North-eastern Cambridgeshire

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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A F Wareham, A P M Wright, 'North-eastern Cambridgeshire', 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), British History Online [accessed 15 July 2024].

A F Wareham, A P M Wright, 'North-eastern Cambridgeshire', 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), British History Online, accessed July 15, 2024,

A F Wareham, A P M Wright. "North-eastern Cambridgeshire". 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), , British History Online. Web. 15 July 2024.

In this section


'There is in the middle district of Britain a most dismal fen of immense size, which begins on the banks of the river Granta not far from the camp which is called Cambridge. ... It is a very long tract, now consisting of marshes, now of bogs, sometimes of black waters overhung by fog, sometimes studded with wooded islands and traversed by the windings of tortuous streams'. (fn. 1)

Felix (fl. 713 X 749), Life of St. Guthlac.

'The marshland of which I am speaking is very wide and beautiful to behold, washed by many flowing rivers, adorned by many meres, great and small, and green with many woods and islands, .... with an abundance of its wild beasts and fish.' (fn. 2)

Henry of Huntingdon (fl. 1129 X 1154), History of the English.

The contrasting views of the two writers from the 8th and the 12th centuries reflect a general change in the relationship between man and the environment in the fenland region, as well as a new aesthetic of landscape within clerical circles. By the high Middle Ages the land covered in this volume east and north-east of Cambridge, outside the Isle of Ely, was no longer regarded as deserted and dangerous, but as an area of wealth and even beauty. Within it there was a complex relationship between fen, arable upland, and heath. The medieval transformation of the fens from a perilous wasteland to an affluent wetland was followed in the 17th and 18th centuries by their reclamation by draining. With other agricultural improvements, that created the landscape familiar to 20th-century visitors. This volume discusses the history of northeastern Cambridgeshire mainly over the last two thousand years and reveals the contributions made by its inhabitants, ordinary men and women, as well as the gentry, clergy, merchants, and farmers, to the development of settlements within it and in the exploitation of its farmland and fens. It contains the histories of the twenty-five parishes which together made up the four hundreds of Flendish, Staine, Staploe, and Cheveley, that extend north-east and east from the city of Cambridge to the Suffolk boundary. The volume excludes both the town of Newmarket, and the parish of Exning, excluded from Staploe hundred from the 12th century. (fn. 3)

The area is bounded on the north-west by the river Cam and to the south-west mostly by the Icknield way, except for Cheveley hundred which lies to the southeast. It is diverse in character, comprising portions of three larger areas in which different land-uses are predominant. The largest portion is the former fenland which dominates the northern parts of three hundreds north of the Icknield way. South of the fenland lies extensive arable, formerly in open fields, and heath.

Higher land in Cheveley hundred is a continuation of the East Anglian heights. Among major themes to be covered in this introduction are the economy and drainage of the fens, the development of horse-racing and horse breeding around Newmarket, and the growth of industry around Cambridge. (fn. 4)

Hundreds and Parishes, 1845 and Later


Most of the area lies within the eastern part of the basin of the Cam, bounded to the north and west by this river, and on much of its eastern side by two lesser rivers, the Kennett and the Lark. The south-eastern boundary of Flendish, Staine, and Staploe hundreds lies along heathland at c. 50 metres. From there the land slopes gently downwards towards the fen to the north-west. Several lodes and other watercourses flow across that land into the Cam. Most of Cheveley hundred lies on land rising south-eastward from the heath to a ridge at c. 110 metres, which in Kirtling slopes south-eastward into Suffolk. The southern portion of the area comprises a band of Lower Chalk, overlaid in places to the south-east by Middle Chalk. In Cheveley hundred the chalk is capped above 90 metres by boulder clay. Along the streams the land is traversed by strips of alluvium. In the northern fenland the soils, overlying gault, include peat and river gravels.


The land in the three northern hundreds was already partly settled in the Neolithic Age from 4500 B.C. (fn. 5) Three settlements from this period, 10 km. apart, have been found, two in the centre of the fen-edge region, the third on a causeway to the south-west. By the start of the Bronze Age (from 2500 B.C.) subsidence of the fen basin to the north had led to the gradual creation of shallow meres intermixed with marshland. Tidal waters reached as far as the later Horningsea peninsula in the south-west. From that time the north of the fen-edge region began to be overlaid with peat. Meanwhile the escarpment at its southern edge was cleared both of woodland and scrub, probably by grazing beasts. In the Early and Middle Bronze Ages the area's northern and western margins beside the fen were little exploited. Settlement lay more centrally on valley gravels, especially on watercourses within reach of the fen. Complex linear ditch systems have been traced on the low-lying central chalk, while great barrows were put up on the higher southern heathland. About seventy such barrows have been discovered, including 24 at Upper Hare Park on Bottisham heath. Grave goods found in them were mostly unremarkable in quality. Men, women, and children were buried centrally within some barrows. That settlement later spread south-westwards is suggested by the construction on Limekiln Hill in Cherry Hinton of Late Bronze Age barrows, afterwards enclosed within an Iron Age hill fort. Another Iron Age settlement within Flendish hundred was established in the fen at its northern end. Part of the Fleam Dyke, cutting off the southern end of the Horningsea peninsula, may have been constructed during the same period. To the east, the Kennett and Lark rivers perhaps formed part of the tribal boundary between the Catuvellauni and the Iceni. By then there were settlements both in the central upland and in the fens, but none has been traced on the southern heaths, (fn. 6) over which the Icknield way already served as an important traffic artery.

Under the Roman Empire a network of interlocking waterborne and road communications was established. Three lodes were dug to link settlements on the edge of the upland with the Cam, for the carriage by barge of both farm produce and manufactured goods. A road was made between Haverhill (Suff.) and Cambridge. Another, later called Street way, was laid out north of the Icknield way. (fn. 7) That network helped the distribution throughout eastern England from Hertfordshire to Norfolk both of lime, from kilns in the south-west and centre of the area, and of ceramics from a major pottery at Horningsea.

In the centre and north of the fen-edge region at least fourteen inhabited sites, including villas and farms, have been discovered. One farm on Limekiln Hill succeeded an Iron Age farm there. New settlements, usually under 4 km. from other recorded ones, (fn. 8) grew up too on the fenland gravels closer to the Cam: seven were in its immediate hinterland, seven others further south, just north of Street way. In the 3rd century large and opulent dwellings were built, including a villa near Landwade. After A.D. 400, however, changes in fresh water levels made it harder to keep the lodes navigable, so hindering the transport of goods such as Horningsea pottery. Meanwhile the silting of the fens contributed to the abandonment of settlements both within them and on the upland, including Landwade villa. The downturn caused by such local environmental damage was associated with the wider collapse of the Roman economy across north-west Europe that accompanied the 5th-century breakdown of imperial authority.


In the early Middle Ages the area's physical, social, and political structures were altered. They received a basic framework of settlement and government which persisted until the fen drainage in the 17th century. Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, with inhumation burials predominating, which range in date from the late 5th century to the 8th, were widely distributed across the northern half of the area. Except for Kennett, which shares the Celtic name of its boundary river, the villages derive their names from Old English. (fn. 9) Evidence from place-names, archaeology, and settlement studies combines to indicate widespread Anglo-Saxon settlement, which by the 11th century was probably concentrated in nucleated villages. In Cheveley hundred, medieval settlement consisted largely of hamlets standing in clearings in the woodland, with groups of dwellings lying around small greens connected by roads.

In the early Anglo-Saxon period the area was apparently divided between at least two political units. The Devil's Ditch separated the vills within Staploe and Cheveley hundreds from those in Staine and Flendish hundreds, while by the 10th century the rivers Lark and Kennett probably formed a boundary with East Anglia. William of Malmesbury reported a tradition that Felix (d. c. 647), the first East Anglian bishop, had established a monastery at Soham, possibly a seat of his bishopric, (fn. 10) for which an atheling, a royal kinsman, later provided an endowment.

