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 extensive parish of Elsworth, covering 1,554 ha. (3,839 a.), (fn. 1) lies 14 km. (9 miles) west of Cambridge. In shape an irregular hexagon, with an average length and breadth of c. 4 km. (2½ miles), (fn. 2) it is bounded to the south by the road from Cambridge to St. Neots, a turnpike between 1772 (fn. 3) and 1876, (fn. 4) to the east, towards its formerly dependent vill of Knapwell, by irregular field boundaries and further north by a stream flowing north towards the Ouse, and on the north and west by field boundaries. Its north-western boundary was from c. 1000 or earlier (fn. 5) until 1974 also the county boundary with Huntingdonshire.
The land lies mostly upon Ampthill clays, overlaid over most of the southern two thirds of the parish by glacial boulder clays, (fn. 6) and surrounding north of the village a substantial bed of Elsworth Rock, from which flints for muskets were formerly mined. (fn. 7) The ground slopes downward from a wide plateau at c. 65 m. beside the St. Neots road to c. 30 m. near the village and barely 15 m. at the nearly flat northeast angle of the parish. From springs near the northern edge of the plateau a brook runs along a depression through the village.
Elsworth wood stands near one source of that brook. In 1086 Ramsey abbey had a grove adequate for repairs to its manorial buildings. (fn. 8) In 1279 the wood covered 12 a., (fn. 9) but in 1800 at inclosure 41 a. Adjoining it lay the Grove or Wood closes, then covering 43 a., (fn. 10) whose shape suggests that they were created by assarting. By 1900 the wood's central section had been cleared, and trees covered only 34 a. (fn. 11) Small scattered 19th-century plantations raised the area of woodland c. 1905 to 48 a. (fn. 12) Under a charter of 1251 Ramsey abbey and its successors enjoyed free warren over the parish, (fn. 13) and in the 14th century a warrener was appointed. (fn. 14) Elsworth has since the Middle Ages been mainly devoted to agriculture. Its arable was cultivated latterly on a triennial rotation until its inclosure in 1801.
Elsworth was one of the most populous villages in the neighbourhood from the Middle Ages. In 1086 it contained 44 peasant households and 4 servi. (fn. 15) There were c. 90 landholders in 1279 (fn. 16) and 64 taxpayers in 1327. (fn. 17) In 1315 c. 200 people turned out for a great harvest boon, (fn. 18) and 209 paid the poll tax in 1377. (fn. 19) Following a decline only 27 paid the subsidy in 1524, (fn. 20) but from the 1550s the population rose steadily, there being 53 households by 1563 (fn. 21) and perhaps c. 500 people by 1620, and probably then remained within the range of 450-500, despite occasional drops, as c. 1680 and c. 1725, until the mid 18th century. (fn. 22) In 1676 250 adults were recorded, (fn. 23) and there were c. 100 dwellings occupied in 1674 (fn. 24) and 100 in 1728. (fn. 25) Numbers grew more rapidly from the 1760s, possibly dropping c. 1800 from well over 600 to c. 585, divided among 125 households, (fn. 26) and rising again from 1811 (fn. 27) to a peak of 878 in 1841. (fn. 28) Thereafter partly through emigration, c. 50 people leaving for America and Australia between 1850 and 1853, (fn. 29) it fell slowly to just over 800 by 1871, then more rapidly to under 640 in the 1880s, (fn. 30) c. 560 after 1900, and 441 in 1931. From 525 after the Second World War it fell again to 476 in 1961, but recovered to 566 by 1971 and 637 in 1981. (fn. 31)
The village stands in the centre of the parish. (fn. 32) A minor road, leading west from Boxworth towards the Old North Road, crosses the parish and in the village was by 1840 called Cambridge Street. (fn. 33) From it the wide main street, recorded by 1450 as Brook End, (fn. 34) later Brook Street, runs south. The brook, flowing along that street, could still flood the centre of Elsworth after heavy rain in the 19th and 20th centuries. (fn. 35) The manor house stands amid large closes opposite the street's northern end, the church on rising ground to the north-east. A back lane, once Workhouse Lane (fn. 36) but by the 1880s Church Lane, runs east of the street. Cowdell End, so named by 1567 and formerly Cawdell or c. 1300 Caldewell End, (fn. 37) was perhaps the East End recorded in 1375; (fn. 38) Broad and Brockley Ends lay to the west.
