Fen Ditton

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, 'Fen Ditton', 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 https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol10/pp118-123 [accessed 17 July 2024].

A F Wareham, A P M Wright, 'Fen Ditton', 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 17, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol10/pp118-123.

A F Wareham, A P M Wright. "Fen Ditton". 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. 17 July 2024. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol10/pp118-123.

In this section


Fen Dittion lies 4 km. (2½ miles) north-east of Cambridge on the east bank of the river Cam. (fn. 1) Its name, tun by the ditch, is derived from its position beside the northern section of the Fleam Dyke which runs for 3 km. (1½ miles) through the southern half of the parish. (fn. 2) The parish is an irregular V-shape, bordered by the river Cam to the west of the V, and by the fenland formerly drained by Quy water to the east. As the boundary between Fen Ditton and Horningsea was only fixed in 1412, (fn. 3) substantial proportions of both parishes probably formed a single unit during the Early Middle Ages. Between 1412 and 1934 Fen Ditton's boundaries remained relatively stable, with the parish comprising 1,915 a. (774 ha.). In 1934, however, 441 a. (178 ha.) in the south-western portion of the parish, the Fen Ditton Fields housing estate, was transferred to the city of Cambridge, forming part of Abbey ward in the late 20th century. (fn. 4) The new south-western parish boundary of Fen Ditton was marked by the railway line. In 1952, 1974 and 1984 there were further minor boundary changes, and since 1984 Fen Ditton parish has comprised 1,414 a. (572 ha.). (fn. 5)

The parish stands at an elevation of 6 m. (20 ft.) above sea level, except for the causeway which follows the line of the Fleam Dyke, with a maximum elevation of 13.5 m. (40 ft.) above sea level. The land lies mainly on the Lower Chalk, with deposits of gault in the north-west and alluvium and river gravels along the banks of the river Cam; river gravels are also found south of the Fleam Dyke, and a narrow band of peat marks the parish boundary in the east.

The Fleam Dyke, the north-western portion of which lies entirely within Fen Ditton parish, cannot be more precisely dated on archaeological grounds than to between the Iron Age and the Anglo-Saxon period. If it was constructed at the same time as the Devil's Ditch, to which its other southern section ran parallel, then the range of dates narrows to c. 350-650 A.D. (fn. 6) It has been suggested that the Dyke was not connected in purpose with the series of ancient ditches which cut across the route of the Icknield way, and that it was intended to defend the peninsula of relatively high land, which runs northwards as far as Horningsea village. (fn. 7)

Because the Dyke runs through the middle of the southern section of the parish, it is possible that it was built after Fen Ditton's southern and eastern boundaries were set out, perhaps pointing to a later rather than an earlier date. (fn. 8)

Undrained fenland lay on the parish's eastern and western margins until the early modern period. Whatloe fen and Boulm ground lay in the west of the parish, adjacent to the river Cam, (fn. 9) while the eastern portion comprised Low, High, and Rough fens. In 1672 joint action by the lords of Fen Ditton and Stow cum Quy brought about the drainage of the 100-a. block of land allotted to the earl of Bedford and the Adventurers in 1637. (fn. 10) Water was extracted by windmills, and the run-off was via White Lake stream. In 1703 Rough fen, in the north-eastern tip of the parish, was ordered 'to be laid and kept in several'. (fn. 11) Further drainage initiatives, undertaken by the Bedford Level Corporation and later by the Swaffham Fen Drainage Commissioners, were partly completed between 1705 and 1723, using windmills; by 1723 Whatloe fen had also been drained and inclosed, subsequently forming Ditton and Long Reach meadows. (fn. 12) In the early 19th century pump engines and a watercourse, which ran for 6,000 m. as far as Reach lode, drained the fenland in Fen Ditton, Horningsea, and Stow parishes. (fn. 13) In the late 1950s a sewerage system was installed at Green End Lane, and in 1981 antipollution devices were installed to eliminate unpleasant odours. (fn. 14)

