Horningsea: 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, 'Horningsea: 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/pp165-167 [accessed 18 July 2024].

A F Wareham, A P M Wright, 'Horningsea: 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 18, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol10/pp165-167.

A F Wareham, A P M Wright. "Horningsea: 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. 18 July 2024. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol10/pp165-167.


In 1251 15 'fields' were recorded. (fn. 2) From the 14th century to the late 17th century there were six open fields in the parish. (fn. 3) In the south Middle field lay between Gravel field to the east and Mill field to the west. In the north lay Eye Hall, Clayhithe, and Northale fields, the latter so named in 1313, and later known as North Hills field. (fn. 4) The northern three may originally have formed a separate set of fields for the adjoining Clayhithe hamlet. In both groups a triennial rotation was followed in 1356-7. (fn. 5) Eye Hall's demesne comprised c. 200 a. of arable in 1386-7, when fragments of it were leased. (fn. 6) By the early 19th century the six fields had been amalgamated into three, lying in the south, centre, and north of the parish.

In 1086 there were 15 servi, 22 villani, and 14 bordars in Fen Ditton and Horningsea together. (fn. 7) In 1222 Horningsea tenants of the bishop of Ely did not have to provide food for the bishop's chamber in contrast to the obligations imposed upon their counterparts in Fen Ditton. (fn. 8) In 1251 the 16 half yardlanders each paid 18d. in rent, 13 cottars with crofts 12d. each, and 8 cottars 6d. each. In 1279 16 freeholders each paid c. 2s. 6d. in rent. Ten free cottars paid rent and provided a man for services, and 18 cottagers were obliged to mow, as well as each owing rent of between 2d. and 12d. In 1386-7 harvest works numbering 211 days were performed on Eye manor's demesne. (fn. 9)

Meadowland, probably adjacent to the Cam, was grazed by oxen in the 11th century, and in the mid 13th century there was 45 a. of meadow in Fen Ditton on the demesne of the bishop of Ely's manor. (fn. 10) Thomas Willys, lord of Fen Ditton, was in dispute with some of his tenants about common rights over 100 a. of pasture called Little Rough in 1620-2. (fn. 11) High fen, on the eastern edge of the parish, was grazed by sheep in the winter months and by cattle in the remainder of the year until its inclosure in 1665. (fn. 12) Other important areas used for common grazing in the 17th century included Green, also known as Hatridge fen, adjacent to the eastern bank of the river Cam, and the fen at North Hills extending towards Bottisham lode. (fn. 13) After inclosure in 1810 the only remaining fenland, comprising c. 70 a., was administered for the poor of Fen Ditton, Horningsea, and Quy parishes. (fn. 14) The Horningsea portion lay in the most eastern projection of the parish. (fn. 15)

In 1669 one farm had 66 a. of inclosed arable, and in the early 1790s another of 230 a. included 40 a. of inclosed arable. (fn. 16) In 1794 a third of the parish lay within old inclosures. (fn. 17) An Act for inclosure was obtained in 1802 and the award was effected in 1810, covering 1,060½ a. of open fields, meadows, fens, and commons. (fn. 18) In the 19th century there were six farms with substantial landholdings in the parish. The principal farms with farmhouses in the village were Manor farm, with 207 a., St. John's farm which had 145 a., and King's farm with 118 a. in Horningsea and 112 a. in Fen Ditton. (fn. 19) Eye Hall farm had 260 a. and Clayhithe farm 150 a., both farms worked together in the late 19th century. North Hills farm had c. 218 a. owned by St. John's College. In the 19th century the Fison and Saunders families were prominent farming dynasties in the parish. In 1910 W. C. Saunders was tenant of St. John's, North Hills, and King's farms. (fn. 20) In 1941 Manor farm had 506 a., Eye farm 282 a., King's farm 163 a., St. John's 323 a., and Lodge farm 203 a. (fn. 21) In 1970 there were three large farms with c. 800 a., c. 600 a. and c. 400 a. each, and eight other holdings ranged between c. 50 and c. 100 a. (fn. 22)

In 1386-7 on the demesne of Eye manor equal proportions of maslin and barley were grown, but the acreage under wheat was only a fifth as large. (fn. 23) In the 16th century barley was probably the largest crop. In the early 1790s wheat, barley and rye were grown in equal proportions. Hops, already an important crop in 1692, (fn. 24) were still grown in the 1820s. (fn. 25) In 1870 and 1890 c. 300 a. of wheat and 300 a. of barley were grown, but in 1930 and 1941 their respective acreages comprised c. 340 a. and c. 220 a. (fn. 26) After the Second World War, however, barley once again became the principal crop, although in the late 20th century much sugar beet was also grown in the parish. (fn. 27) In the later 19th century farm seeds were grown on Clayhithe farm, (fn. 28) taking advantage of the richness of the local soil.

