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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The three or four estates acquired by Ely abbey were combined into a demesne farm before 1029. (fn. 1) Aelfric of Snailwell, a Domesday Cambridgeshire juror, was presumably a leading figure in the parish. (fn. 2) The Ely estate had been assessed at five hides, but the 1086 assessment of ten ploughlands and meadowland for two ploughs suggests an increase in arable area by the late 11th century. (fn. 3) The demesne had two ploughteams, and in 1282 it was estimated at 240 a. (fn. 4) The value of the manor declined by £3 during the Conquest, but by 1086 its value had almost reached the preConquest figure of £15. In 1235 the manor was assessed at 4½ hides, presumably because the demesne was exempt from geld after 1101. (fn. 5) Two cartloads of fencing poles brought from the royal woodland at Cheveley to Snailwell, perhaps along the Ashley road, may have been introduced c. 1072-75 when the king possessed Snailwell. (fn. 6)
In the 11th century there were 3 sokemen, who had the right to sell their lands to whom they wished, 8 villani, 3 bordars, and 3 servi. In 1279 there were 14 freeholders, 21 villeins, 12 bond tenants, and 11 cottars. (fn. 7) The freeholders held one hide and 35 a., and owed rents of 16s. 8d. but no labour services. The villeins held one hide and 95 a., owed 540 days weekwork, and rents of 15s. in total. Harvest work for them varied between a ¼ a. and 8 a., and they also owed around 170 days carrying service in total of between ten and 12 leagues. Bonded tenants held 155 a., owed rents of 12s., and owed no labour services apart from harvest work of between ¼ a. and 2½ a. each. Between 1325 and 1360 freeholds from 20 a. to 70 a. were sold, and the descendants of one freeholder remained notable figures in Snailwell until c. 1350. (fn. 8) In 1430 villagers avoided paying rents to the lord's steward. (fn. 9)
Snailwell had five open fields in the Middle Ages, comprising Newmarket field south-west of the village; Bury and Small fields to the southeast; North field to the north-east; and West field to the west. (fn. 10) Between 1560 (fn. 11) and 1684 (fn. 12) successive inclosures reduced the area of open fields from 1,650 a. to 1,355 a., and the inclosed 100 a. in West field. In the whole parish inclosed meadow and pasture increased from 88 a. to 141 a. between 1560 and 1684. Only in Bury and Newmarket fields were conditions almost stable: in 1684 both fields were within 15 a. of their 1560 areas, but there had been a reduction of c. 20 per cent in the number of strips in both fields. In 1684 there was c. 400 a. each in Newmarket and Bury fields, and c. 250 a. each in Small and North fields, and c. 40 a. in West field. Another 237 a. was apparently inclosed by 1804 when there was 1,118 a. of open field. (fn. 13) The Tharp trustees promoted an inclosure Act which was passed in 1805. The award, made in 1806, covered 1,830 a., all of which went to the Tharp manorial estate, apart from the glebe. (fn. 14) In 1834 the inclosed fields in the former Newmarket, Bury, and North fields comprised 1,236 a. of arable, (fn. 15) which between 1848 and 1930 still accounted for two thirds of the land but c. 1950-70 had fallen to around half of the acreage. (fn. 16)
In 1560 four tenants had large holdings of freehold and copyhold; John Gilbert and Henry Gatward c. 200 a. each and William Cheesewright and William Lukyn c. 100 a. each. Four others had only whole or half yardlands. (fn. 17) Some holdings had been been built up recently: in 1538 William Gilbert (d. 1557) acquired 11 a. which possibly formed a third of Thomas Gilbert's land in 1560; (fn. 18) and in 1542 Robert Lukyn had acquired 100 a., possibly the 92 a. held by William in 1560. (fn. 19) Martin Warren (d. 1600), who had only held half a yardland in 1560, later purchased land in the parish. (fn. 20) By 1641-61 his descendant John Warren (d. 1676), was a substantial landholder, with six hearths in his house in 1664, (fn. 21) and in 1684 his brother Martin Warren held 348 a., nine-tenths of which was divided equally between Newmarket, Bury, and North fields. Three other holdings had included c. 80 a. of copyhold and freehold each in 1684, including the holdings of Walter Warren and Henry Branch. (fn. 22) In 1722 there were three freeholders beside the rector and lord, but in 1780 there was none. (fn. 23)
In 1684 the manorial farmland consisted of 747 a.: two large farms of around 250 a. were farmed by Thomas Branch and George Fyson, one was of 150 a., and another of 18 a.; whilst the lord retained 68 a. in hand. (fn. 24) There was 760 a. in 1737 and 815 a. in 1747. (fn. 25) About 1717-1804 in Newmarket field Fyson's farm had an aggregate of 95 a., farmed on the lord's behalf. (fn. 26) The process of consolidation was completed when John Tharp (d. 1804) purchased 5 a. of independent freehold in Newmarket field in 1798. (fn. 27) By 1804 two farms in the Tharp estate accounted for almost the entire acreage in the parish, except the glebe. (fn. 28) Later tenants held small freeholds, but they were entirely dependent upon the goodwill of the lord. (fn. 29)