The adjoining Staploe hundred may have been an early Anglo-Saxon territory, containing a centre of royal authority. In the 11th century its three northern vills, Soham, Isleham, and Fordham, contained substantial manors that were part of the royal demesne, and comprised almost a quarter of the 90 hides in the hundred. (fn. 11) Perhaps this strong concentration of great royal estates was connected to the hundred's earlier history. In the 10th century men crossing the Cam at Upware, at Staploe hundred's far western corner, considered that they were passing from one territory into another. (fn. 12) Flendish and Staine hundreds, assessed in 1066 respectively at 50 and 46 hides, formed part of another such territory along the Icknield way with the Devil's Ditch and Fleam Dyke as its north-eastern and south-western boundaries: it may possibly have been one of the minor tribal territories recorded in the south-east Midlands in the Tribal Hidage. (fn. 13) To the north-east, across the Cam, there lay the 1,200-hide territory of the Gyrwe, which probably stretched as far as Peterborough. The part nearest the region, however, that became the Isle of Ely, was reckoned by the 8th century to belong, as Staploe hundred did later, to East Anglia. (fn. 14) The heathland that lay across the south-east of the area provided easy access for armies marching against the forces of the rulers of the East Angles: the Devil's Ditch may have been originally built not merely to obstruct the advance of Mercian armies, but as part of an 'early warning system', giving the East Anglian kings time to muster their forces. (fn. 15) By the early tenth century minsters served the spiritual needs of the area. In addition to Ely and Soham, and possibly Kirtling, Horningsea minster had been founded in Flendish hundred, and received donations from families identified as Scandinavian. (fn. 16)

Landscape and Settlement in Flendish, Staine, and Staploe Hundreds c.1600

All of north-eastern Cambridgeshire was probably loosely attached to the borough of Cambridge, as part of a wider confederation of Scandinavian towns in the southern Danelaw, that took shape in the aftermath of the Viking invasions. Following the reconquest of the area by King Edward the Elder (d. 924), the area formed part of the ealdordom of East Anglia. The shire of Cambridge was laid out at this stage and was placed under the authority of the ealdorman of East Anglia, (fn. 17) but local authority was probably wielded at first by surviving Danish magnates, such as Earl Scule. Later power passed to local notables, such as the king's thegn Wulfstan of Dalham, who, though based just across the shire boundary, exercised great power in Cambridgeshire in the late 10th century. (fn. 18)

By then an alliance between monastic reformers and local ealdormen who supported the ideals of the Benedictine reform transformed the organization of landholding, with important implications for the development of the area's economy until the Dissolution. The founding of several new abbeys to its north and west in the 960s and 970s brought the area within the orbit of influential, land-hungry, and sometimes oppressive patrons and abbots. Ramsey abbey acquired ten hides at Burwell, while Bishop Aethelwold, the founder of Ely, and its abbots obtained within four decades estates within twelve of the vills in the area, partly by purchase, partly by gifts and bequests, especially from Ealdorman Beorhtnoth and his family. After King Edgar died in 975 several of those acquisitions were challenged by former owners or their kin, who claimed that they had been wrongfully dispossessed or forced to sell. Those disputes were mostly settled in favour of the monasteries at hearings before large assemblies at which powerful ealdormen who were friends to the monks presided; (fn. 19) sometimes too their opponents were compensated with cash or exchanges of land. The constitution of those courts reveals certain links between the hundreds in the area: a case about Chippenham was heard by three hundreds, possibly Flendish, Staine, and Staploe hundreds, and landowners from Soham, Exning, and Fulbourn at the area's eastern and western extremities were involved. (fn. 20) The reporting of land dealings involving Staploe hundred before the 24 judges who presided over the court held for the shire at Cambridge (fn. 21) also indicates that by the late 10th century the vills within that hundred were fully incorporated into Cambridgeshire.

Ely's acquisitions, which amounted by the early 11th century to about 35 hides, (fn. 22) were probably partly motivated by a desire to complement its holdings in the Isle with land in vills further south where arable farming predominated: one transaction at Chippenham involved the exchange of plough oxen and of crops in barns and the counting of sown acres. (fn. 23) Such purchases also transferred land and the authority that went with it from members of the indigenous Anglo-Scandinavian landowning class to reform abbeys. (fn. 24) These changes also altered the spiritual geography of the area, as older minster churches were deprived of their lands and treasures and were no longer available as centres for local loyalties. Soham lost its relics to Ramsey about 1020. Such changes, though, also made room for the development of a network of churches serving individual vills and manors.

The reports made in Domesday Book about the structure of landownership in 1066 show that, despite losses, Ely and Ramsey abbeys still together had, along with lordship over numerous sokemen, about a fifth of the hidage assessed on the area, a little less than the king. These monastic landlords imposed heavy burdens on the peasants on their manors: Fen Ditton and Horningsea alone had to provide the monks of Ely with a month's food supply throughout the 11th century. (fn. 25) Later, too, manors under long-established monastic lordship were prominent among those, about a quarter of the total in the three northern hundreds, from whose villein tenants regular weekwork was still demanded in the late 13th century. On the majority of the non-monastic manors, however, such villeins then owed only, at intervals, what were probably ancient customary labour services, for ploughing, hay-making, and, probably the heaviest, harvesting. (fn. 26)


Although the Norman Conquest and the rebellions in the fenland shires reduced direct monastic landholdings in the area, the king and the fenland abbeys remained the largest landowners until the Dissolution. Most royal estates, however, had been alienated by the mid 12th century, only a few, including the large manor at Soham, being retained or eventually recovered. Soham was kept in Crown ownership until the 1620s. Burwell, confiscated from Ramsey in 1538, remained part of the Crown estate until the 1960s. Most other great Domesday tenants-in-chief had similarly subinfeudated their manors by the 12th century. Thus, of fifteen manors in the area that had passed by 1086 to Count Alan, lord of Richmond, all but four had already by then been assigned to knightly tenants. (fn. 27) Of the others even the three near Cambridge were similarly granted out by the mid 12th century. The Tonys, however, retained their large manor at Kirtling. The few other estates kept in hand or recovered by members of the higher aristocracy were often used for special purposes. Some, like Chippenham, were given to religious houses in the 12th century. The earls and dukes of Norfolk usually assigned Kennett to dowagers in the 14th and 15th centuries. The resulting absence from the area until the 18th century of resident nobles and of large concentrations of aristocratic estates eventually led to its domination by local gentry who rarely held large property in more than one or two of its parishes, sometimes in adjoining ones. Apart from an unfinished siege castle begun by King Stephen in 1144 to contain Geoffrey de Mandeville's ravages, the only medieval castles known in the area were the Tony's castle that stood at Kirtling between the 13th century and the 15th, and the fortified 14th-century house of a wealthy Londoner at Cheveley.

Closer to the Cam there was a slightly different pattern. Of three substantial houses built there between the 1230s and 1340 two stood in Fen Ditton. The bishops of Ely had a mansion at the Biggin, which sometimes accommodated travelling kings in the 13th and early 14th centuries. Edward II was there for almost a month in 1315. (fn. 28) Nearer the village the wool merchant William Muschet probably had another large house, from which he could observe the traffic along the river and keep in touch with Cambridge. In the late 15th century some families which had built up large holdings within individual parishes began to build themselves well-appointed manor houses, sometimes with their own chapels; among them were the Anstys at Quy, the Alingtons at Bottisham, and the Peytons at Isleham.


The boundary running along the line of the Devil's Ditch, which until the 11th century had divided the East Anglian diocese from that of Dorchester, remained after 1109, and the one separating the dioceses of Ely and Norwich until the 1830s. In all but three of the ancient parishes architectural and documentary evidence shows that parish churches had been erected by the late 12th century at latest, and all villages had them by the mid 13th. In three parishes, Burwell, Fulbourn, and Swaffham Prior, two parish churches stood close together. The complex arrangements made for the division of tithe between them, within parishes that were single agrarian units, suggest that these pairs of churches had been founded by the lords of different manors. Only in Swaffham Prior do both churches survive, in a single churchyard. In the late 12th and early 13th centuries four religious houses for canons and nuns were founded in the area, besides a Hospitaller preceptory at Chippenham. All but the Hospitallers then profited, along with monasteries elsewhere, from the appropriations which between the 12th and the 15th centuries annexed most of the tithes of all but six churches in the area to religious houses. The incumbents of the annexed churches became vicars, or in a few cases, where canons of the religious house involved may have once served the church, even poorer and less secure stipendiary curates. The appropriations about 1540 of Burwell and Kirtling, in both of which Sir Edward, later Lord, North, was involved, were possibly the last executed in England. Since most of the church revenues were thus diverted to outsiders, most vicarages were relatively poor, and the few more prosperous livings were often held by absentee pluralists. A few vicarages had their incomes improved after 1660 by tithe from newly inclosed fenland. In the late Middle Ages church life was supported and lay piety accommodated by the guilds already recorded in six parishes about 1390. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries there were guilds in at least twelve parishes, and six had two or more. During that period parishioners also made numerous bequests to equip and adorn their churches, but the books and ornaments thus provided were dispersed or destroyed at the Reformation. Neither the churches nor their surviving contents are of great architectural or artistic interest. Burwell has, however, a spacious late Perpendicular church, and a few others, such as Isleham and Landwade, contain notable series of gentry tombs.


A high rate of economic growth was probably sustained between the 10th century and the 12th. In Staine hundred there were 50 per cent more ploughlands than hides in 1086; (fn. 29) in effect the assessment to the geld of the value of land there had doubled between the 920s and 1080s. Similarly, whereas the average number of households to each 1,000 a. was nine over the whole of Southern Cambridgeshire outside the Isle of Ely, in Flendish hundred it stood at fifteen. Growth continued after 1100. At Soham the king's tenants could afford to pay him a tallage that increased fourfold between the 1160s and the 1180s. Between 1086 and 1279 the total number of resident landholders in the fen-edge region may have increased by between three to four times, and possibly almost fivefold in some of those south of the Devil's Ditch from Fen Ditton to the Swaffhams. (fn. 30)

Over most of the western and northern parts of the area, each parish usually contains only one principal village, occupying a well drained, slightly elevated site, often on the divide between its arable upland and the heath or the fen. The dwellings in such villages most frequently stand upon single main streets, sometimes long, near the springline. Further south the village streets more often lay along roads running north from the upland towards the fen. In some villages, shorter 'ends' or lanes led off at right angles to the main streets, sometimes towards little inhabited back lanes that marked the border between the village closes and the cultivated land. A few, such as Fulbourn or Fordham, have developed more complex triangular or rectangular plans. Some village streets once widened in places into elongated greens, while Wicken lies around a larger, formerly oblong, one.

