Fen Ditton: Church

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: Church', 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/pp127-129 [accessed 17 July 2024].

A F Wareham, A P M Wright, 'Fen Ditton: Church', 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/pp127-129.

A F Wareham, A P M Wright. "Fen Ditton: Church". 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/pp127-129.


Fen Ditton church, built in the 12th century, is first recorded in 1217. (fn. 1) The patronage has belonged to the bishop of Ely since 1251, but the Crown appointed during episcopal vacancies in 1590 and 1753. (fn. 2) The living, which always remained a rectory, was valued c. 1217 at £18 6s. 8d.; in 1254 at £20; and in 1276 at £36 13s. 4d., although in 1291 it was only worth £26 13s. 4d. (fn. 3) It was worth £26 11s. 2d. in 1535, and £120 in 1650. (fn. 4) In 1728 it was worth £160. The gross income was £404 in 1832, £580 in 1873, £500 in 1885, and £692 in 1939. (fn. 5)

In 1279 there was 24 a. of glebe, and in 1639 c. 22½ a. (fn. 6) It was then divided into 28 blocks, the largest of which was 1 a. in Leadenhall field, and the smallest of which were 1-r. strips in Abbots Ditch field. In 1807 the rector was allotted 14 a. in lieu of glebe. (fn. 7)

The rector was entitled to the revenues from both the small and the great tithes in the Middle Ages. There was a long dispute between the rector of Fen Ditton and St. John's hospital, Cambridge, which possessed Horningsea church, over tithes from cattle, which was resolved in 1412. Tithes from cattle belonging to the parishioners of Fen Ditton were assigned to their rector, even though the cattle had been pastured in Horningsea; in return St. John's hospital received the tithes from Horningsea cattle even when grazed on Fen Ditton pastures. (fn. 8) In 1807 the allotment for tithes comprised c. 274 a., divided into nine sections, ranging in size from 104 a.; three ranged from 34 a. to 13 p. (fn. 9) In 1894 Glebe farm was sold to T. M. Francis of Quy Hall, and some smaller pieces of glebe were sold to Cambridge borough council in the late 1890s. (fn. 10) In 1919 Quy Water farm was sold along with its farmland, comprising c. 176 a., and in 1946 Jesus College purchased the glebe meadow bordering the Cam. (fn. 11) After 1945 further portions of the glebe were sold off intermittently, leaving by 1976 only 13 a. on Horningsea Road. (fn. 12)

The rectory house was enlarged in 1386 by the rector Simon Remyn. (fn. 13) In the 16th century a new rectory was built on Church Street north of the parish church. (fn. 14) Part of that house survives as the south wing of the Old Rectory. Four hearths were reported in 1662 and six in 1664. (fn. 15) The central range, probably a single room in the 17th century, was refronted in brick and widened in the early 18th century. In both 1775 and 1782 the rectory was in good repair, with a scullery added to the kitchen. (fn. 16) In the 19th century the south wing was extended eastwards, and the north cross wing and kitchen were encased in white brick. It was set in a 2-a. garden with a paddock. (fn. 17) The house remained in good repair during the early 19th century. In 1851, besides the rector, his wife, and two young children, four servants lived there. (fn. 18) By 1929 the house was in poor condition. (fn. 19) In 1939 it was exchanged for Flendish House. (fn. 20) Flendish House, of two storeys, had three reception rooms on the ground floor, four bedrooms on the second floor, and a number of attic rooms on the third floor. (fn. 21) It served as the rectory house from 1939 until 1976, when a new one was built on the opposite side of the High Street.

Between the 1230s and c. 1400 thirteen rectors were recorded, and a further four parish clergy were styled priests or chaplains; two were graduates. (fn. 22) One rector was licensed to be absent; another held the living in plurality with Stretham (I. Ely); at least one, however, Simon Remyn (1382-94), was resident. (fn. 23) During the 15th and 16th centuries there were twenty-one rectors, some of whom also served the Crown and the bishops of Ely, or held office in Cambridge university, including two successive masters of Jesus College in the late 1550s. (fn. 24) Four of the incumbents held other livings in Cambridgeshire or in neighbouring counties, and five curates were named. In the early 17th century two of the rectors also served at other times as heads of Cambridge colleges; one of them was regarded as an Arminian. (fn. 25) In the late 17th and 18th centuries incumbents often also held prominent positions in the church and the university, and between 1680 and 1711 the parish was served by six curates, each being in office between three and twelve years. (fn. 26) John Gooch, son of Thomas, bishop of Ely (d. 1754), was the last pluralist rector, holding the living from 1753 until his death in 1804. (fn. 27)