From 1805 Church Farm stood to the east of the old rectory along Church Lane (formerly street), (fn. 30) while Manor Farm, on the opposite side of the lower green, was on the east side of the Street. (fn. 31) In 1804 tenants of both farmed the land in 'a spirited and judicious manner', and in 1810 a threshing machine of two to three horsepower was used on Church farm to beat out seed. (fn. 32) In 1821-8 and 1834 Church farm covered 828 a., and Manor farm was 967 a. The arable land of Church farm was concentrated in Newmarket field to the west of Green road, but its heathland lay to the east, and in 1881 two shepherds who lived at Lower farm worked for its tenant. (fn. 33) Lower and Philadelphia farms were attached to Church and Manor farms during the 19th and 20th centuries, (fn. 34) and the sizes and layout of the Snailwell farms remained largely unchanged until c. 1882. (fn. 35) Between 1910 and 1961 Church farm's area declined from 587 a. to 500 a., and that of Manor farm from 786 a. to 750 a. (fn. 36) All three tenants of Church farm between 1796 and 1889 occupied it until their deaths, Edward Gittus and his son for over sixty years. (fn. 37) John Fyson, perhaps related to George Fyson (fl. 1684), was tenant of Manor farm from 1828 until 1881. (fn. 38) From c. 1896 until c. 1916 both farms were managed by one farmer, (fn. 39) but thereafter they were again farmed separately. (fn. 40)
In 1738 barley accounted for over half of the acreage of the crops on the manorial farm. (fn. 41) In 1796 it was grown three times as much as either wheat or rye, (fn. 42) and in the 19th century remained the most important crop, but between c. 1890-1930 the area cropped with wheat increased, and it was the largest crop from c. 1910-30. (fn. 43) From 1950 until 1970 barley was again the main cereal crop, covering in 1970 two and a half times as many acres as wheat. (fn. 44) In 1560 saffron was routinely grown in small plots in West field. (fn. 45) Since 1930 sugar beet and rape have been introduced. (fn. 46) By 1970 sugar beet and fodder beans were being grown in nearly equal proportions, and non-cereal crops accounted for one fifth of the acreage. (fn. 47)
In 1086 there were 111 sheep on the demesne. (fn. 48) In 1794 the southern heathland was used as sheepwalk, and in 1796 the glebe included a sheepwalk of 9 a. (fn. 49) Care was taken then not to let the sheep graze upon the fen common. (fn. 50) Four shepherds were employed in 1871, and in the late 19th century Suffolk sheep from both farms won prizes at agricultural shows. (fn. 51) In 1794 there were c. 1,200 sheep, (fn. 52) between 1870 and 1890 there were c. 2,700 sheep, but by 1930 the number had halved, and since 1950 no sheep have been kept. (fn. 53)
Cattle numbers were also stable between 1870 and 1890 and then declined until 1930, but in 1934 H. L. Webb introduced Jersey cattle on Manor farm, and in 1961 the herd was 120 strong. (fn. 54) His cattle won major awards in the British Isles, and he was three times president of Jersey cattle societies. In 1970 there were 142 cattle in Snailwell. (fn. 55)
Throughout the 19th century Church and Manor farms were the main employers: 60 Snailwell men worked on them in 1841. In 1871 there were 47 men and 20 boys employed from Snailwell, while another 16 farm labourers came from neighbouring parishes. (fn. 56) Between 1871 and 1881 the number of men employed remained at 55, but employment of boys declined from 27 to 20. (fn. 57) Between 1844 and 1849 there was some agricultural unrest: cattle were maimed, and arsonists attacked both farms. The villagers were able to save Church Farm, but Manor Farm was entirely destroyed except for the farmhouse. (fn. 58) In 1854 a one-day strike forced a wage increase, but by 1883 the farm workers were on good terms with both the landlord and his tenants. (fn. 59)
The northern portion of the parish included c. 300 a. of fenland, known as Snailwell fen, in 1560 when the men of Snailwell had a dispute with Fordham men, who had recently taken to crossing the parish boundary to take turf. (fn. 60) In 1794 there were 80 a. of common fenland, and before inclosure in 1806 West fen between the village and the western tributary of the Snail had c. 50 a. in total, and Snailwell fen divided into Home and High fens had c. 170 a. (fn. 61) The 33 a. in High fen in the northern tip of the parish, set aside for the benefit of the poor c. 1796-1806, included a turf pit into which one old man fell to his death in 1817 when seeking to cut turf. (fn. 62) In 1794 the main portion of Snailwell fen had not been drained on account of a fishpond which bordered upon it in Fordham parish, but by 1834 West fen had been drained. (fn. 63) During the late 19th century and early 20th Snailwell fen was entirely drained apart from High fen, which still retained its vegetation in 1996. (fn. 64)
