City of Ely: Seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

Pages 42-45

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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Whilst near-by Cambridge was the headquarters of the Eastern Association, (fn. 1) Ely was the home-town of Cromwell himself, who was in residence here (fn. 2) between 1636 and 1640: on Palace Green the New Model Army took shape. (fn. 3) Ely, however, was also the episcopal seat of 'The Laud of East Anglia', Bishop Wren, and was thus a centre of royalist sympathy.

When war broke out the bishop set about the raising of forces for the king. It was in January 1644 that Cromwell's famous interruption (fn. 4) of the cathedral services occurred. During the absence of the Eastern Association army the same year, the king planned an attack on Ely, and an attempt, in 1645, to open the city to the Royalists led Cromwell to return in person and to quarter a body of armed men there. (fn. 5) Both rich and poor bore a heavy financial burden which left its mark.

On the conclusion of the war, in 1649, a survey of the city and the demesne manors was made with intention to sell. (fn. 6) The bishop's palace was sold and some of the Precinct buildings were occupied by laymen; some loss also of city property was noted by the ecclesiastical authorities at the Restoration. The general neglect of the Cathedral during the Cromwellian regime (fn. 7) meant a serious loss of traditional employment for the citizens.

The forceful voice of Cromwell was familiar at Governors' meetings (fn. 8) in the city and as a champion of fenman rights (fn. 9) even before the war, and there are hints of a questing spirit on the part of other citizens. (fn. 10) But high politics were left to the Precincts in the later 17th century, as were the rivalries between the great Rutland and Hardwick parties in the eighteenth. It was not until the emergence of parliamentary reform, in 1780, that city freeholders showed any interest in their county vote. Public meetings and the popular activities of Archdeacon Watson (fn. 11) then proved novel attractions and might have resulted in a demand for local constitutional change had not the reactionary influence of the French Revolutionary Wars supervened.

The history of the several attempts to drain the South Level, in which district Ely lay, is told elsewhere. (fn. 12) This was a subject which touched the livelihood of the fenman, more alert to immediate loss of fishing-rights and commons than to long-period gains. In 1638 actual rioting occurred, (fn. 13) resulting in the arrest of an Ely man, Edward Powell, alias Anderson, and of five other active leaders. Powell's defiance of the magistrate, Goodrich, as being merely the 'Bishop's justice and not the King's', and an obstructor of the subject's right to petition the Crown, suggests a vague consciousness of constitutional issues. The subsequent report to the Privy Council makes much of the growing disrespect for local rulers. (fn. 14) The outbreak of the Civil War presently found other outlets for disgruntled fenmen, though the later drainage schemes, culminating in the Acts of 1659 and 1663, were not carried through without much local controversy. The 18th century, however, showed the material benefits of drainage, despite failures. (fn. 15)

Even before the Civil War Ely was facing unemployment (fn. 16) and more traditional types of poverty. Parochial authorities here were aided and to a considerable extent influenced by the dean and chapter. (fn. 17) Exceptionally large benefactions, moreover, eased the financial situation and brought into being a permanent administrative body which worked in frequent cooperation with the vestries, carrying on various public services. 'Valuable property in Stretham and Ely had been left to the inhabitants of Ely by Thomas Parsons, about 1445, primarily for the purpose of easing the burden of national taxation. (fn. 18) A reorganization of the charity was effected in 1633: moneys were henceforth to be devoted to more general relief of the city's needs, and control was vested in 12 feoffees, incorporated by royal charter, consisting of the Bishop, Dean, and Archdeacon of Ely for the time being, and nine other persons residing within the city, to be called 'Governors of the Lands and Possessions of the Poor of Ely', (fn. 19) and to have perpetual succession. Vacancies were to be filled by co-optation. (fn. 20) The ecclesiastical representatives gave to the corporation high prestige, experience, and continuity, but they also maintained the influence of the powerful manorial and political lordship, effectively preventing any possible evolution of a municipal entity, such as occurred in similar circumstances elsewhere. (fn. 21) The activities approved in 1633 were the provision of work and dwellings, the furthering of apprenticeship, and the supply of corn, fuel, and other necessities, at controlled prices. Comprehensive functions, resembling those of a manor court, were gradually added, as extensive wastes and other property were acquired by gift, purchase, and lease. From the outset certain common abuses were obviated by careful restriction of the length of lease of trust property and by public inspection of accounts. (fn. 22)