Such main villages made up only a proportion of medieval settlement. At Burwell, a small grid-plan settlement called Newnham was laid out north-east of the original village, whose street was itself extended northwards along the fen edge, parallel to a navigable channel. In Bottisham, too, the village was only one of four settlements in the parish. Two of the other three, standing close to the fen edge, probably grew up in the 12th century. North-east of Swaffham Bulbeck village another Newnham had been planted by the 14th century near another waterway. To the north-east, in the larger fenland parishes, including Soham, Isleham, and Wicken, small hamlets, such as Barway, Henney, Little Isleham, and Upware, had probably been established by the 11th century, sometimes on islets within the fen. Those hamlets were often in decay by the mid 17th century, when 30 a. of once inhabited closes at Little Isleham were being cropped and only one large farmhouse was left at Henney.


The general tripartite division, over the whole fen-edge region, of the land exploited for farming into fen pastures to the north, common arable fields in the centre, and common heathland to the south was matched in many individual parishes. In some of the large fenland parishes only a small part of the total area was included in the common fields, barely a tenth of the 13,000 a. in Soham. However, one or two of them also contained large blocks of crofts around the village which their owners could cultivate continuously outside the triennial common-field rotations. These rotations, recorded from the 13th century to the late 18th, usually comprised wheat and decreasing amounts of rye sown in winter, and barley and oats in spring. Besides legumes, other crops were occasionally planted. There was probably a vineyard at Bottisham in the 14th century. In the 16th century saffron was widely grown, not only in inclosed plots, but sometimes even in strips in the common fields, where the growing of barley was probably then increasing. Saffron mostly disappeared from the 17th century. Of the eighteen settlements in the three northerly hundreds the majority had three or four common fields by the 13th century; in some, such as Fulbourn, the fourth, often smaller, field may have been added through extending cultivation on to suitable higher ground. One or two villages, including Soham, had two separate sets of three fields, each side of the village closes, probably similarly developed. A few, such as Fen Ditton and Chippenham, had more complex layouts with up to eight fields. Much of the land in Cheveley hundred had been assarted by the 11th century, and most of it was farmed as arable in the Middle Ages and later. The pattern of cultivation there resembled that usual in Suffolk: numerous small common fields were worked under the standard triennial rotation. The highest land largely consisted of permanent pasture in closes, while the hundred's northern parts near Newmarket were heathland. Many sheep were kept, and dairying became important in Kirtling in the 17th century.

As the population grew between the 11th century and the early 14th, villagers' holdings were increasingly subdivided. Few occupied more than a half yardland, and many had only one or two acres. In Chippenham 42 peasant families had worked fourteen ploughlands (c. 840 a.) in 1086. By 1279, when the demesne there probably took up 660 a., 143 free and customary tenants had to share c. 1,350 a. Only half the 125 unfree tenants had the size of holding, 12-15 a., reckoned the minimum needed to support an average family, and 51 of the others had 1 a. or less. Such contrasts do not, however, prove that a majority of inhabitants in the fen-edge parishes were living on or below subsistence level. (fn. 31) In many of those parishes the poorer families could probably assist themselves by exploiting the communal resources in the fens, or by intermittently working for wages on manorial demesnes, and perhaps from the 14th century on more prosperous peasants' farms. These parishes therefore contained from the Middle Ages a large number of apparently almost landless inhabitants. However, poorer villagers further south did not have the advantage of access to such common rights.

In the later Middle Ages manorial tenants protected their interests against their lords with increasing success. Even in the 14th century, when lords were directly farming their demesnes in many places, the tenants sometimes refused or evaded doing their labour services. After direct demesne farming ceased in the late 14th or early 15th centuries such tenants obtained the conversion of their holdings into rent-paying copyholds and sometimes took possession of the demesne itself as lessees, as a whole or in fractions. At Soham a number of tenants were thus leasing the large former royal demesne by about 1390. In the early 17th century their successors, who had leases for up to sixty years at traditional low rents, could allegedly no longer distinguish the demesne strips in the fields from their own property. In the early 15th century the new copyholders were often confident enough of the security of their tenure not to want grants of their holdings for longer than their lives, but they began to obtain hereditary grants again after 1450 in time to ensure that by the mid 16th century that was the recognized local custom. Their effectively permanent ownership could not therefore be undermined by financial pressure from their lords when land passed between generations, as happened with copyholdings for lives in more westerly parts of England. A lower population also helped the middling class of villagers, predecessors of the early modern yeomen, to assemble, at least during their lifetimes, several of the earlier standard customary holdings, or portions of them, into larger farms. Such accumulations of land and wealth contributed to a decline in the number of tenants with the smallest holdings, as occurred at Chippenham, in the 15th and 16th centuries. It has been suggested that the number of smaller landholdings there was then reduced, as yeomen bought them up. Such yeomen also provided tenants for lords who began from the 16th century to buy up medium-sized holdings and to combine them into larger farms for leasing to those with the necessary capital. (fn. 32) The yeomen's assets sometimes matched those of the lesser gentry. At Soham the twenty wealthiest householders with £20-40 of moveables each had £900 between them in 1524. There were still, however, numerous poorer villagers then assessed only on a nominal £1 of goods or on their wages: in some villages, such as Bottisham where a testator in 1521 left a shilling each to those with no plough, they included up to a third of the tax-payers.

The wealthier villagers, whose higher standard of living is revealed in the 16th century by their bequests of clothing, furnishings, and even occasionally silver plate, probably dwelt in timber-framed, thatched houses, very like the oldest of those currently surviving along the village streets. The earliest, which date from the 15th century, were hall-houses, into which from the mid 16th century upper floors and brick chimneys were inserted. Some were enlarged by adding cross wings. Most 17th- and 18th-century houses were two-storeyed, or of one storey with dormers, and were often built on a lobby entrance plan. At Burwell, however, where the south end of the village is close to clunch quarries, many larger old houses are built of that stone. Later on, in the 18th century, the farmers at least began to build in brick, usually red at first, copying the Georgian styles of their social superiors.


In the central Middle Ages new communications by road and river were developed, which remained largely unchanged until parliamentary inclosure in the years about 1800, when many minor ways were stopped up, diverted, or straightened. Until about 1100 the only way north through Staploe hundred towards Ely had been by boat, or in winters by walking and sledging over the ice. Soon after 1109 an Exning farmer's vision of St. Edmund King and Martyr led to an Ely monk undertaking to build a causeway through Soham's fens to Ely. That made it easier for pilgrims to travel, as the vision had implicitly demanded, from St. Edmund's shrine at Bury to St. Etheldreda's at Ely without going the long way round through Cambridge. (fn. 33) It was possibly for a bridge on this new road that an Ely monk raised money by preaching later in the 12th century. (fn. 34) The dean and chapter of Ely were still expected in early modern times to assist, as the monks had done in the 14th century, in maintaining the causeway and bridge which linked the town of Ely to Soham village.

Further south-west there was a dense network of roads and droveways, although roads may have been somewhat thinner on the ground in the southern parts of the two more easterly hundreds, reflecting a lower density of population there. These roads complemented transport along the rivers and the lodes. Neighbouring communities claimed free use of the navigation along those channels: in 1376 men from Swaffham Prior objected to a bailiff of Bottisham obstructing their carrying merchandise along Swaffham Lode. Trade along the lodes also fostered the development, at the place where Reach Lode continues the line of the Devil's Ditch, of a fair that flourished from the 13th century to the 19th. It led to the growth around the fair site at Reach of a permanent settlement straddling hundred boundaries. Already in the Middle Ages a few villages had bridges over the smaller streams running through them, and there were long established ferries across the Cam at Upware and Clayhithe, the latter recorded soon after 1300, and eventually across the Lark near Isleham to the north-east. In both medieval and early modern times the area's local highways largely served the needs of its villages, linking them primarily to one another.

The availability of water transport eased the carriage not only of farm produce, but of material quarried for building work. In the late 13th century clunch went by boat along Reach Lode to Ramsey abbey from quarries at Reach, whose clunch helped rebuild Cambridge castle in the 1280s. There was a late medieval boom in quarrying. In the 14th and 15th centuries several Cambridge colleges had clunch quarries at Cherry Hinton, stone from which was used in at least three notable surviving college buildings. Local men also developed skills in working masonry: Burwell masons were employed in the 1350s at Ely cathedral and Windsor castle (Berks.). The chalk quarries also long yielded lime for mortar. Five limekilns were working at Reach in the late 14th century, and chalk pits were in use at Isleham in the 1460s in an area where lime was still burnt on a large scale about 1800. Some parishes also later contained small brickpits and kilns, and the larger ones usually supported small, local builders from the 19th century.

Communication in Flendish, Staine and Staploe Hundreds c. 1800


The northern and western fen-edge villages continued in the later Middle Ages to draw their wealth partly from the extensive fens, which often occupied half or more of their areas: at Soham they still covered c. 8,400 a. about 1600. In a few of the larger parishes the fen commons were so large that they did not need to impose stints on keeping beasts until the 16th and 17th centuries, if at all. By contrast fenland probably came to only a fifth or less of the parishes, lying in the south-west of Flendish hundred and the south of Staploe hundred, that had their own miniature fens beside tributaries of the Cam and the Lark.

