South Witchford Hundred: Witchford

Pages 176-179

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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Witchford is a small and rather narrow parish near the centre of the Isle proper. 'The Town stands on a plesant Hill att 3 miles west of Ely,' (fn. 1) and the road between the two places crosses some of the highest ground in the Isle (about 80 ft. above sea-level), commanding fine views over the southern extremity of the Fens to the Suffolk hills beyond Newmarket. Witchford is at present one of the smaller villages in the county but was formerly of greater importance; Domesday Book refers to the two hundreds of Ely which meet at Wiceford, (fn. 2) and the name 'Witchford Hundred' is found from 1128. (fn. 3) North Witchford is still the name of one of the rural districts, and the village is one of the few in Ely Rural District which have increased in population since 1931. (fn. 4) The soil and subsoil are both clay, so that there is more permanent pasture around Witchford than in the low lands, but as at Downham there are some orchards,5 which take advantage of the south-easterly slopes. The village straggles along the main road (A 142) from Ely to Chatteris and St. Ives. It contains no buildings of special architectural interest, though Ivy House and the farm at the east end of the village date from the 17th century. The general appearance is neat even if of no special distinction, but a hundred years ago Witchford 'in point of filth would bear comparison with the worst place in any part of the kingdom', with an open drain all along the main street. (fn. 6) At the eastern end of the village a by-road runs southwards across Grunty Fen to the Ely-Cambridge road near Stretham. An R.A.F. aerodrome was established at Witchford during the Second World War. The landing ground was on the plateau east of the village, in Ely; part of the buildings, on the north side of the village, have been converted into a Youth Hostel. An exchange of territory with Ely under the Isle of Ely Review Order, 1933, (fn. 7) resulted in a net gain to Witchford of 162 acres and 3 persons.

The proportion of land dealt with by inclosure awards in Witchford was 1,087 acres or about 50 per cent. of the total area of the parish, a proportion distinctly higher than anywhere else in the Isle except Stretham, Thetford, Wentworth, and Witcham. There were two Witchford awards. The first, made in 1813 under an Act of Parliament of 1806, (fn. 8) divided 460½ acres amongst 18 proprietors, the chief beneficiaries being Thomas Moxon (76 acres), Charles Cross senior (53 acres), John Cropley (52 acres in his own right and 32 as lessee under the Dean and Chapter of Ely), Clement Hitch (42 acres), Edward Cropley (38 acres), and Clare College (28 acres). Most of these families and institutions figure prominently in the second award of 1840, (fn. 9) which divided 626½ acres amongst 30 claimants. This time Clare College received the largest allotment (110 acres), George Cropley (95¼ acres in his own right and 74 with Luke Dench as devisee under the will of Clement Hitch) and Christopher Pemberton (79¾ acres) also taking large shares. The dean and chapter had by this time parted with most of their land and received only 1¼ acre; 8½ acres were awarded to the vicar as glebe. The open fields of Witchford numbered four-Belham's End and Marrow Way Fields north and north-west respectively of the village, Hale Field south-west, and Briery Field west of this latter on the Wentworth border. The 'built-up' area along the village street almost completely severs the farm lands.

Thurstan, the last Saxon Abbot of Ely (d. 1072), was a native of Witchford. (fn. 10) Samuel Bentham, father of James Bentham the historian of Ely, was Vicar of Witchford at the time of his son's birth (1708). (fn. 11)


An area of 300 acres in WITCHFORD and Wold was amongst the endowments of Ethelwold and Abbot Brithnoth when they revived Ely monastery after the Danish invasions. (fn. 12) This estate was worth £8 when received, £12 in 1066, and £10 in 1086. The fall in value was no doubt due to the devastation caused by Hereward's exploits. It was rated at 3 hide or 7 ploughlands. The demesne was rated at 1½ hide and consisted of 2 or possibly 3 ploughlands. There were 5 sokemen with ½ hide who could not depart from the land, 17 villeins each with 7 acres, 7 cottars, and 8 serfs. There was meadow for 7 ploughs and pasture for all the cattle of the vill. Witchford had always formed part of the demesne of the church of Ely. (fn. 13) Its population and hidage as recorded in 1086 exceeded those of some places in the Isle now of greater importance.

