Knapwell: Economic history

Pages 334-336

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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In 1086 Ramsey abbey's demesne included only 11/2 of the 8 hides and furnished only 2 of the teams needed for its 8 ploughlands. The 8 villaniof 1086 were probably represented c. 1150 by the tenants of 8 yardlands, and the 4 bordars with 5 a. each, 4 cottars, and 4 serviof 1086 by 11 cotlanders, from whom the demesne farmer drew 3 ploughmen, a shepherd, a swineherd, a hayward, a bedell, and a smith. (fn. 1) By 1200 the yardlands had been divided in half; 16 half yardlanders and 5-7 tenants of 'quarter lands', except for two still serving as ploughmen, owed money dues and labour services substantially equivalent to those for similar holdings at Elsworth, including work three days a week throughout the year and harvest boons, three before 1200, two in 1279. Another 4 or 5 cottagers worked once a week, twice in harvest. The ancient cash rents were only half those exacted at Elsworth. (fn. 2) In 1291 the abbey also demanded harvest boons from a socage tenant. (fn. 3) The land held in villeinage amounted to c. 265 a. of arable in 1279. Of the 150 a. freehold, 90 a. were divided into regular half yardlands, the rest into smallholdings of 5-10 a. After the Black Death, when several tenements were left in the lord's hands, including 6 half yardlands in 1364, the abbey commuted most of the labour services. All the smaller holdings were put at rent by 1360, as were 10 half yardlands, although 6 continued to owe labour services until after 1400, when the abbey retained boonworks for sheepshearing, haymaking, and harvesting. By 1408 all such services, except one harvest boon, (fn. 4) had been commuted. The half yardlands most recently arrented paid only 10s. a year, compared to the 13s. 4d. due from those put at rent earlier.

The Knapwell demesne farm, in hand by the 1240s, was a satellite of that at Elsworth. (fn. 5) Much of Knapwell's harvests, especially the dredge, was stored in Elsworth's barns. In the late 15th century the Knapwell land was controlled through the Elsworth bailiff and rent collector. (fn. 6) Knapwell's permanent staff was small, a shepherd and two ploughmen, two more from the 1370s replacing the cotlander 'acremen'. Much work therefore fell on the villeins, of whose weekworks, totalling 1,850 a year by the 1320s, (fn. 7) only 250-300 were usually commuted. Normally over half those used were employed on threshing and winnowing.

The area of demesne cultivated annually, (fn. 8) perhaps c. 190 a. in the 1240s, usually ranged between 165 a. and 185 a. before 1349, declining from the 1360s to 135-150 a. In the 1240s the main crops were wheat and oats, the latter superseded after 1300 by dredge. Usually c. 70 a. of wheat and 75 a. of dredge were then sown, besides c. 30 a. of peas and beans. The area under wheat fell to c. 45 a. after 1350 and barely 25 a. after 1400, that of dredge to c. 60 a. after 1360, but the sowing of peas rose by a third between the 1370s and the 1400s to c. 55 a. The surplus corn was mostly delivered to the lord, although from the 1370s the reeve sold directly 40-60 qr. of dredge, malted after 1400. Ramsey kept no cattle at Knapwell except for its ploughteams. Its inclosed pastures there, recorded from the 1290s, (fn. 9) presumably fed beasts from Elsworth. The tenants were often charged in the 1290s and later with overstocking the commons with their sheep, (fn. 10) but there was no separate demesne flock for Knapwell until 110 lambs were brought from Elsworth c. 1345. The demesne flock numbered 240 sheep in 1358 and after falling to c. 120 by the 1370s was enlarged by purchase to over 300 shortly after 1400.

