The History of Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire

Historical notes about the town of Whittlesey in Cambridgehsire.

Whittlesey is a town in the north-west of the Isle, 6.5 miles east of Peterborough and 11 miles west of March. Its 'island' rises to 26 ft. above sea level, and is about 3 miles long and 0.5 mile broad. It is therefore larger and slightly higher than that of Thorney. The 'island' is composed of a thin capping of gravel on a subsoil of Oxford Clay, which here reaches its farthest extension to the north-east. This fact has led to the development of important brickworks, whose forty chimney-stacks render Whittlesey conspicuous from a great distance.

The town is situated at the intersection of the road from Peterborough to March with that from Ramsey to Thorney and Crowland. The latter (B 1040) is planted with trees on the Thorney side of the town, a pleasant but unusual feature in this part of the country; from it fine views of Peterborough Cathedral may be obtained. The former is a first-class road (A 605) on the Peterborough side, but east of Whittlesey it is only a second-class road (B 1097) and becomes very crooked, crossing the railway three times in less than 2 miles. Branch roads diverge from it at Eastrea, a mile east of Whittlesey, to Benwick and Doddington (B 1093), and beyond Coates (2.5 miles) to Ring's End and Wisbech (B 1072). The Ely-Peterborough section of the Eastern Region, British Railways, opened in 1846, provides railway communication. From Three Horseshoes, 3 miles east of the town, a goods line (1897-8) runs south to Benwick.

The street plan of the town itself is complicated and irregular. An interesting feature is the 'back way' formed by Wallcroft Road on the west, Stonald and Bassenhally Roads on the north, and Cemetery Road and Inham's Lane on the east. This arrangement, representing perhaps the line of an earthen rampart and stockade behind the gardens and yards of houses fronting inwards to the main streets, suggests that Whittlesey may have been settled very early. On the other hand, the names of certain streets, e.g. Scaldgate and Briggate, point to Danish influence and therefore to a late date for settlement. Some of the waterways traversing the parish are of considerable antiquity, such as Whittlesey Dyke, a continuation of Cnut's Dyke and King's Dyke, and Moreton's Leam. The modern course of the Nene forms the northern boundary, and the tides come up as far as Dog in a Doublet Bridge on the Thorney road. Here a 'floating bridge' was erected in 1787.

Several travellers have recorded their impressions of Whittlesey. These have not always been compli mentary. Cole, in 1745, thought St. Mary's spire the most beautiful he had ever seen, but stated that the townsmen were 'reckoned but a boorish and rough kind of people'. At the end of the 18th century a local farmer, when noting in his diary that the Volunteers paraded for the first time on 12 May 1797, remarked that they were 'very few'. He added that 'they like drinking better than fighting at Whittlesea'. About this time the town had the reputation of being a 'wild and dirty' place, though Jeremiah Jackson, on his visit in 1816, noted a 'rapid improvement from the substitution of gravel for mud in the streets'. A generation later rioting occurred regularly in the town on Guy Fawkes' Night, and in 1834 140 special constables were enrolled for the period 4 to 7 November to put a stop to it. By 1851, however, Whittlesey was stated to have 'a cleanly appearance'. It had recently 'been much improved by the erection of some good shops, the slabbing of the pavements, and the introduction of gas'. As at Chatteris, a literary movement was apparent in the first half of the 19th century, with societies known as the Old Book Society and the Whittlesey Institution. The former, it was said, 'is more select, but the principles of the latter are more in keeping with the spirit of the times-that is, it partakes more of the nature of the Mechanics' Institutes'. In 1900 there was a Science and Art School in Whittlesey.

At the present day, with its two fine churches and numerous old stone-built houses, Whittlesey is by no means an unattractive town. The great brick-pits also, whether active with their smooth steep sides of blue clay, or worked out and forming miniature descendants of the great Mere, form an agreeable contrast to the trim fenlands.

