Wisbech Hundred: Chapeiry of Parson Drove

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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'Wisbech Hundred: Chapeiry of Parson Drove', in 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, (London, 2002) pp. 197-200. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol4/pp197-200 [accessed 19 April 2024]

In this section


Parson Drove, originally a township and chapelry of Leverington, became a separate ecclesiastical district under the Leverington Rectory Act (1870). It had long maintained its own poor, (fn. 1) and its separate existence for civil purposes was virtually recognized in 1874, when a separate Parson Drove School Board was established. (fn. 2) The parish consists in effect of the fen end of Leverington; it has no separate manorial history, and may be compared in status with Gedney Hill over the border in the Parts of Holland. About 1,000 acres in Inkerson Fen and its neighbourhood were transferred from Holland to the Isle and added to Parson Drove in 1934. (fn. 3) The added area is at the extreme west of the parish; it had formed a projecting salient into the Isle between Parson Drove and Thorney, and had been counted in with Holland as the only road communications were northward.

The scattered village is situated about 6½ miles west of Wisbech and 4½ miles south-west of Leverington. The network of roads is close, but few of them are of more than local importance. The March-Spalding line of British Railways, Eastern Region, opened in 1867, (fn. 4) crosses the western part of the parish diagonally. There are no stations in the parish, but that of French Drove and Gedney Hill is very near the north-west corner and those of Murrow (East and West) are just outside on the south. Some of the houses of Murrow village are in Parson Drove civil parish, and one of the local ecclesiastical districts (Southea cum Murrow) extends about equally into Parson Drove and Wisbech St. Mary.

Fendyke Bank, the great bank stretching from Cloughs Cross on the Lincolnshire border southwards to Guyhirn, is one of the most important in the district. For many hundreds of years it was the bastion of defence against the fresh waters coming down from the upland counties, and the landward counterpart to the old sea bank on the east side of Leverington. Fendyke protected the whole district on the north side of Wisbech which includes Tydd St. Giles, Newton, Leverington, Guyhirn, and Wisbech St. Mary. Its importance cannot therefore be exaggerated, and the most stringent measures were taken to ensure its safety. The obligation to maintain the bank was imposed on the landowners in the protected parishes.

A great breach was made in the bank in 1437, when 13,400 acres were flooded through the default of one Thomas Flower, the owner of 24 acres in Wisbech High Fen. (fn. 5) Further breaches occurred in 1570 (fn. 6) and in 1770. At the latter date a gap 130 yards wide was made, probably at Abel's Gull. Parts of the country-side were flooded to a depth of 6 feet, and were not brought back into cultivation for three years. So sudden was the disaster that some fled for their lives to Thorney Abbey and the higher lands around. (fn. 7)

The Fendyke may be said to mark the boundary between the 'peat' and 'silt' portions of the parish. The former, comprising Parson Drove Fen, has always been less highly valued and was formerly used mainly as sheep pasturage; it is sparsely populated. The latter, which is the area of ancient settlement, forms part of the Wisbech fruit-growing and market-gardening district.

The 2-mile road called Parson Drove or Parson Drove Gate, along which the nucleus of the village is built, was formerly a green drove and wider than it is now. The inclosure of pieces of common land beside the road has brought it down to its present width; a small strip of common remains at the western end, and the former extent of the rest of the commons is still clearly visible. A fence used to stretch across the eastern end at Gates End Bridge, to prevent cattle straying upon Overdyke Bank.

Pepys, who visited Parson Drove on 17 and 18 September 1663, described it as a 'heathen place' where he had to sleep in a 'sad, cold, stony chamber in a miserable inn'. His visit was made in connexion with the affairs of his deceased aunt Beatrice, relict of John Day of Wisbech, (fn. 8) who held much property in Leverington, especially in Outnewlands Field and Fen Croft. (fn. 9) 'Uncle Perkins', mentioned by the diarist as then living in Parson Drove in a poor way, was the husband of Jane Pepys, the diarist's aunt. (fn. 10) The inn in which the diarist lodged was the Swan which in 1834 belonged to Charles Boucher, a brewer, who altered it drastically. Pepys, who was very susceptible to environment, reacted unfavourably to the Fens. The roads, houses, living conditions, even the gnats from undrained swamps, come in for severe criticism.

