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 parish, covering 3,982 a. (1,611 ha.), (fn. 1) lies on the former Huntingdonshire boundary northwest of Cambridge and extends from the Ouse in the north to the Cambridge-Huntingdon road in the south. The western boundary with Fen Drayton and the south-eastern with Long Stanton follow field boundaries and drainage ditches. Swavesey drain separates the parish from Over to the north-east, except at the north-east corner where the boundary follows what is apparently an older line of the drain.
The land falls from south-west to north-east. A ridge of higher ground, 18 m. (60 ft.) at its south-western end, runs down the centre of the parish towards the north-east. The ridge and the southern third of the parish are formed by Ampthill clay, which is overlaid by a small area of river gravel at the northern end of the ridge. The clay land was mainly arable and meadow, while the gravel formed two islands on which the core of the village developed. North, east, and west of the ridge is low-lying alluvium, (fn. 2) fenland before inclosure 1838-40.
Swavesey was notable in the Middle Ages as the administrative centre of a large 11th-century estate, (fn. 3) and for a castle built in the late 11th or earlier 12th century, (fn. 4) an alien priory founded in the late 11th century perhaps to replace a preConquest minster, (fn. 5) and a port town fortified c. 1200, with a market from the mid 13th century. (fn. 6)
The fens included Middle and Mow fens north and west of the ridge, Mare fen to the north, and Cow fen to the east. Mare fen and part of Cow fen were inclosed in the early 17th century and the rest, with the open fields, between 1838 and 1840. (fn. 7) Since the passage of water from Long Stanton along Swavesey drain was by the early 17th century allegedly restricted by Over lode (Chain ditch) and Over bank between Over and Earith, Swavesey's fens remained flooded longer than those of parishes to the north-east. (fn. 8) The Ouse at Swavesey lode was allegedly 'quite stopped up' by the inhabitants by c. 1620. At that time too the outlet of Chain ditch was stopped by a bank. (fn. 9) By 1655 the undertakers of the Bedford Level drainage had rebuilt and perhaps extended it as Over bank across the north-east corner of Swavesey parish. Swavesey drain west of it was to be maintained by the parish. (fn. 10) The works caused further flooding in Swavesey in the 1660s. (fn. 11) New drains were laid out at the inclosure of 1838-40, (fn. 12) but flooding remained a problem. (fn. 13) Owners and occupiers formed a committee for drainage in 1856; a waterworks contract allotted that year may have been the result. (fn. 14) Swavesey and Fen Drayton became a drainage district under an Act of 1881, with an elected board of local farmers which took over responsibility for certain watercourses from the parish surveyor. (fn. 15) In 1980 a new Swavesey internal drainage district was set up. (fn. 16) In 1983 it was planned to drain Mare and Cow fens under the Anglian Water Scheme, (fn. 17) but Mare fen was bought by the county council in 1985 for a nature reserve. (fn. 18)
The Roman road from Cambridge towards Huntingdon, turnpiked in 1745 (fn. 19) and disturnpiked in 1874, (fn. 20) runs along the south-western boundary of the parish. The road running northwards from it along the ridge may have been the Swavesey highway with a hermit mentioned in 1392. (fn. 21) Its northern part forms the village street; Swavesey bridge by the church at its north end existed by 1232. (fn. 22) The part south of the village was known as Buckingway road by 1838. (fn. 23) The road ran along a causeway, which existed by 1638, as far as the church, (fn. 24) but beyond that it continued only as a footpath to Over; the name of High Causeway bridge on the boundary may be modern. (fn. 25) At inclosure between 1838 and 1840 the line north of the bridge was straightened to make a new road to Over, cutting across the churchyard. (fn. 26) At the same time another lane running NNW. from the village and then NE. to Ouse fen in Over was stopped up. (fn. 27) Other old roads, retained at inclosure, ran west and southwest to Fen Drayton and east to Long Stanton. (fn. 28) Mill way towards Fen Drayton appears to run along an artificial causeway and the bridge at the Fen Drayton boundary is called High Causeway bridge. (fn. 29)
A navigation drain, perhaps the Swavesey lode mentioned c. 1620, (fn. 30) ran north-west from the village to the Ouse; in 1758 Berry Dodson, lessee of the manor and parsonage, agreed to maintain it. (fn. 31) A new dock was built west of the church between 1838 and 1840. (fn. 32)
The Cambridge to St. Ives railway was opened across the parish in 1847, (fn. 33) with Swavesey station north-east of the church. The station was closed to goods traffic in 1966 and to passengers in 1970; (fn. 34) the line survived in 1986 as a single track for through freight trains. (fn. 35)
