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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All the 10 hides except Ramsey abbey's 3 yardlands were occupied in 1066 by c. 10 sokemen. Eight sokemen still possessed 6¼ hides in 1086 and 5 villani c. 1 hide, while only 2¾ hides were in demesne, only Ramsey's estate having any servi. There were also 8 bordars and 3 cottars. The limited arable, 5 ploughlands, for which only 2¾ teams were available, suggests that pasture was already important. (fn. 1) In the 13th century Fen Drayton was still dominated by its resident freeholders, an attempt by Agnes de la Roche c. 1206 to claim more services from her sokemen having apparently failed. (fn. 2) In 1279 the Zouches and Segraves had no demesne there, the land being mostly possessed by free tenants, paying rents averaging 3s. 6d. a half yardland on the Richmond fee, 3s. 4d. a yardland on the Segrave estate. They owed few labour services. The 3 harvest boons, 2 love boons, and 1 day's carrying corn due to Ellen la Zouche from five sokemen holding 4 yardlands directly of her and the single harvest boon and 2 days' ploughing likewise owed by three Segrave tenants were presumably performed, if at all, on the lords' demesnes at Swavesey and Fen Stanton (Hunts.). The other large fees had only free tenants. (fn. 3)
Of c. 29 yardlands recorded in 1279 c. 18¼ depended on Swavesey and 4¼ on Fen Stanton manor. There was much inequality among the lesser freeholders: seven with 20 a. or more each, including two with double yardlands, and three full yardlanders had c. 268 a. between them and nine others with over 10 a. shared another 126 a., while five smallholders each with 5-10 a. possessed only 31 a. and 33 others barely 54 a. between them. On the two larger manors 20 head tenants held c. 415 a. and their numerous undertenants held only 115 a. (fn. 4)
In the later Middle Ages accumulations of land by non-resident gentry usually proved ephemeral. The Knyvetts' estate, 150 a. of arable and 200 a. of meadow in 1381, (fn. 5) was not recorded after the 1430s. Likewise the Pabenhams' land, probably enlarged from 80 a. c. 1390 (fn. 6) to c. 185 a. of arable and 50 a. of meadow by the 1540s, was then broken up and sold to local yeomen. (fn. 7) Purchases by John Batisford (d. 1628) created the first manorial farm to endure. Until the 1590s he was lending £100 or more to local landowners, expecting to foreclose on their properties. (fn. 8) His acquisitions included Butlers farm, supposedly over 250 a. when purchased in 1578, but reckoned as only 160 a. in 1633, Killingworth's farm, and former chantry land. (fn. 9) There being no copyhold, the lord's strictly manorial income was small, comprising, apart from the freeholders' quitrents, £5 a year c. 1560 (fn. 10) and barely £2 in 1649, the herd silver or grass money of 2d. due from each commonable house. (fn. 11)
Fen Drayton was commended c. 1630 for its excellent meadows by the Ouse, (fn. 12) and its farmland was from the Middle Ages almost equally divided into arable and grassland: in 1279 holdings were regularly described as comprising both arable and meadow, (fn. 13) and in the 16th century some included 1 a. of meadow to every 2 or 3 a. of arable. (fn. 14) The open fields, cultivated on a triennial rotation by 1380, (fn. 15) occupied the southern half of the parish, four fields being named by 1342. (fn. 16) North-west of the village lay Fulwell field, c. 121 a., divided by Green way, mentioned in 1422, from Middle, later Middle Sand, field, c. 77 a.; from the mid 17th century they were combined under the last name. The south-west corner was occupied by Mill field, c. 205 a., east of which, across the brook, was Clay field, 211 a. East of the village was the Hales, c. 83 a., so named by 1300 and cropped by 1600 with Clay and Middle Sand fields. (fn. 17) About 500 a. were under titheable crops in 1598, (fn. 18) and in 1840 there were altogether 770 a. of arable. (fn. 19)