Court records in most of the fen-edge parishes reveal how carefully the grazing of cattle and sheep on the common fens was regulated, including the activities of those smaller commoners who lived by keeping cattle there in summer. Livestock was excluded from those fens reserved for cutting sedge during the winter, when the beasts were partly fed on the previous hay harvest from meadows and fens. At Soham grazing cattle may have supported a rising or reviving population in the mid 16th century, when it included over 700 adults compared with 382 taxed in 1377. The number owning cattle may have increased at the same rate: at least 80 people had livestock in 1408, 140 in 1552, mostly fewer than five each. By 1600 profit-minded Soham cattle-owners took in outside cattle in summer to enlarge their herds and apparently sent most of their cheese and butter to market. Soham still had its own brand of cheese about 1800. The ownership of sheep, probably widespread in the Middle Ages, was restricted from the 16th century to a few large farms, mostly attached to manors. The owners of sheepwalk often turned the once common heaths into their individual property, as at Chippenham.

The fens also yielded sedge and turf for thatching and heating. Manor courts tried to prevent over-cutting, since it led to the fens becoming water-logged, and hence unsuitable for grazing, over the whole year. They also sought to restrict the amount cut to what villagers needed for their own households, but their orders made for that purpose, repeatedly issued from the 14th century onwards, were as regularly ignored, as villagers carried turf and sedge to Cambridge and to Stourbridge fair for sale. (fn. 35) The fens were also fished by all classes. From the 12th century some large estates were entitled to keep fishing boats on particular parts, while the chief lord at Soham owned the whole of its 1,370-a. mere, whose fishing he let from the late 14th century to the early 17th, initially to consortia of local men. Many smaller owners in Staploe hundred also, however, had privately owned 'lakes' along the edge of their village's fens where they could fish.

Village communities usually fiercely defended their fen commons from intrusions by their neighbours' flocks and herds, often impounded when caught straying. Nevertheless, there was some degree of co-operation, across parish and even hundred boundaries, in the exploitation as common of a few marginal sections. In the south-west of the area over 100 a. along the lower course of the Wilbraham water was thus intercommonable between Fen Ditton and Horningsea, Stow cum Quy, and Bottisham. Bottisham in turn shared fen on its eastern border with the Swaffhams, both of which in the Middle Ages fed their beasts on wide fens that had presumably been enjoyed by them collectively before their division into separate vills in the 11th century. To the north-east Soham and Fordham also shared extensive common fens and moors until the mid 17th century: in their case such intercommoning was perhaps assisted by a shared manorial lordship. Such co-operation eventually weakened. Thus, by the mid 17th century Swaffham Prior had succeeded in its attempts, probably started before 1600, to restrict Swaffham Bulbeck's commoners to using only the south-western quarter of their shared fen. Common rights over upland pastures might also be violently disputed. Swaffham Prior and Burwell were thus at odds from the 16th century to the 18th over the grazing for sheep in the dip of the Devil's Ditch, occasionally coming to blows when their parish bounds were beaten: in one skirmish before 1550 Swaffham captured Burwell's processional cross. Within parishes, too, the maintenance of fens and the scouring of watercourses long remained a communally organized and supervised business: most fen-edge villages continued to name fen reeves for such work until the 18th century.


From the Middle Ages (fn. 36) lords had occasionally exercised their right to take part of their manor's common fens into their individual ownership, as was done at Quy from the 12th and Wicken from the 13th century. In the early 17th century the prospect of large profits to be gained from fen drainage induced some lords to seek to inclose wider areas of fen. That was sometimes achieved by consent, as at Wicken in 1609 when two lords exchanged with the villagers common rights over the sedge fen for new inclosures within other fens. Other parishes saw confrontation. At Soham Charles I's attorney general, the grasping Sir Robert Heath, (fn. 37) who had just bought the Crown manor there, sued in 1626 to have 2,000 a. of its fens allotted to him. He questioned many customary practices, seeking to restrict the number of tenants' dwellings for which enough land to exercise common rights had to be left. (fn. 38) Although Heath claimed the support of leading villagers, the poorer commoners strongly resisted him, first in court, then in 1630 by violent obstruction of his drainage works. Their resistance was suppressed only after a supposed affront to the queen provoked King Charles's personal intervention, allowing the work to go ahead for a time. It was not immediately very profitable: the drained land proved only fit for pasture. In 1641, after the king's authority had been challenged, the commoners again threw down the new fencing and put their cattle into Heath's closes.

Not all major landowners in the area, however, supported such encroachments on the enjoyment of traditional common rights. Sir Edward Peyton, the chief lord of the neighbouring parish of Isleham, who was descended from a family rooted there since the 15th century, objected to Heath's schemes in the 1630s. (fn. 39) His successor there, Sir John Maynard, though a courtier and new-comer, was still in the 1650s opposing the new drainage schemes in the neighbourhood. The poor commoners who suffered through those schemes also received widespread sympathy. When they broke into open, often violent, opposition, as at Soham and Wicken in the 1630s and at Swaffham Prior in the 1650s, sometimes putting their women in the front rank, neither the parishes' resident justices, clergy, and lesser gentry, nor the parish officers, nor men called out from adjoining villages proved willing to assist effectively the authorities' attempts to restrain them.

Such resistance eventually proved vain in face of both royal and parliamentary support for draining the fens. (fn. 40) From James I's accession in 1603 the Crown showed strong interest in such projects. From 1604 it commissioned a number of surveys to assess the drainage of the fens around the Wash, including those in Cambridgeshire. James himself declared in 1620 that he would attempt the work in return for 120,000 a. of the land thus reclaimed. Only in 1630, however, was an agreement reached under which the earl of Bedford undertook to drain the Great, later Bedford Level, for an allotment of 85,000 a. in all, including 4,800 a. in the fen-edge region. Heath was one of the earl's thirteen partners, and for £500 and a pledge to bear at least a twentieth of the cost was promised 4,000 a. of drained fenland when the project was completed. (fn. 41) About 1637 the Adventurers in the Bedford Level were assigned large shares of the common land of all the fenedge parishes from Horningsea to Wicken and Soham. Although their occupation of their allotments was delayed, both by difficulties in the drainage and by the Civil War, they eventually secured possession of most of them in the late 17th century.


After the Civil War new Acts were passed in 1649 and 1663 for draining the Bedford Level. Thenceforth some real success was achieved in the drainage with the construction of the sluice at Denver where the Great Ouse meets the Ten Mile Bank. Between the 1650s and the 1670s work was in progress in fens at both ends of the region. To the south-west a watercourse dug in the early 1650s, running into Bottisham Lode, helped drain fens in Fen Ditton and Horningsea. By 1667 four wind-powered pumps were raising water from Soham Mere to the north-east. By then occasional adjustments to the siting of the Adventurers' allotments were being made, as at Wicken in 1665-6, in response to complaints by villagers. The lands so allotted, long distinguished as Adventurers' lands, mostly remained in the hands of outsiders to the villages into the 19th century. In Wicken 260 a. of such drained land was owned by outsiders in 1665. In 1680 Lord Gorges occupied a quarter of Soham Mere and other outsiders another 550 a. Outsiders still possessed almost all of High fen in Burwell in the mid 19th century.

In practice most common-right owners' hostility to the fen drainage projects of the 1630s was based on objections to the uncompensated losses that they sustained through them rather than to the principle of having the fens drained and taken into individual ownership. This appears from their reaction to a new Bedford Level Act of 1663, which for the first time allowed villagers possessing common rights in each parish to have their remaining commons divided among them in small allotments proportioned to the number of rights which they owned. From the mid 1660s they hastened to take advantage of the new rules, ostensibly through fictitious lawsuits, but really, as appeared at Bottisham in 1677, in co-operation. On average 12-18 a. was allotted for each standard common right. In all the fenedge parishes the bulk of their fens was thus divided into scattered, individually owned plots by the mid 1680s. One or two, such as Soham, also secured small portions of fen to be used collectively by the poorest villagers who had no such rights.

The allotments then made had different fates north and south of the Devil's Ditch, perhaps an indication of differences in the effectiveness of their drainage or in individual occupation. South of the Ditch the 17th-century allotments to smallholders were invariably ignored when the parishes came to be inclosed from about 1800 and the land concerned was completely redivided. To the north property rights in such lots were respected, and the 17th-century channels and droveways have remained into the 21st century the framework both for landownership and for drainage.

The apparent initial success of the fen drainage was not long maintained in the fen-edge region. (fn. 42) Although by the 1670s half of Soham Mere was under cultivation, it mainly grew coleseed rather than corn. From about 1710, following a failure of the Denver sluice, large parts of the north-eastern fens were again subject to regular flooding in winter. Thereafter the smaller owners of the late 17th-century 'dolvers', as their allotments were locally styled, could usually exploit them only for pasture or through turf-digging rather than as arable. Swaffham Prior's landowners obtained a special drainage Act in 1767, covering their own fens, to supplement the ineffective work of the main Bedford Level commission. Only with improved drainage pumps, in which steam power supplemented wind from the early 19th century were the former fens permanently dried out, beginning with the land closest to their margins. A fifth of Soham's fens was being cropped, partly with wheat, in the 1790s, but much of Burwell's was still often under water in the mid 19th century. By the late 19th century most of the former pastures throughout the fen edge had been converted to arable farming, their rich peats proving highly fertile. Despite a steady fall in the soil level it continued to be cultivated in the late 20th century, when it carried a variety of crops other than cereals. Little was left by then of the traditional fenland landscape, although the National Trust preserved one fragment of it in Wicken fen.


