Fen Ditton: Economic history

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: Economic history', 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/pp124-126 [accessed 17 July 2024].

A F Wareham, A P M Wright, 'Fen Ditton: Economic history', 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/pp124-126.

A F Wareham, A P M Wright. "Fen Ditton: Economic history". 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/pp124-126.


Land in Fen Ditton was under the plough c. 970, and in 1035 the manors at Ditton and Horningsea each provided 2 weeks of food renders for Ely abbey. (fn. 1) In 1086, when the manor was assessed with Horningsea manor, there were as many ploughteams on the demesne as on the peasants' land. (fn. 2) In 1251 the bishop of Ely had 305 a. of arable in demesne divided into 18 separate parcels scattered in the open fields of Fen Ditton, and another 319 a. divided between 15 separate parcels in Horningsea. (fn. 3) In 1356-7 the bishop's demesne in the two parishes comprised c. 500 a. of arable, and 24 a. of pasture. (fn. 4) The size of the demesne farm remained relatively stable in the period of episcopal ownership; in 1606, shortly after the sale of the manor, the demesne in both parishes comprised 400 a. of arable, 25 a. of meadowland, and 24 a. of pasture. (fn. 5) There were six open fields in the parish from the Middle Ages to the 17th century: (fn. 6) in the west lay Whatloe and Leadenhall fields; in the centre Abbots Ditch, Little Ditton, and Swansbridge fields; and in the east High Ditch field. (fn. 7) In the early 18th century Whatloe field contained Upper, Middle, and Lower furlongs. By 1800 Whatloe and Leadenhall fields had been taken into severalty as far east as the Cambridge road, with the newly enclosed land in them belonging mostly to the manorial estate. (fn. 8)

In 1251 in the whole of the bishop's manor there were 18 freeholders, 27 half yardlanders, 16 cottars, and 34 cotterells. (fn. 9) The freeholders' annual rents ranged from 6d. to 6s. each, while three of them also performed ploughing, ditching works, and harvest boons. The half yardlanders were subject to a range of customary obligations, and performed weekwork. They also had to maintain the lord's sheepfold and barns. Each cottar paid 1s. in rent annually, owed one day's weekwork, and had to keep their sheep in the lord's fold and to provide two men for their lord at harvest. At the bottom of the social scale the cotterells had dwellings with little land attached to them. Besides owing labour services, they paid rents of 3d. to 1s.

In 1279 18 freeholders paid the bishop an aggregate rent of 19s. 8d., as well as owing labour services and customary rents; (fn. 10) nine free cottars owed the bishop labour services and rents ranging from 2d. to 2s. a year. If the 29 villeins were the successors of the half yardlanders, their labour services had been reduced since 1251. The 18 crofters owed the same labour services as the cottars had in 1251. The 24 cotterells owed various annual labour services, including reaping ½ a. of the lord's corn and one day's stacking, and each rendered 6d. In addition 6 free cottars paid their lord, William Muschet, rents of between 6d. and 5s.

In the Middle Ages and during the 16th and 17th centuries there was piecemeal inclosure primarily in the western half of Fen Ditton. (fn. 11) In the late 1660s several farms ranged in size from c. 70 a. to c. 180 a. In the late 18th century two farms, with lands divided between both parishes, had over 200 a. each, another four had c. 100 a. each, and several other farms had c. 40 a. each. (fn. 12) In 1796 one estate had 43 a. of inclosed land in Leadenhall field and 47 a. in Abbots Ditch field. (fn. 13) The inclosure of Fen Ditton parish was effected under an Act of 1807. By then 1,155 a. of the parish had already been enclosed, including both the former open fields in its south-west and probably, since the late 17th century, the former common fens in the northwest. Only 666 a., mainly in the surviving open fields, remained to be enclosed under the award executed in 1817. (fn. 14) After inclosure the principal landowner's estate, then owned by the legal representatives of Thomas Panton, was concentrated in the west of the parish, with c. 381 a. included in Fen Ditton Hall farm; the Jenyns estate, c. 221 a., was divided into two portions, one in the former Abbots Ditch field, the other in High Ditch field; and four other estates ranged between c. 100 and c. 221 a. (fn. 15) Fen Ditton Hall farm was regarded as one of the most compact farms in the country in 1817, with half its acreage being given over to arable, and the other half to meadowland, pasture, and timber resources. (fn. 16) In 1941 Fen Ditton Hall had 608 a. of farmland in Fen Ditton parish, and 85 a. in Horningsea parish. Other important holdings lying along the old Horningsea road north of Fen Ditton village were Poplar Hall and Biggin Abbey farms, both of which were divided between Fen Ditton and Horningsea parishes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Along Newmarket Road lay a further three farms, the largest of which was Greenhouse farm, first recorded in 1825, with c. 225 a. in the mid 19th century, and c. 450 a. in 1960. (fn. 17) Quy Water farm had c. 150 a. between 1851 and 1941. In 1941 six farms in the parish totalled c. 1,260 a., and in 1961 there was 1,130 a. of arable in all. Each of these farms had a ratio of arable to pasture of approximately 3:1, except for Quy Water farm with a ratio of 7:1.

