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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LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND PUBLIC SERVICES.
Manorial courts were held from the 13th century for all the main manors, including the largest which at times belonged to the Crown. In 1257 potential disputes on certain freehold land were referred to the judgement of the steward of Sir Philip Basset, then lord. (fn. 1) In 1313 villagers forced the steward of Basset's successor, Hugh Despenser, to produce the court rolls, and then convened a court without due summons and expunged the record of fines imposed in previous courts for alleged trespasses. (fn. 2) Throughout the 14th century and into the 15th the lords of that manor took profits, initially substantial, but halved between the 1340s and the 1390s to only c. £15, from two leets held each year, along with several other, sometimes monthly, sessions. (fn. 3) Court rolls survive for that Duchy manor for 1373-4, 1394-9, 1404-8, 1421-2, 1435-6, 1465-6, 1540, 1553, and 1577-9. (fn. 4) In 1299 the lords of the two later Netherhall manors successfully claimed view of frankpledge with the assizes of bread and of ale. (fn. 5) Courts were also held for both the manors eventually owned by Pembroke College: for its Rectory manor, court rolls survive for 1449, 1455-9, 1465-8, 1483, 1490-1503, 1510-32, 1539-41, 1550-1, 1554-1636, and 1649-75. (fn. 6)
In the late 14th and early 15th centuries (fn. 7) the Duchy manor court, besides its manorial functions, heard pleas, mostly of debt and trespass, occasionally settled into the 1420s by wager of law. (fn. 8) It also enforced public order, punishing assaults and other violence, though less often by the 1430s. By then civil pleas were also less frequent, although it still heard a few in the 1460s. (fn. 9) In the 1390s it tried to stop tenants impleading others before outside courts. (fn. 10) That court also regularly enforced the assizes of bread and ale, appointing aletasters from the 1370s to the 1460s. (fn. 11) Its decisions were issued by up to twelve jurors and 24 chief pledges, (fn. 12) who were liable to be fined for not answering all the articles of the leet without concealment. (fn. 13) They prepared such answers at private discussions, in 1397 at night in the lord's barn, sometimes overheard. (fn. 14) The Rectory court still occasionally handled cases of disorder in the early 16th century. (fn. 15) From c. 1450 both the Duchy and Rectory courts concerned themselves with upholding social stability. In 1465 the Duchy court forbade villagers to take in strangers for more than two nights unless they had been examined by the constables, (fn. 16) recorded from 1299. (fn. 17) The Rectory court, often styling itself a leet, which also from the mid 15th century enforced the assizes of bread and ale, occasionally named an aletaster, sometimes also its hayward, as late as the 1520s. (fn. 18) In 1511 it ordered a man not to keep his house open after eight at night, (fn. 19) and in 1563 and 1587 forbade others from allowing unlawful games to be played in their houses, which were perhaps also alehouses. (fn. 20)
From the late 17th century courts were still held for several manors, including the former Duchy manor of Soham and Fordham, for which court books survive for 1679-1949, (fn. 21) and Netherhall Wygorns, whose court books cover 1711-1939. (fn. 22) Although court proceedings were largely formal by 1800, the lord of those two manors still c. 1810 gave a dinner for his manorial tenants after the court session. (fn. 23) Courts baron were also held for Netherhall Tyndalls until c. 1825. (fn. 24) Pembroke College had separate courts for the Rectory manor, producing court books for 1743-1903, (fn. 25) and for Barway, for which rolls survive between 1570 and 1686, (fn. 26) and a minute book for 1772-1836. (fn. 27) All those courts were almost entirely concerned with tenurial business, save for the Duchy one. From the late 17th century to 1909 it reissued at regular intervals a little-changed code of bylaws for the remaining common land, (fn. 28) usually appointing at the same leet sessions both the fenreeves and pinders who were to enforce them, and also constables until after 1850. (fn. 29) It even until the mid 1760s nominated aletasters, who also acted as 'bread-weighers', enforcing regulations on bakers, such as those passed in 1723 when the constables were ordered to buy weights for the purpose. (fn. 30) In the early 18th century the court occasionally named 'surveyors of chimneys and ovens'. (fn. 31) From 1790 to 1830 it sometimes again appointed surveyors of weights and measures. (fn. 32) Occasionally from the 1750s it named a town crier. (fn. 33)