Judging by the value of the manors, Whittlesey was a prosperous place in the Middle Ages, and it is rather surprising that it did not attain corporate status. The division of the town into two lordships, however, must have been a handicap to independence. The numerous guilds, moreover, were all very small, and, when they were dissolved, none was in a position to act as a Corporation, as was the case at Wisbech. The economic importance of the town continued in the 17th century. Several tradesmen's tokens of that period are recorded, and in 1639-40 the town was assessed at £115 9s. 7d. -more highly in fact than any place in the Isle except Wisbech.

In 1563 there were 355 householders in Whittlesey, 266 in St. Mary's parish, and 89 in St. Andrew's. About a century later (1676) the town contained 2,021 persons of communicant age. At both dates Whittlesey ranked second amongst the towns of the Isle, Ely coming first. The actual population in 1563 and 1676 may have been rather more than 1,500 and 3,000 persons. This would represent an increase of about 100 per cent. and was similar to that which apparently occurred in both Ely and Wisbech. The increase, however, was not maintained during the 18th century. In 1801 the actual population of Whittlesey was 3,841, showing an increase of only about 25 per cent. in 125 years as contrasted with one of about 130 per cent. in Wisbech. The doubling of the Whittlesey population in the first half of the 19th century and its slight decline in the second half show a trend similar to that of the Isle as a whole. The subsequent recovery, however, began earlier and, owing to the brickmaking industry, has been more marked in Whittlesey than elsewhere in the Isle. The preliminary figure of the 1951 census was 8,609, showing an increase of 8 per cent. since 1931.

The right to hold a market, and three annual fairs on 25-27 January, 11-13 June, and 25-27 October, was granted in 1715 to George Downes, steward to Richard Price and Nathaniel Webb, the lessees of the manors. The market had been discontinued for about twenty years in 1808, but the June fair, limited to one day only, was still kept up. Horses were the chief item of trade at this fair. Shortly before 1851 the market was revived 'and bids fair to become an excellent corn market', but in 1868 it was said that only 'the tradition of a market lingers about the place on Friday afternoons'. Friday is still market day in Whittlesey, but the town is too close to Peterborough for the market to be of much importance. The horse fair on 13 June still exists. The National Provincial and Gurney's Banks had established branches in Whittlesey by 1851; the latter is now absorbed by Barclays Bank.

A 'swanner' and deputy swanner of the manor are mentioned in 1595. At the beginning of the 19th century there were four parcels of land, totalling 42 acres, known as Constable's, Churchwardens', Bellman's, and Herdman's Grasses, enjoyed by the respective parish officers. The Constable's Grass existed eo nomine in 1625, when a lawsuit occurred over the illegal seizure of its hay crop. This piece was also known as Bull's Grass, as two bulls for the use of the commoners were kept on it.

There was some hostility in Whittlesey to the inclosure and drainage movement of the early 18th century. In 1703 George Goulding of Whittlesey and seventeen others were accused of unlawful assembly axibus et securis, breaking into the close of Francis Keate and overthrowing a windmill or 'dreyning engine'. The defendants pleaded not guilty. The Attorney-General cited the Liberty of the Bishop of Ely and prayed a venire facias for a jury of inhabitants of Soham, as the nearest town to Whittlesey outside the liberty. Goulding and his party were found guilty at the Cambridgeshire assizes. Shortly after this (1707) it was stated that 750 acres in the Whittlesey parishes had already been inclosed, and there were 18,000 acres which might be so treated. At the end of the 18th century Vancouver estimated that there were 1,550 acres of open arable field, 2,400 acres of pasture, and 20,000 acres of fen. The final inclosure by Act of Parliament did not take place until 1840-1.