A woad mill at Parson Drove (fn. 11) near the vicarage was one of the last of its kind to remain at work in England. It continued in operation until about 1910, when the farm was sold to the Isle of Ely County Council for small holdings. The structure of the mill, as described in 1899, (fn. 12) resembles the earliest type of woad mill; doubtless the pattern was handed down. It was built with walls of sods, 3 ft. thick at the bottom and narrowing at the top, arranged in herringbone fashion. The roof was of circular cone-like shape, made of timbers and hurdles thatched with reeds. The grinding-wheel was in the middle of the building, and the baskets of woad were emptied into the hollow centre, where the plant was crushed by a horse-drawn wheel and made into a pulp. It was made up by hand into balls as large as a Dutch cheese and left exposed to the weather in open sheds until the balls shrank to the size of oranges. All around were the skeleton drying-sheds six or seven stories high, rudely made of poles and hurdles, and the balls were laid on twigs of twined hazel, called fleaks, until dried. The last owner of the Parson Drove mill was Fitzalan Howard of Holyrood House, Spalding (Lincs.).

THROCKENHOLT is a farm and cluster of houses on the Lincolnshire border about a mile north-west of Parson Drove village. It is first authentically referred to in c. 1133-51, when Bishop Niel of Ely granted a square mile (milliarium) of marsh, first called 'Everdewike' but afterwards 'Trokenholt', to Thorney Abbey. (fn. 13) This grant was confirmed by Bishop Longchamp (1189-97) and by Edward III in 1348. (fn. 14) The land was given for the service of God, (fn. 15) and it seems to have been hoped that some kind of hermitage (fn. 16) or cell would be established. At all events a chapel was built which survived until c. 1540, when it is shown on a map of Wisbech hundred. (fn. 17) This chapel was where Throckenholt farm house now stands; fragments of stone, bones, and other relics have from time to time been uncovered on the site. The map marks the eastern and southern boundaries of the site as heavily wooded, and shows in its cartouches that in 1274 and later Throckenholt was claimed by both Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire.

In 1792 the farm belonged to Abraham Ulyat, who built the present house in 1806. John and Henry Ulyat are recorded as farmers in Parson Drove in 1851. (fn. 18) Throckenholt Farm contained 209 a. 2r. 31 p., and subsequently belonged to John Goodman.

In the middle of the 19th century Throckenholt was described as a 'wide bleak fen, productive indeed, but with no other recommendation to a civilized being.' (fn. 19)


The chapel of St. John the Baptist, since 1870 (see Leverington) the parish church of Parson Drove, attained at a comparatively early date a more independent status than was usual with parochial chapelries. Burial rights were granted by a composition between the rector of Leverington and the inhabitants of Parson Drove in 1397, though the latter had to observe the dedication feast of the mother church, and present their chaplain to the rector for admission. The chaplain was required to live at his own expense, to undertake the repair of the chapel with its chancel, tower, and churchyard enclosure, and to go in procession to the mother church on Wednesday in Rogation Week. (fn. 20)

In 1459 the endowments of Fitton chantry (see Leverington-Manors) were transferred to Parson Drove and a chaplain, Adam Silk, licensed to celebrate in both chapels. (fn. 21) In 1487 the Bishop of Ely directed his clergy to receive kindly the proctor of the chapel whenever he should visit their parishes soliciting alms therefor, and granted an indulgence of forty days to all contributors. (fn. 22)

The following year another indulgence was granted for the repair of a chapel of St. John the Baptist in a hermitage in Leverington. It is possible that this was merely a repetition of the previous indulgence, but there is a persistent tradition that a hermitage existed opposite Parson Drove Church, on the site of the present vicarage, and the indulgence may refer to this other hermitage. (fn. 23)

The system of presenting the chaplain to the rector, at whose will he was removable, lasted until 1749. By a decree of this date the right of appointment was vested in the feoffees of the former Fitton Hall lands which provided the endowment. (fn. 24)