In the 19th and 20th centuries there were eleven rectors, all resident, and only in 1844 was there evidence for a curate. (fn. 28) The rector W. B. James attracted attention in 1849 when he sought to impose public penance for the slander of his wife. (fn. 29) The proceedings drew a crowd of 3,000, whose intervention caused some damage to the rectory, and prevented the sentence from being carried out. That was reputedly the last occasion when public penance was imposed in England. F. H. Cox, rector 1877-83, was president of the Church of England Temperance Society. (fn. 30)

In the 19th century rectors preached twice on Sundays. (fn. 31) The number of communicants fluctuated between 12 and 18 in the early 19th century, rising to between 50 and 80 in the 1880s and 1890s. By then there were four communions a month. Since the 1930s an oarsmens' service has been held in the last week of July each year. By 1836 there was a Sunday school, attended by some 60 to 100 boys and girls throughout the 19th century.

The church of ST. MARY, so named by 1515, (fn. 32) is built of rubble with Barnack stone with clunch and limestone dressings, and leadcovered roofs. (fn. 33) The building, which consists of a chancel, a nave with a clerestory, north and south aisles, a south porch, and west tower, includes some 12th-century masonry. The tower was built in the early 13th century, and comprised three stages with a plain parapet and angle buttresses. The north aisle, and one of the windows in its north wall dates from c. 1300. The remaining three windows in the north aisle wall date from the later 14th century, each having two cinquefoiled lights. The chancel was built shortly afterwards. The east window has cinquefoiled lights with flowing tracery, and the three windows on the south side each have cinquefoiled lights. In the 15th century the chancel arch and the nave were rebuilt, and a clerestory, south aisle, south porch, and north vestry were also added. A screen divided off the nave from the chancel during the later Middle Ages.

In 1775 the chancel was restored, and given new stained glass windows and an altar rail brought from Ely cathedral. (fn. 34) In 1807 the church was in good repair. (fn. 35) Restoration in the mid 1840s was inadequate, and in 1853 cracks appeared in the new plaster, leading to further repairs in 1858. (fn. 36) In the 1870s the church floor was lowered. (fn. 37) A major programme of works in 1880-1 involved the rebuilding of the walls of the tower, north aisle, and chancel, and the restoration of the south aisle, porch, and clerestory. (fn. 38) The work was completed in 1881. (fn. 39) In 1955 coal-fired heating was installed, replaced in 1962 by an oil-fired system. In 1968 the roof was re-leaded, and in the late 1980s a major restoration of the church included the installation of a drainage system. (fn. 40)

The church's octagonal font dates from the 14th century. All the church's jewels and plate were allegedly stolen shortly before 1552. The oldest pieces of the unremarkable plate that it had in the 20th century were a cup and patens of 1690. (fn. 41) Four bells were recorded in 1549 and 1552, and in 1623 Thomas and Richard Willys agreed to pay for casting two bells, one of which survived in the 1960s. (fn. 42) In 1881 four of the six bells were damaged in a fire. (fn. 43) In 1982 they were sold, and replaced by Gillet and Johnson bells. (fn. 44) Monuments of the 1620s and 1685-1725 were erected on the north wall of the chancel to seven members of the Willys family, as well as a floor slab in the chancel to William Willys (d. 1676). (fn. 45) In 1920 a war memorial was installed on the south wall, and in 1977 oarsmens' shields and oars were put up alongside it.

The parish registers, beginning in 1538, are substantially complete. (fn. 46) The church had a graveyard by 1356, and the present churchyard walls include medieval moulded stonework. (fn. 47) From 1897 it was closed to new burials. (fn. 48) A church hall, built in the 1920s, was later used for storage. In 1962 it was replaced by a new parish hall on the northern side of the High Street, which remained in use during the late 20th century. (fn. 49)