Receipts from rents and entry fines, averaging c. £6 a year before 1349, increased after commutation to almost £9 by 1364, c. £12 15s. in the 1370s, and £15 10s. by 1408. The abbey's arable farming, however, sometimes made a small cash loss even before 1350, while after 1350 the increase in the rates of staff wages matched that at Elsworth. After 1400 the shepherd and chief ploughman received 13s. 4d. a year. From 1380 all the threshing was done by hired labour: from the 1370s almost 60 men were hired yearly to mow the lord's hay, and 100 to reap his corn, each in a single day. The use of labour services ceased by 1408, and between 1416 and 1419 the demesne was leased to a farmer. (fn. 11)

The rents of the former customary land were reduced in 1422 by an eighth because of the poverty of the tenants. (fn. 12) From 1400 until after 1500 they were almost all granted for life terms. Until after 1450 very few holdings remained long in the same family. (fn. 13) In 1398 some 32 holdings, c. 300 a., were divided among 20 tenants. Only two men occupied over 30 a., while six with 20-25 a. shared 130 a. and nine with 5- 18 a. had 105 a. The average size of holdings increased by 1449 when out of 14 tenants six with 25-35 a. had in all 160 a. and five with 15- 20 a. had 95 a., but only three had 5 a. or less. (fn. 14) The change was assisted by emigration. Only four neif families remained at Knapwell after 1400, (fn. 15) while 7 or 8 neifs were regularly nonresident c. 1450. (fn. 16) Depopulation left several holdings in the lord's hands: in 1478 three half yardlands lay uncultivated and unmanured for lack of tenants. (fn. 17) By 1540 eight men occupied between them 11 full yardlands, and only five independent half yardlands and two quarterlands remained. (fn. 18) In 1524, out of 12 people taxed, two men, probably the demesne lessees, paid on £8 and 10 marks, six others on £2-5, and four only on wages. (fn. 19) Concentration of holdings probably continued later. Francis Scargill (d. 1646) owned 4 houses and devised at least 17 quarterlands among his sons, besides leaving over £500 for his daughters' portions. His son Henry's house, (fn. 20) with 6-9 hearths in the 1660s, was the only large one apart from the manor farmhouse. Another 4 or 5 houses then had 3 or 4 hearths, but 22 had two or fewer. (fn. 21)

The medieval field layout is uncertain. (fn. 22) In the late 14th century a four-year cycle of wheat, fallow dredge, and peas was probably followed on the demesne arable, as at Elsworth. (fn. 23) Barley and peas fields were mentioned in 1448. (fn. 24) Barley was probably the main peasant crop: in 1456 a fugitive neif left behind 41/2 qr. of dredge, 5 qr. of malt, and 5 qr. of peas. (fn. 25) The court regularly from the 14th century forbade sheep and cattle trespassing on the crops and from c. 1300 elected harvest wardens to enforce its bylaws. (fn. 26) In 1411 it forbade gleaning by those able to work or before the harvest was carried. (fn. 27) It was still confirming such old agrarian bylaws and making new ones in the early 16th century. (fn. 28)

Two fields recorded in the early 17th century were called Middle and Sibdole fields; the latter apparently lay to the south. The manor farm, then perhaps occupied by Sir John Cutts, (fn. 29) in 1692 nominally included 380 a. of arable, 12 a. of meadow, and 220 a. of pasture, with rights of foldage for 360 sheep. (fn. 30) By the late 18th century it had absorbed most of the parish, said c. 1800 to have included before inclosure c. 1,000 a. of arable and 100 a. of common. (fn. 31)

Inclosure was effected under an Act obtained by Wright Squire in 1775 (fn. 32) despite opposition from smallholders and two commoners. (fn. 33) The award of 1776 allotted to Squire 642 a. out of the 1,083 a. involved. The 223 a. by the Elsworth border allotted to James Rust and the 60 a. assigned to the duke of Bedford's Birds Pastures farm in Boxworth were also later incorporated into the Squires' estate. Three smaller owners had only 8 a. between them in 1776. Squire was also then, though no longer by 1787, lessee of the 146-a. rectory farm in the centre of the parish. (fn. 34)