The Revd. Henry Pujolas, incumbent from 1692 to 1749, was an ejected Huguenot. Cole described him as 'a little black man' with an imperfect command of English even at the age of 83. (fn. 25) Like Pujolas, several families of French origin, mainly from Guisnes and Picardy, settled in Parson Drove. Some names of French origin survived in the parish to within the last hundred years. (fn. 26)

As late as 1837 it was reported to the Charity Commissioners that 137¼ acres, producing £301 13s. a year, were devoted to the endowment of the chapel. This sum constituted the incumbent's stipend, after the deduction of £25 to £30 a year for church repairs and 40s. given to four aged persons. (fn. 27)

Plan of the Church of St. John the Baptist

The church of ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST consists of clerestoried nave, aisles, north and south porches and west tower. The chancel was destroyed by floods in 1613. (fn. 28) The material is mainly rubble and brick, but the tower is partly faced with Barnack stone. The nave roof is slated and the roofs of the aisles and south porch are leaded. The earliest portion of the present fabric is the north doorway, which belongs to the first half of the 13th century. The north aisle and porch are of 14th-century date and the rest of the fabric of the latter part of the 15th century. The arcades and clerestory may be even later. Early in the 19th century the lateral wall of the south aisle was rebuilt. In 1895 the nave roof was reconstructed and an east window inserted in the blocked chancel arch.

This arch is of two orders with moulded caps and bases to the responds and probably dates from the 15thcentury reconstruction. The modern east window is of three lights with tracery of 14th-century character. To the north of the chancel arch is the stair to the rood loft; the upper doorway is blocked and the lower has a four-centred arch and continuous mouldings under a hood. The arcades are of seven bays with four-centred arches of two orders resting on clustered columns with moulded caps and bases. The west bay on each side consists of only a half arch returned against the buttresses of the tower. These arcades are very late in style and probably belong to the first quarter of the 16th century. The clerestory consists of six three-light windows on each side set over the arches with cinquefoiled heads under a square label.

The south aisle has an east window of three cinquefoiled lights under a depressed head and hood-moulding of 15th-century date. The south wall was entirely rebuilt early in the 19th century and contains plain pointed windows with wooden frames. The west window is of two cinquefoiled lights with an octofoil in the head and a hood-mould terminating in heads.

The 15th-century porch has an outer doorway with a two-centred arch of two orders and jambs having engaged shafts with moulded caps and bases. There are diagonal buttresses with one set-off and in the east and west walls a window of two cinquefoiled lights under a square head, partly blocked. The 15th-century inner doorway is of two orders, the outer with a continuous moulding and the inner with engaged jamb shafts having moulded caps and bases.

The north aisle belongs to the third quarter of the 14th century and has an east window of three cinquefoiled lights with quatrefoils above under a segmental head. The contemporary buttresses are uniform with one set-off. There are five windows in the north wall, all of two cinquefoiled lights with octofoils in the head and a hood-moulding terminating in masks. The west window is similar. The north doorway belongs to the first half of the 13th century and is two-centred and of two orders with deep mouldings and angle-shafts. There is a piscina recess with acutely pointed head. The shallow north porch is of the 14th century with a plain outer arch having a continuous chamfer.

The tower is a particularly fine example of 15thcentury design. It is of three stages with angle buttresses having four set-offs. On the base of the north-east and south-east buttress is a small recumbent figure carved in relief. The west doorway has continuous mouldings and a hood springing from shafts with moulded caps and bases. The plain door is contemporary. There is a three-light window with cinquefoiled heads and a sexfoil above on the north, south, and west. The second stage has a lancet on each side. The belfry windows consist of two cinquefoiled lights with quatrefoils above and a hood-moulding. The parapet is embattled and there is a newel stair turret on the north-east which extends to the parapet. The tower opens to the nave by a lofty panelled arch, a feature rarely found in this part of the country. The entrance to the newel stair is contrived in the north respond of the arch and has a plain contemporary door. There is a recess in the north wall of the ground stage. The ground stage has good octopartite vaulting with bellhole in the centre and carved bosses displaying the Tudor rose and other devices; the springers terminate in grotesques.

