Wisbech: Miscellaneous institutions

Pages 268-269

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 was an assize town from at least 1515-16 (fn. 1) until 1836 when the liberty of the Isle of Ely was abolished. Assizes were held half-yearly, alternately with Ely. By the late 14th century quarter sessions were being held at Wisbech. (fn. 2) It has remained a quarter-sessions town ever since; the January and July sessions for the Isle are held here, those in April and October at Ely. (fn. 3) The Shire Hall on the east side of the Market Place was pulled down in 1810; it was replaced by the existing Sessions House and Police Station on the South Brink. (fn. 4) Since the demolition of the Wisbech Jail (see below) the weekly Petty Sessions of the Wisbech district have also been held here; the daily magistrates' court for the borough was held in the room over the butter market until the demolition of that building (1854), (fn. 5) since then at the Town Hall.

From the end of the 16th century the parish registers record the burial of executed criminals. The gallows stood on the river bank a little below the Horseshoe corner. (fn. 6) A jail was built by the capital burgesses in 1616, when 10,000 bricks were ordered for the purpose at 15s. 8d. a thousand. (fn. 7) The keeper's salary was fixed in 1624 at £13 6s. 8d. (fn. 8) In 1681 Wisbech successfully sued the county for the custody of this jail, but relinquished its rights in 1757. In 1720 the wall of the jail was rebuilt, and at the same time it was resolved that the 'farm' of the prisoners should be for not less than £14 a year. (fn. 9) A new building, erected in 1807 next the site of the new shire hall on the South Brink, was used for French prisoners of war. This jail was closed in 1846 and replaced by a building in Gaol Lane (now Victoria Road) designed by Basevi. This was a small prison (forty-three cells) and was closed and demolished in 1878, under the Prisons Act of the preceding year. (fn. 10)

Wisbech was also in some degree the county town of the Isle until the building of the county hall at March in 1908. A proposal made at the second meeting of the County Council (21 February 1889) (fn. 11) to hold meetings at March, Wisbech, and Ely in rotation, was not carried into effect, but the clerk of the council, the treasurer, the education officer and the inspector of weights and measures all had their offices in Wisbech in the early days of the administrative county. (fn. 12)

The first recorded post office in Wisbech was in Upper Hill Street, in 1793. (fn. 13) In 1851 it was in Cornhill, (fn. 14) and the present building in Bridge Street dates from 1885-7. It has been enlarged in 1898, 1904, and 1930-8. (fn. 15) A private company operated a telegraph service until 1870, when it was taken over by the Post Office authorities. (fn. 16) Telephone service was provided from 1898 by the National Telephone Company. (fn. 17)

A weekly newspaper known as the Lynn and Wisbech Packet was started in 1800, but the first newspaper actually printed in Wisbech was the Wisbech Observer (1813). It had a brief existence and no copies are known to be extant. (fn. 18) Another weekly, the Star in the East, ran from 1836 to 1840. Its editor was James Hill, the well-known Unitarian, (fn. 19) and its publisher Neil Walker, one of the historians of Wisbech. 'The influence it exerted was of such a dubious character that but few deplored its decease.' (fn. 20) A rival Wisbech Gazette lasted six months only (October 1837 to April 1838). During 1877 a daily paper, the Telegram, ran for a period of five months. (fn. 21) The present local newspapers are the Isle of Ely and Wisbech Advertiser, South Lincs., Cambs. and West Norfolk Journal, issued on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and the Wisbech Standard (founded 1868), issued on Fridays. The former was founded in 1845 by John Gardiner, whose family controlled the paper for over a hundred years. (fn. 22) It assumed its present name in 1887. (fn. 23)

The first Wisbech bank was opened in 1782 by Jonathan Peckover at his general shop in High Street, and was moved twelve years later to Bank House, North Brink. It was a branch of the Norwich firm of Gurney, and is now represented by Barclays Bank. (fn. 24) A savings bank was established in 1818, and collected £435 4s. 6d. in deposits in its first year. (fn. 25) Friendly societies started in Wisbech about twenty years later, the Ancient Shepherds and Oddfellows in 1837-8, the Foresters in 1841. (fn. 26)

As far back as 1654 some of the burgesses deposited their books for common use in a room over the church porch; Secretary Thurloe contributed eighty-one volumes to the library thus inaugurated. (fn. 27) A Literary Society was founded in 1781. Its books were catalogued in 1804, with a supplement in 1813. (fn. 28) By 1824 the Society had 84 members and a library of 2,500 volumes. The Wisbech Museum was founded in 1835. (fn. 29) The Literary Society and Museum were amalgamated in 1877. (fn. 30) The museum is an exceptionally good one for a town the size of Wisbech. A branch of the county library was established in 1947 in Alexandra Road, in the premises formerly used by the Art School and earlier still by the infants of the British School. (fn. 31)

