Isleham: Charities for the poor

Pages 456-458

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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In 1503 Thomas Bernes left Slaughters tenement and its meadow to help pay the tax of Isleham villagers owing 12d. or less each. (fn. 1) That close, including five messuages, was enfeoffed in 1522, at his son Edward's request, to the churchwardens and other villagers. (fn. 2) Christopher Peyton by will proved 1507 charged his purchased obit lands with continuing his accustomed Lenten distribution of red and white herrings. (fn. 3) The fate of those gifts is unknown.

Dame Frances Peyton (d. 1582) gave the former chapel endowment and other land, 39 a. in all, mostly in Isleham, with two messuages there to endow her five almshouses, incorporated by letters patent in 1579, when four men and one woman were resident, as Peyton's Hospital. Before her death she had built those houses north of the Causeway a little east of the village. Her foundation provided for a master who was to occupy one house and 20 a. with its common rights, in return for £2 of rent and cultivating and cropping the other 18 a. for the six brothers and six sisters, also to be named by Dame Frances and her heirs. The brother who was to say prayers for the other almspeople was allowed 6 a. or its produce, the other brethren apparently 3 a. each, with common rights for 1-2 cows and a calf. (fn. 4) By the 1630s Sir Edward Peyton had ceased to appoint a master or almspeople and appropriated the master's house and 20 a., paying nothing for them. Sir John Maynard therefore believed that he had bought that property with the Peytons' Isleham estate in 1637-8. Maynard's tenant of the 20 a. was apparently allowed £6 yearly to cultivate the 18 a. for four remaining almspeople, who also enjoyed the £2 yearly. Following local protests in 1654-5, a compromise in 1656 allowed Maynard to keep all the master's share. Only the almshouse and the 18 a. were resettled. The Maynards and succeeding lords were to pay a £2 rentcharge as owners of 'Almshouse farm'. Dame Frances's arrangements were otherwise confirmed, there being six almshouses in 1664; thereafter the praying brother was styled, and perhaps acted as, 'master' of the hospital. (fn. 5) When Isleham's fens were divided in 1677, the hospital received for its common rights an allotment nominally of 50 a., effectively of 37 a., of fen. (fn. 6) By the 1770s the Bullers, then lords of Isleham, were paying an additional £10 yearly in lieu of cultivating the 18 a. Following the sale of their estate c. 1800 a rentcharge of £12 was laid upon the Hall estate, (fn. 7) charged after its division c. 1850 upon Chalk farm, whose successive owners paid it from the 1870s to the 1980s. (fn. 8)

In 1837 the hospital owned 55 a. of several fen pasture and 17 a. of arable, for which 8½ a. were allotted at inclosure in 1854. (fn. 9) Its property, thereafter c. 60 a., including the 8½ a. long let as allotments, was reduced by sales between 1971 and 1986 to 35 a., still owned in 1988. (fn. 10) By the late 1780s the trustees were letting most of the land. From rents that rose from c. £50 then to £300 or more by the 1810s, they paid out to ten almspeople weekly stipends totalling c. 17s. 6d. raised in stages after 1800, as food prices rose, to a peak of £2 10s. in the early 1810s, then again reduced to £1 10s. or less, as the rents fell back to c. £225 in the 1830s and to £145 by 1844. Cash payments had replaced ancient renders of malt and beef, but the trustees still provided fuel. They bought, or had dug from 13 a. of the fen kept in hand, as in the 1830s, thousands of turfs, put in 'turf lodges' behind the five two-roomed almshouses. Each dwelling was apparently of two storeys, all being under a single roof. The ten almspeople were customarily chosen in the 19th century from widows and widowers. Only the 'master' was allowed to be married. (fn. 11)

In 1842 (fn. 12) the almshouses were rebuilt in red brick, dressed in yellow, as a row of five singlestoreyed dwellings, with nine alternating Gothic doors and windows. A slighty larger central dwelling housed the master and his wife, two each side being occupied by two pairs of each sex, apparently the usual practice in the mid 19th century. (fn. 13) A Scheme of 1855 assigned half the net annual income, after saving £5 for a repair fund, to the master. A resident Anglican, he was twice daily to read prayers which the other brothers and sisters, who shared the remaining income equally, should attend. (fn. 14) As the rents fell from £130 in the 1870s to £85 in the 1890s, the number of almspeople was reduced by 1908, as into the 1960s, to three of each sex. In 1958-9 sanitary and other improvements were carried out, the almspeople, former Isleham residents, being thereafter required to make small contributions towards maintenance. Schemes of 1959 and 1988 assigned the net income for their benefit. (fn. 15) As rents rose steadily from c. £70 in the early 1960s and over £1,350 in the late 1980s, besides income from recent investments, yielding altogether £6,600 in 1991, the charity was able in 1981-2 to remodel the four bedsitters in the 1842 almshouse into two bungalows, and c. 1995 added two more, built behind the Victorian range. (fn. 16)