The drainage of the South Level necessitated reallocation of lands. The Commissioners of the Bedford Level, set up under the Act of 1663, (fn. 23) upheld the claim of the Governors to some 600 of the 12,000 fen acres belonging to the city. The bulk of these 600 acres lay in West Fen and Padnal. (fn. 24)

From the 17th century onwards an exceptional proportion of the poorer citizens of Ely enjoyed the great blessing of a cow, as well as cheap turf and even coal. Other forms of public service developed in succeeding centuries, aid often being given to parochially sponsored schemes (fn. 25) or to supplement other charities. (fn. 26) In addition to an honorary treasurer, paid officials gradually evolved.

In the absence of any municipal authority, parochial organization (fn. 27) was no less important than were manorial courts and Governors of the City Lands. (fn. 28) The dissolution of the monastery had necessitated prompt appointment of parochial surveyors of the highways. (fn. 29) Though their unskilled efforts were singularly unsuccessful, these officials were prominent members of the parish vestries. Constables remained manorially appointed servants until the 19th century and do not figure here at ordinary parish meetings. (fn. 30) The activities of the churchwardens, as such, are not always distinguishable from those of the overseers in the 16th and early 17th centuries, church rates being often expended partly on poor relief. (fn. 31) Moreover, Ely churchwardens, usually of higher social status than the appointed overseers, pulled their full weight as ex-officio overseers. (fn. 32) From the later 17th century, though dominated by the cathedral clergy, the assembled vestry did include citizens (fn. 33) - sometimes as many as twenty-determined to record their mark beside the names of the usual coterie, composed of vicar, parish officers, and one or two magistrates. There were periods of negligence, (fn. 34) but the general impression is one of considerable vigilance and insight. 'There is a halfe crown in this money questionable', recorded St. Mary's vestry in 1654; in 1730 the meeting was lively: twenty-four signatures were appended to a protest respecting an overseer who had 'carry'd away the book so that noe rate could be made' -presumably the high rate necessitated to finance the recently erected workhouse.

In the 16th century the most interesting parish activities were attempts to help the small tradesman to find his feet, by granting loans from parish funds: from 1623 onwards the projects for employing the ablebodied were the outstanding features. Apprenticeship of children was also an important and long-continued policy: valuable benefactions facilitated the selection of trades which afforded genuine training and good prospects. A quantity of wool was purchased, in 1623, and substantial sums were paid for spinning and weaving. Some of this relief work was done 'in the house'. The enterprise almost paid its way at this date. Wool seems to have been procured locally, but 'oyle' was imported from Bury, Worlington, and London. The poor were also supplied with cheap turf and charcoal; the latter was brought by water from Worlington. (fn. 35) In 1675 the Ely Governors were the main sponsors of a new scheme. An elaborate four-year contract (fn. 36) was made with a Norwich man, who was to employ 'in spinning of jersey' any poor sent to him, paying them 'in mony and not in goods, the comon country rate'-important stipulations. The contractor was to receive £30 per annum, and also an interest-free loan of £50 in the trusteeship of the dean. (fn. 37) Ely was within reach of good textile markets, and spinning and combing, backed by the Feoffees, (fn. 38) were persistently carried on through the 18th century. The gap between receipts and expenditure grew unfavourably, but the provision of genuine work remained a determined, if unsuccessful, policy. A com prehensive programme for the relief of poverty was drawn up about 1729. It included a workhouse, but did not abolish domestic employment and other relief. In view of the harsh doctrines of the age, the programme was unusually sympathetic: even 'bacco' was regularly allowed to certain types of poor. The workhouse was managed directly by the overseers, under very shrewd vestry supervision. (fn. 39) The payment of rents on behalf of paupers was to be revised quarterly; workhouse children were not to be apprenticed before the age of 14 or 15, and in no case to blind-alley occupations or to mere drudgery. The aim of the whole programme was 'to provide for the poor in a more comfortable manner than has hitherto been done'. Public co-operation was frankly solicited: the weekly board-meetings and the quarterly audits were to be open to any two or more ratepayers. (fn. 40) A thatched building, in the gift of the dean, was leased to the parish as a new workhouse in 1747. (fn. 41) In 1776 there were 80 inmates in a workhouse probably shared by the two parishes. By 1785 the work programme was failing: in the next century the prospects of hand-produced textiles grew ever more dim. Publicly sponsored work was mainly in textiles and stone-gathering, but in the later 18th century employment was sometimes found in farming and brick-making-a policy strongly advocated, on various grounds, by the Revd. James Bentham. (fn. 42)