The recorded peasant population was 65 in 1086. (fn. 36) There were over 200 holdings in 1279. (fn. 37) In 1327 altogether 96 people paid the subsidy (fn. 38) ********** and 379 adults paid poll tax in 1377. (fn. 39) were 78 families in 1563, (fn. 40) 387 adult inhabitants in 1676, and 200 families in 1728. (fn. 41) The population increased from 831 in 1801 to 1,385 in 1851, then declined to 899 in 1901. It was 904 in 1911 and 830 in 1921. Thereafter it rose gradually to 927 in 1951 and 1,150 in 1971, then more rapidly to 1,584 in 1981 (fn. 42) and an estimated 1,700 in 1986, when expansion to 9,000 was being considered. (fn. 43)
Roman pottery has been found on a mound west of the present village. (fn. 44) Until the later 20th century Swavesey village consisted of a densely built-up area on an island of river gravel in the north, with the church and manor house isolated on a second island north of it beyond the navigation drain, and a long street running south along the central ridge. Although it has been suggested that the original village was in the south, on a deserted site at Boxworth End, and that the inhabitants were moved northwards to a new fortified and planned town in the mid or late 13th century, (fn. 45) the supposed deserted village appears rather to have been a system of drainage channels of unknown date on the former Great green, (fn. 46) while the name Swavesey, referring to an island or a hythe, (fn. 47) suggests that the original settlement was on the fen edge. The more northerly of the two gravel islands was known as the Eye by c. 1200; in 1314 it was mostly demesne meadow. (fn. 48) Pottery found in the churchyard there suggests settlement by c. 1000. (fn. 49) The church stood there by the later 11th century, with an alien priory north of it by 1086 (fn. 50) and the manor house of Swavesey manor east of it by the later Middle Ages. (fn. 51) Settlement was otherwise restricted to the southern island, where a town had probably begun to develop by 1086. (fn. 52) The original focus was perhaps on the highest part of the island, where three roads make a Y junction: Station Road leading to the church, Taylor's Lane leading towards the causeway to Fen Drayton and possibly to be identified with the Barkeleys lane mentioned in 1476, (fn. 53) and High Street leading south along the ridge towards Boxworth. The cross mentioned in the late 15th century (fn. 54) may have stood at the junction. A few houses south-west and south-east of the junction were still copyhold of Swavesey manor in the 19th century. (fn. 55) Wallman's Lane east of High Street, called Back Lane in the 19th century until renamed after a contemporary property owner there, may have continued further north, curving round to join Station Road along the line of later tenement boundaries. (fn. 56) The castle was built west of the Y junction probably c. 1070 or in the 1140s; (fn. 57) it appears to have blocked Taylor's Lane, which was diverted round it.
Swavesey was a port apparently by 1177, with a dock whose profits were granted to the prior c. 1200. (fn. 58) The southern island was fortified about then, while the priory was acquiring land and houses. (fn. 59) The built-up area of the fortified town was restricted to High Street, Station Road, and the adjoining lanes by the presence of the large closes of the Castle croft and the presumed sites of the later Topleys and Bennetts manor houses. The northern half was apparently held mainly of the prior's manor and the southern half mainly of Bennetts manor. The plots along Station Road were probably laid out at or before the time of fortification. (fn. 60) To the west Black Horse Lane, making a rectangular block east of the castle, may date from the same period. It was probably the Chapel lane mentioned in 1476 (fn. 61) and was known as Dodson's Lane in 1851. (fn. 62) The church was rebuilt soon after 1200. (fn. 63)
Alan la Zouche, lord of Swavesey manor, presumably followed up the grant to him of a market in 1244 by laying out Market Street, with a dock at the east end. (fn. 64) The task was perhaps made easier because the centre part of Wallman's Lane and its presumed northern extension, blocked by the new street, was held by customary tenants of Swavesey manor. (fn. 65) There were 20 single and 4 double burgages in the market by 1279. (fn. 66) They presumably stood on the small plots clearly intruded between the larger ones facing north towards the prior's dock and the tenements of Bennetts manor on the south. Most of those plots were freehold in the 19th century. (fn. 67) The prior may also have had an interest in the market place, since two tenements held of the rectory manor apparently faced it in 1476. (fn. 68) One and possibly two copyholds at the east end of the street (fn. 69) were probably encroachments on the market place after the burgages were laid out.