Between the 15th century and the early 17th several yeoman families increased their wealth sufficiently to achieve gentry standing within their parishes. They often did so by combining their landholdings with leaseholding on the larger manors and holding manorial office. At Soham the Thorntons, descended from a villager who in the 1410s had been bailiff and lessee of the largest manor, built up over seven generations the largest non-manorial holding, 256 a., in the parish. Having moved about 1580 to Snailwell where they bought the manor, they were eventually created baronets. Similarly both the Lukyns at Isleham, who in the early 17th century had four manor farms there on lease, and the Cheesewrights at Fordham, enhanced their status, though less spectacularly. At Soham Edward Barnes (d. 1615), though only owning one minor manor, long ruled the village, leasing the great tithes and serving as steward of the Duchy manor until dismissed in the 1590s for oppressing its tenants. Meanwhile in Kirtling parish, the Parkers, who served as game-keepers in the 14th century, took over the lease of the manor and park during the 15th and 16th centuries.

In many other parishes in the area the several manors, between which authority had been divided in the Middle Ages, were combined from the 16th century, usually by purchase, into a single large estate in the hands of men who were already gentry. Their descendants and successors then remained the principal landowners, sometimes over several centuries. That unification was assisted by the Dissolution, after which once independent monastic estates were sold by the Crown. At Chippenham in the 1540s and 1550s the Bowles family, incomers from Hertfordshire, bought the suppressed preceptory, which had the largest manor, and a monastic grange. Their successor, a London merchant, added the three remaining manors, so by 1600 laying the foundations of the later Chippenham Park estate. The bishop's estates were similarly sold off under James I after a forced exchange in 1600. The Willyses could thus base their domination of Fen Ditton and Horningsea until the 1730s upon their purchase of the former episcopal manor in 1605, shortly buying up the other three manors in the parish. Other properties, which belonged to corporations such as Cambridge colleges or the dean and chapter of Ely, could not actually be sold, but nevertheless came into the squires' hands over long periods through the system of beneficial leases. The Allixes, descended from a Huguenot dean, had such a lease at Swaffham Prior from 1740. Royal courtiers also played a role in this transformation of landownership. Edward North, having obtained an Act of Parliament in 1536 to secure his title to Kirtling manor and park, acquired another manor and half a dozen freeholds in the parish, none larger than 50 a., to create the basis of the Kirtling estate, eventually covering 3,000 a., in Cheveley hundred.

Occasionally the largest estate in a parish, into which all or most of the surviving medieval manorial lordships were gradually incorporated, was based on large, originally non-manorial, landholdings built up by local men who had already risen into the gentry in the late Middle Ages: that was achieved by the Bernards at Isleham from the 14th century and the Woods at Fulbourn from the late 15th. Between the late 16th century and the 18th the new gentry created substantial manor houses which long remained a dominant element in village life in all but three of the parishes south-west of the Devil's Ditch. Sometimes, most notably at Anglesey Abbey, they converted former monastic buildings. At Fen Ditton the Willyses built their Hall about 1630 on the site of William Muschet's house. Most of those relatively modest houses still stood, sometimes refaced or enlarged from the mid 18th century, in the late 20th.

The few grander mansions built from the 16th century, usually at the sites of smaller, earlier houses, along the eastern edge of the area fared less well. Possibly the estates locally attached to them were too small by themselves to maintain houses of such size and splendour after the families of the founders, who had drawn their resources from monastic plunder or naval prizes, died out or moved away. The oldest, Kirtling Hall, was erected in the mid 16th century on the site of the castle by the first lord North, whose son, who ruled the county for Elizabeth I, entertained her there during her East Anglian progress of 1578. Kirtling Hall became the centre of the Kirtling estate, and in 1660s, with sixty hearths, was the largest residence in the county, but was then abandoned and partly demolished during the 18th century. From the 1830s Kirtling Tower served as the centre of a 3,000 a. estate, which belonged to members of the North family until 1941.

Three other such mansions dated from the Early Modern period. The large house at Cheveley Park, built by the courtier Lord Jermyn in the 1680s, survived, remodelled, into the late 19th century because it became the centre of the 7,800-a. estate, extending over eastern Cambridgeshire and north-west Suffolk, (fn. 43) assembled by the duke of Somerset to portion his younger daughters in the early 18th century.

The house moreover occasionally accommodated his descendants, the dukes of Rutland, during the racing and shooting seasons. Its large successor, built in the 1890s, lasted less than thirty years. Further north two elaborate mansions erected by admirals about 1700 were also short-lived. Sir Charles Wager's house of the 1710s at Fordham was pulled down in the 1790s. A similar fate befell Lord Orford's at Chippenham, put up from the 1690s around the already substantial mid 17thcentury home of another branch of the Russells; there the paintings on Orford's walls and the planting in his park had both celebrated his naval victory at La Hogue. Two lines of lime trees, trained to look like ships, recalled the AngloDutch and French lines of battle. The smaller, surviving house there developed by the Tharps, who in the 19th century owned 7,000 a., mainly in Chippenham and Snailwell, was originally supported by money from a Jamaican sugar plantation. In the late 1940s Lord Fairhaven, an Anglo-American railway and mining magnate, owned Anglesey Abbey and Kirtling Tower and its estate. In the late 20th century his heirs retained ownership of the latter, and from the 1960s were tenants of the National Trust property at Anglesey Abbey, while the descendents of James Tharp (d. 1791) retained Chippenham Park.


Although villages in the south of the area were linked to the Cambridge- Newmarket road and to that which followed the Icknield way by a network of fieldways, waterborne transport probably long remained more important, especially for heavy loads, into the 19th century. Land routes began to be improved with the turnpiking of the main roads through the area in the 18th century. The one that followed the Icknield way was turnpiked from 1724, that between Cambridge and Newmarket in 1745, and its continuation north-east from Newmarket through Thetford to Norwich probably from 1768. The large fen villages further north, still relatively isolated, continued well into the 19th century to depend on the lodes and the Cam, which still supported a network of bargemen and boatbuilders. As late as 1800 one merchant at Swaffham Bulbeck's Commercial End was engaging profitably in international trade along the waterways that led to King's Lynn. Waterborne commerce finally declined in the late 19th century with the coming of the railways. A line eastward from Cambridge to Newmarket was completed in 1848-51. Further north, however, a transverse line between Newmarket and Ely was only built in 1879 and one, running north-east towards Mildenhall to serve the fen-edge line of villages in 1884-5.


Although most of the commons in the fen-edge region had been inclosed in the late 17th century, the process was not then extended to the open fields and common heathland. In most parishes in the three northern hundreds the overall size of the fields, and the rotations customary on them, remained intact until the late 18th century. Only one or two, such as Soham and Fen Ditton, saw any large reductions in the area subject to those rotations by taking land within the fields into severalty. At Chippenham the five copyholdings and their associated common rights were mostly bought up by the lord in 1696 and the remaining small farms of up to 60 a. were similarly purchased and re-organized into three large ones between 1712 and 1780. The formal inclosure of the parish in the 1790s may thus only have set the seal on a process of agrarian re-organization that was already effectively complete.

In several villages about 1800 the farmers were initially unwilling to support parliamentary inclosure. In fourteen of the parishes in the northern area it was only carried out between the late 1790s and 1815, during the campaign for the higher agricultural production that was supposedly demanded during the war with France. In three others, two in the far north-east, the agricultural depression that followed the end of the war delayed inclosure until after 1840. Soham's open fields, which were intensively cropped in the 1790s, were never formally inclosed: almost a hundred farmers were still working strips in them about 1950.

In most parishes a standard four-course rotation was expected on leasehold farms in the 19th century. The late 19th-century agricultural depression saw, as elsewhere, much land put down to pasture and some virtually abandoned. Arable farming revived in the late 20th century, when barley was often the principal crop on the large areas under cereals. Other crops were, however, introduced from the 1930s, including mustard. The main innovation was growing sugar beet, often sent for processing to factories at Ely and Bury St. Edmunds. Market gardening also flourished from the late 19th century, not only in Flendish hundred close to Cambridge, but to the north-east around Fordham. There and elsewhere some firms once engaged in that business and in producing seeds for farmers were converted in the late 20th century to garden centres.

Meanwhile the keeping of livestock declined. About 1800 a few large landowners had brought in rarer breeds, such as merino sheep, whose wool yielded a larger profit. Large sheepflocks were still kept in the late 19th century, partly for fertilizing the arable. Sheep almost entirely ceased to be kept, however, between the 1930s and 1950s, as artificial fertilizers became more common. Eventually the number of cattle was reduced, contributing to the closure of the slaughterhouses in Cherry Hinton in the 1970s.