The award (1844) divided 4,051 acres amongst 332 proprietors. The distribution of common rights was more even than in the other peat-fen parishes of the Isle, approaching nearly to that of marshland parishes like those near Wisbech, where minute subdivision of the land had taken place as far back as the later Middle Ages. Only six Whittlesey proprietors received more than 100 acres. These were Alice Hemmant (190 acres), the trustees of William Blades Fawn (180), the trustees of the Ladies Horatia Elizabeth and Ida Anna Waldegrave, in respect of their rights as ladies of the manors (130), James Read 'the farmer' (123), Alice Haynes (112.5), and James and Elizabeth Ainger (102 acres). Thirteen other proprietors received between 50 and 100 acres each. Bassinghally, Church, Coates, Eastrea, Lattersey, and Stonald Fields are mentioned in the award, all of which are marked at the present day on the 1/25,000 Ordnance Survey map. It was stated that of the 4,051 acres partitioned, 892 were in respect of freehold and 3,159 of copyhold property.

As in most Fenland towns, a very large portion of the area within the urban boundaries is farmland, and the proportion of agricultural workers in Whittlesey (41.9 per cent. in 1921, 39 per cent. in 1931) is roughly the same of that of agriculturists in English rural districts as a whole (41.5 per cent. in 1931). But for more than half a century Whittlesey has been one of the chief centres of the brickmaking industry. In 1921 361, and in 1931 183 persons in Whittlesey were employed in the brick- and tile-making industry, forming 12.3 per cent. and 6.1 per cent. of the male working population. The decrease, caused mainly by increased mechanization, is not confined to Whittlesey and the Isle, though a contributory factor in this neighbourhood is that the local 'seams' are strictly limited in extent, and some of the best have been worked out.

Whittlesey was constituted a separate Poor Law Union under the 1834 Act. By the Whittlesey Improvement Act, 1849, an area of about half a square mile (the present East Central and West Central Wards of the Urban District) was placed under Commissioners and the provisions of the Towns Improvement Clauses Act, 1847, applied to it. The Commissioners were replaced in 1894 by an Urban District Council of 18 members; at this date the remainder of the combined parishes of St. Andrew and St. Mary became a Rural District and civil parish under the name of Whittlesey Rural. In 1926, by the Isle of Ely (Whittlesey Urban District) Confirmation Order, the boundary of the Urban District was extended to include the whole of Whittlesey Rural, making it in area one of the largest urban districts in England. In 1933 an area of nearly 4,000 acres along the northern border was transferred to Thorney. This alteration, which left the North Side Ward of the Urban District as an area of nearly 2,500 acres with no population, linked up the Thorney Rural District, which had previously been in two detached pieces. Petty Sessions have been held at Whittlesey since 1797; the Division also comprises the parishes of Thorney and North Stanground. From 1778 to 1846 Whittlesey was also one of the meeting places of the Court of Requests for recovering small debts within the Isle.

A postal service was first provided in Whittlesey in 1807. By 1851 the post office was in the market place, but the present office, one of the attractive 18th-century buildings which are a feature of the square, was not brought into use until 1913; it was extensively renovated in 1933. Telegraph service was first provided in 1872, and telephones in 1906. A cemetery was opened in 1850, and has since been enlarged to contain 8 acres. The older burial grounds attached to the churches and chapels were closed by Order in Council, 1873.

The town was probably the birthplace of William Whittlesey, Archbishop of Canterbury 1368-74. Another famous native was General Sir Harry Smith (1786-1860), who had a successful military career in the Napoleonic and Sikh wars, and was Governor of the Cape of Good Hope. After his victory at Aliwal he was given a great reception in his native town, and his still existing birthplace in London Street is known as Aliwal House.

Whittlesey is situated just off the limestone belt of England, and has an extensive display of good domestic architecture. The most important buildings are the manor house and the Butter Cross.

