Over: Economic history

Pages 346-349

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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Until inclosure and fen drainage in the mid 19th century the only arable in Over lay south and east of the village above 8 m. (25 ft.). South fen meadow skirted it to the south by Swavesey drain and Forth fen or West meadow to the north by the fens. The commonable pastures and fens covering the northern half of the parish, though partially inclosed in 1628, were not ploughed before the 19th century. In the late 13th century there were probably three open fields, named possibly in the 1260s as the field by Willingham, Middle field, and the great field by Stanton. (fn. 1) Five fields existed by 1575, (fn. 2) one of which, Mill field, was recorded in 1356. (fn. 3) Three of the other four, Ladyland, Whitred, and Goldey (later Gravel Bridge field), (fn. 4) had the names of 14th-century furlongs. (fn. 5) The northernmost field was still called Willingham field in the 19th century. (fn. 6)

In 1086 the abbot of Ramsey had a small home farm with one ploughteam and enough arable for a second and kept a few oxen, sheep, and pigs. Hardwin de Scalers's undertenant Ralph had a demesne flock of 80 sheep and Picot's man Sawin probably &frac1/2; ploughteam in demesne. (fn. 7)

Ramsey's manor was valued at £10 in 1066 and £8 in 1086. (fn. 8) By leasing it to the Pecche family in the 12th century the abbey received no more than £8 a year, (fn. 9) but having recovered it in 1188 was deriving £51 by the 1270s. (fn. 10) About 1279 crops sold from the demesne included wheat, barley, dredge, peas, and beans (fn. 11) and in 1296 the stock comprised horses, cattle, deer, and swine and included a bull and a boar. (fn. 12) The demesne was perhaps still in hand in 1353 (fn. 13) but by the late 14th century many small pieces of demesne land were rented by the tenants. The meadows were described in 1406 as newly leased. (fn. 14) The former demesne, by 1575 called pennyland, (fn. 15) comprised over 370 a. It consisted mainly of open-field arable and meadow in Ouse fen, together with other meadowland, marsh in Ouse fen, ponds, and pasture closes near the village. In 1575 the 42 tenants of pennyland included some smallholders but also all but two of the dozen most substantial farmers. (fn. 16) The lessee of the manor complained in 1606 that the tenants were withholding the demesne, (fn. 17) a point still at issue between the lord and tenants in 1622. (fn. 18)

In 1086 Ramsey's tenants, mostly villani, had 6 ploughteams and room on their land for another 2&frac1/2; 4 were worked by the tenants of the other manors. (fn. 19) The only weekwork on the Ramsey manor in 1279 was Thursday ploughing by the 6 yardlanders. Each paid 5s. 10d. rent in a year when no boonworks were required and 1s. 10d. when they were, though the works themselves were valued at 5s. 8d. a year. The 32 half yardlanders owed more onerous boons worth 7s. 1d., paying 1s. 2d. rent when they were exacted and 3s. 2d. when not. The crofters also did boonworks but cottagers and other smallholders owed only rent. The largest estate in 1279 after Ramsey's was Robert Hall's. Seven cottagers owed him two annual works each but much of his land was held by substantial freeholders, among whom Robert Mariot exacted harvest works from some of his men. (fn. 20)

The standard customary holdings on the Ramsey manor in the 15th century were half yardlands (fn. 21) but many were later divided into quarterlands (fn. 22) before being combined again into larger holdings. In 1575 only three quarterlands were held by men with no other land; 17 half yardlands survived and 13 copyholders had more than half a yardland. All but one of the bigger copyholders and half of the half yardlanders held other land besides, either copyhold of the other manors, freehold, or pennyland. (fn. 23) More than 50 residents were taxed on their goods in the 1520s, three fifths of them at £2 or £3 and the richest three at between £16 and £25. (fn. 24) None of their families was still among the most wealthy in 1575, when there were 5 estates of 90 a. or more, 8 of 50-75 a., 43 of 10-49 a., and 50 smaller ones. (fn. 25)