In the 18th century the larger farmers occupied most of the farmland either as independent yeomen or as long-serving manorial tenants. They were also active in parish administration. They sat regularly on vestries and occupied parish offices, sometimes on a virtually dynastic basis. By the late 18th century, however, some of those farming families were succumbing to financial difficulties, their properties being bought up by squires or by men of business from neighbouring towns. The dominance of that middling class was eventually weakened, as new farming families took over an increasing share of the land in the 19th century. Over most of the area farming was by then largely carried on by new leaseholders, usually not natives of the parish. As gentry and corporations began to sell their estates from 1900, a few leaseholders were able to buy the farms which their ancestors had occupied as tenants.

Only in a few of the larger fen parishes in the far north-east were many of the larger holdings worked by men born and brought up there. Those parishes sometimes also had much land worked by smallholders drawn from extended local families. There, too, some labourers could still enjoy a certain impoverished independence, supported by surviving common rights; their social superiors in the 19th century, when seeking to have those commons converted into formal charities, sometimes accused such fen cottagers of leading an idle and disorderly life.

In most parishes poor relief was given over most of the 18th century to small numbers of the elderly, especially widows, children, and the sick. From the 1790s, however, outside poor relief to the able-bodied was increasingly provided on a regular basis. Workhouses were established only in four parishes in the three northern hundreds between the 1720s and 1800, when Horningsea became a partner in a fifth managed on the Gilbert system. The parish vestries found it difficult to run them profitably, and most soon became places of refuge for the aged, infirm, or young, similar to the almshouses or to the 'town houses' or 'poorhouses' into which cottages owned by the parish were often converted and which existed in at least five other villages. The vestries did not invariably oppress their paupers: those in Soham's workhouse in the 1790s were well fed, even receiving the then still rare potatoes, and had thousands of turfs bought to heat them. In the early 19th century unemployed labourers were often also employed on parish works, such as road mending.

Between 1800 and the 1850s, as the population of the area rose rapidly, many new brick cottages were built, in the villages and on their outskirts. The farmers meanwhile erected farmhouses to a standard classical pattern, often with brick fronts and flint sides, sometimes away from the villages on newly inclosed land. In the fen-edge parishes habitation was spreading by the 1840s along the river banks and droveways where squatters put up simple cottages. Some villages suffered from over-crowding and insanitary living conditions. At Isleham a former quarry called the Pits, below street level, housed by 1838 about 400 people in 78 dwellings. In several larger villages the number of farm labourers exceeded the regular employment available for them. In the 1840s there was growing alienation between the farmers and their workforce. Numerous outbreaks of fire, as far south as Kirtling, both at farmsteads and in stacks in the fields were ascribed to arson by discontented labourers. From the 1850s such social unrest and over-population were partly relieved by emigration. In the 1860s, too, new employment opportunities, especially for younger men, arose from the digging of coprolites, used to produce fertilizer. Outsiders arriving to work in the diggings sometimes provoked friction with the older-established village communities. By the 1890s, however, the deposits, where they had not been worked out, became uneconomic to exploit, and digging ceased. From the 1870s until about 1900 there was a real and steady decline in numbers in most rural parishes. Only a few close to Cambridge or to Newmarket, which saw suburban development, escaped that trend. Elsewhere many, especially younger people, probably departed to towns: at Cambridge the population had doubled between 1860 and 1890.


Following the Reformation, there was, besides the religious innovations, an increasing neglect of church fabric. A few more remote parishes, such as Soham, may have remained religiously conservative. The attempted Laudian revival of the 1630s, strongly opposed in places by at least some Puritan parishioners, was cut short after 1640. Those Puritans then furnished the evidence of ceremonial practices and other alleged abuses upon which at least thirteen incumbents within the area were expelled by Parliamentary commissioners in the mid 1640s. Not all villagers may have supported such Puritans; at Soham, where the Laudian vicar had not discouraged revelry on Sunday, almost all the parishioners backed him in refusing the Covenant in 1643 and during the Anti-Puritan reaction of 1647 the majority forced his brief reinstatement. Of the clergy named for Parliament in the late 1640s and 1650s only nine adhered to the Cambridge Presbyterian classis. Of those in office in 1660 a mere five were zealous enough to refuse to conform to the Church of England after the Restoration. A few retained Puritan sympathies: Isaac Archer, protected by relatives of Oliver Cromwell, served for a time at Wicken and Chippenham, where he allowed Presbyterians to meet at his vicarage, but he was opposed when he tried to stop gaming and drinking.

From the late 17th century the possession of the patronage of several livings, seven by 1700 by Cambridge university and its colleges, helped reduce the Church's active presence in the villages. In contrast to earlier practice, such incumbents retained their fellowships and continued to live in college. They often only appeared in their churches once a week to conduct one or two services. Other livings whose patronage belonged to the bishop might go to his relatives. About 1800 probably fewer than ten parishes had a normally resident incumbent. The rest were usually served by hired curates, who sometimes also covered more than one parish. Such neglect was remedied by an Anglican revival in the mid 19th century. From the 1840s a new type of Anglican clergy, unlike its predecessors, came to reside in its parishes and often rebuilt dilapidated vicarages. Such men were sometimes scandalized by their parishioners' irreverence: one at Bottisham found beasts being slaughtered against the church tower. They took their parishes energetically in hand, securing more reverent behaviour, holding more services, preaching more often, and visiting round the parish. By the 1870s they were claiming higher church attendance, at least at communion. Sometimes using their own money, they frequently started new church day schools and, particularly from the 1870s, promoted thorough restoration of the churches' fabrics. Their efforts were not always fully successful: several by the 1890s were complaining of the villagers' religious apathy and of a loss of influence, especially over the village youth. The area shared in the Anglican recession from the countryside in the late 20th century. Although almost every parish still had a resident incumbent about 1950, by the 1980s under two thirds, usually in the most populous villages, had their own clergyman.

The dissenters, in the late 19th century as strong in many villages as the Established church, had probably by 2000 suffered an even greater decline. There had been an initial effervescence of dissent in the late 17th century; (fn. 44) about 1670 at least fourteen clandestine congregations in eleven villages were active in the area. Dissent subsided after 1700. Not many of the congregations organized 1690- 1720 survived, especially among the Presbyterians and Quakers who were seldom recorded after the early 18th century. There was probably most continuity in a few larger fen-edge villages, to which about 1700 some charismatic preachers drew hearers from a wide surrounding area. Those meetings crystallized from the mid 18th century into congregations mainly gathered from the individual villages where they met. Most that endured were Independent in the 18th century, but c. 1800 a few that had originally been Baptist reverted to their earlier beliefs. In the early 19th century the uncertain or wavering allegiance of other newly established dissenting meetings often resulted in their being converted to particular denominations, mainly Congregationalist or Baptist, by a local pastor or by the intervention of town-based ministers from Cambridge or Bury St. Edmunds. From the 1830s the Methodists, both Wesleyan and Primitive, also arrived in force, often in smaller villages, especially in the east of the region, where there had previously been no organized dissent. By the 1850s only six or seven villages had no dissenting meetings. In the 1880s at least five larger villages had three or more chapels; the Baptists proved especially fissiparous, as at Isleham. During that period the once modest meeting houses were often rebuilt with some architectural pretension. In several of the more populous parishes dissenters collectively outnumbered Anglicans towards the end of the 19th century. The framework of dissent was still intact in the early 20th century: in most villages the chapels started before 1900 were still open in the 1930s, though with declining memberships and probably attendances. From the 1940s onwards, however, at least sixteen closed, while some congregations, especially Methodist ones, united. Nevertheless, at least fifteen places still had chapels open about 1990, a third of them more than one.

Schooling was available in the late 16th and early 17th centuries in at least twelve parishes, of which only two were north-west of the Devil's Ditch. (fn. 45) The continuation of schools was sometimes secured through gifts from wealthy residents. One school at Cheveley was endowed, as a grammar school, as early as 1568, and eight other parishes had endowed schools founded in the 18th century. Some schools were held in parts of churches or in cottages, but a few occupied specially designed buildings, including a handsome one at Chippenham. From the early 19th century dissenters, led by independent small farmers or tradesmen, had struggled, especially in some larger parishes, such as Soham and Burwell, against Anglican control of parish endowments, whether for charity or educational purposes. From the 1820s church and chapel began to compete in founding first Sunday, then day schools to supplement small fee-paying dame schools. Between the 1830s and the 1860s the Anglican clergy, sometimes assisted by local landowners, established church schools in all but two parishes, often taking over the earlier endowments. The dissenters, however, who had to rely on prosperous supporters, could permanently set up rival 'British' day schools only in three or four places. The board schools established from the 1870s, which before 1902 existed in only five or six places, often supplemented rather than superseded church schools, serving distant hamlets or limiting their teaching to particular sex or age groups.

The Anglican church continued to play a prominent role in education well into the 20th century: at least seventeen church primary schools were still open in the 1960s. From the 1930s the county council pioneered the concept of providing secondary education at village collages, opened in the area at Bottisham, Burwell, and Soham. This policy involved major re-organization of local schools from the 1960s; at least nine villages and four smaller settlements had their only schools closed by the 1990s, often despite strong local opposition. New ones were opened, however, in a few larger places, such as New Cherry Hinton and Soham, where populations were rising.

