City of Ely: Nineteenth and twentieth centuries

Pages 45-47

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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The period 1815-37 was one of general depression. At the beginning of 1816 wheat was sold on the Ely market at 52s. 6d. a qr.; already in May it reached 76s., and rose to 103s. in December. (fn. 1) Wages averaged but 8s. to 9s. a week and showed no response to soaring prices: many had no work at all. Such was the background of the Ely and Littleport riots of May 1816-the unorganized outbreak of a mob 'crazy with hunger', (fn. 2) designing, by raids upon food and drink stores, (fn. 3) to give point to their vague demand for 'the price of a stone of flour per day'. The outbreak began at a Littleport benefit club, meeting in a public house, and threatened to spread to Ely. (fn. 4) Special constables were sworn in at Ely and a small body of dragoons (fn. 5) was summoned from Bury to overawe the rioters. In fact little bodily injury was inflicted on either side. The Ely magistrates, led by one Metcalfe, minor canon and precentor, were conciliatory: enfeebled labourers would probably have capitulated forthwith, but for the unaccustomed access to free drinks. Some of the disorders were committed by mere boys, though there were also despairing men who 'might as well be hanged as starve'. (fn. 6) Certain of the instigators were men of better economic standing: (fn. 7) such was the unfortunate John Dennis, whose influence in checking the wilder elements marked him out as a ringleader. Much capital was made by Chief Justice Christian (fn. 8) out of the 'great wages' of the leaders and the expenditure of the moneys extorted upon liquor rather than bread. Between 70 and 80 rioters were arrested and a Special Commission was appointed for their trial at Ely. Ultimately only 5 suffered execution; (fn. 9) 5 were transported for life; 1 for 14 years; 3 for 7 years; and 11 were imprisoned in Ely jail.

Agrarian conditions were bad in 1829: Ely labourers 'no longer able to maintain themselves by the sweat of their brows', were driven 'to the scanty pittance derived from parish funds'. (fn. 10) The memory of 1816, however, deterred Ely citizens from any participation in the risings which occurred elsewhere in 1830.

During these difficult years parish authorities showed themselves experimentally progressive. Though only qualified success was attained, the way was paved for modern reforms. Paid officers increased in number and efficiency; the committee system grew; public meetings were more frequently summoned and at times demanded a poll; road questions and new public services evoked greater co-operation between the two parishes; lighting and watching improvements were discussed; under the new Poor Law the modern era in local government was inaugurated. Of these activities road problems and relief aroused most interest.

Road problems brought joint parochial action. The turnpike system, first adopted by the city in 1763, (fn. 11) for the road between Ely and Cambridge, proved unsatisfactory within the city itself and its immediate environs; hence, in 1817, the two parishes reassumed responsibility for St. Mary's Street. In 1832 and 1836 joint committees discussed the Old Mile Stone Road (fn. 12) and the road across Padnal Fen to Prickwillow. A new paid officer, the Collector of Surveyors' Rates, appeared in 1836. It was in connexion with St. Mary's Street that lighting by gas was first proposed. Much controversy ended in a final poll, postponing the imposition of a general gas-rate until 1838.

Serious increase in unemployment led St. Mary's parish, in 1822, to levy a labour rate. (fn. 13) Three years later the activities of churchwardens and overseers were submitted to the monthly guidance of a parish committee of twelve members. In 1834 weekly committee meetings were inaugurated. (fn. 14) In October 1835 the vestries were still awaiting instructions from the central Poor Law Commissioners. Though relief conditions hardened, inadequate wages forced St. Mary's vestry, aided by the Feoffees, to purchase bread and flour in large quantities, for distribution according to scale, to families with five children or more. The new Poor Law union was presently created, (fn. 15) and at first used the existing Ely workhouse. (fn. 16) In 1838 this building was sold, a much larger, white brick and stone institution having been erected on the Cambridge road. (fn. 17)

In the middle years of the 19th century Ely farmers had not that stimulus to rapid change which great industrial centres offered. General inclosure of the open fields-the 'Ely Fields', in St. Mary's parish-did not come here until the final award was made in August 1848. (fn. 18) The first steps were taken in 1844, when a public meeting was called (fn. 19) and three Commissioners were appointed, under the General Act of 1837. (fn. 20)

Grunty Fen, in which Ely had intercommoning rights, was inclosed between 1857 and 1861 (see Wilburton).

