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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Wilburton lies on the southern border of the Isle, 6½ miles south-west from Ely. The village, which extends along the important cross-country road from Earith Bridge to Stretham, is rather small, but more substantial in appearance than most isle villages. It is still as true as it was a hundred years ago that the village 'is very neat and contains some excellent houses'. (fn. 1) Among the more noteworthy of these houses are the Burystead (the former manor house), the post office, one of the few surviving half-timbered houses in this part of the country, and Victoria Place, a substantial row of cottages. In the Pell family Wilburton is fortunate in having had for more than a century a succession of resident lords of the manor, many of whom have been keenly interested in agricultural and social questions. As at Haddenham there are many market-gardens and orchards, producing an attractive wooded appearance. Minor roads lead north and south from the village to Wentworth and to Witchford and to Cottenham via Twenty Pence Bridge, which, some 2½ miles downstream from the former Aldreth High Bridge, has to some extent supplanted it. There is a railway station, since 1931 open for goods traffic only, on the Ely- Sutton branch (1866) of the former L.N.E.R. St. Peter's Hall, a village assembly room, was built by O. C. Pell in 1891. It contains panelling formerly in Stretham Church. (fn. 2)
An area of 807 acres in Wilburton was inclosed under the general Act of 1845, the award being made in 1855. At that date there were six open fields in the parish: Little (north-west of the village), Flexon (north-east), Mill (east), Towns End (south-east), Dog House (south-west), and New Ditch (on the southern edge of the parish). In all sixty-five proprietors participated in the award, but over half of the inclosed land went to the Pell and Camps families. Lady Pell received 203½ acres, 2½ as lady of the manor, 131 as a freeholder and 70 as lessee of the Archdeacon of Ely. Four members of the Camps family-Edward, Read Tansley, Sarah, and William-accounted for 262½ acres between them. The only other allottees on a large scale were Alexander Simson (70 acres) and William Martin senior (39 acres). Two acres were allotted for the poor, 1 for a public recreation ground and 1 for a sandpit to provide road-mending material, all on the east side of the road to Twenty Pence Bridge. (fn. 3)
The Burystead, about ½ mile to the east of the church, is a late Elizabethan house of brick erected about 1600. In plan it consists of a central block with north and south wings projecting towards the east and large stair turrets in the angles. The front of the house is on the east. At the back are four gables in a line, but the two in the centre are probably later additions. The house is now divided into two residences. The principal gables have moulded brick copings with finials at the springs and apex. There is a string-course of moulded brick dividing the two stories, which is carried over some of the windows to form a hood-mould. Most of the windows have modern wooden casements, but several have late 17th-century casements. There are massive brick chimney-stacks with octagonal tops in groups of two and three. The roofs are tiled. It seems probable that the central portion was originally the hall and open to the roof, and this would explain the two staircases, since the upper stories in the wings would be isolated completely from each other. There is spacious attic accommodation in the roofs. While the exterior has been but little altered the interior has undergone great changes and the original size and appearance of the rooms is difficult to visualize. Even the main entrance, though probably occupying approximately its original position, is now quite modern. Some chamfered beams are visible and one original fireplace of clunch is exposed, with conventional flowers carved in relief on the lintel. Some of the original oak floors remain, but they are covered with modern deal boarding. The brick garden walls and a barn, also of brick, are of 17th-century date.
The Burystead was replaced as the manor house of Wilburton by 'a very gentlemanlike brick house' by Alice (Towers), wife of Sir John Thompson and lady of the manor c. 1632-50. (fn. 4) Wilburton Manor was again rebuilt in 1851 to the designs of Pugin. (fn. 5)
The Grange, to the north-west of the church, is a timber-framed house with brick filling and tiled roofs. The ground stage is of old brick, while the filling in the upper stage is modern, replacing reed and clay. The south wall and gable are entirely of brick. The original house was L-shaped and must have been erected about 1500. A century later a wing was added to the east, making the plan roughly T-shaped, and a large chimneystack was inserted where the new addition joined the original work. This wing has an overhang in the upper story supported on brackets. In the ground-floor wing of the later wing the moulded uprights which supported the medieval front can be seen. The oak joists are exposed in the ceiling of this room and in the kitchen, which lies to the west in the original portion. There is a large open fireplace of early 17th-century date in the kitchen.
To the north of the church is Bell Gable House, a late 17th-century farmhouse of brick with curved gables and tiled roof. The windows and doorway are of later date, probably mid-18th century. The only internal feature of interest is a good staircase with turned balusters.