The nave has a plain roof with king-posts, struts, and wall-posts, and retains notwithstanding its reconstruction some old timbers of uncertain but earlier date. The north aisle has a plain lean-to roof with wall posts and is of 17th- or 18th-century date; there is a series of stone corbels, all plain except two which have grotesque heads. The south aisle has a plain lean-to roof probably of early 19th-century date. The lowpitched roof of the south porch has old rafters.

The font has a panelled octagonal bowl and is of 15th-century date. In the windows of the north aisle are fragments of painted glass of the 15th century including the arms of Ely, a Trinity shield, and a shield with three chalices on a red ground. The oak pulpit, which is dated 1677, has shallow carving on the panels; the base is modern and of deal. There is an iron-bound chest in the vestry of 16th- or 17th-century date.

The plate includes a communion cup of silver, 1599, and a paten of silver, late 15th century, the only unaltered piece of medieval plate in a Cambridgeshire church. It is circular with a sexfoil depression. In the centre is a Vernicle with an aureole. The spandrels formed by the sexfoil are filled with leaves.

The tower contains four bells by T. Osborn of Downham, 1787.

The registers begin in 1657 and are complete.

The present vicarage house was built in 1760 by the Revd. John Dickinson.

The church of EMMANUEL, SOUTHEA, erected in 1872 by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, is a brick structure with stone facings in the Early English style, and consists of apsidal chancel, nave, north aisle, and turret over the chancel arch containing one bell. There are four handsome brass chandeliers formerly in St. Paul's Cathedral.


A Wesleyan Methodist congregation was established at the Southea end of the village in 1833. (fn. 29) Its chapel, built in 1838, (fn. 30) is still in use. A United Methodist chapel was built on land purchased in 1865 from Thomas Meadows Fisher. (fn. 31) The building was closed after 1937 (fn. 32) and was sold in 1944. It thereupon became a village hall and institute. (fn. 33) In 1952 the trustees of the institute sold the building, which is now used as a store. The Salvation Army started work in Southea between 1900 and 1904. (fn. 34)


In 1814 there were said to be 35 children of school age in Parson Drove, 25 of poor parents. The school, which had at that time been in existence for about twenty years, (fn. 35) was endowed with £24 a year from the rent of 8 acres of the common; this was used for the salaries of a master and mistress, for whom a house was provided. They were teaching 12 children free, and could take paying pupils. The subjects taught were reading, writing, arithmetic and the Catechism. (fn. 36) A generation (1846-7) later the numbers attending this school had increased to 83, most of whom came both on Sundays and weekdays. (fn. 37) The school was rebuilt in 1850, (fn. 38) and its endowment regulated by a scheme of the Charity Commissioners of 1858. It was not in association with the National Society, and had been closed for some years before 1874. In this year 'the scholastic arrangements for the parish were in a most lamentable condition' and a School Board was set up. The Board rebuilt the school for £900, to afford 180 places, reduced in 1910 to 147. In 1930 the buildings, which had been erected on a disused drain, were found to be dangerous. The seniors were therefore temporarily transferred to Newton and the juniors to Murrow, leaving the infants in the one safe classroom. The new buildings, which were designed to take the seniors from Murrow as well as all the Parson Drove children, provide 160 places; the cost was £4,579 for the school itself and £895 for a teacher's house. On the opening (in 1933) the school was renamed the Payne Council Primary School after Alderman J. W. Payne, J.P., Chairman of the County Education Committee. (fn. 39)


John Bend, by will dated 1593, gave a messuage (now the Butcher's Arms Inn), with 15 acres in South Inham Field, the rents of which were to be devoted to 'making a stock to set the poor people to work' and to be distributed to poor persons born in Parson Drove or who had lived there for six years without having relief. The property was increased by inclosures of new-drained fen, and in 1837 brought in £80 a year. (fn. 40) On the other hand two portions were sold off, 1 a. 2 r. 29 p. when the New Wryde Drain was made, and another part in 1866 to the Great Northern and Great Eastern Railways. The house itself was sold about 1948. (fn. 41)

In 1725 Thomas Swaine gave a rent-charge of £1 a year for bread for the poor of Parson Drove, as well as his similar charity for Leverington (q.v.). (fn. 42)

The poor of Parson Drove in 1837 received 6s. 8d. yearly under the charity of Margaret Bende (see Wisbech St. Mary).