The practice of raising the clay from below the peat and spreading the clay on the surface had added markedly to the prosperity of Ely farms by 1860.

Population had grown more'rapidly in the city of Ely than in the surrounding country-side: the heavy deathrate brought the city within the terms of the Public Health Act of 1848, (fn. 21) which compelled the appointment of a local Board of Health. An official investigation was ordered.

The Report (fn. 22) showed a rapid increase in mortality between 1841 and 1848, (fn. 23) from 24.1 per mille to 32.6 per mille. Of these deaths 61 per cent. were of children under five; (fn. 24) this fact was attributed, in part, to the wide use of narcotics. Of the total deaths 68 per cent. were preventable. Despite the improved agricultural situation, over half of the total 1,552 houses in the city were poor dwellings, rated below £5. The suburb of Little London, in Holy Trinity parish, had experienced a very rapid recent increase of small houses, partly because Ely had become the junction for three railways. Although situated on much lower ground, 'Potter's Lane and Common Muckhill' now 'yielded the palm' for insalubrity to Little London. Density of population, low diet, insufficient clothing and ventilation, contributed here to the ill effects of open ditches, into one of which drained 'all the piggeries and privies', through 'stinking gutters'. Even in many of the main streets of the city no drains existed. Water derived from the river was much polluted. The cathedral looked down upon an improving landscape, yet this agricultural community languished under a mortality to be expected only in 'the densely packed and ill-conditioned towns of the manufacturing districts'.

As a result of this official report, though in face of considerable opposition, a Board of Health for Ely, consisting of 15 members, was elected in 1850. (fn. 25) The Board assumed various functions hitherto performed by parish and manorial authorities. The abolition of the civil jurisprudence of the bishop, in 1836, (fn. 26) facilitated the gradual development of modern conceptions of local government, through a transitional phase of provision of certain public amenities by private enterprise. Gas-lighting had already thus begun in 1835. The Corn Exchange Company erected its building in the market-place in 1847, taking over on lease the agelong episcopal control of the market. (fn. 27) In the open, pillared front of the corn exchange a special buttermarket was held. A weekly cattle-market also developed. (fn. 28) The city water-reservoir was completed in 1854 and was apparently under the aegis of the Board of Health. (fn. 29) A cemetery was laid out on a part of the New Barns estate under control of a Burial Board. A Mechanics Institute was established in 1842, under the patronage of bishop and dean. In 1851 it had a library of nearly 2,000 volumes. Party politics and controversy were 'rigidly excluded'. Elementary schools increased in number and offered improving facilities. The Feoffees, about 1850, adopted a permanent system of allotments on part of their fen property: (fn. 31) some 400 poor citizens were enabled to rent these cheaply. The Feoffees, about the same time, erected a double row of sixteen almshouses in St. Mary's Street; others were later built near the waterside. (fn. 32) Considerable modernization of houses and shops took place in this period.

Under the general Local Government Act of 1894 the present Urban District of Ely was created, with a council of thirteen persons in 1900. (fn. 33) The Urban District included the two city parishes, the College Precincts, and the hamlets of Stuntney, Chettisham, Prickwillow, and Adelaide Bridge. (fn. 34)

In the 20th century the principal interest of Ely remains agricultural, with stress on traditional specialities. Poultry-farming and pig-breeding have increased in significance. City industries are essentially ancillary to agriculture. Brewing (fn. 35) and brick-making have now extensive markets; boat-building and basket-making are of local import. More recent developments include the manufacture of jam and potato-crisps, portable buildings, farm gates and agricultural machinery, and, above all, beet-sugar. This last industry employs many hands, both in the culture of the beet and in its later processing. The beet-sugar factory, (fn. 36) opened in 1925, is one of the largest in England: during the summer months it deals also with the refining of imported sugar.