'The city of Ely', wrote Camden in 1586, (fn. 43) 'is not inconsiderable, nor yet to be boasted for beauty or populousness.' A century later Celia Fiennes (fn. 44) noted the willow-banked dykes and the commanding minster, but condemned both the civic rule by a bishop and the unenterprising citizens it engendered. Her opinion of drainage experts was no higher: a day begun by floundering through the flooded 'causey' and main streets of the city, and concluded in a slug-infested bed-chamber, doubtless darkened her view. The palace was left vacant (fn. 45) and the city was 'a perfect quagmire'. There was, she asserted, 'no tradeing in the town, their maine buissiness and dependance is on draining and fencing their grounds and breeding and grasseing cattle.' Defoe, (fn. 46) in 1724, was far less gloomy. Though also impressed by the overflowing wells-'almost every hundred yards' along Fore Hill-he was eloquent respecting the excellent market-gardens. Edmund Carter, (fn. 47) a generation later, was frankly adulatory. Drainage had made the city 'a most healthful place'. Needham's Charity School, erected 11 years earlier on Back Hill, (fn. 48) had begun to provide elementary education. The main interests were agricultural, but citizens were agog with energy. The vineyards had disappeared by the 17th century, but fruit-growing flourished, especially cherries and strawberries. A wide variety and 'prodigious quantities' (fn. 49) of vegetables found their way by water to many parts of Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Lincolnshire, and Cambridgeshire, particularly to Stourbridge Fair. A mail coach left thrice weekly from the Lamb Inn for Cambridge, and a 'passage-boat' did the journey in six hours. The Saturday market was always wellstocked with victuals-meat, fish, poultry, dairy produce, and corn. (fn. 50) The two fairs flourished, hops being now a special feature at the October gathering. The city was plentifully supplied with spring water, but for washing and brewing soft water was carried on horseback from the river in large leather bags. Carter's picture is in strange contrast to that of Bentham only four years later. Bentham was more impressed by the inefficiency of drainage than by its success; by the trials of carriage-journeys to Cambridge than by their triumph. His one word of praise was for the recent paving of Ely High Street by aid of public subscription. He urged the adoption of the Turnpike system for roads between Ely and Cambridge and the major towns of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Huntingdonshire; regular public work on the roads, at fair wages, would go far to meet unemployment. (fn. 51) The depressing harvest of 1757 no doubt deepened the gloom of Bentham's picture, but his suggestions bore fruit. (fn. 52)

Some rise in the population of Ely appears to have occurred in the 17th century, and by 1638 a crowded area on the Lynn Road had been dubbed 'Little London'. (fn. 53) The plague of 1630-1 (fn. 54) struck the city severely, and deaths were still above normal the following year. The Great Plague of 1665-6 visited Cambridge and towns near Ely, (fn. 55) but the toll of death was much heavier in the city itself in 1667-8 and 1680. (fn. 56) Smallpox probably explained the abnormal death-rates of 1720 and 1780. Infant mortality was high: on an average more than half the burials of the 17th century were specified as those of infants; from about 1730 this proportion dropped somewhat, save in bad years. In 1753 Carter computed the number of houses in the city as 609 and the population as 3,000. (fn. 57) By the end of the century Ely was experiencing the rapid rise in population general in England.