Early in 1694 John Hill left to his patron Dame Katherine Maynard, who settled it in trust, 15 a. of purchased fenland to yield £3 yearly for the poor. After providing every Sunday seven penny loaves for poor people, the rest should be spent on waistcoats for poor men and stockings for poor women. (fn. 17) In 1837 the land was represented by 18 a. of fen, of which 7 a. had been dug for peat, the price being spent on 2 a. in Fordham. By then its income was given with that from other land, as 'Dame Katherine Maynard's'; (fn. 18) it was called locally by the late 19th century the 'Great Coal and Clothing' charity. (fn. 19) By the 1710s the parish had accumulated from bequests since 1635 a stock for the poor totalling £134; those bequests included £10 each from the vicar Roger Peachey in 1684, from Francis Buller in 1682, and from his grandson James Buller in 1711, supposedly £60 from Dame Mary Cullen in 1691, and £20 from Dame Katherine herself, to which John Sharp added £50 in 1729 and Sir Rushout Cullen £50, for clothing at Christmas, in 1730. (fn. 20) In 1718 the money then in hand was invested in 17 a. in Mildenhall (Suff.), represented by 1837 by 28 a. there. With the Isleham and Fordham land of Hill's gift, that land yielded annually £6 8s. for clothing the poor in 1783, and £55 by 1837 when it was given almost indiscriminately among them. The dividends on £118 of stock bought in 1806 with £69 left from Sharp's and Cullen's £100 were used similarly. (fn. 21) The total income, £70 in 1863, (fn. 22) was usually given in the late 19th century at Christmas in 20-50 pairs of blankets, 20-40 greatcoats, 20 gowns, and up to 60 quartern loaves, also probably in coal. (fn. 23) A Scheme of 1961, when the charity still owned all that land, allowed its use for all kinds of help to the needy. In the 1960s half the income, then c. £100, was given in coal, the rest in vouchers at village shops. By 1976 £200 a year went in such vouchers to 130 old people. In the 1990s over £2,350 of rents was distributed with the income of the two fenland charities described below. (fn. 24)

Excluded from that combination was Thomas Blackerby's bequest in 1687 of rent-charges worth 24s. yearly, to provide six loaves weekly for six poor, Protestant churchgoers. That sum, distributed as directed in 1837, was still given in bread vouchers by the vicar in the 1960s. (fn. 25)

Other charities were developed from former common land. By the 1680s the churchwardens controlled land at Dunstall near the western boundary, employing the proceeds of selling its grazing annually for various communal purposes. (fn. 26) At inclosure the parish received for those 12¾ a. 10 a. south of the village, to which the name of Dunstall was eventually transferred. (fn. 27) The parish came c. 1900 to use part of the income from that land, let as allotments, for apprenticeships. In 1907 the Dunstall income was formally constituted a charity to apprentice young people with grants of £5-10 each. Rents from the allotments rose from £30 in 1907 (fn. 28) to c. £45 by 1970 and over £350 in the 1990s, largely absorbed by grants to the young, sometimes 3-6 yearly, steadily increased from £7-10 per candidate in the mid 1970s to £75 in the 1990s. (fn. 29)

Other common land by the fen bank just south of the Adventurers' bank, later called the Fifty Acres, supposedly 56 a., was allotted in 1837 in trust for the poor to the Peyton Hospital trustees in right of another commonable messuage. About 1790 that area had been recognized as held for Isleham's 'working poor'. In the 1830s it was stocked with cattle by all who chose. (fn. 30) The vestry, wishing from 1842 to devote it more directly to the poor, obtained in 1848 a Scheme assigning two thirds of the income from letting the 50 a., once they had been drained and the turf there dug to raise capital, for education, the rest for apprenticing and for distribution in clothing and fuel. In the late 1840s the stockowners with popular support violently resisted attempts to drive their cattle off the land. Only in 1856 were the Fifty Acres eventually drained, under police protection, part being shortly hired in 1/2-a. lots to up to 26 turf diggers. (fn. 31) It was later let as Fifty farm to one tenant. The whole income long went to the village school, (fn. 32) but from 1898 the poor's third was given in blankets. Between c. 1920 and the 1960s, when it brought in £12-18 a year, coal was also given, (fn. 33) in the 1960s to 25-35 people. The income was next devoted instead to Christmas gifts to up to 150 people, a number reduced to 20 from 1974. By the 1990s, the rent having risen to over £3,250, the 'Fen and Fifty' poor income, permitted under a new Scheme of 1978 to be used in numerous ways for the poor, yielded with Dame Katherine Maynard's and Deborah Fletcher's gifts almost £4,000 for distribution yearly, largely in vouchers at Christmas. (fn. 34) Deborah Fletcher by will proved 1949 had left £700 worth of stock, then yielding £17 and by the 1990s £80 yearly, for distribution, after spending £5 on maintaining a grave, to the aged poor in coal, as was done in the 1960s. (fn. 35)