  • 1. When the Charity Commissioners reported in 1837 there were 19 'town houses' in Parson Drove, distinct from those of Leverington: Rep. Com. Char. (Cambs.), [103], 265, 269, H.C. (1837-8), xxiv.
  • 2. Lond. Gaz. 1874, 6277.
  • 3. Under the M. of H. Provisional Ord. Conf. (Ely, Holland & Norf.) Act, 1933.
  • 4. V.C.H. Cambs. ii, 132-3.
  • 5. W. Dugdale, Hist. Imbanking, 328. The lands flooded were in Wisbech (4,400 acres), Leverington (4,600 acres), Newton (1,400 acres), and Tydd (2,000 acres).
  • 6. R. Holinshed, Chron., ed. 1808, iv, 255.
  • 7. W. Watson, Hist. Wisb. 388; Fenland N. & Q. ii, 235.
  • 8. John Day was buried at Wisbech in 1648. Beatrice's will is dated Nov. 1650.
  • 9. Wisbech MSS.
  • 10. So referred to in will of Robert Pepys of Brampton (1657).
  • 11. For a fuller description see Fenland N. & Q. ii, 93, and Country Life, 20 Apr. 1951.
  • 12. F. J. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 363, contains an account of the mill by Miss Peckover, late of Harecroft House, Wisbech. Relics of the Parson Drove woad industry, with paintings and a descriptive account, are exhibited in Wisb. Mus.
  • 13. Dugd. Mon. ii, 600-1, quoting Red Bk. of Thorney, f. 11. The authenticity of Wulfhere's charter to Peterborough (664), which mentions Throckenholt, is doubtful.
  • 14. Cal. Chart. R. 1341-1417, 82.
  • 15. Dugd. Mon. ii, 600.
  • 16. The Red Bk. of Thorney gives a history of Throckenholt which, while not accurate in detail, is probably based on genuine tradition; it is stated inter alia that Throckenholt had been used as a hermitage since 1107.
  • 17. In Wisb. Mus. The map is No. 44 in the list of Fenland maps given in V.C.H. Hunts, iii, 299, 306.
  • 18. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 554.
  • 19. Ibid. quoting Walker & Craddock, Hist. Wisb. (1849).
  • 20. Ely Reg. Fordham f. 187.
  • 21. Ely Dioc. Remembrancer, No. 101, p. 260. Collation followed by induction; licence was granted for him to celebrate in the chapel and to minister to the inhabitants of Parson Drove at a competent salary.
  • 22. Ely Reg. Alcock, f. 13.
  • 23. Ibid., f. 31.
  • 24. J. Bacon, Liber Regis (1786), 241.
  • 25. B.M. Add. MS. 5808, f. 119a.
  • 26. Gardner's Dir. Cambs. (1851), s.v. Parson Drove, contains the names Aubin, Goult, Jellis, Kingerley (perhaps originally Quimperle), Marchant.
  • 27. Rep. Com. Char. (Cambs.), [103], 265, 269, H.C. (1837-8), xxiv.
  • 28. Fenland N. & Q. ii, 18.
  • 29. H.O, 129/7/193.
  • 30. Inscr. on bldg.
  • 31. Deeds penes Messrs. Fraser, Woodgate & Beall, Wisbech.
  • 32. Meth. Ch. Bldgs. Stat. Returns as at 1 July 1940; Kelly, Dir. Cambs.
  • 33. Deeds penes Messrs. Fraser, Woodgate & Beall, Wisbech.
  • 34. Kelly, Dir. Cambs.
  • 35. Rep. Com. Char. (Cambs.), [103], 269, H.C. (1837-8), xxiv.
  • 36. Bp's Mun., Ely, B 6.
  • 37. Archives of Nat. Soc.
  • 38. Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1900), s.v. Southea.
  • 39. M. of Ed. File no. 12/43.
  • 40. Rep. Com. Char. (Cambs.), [103], 269, H.C. (1837-8), xxiv.
  • 41. For an account of the charity see Fenland N. & Q. ii, 232.
  • 42. Rep. Com. Char. (Cambs.), [103], 269, H.C. (1837-8), xxiv.