A movement for a working men's club started in 1863, the parent body being the Young Men's Total Abstinence Society. An inaugural meeting on 5 January 1864 produced £24 16s. in subscriptions. During the first year 90 members joined, and by 1866 the club had 267 members. Its first headquarters were in hired rooms in Upper Hill Street, but in 1867 the club moved to its existing premises at Alfred House, Lower Hill Street. The new building was purchased for £800, of which £600 was subscribed by the Peckover family, who throughout its existence have been generous patrons. A new hall was built in 1871-2 and a gymnasium in 1873. By 1875 the membership amounted to 800. In 1898 the Wisbech Working Men's Club and Institute was the most financially successful of all English working men's clubs, having 1,136 members, a revenue of £1,818 and investments of £5,901. In 1904 there were 1,304 members, 376 of them women. During 1912, 15,636 books were issued from the library. (fn. 32) The membership in 1937 was about 1,300. (fn. 32)

In 1869 a site of 19 acres on Lynn Road was purchased by the Corporation from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for £2,400 and laid out as a public park. (fn. 33) The North Cambridgeshire Hospital, overlooking the park, was opened in 1873. The cost (£8,000) was defrayed by Miss M. E. TraffordSouthwell, a descendant of the family formerly resident at the castle. She also provided £6,000 for endowment, increased by subscriptions to £10,000. In 1937 there were seventy-five beds at the Hospital, including twenty in a children's wing built as a memorial of the jubilee of King George V. (fn. 34) The local District Nursing Association was founded in 1898. (fn. 35) earlier effort in the same direction had been Mrs. Mayer's Asylum, founded under the will (1811) of Judith Mayer of Wisbech. Her intention was to provide an 'asylum' for poor persons afflicted with palsy, rheumatism, gout, blindness, or any other complaint which might render them objects of compassion, and for this purpose she bequeathed £500 for a building and £1,400 for its endowment. The courts decided against her plan in its original form, but an ordinary almshouse was built (1815) on the canal side and endowed under this charity, each of the 5 inmates receiving £10 a year and an allowance of coals. (fn. 36) William Watson, the historian of Wisbech, by his will dated 1832, gave £1,000 towards the establishment of a poor persons' dispensary. (fn. 37) No further references to this institution have been noticed.

The street lamps which excited admiration in 1796 (fn. 38) and were so severely reduced in 1823 (fn. 39) were replaced in 1832 by gas lighting, the quality of which was for a long time unsatisfactory and the prices high. (fn. 39) The Wisbech Gas Light and Coke Company, with works in Eastfield, was formed in 1859. (fn. 40) Its present large gasholder is a landmark visible from afar in many directions.

Cleansing of the streets was first undertaken in 1721; (fn. 41) in 1788 it cost £16 a year. (fn. 42) The paving of the market place was carried out as far back as 1549, (fn. 43) but was not extended to cover the whole town until the Improvement Act of 1810, when special commissioners were appointed for this purpose. (fn. 44)

An extension to the churchyard was made in 1832, and the victims of the cholera epidemic buried in it. In 1840 it was consecrated and used to the exclusion of the churchyard proper. The chapel is from the designs of Willis and Basevi. (fn. 45)

A cemetery was opened on Leverington Road in 1835. It has an attractive chapel, designed by William Adams in 1848, in the form of a little Doric temple. (fn. 46) The churchyard and its extension were closed for interments in 1855, and the Leverington Road cemetery was supplemented by one at Mount Pleasant Bank in 1881. The ground for both cemeteries was left unconsecrated, so that no division into Church of England and Nonconformist portions was necessary. (fn. 47)

A theatre existed in North End in 1792. (fn. 48) A new one was built in 1793, as part of the redevelopment of the castle estate. (fn. 49) It was used by companies from Lincoln and Norwich for about fifty years, and also for public meetings. (fn. 50) Macready played at this theatre in 1836, when James Hill the banker and Unitarian was owner. (fn. 51) It was not successful, however, probably owing to its bad situation in a back lane, and it was used for the last time as a theatre in 1847. After its abandonment as a theatre the building was used for a time by the Wesleyan Methodist Reformers, (fn. 52) and later as an art school. The building still stands and is used by a spiritualist society. (fn. 53)

In the late 18th century race meetings were held on a course beside Elm Road, near the turning to Elm village. In 1775 there were four entries for a purse of £50, but two of the horses died in the second heat, held an hour after the first. The last meeting, held in 1780, showed a balance of £121 6s. 5d. (fn. 54)