  • 1. Val. of Norwich, ed. Lunt, 538.
  • 2. C.U.L., Add. MS. 6980, pt. i, f. 3; P.R.O., C 94/4, no. 5A; ibid. IND 17013, f. 443; B.L. Add. MS. 5809, f. 13.
  • 3. Val. of Norwich, ed. Lunt, 220, 538, 558; Tax. Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii. 505.
  • 4. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii. 505; Lamb. Pal. MS. COMM. XIIa.3, f. 254.
  • 5. C.U.L., E.D.R., B 8/1, f. 12v; ibid. C 3/25; C 3/30; Church Com. file PM 967.
  • 6. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 441; C.U.L., E.D.R., H 1/Fen Ditton 1639 (glebe terrier).
  • 7. C.R.O., Q/RDz 5, p. 7.
  • 8. C.U.L., Add. MS. 6980, pt. ii, ff. 1-21.
  • 9. C.R.O., Q/RDz 5, pp. 6-12.
  • 10. Church Com. file 75475.
  • 11. Ibid. 73932.
  • 12. Ibid.
  • 13. Cal. Pat. 1385-9, 220, 226; E.D.R. (1897), 97.
  • 14. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 56-7.
  • 15. P.R.O., E 179/84/437, rot. 23.
  • 16. C.U.L., E.D.R., C 1/1; ibid. B 7/1, p. 10. See plate 33.
  • 17. Church Com. file 73932.
  • 18. C.U.L., E.D.R., C 1/4; C 3/21; P.R.O., HO 107/1759, f. 4.
  • 19. Church Com. file 73932.
  • 20. Ibid. 73932.
  • 21. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 61.
  • 22. C.U.L., Add. MS. 6980, pt. i. ff. 19-29; Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.) ii. 432; Cambs. Lay Subsidy, 1327, p. 15; Cal. Close 1330-33, 609; B.L. Add. MS. 5809. f. 12v.; Emden, Biog. Reg. Univ. Camb. 407-8, 447.
  • 23. C.U.L. Add. MS. 6380, pt. i, f. 115; Cal. Pat. 1385-9, 220, 226.
  • 24. For full account of their careers, C.U.L. Add. MS. 6980, pt. i, ff. 30-60; B.L. Add. MS. 5809, f. 12v.; Add. MS. 5847, f. 60; C.U.L. Add. MS 6380, ff. 12v., 29v.; Emden, Biog. Reg. Univ. Camb. 515; East Anglian N. & Q. ii. (1864), 31.
  • 25. Alum. Cantab. to 1751, i. 374; iv. 465; C.U.L. Add. MS. 6380, p. 115.
  • 26. Alum. Cantab. to 1751, i. 22; ii. 246, 281; iv. 157; B.L. Add. MS. 5820, ff. 104-5; C.U.L. Add. MS. 6980, pt. i, ff. 68-75.
  • 27. B.L. Add. MS. 5820, ff. 103, 105; Alum. Cantab. 1752-1900, ii. 232; Proc. C.A.S. 1. 67.
  • 28. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1847-1933); Hill, Churches of Cambs. 214; Church Com. file 62563.
  • 29. Porter, Cambs. Customs, 392-4; Camb. Chron. 12 May 1849, p. 2; 19 May 1849, p. 2; 28 Apr. 1849, p. 2; 21 July 1849, p. 2.
  • 30. Alum. Cantab. 1752-1900, ii. 160; Camb. Chron. 8 Feb. 1879, p. 8; 10 Nov. 1877, p. 4.
  • 31. Para. based on C.U.L., E.D.R., C 1/1; C 1/4; C 1/6; C 3/25; C 3/30; C 3/37.
  • 32. B.L. Add. MS. 5861, f. 116.
  • 33. Architectural description based on R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 49-51; Pevsner, Cambs. 383-4; Hill, Churches of Cambs. 206-10.
  • 34. C.U.L., E.D.R., C 1/1; Mon. Inscr. Cambs. 52-3, 278; Palmer, Wm. Cole, 43.
  • 35. C.U.L., E.D.R., C 1/4.
  • 36. Camb. Chron. 17 June 1843, p. 2; 1 Oct. 1853, p. 8; 22 May 1858, p. 5; R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 49.
  • 37. Camb. Chron. 11 May 1878, p. 8.
  • 38. Ibid. 6 Nov. 1880, p. 4.
  • 39. Ibid. 3 Dec. 1881, p. 8.
  • 40. Brief History and Description of the Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Fen Ditton, Cambridge (1964).
  • 41. Cambs. Ch. Goods, temp. Edw. VI, 68; R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 51.
  • 42. Cambs. Ch. Goods, temp. Edw. VI, 68; Cambs. Bells (C.A.S. 8vo ser. xviii), 138; R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 51; for Willys family, above, manors.
  • 43. Camb. Chron. 14 May 1881, p. 8.
  • 44. Inf. from the Revd. L. Marsh.
  • 45. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 51.
  • 46. With par. rec. in 1990s.
  • 47. P.R.O., JUST 2/17, rot. 3d.
  • 48. C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/30; C 3/37.
  • 49. Camb. District News, 16 Nov. 1962.