Until the early 20th century the parish's inhabitants depended for external communications upon access to the river Cam. In the Middle Ages and the early modern period wharves at Fen Ditton and Horningsea provided landing stages for goods sold at Stourbridge fair. (fn. 15) There was a large wharf at the west end of Fen Ditton's High Street, and there may have been another further north at the end of Green End Lane. In the 12th and 13th centuries the wharves at Fen Ditton and Horningsea were used to import a range of produce. (fn. 16) John Hotham, bishop of Ely, commissioned William Jour of Fen Ditton to convey corn and victuals in Jour's ship, the Annot. (fn. 17) William Muschet, merchant, money-lender, and lord of the Fen Ditton manor of Mochettes, sold wool for King Edward III at Antwerp in 1339. (fn. 18) After the late 14th century, seaborne commerce associated with Fen Ditton and its inhabitants began to decline. The Fen Ditton docks and the Horningsea pier survived until 1845, but following the opening of the London-Cambridge railway line, they no longer served a commercial purpose and were closed. In the late 19th and 20th centuries the stretch of the river Cam running through both parishes was used for leisure pursuits. Between 1965 and 1969 the bishop of Ely included Fen Ditton and Horningsea parishes on his annual eight-day river progress. (fn. 19)

Fen Ditton c. 1790

A road, which already existed in 1412, passed northwards, west of Fen Ditton Hall and the church through Green End to Horningsea, serving the wharves along the river. (fn. 20) By the 17th century it had been diverted to the east side of the Hall and church. (fn. 21) It was known as Ditton Lane in the 19th century, and since c. 1951 the southern part of its route was marked by Ditton Walk and Wadloes footpath. (fn. 22)

In the 18th century a road was constructed on slightly higher ground, linking Horningsea, Fen Ditton, and Cambridge, and was subsequently known as Horningsea Road. (fn. 23) From 1804 it served as the principal route connecting Fen Ditton and Horningsea, and from the 1870s linked them to Waterbeach. (fn. 24) The road to Quy mill, by 1821 known as High Ditch Road, follows the course of the Fleam Dyke. (fn. 25) The western end of the route forms the village High Street, from which Church Street leads into Green End Lane.

The railway line linking Cambridge to Fordham, opened in 1884, ran through both the western and eastern sections of the irregular Vshape of Fen Ditton parish, and through the intervening portion of Horningsea parish. (fn. 26) Inhabitants of both parishes could either use the Fen Ditton halt to the south of the village, where the line crossed Horningsea Road, or the railway station at Quy. Passenger traffic ceased in 1961, and the line itself was closed in 1963. In 1971 the old hump-backed railway bridge and its raised embankment, over which Wadloes Road had crossed the line, were demolished. (fn. 27)

The population in 1086 was recorded under Horningsea. (fn. 28) There were c. 120 landholders in 1279, and 55 households in the late 16th and mid 17th centuries. (fn. 29) The population stood at 337 in 1801, 528 in 1831, and 668 in 1881. (fn. 30) After remaining static for two decades it rose again to 759 in 1911, and from 460 in 1921 to 619 in 1931, excluding the Fen Ditton Fields housing estates. After the transfer of the southwestern portion of the parish to Cambridge in 1934, the population of the remainder rose from 632 in 1951 to 674 in 1961, but fell to 647 in 1981, before rising marginally to 657 in 1991.

