Wisbech: Wisbech as a commercial centre

Pages 261-262

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.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.



Wisbech is now the commercial centre of the southern marshland, and the title 'Capital of the Fens', sometimes given to the town, is not without justification. This situation has long prevailed. No record of the grant of a market has been found, and this, taken together with the evidence adduced above, (fn. 1) suggests that the market may have been established before the Conquest. A definite indication of the growth of commercial interests in Wisbech is the grant (1190) by Richard I to the tenants of the manor of freedom from toll in all fairs and markets throughout England. (fn. 2) A generation later, one of the free tenants of Bishop de Fontibus (1220-5) in Wisbech had the significant name of Alexander the merchant (mercator). (fn. 3) In both 1221 and 1251 several persons were holding messuages by money rents only-in effect by burgage tenure though not so described. Nevertheless the general impression derived from these 13th-century surveys is that Wisbech was still only a large and slightly urbanized village.

The growth of Wisbech was hampered by the seaflood of 1236, the evil effects of which were still apparent in 1251 notwithstanding creditable efforts to repair them. The flood was followed (c. 1300) by the diversion of the Ouse. These factors taken together prevented the town from ever becoming one of the great English ports of the Middle Ages.

The Alcock survey of 1492, like preceding surveys, still gives an impression that Wisbech was an urbanized village rather than a town. It is true that it records as a privilege of the lord of the manor the power to levy 4d. toll on foreign ships entering or leaving the port. Since the blocking of the Well Stream, however, the only step taken towards the improvement of the port was the straightening of the course of the Nene by Bishop Morton. Thus the port was still largely inaccessible and the privilege unreal.

Though an elaborate tower was added to the church in the 16th century it is significant that the whole church was not rebuilt on a lavish scale as happened at Boston or Louth. It was only with the scientific draining of the fens in the 17th century that Wisbech rose to real importance as a commercial centre.

From at least 1662 the town had its own weights and measures. The Corporation still possesses a brass pint measure inscribed 'WISBECH ANO DOM 1662. 1c. GM'. (fn. 4) Several tradesmen's tokens of this period are preserved in the Museum. (fn. 5) The Corporation also seems to have issued its own currency; in 1668 the town bailiff was authorized to spend £5 to £10 on farthings with the town arms, and in 1670 £20 on 'Wisbech halfpennies'. (fn. 6)

Evidence of increasing prosperity is to be found in the fine houses, dating from about 1720 onwards, on the Brinks and in such streets as Hill Street. It is significant that at the end of the 18th century Joseph Medworth, the speculative builder, thought it worth while to build some forty to fifty medium-sized houses on the former castle grounds.

By 1796 the town had become preponderantly commercial. There were 'hardly any people in the town', it was said, 'but what are in trade; even Sir Philip Vavasor (fn. 7) is a merchant, and trades in coal, firkin-butter &c.' The number and range of trades, though smaller than in Lynn or Boston, were larger than those practised anywhere else in the Isle, and a most rosy picture of the future of Wisbech was painted. 'The fields seem to laugh and sing with their superabundant produce . . . and, by the revival of its commerce, a true spirit of emulation has burst forth amongst its merchants and tradesmen, so that few places have the prospect of becoming so rich and prosperous.' To some extent these optimistic prophecies were fulfilled in the next half century.

At the present day the sphere of influence of Wisbech is the most extensive of any town in the Isle, embracing as it does all the county north of a line from Thorney through the northern outskirts of March to Welney. (fn. 8) A more factual index of the relative importance of the various Fenland towns is the proportion of persons engaged in commercial and financial occupations. Here again Wisbech is pre-eminent, with a percentage of 16.4 as compared with Chatteris (11.8), Ely (11.5), March (11.1), and Whittlesey (7.6); the Wisbech percentage is also higher than that of the three towns whose 'occasional' sphere of influence covers the Isle-Cambridge (13.3), King's Lynn (15.6), and Peterborough (13.7), and of the country as a whole (10.9). The proportion employed in the 'service' industries (fn. 9) is 53 per cent. This proportion is also above the national average (41 per cent.), but not so markedly, and it is below the proportion of such towns as Oxford (68 per cent.) and Worcester (59 per cent.). (fn. 10)


  • 1. See p. 240 above.
  • 2. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 209-10; M. Hutcheson, Hist. Wisb. (MS. in Wisb. Mus.), 98.
  • 3. B.M. Cott. MS. Tib. B. II, f. 143b.
  • 4. Infm. the late E. J. Rudsdale.
  • 5. Incl. tokens of Henry Tunard, baker (¼d., 1657), Richard Harrison, haberdasher (¼d., 1664), John Bellamy, grocer (½d., 1665, 1667), and Henry Coldwell, haberdasher (1668).
  • 6. Corp. Rec. iv, 165, 170.
  • 7. High Sheriff of Cambs. 1760. Created Knight Bachelor, 24 Jan. 1761 (W. A. Shaw, Knights of Engl. ii, 290). He lived at Nos. 7 and 8 South Brink.
  • 8. Survey of a Fen County (Draft Report of the County Planning Dept.), Map No. 50.
  • 9. viz. building, transport, commercial and financial, public administration, professions, entertainments, personal service, clerical work.
  • 10. These figures are derived from the social surveys of Worcester (County Town, by Janet Glaisyer and others, 1946) and Oxford (Oxford Replanned, by T. Sharp, 1948). The proportions for Cambridge, Lynn, and Peterborough were not worked out on account of their less representative industrial structures.