  • 1. P.R.O., PROB 11/15, f. 115v.
  • 2. Ibid. C 110/45 (1), nos. 149, 163.
  • 3. Ibid. PROB 11/15, f. 200v.
  • 4. Ibid. C 110/44 (2), no. 27; Cal. Pat. 1578-80, pp. 31-2; C.R.O., P 98/25/2; 31st Rep. Com. Char. 158-9.
  • 5. 31st Rep. Com. Char. 159-60; C.R.O., P 98/25/3-7; P.R.O., E 179/84/437, rot. 53d.
  • 6. P.R.O., C 229/8, no. 30; cf. C.R.O., P 98/25/8-14.
  • 7. 31st Rep. Com. Char. 161.
  • 8. Char. Com. file 203559, corr. 1874; accts. 1963-71; Scheme 1988; cf. C.R.O., T 169.
  • 9. 31st Rep. Com. Char. 160; C.R.O., Q/RDc 76, m. 19; cf. C.U.L., E.D.R., G, tithe award 1847, p. 32.
  • 10. Char. Com. file 203559, accts. 1874, 1963-71; Scheme 1988.
  • 11. C.R.O., P 98/25/16 (accts. 1785-1844); Char. Don. i. 98-9; 31st Rep. Com. Char. 160-1; Char. Com. file 203559, corr. 1908.
  • 12. Notice at bldg.
  • 13. Cf. P.R.O., HO 107/1763, f. 120; ibid. RG 9/1035, f. 73v.; RG 10/1600, f. 73v.
  • 14. Char. Com. file 203559, Scheme 1855.
  • 15. Ibid. corr. 1873-4, 1890-5, 1908-9. 1955-61; Schemes 1891, 1959, 1988.
  • 16. Ibid. accts. 1963-91; Ely Standard, 18 June 1981; 2 Sept. 1982; inf. from Maj. D.C.W. Peyton.
  • 17. P.R.O., PROB 11/419, ff. 265, 291.
  • 18. 31st Rep. Com. Char. 162.
  • 19. e.g. Camb. Chron. 10 Apr. 1896, p. 8; C.R.O., P 98/AM 1, p. 28; ibid. 470/O 86, pp. 19, 35.
  • 20. 31st Rep. Com. Char. 162; cf. P.R.O., PROB 11/378, f. 92; PROB 11/419, ff. 221v., 291; PROB 11/422, f. 184v.; PROB 11/519, f. 349v.; PROB 11/640, f. 317v.; cf. above, manors.
  • 21. 31st Rep. Com. Char. 162-3; cf. Rep. H.L. Cttee. on Poor Laws, 330-1.
  • 22. Char. Digest Cambs. 1863-4, 396-7.
  • 23. e.g. Camb. Chron. 3 Jan. 1874, p. 8; 1 Jan. 1876, p. 4; 3 Jan. 1880, p. 4; 4 Jan. 1895, p. 8.
  • 24. Char. Com. file 202429, Scheme 1961; accts. 1963-93.
  • 25. 31st Rep. Com. Char. 161-2; Rep. H.L. Cttee. on Poor Laws, 330-1; Char. Com. files 203559, corr. 1891-5; 202243, accts. 1965; cf. ibid. 202442.
  • 26. C.R.O., L 1/89, ff. 21v., 30v., 35, 42; cf. ibid. P 98/8/2, s.a. 1847-8.
  • 27. Ibid. P 98/8/2, s.a. 1855; ibid. Q/RDc 76, m. 26; cf. C.U.L., E.D.R., G, tithe award 1847, p. 32.
  • 28. C.R.O., P 98/AM 1, pp. 147, 183, 188, 229; P 98/AM 2, pp. 21, 49, 86-7, 98, 106, 112; Char. Com. file 202427, memos. and corr. 1891, 1905-8; Schemes 1907, 1980.
  • 29. Char. Com. file 202427, accts. 1963-93; Ely Standard, 29 Mar. 1973; 25 Mar. 1976; 2 Apr. 1981; Newmarket Jnl. 28 Mar. 1985.
  • 30. P.R.O., C 229/8, no. 30; 31st Rep. Com. Char. 163; cf. C.U.L., E.D.R., G, tithe award 1847, p. 9.
  • 31. C.R.O., P 98/8/1, s.a. 1842-3; P 98/25/17-18; Char. Com. file 202430, report and Scheme 1847-8; Camb. Chron, 19 Apr. 1856, p. 5; 10 May 1856, p. 5.
  • 32. Above, educ.; cf. Camb. Chron. 4 July 1863, p. 5; C.R.O., 470/0 86, p. 2; ibid. P 98/AM 1, pp. 194 sqq.
  • 33. Char. Com. file 202430, memos., corr., and Scheme 1906-7, 1919, 1935-7.
  • 34. Ibid. accts. 1963-93; Scheme 1978; cf. Newmarket Jnl. 29 Mar. 1984.
  • 35. Char. Com. file 202438, incl. Schemes 1951, 1977; accts. 1955-93.