In 1575 the soil was thought good for both corn and grass. (fn. 26) In the early 16th century wheat, barley, peas, and rye were grown. (fn. 27) Stock keeping was probably widespread: a shepherd who died in 1558 left two bullocks besides sheep. (fn. 28) The typical half yardland in 1575 included 3 a. of marsh and 9 r. of meadow in Ouse fen, 3 r. of meadow in Forth fen, and 4 r. in South fen meadow in addition to arable. (fn. 29) Many cottagers without arable had up to 12 r. in the fens and could get a living from keeping cattle. After haymaking in Ouse fen, the grass was left to grow again until Lammas or Michaelmas, at the discretion of the fen reeves, when cattle were pastured there and in Great and Little Swalney fens in the north-east. Forth or Bare fen, Langridge, and Skeggs were intercommoned by Over and Willingham until c. 1618. (fn. 30) Bluntsmere was open to all cattle from May Day, and the smaller commons near the village, Hawcroft and Fore Hill, were for the milk herd from Lady Day to Michaelmas and any kind of cattle during the other half of the year. In 1695 copyholders paying £24 rent were allowed to keep 9 cows, the stint rising by stages to 24 cows and a bull for £100 rent. (fn. 31)

There were 134 common rights in 1619. (fn. 32) The right to agist the fens nominally belonged to the lord of Over manor, though it was often leased to the inhabitants (fn. 33) and in 1622 the lords claimed that their tenants kept so many cattle that they were never able to make use of the right or even graze their own beasts. (fn. 34) The shortage of grass was later said to be so acute that some commoners were forced to sell their cattle in spring for lack of summer grazing, whereas there was always ample hay from Ouse fen for the winter. (fn. 35)

The lords were in dispute with their tenants in 1622 over heriots and entry fines besides agisting and the loss of demesne land. (fn. 36) They agreed in 1623 to inclose all the fens except Ouse fen. (fn. 37) The allotments were made in 1628, when 200 a. at Long Holme in the north-east and 10 a. in Mill field were set aside for the lords, the remainder being divided among 108 allottees in over 200 small closes. (fn. 38) Some or all of the lord's allotment was leased in the mid 17th century in lots of 10 a. or 20 a. to farmers from Willingham and elsewhere. (fn. 39)

After the inclosure cattle were still so numerous that all the grass in the new closes was eaten up in summer and some animals had to be fed in the meadows, Ouse fen, and paddocks in the village. Some villagers thought that another 500 a. were needed in summer to graze the cattle which could be kept on hay during the winter. Ten farmers were said to rent summer grazing outside the parish, some taking more than 100 a. (fn. 40) The stock was reckoned in 1624 to number 1,300 cattle and 1,000 sheep. (fn. 41) By the 1690s dairying was well developed. The commoners kept c. 1,000 milk cows on the grazing commons from May Day to October, fed them on the second growth of the mowing commons from October until winter, kept them indoors on hay during the hard weather, and grazed them in paddocks and on the arable baulks in spring. Butter and several types of cheese were made for sale in Cambridge market and to the colleges. (fn. 42)

Great amounts of hay were mown in the 1720s in Bare fen, Skeggs, and Ouse fen, which produced the most valuable crop. (fn. 43) Stock keeping continued to increase later in the 18th century: in 1759 much former open-field land was used as pasture. (fn. 44) In the 1790s the arable was cultivated on a four-course rotation of wheat, barley, beans, and fallow. (fn. 45) Mill field may have been taken out of the normal rotation by the 1770s. (fn. 46)

Arable cultivation recovered from the late 18th century. Mill field was part of the open fields in the 1830s (fn. 47) and 61 a. of Forth fen meadow had been ploughed up by 1817. (fn. 48) After 1800 more diverse crops were grown: in 1823 there were 26&frac1/2; a. of turnips, 12&frac1/2; a. of rape, and 27 a. of potatoes, the last mostly planted on allotments by the poor. (fn. 49) The large number of unemployed labourers in 1834 was partly attributed to the fact that Willingham and Swavesey farmers occupied about a fifth of the parish and hired men from their own villages. (fn. 50) No very large farms developed before inclosure; in 1759, when there were c. 1,500 a. of arable, the three largest holdings were each of c. 100 a. (fn. 51)

