Fen Drayton: Introduction

Pages 289-292

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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THE parish, (fn. 1) some 13 km. (8 miles) northwest of Cambridge, covers 604 ha. (1,492 a.). (fn. 2) To the south-west (fn. 3) it is bounded by the straight Roman road from Cambridge to Godmanchester (Hunts.), a turnpike between 1745 and 1874, (fn. 4) to the north by the river Ouse. The northern and western boundaries were until 1974 also the county boundary with Huntingdonshire. About 1590 the men of Fen Stanton (Hunts.) unsuccessfully claimed that Elney fen, c. 80 a., west of Oxholme lode, was under their lord's jurisdiction and so belonged to Huntingdonshire. (fn. 5)

The soil of Fen Drayton lies in the south-east upon Ampthill clay, in the north-west upon other clays and mudstone, mostly overlaid in the south by river gravels, in the north by alluvium. The virtually level ground falls very slightly from c. 10 m. along the main road northward towards the Ouse. Two watercourses flow into the parish from Conington. One runs north-east into Swavesey. The other, once called Hall brook, (fn. 6) passes along the village street before dividing to run each side of Oxholme into the Ouse.

In the late 16th century timber worth £60 was growing in closes belonging to the manor, including the Hallyard grove, (fn. 7) of 12 a. c. 1690. (fn. 8) Until inclosure in 1840 the southern half of the parish was devoted to arable farming, following a triennial rotation, the fenland to the north to pasture. From 1935 to 1983 Fen Drayton was the home of one of the groups of smallholders organized by the Land Settlement Association. Gravel was dug from the 1930s, mostly in the north after 1955. The railway line from Cambridge to St. Ives, opened in 1847, (fn. 9) crosses the northern half of the parish. Freight trains still ran along it in 1983. (fn. 10) Extensive diggings north of it were still in progress in the 1980s, while others, disused and flooded, (fn. 11) were used by the 1970s for sailing, water skiing, and similar sports. (fn. 12)

Figure 17:

Fen Drayton c. 1800

Early settlement in the parish is indicated by traces of occupation, perhaps continuous from the Iron Age through Roman to Anglo-Saxon times, at a mound 25 m. (80 ft.) across in Elney, and of straight-sided enclosures, possibly Roman, west of the village. (fn. 13) The number of resident landholders increased from the 21 peasants recorded with 2 serviin 1086 (fn. 14) to c. 55 by 1279. (fn. 15) Taxes were paid by 27 people in 1327, (fn. 16) by 111 adults in 1377, (fn. 17) and by 26 people in 1524. (fn. 18) There were 46 households in 1563, (fn. 19) and 53 commonable houses in 1649. (fn. 20) Under Charles II c. 60 dwellings (fn. 21) contained 138 adults in 1676, (fn. 22) while in 1728 the 46 families comprised c. 230 people. (fn. 23) By the early 1800s there were c. 265 inhabitants divided among c. 65 families. The population, increasing thereafter by c. 30 in each decade, reached over 380 in the 1840s, (fn. 24) and, despite some emigration to America c. 1855, (fn. 25) over 450 in the 1860s, before declining sharply to 344 in 1881 and just over 200 c. 1900. (fn. 26) After a temporary recovery by 1911, it again fell to c. 200 in 1931, (fn. 27) but the settlement in 1936 of 53 smallholding families raised it suddenly by 300 to c. 550. (fn. 28) From the 1960s to the 1970s numbers were stable at c. 485 and stood in 1981 at 501. (fn. 29)

The village stands in the middle of the parish's cultivated southern half, approached from the Roman road by a minor one, following its preinclosure track. (fn. 30) At Honey Hill, at the southeastern corner of the village, that road turns west and divides: Church Street on the south and Horse and Gate Street on the north, named from a public house, (fn. 31) run parallel to meet at a green, aligned north-south, from which the high street runs north beside the brook towards Oxholme bridge. On that street's west side Cootes Lane met Green way, leading towards Fen Stanton, which at inclosure was diverted south as Mill Road towards the turnpike. Other straight new roads then set out included one from Honey Hill to Boxworth End in Swavesey, and in the fen two leading north from Oxholme bridge to the Ouse. That on the east runs to the ferry to Holywell (Hunts.), (fn. 32) which in 1650 belonged to the lord of Fen Drayton. (fn. 33) The western road across Elney has been cut short by gravel digging.