Like most of the manors in the immediate neighbourhood of Ely, Witchford remained with the convent when the see was founded, and its subsequent history is uneventful. The prior acquired the right of free warren in 1252, (fn. 14) which was confirmed at a general definition of the episcopal and monastic rights in 1418. (fn. 15) The valuation of the Taxatio (£52 16s. 6½d.) (fn. 16) is much higher than any subsequently encountered, and higher than that of the monastic property in Ely itself. Perhaps the compilers of the Taxatio included in Witchford that tract of land west of Ely, which includes Emery Barn and Keten's manors. In 1324-5 the convent's receipts from Witchford amounted to £24 11s. 5d. only, and its expenditure to £24 19s. 10½d. (fn. 17) There was then a valuable mill, farmed at £4 8s. 11d.; the profits of the court leet came to £3 2s. 9d. There was a thriving trade in wool and fells; 108 fells were sold to John de Whatefeld and 53 to Bernard de Bradefeld, two East Anglian merchants who frequently occur in Ely rolls at this time. The demesne was of 4 carucates. (fn. 18)

Various small gifts of property in Witchford were made to the prior and convent during the 14th century, (fn. 19) but the manor seldom brought in much more than £10 a year in the 15th century (fn. 20) and the valuation of 1527-8 (£19 1s. 10d.) ranked Witchford as one of the less valuable of the monastic manors. (fn. 21) Another valuation of 1541, however, records net profits of £36 9s. 1d., excluding the rectory. (fn. 22) In the same year the manor, whereof the rents of assize were appropriated to the custos capelle, (fn. 23) was formally transferred to the newly constituted Dean and Chapter of Ely. (fn. 24) This grant was confirmed in 1587. (fn. 25)

In 1650 the manor was sequestered to William Underwood and to Henry Whiston of London. It was then valued at £141 9s. 11½d. a year gross and the grantees paid £2,425 9s. 6d. for it. (fn. 26) In a survey made in 1649 the manor was said to comprise 245 acres held in demesne valued at £18 5s. and 224½ acres of rented land valued at £128 3s. 8d. The meadow land, which was rented, amounted to 100 acres. It had been let by the dean and chapter for £72 yearly and by the sequestrators for £100. Rents of assize were valued at £13 2s. 9d. and timber at £21 3s. 4d. (fn. 27)

A good deal of private inclosure had by this time been carried out. Various closes are mentioned in the deed of sale of 1650. Such are Dean's, Archdeacon's (north of Grunty Fen), Mr. Boys's close now belonging to Archdeacon Wigmore, a close occupied by George Coney in Alderforth and West Fen, Dr. Collins's, Dr. Cannon's, Dr. Tanner's, Dr. Cressener's, Dr. Knight's, Dr. Perkins's, Dr. Davies's, Dr. Ashton's, Mr. Rogers's or Beele's Close, Thistle Close, Dr. Goodridge's, and Mr. Buckeridge's. The names suggest considerable investment by cathedral dignitaries and their families in landed property in Witchford during the previous century. (fn. 28) The dean and chapter, as lords of the manor, had recently received 40 acres in Alderforth in the Vermuyden draining of the fens. (fn. 29)

At the Restoration the manor was returned to the dean and chapter, who, with their successors the Church Commissioners, have continued to be lords. (fn. 30) In the early 18th century the tenant was Sir Roger Jenyns. He was succeeded in 1725 by Soame Jenyns who paid in rent £31 10s. a year together with a brawn valued at £1 6s. 8d. He was also required to meet the expenses of an annual court dinner given to the dean and chapter and their officials. (fn. 31)

WOLD, which in Bentham's time survived only as 'some arable and pasture lands near Witchford', (fn. 32) and is now completely lost, was of some importance in the Middle Ages. In 1299 William Berewyk de Todeham and his daughter Alice, Ela relict of Simon de Insula and John and Agatha (le Despencer) his son and granddaughter were accused of ejecting John Deen and Amice (de Insula) his wife from property in Wold and Haddenham, which was settled by Simon de Insula on Amice on her marriage to John Deen. (fn. 33) The plaintiffs described Wold as a 'manor', but the phrase was not used in documents which they submitted in evidence. The suit was decided in favour of the plaintiffs, and in 1302-3 William de Todeham and his coparceners held a knight's fee in Wold, Sutton, and Chatteris of the Bishop of Ely for 40s. In 1346 this fee was shared between William de Ruston, the Prior of Ely, and John de Deen. The prior alone was in possession in 1428. (fn. 34) Wold was still a separate estate in 1649, when it comprised 120 acres (41 in pasture). About 1730 the tenant was Henry Stevens at £2 yearly. (fn. 35)


Between 1219 and 1224 Bishop de Fontibus granted the church to the prior and convent and ordained a vicarage of 5 marks value, (fn. 36) Pope Honorius III confirming the grant in the latter year. (fn. 37) The vicarage was not actually instituted until after 1291, when the church, described simply as an ecclesia, was worth £10; (fn. 38) earlier valuations had been £10 13s. 4d. in 1217 and £10 in 1254. (fn. 39) In 1535 the vicarage was rated at £9 18s. 9d., the rectory, which was appropriated to the hosteller, being returned with the spiritualities of the convent. (fn. 40) In 1541 the rectory was let to Thomas Rayne for £3 yearly. (fn. 41) In 1562 a pension of 19s. 10½d. was paid to the Bishop of Ely, as a tenth of the value of the vicarage. (fn. 42) The prior and convent, and since the Reformation the dean and chapter, have always been the patrons, though they have occasionally made grants of a turn, as in 1616 to Dr. Andrew Willett, prebendary of Ely and a wellknown divine and controversialist. (fn. 43)

