Swaffham Prior: Charities for the poor

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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'Swaffham Prior: Charities for the poor', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 10, Cheveley, Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds (North-Eastern Cambridgeshire), (London, 2002) pp. 303. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol10/p303 [accessed 29 February 2024]


William Thomson by will proved 1492 directed that, if his son George died without issue, his lands and meadows, possibly 10 a., should go to the town of Swaffham Prior to pay taxes for it. (fn. 1) Those lands were presumably the larger part of the Town lands of uncertain tenure, including Town meadow, which were being let in the 1540s for over 30s. (fn. 2) In 1577 another 8¾ a. of copyhold was given under Thomas Rolf's will for the same purpose. About 1598 it was decided that all villagers should benefit from those gifts, except those occupying the manors and other gentlemen's estates. In 1627 John Newburn gave his copyhold tenement, expected to be inhabited by poor people, with an orchard and 1¼ a. to the town for the poor, especially widows and orphans, of St. Mary's parish. When the parish fens were divided in 1682 the feoffees received 25-30 a. of fenland lots, partly freehold. Of the £146 raised before 1730 from selling turf dug there, the trustees spent £136 on building a workhouse for the parish. That expenditure was approved by a Chancery Decree of that year, which assigned from the future net income of Thomson's and Rolf's gifts £5 for the school, £4 for the unassisted poor, and the balance for apprenticeships. Newburn's bequest was to be used according to his will, and the fen rents were to maintain the workhouse. (fn. 3) Of the £18 5s. total income in the late 18th and early 19th centuries £5 went by 1783 for apprenticeships. (fn. 4) At inclosure 44 a., including 17 a. freehold, was allotted to the Town estate for its field and fen lands, besides its 5½ a. of village closes, including the 1-a. Town close south of Hall Farm. By 1880 cottages on that close had been made into six dwellings for the poor called Almshouse Row, while four others stood on a plot owned by the parish off Rogers Road further north. Those on Town close were partly 18th-century, but their north-west half was rebuilt in brick after 1800. Both groups were in the 1830s occupied rent free by paupers, mostly widowed, as was a cottage at Reach. Of a net income of £63 the trustees spent £16 on fuel for the poor, the rest mostly on assisting young people to enter service. No formal apprenticeship had been arranged since 1825. (fn. 5)

The 'feoffees' cottages', which in the late 19th century were still inhabited as almshouses by poor people, mostly elderly and often widows, (fn. 6) numbered twelve in 1863 when the poor's potential share of the charity rental of £80-5 was £50. A Scheme that year provided that their share be distributed through apprenticeships and benefit clubs, or in kind. (fn. 7) A Scheme of 1908 assigned the income, excluding the school's £35 portion, for the poor in general, allowing up to £30 to be given in coal, the normal use into the 1920s. It also allowed expenditure on objects such as maintaining the reading room. The eight to nine charity cottages still then owned in the village (fn. 8) were successively demolished, being condemned as unfit for habitation, and their sites sold, three of the five on Rogers Road in 1912. Those on Town close were repaired in 1957. The close was mostly sold in 1974, only its front part, long used as a children's playground, being retained. The last two decayed cottages were pulled down soon after, and 10 a. of the fenland was sold in 1953. The total income, £60-70 in the 1940s and £120 by 1960 rose to over £5,500 c. 1990, including almost £1,500 rent from the 39 a. of land retained and c. £3,500 from £24,000 of stock. In 1955 and 1970 part was still given in coal. By 1990 much of Swaffham's three-quarter share for the poor, no longer required to maintain the almshouses, went to local social clubs and other parish institutions, also to maintaining St. Cyriac's church and the Zoar chapel, while £1,000-2,000 was given yearly to those needing assistance, particularly the elderly. (fn. 9)


  • 1. P.R.O., PROB 11/9, f. 80v.; cf. ibid. C 1/227, no. 54.
  • 2. C.U.L., E.D.C., 7/12/7, ct. roll 11 Eliz. I; C.R.O., P 150/25/1.
  • 3. Ibid. P 150/25/2, 24, 26; P.R.O., C 93/57, no. 6 (summarized, 31st Rep. Com. Char. 147-8); cf. P.R.O., C 229/7, no. 7 (m. 4).
  • 4. Char. Don. i. 88-9; C.U.L., E.D.R., B 7/1, p. 17; B.L. Add. MS. 9412, ff. 291v.-292.
  • 5. C.R.O., Q/RDz 7, pp. 479-80; B.L. Add. MS. 9412, f. 291v.; R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 125; 31st Rep. Com. Char. 48-9.
  • 6. e.g. Camb. Chron. 27 Jan. 1855, p. 5; P.R.O., RG 9/1033, ff. 49v., 53; RG 11/1678, f. 47.
  • 7. C.R.O., P 150/25/34-5; cf. Char. Digest Cambs. 1863-4, 404-5.
  • 8. Char. Com. files 201117, Scheme 1908; 201117 A/2, accts. 1926.
  • 9. Ibid. 201117 A/2, corr. 1910-12, 1936-8, 1949, 1952-3, 1957; accts. 1949, 1955; 201117, accts. 1960, 1972, 1988-91; C.R.O., P 150/25/51-4; Camb. Evening News, 5 Nov. 1970; 25 Feb., 22, 27 Mar. 1974; 30 July 1979; cf. 'Swaffham' (W.I. 1958); above, Reach, char.