A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 9, Chesterton, Northstowe, and Papworth Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.
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By the 1220s Barnwell priory was holding a halimote court for the manor, in which freeholds could be conveyed by a kind of fine. (fn. 1) The priory had its own prison, from which an appellee escaped c. 1260, when a thief was hanged and accomplices abjured the realm in the prior's court. (fn. 2) The prison was at the priory's manor house, where in 1287 a village constable placed a local man arrested for stealing. When the sheriff broke down the hall doors, seized the prisoner, and imprisoned the prior's bailiffs, the king rebuked him and confirmed the priory's right to arrest felons and peace-breakers, apparently because Chesterton was part of the ancient demesne. (fn. 3) The privileges attached to the manor in the late 13th century included view of frankpledge, confirmed in 1227, the assize of bread and of ale, and gallows and tumbrel. (fn. 4) In the 1250s the prior established that his tenants there were not geldable nor subject to common amercements with the men of the county. (fn. 5) In 1331 he was admitted to have had the return of writs at Chesterton since the 1280s, (fn. 6) while in 1352 the king's steward conceded that the prior should still hold his manorial courts and leets even within the verge of the royal household. (fn. 7) In 1360 the prior took a suicide's land as an escheat. (fn. 8)
The manorial courts, in which c. 1279 the ancient demesne tenants could plead by little writ of right, were then held every three weeks: customary tenants still owed suit at those intervals in 1400, when they also owed it at the two annual leets; (fn. 9) c. 17 courts were usually recorded each year until c. 1300. (fn. 10) By the 1340s their frequency had declined to 10 a year, although 15 were held in 1369, including leets in spring and autumn. (fn. 11) About 1400 the customary tenants complained that the prior was barring them from using the little writ of right, and making them proceed by bill like mere bondmen, (fn. 12) a complaint renewed c. 1560. (fn. 13) Besides registering transfers of customary and occasionally of freehold land, (fn. 14) the court declared local inheritance customs, (fn. 15) regulated agriculture through bylaws, (fn. 16) and named officers for the vill. Besides reeves, (fn. 17) aletasters were chosen from the early 14th century (fn. 18) to the 17th. (fn. 19) Constables, recorded from the late 13th century, (fn. 20) were regularly named at the court from the 17th century to the 1830s, as were fen reeves, haywards, and herdsmen. (fn. 21) About 1400 the prior could require tenants holding 10 a. to serve as reeves, those with 3 a. to act as aletasters, marsh reeves, and haywards. (fn. 22)
In 1405 the tenants claimed that the right to fix amercements belonging to the 'governors of the town' was then being usurped by the lord's officers. (fn. 23) By the mid 16th century the villagers probably enjoyed considerable autonomy: the chief pledges as the 'twelve men of Chesterton' acted for the village by the 1510s in receiving bequests and leasing the guild hall. (fn. 24) The villagers resented intervention in the court's work after the Dissolution by the new lords. The Brakyns at first employed as stewards eminent lawyers with local connexions, such as John Hinde or William Cook, who sometimes presided in person at courts usually meeting in the lord's barn next to the vicarage. (fn. 25) In the 1550s Richard Brakyn sometimes held courts, as in 1555, to admit tenants whose copyholds he wished to forfeit, at days when they could not attend, (fn. 26) and directed the steward to inquire into matters not customarily brought before the court, and to enter presentments not made by the homage. (fn. 27) Under the composition of 1576, the lord was to hold only two leets each year, after Easter and Michaelmas, and, save for the trial of land titles, only two immediately subsequent courts baron, lasting no more than one day each, unless the homage agreed more time. Only resident copyholders had to attend all sessions, inhabitants without copyholds attending only the leets. (fn. 28) The court was still sometimes hearing land suits c. 1600: in 1601 one was tried, with counsel arguing on each side, by writ of right patent and grand assize, although with ulterior motives and not entirely correctly. (fn. 29) Until the 1690s the court still often issued and enforced agrarian regulations. (fn. 30) After 1700 its main business was with transfers of the much fragmented copyholds. By the mid 17th century only two courts were usually held each year, in spring and autumn, but their frequency increased again from the 1730s to meet the increase in tenurial business. (fn. 31) A register of courts complied in the late 14th century for Barnwell priory, almost entirely confined to recording admissions to customary, and occasionally freehold land, covers the years from 1278 to 1370. (fn. 32) About 1560 both the original paper minutes and engrossed copies of court rolls from the 1530s were extant. (fn. 33) Court rolls for the principal manor survive for 1632-8, (fn. 34) and court books, beginning as minute books, for 1641-1753 (fn. 35) and 1754-1867. (fn. 36) Courts continued to be held until the early 20th century. (fn. 37) For the rectorial manor a 'gressum book', mostly concerned with the admission of customary tenants, survives for 1256-1443, (fn. 38) and court rolls, for similar business, for 1398-1413, 1425-41, 1458, 1509-14, 1542-1622, 1643-83, and 1727- 41. (fn. 39) Trinity College was still holding courts for that manor in the early 19th century. (fn. 40)