North-east of Wilburton parish, and amalgamated with it under the Isle of Ely Review Order of 1933, (fn. 6) lies the former extra-parochial tract of Grunty Fen- 1,793 acres of low-lying ground that was formerly common pasture for the inhabitants of Ely, Witchford, Wentworth, Haddenham, Wilburton, Stretham, and Thetford. (fn. 7) This area was inclosed in 1861 under the general Inclosure Act of 1845. Eight acres were sold for £240 to defray costs, 24 acres were allotted as recreation gounds, and 249 allotted to the poor of the adjacent parishes. The several lords of the manors received 22½ acres. The remainder, in 670 pieces, was divided amongst the 396 persons or corporations who had held common rights in the Fen. The existing road system was fenced and stabilized at this time. (fn. 8)
Five hides in WILBURTON were among the benefactions of Ethelwold and Brithnoth to the church of Ely. (fn. 9) In 1086 they contained 7 plough-lands, 3 of which, assessed at 3 hides 1 virgate, were in demesne. There were 4 soke men (not mentioned in the Inquisitio Eliensis) bound to the land, 9 villeins, 9 cottars, and 8 serfs, and there was sufficient meadow and pasture for all the ploughteams and cattle. The sum of 1s. 4d. was received from the sale of reeds (Juncis). The vill had been worth £4 when received, £10 T.R.E. and £7 only in 1086. It was and had always been part of the demesne of the church of Ely. (fn. 10)
Like its neighbours Haddenham and Stretham on the southern rim of the Isle, Wilburton was allotted to the bishops of Ely in 1109. In 1221 the demesne, in the three fields of Estfeld, Sudfeld, and Oswenhoue, amounted to 246½ acres, with 40 acres of meadow, 10 for hay. (fn. 11) The survey of 1251 (fn. 12) shows a rather larger demesne of 276 acres, rated at 2 carucates: Oswenhoue was now merged in a larger field known as Northfeld cum pertinenciis. The meadow, in five pieces known as 'Brok,' 'Springuuelle', 'Lytlemed', 'Radeys' and 'le Hee', was about the same (38 a. 3 r.). The demesne was stocked with a bull and 10 cows, a boar and 16 pigs, and 200 sheep. The human population consisted of 9 hundredarii and free tenants, 21 customaries and virgaters and 11 cottars; they paid 31s. in rents, including 'witep" and 'seggeselver'.
The gross income from this manor during the episcopal vacancies of 1286, 1298-9, 1302, and 1316 was £8 6s. 8d., £9 18s. 9d., £10 3s. 4d., and £11 14s. 7d. respectively. (fn. 13) No specially interesting items of revenue are recorded. The two later accounts record the commutation of 834 (1302) and 423 (1316) 'works'. It is noteworthy that no mill is mentioned. The general upward trend in value shown by these accounts was in Wilburton as elsewhere reversed during the next generation, and the survey made in 1356, (fn. 14) during Bishop Lisle's troubled episcopate, shows a gloomy picture. The manor house was ruinous and of no value, and the demesne, producing £3 11s. 2d., had shrunk to 214 acres. Twenty acres were worthless owing to floods, as were 8 acres of meadow: the unflooded meadow, of which there was also 8 acres, brought in 8s. The stock and other movables were worth £20 9s. 5d. 'Seggesilver' (8s. 6d.) and 'wychselver' (1s. 6d.), mentioned amongst the rents, recall the payments of 1251. The rents totalled £2 11s. 6d. There were no fisheries, Wilburton being on the landward side of the Isle, and again no mill. During the latter part of the 14th century conditions seem to have improved; fifteen accounts of the reign of Richard II show an average net profit of about £37. (fn. 15)
A long series of court and account rolls of the 14th and 15th centuries, in possession of the Pell family as lords of the manor at the end of last century, was examined by Maitland. (fn. 16) They show the extreme conservatism that prevailed in a manor held by an absentee ecclesiastical lord. Money commutation of services had hardly begun before about 1350, and was not completed for another two generations. In or about 1426 the demesne, consisting 246 acres of arable and 42 of meadow, was let for £8 a year to one of the customary tenants, then acting as reeve. This rent remained constant up to the alienation of the manor in 1600, but the rent charged to the customary or copyhold tenants gradually sank. In the early 15th century it had been 1s. an acre with the messuage thrown in, i.e. £1 4s. for a full virgate, and brought in about £22 a year; by the beginning of the 16th century, when some of the demesne was let to the customaries at £1 6s. 10d. a year, the gross rental had become fixed at £1716s. 1d. The manor as a whole brought in between £25 and £30 a year. The profit gradually decreased at first, but at the end of the 16th century it remained fairly constant at about £29. (fn. 17)