About 1600 the large village was divided administratively into three parts, Hall Street ward to the north, Brook Street ward south across the river, and between them Town Street ward, covering the central part of the high street; in 1625 two villagers were chosen from each to view encroachments on the commons. The Duchy court forbade villagers taking in strangers unless they gave surety that the parish should not be burdened. (fn. 34) In the 1730s and 1740s that court often issued orders against building cottages contrary to the statute. (fn. 35)
From 1710 the 'certificated' poor, presumably those thus returned to Soham, were repeatedly forbidden to feed cattle, and from 1732 to dig turf, on Soham's poor commons. (fn. 36) The parish early established a workhouse, in 1727 using funds from the Moor charity, which later paid for its maintenance, to buy a house a little south of the school on Churchgate Street. (fn. 37) From the 1770s (fn. 38) the parish gave weekly allowances 'by bill' to up to 15 paupers, mostly older women, particularly widows. Such allowances cost £10-12 monthly c. 1785-95, rising to £20 after 1800. It put many of the poor in the workhouse. Under the salaried master, hired with his spouse, to manage it the inmates were tolerably fed, their meals including cheese, beef, and pork, also occasionally from 1795 potatoes. Clothing and shoes were sometimes supplied and turves in tens of thousands bought for heating. The parish also paid a local surgeon 10 guineas a year to attend the poor and had 64 paupers inoculated in 1783. The proceeds of putting the poor to work, partly on spinning, partly by hiring out individual paupers, mostly men, by the day to farmers, (fn. 39) yielded from the 1780s onwards £5-10 a month; that met only a fraction of the total yearly cost of poor relief, which rose from £450-500 in the mid 1780s to £1,500-800 in the mid 1790s and almost £3,000 by 1802. The overseers' total outlay was still c. £2,000 in 1806. In 1803 they had spent £750 on inside relief for 55 people compared with £850 paid out for 88 others regularly, and 150 occasionally, assisted outside the workhouse. (fn. 40)
From 1807 the parish farmed out the work house to the master by contract at up to 4s. weekly per head for the inmates' subsistence. The vestry still met heating costs directly. Initially total expenditure was cut to c. £1,800-50. The number permanently on inside relief, c. 40 in 1808-10, fell to 20-30 by the mid 1810s. There were fewer than 25 inmates in 1820. The total spent on weekly allowances given outside increased to £70-100 a month during the depression of 1811-14, (fn. 41) when the number of persons permanently on relief rose to 150-175, with c. 200 others needing occasional help, especially in winter. Total expenditure reached c. £2,375 in 1813. (fn. 42) The cost to the parish of poor relief, having again increased to £2,900 in 1817-18, with 52 placed in the workhouse by April, usually ranged in the 1820s and early 1830s between £1,800 and £2,100. (fn. 43) By then Soham preferred to relieve its 200 or more poor in their homes; those, up to half, who were men of working age, received allowances for large families. It also employed a quarter of c. 80 workless labourers on its roads and gravel pits. Such parish wages sometimes came to £200-500 yearly, but up to half the total spent was given to widows, children, and the old and sick, about a fifth being used for occasional relief. (fn. 44) The workhouse, for which the vestry was still engaging a master in the mid 1830s, (fn. 45) was occupied until 1837, when it was arranged that it be rented from the Moor charity by the Newmarket poor-law union, (fn. 46) into which Soham was incorporated from 1835. (fn. 47) As part of that union Soham was included from 1894 in Newmarket R.D., and became part of East Cambridgeshire district from 1974. (fn. 48)