From the 16th century onwards, though mostly before 1800, charities, usually managed by the clergy or parish authorities, were endowed in at least thirteen of the fifteen south-western and fen-edge parishes. They existed before 1800, however, in only five of the mostly smaller villages along the eastern margin of the area. They supplied the poor with cash doles, bread, clothing, and fuel. Some were converted from bequests dating from the 16th century or earlier, originally intended to spare the poorer villagers from paying tax. In at least seven villages almshouses were founded, and sometimes endowed, between the late 16th century and the late 17th. In several places by the mid 19th century one or more large charities distributed cash doles to all but the wealthiest inhabitants. The ending of these under central pressure was fiercely resented. Between the late 19th century and the mid 20th most charities with no specified purpose were used to buy coal for the poor. Although the real income of many endowments declined sharply with inflation in the 20th century, in the 1990s those with unsold land, often derived from blocks of fen once intended for use by commoners, still provided a substantial revenue both for the relatively few remaining needy villagers and for wider social purposes.


By 1900 railways and roads enabled the area's agricultural produce to reach national markets. In the 1960s, however, two of its railway lines were closed, and by the 1990s only the Cambridge-Newmarket one remained open both to passengers and to goods traffic. It linked the docks at Felixstowe (Suff.) to the national rail network. One result was that streets in several villages along main road routes came under heavy pressure from large lorries. A few received their own bypasses. In the mid 1970s a new dual carriageway, superseding the old Cambridge-Newmarket road, was completed, running across the south of Staine hundred. It linked two major bypasses built at the same time: one curved round the north of Newmarket, the other, longer one ran north of Cambridge, terminating in Fen Ditton and Quy. From the late 1930s Cambridge also had its own privately run airfield west of the city, with runways stretching into Teversham. With the completion in 1979 of the M11 motorway between London and Cambridge and the development of Stansted airport, the area was fully and effectively linked with the wider world. Large road haulage businesses were then based at Fordham and Soham.

INDUSTRY, 1900-2000

Although between the 16th century and the 18th all but the smallest villages had a group of traditional craftsmen working in wood, metal, and leather, there was little more advanced manufacturing activity before the 19th century. An exception was the water-powered paper mill started c. 1560 by a German paper maker and printer at Fen Ditton. The area still lagged in the 19th century, although at Soham a gas works to provide street lighting, an early example for a village, was opened in 1849. By then and until the late 20th century Soham also had up to two printers.

Eventually, however, the development from the 1890s at Cambridge of sciencebased firms, such as Cambridge Scientific Instruments and Pye Electronics, created a demand for specialized products in the surrounding area. From the 1930s workshops to make them, initially started in huts or converted older buildings, were later accommodated in specially designed premises. In that decade Cambridgeshire Motors and Marshall opened small factories in Cherry Hinton and Teversham. By the late 1930s Marshall had branched out into maintaining, repairing, and eventually rebuilding aircraft. It worked on military aircraft into the 1940s, when Pye started a large factory producing military communications equipment on Fen Ditton Lane. That closed in 1988, but Marshall continued in business on a large scale, and by the 1990s its aircraft workshops housed in 17 hangars employed 2,000 people. Further east, at Burwell a firm had produced from the late 19th century fertilizer, and bricks from local clay pits. Although it closed in the late 20th century, a large factory which opened in the 1950s to make corrugated packaging was still operating in the 1990s.

After 1945 most rural parishes in the area faced economic difficulties as employment in farming declined, while poor communications hindered for a time the development of light industry. From the 1970s, however, a number of industrial estates were established in the north-east, three on the outskirts of Soham, others at Fordham and Burwell. The firms that settled on them were characterized by employing relatively small labour forces. Though some engaged in traditional manufacturing, many specialized in more modern industries, ranging from light engineering to food processing. By 1990 over half Soham's working population were employed in industry, only an eighth in agriculture and related activities. The smaller villages lying between Cambridge and the Swaffhams received less large-scale industrial development in the late 20th century. Instead 'cottage industries' flourished in them, specializing, like some on the industrial estates further east, in graphic design, computer software, and related electronic businesses. Probably a majority of their inhabitants worked in the surrounding large towns, including Cambridge, Newmarket, and Bury St. Edmunds. Meanwhile Soham grew into a small town that also provided, as it had since the late 19th century, professional services for the neighbouring villages. These developments helped to reduce the sense of social decay which had afflicted many villages in the 1970s, as old-established shops and other businesses closed and the enterprising moved away. From the 1980s such decline was reversed, as better communications and rising employment led to in-migration.

In the late 20th century the new industrial estates and cottage industries helped the fen-edge region to obtain a reputation as part of a 'golden triangle' with its corners at Cambridge, Ely, and Newmarket. (fn. 46) Even during the high unemployment of the 1980s its unemployment rate was a fifth below the national average, and by the 1990s it had the fourth highest regional gross product per head in the United Kingdom. The key factor, however, was the growth of high-technology firms, known as the 'Cambridge effect'. In 1985 c. 1,000 people were employed in four technological 'parks', working on computer research, design, and construction. (fn. 47) By 2000, although high technology thus formed the core of the area's industrial activity, business was sufficiently diversified to provide ample opportunities for work to people with a wide range of skills.


The involvement of successive kings in sporting activities in the area in the 17th century led to later aristocratic interest in horse-racing and other sports around Newmarket, (fn. 48) which substantially altered the landscape, building development, and social life of the area's eastern half from the 18th century. James I was hunting hares in Fordham's fields in 1605, while passing through Newmarket during his first visit to East Anglia in search of hunting grounds. (fn. 49) He built a royal residence at Newmarket in 1608, by which time he had created a hare warren in Swaffham Bulbeck on the heathland to the west. This heathland also provided the space for the horse-racing which drew Charles II and his court to the area from the 1660s, when their servants and the royal guard overflowed into the surrounding villages. The race courses, probably originally extending south-westwards parallel to the Icknield way as far as Six Mile Bottom in Bottisham, had much of their most used, penultimate portions, the Beacon and Duke's courses laid down c. 1665, running across Swaffham Prior's common heath. When the heathland parishes were inclosed in the early 19th century, the Jockey Club which represented the aristocrats who had from the 1750s succeeded to the royal control of Newmarket racing, fought hard to keep the lines of those courses open. Between the 1840s and the 1930s it also leased and then bought up, sometimes from earlier aristocratic purchasers, most of the former heathland extending south-eastwards from Burwell, Snailwell, and Chippenham, into Woodditton and Cheveley. On that heathland, whose light soft soils provided suitable going for horses throughout the year, it laid out gallops such as the Limekiln ones for use by horses in training at Newmarket. Such training had developed around that town as racing came to be more frequently held on the heath. Initially, from the early 18th century, aristocrats like the Duke of Rutland at Cheveley, Lord Grosvenor in Swaffham Bulbeck, or Lord Claremont in Chippenham, started studs, usually on their own property. From the 1890s they were joined as racing men by the new rich, such as those in Edward VII's circle, who came to live or visit, at least during the sporting seasons, at the large new mansions built or enlarged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the wooded area south of Newmarket, and to its south-west. From 1900, with the break-up of the Cheveley estate, much land south of Newmarket was occupied by stud farms run by professional managers for their wealthy owners, who included Arab royalty in the 1980s and 1990s. They took over some of the great houses or their stables. In the 20th century much of the former heath came to be divided into paddocks for the horses being bred there. Other racing institutions and bodies connected with the bloodstock industry followed. Among them were the National Stud, installed from c. 1970 at paddocks in Swaffham Prior, and the British Racing School, from 1983 at Snailwell, where it trained jockeys and stable workers. Meanwhile from the 1850s the town of Newmarket steadily grew, to accommodate those employed in racing and its cognate activities, into the northern part of Woodditton parish, where there was also some middle class housing.

There were some precedents for the shooting that flourished in the area, especially around Cheveley, from the 19th century. Although an Act of 1534 forbade commoners to take fen wildfowl with 'nets and other engines', in the 1530s one Soham landowner was seeking a licence to shoot such game with a gun. In the late 19th century large organized shooting parties, often including the Prince of Wales, assembled at Cheveley and Chippenham Parks and other similar mansions to shoot the game birds, especially partridges, that were preserved for their pleasure by the coverts and shelter breaks newly planted over the surrounding land. Further west ordinary villagers, river workers, and Cambridge undergraduates enjoyed in the 19th century and later more informal, and sometimes rowdy, pastimes along the Cam and over the adjoining fen, sometimes as far as Upware. Both leisure boating and the university May boat races, watched from the banks, flourished along the river. By the 1990s there were marinas at Lode and Upware, and on the Lark near Isleham.

After 1900 traditional centres of social activity gradually disappeared to be replaced with new forms. Village public houses and beerhouses, which had proliferated in the 19th century, were steadily closed over the 20th. More polite social activities, such as the concerts and lectures sponsored by enlightened upper-class residents, which had often before 1900 been held in the recently built village schools, moved to new venues. Some were held in the village halls erected or converted by subscription or through the generosity of wealthy individuals including surviving squires, as at Bottisham. By the 1980s such halls existed in thirteen villages. Meanwhile the parish councils set up in the 1890s exerted themselves to obtain recreation grounds, available in fifteen parishes by the late 20th century, on which football, introduced about 1900, rivalled the traditional cricket.