Wilburton was left in Crown hands rather longer than the other manors alienated by Bishop Heton. (fn. 18) In 1609 it was granted in socage to Sir John Jolles, alderman of London, who paid the large sum of £1,261 18s. 4d.-about thirty-eight years' purchase at its then value. (fn. 19) Jolles, who died in 1621, also possessed the neighbouring manor of Hinton in Haddenham. By a settlement of 1616 he bequeathed Wilburton to his nephew Danett Poyntell, with remainder to his niece Alice Towers and her sons and daughters living at her decease. Poyntell was 59 years of age at Jolles's death. (fn. 20) Some litigation seems to have resulted from Jolles's settlement, as his nephew did not obtain livery of the manor until 1624. (fn. 21) He must have died soon after, for in 1650 we find Alice Towers, now the wife of Sir John Thompson, bt., of Husborne Crawley (Beds.), involved with her husband in a lawsuit against a tenant, William Patrick. (fn. 22) It was stated that the manor was settled on her for life in 1632. (fn. 23) Some time before 1656 Francis Towers her son sold the manor to Haynes Barlee of Clavering (Essex) for £1,000. (fn. 24) This family remained in possession for over a century until in 1778 the manor was passed by Charles Barlee to Catherine Buckle, (fn. 25) who was lady of the manor at the time that Lysons wrote (1808). (fn. 26) She in turn passed it to Sir Albert Pell in 1817, (fn. 27) in whose family the manor has since remained. Sir Albert died in 1832, and his relict the Hon. Lady Margaret Letitia Matilda Pell held it in dower until her death in 1868. (fn. 28) In 1900 Sir Albert's two surviving sons were joint lords. Albert Pell the elder, a noted agriculturalist and authority on the poor law, (fn. 29) died in 1907 and was succeeded by his nephew Albert Julian, who had been acting as steward. Oliver Claude Pell, the third of Sir Albert's sons, was chairman of the Isle of Ely County Council from 1889 until his death in 1891. On the death of Albert Julian Pell in 1916 his nephew, Beauchamp Stewart Pell, succeeded. (fn. 30)
The church was appropriated (annexata) to the archdeaconry of Ely before 1291, when it was valued at £14 13s. 4d. (fn. 31) Earlier valuations had been £10 (1217) and £13 6s. 8d. (1254). (fn. 32) No vicarage was ever ordained. In 1851 the perpetual curate received a stipend of £68 only and was obliged to augment his income by acting as headmaster of Huntingdon Grammar School. (fn. 33) With effect from 1864 his stipend was increased by £55 out of the Common Fund (fn. 34) and in 1874 by a further £71. (fn. 35)
In 1870, £1,400 was granted out of the Common Fund for the erection of a vicarage house. (fn. 36) A further £100 was granted in 1871. (fn. 37)
The rectorial tithes were from time to time leased by the archdeacons; to Sir Miles Sandys in 1608 for the lives of himself and his three sons at £24 yearly, (fn. 38) and later to the Malabar and Pell families. They were commuted in 1844 for a rent charge of £570 (fn. 39) and transferred to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1865. (fn. 40)
There was a guild of Our Lady in Wilburton in 1534. Its hall was sold in 1572 to Richard Hill and his heirs. (fn. 41) An acre of land held by John Tyllynghame, given to anniversaries in the church, was in 1553 sold to Sir John Butler and Thomas Chaworthe. (fn. 42)
The church of ST. PETER consists of chancel, north vestry and organ chamber, nave, north chapel, south porch, and west tower. The material is rubble and Barnack stone, partly plastered, and the roofs are covered with lead. The chancel arch and the tower are of the 13th century. There was an extensive rebuilding in the second half of the 15th century, and the chancel, vestry, nave, and porch are of this period. The organ chamber and north chapel were added in the second half of the 19th century.
