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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THE small parish of Knapwell, (fn. 1) covering only 500 ha. (1,236 a.), (fn. 2) lies 13 km. (8 miles) west of Cambridge. Of approximately triangular shape, (fn. 3) it stretches north for 3.2 km. (2 miles) from the Cambridge to St. Neots road, a turnpike between 1772 and 1876. (fn. 4) Ancient field boundaries divide it from its larger western neighbour Elsworth, to which it was linked economically and jurisdictionally in the Middle Ages. In the 1630s Knapwell was also styled Little Elsworth. (fn. 5) The eastern boundary with Boxworth is a small stream flowing NNW. The ground, resting upon Kimmeridge clay mostly overlaid with boulder clay, save in the north, slopes gently down from a plateau at c. 65 m. (220 ft.) in the south to c. 30 m. (100 ft.) in the narrow northern corner of the parish.
Near the brow of the slope, close to the head of a second watercourse flowing north, stands the ancient Knapwell wood, (fn. 6) which belonged to the manorial estate by 1086 and until after 1900. In 1086 the manor had enough wood for fencing. (fn. 7) Knapwell's grove, ditched round, was mentioned c. 1125. (fn. 8) It was regularly kept hedged in the Middle Ages, when its underwood was often sold, sometimes by the acre. (fn. 9) In 1279 the wood supposedly covered 8 a., (fn. 10) c. 1540 7 a. (fn. 11) It may once have been larger, covering also the 13 a. of ancient closes to its south-east within which the modern Knapwell Wood Farm stands. In 1869 the wood covered 13 a. (fn. 12) In the 1970s the wood, then predominantly elm, ash, and oak, was being managed as a nature reserve by the Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely Naturalists' Trust. (fn. 13) A long plantation, covering c. 10 a., was laid out on the narrow strip of Knapwell south of the turnpike after the parish was inclosed in 1776. (fn. 14) After inclosure, only the second effected in Cambridgeshire by legislation, Knapwell remained as before entirely devoted to agriculture.
Knapwell, recorded as a vill by A.D. 1000, (fn. 15) was perhaps named from the chalybeate Red Well, supposedly medicinal, in Boxworth wood just east of the village. (fn. 16) The population included 20 peasants and 4 serviin 1086 (fn. 17) and there were c. 50 landholders by 1279. (fn. 18) Although only 20 people were taxed in 1327, (fn. 19) there were 73 adults in 1377. (fn. 20) The village shrank in the 15th century: (fn. 21) in 1524 only 12 people paid the subsidy (fn. 22) and there were only 22 households in 1563 (fn. 23) and under 30 c. 1630. (fn. 24) Under Charles II there were c. 30 dwellings, (fn. 25) containing 85 adults in 1676. (fn. 26) Likewise in 1728 31 families included 80 people. (fn. 27) From the early 17th century the population probably fluctuated around 125, occasionally falling below 110, as in the 1730s and again from the 1780s. (fn. 28) In 1801 it numbered 97 and c. 1806 only 80, (fn. 29) but had risen to c. 130 by the 1830s and 155 by 1841. That level was maintained, with a peak of 188 in 1881 after 6 new houses were built, until the 1890s. Thereafter numbers fell again to c. 125 in the 1910s and c. 90 in the 1970s. (fn. 30)
The village stands close to the northern end of the parish. Its ancient closes stretch along a road leading north towards Conington, probably the causeway for whose repair money was left in 1605. (fn. 31) The church and manor house stood to the north-east beside a lane leading to Boxworth. On the neighbouring slope towards the stream is a low mound, c. 25 m. across and 2 m. high, surrounded by a partly wet moat c. 10 m. across: fragments of St. Neots ware have been found there. It has been thought a fortification made when King Stephen's troops were beleaguering Geoffrey de Mandeville at Ely in 1144. (fn. 32) Along the street lie medieval earthworks and building platforms. (fn. 33) Knapwell had lost many dwellings in the 15th century when failure to repair houses was often recorded. (fn. 34) In 1449 three cottages had lately been made into one. (fn. 35) Few surviving houses date from before 1800. (fn. 36) Knapwell contained 20 dwellings in 1801, almost 30 in the mid 19th century, and 30-35 occupied houses from the 1890s to the 1970s. (fn. 37) More recent building includes some 19th-century estate cottages and six council houses. After inclosure in 1776 three substantial houses were built in the fields south of the village, including Coldharbour and Knapwell Wood Farms. (fn. 38) The third, New Inn Farm, a substantial red-brick house with wings behind, having an ornate doorcase, a hipped roof, and cellars, was put up c. 1777 as an inn beside the new turnpike; it had stabling for 20 horses. Proving difficult to let for that purpose, (fn. 39) it was converted, probably after 1805, (fn. 40) into a farmhouse by the 1840s. (fn. 41) The village's own public house, the Three Horseshoes, recorded from the 1760s, (fn. 42) closed in the 1880s. (fn. 43)