In 1680 the arable after harvest was divided between the wheat stubble, the peas field, and the tilth field. (fn. 20) The principal crop, however, was probably barley. (fn. 21) In 1466 William Pollard left to his widow 3 a. of wheat, 2 a. of rye, and 8 a. of barley. (fn. 22) In the 1590s 120 a. of barley but only 9 a. of peas and 8 a. of wheat were tithed. (fn. 23) Oats and rye were also then grown, (fn. 24) rye still after 1600. (fn. 25)
The northern grasslands (fn. 26) fell into two sections. Along the eastern border lay extensive meadows, divided into furlongs and strips, which individual owners held in severalty, and which became common after haymaking. (fn. 27) Lede meadow, recorded by 1300, and Perchen meadow, together c. 79 a., lay south-east and Harram, later Harrow, meadow, c. 91 a., north-east of the Hales. The tithe-free Far fen, 64 a., (fn. 28) stretching north to the Ouse, had perhaps been brought into several occupation later than the other meadows. West of Far fen lay the parish marshland, recorded in 1299 (fn. 29) and afterwards divided into four: Marsh common, 21 a. by statute measure (traditionally described as 30 a.) by the village, and Oxholme, 148 a. (500 a.), beyond it, were separated by Oxholme ditch, so named in 1422, (fn. 30) from Low fen, (fn. 31) 140 a. (200 a.), and Elney common, 83 a. (200 a.) along the western boundary. At inclosure the grassland included 329 a. of meadow and pasture and 401 a. of commons. (fn. 32)
From the 1530s (fn. 33) claims by the men of Fen Stanton to common their herd of cattle, up to 400 strong, (fn. 34) in Elney were fiercely disputed. Fen Drayton maintained that the commoning was on sufferance, not by custom. In 1533 sixty villagers made a ditch along Elney's western edge to block access, and, when the Fen Stanton men again put in their cattle, drove their herd to be impounded at Cambridge castle. In 1542 (fn. 35) a provisional judgement assigned to Fen Stanton common in Elney for cattle and sheep between Trinity and Michaelmas, a right which was apparently exercised into the 1580s. (fn. 36) The dispute was revived in 1589, when John Batisford (d. 1628) had his farmers plough and sow the baulk in Fulwell field which led to Elney. He also impounded Fen Stanton cattle found in Elney. (fn. 37) Although Batisford professed in the early 1590s to be defending the Fen Drayton commoners' rights, he acted without the colleges' authority and at his own expense. (fn. 38) His opponents alleged that he intended, having established his title as lord to own the waste, to inclose part of it in severalty. (fn. 39) After 1600 the lords of Fen Drayton attempted such inclosure under the fen drainage Acts, but were opposed by the commoners. No stint was set for cattle and some occupiers overcharged the common with them. (fn. 40) About 1635 Francis Apthorpe, rectory lessee (fn. 41) and occupier of Lordship and other farms, was alleged to keep 35 horses, 76 cattle, and 500 sheep. (fn. 42)
Both disputes were settled in 1680, (fn. 43) when the new lord, James Desborough, reached an agreement with the commoners. He renounced his claims to inclose waste, and was thereafter to have common rights solely in proportion to his land: c. 1780 the larger manor farm with 120 a. of arable accordingly had common for 140 sheep and 30 cows. (fn. 44) For other owners a stint was set of 7 cows and 8 sheep for every commonable house and 3 cows and 8 sheep, reduced from the 14 allowed in 1671, (fn. 45) for every 20 a. of several land. One bull was to be supplied for every 12 cows kept. Those without beasts might let their rights only to other villagers, or else be compensated out of the rates. Under the agreement Elney could be grazed with all beasts except oxen and sheep thoughout the year. Low fen, Oxholme, and Marsh common, after a close season for spring growth, were available for cattle and mares from April to February, but sheep were admitted only in the early winter. The small Whitsuntide meadow (15 a.) could be fed earlier if Low fen were flooded. Cows could enter the meadows and open fields after mowing and reaping were completed in August, sheep only after Michaelmas.