Fen Ditton village originally lay in the northwest of the parish, stretching along the river northwards from Fen Ditton Hall. (fn. 31) North of the Hall stand the church, the Old Rectory, and a probable 16th-century guildhall. (fn. 32) On Green End Lane three large rectangular plots perhaps mark the site of medieval houses. (fn. 33) In the later Middle Ages the shape of the village changed, extending eastwards to form the present High Street. (fn. 34) A new row of houses was built there shortly before 1412. (fn. 35)

The earliest surviving houses in the village date mostly from the 17th century: Mulberry House, Home Farm, Manor Farm, and Flendish House. By 1700 the village extended for 750 m. east of the church, beyond the intersection with Horningsea Road. (fn. 36)

There was much new building in the early 19th century on the High Street and Horningsea Road, and the number of houses increased from 49 in 1801 to 114 in 1831. (fn. 37) Between 1831 and 1891 another 35 houses were erected in the parish. (fn. 38) In the late 1890s the limits of settlement in the village were marked by the Plough inn at the end of Green End Lane, by Home Farm at the eastern end of the High Street, and by Fen Ditton Hall at the southern end of the village. New houses were built between 1895 and 1925 along Green End Lane. (fn. 39)

In the 1920s settlement at Little Fen Ditton, north of the village, on the Horningsea Road was established, but no further building was allowed along that road between Fen Ditton and Horningsea villages thereafter. Between the 1930s and 1960s new building was concentrated in the Fen Ditton Fields housing estate, with no substantial developments in Fen Ditton village. In the 1950s along Green End Lane there was some infilling. Large detached houses were built, one in the style of a Spanish ranch.

By the early 1970s, however, Fen Ditton Fields could not accommodate much further building, and developers turned their attention to Fen Ditton village. Partly as a result of resistance by the parish's inhabitants in 1972-3 and 1977, plans for large-scale housing estates providing up to 1,000 homes were rejected. Smaller-scale proposals were also defeated on several occasions during the 1970s and the early 1980s. In 1987 the conversion of the old yard at Home Farm, on the southern side of the High Street, provided flats and two-bedroom terraced houses suitable for professional people who worked in the city of Cambridge. Poplar Hall Farm at the north-eastern corner of the village was built in the late 18th century and remodelled in the late 19th. (fn. 40) In 2000 new proposals for large housing estates in the parish had not passed beyond the planning stage.

In 1991 a third of the 278 dwellings in the parish were detached houses, a third were semidetached houses, and a third comprised terraced houses and flats. (fn. 41) In the 1980s and 1990s whitecollar workers, employed in the city and the newly emerging science parks, made up a larger proportion of the parish's population than during the 1970s.

In 1669 a building at a former paper mill was being used as an inn, and in 1686 the inns in the village had 18 guest beds and stabling for 32 horses. (fn. 42) The Papermills inn, so called in 1775, may have been the same as the Globe on Newmarket Road, which was licensed under that name in 1764, (fn. 43) and survived until c. 1933. (fn. 44) The Plough inn near the river at Green End Lane was probably the house recorded in 1669, (fn. 45) which was used for village meetings and court sessions in the 18th century. (fn. 46) It was a popular resort for people from Cambridge and was enlarged in 1876. (fn. 47) Other inns in 1760 were the King's Head on the corner of Church Street, and the Sluice at the north-west end of the parish, probably called the Pike and Eel in the mid 19th century. In 1861 the Ancient Shepherds and the Blue Lion stood on the High Street, and the Harvestmen on Green End Lane. (fn. 48) In 1951 the Blue Lion was rebuilt, and the village still had four public houses in 2000. (fn. 49)

In the 1890s Thomas Stearn, who pioneered the use of modern photographic techniques, photographed the river and boat races from Fen Ditton's river banks. (fn. 50) In 1995 his photographic studio at Grassy corner was rebuilt and restored to its 1892 state. The rectory paddock was used for watching the Cambridge May boat races in the late 19th century. (fn. 51) A ferry crossed the river at the Plough during May week in the late 1940s and 1950s until it sank in 1961. (fn. 52) Long reach was an important viewing point for the races in the late 20th century. In 1984 villagers began a campaign to build a sports pavilion, which was completed in 1988. (fn. 53) The inhabitants of Fen Ditton, often supported by heritage pressure groups, mounted campaigns to retain the rural environment of Fen Ditton in the late 20th century, when the village with its river views and pubs attracted visitors not only from the city and county of Cambridge, but also from further afield. (fn. 54)

Fen Ditton Fields.