Meanwhile a separate settlement had grown up beside the road running south along the central ridge. The 10 villaniof 1086 perhaps lived there, as probably also did the 63 half yardlanders of Swavesey manor in 1279, (fn. 70) predecessors of the later copyholders of that manor whose houses, except for the plots mentioned above, lay outside the former town walls in the 19th century. The core of the settlement can be identified tentatively in Boxworth End, apparently a separate tithing by the 19th century, (fn. 71) as a row of tofts on the western side of the road from the south end of the modern village to a point north of the road to Long Stanton and perhaps almost to Gibraltar Lane, which ran across Gibraltar green before inclosure. That row was still the main area of Swavesey manor copyhold closes in 1838. (fn. 72) On the east side of the road was apparently a common green. A block of houses and crofts, including freeholds, at the south end appears to be an encroachment on the green, made perhaps in the 12th or 13th century. Further north, on Middle Watch, a name perhaps relating to an otherwise unrecorded area of policing, an isolated block of settlement, dividing Cow Fen green to the north from Great green to the south, had been cut out of the common by the late 13th century when Ryder's Farm was built there. (fn. 73) Much of the block was later copyhold and may have included some of the half yardlanders' houses in 1279. On the west of the road School Lane, known as Carter's Lane in 1838, (fn. 74) probably existed by 1476 with Wakefields, later the Priory, at its western end. (fn. 75) The tofts north of the lane backed on Thistle green south of the town ditch, defined as a green by 1476. (fn. 76) The remaining plots along the west side of Middle Watch between Gibraltar and School lanes were presumably encroachments on the roadside common, (fn. 77) perhaps after the Middle Ages. Most of Middle Watch, with the former fortified town, was apparently regarded as in Church End tithing in 1841. (fn. 78)
Despite the fall in population in the later Middle Ages no particular area of the village deserted then can be identified. The expansion of settlement from the mid 16th to the earlier 19th century, with 127 houses recorded in 1674, (fn. 79) 145 inhabited in 1801, and 217 inhabited in 1831, (fn. 80) apparently took place largely by infilling, although Hill Farm in the south-east of the parish existed by 1838. (fn. 81)
Apart from new building, much rebuilding was occasioned by the fires which swept the village from the 18th century and presumably earlier. A fire in 1719 allegedly destroyed property worth £1,755. (fn. 82) Between 1848 and 1889 at least 37 houses and cottages were destroyed in at least 12 fires. (fn. 83) A fire which began in Taylor's Lane in 1913 destroyed at least 28 houses, most of them in Station Road. (fn. 84) Another destroyed four in Market Street in 1924. (fn. 85) Few early houses therefore survived in 1988. Apart from those mentioned above, no. 31 Station Road, formerly the Swan inn, (fn. 86) retains the hall and cross wing of a late medieval house later extended in timber framing to the north-west and refronted in brick in the 18th century. No. 36 Boxworth End and nos. 73-75 Middle Watch are timber-framed houses of the 17th century or later. Other 17thcentury or earlier houses survived in Wallman's Lane until the later 20th century, (fn. 87) while the Old House, Black Horse Lane, is partly 17thcentury, though it and the adjoining Quaker meeting house were rebuilt after the fire of 1719. (fn. 88) To the north no. 25 Black Horse Lane, gutted by fire in 1980 and restored in 1983, (fn. 89) appears to be of 17th-century origin, and individual cottages in Market Street and High Street apparently retain elements of 17th-century work, though they were largely rebuilt in brick in the 18th and 19th centuries. Houses of the 18th century include Mill Farm in Middle Watch, the White Horse inn in Market Street, and nos. 10-12 High Street. (fn. 90) In the rest of High Street, as in Middle Watch and Boxworth End, the older houses are of brick and date mainly from the 19th century. In Station Road and Taylor's Lane the fire of 1913 was followed by vigorous rebuilding, one house being wholly and six more nearly completed within five months, including Bottle House, so named after a diamond of nine bottle bottoms in the west gable. (fn. 91) That and several other houses in Station Road and one in Taylor's Lane, all dated 1913 but in a style then old-fashioned, survived in 1988. Other tofts rendered vacant by the fire were not again built on until the later 20th century.
