City of Ely: The French war period 1793-1815

Page 45

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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Two surveys made between 1793 and 1815 show the agrarian condition of the city. (fn. 1) Amid the fens which, in 1794, extended east of Ely for about a mile, the hamlets of Quaney, Thorney, Northney, and Stuntney formed a cultivated island, devoted equally to arable and pasture. To the north of the city lay about 1,200 acres of firstgrade pasture, including 'the beautiful villa of New Barns' (fn. 2) and stretching to the hamlet of Chettisham. In this region also were 2 open fields of arable and many inclosed acres, large and small, of very fruitful orchards and nurseries. West of the city was 1 open arable field; to the south were 2 more arable open fields and some 700 acres of inclosed pasture. The arable fields thus lay in 5 distinct parcels or 'shifts', constituting about 2,100 acres, cultivated on the old strip system and using a 5-course rotation. About 500 acres of common were reserved for turf-digging and the very profitable sedgegrowing. The rest of Ely's fenland was still often under water and 'miserable indeed'. Inclosure was strongly advocated by the surveyors.

By this date the ancient industries of coarse pottery and 'white Ely bricks' were important.

Two decades later Gooch deplored the conservatism of the arable farmers. Open-field cultivation still perpetuated a rotation 'foreign to every idea of modern farming'. (fn. 3) In contrast, the inclosed lands of Thorney attained perfection. In and around Ely a good deal of hemp was still grown, a profitable but exhausting crop. The New Barns estate had only recently ceased to cultivate woad (fn. 4) on a large scale, a dye-crop which had replaced the saffron-growing of earlier days. High tribute was paid to market-gardeners, both large and small. Turnpike roads were excellent, but other roads were still deplorably bad.

Despite the urgent pressure of the age, expense and clashing interests held up general inclosure of the open fields for yet a generation.

The abnormally high prices commanded by agricultural producers during the war gave good profits even without inclosure, for the wages bill lagged progressively behind. Population was growing rapidly and widespread distress of the labouring classes confronted both vestries and feoffees. The Ely authorities upheld the view expressed by the Revd. Dr. James Nasmith, Chairman of Quarter Sessions, when charging the grand jury in 1799, (fn. 5) that 'reception into the workhouse should not hastily be thought of': they had never favoured it as the best policy for the aged or temporarily sick. Nevertheless the workhouse changed its name to the 'Poor House' during these difficult years. Nasmith's novel dictum that parish surgeons should prescribe diet as well as drugs met with sincere approval: bread, dairy produce, and fuel were more generously provided than in most places, but distress was severe in the nearfamine years. Nasmith's comments on the improving standard of living of the poor, during the decades immediately preceding the war, should be noted in conjunction with the rise in population. He did not share Bentham's fear of undue pampering.

In view of the manifest sensitiveness to suffering, it is strange to note the apathy respecting the state of affairs in both the bishop's jail and the Ely House of Correction. Some little had been done between Howard's visits in 1774-6 and Nield's in 1812, but conditions were still a terrible indictment of the private ownership of prisons. (fn. 6)


  • 1. Two reports made to the Board of Agric.: C. Vancouver, Gen. View of the Agric. of the County of Cambs. (1794); W. Gooch, same title (1811 and 1813).
  • 2. Vancouver, op. cit., 138-40.
  • 3. Gooch, Gen. View of the Agric. of . . . Cambs. 98 et seq.
  • 4. '100 hands have been at work at once; and 24 horses employed' (ibid., 172).
  • 5. Duties of Overseers of the Poor, a Charge delivered to the Grand Jury, at the General Quarter Sessions for the Isle of Ely (1799).
  • 6. See V.C.H. Cambs. ii, 108-10, and above, p. 31.