In the mid 14th century equal proportions of maslin and barley were grown on the episcopal manor, but the acreage of wheat was only a fifth as large. (fn. 18) Between 1870 and 1910 the acreage given over to cereals, primarily wheat and barley, increased from c. 650 a. in 1870 to c. 740 a. in 1910, before falling back to c. 670 in 1930. (fn. 19) A local agricultural society encouraged the growth of root crops in both Fen Ditton and Horningsea parishes: the acreage in Fen Ditton increased from c. 335 in 1890 to c. 602 a. in 1910, before declining to c. 161 a. in 1930. Between 1870 and 1930 the acreage under grass rose from c. 350 a. to 485 a. In 1961 in the parish there was 398 a. of barley, 202 a. of wheat, 180 a. of sugar beet, and 250 a. of meadow.

In 1315-16 two shepherds worked in Fen Ditton. (fn. 20) A sheepwalk recorded in the 18th century, when it ran through the western portion of the parish between Abbots Ditch and High Ditch field to the east, was almost certainly in existence earlier. (fn. 21) In 1870 there were 1,080 sheep in Fen Ditton, but by 1890 numbers had halved, (fn. 22) and between 1930 and 1941 they declined further from 294 to 192; in 1960 there were no sheep at all. (fn. 23) Between 1870 and 1960 the number of cattle increased from 59 to 223: in 1960 all the cattle were Herefords, save for a herd of shorthorns at Fen Ditton Hall farm. In the late 17th century there was a piggery east of Fen Ditton Hall. (fn. 24) Between 1890 and 1960 the number of pigs fluctuated between 91 and 170. Up to the mid 20th century and beyond poultry farming increased in importance: between 1930 and 1941 numbers of fowl doubled from 771 to 1,724, and in 1960 there were 2,519 fowl in the parish, primarily at Greenhouse and Quy Water farms.

A watermill in Fen Ditton, recorded in 1527, (fn. 25) may be the same as that extant in 1669 and 1733, but not recorded thereafter. (fn. 26) A water-powered papermill at Fen Ditton, the second recorded in England, was erected for the bishop of Ely by a German paper-maker and builder called Remigius between 1550 and 1554. It stood on the edge of Whatloe fen, at the junction of Ditton Walk and Newmarket Road. (fn. 27) Leased by Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, until the late 1550s, it was replaced no later than 1591 by a new mill which passed in 1600 to the Crown with Fen Ditton manor, and thereafter belonged to the Willyses and their successors. (fn. 28) In 1824 it was no longer in operation, but in 1886 was used as a malthouse. (fn. 29) In the late 1980s it was converted into offices.

Between 1811 and 1831 three quarters of the adult male population worked on the farms, which employed 34 people in 1811, 75 by 1831. (fn. 30) Between 1841 and 1861 the number of farm labourers rose from 76 to 138, but by 1881 had fallen to 126. (fn. 31) In 1941 39 men and 2 boys were employed as farm labourers. (fn. 32)

The number of blacksmiths, masons, bricklayers, carpenters and other tradesmen declined from 22 in 1841 to 8 in 1861, before rising to 16 in 1881. (fn. 33) In the early 20th century the village had several shops, but in the late 20th century it had only one village shop with post office, an antiques shop in the former Fen Ditton school building, and tea-rooms at Riverside cottage. A few 'cottage' industries became established in the parish, including Caroline Watt Designs, which in 1978 employed 35 outworkers to produce toys, largely sold in the U.S.A. That firm was no longer in business in 2000. (fn. 34)

In the late 20th century industrial development was concentrated in the south-west of the parish, within Cambridge's boundaries since 1934. In 1944 Pye Telecommunications established its Fen Ditton Lane works at the junction of Newmarket Road and Fen Ditton Lane. (fn. 35) Although the company initially produced radio communications equipment for military purposes, after 1945 it moved into civil work, pioneering the development of radios for use in taxis and other commercial vehicles. From 1977 Pye's main activities were carried out at the factory on St. Andrew's Road in Cambridge, and in 1981 the Fen Ditton Lane works was closed, following the takeover of the company by Phillips.