Wright Squire was unable to let his 300-a. New Inn farm for several years (fn. 35) and two other newly inclosed farms of 240 a. and 160 a. were also to let in the mid 1780s. (fn. 36) He still farmed some Knapwell land in person in 1790. (fn. 37) By the 1790s, however, even though traditional farming methods had not been greatly altered, the area under wheat had increased slightly since inclosure to 170 a., that under barley by a fifth, but less oats and peas were grown following the introduction of clover and grass seeds. More sheep, free of rot, were kept and the number of cows had increased by half to c. 70. (fn. 38)

In the 1830s the Squire estate was divided into three main farms. (fn. 39) By 1869, when it comprised 876 a. of arable and 142 a. of grass in Knapwell, there were four. In the north were Manor farm (288 a.) and Village, later Grange and by 1950 Dairy, farm (265 a.). The latter included the former Rust land for which the Coldharbour farmstead had been built by 1841. Both were worked from the 1830s to the 1870s by the Whiteheads, father and son, from farms on the village street. New Inn farm (222 a.) and Knapwell Wood farm (298 a.) filled the south end of the parish, save for 60 a. attached to a Boxworth farm. (fn. 40) No labourers were unemployed in 1830. (fn. 41) In the 1850s the farmers employed c. 40 men and there were only c. 25- 30 adult labourers and 16 boys living in the parish. Its only craftsman was a shoemaker, recorded until 1871. By 1875 the new landowner H. H. English started north of the village a small brickworks which probably closed c. 1885. In 1881 the village publican ran a smithy. (fn. 42)

Knapwell suffered severely during the agricultural depression. All the farms were quitted by their tenants in the late 1870s and two lost fresh farmers soon after 1880, when Manor and Village farms were already vacant. (fn. 43) By 1885 there were no resident farmers, most of the land being left in English's own hands. (fn. 44) The rectory farm, for which £1,800 had been borrowed in 1869 for draining and erecting new buildings, was abandoned by the bankrupt tenant in 1879 and its heavy clay soil went out of cultivation and was unlettable in 1882 at any rent. (fn. 45) Not until the 1890s were all the manorial farms relet. (fn. 46) Between 1885 and 1895 the area under wheat was halved from c. 265 a. to c. 125 a., and that of barley fell from c. 355 a. to 195 a. The amount of grassland doubled to 355 a. even though the number of grown sheep kept had sunk from 500 to under 250. Sheep keeping ceased after the 1930s, although there were 435 a. of grass in 1935. Wheat, at 350-450 a., remained the main crop. (fn. 47) After the break-up of the manorial estate Knapwell contained in the 1930s six farms, all but one of over 150 a. and mostly owner-occupied. (fn. 48) The number of labourers permanently employed fell to 16 by 1935 and 13 by 1955 when there were two farms of over 300 a. and two more of over 100 a. (fn. 49) By 1980, when there were only 4 fulltime farmworkers, two cereal farms of c. 560 a. and c. 325 a. covered most of the parish. (fn. 50)