Changes in parochial structure and organization have occurred. The Isle of Ely Review Order, operative on 1 April 1933, (fn. 37) effected a net reduction of 2,083 acres in the area of Ely Urban District, but only diminished the population by 87. The area is, therefore, now 14,659 acres in 1951. (fn. 38) By the Ely Urban District (Union of Parishes) Order, operative on 1 June 1933, (fn. 39) the parishes of Ely Holy Trinity and Ely St. Mary, with the Intermixed Lands common to them, were combined to form the single parish of Ely Holy Trinity with St. Mary, having an area of 14,626 acres and a (1931) population of 8,199. Ely College (33 acres, 95 population) was constituted a separate civil parish, within the Ely Urban District. The Urban: District Council numbered fifteen in 1950. (fn. 40)

In 1918, the Urban District Council bought from the then Ecclesiastical Commissioners the rights of the bailiff of the markets. (fn. 41) The rights of the bailiff of the fairs were similarly purchased in 1933. (fn. 42) The Council has acquired extensive free fishing facilities along the river. The far bank of the river, long known as 'Babylon', has been laid out as moorings for yachts and pleasure craft. The palace green is leased by the U.D.C. for use as a public open space. The Council controls the water-supply, obtained from the chalk 8½ miles away, and also owns an open-air swimming-pool.

During the first half of the 19th century Ely showed the marked'rise in population characteristic of the whole country. Until about 1851 the population of Ely Trinity maintained the traditional proportion of about double that of Ely St. Mary; thenceforward the difference diminished, until in 1931 equality was almost reached. Changes in parish boundaries (fn. 43) affected population statistics, though not very markedly. Chettisham was included in St. Mary's civil parish, and Stuntney in that of Holy Trinity, as in early days. In 1951 the population of the city was 9,989-an increase of 20.4 per cent. over the population of 1931. The proportion of houses occupied by more than one family was not large at any date after 1801.