The parish highway surveyors were mentioned in 1585. (fn. 41) In 1634 the court enforced the assize of bread upon a Barnwell baker selling under weight, and upon a man who obstructed the aletasters checking the quality of bread and ale. (fn. 42) In 1661 the court forbade householders to take in inmates without informing the parish officers. (fn. 43) In 1666 the occupiers of five onehearth dwellings, too poor to pay tax, were relieved. (fn. 44) A messuage formerly used as a workhouse, probably before 1784, was mentioned in 1791. (fn. 45) About 1785 £8 10s. was spent on putting the poor to work. (fn. 46) In 1804 £50 of Mary Chettoe's recent bequest for the poor was spent on part of a messuage for use as a workhouse. (fn. 47) Expenditure on the poor rose steadily from £118 in 1776 to c. £190 by 1785 and by 1790 poor relief was being managed by contract. In 1803, when a contractor was paid 4s. a head, presumably weekly, to feed them, 15 were in a workhouse, another 35, probably besides c. 40 children, were receiving regular outside relief, and 42 more were helped occasionally. The overall cost had reached c. £630, of which £183 went on inside relief. (fn. 48) In the early 1810s the whole expense was usually over £625, though dropping below £500 in 1814, while £125 went on a lawsuit over removals, and almost 50 people were regularly assisted, and 15 others occasionally; only c. 4 in the workhouse. (fn. 49) From the late 1810s until 1834 the total cost of poor relief fluctuated between c. £400 and over £600. (fn. 50) In 1836 the parish was included in the new Chesterton poor-law union, (fn. 51) whose workhouse was built on the edge of the village. (fn. 52) The parish workhouse, which had partly served for dwellings, was sold by the board of guardians in 1838. (fn. 53)
By the mid 19th century Chesterton was struggling to control the affairs of a growing population and enlarged built-up area within the old framework of parish government. An association for prosecuting felons, including thieves and hedge breakers, had been formed in 1776. (fn. 54) Although the parish constables were still responsible for suppressing disorder, (fn. 55) the Cambridge police had sometimes to be called in to help prevent fights starting outside the numerous public houses. (fn. 56) By 1857 at latest the village had its own resident policeman. (fn. 57) Its business continued to be managed until the 1880s by a vestry meeting which still chose the usual parish officers, including by the 1840s four overseers, four constables, and up to three highway surveyors. (fn. 58) Appointments were sometimes disputed between church and chapel parties. (fn. 59) The two gravel pits, 3 a., allotted at inclosure, were apparently worked out by 1857, when they were sold and part of Church close bought instead. (fn. 60) Chesterton had its own fire engine; the shed and the parish cage were for sale c. 1855. (fn. 61) By the 1870s the vestry provided street lighting, in the village with hanging oil lamps, in New Chesterton with gas from Cambridge. (fn. 62) The vestry removed nuisances in the newly populated areas by 1871. (fn. 63) In the village 'accumulated filth' from the workhouse could overflow the drainage ditches, (fn. 64) and in New Chesterton sewage sometimes ran in the streets, percolating through the underlying gravel so that the well water was unsafe to drink, and typhoid and dysentery were rife by the late 1870s. (fn. 65) A Local Board of Health for the whole parish, with 12 members, was therefore established in 1880, (fn. 66) which in the 1880s was mainly concerned with sanitation, sewage disposal, and street cleaning and lighting. (fn. 67) In 1894 the board was replaced by an urban district council also with 12 members for its two wards, usually returned unopposed, which like its predecessor had a small office off the Milton road and employed a medical officer, usually shared with the borough, and an inspector of nuisances and surveyor. (fn. 68) It contributed to the cost of building the Victoria Bridge, and ran a small voluntary fire brigade. (fn. 69)
In pursuit of its ambition to become a county borough, Cambridge repeatedly sought to incorporate Chesterton urban district. That proposal was rejected by substantial majorities in the district in three polls between 1897 and 1909, Chesterton's inhabitants fearing an increase in their rates. (fn. 70) The union was eventually effected in 1912, all the built-up part of Chesterton being thenceforth within the borough. (fn. 71)