Even after the 1830s the vestry put much effort into managing the growing village. It regularly thenceforth employed salaried deputy overseers and surveyors, and rate collectors; (fn. 49) the latter sometimes received a poundage on the sums collected. (fn. 50) In the 1840s the vestry, no longer controlling its poor rate, drew instead on the highway rate for general parish purposes. (fn. 51) That rate was even used to assist the poor; in 1850-1, when there was severe employment, the surveyors, who had taken on 70 labourers, agreed, after a parish meeting where some farmers proposed a 'labour rate', to retain all those with three children or more. (fn. 52)
In the early 19th century the vestry's task was complicated by political and religious antagonisms. Previously even the Easter vestries had not usually been attended by more than 10-12 people, often by just 5-8; (fn. 53) only meetings authorizing large expenditures attracted 20 or more. (fn. 54) Offices such as that of churchwarden were from the late 18th century held for several years at a time by men such as John Dobede (I), a regular vestryman from the 1780s. From the 1810s, however, a strong party of dissenters, some politically Radical, led by Thomas Wilkin and the Maldens, opposed the Tory Anglicans who had long dominated parish affairs and the management of such institutions as the school and charities. (fn. 55) In the late 1820s one leading dissenter had successive poor rates quashed by querying the accuracy of the assessments. (fn. 56) In the mid 1830s the dispute resulted in a lawsuit for which the parish paid both sides' costs; over fifty ratepayers refused to pay up. (fn. 57) Both the approval of parish accounts and the level of rates (fn. 58) and decisions on road-building could be driven to votes, in which up to 135 ratepayers might take part. The Tories normally won them, though usually with a higher majority of votes than of actual voters, because they included more wealthy villagers with plural votes, some having 5-6 each. (fn. 59) Elections of surveyors were still contested in the 1890s, when 750-1,000 villagers voted in them. (fn. 60) By then the issues were probably more financial: the vestry proved persistently reluctant to pay for making up roads in the fen. (fn. 61) One section of the Soham-Ely road called Rosefield lane after the adjoining Rosefield was, under the award of 1666 for dividing the fen, to have the income from 3½ a. nearby used for its maintenance. That rent, from the 1830s £6 paid to the highway surveyors, (fn. 62) was so applied until the late 1890s, but from 1912 was devoted to general parish purposes. (fn. 63)
An association for prosecuting felons in Soham, Fordham, and neighbouring parishes, started by 1791, which still existed c. 1855, (fn. 64) had little effect against a gang of thieves based at Soham, who c. 1820 preyed on surrounding places, though mostly sparing their fellowvillagers. In 1821 several, including sons of small Soham farmers, were convicted and transported. (fn. 65) In the 1810s the vestry still relied for keeping order in the streets on the traditional constables, occasionally attacked while on duty. (fn. 66) By the 1840s it was also hiring two constables, often local tradesmen, to perform the actual duty. In that decade those paid constables were promised bonuses for inspecting public houses on week-end evenings, preventing noise and disorder after dark, and helping remove gipsies on any ratepayer's written instructions. (fn. 67) Such local constables continued to be paid into the 1890s. (fn. 68) The parish had a cage, a small brick, slated building off the market place, which still stood, though long unused, c. 1910. (fn. 69) Arrested men were still occasionally confined in it in 1850. Local worthies such as a doctor and an auctioneer, acting from 1847 as 'inspectors' under the Lighting and Watching Act, were then appointing other constables, partly to restrain incendiarism. The rival policemen, both patrolling the streets at night, were occasionally in conflict, sometimes violently. (fn. 70) By the early 1860s the village had a resident constable from the county police, based by 1871 off Red Lion Square, (fn. 71) where a police station had three officers from the early 1880s, including a sergeant. It was moved 1904 × 1908 to Pratt Street. (fn. 72) The parish council still appointed its own constable in the 1920s, to help when the regular police were called away as during Newmarket race meetings. (fn. 73) In the 1990s Soham still had a police station, rebuilt c. 1990 on Paddock Street. (fn. 74)