  • 1. V.C.H. Cambs. i. 370; Ramsey Cart. (Rolls Ser.), iii. 300-1.
  • 2. For holdings, rents, and services c. 1150, Ramsey Cart. iii. 300-1; c. 1190-1200, ibid. 244-6; in 1279, Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 481-2; later: accts. to 1408 cited below.
  • 3. P.R.O., SC 2/179/7, m. 2.
  • 4. Cf. Liber Gersumarum of Ramsey Abbey, ed. E. B. Dewindt, p. 96.
  • 5. Para. based on P.R.O., SC 6/766/19-20 (Elsworth reeves' accts. 1243-4, 1249-50); SC 6/768/26-8, 30, 32-6; SC 6/769/2, 5-6, 8-9 (Knapwell reeves' accts. 1303-4, 1307- 8, 1314-15, 1323-4,1329-30, 1345-6, 1347-9, 1358-9, 1364- 5, 1373-4, 1377-8, 1408-9, 1415-16). Dating of accts. discussed above, p. 310 n. 46
  • 6. Cf. P.R.O., SC 6/769/22-4.
  • 7. Details of works in accts. between 1323-4 and 1377-8 cited above.
  • 8. Para. based on accts. cited above. For calculations of crop quantities and area, above, Elsworth, econ. hist.
  • 9. e.g. P.R.O., SC 2/179/10, m. 7d.; SC 2/179/30, m. 2.
  • 10. e.g. ibid. SC 2/179/7, mm. 2, 5d.
  • 11. Accts. cited above.
  • 12. P.R.O., SC 6/769/10, 12, 19, 22, 27-8.
  • 13. Liber Gersumarum, ed. Dewindt, passim(index nos. for Knapwell).
  • 14. P.R.O., SC 11/95-6.
  • 15. Liber Gersumarum, ed. Dewindt, esp. pp. 96, 180, 300, 331.
  • 16. e.g. P.R.O., SC 2/179/57, m. 2; SC 2/179/65, m. 4; B.L. Add. Roll 34831 dorse.
  • 17. B.L. Add. Roll 39656, m. 2.
  • 18. P.R.O., SC 6/Hen. VIII/7287, rot. 8.
  • 19. Ibid. E 179/81/163, m. 9.
  • 20. Ibid. PROB 11/721, ff. 106-7.
  • 21. Ibid. E 179/84/437, rot. 77; E 179/244/22, f. 62.
  • 22. For 13th-cent. and 14th-cent furlong names, P.R.O., E 40/14346; ibid. SC 6/769/2, 5, 6.
  • 23. e.g. ibid. SC 6/769/2, 5, 8.
  • 24. Ibid. SC 2/179/65, m. 4.
  • 25. Ibid. SC 6/769/19.
  • 26. e.g. ibid. SC 2/179/36, m. 10d.; SC 2/179/62, m. 3d.; B.L. Add. Roll 35597, m. 9.
  • 27. P.R.O., SC 2/179/53, m. 3.
  • 28. e.g. ibid. SC 2/179/84, m. 1; SC 2/179/87, m. 5d.
  • 29. C.U.L., E.D.R., H 1/Knapwell 1615, 1638.
  • 30. P.R.O., CP 26(7)/15, no. 109.
  • 31. Gooch, Agric. of Cambs. 57.
  • 32. Knapwell Incl. Act, 15 Geo. III, c. 75 (Priv. Act).
  • 33. C.J. xxxv. 156, 328-9, 389.
  • 34. C.R.O., Q/RDz 1, pp. 295-320; cf. ibid. Q/S 7/1, p. 259; Camb. Chron. 24 May 1777; 3 Mar. 1787.
  • 35. Camb. Chron. 9 May 1776; 24 May 1777; 28 Mar. 1778; 9 Jan. 1779.
  • 36. Ibid. 15 Feb. 1783; 28 Jan., 17 June 1786; 10 Mar. 1787.
  • 37. P.R.O., PROB 11/1199, f. 181 and v.
  • 38. Vancouver, Agric. in Cambs. 120; Gooch, Agric. of Cambs. 32, 57, 78-9.
  • 39. C.R.O., Q/S 7/1, p. 259.
  • 40. For 19th-cent. farms, farmers, and employment, C.R.O., L 4/48; Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1858 and later edns.); P.R.O., HO 107/70; HO 107/1758; ibid. RG 9/1016; RG 10/1571; RG 11/1656; cf. Char. Com. files, corr. 1858.
  • 41. Rep. H.L. Cttee. on Poor Laws, 322.
  • 42. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1875-83).
  • 43. Ibid. (1875-88); cf. P.R.O., RG 11/1656.
  • 44. C.U.L., E.D.R., C 3/31.
  • 45. Church Com. files, corr. 1880-2.
  • 46. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1892-1900).
  • 47. P.R.O., MAF 68/7-8, 403, 973, 2113, 2683, 3232.
  • 48. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1922-37).
  • 49. P.R.O., MAF 68/3752, 4489.
  • 50. Cambs. Agric. Returns, 1980.