The system thus organized was preserved in essence into the 1830s, although stints were occasionally adjusted. That for sheep, raised to 12 for a house and 16 for 20 a. in 1734, was cut to 10 and 14 in 1771. From 1734 only 2 cows were allowed for 20 a. (fn. 46) After 1700 there were c. 48 commonable houses, (fn. 47) and in 1820 the common rights accepted were allowed for 385 cows and 1,910 sheep. (fn. 48) About 1799 the actual number kept was 300 cows and 800 wethers. (fn. 49)
Although the lesser landholders could exploit those common rights, (fn. 50) the economic gap between more and less prosperous villagers was maintained or increased. In 1524 two men worth £13 and £15 were taxed on almost a quarter of the £122 then assessed, and 8 with £5-8 on another £53, while 7 men with £3 or less possessed only £14 and 4 paid only on their wages. (fn. 51) Early 16th-century yeomen made substantial bequests for fuel, clothing, and other necessaries for their poorer neighbours. (fn. 52) In the 1630s there was a sharp contrast between the wealthy engrosser Francis Apthorpe, who occupied c. 300 a. of arable, and the few freeholders and poorer cottagers whom he left to bear the church rates. (fn. 53) In 1664 half the 60 householders had only one hearth each, and 18 of them were too poor to pay rates. (fn. 54)
Some yardland-sized holdings of 30-40 a., including meadow, were still recorded in the 17th century. (fn. 55) Land was gradually engrossed by yeomen such as Hamond Nicholls, the rectory undertenant, who left his widow and children £300 in 1596. (fn. 56) His successor Thomas Cropwell (fn. 57) bought 85 a. in 1599, (fn. 58) and later Cropwells had substantial farms in the mid 17th century. (fn. 59) One 66-a. holding descended intact from the 1690s until after 1800. (fn. 60) Another of 92 a. was recorded from 1762. (fn. 61) The manorial estate was divided from the 1690s into Butlers (later the Great) farm 120 a. of arable and 60 a. of meadow, and Pollards farm, half that size, (fn. 62) but was united in the 1830s. (fn. 63) From the 1770s six or seven large farmers rated at £50-160 probably occupied most of the other land; only two out of 30 other occupiers were rated at over £30, most at under £10. (fn. 64) By the 1750s John Daintree, of a family farming there in 1730, occupied 130 a. (fn. 65) Daintrees, mostly as owneroccupiers, possessed all but three of the ten farms that emerged with 75 a. or more after inclosure. (fn. 66)
There were changes in open-field cultivation in the 18th century: in 1761 three furlongs were sown with clover. (fn. 67) In 1829 a 21-a. holding included 8 a. of wheat, 9½ a. of beans, and only 3 a. of fallow. (fn. 68) Inclosure, however, was long postponed, an Act being obtained only in 1838. (fn. 69) Only one substantial landowner and eight smallholders dissented. (fn. 70) The allotment was effected the next year. (fn. 71) The award covered 1,361 a. of open fields, meadows, and commons, and 74 a. of old inclosures. (fn. 72) Besides 211 a. allotted for the manorial estate, c. 640 a. were assigned to five larger holdings, thenceforth of 100-150 a., another 248 a. to four others of over 50 a., including the glebe farm. Eleven lesser owners with 10-50 a. emerged with 210 a., while ten smallholders shared 52 a. Ten of the smaller allotments, c. 123 a. in all, went to non-resident owners without farmhouses in the parish. The properties thus created were not completely concentrated, most larger allotments containing land in both the southern fields and former northern grassland. (fn. 73)
There were then fewer farms than estates: three farms of c. 210 a., three of 120-150 a., and two of 75-85 a. in 1839 covered 1,186 a., and four others another 120 a., while 14 smallholders occupied 92 a. (fn. 74) Later in the 19th century (fn. 75) there were usually nine or ten distinct farms of 40 a. or more, mostly exceeding 80 a. Larger holdings included those of S. A. Daintree, who in 1861 had 750 a., part probably elsewhere, and William Cooper, with 620 a. by 1881. In 1910 there were three farms of 193 a., 220 a., and 258 a. and a further c. 525 a. were occupied by eight members of the Johnson family. (fn. 76) In the 1920s and 1930s there were six or seven farms over 100 a., including two over 300 a., (fn. 77) and by 1955 three farmers occupied 1,273 a., while eight others had together barely 125 a. (fn. 78)