Fen Ditton meadows separated the village from the Fen Ditton Fields housing estates, which lay within the parish until 1934. (fn. 55) Most of the land within the quadrilateral bordered by the former railway line on its northern and western sides, and by Cherry Hinton brook on its southern side, was purchased by the city council between 1918 and 1925. (fn. 56) Newmarket Road runs through the middle of the quadrilateral east-west, and Wadloes Road forms the north-south axis. (fn. 57) The first council housing was erected between 1918 and 1939 in the quadrilateral's north-west quadrant, primarily along Ditton Walk. The population there increased from 321 to 437 between 1921 and 1931. In 1948 there were 564 houses on the estate, and by 1951 numbers had doubled to 1,153. This was achieved by filling in the entire north-western quadrant, and by laying out houses around the suburban 'ring-roads' in the north-east and south-east quadrants. Between 1951 and 1955 a further 441 houses were built, the new developments being concentrated along Eskin and Keynes Roads, immediately to the south of Dudley Road in the north-east quadrant, and along Rawlyn and Stansfield roads and Rayson Way in the south-west quadrant. By 1955 there were 1,594 houses on the estate. There followed a brief lull, with only 74 houses being built between 1955 and 1960. In the early 1960s, however, 295 new houses were built, primarily along Howard Close and Wadloes Road. By 1967 there were 2,007 houses in the Fen Ditton Fields housing estates. Open spaces for recreation, such as that at the centre of Dudley Road, created a sense of spaciousness.

The original character of the estate has been retained in the late 20th century, with relatively little infilling. In the 1980s and 1990s new private housing developments were built east of Fen Ditton Lane and north of the city's cemetery on the Newmarket Road, with a large number of starter homes. In 1998 Abbey ward, which included the Fen Ditton Fields, had a population of 6,790. (fn. 58)

In 1895 labourers dug trial pits in a field adjacent to Newmarket Road and Fen Ditton Lane to test whether the site would make a suitable cemetery. (fn. 59) In 1903 the Cambridge borough cemetery opened there, occupying a 25-a. site. It was provided with a mortuary chapel and a house for the superintendent. (fn. 60) From the 1980s it was the only cemetery within the city's boundaries which was still open for new burials.