In 972 Bishop Aethelwold granted Thorney abbey 68 pigs from his Horningsea estate. (fn. 29) In 1086 there were 100 swine, 160 sheep, and 6 cattle on Ely abbey's manor of Fen Ditton with Horningsea. (fn. 30) A shepherd and a herder of horses were among the bishop's tenants c. 1251, when pigs and cattle were kept on his manor. (fn. 31) There was a sheepfold on the demesne of Eye manor in 1386-7. (fn. 32) By 1672 the sheepwalks and rights of pasture attached to Eye manor had been surrendered in exchange for separate pastures in Low fen, High fen, Hatridge fen, and North Hills fen. (fn. 33) Between 1870 and 1890 there were c. 1,500 sheep in the parish, and 135 in 1941, but none in 1950. (fn. 34) Several poultry farms were established between the First and Second World Wars, with 7,000 poultry in 1930. In 1941, however, only St. John's farm specialized in poultry farming, with 1,570 turkeys, and by 1950 very few poultry were kept.

In 1086 the abbot of Ely had a mill at Horningsea which yielded 10s. (fn. 35) A miller was recorded in the 13th century. About 1540 there were two mills in the parish, one at Horningsea, the other at Clayhithe. (fn. 36)

Willows planted between the high and low grounds of the common fens in the north marked the boundary of the lord's right of pasture in the 17th century. (fn. 37) Osier holts in Clayhithe, recorded in the Middle Ages, were exploited until the early 19th century, (fn. 38) when plantations existed on the Eye Hall and Clayhithe estates, but declined thereafter as a result of cheap imports from France. (fn. 39) In 1941 5 a. of osiers were farmed commercially on the Holts farm. (fn. 40) Willows on the river banks of the river Cam were cut, split and dried by the inhabitants of Fen Ditton and Horningsea to make baskets in the early 20th century. (fn. 41)

Coprolite deposits were dug in the late 19th century in both those parishes. (fn. 42) About 70 a. of land on Eye Hall and Clayhithe farms was so worked in 1885, with each acre yielding around 300 tons, and in Fen Ditton parish coprolite diggers worked the land adjacent to Green End Lane. In 1861 on Manor farm 27 men worked as coprolite diggers. In 1871 there were 85 coprolite diggers living in Horningsea parish: 46 were unmarried men aged between 18 and 35 who had been born in other parishes, and took up lodgings in the houses of Horningsea residents and at the Crown and Punch Bowl inn, which had eleven lodgers. In Fen Ditton there were 47 coprolite diggers, but only 6 lived in lodgings. During the 1880s and 1890s demand slackened, and after 1900 coprolite deposits were no longer required except for a brief period of renewed activity during the First World War, when they were used in munitions. The effects of the coprolite 'rush' were still visible in 2000 in the ponds and trenches of fenland known as the Poor's Fen.

Clay and gault from Horningsea and Clayhithe probably began to be used for making pottery in the 2nd century A.D. (fn. 43) The Horningsea kilns lay just to the south of Clayhithe, and specialised in the production of large storage jars, which supplied a region stretching from Hertfordshire to Huntingdonshire. The pottery continued to be produced until the 3rd century. In the 16th century bricks were either made or stored in Clayhithe. (fn. 44) Two brickmakers, who were buried in the parish in the 1730s, may also have worked there. (fn. 45) In the 1830s the Clayhithe kiln specialised in producing tunnel bricks, (fn. 46) and in the late 19th century white facing bricks, much in demand in Cambridge, were manufactured at Clayhithe brickyard. (fn. 47) There was a small brickpit on the south-west side of Horningsea village in the mid 19th century. (fn. 48)

Between 1811 and 1831 the number of households engaged in farming increased from 20 to 49. Between 1851 and 1881 the number of farm labourers rose from 62 to 72. (fn. 49) In the 1860s and 1870s work was abundant, as inhabitants could work either as farm hands or as coprolite diggers. In 1941 there was an acute shortage of labour on the farms in Horningsea, where 42 men and 5 boys were employed. Trades provided a continuous source of employment from at least the 13th century, and during the 19th century villagers were employed in trades such as blacksmith, laundress, and shopkeeper. In the early 20th century a butcher, cobbler, and grocer each had a shop in the village, but from the 1950s there was only a village shop with post office, which closed in 1992. (fn. 50)

In 1970 Ansells Garden Centre was established at the south-eastern outskirts of Horningsea village, initially among the allotments. (fn. 51) It expanded thereafter, and in the 1990s employed 25-30 people. In 1998 it was renamed Ansells Garden and Leisure Centre. In addition to the nursery there were several franchises at the garden centre, specializing in the sale of pine furniture, conservatories, and garage doors. In 2000 the centre, which occupied a 5-a. site, was one of the largest gardening centres in the East Anglian region. From 1996 a nursery opposite Eye Hall, called Cambridgeshire Garden Plants, specialized in growing herbaceous plants, and was still in business in 2000. (fn. 52)