Although c. 1830 there had been much unemployment, especially among the younger men, (fn. 79) from the 1850s to 1881 there was sufficient work for the 40-50 adult labourers living in the village. The farmers employed only 36 men in 1851, but over 70 by 1861 and c. 55 in 1871, besides 10- 20 boys and 20-30 women. (fn. 80) By the 1890s, when wages were low, there was some unemployment in winter. (fn. 81) There were still almost 50 full-time labourers in 1925. (fn. 82)
Although until the 1880s (fn. 83) c. 450 a. were probably under corn crops, half wheat, the area of permanent grass rose from the 300 a. reported in 1866 to 538 a. by 1895 and 627 a. in 1915: c. 60 a. of Low fen was again grassland in 1927. (fn. 84) In 1841 four and in 1851 two hay factors had dealt in the produce of the meadows. (fn. 85) The number of grown sheep kept, though cut to barely 40 in 1885, rose again to over 400 by 1905. Milk and beef cattle were still extensively grazed in the late 19th century and early 20th. There was also some diversification. By 1861 two of the larger farmers dealt in seeds. (fn. 86) A Bedfordshire man introduced the cultivation of onions and cucumbers c. 1852. (fn. 87) William Cooper engaged in market gardening until the 1880s, and there were two or three market gardeners until the 1920s. (fn. 88) About 1880 there were almost 125 a. of market gardens, besides c. 105 a. of potatoes. (fn. 89) In 1935 40 a. south of the village were market gardens. (fn. 90) The area of orchards doubled between 1905 and 1915 to 32 a., mostly apples and plums. (fn. 91)
In 1936 the Land Settlement Association installed on their newly acquired 350 a. c. 54 smallholders with 3-5 a. each. Besides keeping pigs and poultry, they grew tomatoes, lettuces, celery, and autumn flowers, mainly in glasshouses. (fn. 92) The smallholders encountered difficulties in the late 1970s, partly through competition from imported produce. Some went bankrupt, others abandoned their holdings, reducing their numbers to 47 in 1981 and 29 in 1983. After the government decided to dismantle the association's centralized marketing organization, its Fen Drayton estate was offered for sale in 1983, parts being acquired by the former tenants, some of whom formed a co-operative. (fn. 93) The rest of the parish was in 1980 devoted to mixed farming, c. 400 ha. being under wheat and barley and c. 200 ha. under permanent grass; one dairy farmer had 200 cows. (fn. 94) A poultry farmer had a large range of broiler houses south-east of the village.
A windmill possessed in 1279 by Agnes of Conington (fn. 95) was presumably that from which Mill field was named by 1342. (fn. 96) The windmill belonging to Bartons farm c. 1600 (fn. 97) was presumably the predecessor of that which stood in 1840 in the south-west quarter of Mill field. (fn. 98) It was a smock mill in 1794 and 1809. (fn. 99) Although perhaps still working c. 1831 (fn. 100) it was apparently disused by 1838, (fn. 101) but a local baker again put it to work between 1880 and 1900. (fn. 102) The mill was not recorded after 1930. (fn. 103)
Few craftsmen were recorded before the 19th century: a wright and a 'cursour' in 1450, (fn. 104) a tailor in 1653, (fn. 105) and a maltster in 1658. (fn. 106) A smith was lodging travellers c. 1260. (fn. 107) The smithy, which belonged to the manorial estate from the 1690s (fn. 108) until after 1840, (fn. 109) remained open into the 1930s. (fn. 110) In 1821 out of 67 households only 9 were primarily supported by trades and crafts, but the number had risen to 19 out of 77 by 1831. (fn. 111) From the 1840s to the 1880s the village usually contained a carpenter and builder, a wheelwright, a tailor, and a shoemaker. Its shops included one or two bakers and four or five butchers perhaps handling locally reared cattle. (fn. 112) Only one shop survived in 1920, (fn. 113) as in 1983, when a small motor engineering workshop stood near the green.
Gravel digging had begun c. 1935, when 56 a. south-west of the village were ready to be dug. (fn. 114) By 1950 large areas there had been excavated. (fn. 115) New diggings, mostly in the far north, began in the late 1950s: in 1963 another 300 a., partly north of the railway line, were about to be dug, (fn. 116) and in 1979 a further 285 a. (fn. 117) From the early 1970s the work was carried on by Amey Roadstone Corporation, (fn. 118) which by 1977 had an asphalt plant near Low fen. (fn. 119) By 1983 over 130 a. west of the Holywell ferry road had been excavated, and digging continued further east. (fn. 120)