Marshall's engineering works was mainly in Teversham parish, (fn. 36) but a few of its hangars and workshops are within the boundaries of Fen Ditton. In 1986 planning permission was given to Marshall to develop an 11.4 a. (4.6 ha.) site on the north of Newmarket Road for a new hangar to accommodate up to three Boeing 747 aircraft. (fn. 37) The proposal was opposed by Fen Ditton and Teversham parish councils and the Cambridge Preservation Society on the grounds of noise, traffic congestion, and the defacing of the sky-line, but supported by the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, airline companies, and aircraft manufacturers. Permission was granted after a Public Enquiry but this hangar was not built because the contract was lost due to the delay in obtaining planning permission.


  • 1. Liber Elien. (Camd. 3rd ser. xcii) pp. 84, 153. Ditton, however, may refer to Woodditton rather than Fen Ditton.
  • 2. V.C.H. Cambs. i. 365, 407-8.
  • 3. B.L. Cott. MS. Claud. C. xi, f. 118 and v. For discussion of the acquisition of the Ely manor, below, Horningsea, manors.
  • 4. P.R.O., E 143/9/2.
  • 5. Ibid. C 2/Jas. 1/B 20/40; cf. ibid. C 2/Jas. I/B 27/14: 320 a. of arable, 80 a. of pasture, and 20 a. of meadow.
  • 6. Ravensdale, Liable to Floods, 85; B.L. Cott. MS. Claud. C. xi, ff. 118-20.
  • 7. Para. based on P.R.O., WARD 7/74, no. 82; B.L. Add, MS. 5809, f. 14v.
  • 8. C.R.O., TR 626/P1; ibid. Q/RDz 5.
  • 9. B.L. Cott. MS. Claud. C. xi, ff. 115-121.
  • 10. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 441-2.
  • 11. P.R.O., E 150/67, no. 1; ibid. CP 25/2/93/831/2 Eliz. I Mich.; ibid. C 2/Eliz I/B 22/34; C 2/Jas. 1/B 20/40; C 2/Jas. 1/B 27/14.
  • 12. C.R.O., 281/0 20; ibid. L 75/5; L 75/8.
  • 13. C.U.L., Maps, MS. Plan R.b.9.
  • 14. C.R.O., Q/Rdz 5, pp. 2-39.
  • 15. Acreage figures of farm areas for 19th and 20th cent. based on ibid.; P.R.O., HO 107/1759, ff. 463-476; ibid. RG 11/1661, ff. 58-73; ibid. MAF 32/807/32; C.R.O., 515/SP 353; C.U.L., Maps, PSQ 18/12; PSQ 18/136; PSQ 18/347; Survey of Fen Ditton (1961).
  • 16. Camb. Chron. 7 Nov. 1817, p. 3.
  • 17. P.N. Cambs. (E.P.N.S.), 142.
  • 18. P.R.O., E 143/9/2.
  • 19. Rest of para. based on P.R.O., MAF 68/232, 1258, 2398, 3502; Survey of Fen Ditton.
  • 20. P.R.O., SC 6/1132/13.
  • 21. C.U.L., Maps, MS. Plan R.b.9.
  • 22. P.R.O., MAF 32/807/32; MAF 68/232.
  • 23. Ibid. MAF 68/1258; 68/2398; 68/3502; Survey of Fen Ditton.
  • 24. C.R.O., TR 626/P1.
  • 25. B.L. Add. MS. 5861, f. 195.
  • 26. C.R.O., L 75/5.
  • 27. Ibid.; D.N.B. xix, p. 618; Cooper, Annals of Camb. ii. 132, 165; R.L. Hills, Papermaking in Britain 1488-1988: a short history, 50.
  • 28. A.H. Shorter, Paper Mills and Paper Makers in England 1495-1800, 27; C.U.L., Add. MS. 6980, f. 14; R. Jenkins, Collected Papers (1936), 159; C.R.O., L 11/106.
  • 29. Camb. Chron. 10 Sept. 1824, p. 3; Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1886).
  • 30. Census, 1801-31.
  • 31. Ibid. 1841-81.
  • 32. P.R.O., MAF 32/807/32
  • 33. Census, 1841-81.
  • 34. Camb. Evening News, 17 Apr. 1978.
  • 35. Para. based on Pye of Cambridge Ltd (1973); Pye Telecommunications, Employee Handbook (1978); Camb. Evening News, 17 Apr. 1978; 25 Nov. 1981; 30 Sept. 1983.
  • 36. Below, Teversham, econ. hist. (airfield).
  • 37. Account based on Camb. Evening News, 11 Sept. 1986; 29 Sept. 1987; 21 Jan. 1998; 17 Mar. 1998.