The number of inhabited houses in the parish increased to a peak of 327 in 1871 and then fell to 245 in 1901. Most of the increase was apparently accommodated within the limits of the earlier village, though the road to Long Stanton, renamed Ramper Road, had a few houses by 1871. (fn. 92) Rows of cottages were built perhaps in the mid 19th century at the back of tenements, such as those which lay to the south of Black Horse Lane in 1887. (fn. 93) In 1910 altogether 31 people owned 133 cottages in groups, including 9 pairs and 18 groups of 4 to 8 cottages; one owner had 12 cottages. (fn. 94)
New farms were built in the fields after 1840. Trinity College Farm on Utton's Drove existed by 1841; a barn north-east of it, apparently 16thcentury, may have been brought from elsewhere. Also by 1841 the New inn had been built on the turnpike road at its junction with Buckingway Road. (fn. 95) Thorp's Farm in the south existed prob ably by 1861, (fn. 96) Freezeland, later Friezland, Farm in the north-west by 1887, (fn. 97) and Warner's, later Highfield, Farm on Utton's Drove by 1891. (fn. 98) In the earlier 20th century there was some infilling in Boxworth End, where houses of that period survived in 1988. Trinity College built two sixroomed cottages next to the mission church there in 1913. (fn. 99) Swavesey rural district council built eight houses fronting on Carter's (later School) Lane in 1921 (fn. 100) and others at Boxworth End in 1928. (fn. 101)
After 1945, and particularly after the opening of a village college in 1958 west of Middle Watch, (fn. 102) the village expanded beyond its former limits, chiefly west of the main street. By 1973 the space between Gibraltar and School lanes had been filled by Carter's Way and Priory Avenue with 97 houses of c. 1972, while further south Whitton Close stood between the college and Middle Watch, with some houses dating from before 1963 and others from the late 1960s; further houses were being built south of Gibraltar Lane in 1973. (fn. 103) Between School Lane and the former town ditch the Thistle Green estate was under construction from c. 1980. (fn. 104) East of the main street Ramper Road was built up apparently in the 1950s and later; a caravan park lay south of it in 1973. (fn. 105) By 1986 houses had been built in Greenside Close leading off Middle Watch. (fn. 106) Building had begun on Hobbledods close by 1968. (fn. 107) In 1988, after the demolition some years earlier of the old houses in Wallman's Lane, (fn. 108) a new housing estate was being built there. Further north Chequers Court on the east side of Station Road was built between 1984 and 1986. (fn. 109)
There were at least 3 inns in 1765 and 8 in the early 19th century, and between 1858 and 1900 generally 14-16 inns and beerhouses. The number declined to 8 in 1912, 4 in 1937, 3 in 1960, and one in the late 1960s. Among the longer established inns were the White Horse in Market Street, recorded from 1765 and still open in 1988; the Rose and Crown on the corner of Boxworth End and Rose and Crown Road, recorded from 1765, closed in the 1880s; the Black Horse on the corner of High Street and Black Horse Lane, recorded from 1777, closed c. 1910; the Swan in Station Road, later the Swan with Two Necks, recorded from 1777, closed 1917; the Blue Bell, perhaps the Bell recorded from 1780, and still open in 1937; and the George and Dragon, recorded from 1798, closed between 1900 and 1908. (fn. 110)
A recreation ground was allotted east of Middle Watch in 1840. (fn. 111) Cricket matches on private grounds were being held by 1844; (fn. 112) a cricket club was formed in 1866 (fn. 113) and moved in 1919 to a permanent pitch on the recreation ground. (fn. 114) The club still existed in 1937 (fn. 115) but had apparently lapsed by 1986. (fn. 116) There was a football club by 1920, (fn. 117) apparently playing on the recreation ground in 1937. (fn. 118) It may have been the same as Swavesey Institute club, which survived in 1986. (fn. 119) A hockey club existed in 1922. (fn. 120) Swavesey angling club was founded in the early 20th century. (fn. 121) Clubs in 1986 included a bowls club and a road runners' club. (fn. 122)
A skating match between a Fen and a Lancashire team took place at Swavesey in 1827. (fn. 123) A match was held in 1857 on ice near the church, (fn. 124) probably in Mare fen, where an ice hockey match against Earith took place in 1879 (fn. 125) and where skating championship meetings were held from 1880 until 1933. (fn. 126) When the county council bought the fen in 1985 it agreed to allow skating to continue. (fn. 127)
A drum and fife band was formed apparently in 1880 and had 40 members by 1884; it disbanded in 1895. (fn. 128) A village orchestra competed in a festival of music at Cambridge in 1930. (fn. 129) A horticultural society, founded in 1852, was still flourishing in 1923. (fn. 130)
A young men's reading society, meeting in the National schoolroom, was established in 1849. (fn. 131) A mutual improvement society set up in 1897 met at the Quaker meeting house in Black Horse Lane. (fn. 132) A war memorial hall was opened in High Street in 1924, (fn. 133) with a billiard table and reading room used by a village institute (fn. 134) which survived in 1986. (fn. 135) Weekly film shows were held at the hall in 1928. (fn. 136)
