Willingham: Local government

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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'Willingham: Local government', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 9, Chesterton, Northstowe, and Papworth Hundreds, (London, 1989) pp. 408-409. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol9/pp408-409 [accessed 12 April 2024]

Local government

In the 1270s the bishop of Ely had return of writs, view of frankpledge, the assize of bread and of ale, and a gallows. (fn. 1) In the late 14th century the court usually met four times a year, sometimes more often. It remained the means by which tenurial and agricultural business was managed in the village until the mid 19th century. Court rolls survive for 1377-1458, 1486-1509, 1547-63, and 1575-1603, and court books for 1614-1935. (fn. 2) The court also had jurisdiction over the bishop's and his successors' tenants at Over. (fn. 3) Three reeves and three haywards were appointed most years in the early 15th century. There were two annual sessions in the mid 15th century, when much leet business was still being done, but only one by 1500. Reeves and haywards were appointed regularly and fen reeves, constables, and aletasters less frequently. From the late 15th century the court was increasingly occupied with regulating common rights, often fining tenants who agisted cattle. Under Sir Miles Sandys the elder, lord 1601-26, two or three courts were held each year but afterwards meetings again took place annually, occurring at longer intervals only after the 1830s.

In the late 16th and early 17th century the work of the fen reeves became more important. Four were elected by the leet jury each year, the office being held between 1590 and 1605 by 26 men, mainly larger copyholders. They sold the right of mowing the common hill next to Belsars Hill, (fn. 4) Belsars way, a furlong called the dale, and Hempsal Outcasts, and employed men to stake Hempsals fen, gravel the fen roads, and do emergency work during floods. (fn. 5) In 1616 it was agreed that half the money spent in the fens should go to maintain the gate and bridge of Bawditch leading to Long Shelfords. The residue from c. £30 raised annually c. 1620 was handed to the constables, churchwardens, and overseers of the poor. (fn. 6) The court was concerned with agricultural matters throughout the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, frequently changing and enforcing the bylaws regulating common rights. (fn. 7) The last set of bylaws was enacted in 1833, when the leet jury still elected four fen reeves who raised money for flood banks by a rate of 5s. on each commoner besides selling mowing rights as previously. (fn. 8)

Bourneys manor had a court by 1600 (fn. 9) and court books survive recording tenurial business for 1680-1932. (fn. 10)

Expenditure on the poor rose from £100 in 1776 to over £700 in 1803, when 78 adults and 94 children were permanently supported and 77 people were relieved occasionally. The total of 249 on relief was nearly a third of the population. The money spent included £158 in wages to unemployed labourers. (fn. 11) The number of persons relieved fell below 100 c. 1812 but in 1815 over £1,000 was still spent on the poor. (fn. 12) Expenditure rose again to a new peak of £1,462 in 1818 and after falling in the mid 1820s was again over £1,400 by 1830. The average amount spent in 1833-5 relative to population size was among the highest of the parishes which joined Chesterton poor-law union in 1836. (fn. 13)

The parish acquired three houses, apparently all in Fen End, in 1457, 1460, and 1541. None was still held in the early 18th century when a town cartulary was compiled. The town house, acquired in 1504, stood on the north side of Church Street. In the 17th century it was usually leased but after 1745 was used by the subscription school. (fn. 14)

Willingham became part of Chesterton rural district in 1894 and South Cambridgeshire district in 1974. (fn. 15) The parish council remained active after 1974, still controlling the burial ground acquired in 1865, (fn. 16) recreation grounds, public hall, and other amenities. (fn. 17)


  • 1. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), i. 53.
  • 2. C.R.O., L 1/177-95.
  • 3. Above, Over, local govt.
  • 4. C.U.L., MS. Plan R.b.13, for its location.
  • 5. C.R.O., P 177/28/1.
  • 6. P.R.O., C 3/328/96, bill.
  • 7. Cf. above, econ. hist.
  • 8. C.R.O., L 1/189, pp. 106-22.
  • 9. P.R.O., E 134/3 Jas. 1 Mich./34, dep. of Jas. Starling.
  • 10. C.R.O., R 72/89 (uncat.).
  • 11. Poor Law Abstract, 1804, 36-7.
  • 12. Ibid. 1818, 30-1.
  • 13. Poor Law Com. 2nd Rep. 512.
  • 14. C.R.O., R 59/14/5/10, ff. 1-18; below, educ.
  • 15. Census, 1901, 1971.
  • 16. Kelly's Dir. Cambs. (1933).
  • 17. Willingham Village Guide, 1980(copy in Cambs. Colln.).