Parliamentary inclosure of the open fields and Ouse fen was evidently instigated by the rectory lessees, the Robinsons. (fn. 52) After allotments were made in 1840 Frederick Robinson's farm of 434 a. and seven others of over 100 a., only one larger than 250 a., comprised nearly half the parish. There were also 20 holdings of 25-100 a. and 140 of under 25 a., besides cottages without land. (fn. 53)

The Robinsons, substantial farmers by the 1770s, (fn. 54) were rectory lessees from 1802 to 1880, (fn. 55) letting part or all to undertenants by 1864. (fn. 56) In 1881 Trinity College leased Cold Harbour farm of 200 a. and Ouse Fen farm of nearly 100 a. separately. Cold Harbour farm was hollow drained between 1878 and 1893. In 1880 much of it was still cultivated in four shifts and some had been set out in &frac1/2;-a. allotments for the poor. (fn. 57)

In the late 19th century there were c. 40 farms of over 10 a., of which half were over 40 a. and no more than three had more than 200 a. (fn. 58) Smallholdings proliferated in the early 20th century, when estates were often broken up for horticulture; (fn. 59) College's estate was let to the county council for allotments in 1911. (fn. 60) It was said in 1952 that many small farmers had begun as labourers. (fn. 61) Most farms remained scattered after inclosure (fn. 62) and little consolidation took place in the early 20th century, though between 1957 and 1983 F. W. Deptford (Over) Ltd. built up a holding of over 500 ha. (1,235 a.). In 1983 it was managed with a farm in Haddenham and grew mostly wheat. (fn. 63) In 1980 there were two other farms over 300 ha. (c. 750 a.) but still 24 under 10 ha. (25 a.). (fn. 64)

In 1866 twice as much corn as grass was recorded. About half the cereal acreage was wheat and a quarter each barley and oats. Cereals declined steadily until c. 1900 and rapidly after 1918; by 1935 over 1,800 a. were grass, clover, or rough grazing and only 674 a. were under corn. By 1955 there was again more corn than grass and in 1980 cereals covered 880 ha. (2,174 a.), mostly wheat with some barley, ten times the area of permanent grassland. Until the 1920s 250 a. or more of field beans were grown each year, together with turnips, mangolds, potatoes, and sugar beet. The number of cattle returned increased from under 500 in 1875 to over 700 in 1935, while that of sheep declined from c. 950 to c. 100 by 1925, though over 700 were recorded in 1935. In 1980 the returns showed 200 cattle and virtually no sheep. (fn. 65)

Domestic orchards were recorded in considerable numbers from the late 16th century. (fn. 66) Commercial fruit growing had begun by 1885, when 56 a. of orchards were returned, the area increasing to over 300 a. by 1935, mostly plums and apples. There were also up to 200 a. of soft fruit, gooseberries being the most important crop in 1925, strawberries by 1935. (fn. 67) By the early 20th century a dozen market gardeners and fruit growers were in business, their number more than doubling in the 1930s. A fruit agent operated from Over from the late 1920s. (fn. 68) Commercial flower growing began c. 1900. (fn. 69) Horticultural produce covered 200 ha. (nearly 500 a.) in 1980. (fn. 70)

In the 14th century Ramsey's tenants often infringed the manorial right of fishery. (fn. 71) By 1575 the manorial right was restricted to six fisheries in the mere and to the Ouse, which was reckoned part of the manor of Holywell cum Needingworth (Hunts.). The tenants of Over had the right to take eels from the river and any kind of fish from other watercourses. (fn. 72) Other fen products were important. A tenant of Ramsey was presented in 1347 for cutting sallow rods. (fn. 73) A tailor who died in 1527 left a stock of 1,000 turves to the poor. (fn. 74) In 1622 some tenants had planted willows for felling and lopping. (fn. 75) Osier beds along the Ouse were recorded in the early 20th century (fn. 76) and the village was still a centre of basket making in 1948. (fn. 77)