Between 1813 and 1815 there were 36 people in friendly societies. (fn. 137) Lodges of the Oddfellows and Ancient Shepherds were established in 1849 or 1850; that of the Shepherds still existed in 1896. (fn. 138) A benefit society met at the George and Dragon from 1855; others attached to public houses existed in 1926. (fn. 139)
The village Feast was held on the Sunday before Whitsun by 1819. In the later 19th century it extended to the Monday and Tuesday, but by the 1980s was apparently restricted to the Sunday. Events included horse-racing in the late 19th century and a pleasure fair in Market Street and barrel rolling in the 1980s, when a village gala was held in alternate years. (fn. 140)
A post office was established in the 1850s. (fn. 141) The county education committee opened a branch library in 1922; from 1923 it was housed at the National school. (fn. 142) After the village college opened in 1958 the library was moved there. (fn. 143) A parish fire engine bought in 1827 was still in use, ineffectively, in 1913. (fn. 144) A town clock was erected by subscription in front of the National school c. 1848. (fn. 145) Waterworks contracted for by James Stevens of Cambridge in 1856 may have been for a public supply or for drainage. (fn. 146) By 1914 the East Huntingdonshire Water Co. was supplying water to Swavesey rural district council under an order of 1896; the supply was impure (fn. 147) and may have been the same as a dirty water supply in the village, described as new in 1916. (fn. 148) The pumps of an earlier water supply, perhaps that of 1856, including a town pump on the corner of Black Horse Lane and High Street, were handed over by the district council to the parish council when the newer supply was installed. (fn. 149) Paraffin street lamps, paid for by subscription, were installed in the winter of 1885-6. (fn. 150) A new system of public street lamps was apparently installed in 1907. (fn. 151) The parish council installed new lamps at Top Leys Corner (presumably in Taylor's Lane) and Gibraltar Lane in 1912, (fn. 152) but during and after the First World War, to keep down the rates, it refused to light street lamps. (fn. 153) Mains electricity was supplied to the village in 1936. (fn. 154)
During the revolt of 1381 a John Cook led a 'conventicle' of peasants assembled at Swavesey into Huntingdonshire. (fn. 155) George Dyer (1755- 1841), miscellaneous author, lived at Swavesey 1779-92. (fn. 156) CASTLE AND TOWN DEFENCES. No mention of Swavesey castle has been found before 1476, when William Copley held Castle croft of the rectory manor for boonworks and suit of court, (fn. 157) services characteristic of tenures on that manor in 1279. (fn. 158) It is therefore unlikely that the castle was built by the Zouches in the 13th century. (fn. 159) It was not mentioned among the priory's original endowments and was more probably one of its acquisitions c. 1200. (fn. 160) It was presumably derelict by c. 1200 when the croft, later known as Castle close, an enclosure c. 114 m. (375 ft.) square, was incorporated into the town defences. It may date, like Burwell castle, from the 1140s (fn. 161) or may have been built during the campaign against Ely in 1070-1. (fn. 162)
The town defences enclosed the whole of the gravel island south and west of the navigation drain. (fn. 163) The north-western sector was still marked in 1988 by a ditch and a hedged earth rampart west of Castle close and west and north of Topleys close, where it took in the ridge and furrow of former open field at the north end of the close. (fn. 164) On the north-east an irregular bank can be traced across the former Church green; on the south-east the ditch presumably ran close to the line of the modern drainage ditch and included Hobbledods close south of Market Street. West of Turnbridge, a name suggesting a medieval drawbridge over the ditch, (fn. 165) the town ditch ran north of a modern drain and the present Thistle Green estate. That part of the fortifications and presumably the rest were constructed c. 1200. (fn. 166) What may have been an extension (fn. 167) ran further west to include the approximately rectangular Chantry close, (fn. 168) probably returning eastwards to join the surviving rampart at the south end of Castle close.
Since the town ditch, which was perhaps intended mainly as a flood defence, was built during the period when the lords of Swavesey manor were foreigners or short-term grantees, (fn. 169) it was presumably promoted by the lesser landowners, particularly the lord of the later Bennetts manor and the prior. The area enclosed included the presumed sites of Hobbledods and Topleys manor houses, while the copyhold houses of the rectory and Hobbledods manors lay wholly within the enclosure, the former group mainly along the present Station Road and the latter along the south end of High Street and in Wallman's Lane. (fn. 170) Some tenements on the rectory manor, including Castle croft, were called garizonabilisin 1476, (fn. 171) and the crofts on the north side of Station Road west of Swavesey bridge, at least some of which were held of the rectory manor, (fn. 172) curved round to back on the town ditch, perhaps so that each householder could maintain part of it. (fn. 173) The southern part of the town ditch was kept cleared in the later Middle Ages but was filled in with the adjoining rampart c. 1500. (fn. 174)