The southern heathland has been a valuable resource since the Bronze Age. In 1560 there were traces of furrows on the heath where there had once been arable, and between 1560 and 1684 three furlongs next to the heath in South field declined from 179 a. to 93 a., while ley fell from 65 a. to 40 a. (fn. 65) Between 1804 and 1834 the southern heathland of 435 a. was used for sheepwalk. (fn. 66) The topsoil which formed a shallow skin over the chalk was regarded as being dry and barren in 1804, (fn. 67) presumably because it was not suited to arable, but in the late 19th century lime may have been burnt on the Limekilns heathland to serve Newmarket. (fn. 68) A tenant of Church farm in 1805 controlled 164 a. of heathland, and in 1814 he was breeding mounts for the Duke of Grafton's and the Thurlow hunts. (fn. 69)
About 1882 Mrs. Tharp put up for sale 421 a. of Limekilns heathland. (fn. 70) The Jockey Club of Newmarket leased it, and by 1910 it had bought Private field in the south-west corner of the parish, then leased to the earl of Derby. (fn. 71) The Jockey Club purchased the rest of the heath in 1930. (fn. 72) The land was divided into the Railway field north of Bury St. Edmunds railway line, and the Limekilns proper to its south. (fn. 73) The Limekilns as a whole formed one of the best gallops around Newmarket because the going remained soft even in dry summers, and was used for flat-race training. In the 1990s Railway field was used throughout the year, while the Limekilns was used in dry weather. In 1989 the Chippenham Park Estate established a gallop on 100 a. to the west of the Green lane, which was managed by the Jockey Club during the 1990s. (fn. 74) In 1996 about a fifth of the Jockey Club's land was in Snailwell.
Between 1895 and 1910 the rector, E. Powles, encouraged his wife's nephew, Lord Howard de Walden, to establish a stud farm on the 62 a. of glebe immediately south-west of the village. By 1910 Lord Howard had built an upper (main) stable yard facing Snailwell Short (formerly Exning) Road, with 12 brick stables, and divided 51 a. between Snailwell Short and Newmarket roads into six paddocks. (fn. 75) After 1932 Lord Howard leased what was by then known as Snailwell Stud from the new rector. (fn. 76) Between 1937 and 1940 his successor at the stud, Mr. A. Barclay, spent £5,000 on improvements. (fn. 77) In 1942 Major L. S. M. Clarke purchased Snailwell Stud. (fn. 78) In 1946 he sold it to Mr. Stanhope Joel who ran it as a public stud until his death in 1983. (fn. 79) Between 1951 and 1988 at the lower yard facing Newmarket Road two houses were built for employees, and one house at the upper yard. (fn. 80) In the 1950s Snailwell Stud had three stallions, and between 1961 and 1989 c. 16 mares and one stallion. In 1989 it occupied 80 a., and employed eight people. (fn. 81)
In 1983 the British Racing School was established on a 50-a. site between the Newmarket bypass and the Newmarket-Bury St. Edmunds railway line. (fn. 82) An accommodation building, an indoor ride, grass and artificial gallops five km. long were built, and in 1996 there were 55 horses.
Between 1086 and 1299 four fishponds were dug on the west side of the river Snail 140 m. to the north of the spring. The 4.5-m. wide moat enclosed 18.5 square metres. (fn. 83) In 1580 the land included a free fishery. (fn. 84) In the 19th century the four fishponds were part of Manor farm. (fn. 85) They were still being used in 1910, when Lord Howard de Walden leased them from Mrs. Tharp. (fn. 86) By the late 20th century, however, the area had become overgrown, and the ponds were no longer in use.
The three mills recorded in 1086 were pre sumably watermills powered by the Snail. (fn. 87) In 1299 Philip de Patmer unsuccessfully sought to deprive Aubrey de Capeles of half a mill. (fn. 88) In 1683 Sir Isaac Thornton let a watermill next to the fishponds. (fn. 89) In 1805 at the recently completed Cornmill, which stood immediately north of those ponds with a 2-a. close, two quarters of corn were ground in summer and four in winter. (fn. 90) The rent was £60 with the repair of the building and the cleaning of the stream being the tenant's responsibility. In 1841 and 1871 the house at Cornmill was occupied by the families of the miller and his assistant, with three millers in total in the village, (fn. 91) but by 1910 the Cornmill house was no longer used. (fn. 92) A windmill put up for sale with 2 a. in Soham in 1781 is not recorded thereafter. (fn. 93)
There was a blacksmith's forge c. 1758- 1910. (fn. 94) The village did not have enough people to sustain a shop except that recorded in 1871, but the publican of the George and Dragon kept a post office and shop c. 1883-1900. (fn. 95) Shops and a post office have been run occasionally from private houses in the 20th century. (fn. 96)