In 1279 there were two windmills, on the holdings of Ramsey and Robert Mariot. (fn. 78) In 1575 one mill belonged to the Crown and another had been recently built by Jesus College. Both were said to be used to capacity. (fn. 79) The college's was a post mill (fn. 80) standing outside the village south of the Willingham road. (fn. 81) It was apparently in use to 1885 and demolished in 1914, (fn. 82) though it may not have had a resident miller after 1869. (fn. 83) The windmill which survives was a smock mill in 1787 (fn. 84) but had been rebuilt as a tower mill by 1840 (fn. 85) and was perhaps again rebuilt c. 1870. (fn. 86) It stands south of the village by the Long Stanton road. In use until the early 1930s, (fn. 87) it was restored after 1960; in the 1970s, though retaining only two sails, it was grinding organically grown wheat for a wholefood company. (fn. 88)

A merchant and a smith were mentioned in 1301, (fn. 89) a tailor in 1339, (fn. 90) a waterman in 1361, a butcher in 1429, (fn. 91) and a barber and a tailor in the 1520s. (fn. 92) The landowners party to the 1628 inclosure award included numerous craftsmen and tradesmen: 3 weavers, 3 shoemakers, 2 each of butchers, blacksmiths, and carpenters, a mercer, a baker, a fustian weaver, a saddler, a glover, a victualler, a basket maker, a tailor, and a thatcher. (fn. 93) In 1629 two ropemakers were recorded. (fn. 94) Wealthy maltsters left wills proved 1619 and 1694 (fn. 95) and a man calling himself a brewer made his will in 1610. (fn. 96)

By the 19th century the trades followed were less varied. Three blacksmiths worked in the 1850s, two c. 1900, and usually one in the early 20th century. The trades of carpenter and wheelwright employed up to eight men in the mid 19th century in two or three workshops which survived in the 1930s. There were slightly fewer shoemakers and tailors; all but one shoemaker had ceased business by 1925. Five or more butchers, up to six bakers, usually three grocers and drapers, and two or more general shops were open throughout the late 19th century and into the 20th, but in 1983 there were only four shops. (fn. 97)

'Red earth', possibly ruddle, was being dug in a pit in the open fields in 1346. (fn. 98) Gravel extraction on a small scale has taken place in various parts of the parish, especially Bare fen (fn. 99) and Mill field, where 2 a. was ruined by digging before 1707. (fn. 100) Bricks were probably made locally from the 17th century. (fn. 101) Three brickmakers were recorded in 1841 (fn. 102) and by 1860 Thomas Robinson had a kiln and drying sheds near the windmill on the Long Stanton road, (fn. 103) employing six men in 1861. (fn. 104) The works closed c. 1931. (fn. 105)

A small industrial estate opened on the southern edge of the village in 1981. (fn. 106) By 1983 ten small firms occupied premises on about half the site and further units were under construction. (fn. 107)


