Fen Drayton: Local government

Pages 298-299

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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Local government

In 1279 Richard of Bradenham and other Zouche tenants owed suit twice a year to the honor of Richmond's tourn and every three weeks to the Zouches' court at Swavesey. Shortly before, some tenants had complained that Bradenham sought to make them attend a three-weekly court of his own. The Segraves' tenants, besides attending the sheriff's tourn, owed three-weekly suit to their lord's court at Fen Stanton (Hunts.), which like that at Swavesey enjoyed view of frankpledge and the assize of bread and of ale. Sir Nicholas de Segrave's steward had lately tried to compel William Pollard, who claimed to do suit only to county and hundred, to attend the Fen Stanton court instead. (fn. 1) No evidence has been traced of manorial courts held in Fen Drayton itself in the later Middle Ages. About 1590 the men of Fen Stanton claimed that most Fen Drayton tenants owed suit to Lord Berkeley's court at Fen Stanton, (fn. 2) and implied that John Batisford (d. 1628) had only recently started holding a separate court for his own tenants. (fn. 3)

The probable absence of regular courts left the villagers with some autonomy. About 1580 they asserted that, by a custom of c. 60 years' standing, freeholders and householders assembled yearly in the church at Martinmas to elect a hayward, who was only then sworn in at the lord's court. When in 1582 John Batisford claimed that he or his steward should name the hayward in his court baron and chose a dependent, the inhabitants united to oppose him, rating themselves at 4d. an acre to maintain the ensuing lawsuit, which they won at the county assizes. (fn. 4) Later, there being no copyhold, the courts baron, though occasionally required to deal with socage tenures, as in 1619, (fn. 5) met infrequently until the 1830s, almost solely to reenact the parish's complex bylaws about commoning. (fn. 6)

Those rules were enforced by the two field and fen reeves, after 1680 elected by the inhabitants at a meeting every April, one for the landholders, one for the cottagers. The reeves were also responsible for scouring and maintaining the watercourses. (fn. 7) After 1680 the revenue for drainage came partly from half the fines for breaking the bylaws on commoning, the lord receiving the other half, (fn. 8) and partly from the 'town grass'. About 1580 the hayward was entitled to the grass of some swathes in the meadows. (fn. 9) By the 1710s the parish let that grass by auction to produce an income that rose from £9 c. 1720 to almost £30 in the 1820s. (fn. 10) The reeves often also handled the repair of roads and bridges, any surplus income going towards the parish's general expenditure. The reeves were assisted by a hayward and a waged herdsman, both appointed in the 18th century by the vestry. (fn. 11) Even after those offices lapsed following inclosure, (fn. 12) the parish highway surveyors continued to supervise drainage until 1894, paying for it partly by letting the roadside grass, as c. 1855. The failure of the new rural district council to assume responsibility for drainage and the obstruction by some landowners c. 1883 of the activities of the board set up under the drainage Act of 1881 for Swavesey and Fen Drayton led to repeated flooding of land in the north c. 1900 and heavy losses for farmers there. (fn. 13)

In the 18th century (fn. 14) parish affairs had been managed by a vestry of the principal farmers, usually numbering 3-5 until the 1770s, 7-10 thereafter, who occasionally adjusted commoning bylaws (fn. 15) and tried from the 1770s to penalize hedge breaking. (fn. 16) In 1740 they planned to set the poor to work (fn. 17) and in 1757 to distribute cheap barley. (fn. 18) In the 1770s and 1780s the overseers often bought clothing and shoes for the poor, mostly widows and other women on the weekly pay. They also provided fuel, partly coal but from the 1790s also turves. From the 1790s the parish hired a cottage as a poorhouse. By 1801 those regularly relieved also included 16 men. Although their allowances were reduced in 1802, the average regular expenditure had increased from £50 in the 1780s to over £100 in the late 1790s and c. £115 in 1803, when 13 people were continuously and 20 occasionally supported. (fn. 19) In the 1810s the weekly pay for some 15 people cost c. £125 a year, out of expenditure on the poor totalling over £200, 6- 9 others being sometimes assisted. Thereafter poor relief cost c. £250 a year until the mid 1820s when it was reduced to c. £200, but rose to c. £340 in the early 1830s. (fn. 20) About 1830 13 unemployed men and many youths and boys were maintained, and allowances were given to large families. (fn. 21) From 1836 Fen Drayton was included in St. Ives poor-law union, (fn. 22) and from 1894 lay in Swavesey rural district, with which it was incorporated in 1934 into Chesterton rural district. (fn. 23) After 1974 it belonged to South Cambridgeshire district. (fn. 24)

In 1980 the district council transferred to the parish council the 5-a. gravel pit north-east of the village allotted at inclosure. The county council then owned the village lock-up, (fn. 25) a small early 19th-century brick building with two windowless cells, still standing in 1983 on the village green.


  • 1. Rot Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 474-6; P.R.O., SC 5/Cambs. Chap. Ho. ser. m. 2; cf. Plac. de Quo Warr. (Rec. Com.), 103.
  • 2. P.R.O., REQ 2/244/28.
  • 3. Ibid. STAC 5/B 13/24.
  • 4. Ibid. STAC 5/B 27/10; STAC 5/B 65/32.
  • 5. e.g. ibid. C 2/Jas. I/F 1/11.
  • 6. Only 14 cts. held 1655-1835, listed, C.R.O., 87/M 14; cf. ibid. 87/M 7, 13; C.U.L., Add. MS. 3850.
  • 7. Passage based on Christ's Coll. Mun., P; C.R.O., 87/M 7.
  • 8. C.R.O., 87/M 7.
  • 9. P.R.O., STAC 5/B 65/32, answer of Wm. Whitlow.
  • 10. C.R.O., P 59/8/1, pp. 36, 76; P 59/8/2, pp. 86, 91; cf. Char. Com. files, memo. c. 1910.
  • 11. e.g. C.R.O., P 59/8/1, pp. 69, 90, 149, 243, 252, 316; P 59/8/2, p. 8.
  • 12. Last election 1838: ibid. P 59/8/2, p. 134.
  • 13. Christ's Coll. Mun., corr. with tenant 1903-8; C.R.O., 587/E 84; cf. Camb. Chron. 15 Apr. 1854; 12 Apr. 1856; Land Drainage Supplemental Act, 44 & 45 Vic. c. 101 (Local), pp. 2-3.
  • 14. Vestry mins. in C.R.O., P 59/8/1, 2 (par. bks. 1685- 1792, 1793-1839).
  • 15. e.g. C.R.O., P 59/8/1, pp. 159, 180, 237.
  • 16. Ibid. pp. 251, 286-7.
  • 17. Ibid. p. 118.
  • 18. Ibid. p. 185.
  • 19. Ibid. P 59/11/1-2 (overseers' accts. 1776-1830); Poor Law Abstract, 1804, 36-7.
  • 20. Poor Law Abstract, 1818, 31; Poor Rate Returns, 1816- 21, 10; 1822-4, 37; 1825-9, 15; 1830-4, 15.
  • 21. Rep. H.L. Cttee. on Poor Laws, 322-3.
  • 22. Poor Law Com. 2nd Rep. 529.
  • 23. Census, 1911, 1931.
  • 24. Ibid. 1971.
  • 25. C.R.O., Q/RDc 61, p. 15; Camb. Ind. Press, 16 Oct. 1980; Hunts. Post, 26 Feb. 1981.