  • 1. Camb. Chron., 1816, weekly pricereports.
  • 2. So described by an Ely citizen, who recalled the comments of his grandfather, Thos. Archer, respecting his youthful night-ride for assistance from Bury. (The manuscript letter and other correspondence from descendants of people concerned in the rising were lent to me by Col. Archer.) See also Camb. Chron., 28 June 1816; Trials of Rioters at Littleport and Ely (anon.), 1816; Ed. Christian, Charges (ed. 1819), chap. xvii.
  • 3. Bakers and brewers were the chief victims, though landlords and others, including the Ely agent of Mortlock's Bank, also suffered.
  • 4. In a milder form also to Downham.
  • 5. A few members of the Volunteer Corps from Royston and militia men from St. Mary's Street Barracks, Ely, also took part in the rather light-hearted display of military force.
  • 6. Correspondence. (See n. 80, above.)
  • 7. These included several substantial farmers; possibly resentment of depredations allowed by the Game Laws played some part in their participation.
  • 8. Chief Justice of the Isle, who was included with Sir Charles Abbot and Sir James Burroughs in the Special Commission. Christian's lack of both humanity and perception is equally evident in his remarks elsewhere on the criminal law and on jail conditions at Ely (Edw. Christian, Charges (1819)).
  • 9. John Dennis and four others, who were buried in St. Mary's Churchyard, Ely.
  • 10. E. M. Hampson, Treatment of Poverty in Cambs., 1597-1834, 215.
  • 11. It ultimately formed part of the road between Cambridge and Lynn, passing through Milton, Stretham, Thetford, Ely, and Littleport. In the course of the next forty years the turnpike system was adopted on part of the Ely to Newmarket road and on the Ely to Wisbech road, passing through Witchford, Mepal, and Chatteris, where it joined the London to Wisbech road (Lysons, Magna Brit. ii (1), 41).
  • 12. 'Commencing at the corner of the Hospital Barn towards the Mills' (St. Mary's Vestry Ord. Bk., 1810-43).
  • 13. Ibid. At the same meeting the impounding of 'a cow belonging to a pauper of St. Mary's parish' was discussed: obviously parish officers at Ely did not follow the common practice of forcing the sale of a valuable possession before granting relief.
  • 14. Poor relief was evidently a heated question: expense was heavy. No fewer than 124 parishioners attended a meeting for the election of a new vestry clerk in April 1832.
  • 15. It included the city parishes and twelve others, covering 128 sq. miles.
  • 16. In St. Mary's parish.
  • 17. With accommodation for 340.
  • 18. A copy of the award, together with the details concerning it-commissioners appointed, letters of claim, applications regarding situation of allocated land, carriage-ways, &c.-is preserved in the office of Messrs. Archer & Beckett, solicitors, Ely. An article by Mr. W. E. Tate ('Cambs. Field Systems') in Cambs. Antiq. Soc. Proc. xl, 71 et seq., requires amendment on this point.
  • 19. Camb. Indep. Press, 30 Mar. 1844.
  • 20. 6 & 7 Wm. IV, c. 115, embodying 41 Geo. III, c. 109 and 1 & 2 Geo. IV, c. 23. Under the General Drainage Act of 1663 (15 Chas. II, c. 17) a certain amount of fen inclosure had taken place, checked by the Act of 1685 (1 Jas. II, c. 21). Small parcels of common field were inclosed from time to time (E. C. K. Gonner, Common Land and Enclosure, 219).
  • 21. 11 & 12 Vic., c. 63.
  • 22. The rep. is freely quoted, point by point, in Statements and Observations in relation to the Report of Wm. Lee Esq., C.E., to the General Board of Health (1850).
  • 23. Influenza and smallpox were very prevalent here in 1848. Population 6,754 in 1841; estimated as 7,610 by June 1849 (Statements and Observs.).
  • 24. Forty-four per cent. were children under 1 year (ibid.).
  • 25. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 490; Kelly's Dir. (1950).
  • 26. 6 & 7 Wm. IV, c. 87, amended by 7 Wm. IV & 1 Vic., c. 53.
  • 27. See below.
  • 28. The ancient market day was changed from Saturday to Thursday in 1801, on petition of the citizens to the bishop, who granted it after consultation with the Chief Justice (Bp.'s Mun., Ely, A. 5).
  • 29. Information given by Clerk to Ely U.D.C.
  • 30. Gardner, Dir. Cambs. (1851), 480.
  • 31. Each of ¼ or ½ acre. MS. Accts. of Parsons' Char.
  • 32. Ibid.
  • 33. Kelly's Dir. (1900).
  • 34. Embracing an area of 16,625 acres, exclusive of water areas.
  • 35. Brewing was an outstanding feature of Ely as early as the 14th century-'Cervyse de Ely' (E.H.R. xvi, 502).
  • 36. About 2 miles out of the city, at Queen Adelaide.
  • 37. M.H., No. 76940. Gained: from Witchford, 42 acres (pop. nil.). Lost: to Witchford, 204 acres (pop. 3); to Witcham, 399 acres (pop. 21); to Downham, 829 acres (pop. 11); to Littleport, 460 acres (pop. 23); to Little Thetford, 233 acres (pop. 29).
  • 38. Ibid.
  • 39. M.H., No. 77445.
  • 40. Kelly's Dir. (1950).
  • 41. The Corn Exchange Co. had only leased these rights, by arrangement with Chas. Newberry, bailiff of the markets by grant of Bishop Turton.
  • 42. On the death in 1933, of the last bailiff, Harold Archer. The fairs had a separate bailiff. (Infm. Lt.-Col. G. L. Archer, Ely.)
  • 43. The Census of 1851 showed a small part of West Fen, formerly in Littleport, as transferred to the lands common to both Ely parishes; areas formerly in Sutton and Witcham as included in Ely Trinity. Under the Divided Parishes Acts of 1876 and 1879 a small part of Prickwillow hamlet was transferred' to Littleport, the remaining part being included in the joint lands of Holy Trinity and Ely St. Mary.