  • 1. V.C.H. Cambs. ii, 407.
  • 2. M. Noble, Memoirs of the Protectora House of Cromwell (1787), i, 110.
  • 3. E. G. Punchard, Cromwell and the Old House of Ely (1906), 8.
  • 4. M. Noble, Memoirs of ... House of Cromwell, i, 110.
  • 5. C. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, iii, 387; A. Kingston, East Anglia in the Civil War, 149-50.
  • 6. Atkinson, Archit. Hist. Ely, App. ix; Stewart, Archit. Hist. Ely Cath., 251 et seq.
  • 7. Some of the prebendal houses fell into disrepair, or into the hands of non-clerics. The ancient Knights' Lodging, given to the minor canons at the Dissolution, suffered the most heavily. It was finally demolished in 1694 (R. Gibbon, Small Beer of History, 102-3).
  • 8. He was one of the 'Governors of the Lands and Possessions of the Poor of Ely' (MS. Records of Parsons' Charity, Ely). See also M. Noble, Memoirs of ... House of Cromwell, i, 107.
  • 9. In 1638 he strenuously opposed the drainage scheme, earning the popular title of 'Lord of the Fens' (Noble, op. cit. 108).
  • 10. Powell's defence (see below).
  • 11. He was also a prime mover on behalf of popular education at Ely. Bp.'s Mun., Ely, B 6, Schools; cf. also Watson's Charge to the Clergy of the Archdeaconry of Ely (1788); V.C.H. Cambs. ii, 414.
  • 12. V.C.H. Cambs. ii, 76-81.
  • 13. Cal. S. P. Dom. 1638-9, 301 et seq.; 503 et seq.
  • 14. The mob threatened to break open the bishop's jail. Some 200 Ely citizens seem to have taken part and to have enlisted sympathizers from Mildenhall, Lakenheath, Littleport, and Downham (Cal. S. P. Dom. 1638-9, 301 et seq.; 503 et seq.).
  • 15. Cf. Edm. Carter, Hist. of Cambs. (1819), 66.
  • 16. Always an agrarian rather than an industrial problem here. Floods were a familiar cause at all periods.
  • 17. In the Restoration period bishop, dean, and chapter provided much skilled employment on the neglected cathedral. Bishop Laney, Wren's successor, repaired the episcopal palace, which had previously been bought back after its temporary alienation. In 1663, a year of much distress, the dean and chapter made special contributions for bread for the poor. In the later 1670's, stress was laid on prevention of poverty: £20 p.a. was contributed by the dean and chapter to apprentice boys to good trades or to seamanship. Some boys were sent to Cambridge University. Bishop Laney's will left valuable funds for apprenticing children of Ely and Soham (R. Gibbons, Small Beer of History, 104 et seq.).
  • 18. A Thomas Parsons figured in the Survey of 1416. The name appears repeatedly in 15th-century documents.
  • 19. The infrequency of the levies of 10ths and 15ths made this desirable; changes in regulations had been permitted from time to time by Decrees and Letters Patent. Rep. Com. Char. (Cambs.), [103], 217 et seq., H.C. (1837-8), xxiv.
  • 20. The consent of at least 6 members was necessary, of whom 1 must be the bishop, dean, or archdeacon.
  • 21. S. and B. Webb, Manor and Borough, 132-3, 265; V.C.H. Essex, i, 369-74. In 1633 the property consisted of 93 acres of arable and 8 acres of marsh in Stretham, together with 7 tenements and small inclosures in Stretham and Ely.
  • 22. Modern public audit was inaugurated in 1835.
  • 23. 15 Chas. II, c. 17.
  • 24. A block of 270 acres lay in West Fen; 3 blocks amounting to 228 acres in Padnal; 42 acres in North Fen; the remaining 60 acres were distributed over Byal, Burnt, Cawdle, Milking Hill, and Great Middle Fens.
  • 25. e.g. in the establishment of workhouses.
  • 26. e.g. in the early 19th century towards the clothing of Nat. Sch. children. In the 1830's garden allotments on part of New Barns estate were leased by the Governors and let at low rentals to the poor. By 1835 the annual rental of the Stretham property was over £282, of the Ely property about £475. The latter included the Cross Keys and the White Swan Inns, 11 tenements and 2 warehouses, in addition to the fen commons. The total income of the trust reached nearly £1,150.
  • 27. No early vestry records are extant for Holy Trinity parish; those for St. Mary's begin in 1570 but are far from continuous: they form the main source of information on parish activities.
  • 28. This body, often referred to as 'The Feoffees', was closely associated with St. Mary's parish, with whose archives the Trust records were kept until modern times. There are many 18th-century 'Spinning-Books' extant among the rec. of St. Mary's parish.
  • 29. Under Acts of 2 and 3 Ph. & M., c. 8, and 5 Eliz., c. 13. The bishop still undertook the maintenance of the causeway to Stuntney and later bishops retained a special interest in communications.