The chancel has a large east window of five cinquefoiled main lights with small trefoiled lights above and a four-centred arch with an external hood-moulding terminating in heads. There are diagonal buttresses with two set-offs. The lateral windows, which are all of uniform design, are inserted under lofty blind arches with moulded caps and bases; they are of three cinquefoiled lights with rectilinear tracery and hood-moulds; the easternmost on both sides is curtailed to accommodate a doorway and the westernmost on the north now looks into the organ chamber. There is a string-course beneath the windows. The south doorway has continuous mouldings and a hood-mould. There is a coped parapet with gargoyles, and the uniform lateral buttresses have two set-offs. The chancel arch is of the 13th century and has deep mouldings and responds consisting of clustered shafts with moulded caps and bases. Internally there is a canopied niche on either side of the east window, in the angles, each with a shield, that on the north having the arms of Alcock, Bishop of Ely and lord of the manor, 1486-1500. A stone bench serves as a sedile. The doorway communicating with the vestry has continuous mouldings, and there is a good contemporary door with applied tracery. The vestry has a plain rectangular east window without a mullion; there is also a small rectangular opening through the north-east buttress of the chancel, and in the north wall is a small two-light window under a square head. There is an aumbry in the east wall. The organ chamber has a modern two-light window in the north wall and a diagonal buttress with two set-offs; it communicates with the nave by a plain modern doorway and modern two-light window above. It has a plain coped parapet.
The nave has three windows on the south and three on the north, all uniform with those in the lateral walls of the chancel; the westernmost on the north is curtailed to accommodate a doorway, which has mouldings dying into the chamfered responds and an external hood-mould. All the tracery has been renewed. The transeptal north chapel opens to the nave by a modern arch of 15th-century character with clustered responds having moulded caps and bases. It has a 15th-century north window of three lights moved out from the north wall of the nave when the arch was made. There is a string-course beneath the windows of the nave and lateral buttresses with two set-offs, all uniform in design. There is a coped parapet with gargoyles. The 13th-century tower arch is two-centred and of two orders, the outer with continuous mouldings and the inner springing from shafts with moulded caps and bases. A portion of rough walling in the north-west angle of the nave and tower is probably a relic of the earlier church.
The porch has an outer doorway with a two-centred arch of two orders, the outer dying into the chamfered jambs and the inner springing from semi-octagonal shafts with embattled caps and moulded bases. Above is a cinquefoil-headed niche under a square label terminating in demi-figures. The inner doorway has an arch of two orders, which die into the chamfered jambs. There is a parvise above, which is approached from the tower stair turret; it has a two-light cinquefoiled window on the east and west under a square label, the former being now blocked. An early 13th-century shaft with carved caps and moulded base, and part of another cap, are preserved in the porch.
The tower is of three stages and dates from the middle of the 13th century. There are angle buttresses with two set-offs reaching to the top of the first stage, while the second stage has clamped buttresses rising from the string-course. The tower was refashioned in the second half of the 15th century. The west doorway has an arch of two orders with mouldings dying into the chamfered jambs and a hood terminating in heads. The west window is of three lights similar to those in the nave, with a hood terminating in heads. There is a blocked rectangular opening in the north and south walls with a slightly pointed inner arch. The second stage has a rectangular opening on the south. The belfry windows consist of two plain lancets under a plain containing arch. There is an embattled parapet and a small leaded spire, and a hexagonal stair turret to the belfry at the south-east corner with an embattled parapet.
The chancel has a cambered beam roof with wall posts resting on embattled stone corbels; the principals, purlins and intermediates are moulded and the intermediates have demi-angels at the feet holding shields. The vestry has a plain lean-to roof. The nave has a very fine cambered beam roof, almost flat, with wall posts and braces with pierced spandrels rising from wooden corbels, which consist of demi-figures, crowned and holding shields; the principals, purlins, intermediates, and wall plates are moulded and there is vertical boarding between the rafters; there are large bosses at the intersection of the principals and ridge purlins with the arms of Alcock, and cocks standing on globes are carved in the spandrels; the principals have a delicate cresting and a cock on a globe in carved wood is suspended from one of them. The porch roof is of cambered beam construction with wall posts and embattled wall plate; there is modern deal boarding but no rafters. The tower ceiling retains some plain old timbers. The roofs of the organ chamber and chapel are modern and plain.
The font is modern. The chancel screen of arched type is of six bays, the two in the centre being occupied by the doorway. The uprights are buttressed and terminate in shafts with embattled caps; the main openings have feathered cusping and tracery above, at the apex of the doorway is a demi-angel with three cocks on each side, all much renewed; the middle rail is moulded and the wainscot has tracery with carved spandrels; the base beam and the vaulting are modern, but part of the cornice on the east side is original. The altar rails are of early 18th-century date with turned balusters. There are four poupée heads in the chancel of 15th-century date. On the north wall of the nave are remains of 15th-century paintings, which represent St. Christopher, St. Blaise, and St. Leger. The two latter are fairly distinct but very little now remains of the St. Christopher, and all three have greatly deteriorated since their discovery in 1851. A portion of 17th-century panelling from Stretham church is fixed to the west wall of the nave.