  • 1. St. Cath.'s Coll. Mun., 1/12, no. 1; cf. B.L. Add. MS. 5821, f. 40.
  • 2. P.R.O., E 134/17 & 18 Eliz. I Mich./6, rot. 9.
  • 3. Jesus Coll. Mun., Caryl 3/5 (from cat.).
  • 4. P.N. Cambs. (E.P.N.S.), 169.
  • 5. Jesus Coll. Mun., Caryl 3/7, 8/2; C.C.C. Mun., XXI/1.
  • 6. e.g. C.R.O., Q/RDc 55, map.
  • 7. V.C.H. Cambs. i. 426.
  • 8. Ibid. i. 371.
  • 9. Ramsey Chron. (Rolls Ser.), 233, 296; Raftis, Ramsey, 56-8.
  • 10. Raftis, Ramsey, 233.
  • 11. B.L. Add. Ch. 34710.
  • 12. Ibid. Add. Ch. 34607.
  • 13. P.R.O., JUST 2/18, rot. 8.
  • 14. B.L. Add. MS. 33447, ff. 8v.-14.
  • 15. P.R.O., E 134/17 & 18 Eliz. I Mich./6, rot. 4d.
  • 16. Ibid. rott. 29-33.
  • 17. Ibid. E 124/2, f. 210v.; E 178/3606.
  • 18. Ibid. C 2/Jas. I/M 21/38.
  • 19. V.C.H. Cambs. i. 426.
  • 20. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 476-7.
  • 21. e.g. P.R.O., E 315/488, f. 20v.
  • 22. Ibid. E 134/17 & 18 Eliz. I Mich./6, rot. 4d.
  • 23. Ibid. rott. 7-34.
  • 24. Ibid. E 179/81/126, f. 2; E 179/81/163, rot. 8 and d.
  • 25. Ibid. E 134/17 & 18 Eliz. 1 Mich./6, rott. 7-34.
  • 26. Ibid. rot. 4.
  • 27. e.g. B.L. Add. MS. 5861, ff. 76, 102v.
  • 28. Ibid. ff. 15, 21, 47v.; P.R.O., E 134/17 & 18 Eliz. I Mich./6, rot. 5.
  • 29. Rest of para. based on P.R.O., E 134/17 & 18 Eliz. I Mich./6, rott. 2-3, 5v.-6, 20-8.
  • 30. Above, intro.
  • 31. J. Houghton, Collection for Improvement of Husbandry and Trade(1727-8), i. 388.
  • 32. P.R.O., C 3/324/29, bill.
  • 33. e.g. ibid. E 134/1654 Mich./22; E 310/9/13, no. 60; Cal. Pat. 1563-6, 220.
  • 34. P.R.O., C 2/Jas. I/M 21/38.
  • 35. Ibid. E 134/1654 Mich./22, dep. of Rob. Brand to interr. 3 for def.
  • 36. Ibid. C 2/Jas. I/B 37/53; C 2/Jas. I/M 21/38.
  • 37. Trin. Coll. Mun., Box 28, no. 8.
  • 38. C.R.O., R 72/93.
  • 39. P.R.O., E 134/19 Chas. II East./29.
  • 40. Ibid. E 134/1655-6 Hil./20.
  • 41. Bold, 'Hist. Over', 24, citing doc. in par. chest now lost.
  • 42. Houghton, Collection, i. 388-94, 398-400.
  • 43. P.R.O., E 126/24/2 Geo. II Trin. no. 17; C.R.O., P 129/3/2 (from cat.).
  • 44. Trin. Coll. Mun., Box 28, no. 18.
  • 45. Ibid. no. 21.
  • 46. e.g. C.R.O., P 129/25/6.
  • 47. Ibid. Q/RDc 55, map.
  • 48. Trin. Coll. Mun., Box 28, no. 22.
  • 49. Ibid. no. 23, pp. 1, 8.
  • 50. Rep. Com. Poor Laws, i. 251A.
  • 51. Trin. Coll. Mun., Box 28, no. 19.
  • 52. Ibid. no. 29B; cf. C.R.O., 65/M 88.
  • 53. C.R.O., Q/RDc 55, pp. 211-74.
  • 54. Trin. Coll. Mun., Box 28, no. 20.
  • 55. Above, manors.
  • 56. Trin. Coll. Mun., Box 28, nos. 39-40.
  • 57. Ibid. nos. 47A, 47B, 47C, 47E, 47F.
  • 58. P.R.O., HO 107/1749; ibid. RG 9/978; RG 10/1530; RG 11/1607.