Fen Ditton Fieds Development c.1900-51

Transferred to cambrige in 1938


  • 1. Fen Ditton parish history was completed in 2000. In order to avoid repetition some issues relating to both Fen Ditton and Horningsea parishes are dealt with completely in the relevant sections of either Fen Ditton or Horningsea parish histories. C.U.L., Add. MS. 6980 gives an earlier account of Fen Ditton's history until the early 18th century. The Revd. L. Marsh provided help in the writing of this history. Maps used include O.S. Maps 6", Cambs. XL. SE., NE.; XLI. NW.; XLVII. NE. (1889 and later edns.); 1/10,000, TL 46 SE. (1982 edn.); TL 45 NE. (1985 edn.); TL 55 NW. (1981 edn.); TL 56 SW. (1975 edn.).
  • 2. P.N. Cambs. (E.P.N.S.), 142.
  • 3. C.R.O., P 94/4/1, p. 127.
  • 4. Census, 1931-51; C.R.O., R 54/38/23.
  • 5. Camb. News, 16 Nov. 1962; S. Cambs. District: Fen Ditton parish order, 1984 (copy in Cambs. Colln.); Census, 1981-91.
  • 6. P. Warner, Origins of Suffolk (1996), 67.
  • 7. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 144-7; Fox, Arch. Camb. Region, 32-4.
  • 8. For a recent discussion, setting out wider conclusions on the relationships between Horningsea, Fen Ditton, and Fleam Dyke, T. Pestell, 'An Analysis of Monastic Foundations in East Anglia' c. 650-1200 (Univ. of East Anglia Ph.D. thesis, 2000), 337-41.
  • 9. For early 18th-cent. map of Whatloe fen, C.R.O., TR 626/p.
  • 10. Ibid. R 59/31/6.
  • 11. Ibid. 132/M26.
  • 12. Ibid. 178/84.
  • 13. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii, p. lx.
  • 14. Camb. Evening News, 30 Jan. 1981.
  • 15. Porter, Cambs. Customs, 378-9; below, Horningsea, intro.
  • 16. Pipe R. 1177 (P.R.S. xxvi), 183; Cal. Pat. 1266-72, 555.
  • 17. Cal. Pat. 1317-21, 209.
  • 18. Ibid. 1338-40, 403; Cal. Close, 1346-9, 65; below, manors.
  • 19. Camb. Evening News, 23 June 1969.
  • 20. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 49; C.U.L., Add. MS. 6980, f. 79; Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 431.
  • 21. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 49, 56.
  • 22. P.N. Cambs. (E.P.N.S.), 143.
  • 23. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 49.
  • 24. C.R.O., Q/RDz 5, pp. 9-10; ibid. L 1/20, f. 6.
  • 25. P.N. Cambs. (E.P.N.S.), 142.
  • 26. Para. based on V.C.H. Cambs. ii. 132-3; Camb. Ind. Press, 19 Feb. 1965; 1 June 1971.
  • 27. For road building and improvements in 20th cent., below, Horningsea, intro.
  • 28. Below, Horningsea, intro.
  • 29. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 443-4; Cambs. Village Doc. 102.
  • 30. Rest of para. based on Census, 1801-1991.
  • 31. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 49; below, manors.
  • 32. Below, church; local govt.
  • 33. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 63-4.
  • 34. Ibid. 49.
  • 35. C.U.L., Add. MS. 6980, pt ii, f. 3; R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 49.
  • 36. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 61-2; C.R.O., L 75/5; ibid. SP 54/2; SP 54/4.
  • 37. Census, 1801-31; R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 59-62.
  • 38. Census, 1841-91.
  • 39. Account of modern housing developments based on Camb. Ind. Press, 17 Nov. 1961; Camb. Evening News, 24 Mar. 1974; 30 May 1974; 18 Feb. 1977; 11 Apr. 1987.
  • 40. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 50.
  • 41. Census, 1971-91.
  • 42. C.R.O., L 75/5; P.R.O., WO 30/48.
  • 43. C.R.O., 132/M 43.
  • 44. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1933).
  • 45. C.R.O., L 75/5.
  • 46. Ibid. 132/M 3; Camb. Chron. 27 Oct. 1787, p. 2; 24 Oct. 1789, p. 3; 16 June 1792, p. 3.
  • 47. Camb. Chron. 21 Sept. 1844, p. 2; 4 Mar. 1876, p. 8; 5 Apr. 1879, p. 8.
  • 48. P.R.O., RG 9/1020, f. 53.
  • 49. Camb. Evening News, 16 Oct. 1996.
  • 50. Ibid. 14 Jan. 1995.
  • 51. V.C.H. Cambs. iii. 285; Church Com. files 73932, E 6489.
  • 52. Cambs., Hunts, and Peterb. Life, June 1974, pp. 16-18; Feb. 1980, pp. 12-13.
  • 53. Camb. Evening News, 19 Jan. 1984; 1 Sept. 1988.
  • 54. Ibid. 13 Jan. 1973.
  • 55. Above.
  • 56. Cf. Camb. District News. 16 Nov. 1962.
  • 57. Account of 20th-cent. housing development based on Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1948-67); Cambridge City Council Architecture and Planning Dept. Report, Feasibility Studies on Land for Housing Development (1973); C.R.O., 65/T 36; Census, 1921-81.
  • 58. Cambs. City Council, Population and Dwelling Stock Estimate 1981-98 (1999).
  • 59. Camb. Chron. 11 Jan. 1895, p. 8.
  • 60. Kelly Dir. Cambs. (1904).