 pupils from the village, all but 8 being girls. (fn. 177) A small dame school was still open at Kneesworth in the 1880s, but most children attended Bassingbourn Board school. (fn. 178)