In the early 20th century falling mortality rates and a steady birth rate led to a slow increase in the indigenous population. Most villages, however, then saw relatively little new building, so that few of them extended their inhabited area much beyond that occupied by dwellings since the Middle Ages. From the 1910s the county and city councils bought considerable blocks of farmland from colleges and other major local landowners. Between 1918 and 1939 the county council broke up some of the farms so acquired into smallholdings for people going 'back to the land'. Some of that land was still worked on that pattern in the late 20th century, while nearer Cambridge it provided allotments for a time. Between the 1920s and the 1960s, however, the city built large council estates in Cherry Hinton and Fen Ditton, continuing there a process of suburban development that had begun in the 1890s. The new estates were intended primarily to house newly arrived families, with members who had skills required in local industries. Many of the immigrants came from London's East End and south-west Essex. In 1934 the whole of Cherry Hinton and the southern third, 441 a., of Fen Ditton were formally incorporated within the city's boundaries. It accepted responsibility for providing the residents of its new suburbs with a full range of social facilities. Further growth in that area was restrained from the 1970s by the green belt, in places very narrow, established around Cambridge. About 2000, however, the city council designated large greenfield sites in Fen Ditton for new housing.

Earlier new building was encouraged in a few of the larger villages further east, such as Fulbourn, Burwell, and Chippenham. Most others were deliberately protected by planning restrictions. At Soham the population rose over the years between 1971 and 1991, when almost 450 houses were added, from c. 5,400 to c. 7,700. In these villages closely built-up new estates went up to house the newcomers. In the 1960s and 1970s they often consisted of council housing, but were later predominantly private and often expensive. In the 19th and 20th centuries the resident inhabitants of the parishes in Cheveley hundred mostly looked eastward and southeastward to Suffolk and Essex for their main economic and social ties.

By the late 20th century most villages had virtually ceased to exist as communities for economic purposes. Where peasants had once mainly worked smallholdings, often largely for subsistence, a very few farmers and labourers were sufficient to cultivate the enlarged fields, while most inhabitants were commuters, looking for employment to neighbouring towns to which they drove daily. Nevertheless there was often, even among the numerous immigrants, a residual sense of community, while a few could look back with pride on their descent from the 'fen tigers' who had once squatted on the newly drained land. In most villages the inhabitants occasionally rallied to prevent damage to those amenities of their dwelling places which they had inherited or come to the area to enjoy. As a result of this support the National Trust launched a one-hundred year plan in 2000 to acquire around 3,500 ha. between Cambridge and Wicken, so that the landscape across the northern section of the area covered in this volume could be partially flooded and returned to its original wetland state of around 2,000 years ago. (fn. 50)


  • 1. Felix's Life of St. Guthlac, ed. B. Colgrave (1956), 86-7.
  • 2. Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum: the History of the English, ed. D. Greenway (1996), 320-1, 348-9.
  • 3. Where sources are not otherwise cited, full references for the facts discussed in this introduction will be found in the relevant sections of the parish histories contained in this volume. The author is grateful for assistance and comments to colleagues, particularly Dr. A.P.M. Wright and Dr. C.C. Thornton, and to members of the London Medieval Society, who commented on an earlier version delivered at its Colloquium on 'Land and Landscapes' on 11 Nov. 2000.
  • 4. Unless otherwise stated, all places mentioned are in Cambridgeshire. Modern names are used to indicate places and features even for earlier periods before those names came into use.
  • 5. For prehistoric and Roman settlement and activity in the area, V.C.H. Cambs. vols. i, vii; R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii, pp. xxxi-xxxii. For archaeological discoveries in the west of the area in the 1990s, not all covered in the parish histories, A. Taylor, Archaeology of Cambs. vol. 2 'S.-E. Cambs. and the Fen Edge' (1998).
  • 6. Since the potential for archaeological investigation on the sites of new building undertaken after 1945 was widely spread across the area, any differences in the distribution of the resulting finds may be significant.
  • 7. V.C.H. Cambs. vii. 11, 13.
  • 8. For comparison with Norfolk, T. Williamson, Origins of Norfolk (1993), 43: there few areas were more than 2 km. from a settlement.
  • 9. P.N. Cambs. (E.P.N.S.), s.n.
  • 10. D. Whitelock, 'The pre-Viking Age church in East Anglia', in A.-S. England, i (1972), 1-22, n. 3 on p. 4. Perhaps, as in the late Anglo-Saxon period, the bishopric of the East Angles had two centres.
  • 11. V.C.H. Cambs. i. 360-1.
  • 12. Liber Elien. (Camd. 3rd ser. xcii), p. 87. The modern Upware just east of the Cam in Wicken, close to a river crossing, is to be preferred to ibid. p. 87 n.
  • 13. For small early A.-S. kingdoms and territories, The Origins of A.-S. Kingdoms, ed. S.R. Bassett (1989); esp. for S.-E. Midlands, D.N. Dumville, 'Essex, Middle Anglia and the expansion of Mercia', in ibid. 123-40, at p. 131; also W. Davies and H. Vierck, 'Contexts of Tribal Hidage: social aggregates and settlements' in Frühmittelalterliche Studien, viii (1974), 223-93.
  • 14. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, eds. B. Colgrave & R.A.B. Mynors (1969), 354, 390-2, 396; cf. P. Warner, Origins of Suffolk, (1996), 155-6.
  • 15. Warner, Origins of Suffolk, pp. 66-8 including possible use of those ditches as 'killing fields'.
  • 16. T. Pestell, 'The analysis of monastic foundation in East Anglia c. 650-1200' (Univ. of East Anglia Ph.D., 1999), 339-40, discusses possible connexions between Horningsea minster and the Roman settlement.
  • 17. C. Hart, 'Athelstan "Half King" and his family', in A.-S. England, ii (1973), 115-38; Liber Elien. pp. 111-12.
  • 18. For Scule, e.g. Liber Elien. pp. 105-6; for Wulfstan, ibid. pp. 73, 80, 93-4, 97, 102, 106-7, 110.
  • 19. For such lawsuits, e.g. ibid. pp. 87-90, 97-9, 107-10.
  • 20. Ibid. pp. 89-90.
  • 21. Ibid. p. 88.
  • 22. See its demesne holdings in 1066 and earlier: V.C.H. Cambs. i. 361, 364-5, 389; cf. Inq. Eliensis (Rec. Com.), 498-9.
  • 23. e.g. Liber Elien. pp. 88, 90.
  • 24. Ibid. pp. 87-8, 106-7.
  • 25. Ibid. p. 153.
  • 26. Based on Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 430-46, 483- 505; early labour services of free peasantry discussed, R. Faith, The English Peasantry and the Growth of Lordship (1997), 110-14.
  • 27. e.g. V.C.H. Cambs. i. 374-5, 378-9.
  • 28. Itin. of Edw. II (List & Index Soc. vol. 211), 132-3.
  • 29. V.C.H. Cambs. i. 403-4.
  • 30. Compare nos. reported in V.C.H. Cambs. i. 400-4, 407-8; Rot. Hund. ii. 430-46, 483-505.
  • 31. For estimates of minimum viable peasant family holdings, J.Z. Titow, Eng. Rural Society, 1250-1350 (1969), 78-93; R.H. Hilton, A Medieval Society: the West Midlands at the End of the 13th Cent. (1966), 144; C.C. Dyer, Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages (1989).
  • 32. M. Spufford, Contrasting Communities: English Villagers in the 16th and 17th Centuries (1974), 58-93.
  • 33. Liber Elien. pp. 154, 265-6.
  • 34. Ibid. p. 306.
  • 35. e.g. P.R.O., SC 2/155/47, mm. 10, 12; C.R.O., R 59/14/2/2, m. 5.
  • 36. For drainage before 1550, H.C. Darby, The Drainage of the Fens (1956), 1-11; idem, Changing Fenland (1983), 41-2, 55-64.
  • 37. For Heath's character and career, P.E. Kopperman, Sir Rob. Heath, 1575-1649 (1989).
  • 38. For the rules on common rights involved, Holdsworth, Hist. Eng. Law, iii. 146-7; Agrarian Hist. Eng. and Wales, ii. 261.
  • 39. See Hist. MSS. Com. 9, Salisbury, xviii. 452.
  • 40. For 17th-cent. fen drainage, Darby, Drainage of the Fens, 23-82.
  • 41. Kopperman, Sir Rob. Heath, 263.
  • 42. For technical difficulties in drainage in late 17th cent., Darby, Draining of the Fens, 94-103; idem, Changing Fenland, 102-4.
  • 43. For the Cheveley Park estate's full extent, W. Suff. R.O., HB 510/2/9/1.
  • 44. See Proc. C.A.S. lxi. 67-95.
  • 45. See ibid. lxx. 127-69.
  • 46. The area so styled in late 20th-cent. estate agents' sale particulars in C.R.O. and Cambs. Colln.
  • 47. The Cambridge Phenomenon: the Growth of a High Technology Industry in a University Town (1985), p. 15 (copy in C.R.O.).
  • 48. For early racing at Newmarket, V.C.H. Cambs. v. 279-87.
  • 49. See Hist. MSS. Com. 9, Salisbury, xvii. 70-2, 75, 78, 89, 94-5, 97.
  • 50. Inf. from Adrian Colston, Property Manager at Wicken Fen, National Trust.