The rectorial and vicarial tithes were commuted for rent charges of £430 and £140, with 24 and 20 acres of glebe respectively, in 1839. (fn. 44)

The church of ST. ANDREW consists of chancel, nave, north porch, and west tower. The material is rubble and brick with stone dressings, and the roofs are tiled. The tower is of the 13th century arid is the survival of an earlier church. In the third quarter of the 14th century the nave and chancel were rebuilt on an extended scale. The reconstructed building was consecrated in 1376. (fn. 45) In the 15th century the present porch was added. There were considerable repairs in the first half of the 19th century, which included the reconstruction of the porch and the partial rebuilding of the top stage of the tower. Later in the century there was much 'restoration' of the interior, with unhappy results.

The chancel has an east window of three lights with rather elaborate tracery of 14th-century date, the mullions of which have been much renewed. There are angle buttresses with one set-off and a similar buttress in the centre of the north and south walls. In the north wall there is a window of two cinquefoilheaded lights with a quatrefoil above. There are two windows of two trefoil-headed lights with a quatrefoil above in the south wall and to the west of these a low side window with cinquefoiled head. There is a piscina in a cinquefoil-headed recess in the usual position and a double aumbry in the north wall of the sanctuary. The chancel arch is two-centred and of two orders with moulded caps and bases to the rounded responds. On either side of the arch in the east wall of the nave is a cinquefoil-headed niche.

The present nave is considerably wider than the tower, and the junction of the lateral walls with the latter is effected rather clumsily by means of a short section of slanting wall on either side, probably done with the object of economizing in quoins. The southeast window is of three lights with rather clumsy tracery of 14th-century date. The remaining two windows on this side and the three in the north wall are all similar and consist of two trefoil-headed lights with a quatrefoil above. Beneath the north-east window is a double aumbry. In the slanting curtain walls at the west end are two large and clumsy lancets of 19thcentury date. (fn. 46) The south doorway is plain 14thcentury work with continuous chamfers and hoodmould. The east gable of the nave has been rebuilt in brick, and the south buttresses have been repaired in brick. The large porch is of 15th-century origin, but the side walls and much of the front were rebuilt in brick in 1838, which date appears over the outer doorway. There is a stone seat along the east and west walls. The outer doorway is original and is of two orders with semi-octagonal responds having moulded caps and bases; there is a hood-mould terminating in heads. The inner doorway is of the 14th century with mouldings dying into the chamfered jambs.

Plan of St. Andrew's Church

The tower is of three stages. It opens to the nave by a low arch turned in brick, which is of uncertain date. The west window of the ground stage consists of coupled lancets, which have been renewed. There is no west door, but a small brick buttress, probably of the 16th century, is placed beneath the west window. In the second stage there is a plain lancet in the north and south walls. The west face of the top stage has been rebuilt in brick. The belfry windows consist of coupled lancets. The embattled parapet is a 19thcentury restoration in brick. There is a gable cross built into the east face of the tower. The nave roof is ancient and of braced rafter construction, and has been much patched at various times; the chancel has a modern braced rafter roof and the porch a plastered ceiling.

The 14th-century font has a plain octagonal bowl with a round shaft and base. The rest of the fittings are modern and poor.

The plate includes a silver chalice and paten of 1694-5.

The tower contains three bells by Christopher Graye, 1671, probably cast at Haddenham.

The registers of baptisms begin in 1788, marriages in 1754, and burials in 1788, and are complete.


There were no Papists or Dissenters in Witchford in 1676. (fn. 47) A Primitive Methodist chapel was established in 1846 and one for Wesleyan Methodists in 1849. (fn. 48) The Wesleyan chapel ceased to be used about 1880; the Primitive Methodist chapel before the end of the century. (fn. 49) A Baptist chapel was founded in 1871; the existing building was erected four years later on land presented by James Cropley. (fn. 50)


In 1789 there was a small dame school in Witchford. The older boys went to Ely for their schooling, if they received any. (fn. 51)