  • 59. e.g. C.U.L., Maps PSQ 19/279.
  • 60. C.R.O., 294/O 24.
  • 61. Agric. Land Com. Over and Bare Fens, 6.
  • 62. e.g. C.U.L., Maps PSQ 18/257; PSQ 18/272; C.R.O., 515/SP 2286.
  • 63. Inf. from Mr. G. R. W. Wright.
  • 64. Cambs. Agric. Returns, 1980.
  • 65. Ibid.; P.R.O., MAF 68/7-8, 403, 973, 1543, 2113, 2683, 3232, 3752, 4489; Agric. Land Com. Over and Bare Fens,6.
  • 66. e.g. P.R.O., CP 25(2)/93/831/2 Eliz. 1 Hil. no. 6; CP25(2)/93/837/13 Eliz. 1 East. no. 2; CP 25(2)/93/840/17 Eliz. 1 Trin. no. 7.
  • 67. P.R.O., MAF 68/973, 1543, 2113, 2683, 3232, 3752.
  • 68. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1853 and later edns.).
  • 69. Bloom, Fens, 24.
  • 70. Cambs. Agric. Returns, 1980.
  • 71. e.g. P.R.O., SC 2/179/10; SC 2/179/15; SC 2/179/21; SC 2/227/95.
  • 72. Ibid. E 134/17 & 18 Eliz. I Mich./6, rot. 5.
  • 73. Ibid. SC 2/179/32, m. 2.
  • 74. B.L. Add. MS. 5861, f. 99v.
  • 75. P.R.O., C 2/Jas. I/M 21/28, answer.
  • 76. Rep. Com. Agric. Wages[Cmd. 24], p. 18, H.C. (1919), ix.
  • 77. V.C.H. Cambs. ii. 361; cf. T. McK. and M. C. Hughes, Cambs. (1909), 100; below, plate facing p. 380.
  • 78. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 476, 478.
  • 79. P.R.O., E 134/17 & 18 Eliz. 1 Mich./6, rot. 5.
  • 80. Camb. Chron. 4 Dec. 1784, p. 3.
  • 81. e.g. C.R.O., Q/RDc 55, map.
  • 82. Bold, 'Hist. Over', 29.
  • 83. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1853-69).
  • 84. Camb. Chron. 10 Feb. 1787, p. 1.
  • 85. Ibid. 25 July 1840, p. 3.
  • 86. Smith, Windmills in Cambs. 22.
  • 87. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1869-1937).
  • 88. e.g. Seed: Jnl. of Organic Living, ii (4), pp. 12-13 (cutting in Cambs. Colln.).
  • 89. P.R.O., SC 2/179/11, m. 6d.
  • 90. Sessions of the Peace(C.A.S. 8vo ser. lv), 16.
  • 91. St. Cath.'s Coll. Mun., i/12, nos. 17, 26.
  • 92. B.L. Add. MS. 5861, ff. 79, 99v.
  • 93. C.R.O., R 72/93; cf. Williamson, Trade Tokens, i. 76.
  • 94. B.L. Add. Ch. 22607.
  • 95. P.R.O., PROB 11/135, f. 492 and v.; PROB 11/418, ff. 180-1.
  • 96. Ibid. PROB 11/124, ff. 253v.-254.
  • 97. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1853-1937); P.R.O., HO 107/70; HO 107/1749; ibid. RG 9/978; RG 10/1530; RG 11/1607.
  • 98. P.R.O., JUST 2/18, rot. 8; inf. from editors, Medieval Latin Dict.
  • 99. A. Bloom, Prelude to Bressingham, 12-13.
  • 100. St. Cath.'s Coll. Mun., xviii/2, survey 1707.
  • 101. Above, intro.
  • 102. P.R.O., HO 107/70.
  • 103. C.R.O., R 59/4/3/4.
  • 104. P.R.O., RG 9/978.
  • 105. Bold, 'Hist. Over', 27.
  • 106. Camb. Evening News, 25 July 1981.
  • 107. Inf. from Land Use Planning Officer, Cambs. County Council.