By the late 13th century there was also a hamlet called Grave, sufficiently separate from Elsworth village to be styled a vill c. 1290 (fn. 39) and to have its own aletaster in 1321. (fn. 40) It was said after 1400 to have stood in the closes by the wood. (fn. 41) It was not recorded as inhabited after 1349. The main village also began to shrink from the late 14th century. The house of one large holding had fallen down by 1381, (fn. 42) and, although Ramsey abbey could still let some newly built cottages in the 1390s, (fn. 43) ruinous dwellings were often presented from the 1360s, (fn. 44) four in 1402 and five c. 1430. (fn. 45) About 1450 the tofts of 7 out of c. 36 messuages and 4 out of 24 cottages were empty. (fn. 46)
The village retained c. 1950 seven or eight timber-framed houses, their fabric dating mainly from 16th- or 17th-century rebuilding; a few had been demolished by 1982. Dears Farm is a jettied house of 1611 north of the manor house, and Low Farm of 1595 at the south end of Brook Street has a large central chimney and a twostoreyed projecting porch. Twelve other timberframed cottages, all standing c. 1950, probably dated from the late 17th or early 18th century. (fn. 47) The village suffered from two severe fires, in 1691, when property worth £1,650 was lost, and 1740. (fn. 48)
Substantial 18th-century brick houses include Brockley Farm and the remodelled Brown's Farm at Cowdell End. In the mid 19th century the more prosperous farmers built themselves plain, large, square houses, plastered over timber framing, with doors and windows of almost identical design, such as the adjoining Child's and Meadow Farms at Broad End. Dales Farm at Cowdell End has a front with pilaster strips. After inclosure other farmsteads, not all with farmhouses, were built out in the fields: south of the village stood Common Farm, demolished by 1980, and Rectory Farm, and to the northwest North Meadow, Pitt Dean, and Rogues Lane Farms. Avenue Farm, in the village, also 19th-century, has lost since the 1950s a large timber-framed storehouse of c. 1700 but retains a long range of 19th-century stabling on castiron supports. (fn. 49)
At inclosure in 1800 the village included, besides the manor house and rectory, two public houses, 19 farmhouses, 19 other houses, and c. 52 cottages. (fn. 50) The number of dwellings had grown to over 150 by the 1830s and c. 180 by the 1860s. (fn. 51) There were then c. 45 along Brook Street, c. 20 on its back lane, and c. 30 each at Broad and Cowdell Ends. The remainder lay mostly in groups of 6 or 7 on various minor lanes, often named from the farmers who had built the cottages, as with Fardell's and Cotterill's Lanes. (fn. 52) By the 1880s the number of occupied dwellings had fallen to c. 155; 15 houses were vacant in 1881, 17 more in 1901, and by the 1920s barely 125 were inhabited. (fn. 53) Council houses were built at Elsworth from the 1930s, when a row of eight pairs was erected south-east of the manor house. (fn. 54) Others went up later south of Brockley End. There were 160 houses by the 1950s and 195 in 1971, even though the village had no mains sewerage until the mid 1970s. (fn. 55) In the 1960s and 1970s there was much infilling among the older houses, many of which were refurbished by newcomers, (fn. 56) and one on Brook Street was thoroughly restored by the Cambridgeshire Cottage Improvement Society. (fn. 57) Private estates were laid out around closes east of the old village, one north of the Cambridge road of 30 houses. (fn. 58)
Elsworth was linked with the road west from Cambridge by two ways leading south. One ran through Knapwell from a crossroads east of the village, where the Boxworth road met one from Conington. Of the other, called c. 1800 the Brockley Haden road, starting from the west end of the village, the straight southern section was set out only at inclosure, when the parish's other roads were largely left to follow their previous tracks. (fn. 59) Elsworth was close enough to the Old North Road to suffer in the Middle Ages visitations from the king's purveyors and other servants: in 1314 the reeve had to furnish hospitality to 23 of Edward II's household, probably on the return from Bannockburn. (fn. 60)
The village had several alehouses in the 14th century, as later. (fn. 61) In 1532 its alehouse keepers were forbidden to lodge strangers for more than one night. (fn. 62) The five public houses recorded c. 1770 included the Plough on Brook Street and the Three Horseshoes, both open by 1765, and the Fox and Hounds, a timber-framed house of c. 1700, at the northern end of the Brockley road. All were still open in the 1820s. (fn. 63) The George and Dragon at Cowdell End was opened by 1851 (fn. 64) and was rebuilt after a fire in 1880. It was from 1854 to the 1880s the seat of a benefit society with c. 50 members, which had succeeded, perhaps c. 1834, (fn. 65) a friendly society with 23 members recorded c. 1815. (fn. 66) The Three Horseshoes closed c. 1915 and the Plough by 1961. (fn. 67) The George and Dragon, with a restaurant added in 1975, and the Fox were still open in 1982. (fn. 68) A beerhouse recorded by the 1850s by the crossroads at Caxton Gibbet, just inside Elsworth's south-western angle, was promoted in the 1930s into the Caxton Gibbet Hotel, (fn. 69) still open in 1982.
The village Feast was held until c. 1900 in June for a week beginning on Trinity Sunday, and was marked by cricket matches. (fn. 70) A cricket club, founded by 1891, (fn. 71) was amalgamated with others including a football club of c. 1904 into a general sports club in the 1960s. (fn. 72) By then F. W. Davison was letting a 7-a. field west of the manor house to the village as a sports field, where he had helped to build a pavilion. Otherwise Elsworth had few societies, depending for social facilities largely on the recently built Swavesey village college. (fn. 73) In 1982 the parish council, having no village hall, was planning to buy the lately disused British Legion hut. (fn. 74) By 1965 part of Elsworth wood had been cleared for motor cycle scrambles. (fn. 75)