By the time the National Society made their inquiry (1846-7) Witchford had become one of the bestprovided villages in the Isle. About 100 children, in a population of 561, were said to be attending school both weekdays and Sundays. The cost of running the school amounted to £30, of which the master received £20 a year in salary. (fn. 52) In 1851 the numbers attending were stated to be 74 on weekdays and 100 on Sundays, but the existing room could properly contain only about half that number. The parents were charged 1d. a week for each child, or 1s. a quarter; farmers were charged extra. The school seems to have been con ducted in hired premises, but in 1851 a site for a new building was given by Christopher Pemberton, of Cambridge, one of the local landowners; the National Society contributed £30 towards the building costs and the Dean and Chapter of Ely, lords of the manor, £15. The total cost, £164, was unusually low, since it was possible to use a converted cottage as master's house. The addition of an infant's classroom in 1869 brought the accommodation up to 129. The following year a new master's house was built at a cost of £204, of which the National Society contributed £12. (fn. 53) In 1910 the recognized accommodation was reduced to 106 (61 mixed, 45 infants), but the average attendance has never in recent times been as much even as the lower figure; it was 53 in 1899, (fn. 54) 69 in 1919, and 61 in 1938. Wentworth school was closed in 1922 and the children transferred to Witchford. Since the Second World War the school has been 'decapitated' by the removal of the older children to Ely, (fn. 55) but by 1951 the numbers had risen to 73. (fn. 56)


  • 1. B.M. Add. MS. 5820, f. 83.
  • 2. V.C.H. Cambs. i, 367.
  • 3. P. N. Cambs. (E.P.N.S.), 229, quoting Red Bk. of Thorney.
  • 4. Witchford, Littleport, Mepal, and Wilburton have increased, Stretham, Sutton, and Witcham remained stationary, and Coveney, Downham, Haddenham, and Wentworth decreased (Infm. Isle of Ely County Planning Officer). These were noted as a feature of the village in 1851 (Gardner, Dir. Cambs. 512).
  • 6. Camb. Chron., 5 Oct. 1850. At this date 37 persons in Witchford were living in 5 houses of 2 rooms only.
  • 7. M. of H., no. 76940.
  • 8. 46 Geo. III, c. vi. The award is at County Hall, March.
  • 9. K.B. 122/1341, m. 3100.
  • 10. V.C.H. Cambs. ii, 201.
  • 11. D.N.B.
  • 12. Jas. Bentham, Ely, 75.
  • 13. V.C.H. Cambs. i, 369.
  • 14. Cal. Chart. R. 1226-57, 391.
  • 15. Cal. Pat. 1416-22, 184-5.
  • 16. Tax. Eccl. (Rec. Com.), 270-1.
  • 17. A deficit was at this time not uncommon in Ely manors, e.g. Wisbech Barton (Bailiff's R., 13-14 Edw. II, Bp.'s Mun., D 7).
  • 18. D. & C. Mun., Ely.
  • 19. e.g. Cal. Pat. 1343-5, 478; 1364-7, 14, 172.
  • 20. £11 10s. in 1429, £8 in 1435, £12 10s. in 1467 (S.C. 6/1257/4-9).
  • 21. D. & C. Mun., Treas. R., no. 20.
  • 22. B.M. Add. MS. 5847, f. 77.
  • 23. D. & C. Mun., Treas. R., no. 20.
  • 24. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xvi, g. 1226 (12).
  • 25. C 66/1303, m. 1.
  • 26. C 54/3509, no. 37.
  • 27. D. & C. Mun., Cupbd. D.
  • 28. C 54/3509, no. 37.
  • 29. D. & C. Mon., Cupbd. C.
  • 30. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 513; Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1933).
  • 31. D. & C. Mun., Bentham Transcripts.
  • 32. Bentham, Ely, 75 n.
  • 33. J.I. 1/96, m. 65 d.
  • 34. Feud. Aids, 151, 173, 191.
  • 35. D. & C. Mun., Bentham Transcripts. Pasture called 'le Would' was held at the same rent in 1541 (B.M. Add. MS. 5847, f. 77).
  • 36. D. & C. Mun., Carta 67.
  • 37. B.M. Add. MS. 5819, f. 4. See also Ely Dioc. Remembrancer, no. 193, p. 123.
  • 38. Tax. Eccl. (Rec. Com.), 265.
  • 39. W. E. Lunt, Valuation of Norw. 539.
  • 40. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), iii, 499.
  • 41. B.M. Add. MS. 5847, f. 77.
  • 42. Cal. Pat., 1560-3, 226.
  • 43. Inst. Bks. (P.R.O.).
  • 44. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 513.
  • 45. B.M. Add. MS. 5820, f. 81. Ely Dioc. Remembrancer, no. 119, p. 73.
  • 46. These windows are not shown on the accompanying plan.
  • 47. B.M. Add. MS. 5847, f. 76.
  • 48. H.O. 129/7/190.
  • 49. Kelly's Directories.
  • 50. Bapt. Handbk. 1950; Inscription on building.
  • 51. Bp.'s Mun., Ely, B 6.
  • 52. Rep. of Nat. Soc., 1846-7 (priv. printed).
  • 53. Archives of Nat. Soc.
  • 54. Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1900).
  • 55. M. of Ed. File no. 12/72.
  • 56. Infm. Rev. E. H. Yates, Vicar.