  • 30. Their attendance was legally necessary for the annual election of surveyors.
  • 31. Thirty-eight of St. Mary's parishioners paid the church rate in 1584; 144 paid in 1604, 55 of whom were very small contributors. As the proportion of these latter remained high, there must have been strong temptation to allow some contributors to the Hearth Tax (e.g. in 1674) to escape.
  • 32. A duty often neglected elsewhere. Chettisham was clearly represented from the mid-17th century.
  • 33. Possibly thus seeking expression denied them elsewhere.
  • 34. A bequest to the parish, in the trusteeship of the Bedford Level Corporation, lay unclaimed for twenty-five years prior to 1738.
  • 35. A village on the south bank of the Lark, about a mile west of Mildenhall. Being between the fen and the breckland it was better wooded than Ely.
  • 36. Contractor might terminate the engagement at end of first year, if he desired.
  • 37. The materials were supplied to homeworkers, but there was certainly a workhouse in existence in 1687. The Dean and Chapter contributed £40 thereto in 1687. (R. Gibbons, Small Beer of History, 244.)
  • 38. Spinning Bks., St. Mary's parish rec.
  • 39. A register was to be kept of all entrance to or discharge from the workhouse. Overseers were not to buy materials beyond the needs of their own term of office. Each overseer was to be individually responsible for any expense he sanctioned. Any officer purchasing for the workhouse goods above market price was to be compelled to keep and pay for these himself. No tradesman, whilst in office, was to supply any of his own commodities to recipients of parish relief. A public vestry was to be called before any changes in the regulations were made.
  • 40. Any officer hindering free public inspection was to be fined.
  • 41. Allegedly in conformity with the General Workhouse Act of 9 Geo. I, c. 7.
  • 42. J. Bentham, Queries (1757), 30 et seq.
  • 43. W. Camden, Britannia (1607), 215 et seq.
  • 44. Through England on a Side Saddle, 1695 (1888), 127-31.
  • 45. It had been restored at great cost, less than twenty years earlier, by Bishop Laney.
  • 46. Tour through Whole Island of Gt. Britain (1742), i. 77.
  • 47. Edm. Carter, Hist. of Cambs. 65 et seq.
  • 48. See below, p. 87.
  • 49. Asparagus, potatoes, onions, beans, peas, cauliflowers, cabbages, and artichokes.
  • 50. In 1768 Ely and Cambridge markets were setting the corn price for a wide area (E. M. Hampson, Treatment of Poverty in Cambs. 99).
  • 51. 'Whether setting them to work and regularly paying them just and reasonable wages (which Authority might appoint and limit) is not the best and most likely way to relieve their wants?' (Q. 18). He urged the desirability of offering genuinely needed work in hedging, ditching, embanking, gravel-digging, road-making, and brick-making; this would also benefit the health and morale of adults and children; the latter suffered badly from workhouse lack of sunshine and fresh air. He stressed also the need for the better education of parish children. There were, he said, several thousand acres 'very near us, and some of the best of our fens, that have been covered with water more than ten years past'. As for parish road-making: 'Are not common day works turned into so many days of relaxation from work?' (Q. 55). He made precise suggestions respecting the turnpiking of roads from Ely to Bury, Newmarket, Mildenhall, Cambridge, Huntingdon, St. Ives, Peterborough, Lynn, and Wisbech. He would begin with such a road from Earith or Chatteris, through Ely, to Soham: this would afford an admirable trunk for later branches to Norf., Suff., and Hunts. (Qs. 52-108).
  • 52. Bentham played a vigorous part in initiating the construction of the turnpike road between Ely and Cambridge, begun in 1769, and subscribed to largely by the ecclesiastical authorities and prominent townsmen of Ely and by the leading members of the town and university of Cambridge (B.M. Add. MS. 5813, f. 155).
  • 53. Cal. S. P. Dom., 1638, p. 504.
  • 54. Cf. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, iii, 243. The parish reg. of Ely-a small town, immediately under the episcopal eye and without any dissenting chapels in the mid-18th century-probably afford a fairly good basis for population statistics of the 17th and 18th centuries, though even here the marked increase in baptisms after Bishop Wren's reinstatement is suggestive. In the late 18th century episcopal surveys reveal the marked growth of dissent. (Schools, B. 6. & C. 2, Bp.'s Mun., Ely.)
  • 55. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, iii, 520.
  • 56. Parish Reg., Ely.
  • 57. Hist. of County of Cambs. 64.