A small farmhouse on Church Street, partly of brick and largely rebuilt after a fire in 1974, has a pedimented porch dated 1713, and inscribed with Cornelius Vermuyden's motto, perhaps recalling occupation by Dutchmen engaged in fen drainage. (fn. 34) The east side of the high street has a line of substantial farmhouses, (fn. 35) perhaps built for prosperous yeoman graziers. The early 16th-century Home Farm, timber-framed and thatched, has a gabled southern cross wing with an inserted 17th-century brick chimney. To the north stands Ridgeley's Farm, a timber-framed house, basically 17th-century but after 1700 refronted in grey brick and given a pedimented doorcase. The red-brick early 18th-century Homestead on the south has a five-bay front with segmental windows, a pedimented doorcase, and curved end gables. Another five-bay red-brick house with gabled ends of c. 1750 stands southwest of the church. Two other timber-framed 17th-century houses, Middleton's Farm off Cootes Lane, and Fen End Farm near the north end of the high street, survived into the 1950s. Few small dwellings survive from before 1800, but the village retains several early 19th-century cottages, mostly timber-framed, one west of the high street with Gothick detailing in its windows.

The village contained c. 55 houses between 1800 and the 1820s. By the mid 19th century there were c. 100, (fn. 36) of which c. 15 stood on Church Street, c. 20 on Horse and Gate Street, and 5 or more at Honey Hill, while the high street had c. 40 in the 1840s, increased to 60 by the 1860s, besides a few cottages on lanes leading off it. (fn. 37) No houses were built away from the village until after 1914, apart from St. John's College Farm and a small alehouse, the Plough, both on the Swavesey road. The number of dwellings inhabited fell sharply after 1870. Empty houses numbered 18 out of 99 recorded in 1881, and 24 out of 85 by 1901, (fn. 38) many cottages having been demolished or fallen down. (fn. 39) In 1910 there were 30 houses and 46 cottages, (fn. 40) by 1931 only 60 dwellings. (fn. 41) After 1936 the Land Settlement Association built, along Mill Road and another newly laid out to the north, over 50 gabled red-brick houses to a uniform pattern: by 1951 there were 134 houses in the parish. Thereafter the number increased slowly, partly by infilling along the streets, to 155 in 1971. (fn. 42) A council estate of 22 semidetached houses was built north of Cootes Lane by the 1980s.

Of the village's three inns the Horse and Gate, recorded from 1841, in a timber-framed 17thcentury cottage, closed c. 1915, while the Horseshoes on the high street, open by 1851, closed c. 1920. (fn. 43) The largest, the Three Tuns, recorded from 1784, (fn. 44) and still open in 1983, occupies a timber-framed house near the south end of the high street. It has a two-storeyed cross wing of three bays, probably early 16th-century; the onestoreyed hall wing was rebuilt after 1600. The cross wing has to the ground floor an elaborately carved wooden ceiling, restored in 1856. (fn. 45)

Curates sponsored a benevolent society in the 1850s (fn. 46) and a parish library in the 1890s. (fn. 47) The annual village Feast held on the Sunday after 19 September continued to be celebrated until the late 19th century along with Plough Monday and May Day festivities. (fn. 48) Under the inclosure Act and award a 4-a. field north of the village was allotted to the lord as a recreation ground for the villagers. (fn. 49) In practice the occupier of Manor farm used it in the 1890s for grazing, although the village lads periodically burnt down its gate to assert their right of access. After John Longwill, purchaser of that farm, asserted absolute ownership, he was coerced in 1914 into surrendering the trusteeship to the parish council which still let it for grazing but long did little to remedy its unlevelled and often water-logged condition. It was enlarged by purchase in 1939. (fn. 50) The village cricket club, recorded from the 1880s, had a pavilion there (fn. 51) which was rebuilt in 1974. (fn. 52) About 1937 a village hall was built south of Cootes Lane on a site provided by the Land Settlement Association. (fn. 53)

From the 1960s council rubbish tips, one off Mill Road of 14 a., encroached upon the village to the south-east, (fn. 54) while heavy lorries carrying gravel, alleged in 1973 to number 240 a day, 'thundered' through the streets. (fn. 55) Even when a new access road linking the Holywell ferry road to the main road was opened in 1980, not all such traffic was diverted from the village. (fn. 56)