A Wisbech preservation society called the Wisbech Society and Preservation Trust Ltd. was founded in 1938. (fn. 55)


  • 1. The earliest Plea Roll preserved in the Bp.'s Mun. of Ely is of 7 Hen. VIII (A. Gibbons, Ely Episc. Rec. 116).
  • 2. V.C.H. Cambs. iv.
  • 3. Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1933). A significant commentary on the social structure of the Isle in the middle of the 19th century is given by the information in Gardner's 1851 Directory (p. 612) that the presiding magistrate at the Wisbech Quarter Sessions was generally the Revd. Henry Fardell, vicar of the town, and at Ely the Revd. W. G. Townley, rector of Upwell. In fact, though not in name, the secular power of the Church survived the reforms of 1836; until the rise of a landed aristocracy amongst the wealthy farmers, the incumbents of rich livings, like Fardell, Townley, and Peyton of Doddington wielded enormous local influence.
  • 4. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 307. The pillory stood on the roof of the old Shire Hall.
  • 5. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 612.
  • 6. Anon. late 18th-century diary in Wisb. Mus. The gallows is said to have been rebuilt after 1758 with timber from the old Wisbech Bridge. Jackson records an execution at the Horseshoe in his Diary, 10 July 1819.
  • 7. Corp. Rec. iii, 139.
  • 8. Ibid. iv, 45.
  • 9. Corp. Rec. vi; Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 425-6.
  • 10. 2nd Rep. Commrs. Prisons [C. 2442], 28, H.C. (1878-9) xxxiv. Its site is still visible in the blocks of houses of a different pattern from the rest between Victoria Road and Cannon Street (so named from a former drill ground).
  • 11. Camb. Chron. 22 Feb. 1889.
  • 12. Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1900); M. of Ed. files.
  • 13. P.O. Estab. Bks. 1760.
  • 14. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 649.
  • 15. G.P.O. H.Q. Min. 3486/1929.
  • 16. Ibid. E 3989/1869.
  • 17. N.T.C. Dir.
  • 18. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 66-67.
  • 19. Ibid. 67-68.
  • 20. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 66-67. It was apparently a Chartist paper.
  • 21. Ibid. 73.
  • 22. Infm. Mr. G. S. Gardiner, a member of the family.
  • 23. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 68-72.
  • 24. Ibid. 192-3; W. H. Bidwell, Annals of an E. Anglian Bank, 363-4.
  • 25. Min. Bk. in Wisb. Mus.
  • 26. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 228, 292, 294.
  • 27. Hist. MSS. Com., 9th Rep. App. 293.
  • 28. Diary of Rev. J. Jackson, 15 Feb. 1813 (Wisb. Mus.).
  • 29. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 197-8. A long and amusing list of the miscellaneous contents of the Museum in its early days is given in Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 617-20.
  • 30. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 197-8.
  • 31. Infm. the late E. J. Rudsdale.
  • 32. Gardiner, Jubilee of the Working Men's Inst. at Wisb. 1864-1914.
  • 33. Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1937).
  • 34. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 185.
  • 35. Ibid.; Kelly, Dir. Cambs. (1937).
  • 36. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 186.
  • 37. Rep. Com. Char. (Cambs.) [103], H.C. (1837-8), xxiv, s.v. Wisbech St. Peter.
  • 38. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 636.
  • 39. iv, 802.
  • 40. See above, p. 257, note 64.
  • 41. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 182-4
  • 42. Ibid.
  • 43. Corp. Rec. v (15 Nov. 1721).
  • 44. Ibid. vii.
  • 45. £17 2s. 2d. from the sale of the goods of the Trinity Guild was used for this purpose. See above, p. 256, n. 33.
  • 46. 50 Geo. III c. ccvi.
  • 47. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 603.
  • 48. Ibid. 624.
  • 49. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 187-8.
  • 50. It is shown on the map of this date in Wisb. Mus.
  • 51. The building is described in The Theatre Notebk. iv, 21-23.
  • 52. e.g. by Cobbett in 1830. Until the erection of the present Town Hall on Cornhill in 1811 it was the only public hall in the town.
  • 53. Gardiner, Hist. Wisb. 286; H.O. 129/7/193. Infm. the late E. J. Rudsdale.
  • 54. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 615.
  • 55. Infm. the late E. J. Rudsdale.
  • 56. Fenland N. & Q. vi, 151-2. The discontinuance of Wisbech Races was probably due to the fact that about this time, when the draining of the Fens spoilt the game shooting, most of the local gentry left the neighbourhood, and their manor houses (e.g. White Hall on the North Brink, and Needham Hall and the former Vaux manor house in Elm) were converted into farm-houses.
  • 57. Annual Rep. (1951).