  • 1. For related discussion, above, Fen Ditton, econ. hist.
  • 2. B.L. Cott. MS. Claud. C. xi, f. 118 and v.; Miller, Ely, 80 n.
  • 3. D. Haigh, 'A Correlation Between Archaeological Sites and Field Names' (in Cambs. Colln.); C.R.O., P 94/26/2; St. John's Coll. Mun., D 26/2; D 26/107; ibid. MP S/36; MP S/710.
  • 4. St. John's Coll. Mun. D 26/17; D 26/29; D 26/32; D 70/62; C.R.O., L 1/20, f. 4.
  • 5. P.R.O., E 143/9, no. 2; C.R.O., L 1/20, f. 4.
  • 6. P.R.O., C 111/80, no. 34.
  • 7. V.C.H. Cambs. i. 365.
  • 8. Rest of para. based for 1222 on B.L. Cott. MS. Tib. B. ii, ff. 119-20; for 1251 on ibid. Cott. MS. Claud. C. xi, ff. 115-120; for 1279 on Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 442-3.
  • 9. P.R.O., C 111/80, no. 34.
  • 10. Ibid. STAC 8/295/27; V.C.H. Cambs. i. 365.
  • 11. P.R.O., C 2/Jas. I/C 4/83.
  • 12. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 64, 83; C.R.O., R 59/31/17/2, 134-5; R 59/31/9/9/I, f. 44 and v.
  • 13. C.R.O., L 1/20, ff. 4-6, 10.
  • 14. Ibid. P 94/4/1, p. 128; below. char.
  • 15. Char. Com. file, 203717; below, char.
  • 16. C.R.O., L 75/5; L 11/97.
  • 17. Camb. Chron. 3 Jan. 1794, p. 3:
  • 18. C.R.O., Q/RDz 6, pp. 51-4.
  • 19. Farm sizes based on ibid. L 75/10 (lots 3- 4); ibid. 296/SP 353; ibid. 470/O 53; ibid. 281/O 22; ibid. P 94/11/1; St. John's Coll. Mun., SB 7/4A, pp. 136-7; SB 8/8-10; SB 1/40; D 110/220.
  • 20. Above, manors; Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1847- 1903); C.R.O., 470/O 53, ff. 27-37.
  • 21. P.R.O., MAF 32/807/32.
  • 22. Ibid. MAF 68/5161.
  • 23. Ibid. C 111/80, no. 34.
  • 24. St. John's Coll. Mun., MP S/36; Vancouver, Agric. in Cambs. 44; B.L. Add. MS. 5861, ff. 41, 81v., 111v.; C.R.O., P 94/26/2.
  • 25. C.R.O., 132/M 26; ibid. R 85/23.
  • 26. P.R.O., MAF 68/232, 1258, 2398, 3502.
  • 27. Ibid. MAF 68/4304, 5161.
  • 28. C.R.O., 296/SP 858.
  • 29. Robertson, A.-S. Charters, p. 255.
  • 30. V.C.H. Cambs. i. 365, 407-8
  • 31. B.L. Cott. MS. Tib. B. ii, f. 119; Cott. MS. Claud. C. xi, f. 120.
  • 32. P.R.O., C 111/80, no. 34.
  • 33. C.R.O., L 1/20, f. 4.
  • 34. P.R.O., MAF 68/232, 1258, 2398, 3502, 4304, 5161; MAF 32/807/32.
  • 35. V.C.H. Cambs. i. 365 and n.
  • 36. In P.R.O., C 111/80; C.R.O., L 1/20, f. 2.
  • 37. V.C.H. Cambs. i. 365 and n.
  • 38. Ibid. 365; B.L. Cott. MS. Claud. C. xi, f. 115.
  • 39. C.U.L., Maps, PSQ 18/239; C.R.O., 296/SP 858; Camb. Chron. 27 Apr. 1850, p. 2.
  • 40. P.R.O., MAF 32/807/32.
  • 41. Camb. Evening News, 21 Jan. 1988.
  • 42. Para. based on Census, 1861-81; C.R.O., 132/M 26, ff. 49, 63, 65v., 78v.; ibid. L 75/8.
  • 43. V.C.H. Cambs. ii. 367; vii. 69, 71-3; Fox, Arch. Camb. Region, 210-12, 218; Camb. Region (1938), 92; Proc. C.A.S. x. 174-94; xvii. 14-70; liii. 27-8.
  • 44. In Cambs. Colln., C.O6 c: 190.
  • 45. C.R.O., par. reg. transcript, pp. 108-9, 116-17.
  • 46. Ibid. P 94/12/2; P 94/21/2.
  • 47. Ibid. 296/SP 858; ibid. R 57/18/261c; R 59/4/17/1.
  • 48. R.C.H.M. Cambs. ii. 74.
  • 49. Para. based on Census, 1811-81; P.R.O., MAF 32/807/32; MAF 68/4304.
  • 50. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1900-33); Camb. Evening News, 31 Dec. 1992; 8 May 1997.
  • 51. Camb. Evening News, 8 May 1997; inf. from Ansells Garden and Leisure Centre.
  • 52. Camb. Evening News, 10 July 1996.