In 1655 John Tyler left the parish six fire buckets to add to two hoses already given. (fn. 75) In 1840 an additional fire engine was bought by subscription for the parish, which paid for building a house for it, and thereafter provided new hoses and buckets for both engines, and a third smaller one, from the rates. (fn. 76) Up to three fire engines were used to deal with fires from the 1840s, (fn. 77) being long worked by volunteers: there was still no organized fire brigade in 1878, but a uniformed one was established by 1881. (fn. 78) In the early 20th century Soham fire brigade was still controlled by the parish council. (fn. 79) The village still had a small fire station in the 1990s, standing as before north-west of the church. (fn. 80)
An epidemic of cholera in 1834 led to a local doctor being appointed parish surgeon at a £70 salary. (fn. 81) Another outbreak, which took over 60 lives in November 1853, churches and shops alike closing in alarm, was ascribed to polluted and stagnant water in the ditches along the streets. (fn. 82) In 1846 the vestry sought sites for wells to be sunk by subscription. (fn. 83) From 1866, when it decided to apply sanitary Acts, it dug wells and erected pumps to provide clean drinking water for outlying parts of the village. (fn. 84) From the 1890s the Newmarket union and its successor bodies regularly employed one or both of Soham's resident doctors as medical officers. (fn. 85) A waterworks with a substantial water tower was opened off the Fordham road, close to the southeastern boundary, in 1923. (fn. 86) A sewage works east of Soham Cotes, established in the 1950s, was enlarged to service the growing population c. 1980. (fn. 87)
From 1849 the central part of the main street was lighted with gas lamps supplied from the Soham gas works, paid for by special rates charged on residents there. (fn. 88) After 1900 the parish council began to extend that lighting, provided through annual contracts with the gas company, though only in winter, further north and south and onto side streets. (fn. 89)
At the first election in 1894 for the parish council, in which 550 people including many labourers took part, a proposal to share its membership equally between church and chapel parties was rejected. The dissenters, including their ministers, took several places on it, (fn. 90) although the vicar continued to chair it until the 1920s. (fn. 91) Initially the council devoted considerable effort to obtaining allotments, procuring much land for that purpose and letting it to over 60 people by 1898; (fn. 92) in 1910 c. 20 a. of the 50 a. so used was rented from the parish charities under its influence. (fn. 93) About 1920 the council obtained 45 a. of the Weatheralls for the purpose. (fn. 94) Extensive allotments lay around the village outskirts in the mid 20th century. Although some of those nearer the centre were from the 1950s lost to housing and road-building, others survived further out, especially to the east. (fn. 95) Soham's 65 a. of allotments were still in demand in the 1970s and 1980s. (fn. 96) From c. 1904 until the main village streets were tarred. In 1914-15, the parish council had them watered by hired carts. (fn. 97) In the late 20th century that council, which styled itself a town council from 1983, (fn. 98) was heavily involved in the numerous decisions required by the growth of Soham. (fn. 99)
In the 1780s local justices had met at the White Lion, later the Fountain inn, in the surviving Justice room: it retains early 17th-century oak panelling and a late 16th-century fireplace rediscovered in 1880, dated 1583 and surmounted by the arms of Torel, in terracotta. (fn. 100) A county court which began to sit in 1847 at the Crown inn, (fn. 101) moved later that year to the Court House off the Market place, newly erected by the Soham Building Company. (fn. 102) A salaried lawyer, serving as judge, held frequent hearings there for civil suits arising in Soham itself, Fordham, Isleham, and Wicken, sometimes handling 40-50 cases at each sitting into the 1890s. (fn. 103) The court, whose threatened closure in 1886 caused much local concern, (fn. 104) remained in operation until the late 1910s. (fn. 105) Soham also served from the late 19th century as a local headquarters for such central government functions as tax-collection and registration. (fn. 106) From 1850 the Court House was also frequently styled the Town Hall. (fn. 107) It was used from the 1850s both to accommodate parish meetings (fn. 108) and as the headquarters of the vestry, which hired a room in it from 1864. (fn. 109) The parish council did the same until the Building Company sold the building in 1919. (fn. 110)