  • 1. This article was completed in 1984.
  • 2. Census, 1891, 1971.
  • 3. For the parish, O.S. Maps 6", Cambs. XXXIII. NW., SW. (1886 and later edns.); 1/10,000, TL 36 NW. (1983 edn.).
  • 4. Above, Boxworth, intro.
  • 5. P.R.O., REQ 2/244/28, dep. to interr. 2-4; cf. ibid. STAC 2/15/38.
  • 6. Cf. St. John's Coll. Mun., 31/8/1, terriers c. 1646, 1792.
  • 7. P.R.O., C 3/121/32.
  • 8. C.R.O., 279/T 15.
  • 9. V.C.H. Cambs. ii. 132-3.
  • 10. Cf. above, Long Stanton, intro.
  • 11. Cf. O.S. Map 1/10,000, TL 36 NW. (1983 edn.).
  • 12. e.g. Camb. Ind. Press, 28 July 1977; 3 Aug. 1978; Hunts. Post, 28 July 1977; 10 Apr. 1980.
  • 13. V.C.H. Cambs. vii. 47; cf. Fox, Arch. Camb. Region, 198.
  • 14. V.C.H. Cambs. i. 362, 370, 377, 383, 394.
  • 15. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 474-6.
  • 16. Cambs. Lay Subsidy, 1327, 59.
  • 17. East Anglian, n.s. xii. 240.
  • 18. P.R.O., E 179/81/163, m. 10d.
  • 19. B.L. Harl. MS. 594, f. 198v.
  • 20. C.R.O., 87/M 4.
  • 21. Below, Analysis of Hearth Tax Assessments; P.R.O., E 179/244/22, ff. 60v.-61, apparently omits 10 poor households.
  • 22. Compton Census, ed. Whiteman, 116.
  • 23. C.U.L., E.D.R., B 8/1, f. 13.
  • 24. Census, 1801-51.
  • 25. e.g. Camb. Chron. 15 Apr. 1854.
  • 26. Census, 1861-1901; cf. Christ's Coll. Mun., corr. 1903- 8; below, local govt.
  • 27. Census, 1911-31.
  • 28. Char. Com. files, letter 26 Jan. 1937.
  • 29. Census, 1951-81.
  • 30. For pre-incl. road layout, St. John's Coll. Mun., map 1792; C.R.O., Q/RDc 61, incl. map.
  • 31. Below.
  • 32. C.R.O., Q/RDc 61, pp. 6-8.
  • 33. Ibid. 87/M 4-5.
  • 34. Cf. Camb. Ind. Press, 4 Nov. 1960; Camb. Evening News, 10 July 1974; 9 July 1975.
  • 35. Bldgs. before 1850 described in D.o.E. lists.
  • 36. Census, 1801-61.
  • 37. P.R.O., HO 107/70; HO 107/1749; ibid. RG 9/978.
  • 38. Census, 1881, 1901.
  • 39. Christ's Coll. Mag. xxxix. 78-9.
  • 40. C.R.O., 470/O 18.
  • 41. Census, 1931.
  • 42. Ibid. 1951-71.
  • 43. P.R.O., HO 107/70; HO 107/1749; Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1858-1922); Christ's Coll. Mag. xxxix. 78.
  • 44. Camb. Chron. 14 Feb. 1784; cf. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1858-1937).
  • 45. Camb. Chron. 9 Aug. 1856.
  • 46. Ibid. 6 May 1854; 5 May 1855.
  • 47. C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/37.
  • 48. Christ's Coll. Mag. xxxix. 78; cf. Char. Com. files, corr. 1896.
  • 49. Fen Drayton Incl. Act, 1 & 2 Vic. c. 16 (Private), p. 465; C.R.O., Q/RDc 61, p. 15.
  • 50. Char. Com. files, corr. 1895-7, 1912-14, 1937-9; ibid. Scheme 1914.
  • 51. Camb. Chron. 16 May 1886; Camb. Ind. Press, 2 Nov. 1972.
  • 52. e.g. Camb. Evening News, 22 Mar. 1973; Camb. Ind. Press, 30 May 1974; Hunts. Post, 30 Jan. 1975.
  • 53. Char. Com. files.
  • 54. Camb. News, 5 Aug. 1965; 22 July 1966; Hunts. Post, 8 Apr. 1982.
  • 55. Camb. News, 10 Aug. 1963; Camb. Ind. Press, 21 Apr. 1973; Camb. Evening News, 22 May 1979.
  • 56. Camb. Ind. Press, 3 Jan., 26 June 1980; Hunts. Post, 8 Apr. 1982.