A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 9, Chesterton, Northstowe, and Papworth Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.

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'Introduction', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 9, Chesterton, Northstowe, and Papworth Hundreds, ed. A P M Wright, C P Lewis( London, 1989), British History Online [accessed 16 July 2024].

'Introduction', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 9, Chesterton, Northstowe, and Papworth Hundreds. Edited by A P M Wright, C P Lewis( London, 1989), British History Online, accessed July 16, 2024,

"Introduction". A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 9, Chesterton, Northstowe, and Papworth Hundreds. Ed. A P M Wright, C P Lewis(London, 1989), , British History Online. Web. 16 July 2024.


The present volume relates to the quadrant of southern Cambridgeshire lying north-west of Cambridge. It is bounded on the south by the road running west to St. Neots (Hunts.) and on the east by the lower course of the river Cam, and falls into two distinct physical landscapes. In the southern part the ground slopes gently down from the slight ridge which the road follows; the ridge is capped with boulder clay and was probably once well wooded. The northern half consists of low-lying level land, easily flooded but fertile, forming a southward extension of the fenlands of the Isle of Ely. Much of it was drained and extensively settled during the Roman period. The shape of the parishes within both regions largely conforms to the north-eastward alignment of the drainage into the river Ouse, which forms the northern boundary of the area.

Two distinct patterns of settlement, reflecting the geographical division, had been created by the late 11th century, when all the existing townships had been established, including the small hamlet of Westwick, presumably once settled from Cottenham, and Landbeach, perhaps derived from Waterbeach nearer the Cam, with which it shared the name of Beach. The two Papworths were presumably created earlier than 1066 by the division of a single township, while Knapwell and Childerley may have been separated from parent vills of Elsworth and Lolworth. In the south settlement was largely confined to a single nucleated village within each parish. Only in Elsworth was a subsidiary settlement, called Grave, recorded in the 13th and 14th centuries. Further north some more populous villages stretched along attenuated streets linking perhaps formerly separate 'ends', some focussed, as at Long Stanton, on the churches attached to different manors. At Swavesey, where a river port grew up c. 1200 and a market town by 1250, there are signs of a planned layout.

The villages on the higher ground and those between Long Stanton and Milton north of the Cambridge-Huntingdon road were largely devoted to arable farming, most by the 13th century following a triennial rotation upon three or more open fields. By the 14th century barley was the main peasant crop. The grassland was largely confined to the margins of the parishes or to interstices in the fields, as leys or as narrow meadows along streams, though Elsworth and Boxworth had extensive commons by the St. Neots road until the 16th century. In several parishes the fenland abbeys such as Ramsey and Crowland practised classical demesne farming or their manors from the early 13th century to c. 1400. In the 15th and 16th centuries the wealthier peasants, holding demesnes on lease and possessing several of the standard customary holdings, for a time occupied most of the land in the larger parishes. Some of the smaller parishes, including Madingley, Childerley, Knapwell, Boxworth, Conington, and Papworth St. Agnes, came into or remained in the hands of a single landowner between the early 16th century and the mid 17th. Except in Childerley, depopulated and converted to pasture by the 1520s, and in part of its neighbour Boxworth, converted from the 1570s, the triennial system was maintained by the tenant farmers, although open-field strips were sometimes consolidated. Traditional farming methods were not in substance abandoned until inclosure was achieved in the area, whether informally or by statute, mostly between 1800 and 1840. Each parish tended to be dominated by its principal landowner and the Church of England. Organized dissent was seldom strong before the early 19th century. The population rose steadily in the first half of that century, but fell sharply from the 1870s, while on many farms arable reverted to rough grassland during the agricultural depression. In the late 20th century the farms largely grew corn. Save in two or three parishes, where new building in the village made substantial immigration possible, and at Papworth Everard, where a tuberculosis colony installed c. 1920 promoted light industry, there was little growth in numbers even in the late 20th century. South of the Huntingdon road a few villages were less populous in 1981 than in 1801.

Along the fen edge the parishes were mostly larger; a smaller proportion of the land, usually lying above 5 m. (15 ft.) towards their southern ends, was occupied by open fields, mostly under triennial rotations in the Middle Ages. Some parishes changed to a five-course rotation in the 16th century. Up to two thirds of the land consisted of meadow and pasture created on former marshland and preserved only by constant efforts to maintain embankments and drainage channels. Even where much of the arable was in the hands of lords and other large landowners, numerous smallholders could support themselves out of the resources of the fens, grazing sheep on the commons, fishing, fowling, and cutting peat. By the 16th century many dairy cattle were kept, and the villages near Cottenham were noted in the 18th century for cheese. Pressure from outsiders for access to the commons and fear of overburdening by native commoners led from the late 15th century to the elaboration of bylaws regulating the exercise of common rights, which remained in force until inclosure after 1800. In the 17th century the villagers had combined with considerable success to resist the attempts of new lay lords, as at Willingham, Over, and Cottenham, to restore seigneurial rights and revenues and to annex and inclose large tracts of the commons. Some fenland was conceded to the lords but more was retained as common. In some villages, including Cottenham and Fen Drayton, the supervision of charity land and of drainage led to the growth of communal institutions outside the normal range of parish government. Large dissenting congregations were established in several villages in the late 17th and early 18th century, and with the support of independent farmers and tradesmen flourished into the mid 20th century. After inclosure much grassland was brought under the plough for the first time. From the 1870s much of the former open-field land was planted with orchards, soft fruit, and vegetables. Much of the fruit went to the jam factory started at Histon in the 1870s by the Chivers family, long the largest local employer. With the decline of the factory from the 1950s fruit growing also receded. In the 20th century the county council, and at Fen Drayton the Land Settlement Association, acquired much land for settling smallholders, mainly engaged in market gardening. The introduction of such new crops enabled the larger villages such as Cottenham, Histon, and Willingham to maintain or increase their population between 1870 and 1980.

The south-eastern corner was particularly affected after 1850 by the urban and academic expansion of Cambridge. Chesterton underwent extensive building from the 1850s and became fully suburban between 1950 and 1987. Girton, Histon, Impington, and Milton, though formally independent, were all largely built up in the 20th century and became effectively suburbs, whose inhabitants mostly worked in the town. Research institutions mainly concerned with agrarian matters were set up in several parishes, and in the 1970s Trinity College developed a Science Park in Chesterton.