Three panels of an altar tomb are now fixed against the north wall of the sanctuary; they have sunk quatrefoils in diamond-shaped frames enclosing shields, to which were formerly attached metal shields. The following brasses remain: (1) Richard Bole, Archdeacon of Ely, 1477, an effigy in a cope under a mutilated canopy, with a marginal inscription; this brass is attached to its matrix but the latter is now fixed to the north wall of the chancel; it is probable that originally it formed part of the above-mentioned altar tomb; (2) John Hyll and Margaret his wife, 1506, with five sons and two daughters beneath, and the Evangelistic symbols at the corners of the matrix; (3) William Byrd and Margaret his wife, 1516, with three sons and five daughters beneath. Both these brasses are now on the east wall of the nave to the south of the chancel arch. (4) Inscription to Robert Wetheringset, Archdeacon of Ely, 1444, now fixed to the south wall of the sanctuary.
The plate includes a Communion cup with cover of silver, 1569, inscribed 'For the Towne of Wilberton', a paten of silver, 1724, and a flagon of silver, 1714.
The tower contains five bells: 1st by Miles Graye III, 1651, 2nd and 5th by John Taylor of Loughborough, 1850, 3rd, no inscription, 4th, 1661 (probably by Christopher or Miles Graye). The original 2nd was by Charles Newman of Lynn, 1695, the original 5th (? by one of the Grayes) was the gift of Thomas Towers, 1661. They were re-cast at the expense of Margaret Letitia Matilda, Dame Pell. (fn. 43)
The registers begin in 1735 and are complete.
At the end of the 18th century prayer meetings were being conducted in Wilburton by Oliver Houlet. In 1802 a room was hired in Mr. Camps's house and converted into a chapel. From 1808 a Mr. Langford was pastor. A regular society of about 20 members, with a congregation of 100 on Sundays, existed about 1820. (fn. 44) This chapel and congregation may have been the Baptist chapel mentioned in 1831, (fn. 45) which was rebuilt in 1845 (fn. 46) and still exists. In 1851 there was a larger average attendance at chapel than at church, though fewer Sunday scholars. (fn. 47)
Bishop Yorke's inquirers found no school in Wilburton in 1789. (fn. 48) In 1846-7 there was a Sunday school for children of all ages, and infants' school opened in 1839, and a 'School of Industry' for girls, open during the six winter months. Apart from parents' fees of 1d. a week, these schools were supported by Lady Pell, who had endowed them with 15 acres of land producing £30 a year and by the Archdeacon of Ely as rector and impropriator. At that time 188 children were being taught (rather more than half on Sundays only), and a master and two mistresses were employed at salaries amounting to £36 15s. (fn. 49)
In 1855 the infants' school, which held 35, was enlarged to provide 90 places for children of all ages. The total cost was £687. Towards this sum the National Society granted £30 and £471 was raised locally. (fn. 50) The school was usually full or nearly so, and to avoid overcrowding after the new scale of accommodation of 1910 had been imposed, an extra classroom was added. Thus 111 places were provided. The children aged 13 and over were transferred to the Cromwell School, Chatteris (q.v.), in 1948-9. (fn. 51)
Thomas Buck, by his will proved 1566, left a rent charge of 40s. to be paid through the Cutlers' Company, of London, of which he had been warden, to the poor of Wilburton, with preference to persons called Buck. In 1692 Haynes Barlee, lord of the manor, bequeathed a messuage at Berden (Essex) to the use of the poor of six parishes, including Wilburton. The revenue, £10 yearly in 1837, was paid in rotation to the various parishes; Wilburton's latest turn had been in 1834, when it was used for premiums for three apprentices.
In 1714 Anne Wade left lands in Low Fen, the rents of which, subject to a life interest of her old servant Nathaniel Champions, were to be devoted to putting children to school. The land seems never to have come into possession of the parish, and was not identifiable in 1837.
In 1837 the Town Lands consisted of 24 acres in Wilburton, Haddenham, and Stretham, 15 acres being copyhold of the manor of Wilburton and paying 10d. ground rent, and two tenements in Town Yard inhabited rent free by labourers and their families. The rents of the Town Lands, then amounting to £29 6s., had customarily been given indiscriminately to about 100 poor persons in sums of 1s. to 3s. It was ordered that in future they were to be used for the education of poor children. The books were kept 'in a slovenly and careless manner', and the treasurer owed £46 to the charities. (fn. 52)