The manor house, immediately to the south of St. Mary's Church, is of medieval origin, but was considerably enlarged at two periods in the 17th century, and at a subsequent date the interior was altered and refashioned. It is now L-shaped in plan and may have been so always, but the north wing is now of 17th century date. The west wing is of 15th century origin and retains several features of this period. Early in the 17th century this wing was extended on the east and new windows inserted in the original portion. Later in the same century, probably about 1680, the north wing was added or reconstructed. In the first half of the 19th century some new windows were inserted, and then or previously the interior was considerably altered. Though there is no visible evidence to show the full plan of the medieval house, it is almost certain that it was of greater extent than the existing west wing. The house throughout consists of two floors.

On the south front of the west wing there is a 15thcentury two-light window with trefoiled heads under a square label in the upper story. There are contemporary angle buttresses with one set-off and a similar buttress towards the west end of the south front. On the north side of the west wing is a large medieval chimney-stack with a later brick top. In the north wall in the upper story is a late-15th-century window with square head and formerly of two lights, but now deprived of its mullion. The original coping remains on the east and west gables. Early in the 17th century, when this wing was extended towards the east, several windows were inserted in the old portion, mostly of four lights with stone mullions and square heads. In the west wall there is a two-storied oriel, the lower window of which has been cut through to form a doorway. The eastern extension of this wing has been much modernized, but it retains one four-light window at the east end in the upper story. At the junction of the north and west wings is a 17th century stone chimneystack. The north wing, which appears to date from the latter part of the 17th century, has some contemporary windows at the back with wooden mullions and transoms. There is also on this side a large external chimney-stack of brick. All the roofs are covered with stone slates. The interior has been much modernized and the original arrangements have been obscured. There are two staircases; that in the west wing is of medieval origin and runs up straight between two walls from north to south; it is lighted by the two-light 15th century window at the top; the treads are modern. The other is in the north wing and is of late 17thcentury date with turned balusters and moulded rail. There is an old cellar under part of the north wing.

'Portland House', in Station Road about 50 yards south-east of St. Mary's Church, was a fine stone building of two stories with attics and mullioned windows. The original structure dated from about 1600 and was H-shaped on plan; an addition on the south between the arms of the H dated from the later 17th century. Inside were several panelled rooms and one or two good fireplaces, contemporary with the house. The building was damaged by fire in 1949 (fn. 53) and subsequently demolished, but the massive garden walls remain, with an outer entrance on the north consisting of a large pair of gate piers surmounted by stone vases, and an inner entrance facing east with gate piers surmounted by eagles. The site is now (1951) being developed as a residential estate of detached houses.

The Butter Cross is a good late 17th-century example of an open market house; it is square in plan, and the roof, which is covered with stone slates, is supported by one square and two round stone columns at each angle and a single round column in the middle of each side.

The Black Bull Inn in Market Street and No. 8 Market Place are good examples of stone-built houses of mid-17th-century date, with stone slates and chimney-stacks and mullioned windows of Northamptonshire character.

Besides the foregoing, the following buildings in Whittlesey can be ascribed to a date earlier than 1714. No. 3 Delph Lane, a one-story stone-built cottage with thatched roof; 'The Wheatsheaf', Eastgate; No. 6 Gracious Street, also stone-built; Nos. 59 and 61 Gracious Street, of a similar type to the Delph Lane cottage; the Falcon Inn, London Street; 'The Wilderness', London Street, a three-story house of red brick with stone dressings, with a good doorway with shell canopy; Nos. 6, 12, 13, and 15, a set of one-story thatched cottages, timber-framed with cob walling; the post office and the house and shop at the south-east corner of the market place; 'Tudor House', Market Street, a 17th-century stone building now converted into a shop; No. 23 Market Street, one story, dated 1710; the National Provincial Bank premises in Market Street, with a modillioned cornice and classical doorway; Grove House, Station Road, late 17th century with mullioned windows and a doorway with a shell canopy; Nos. 1 and 2 Turner's Lane; a stone-built barn at No. 15 West End; the Pack Horse Inn, Whitmore Street. Other later houses of some merit are No. 4 High Causeway, with a well-designed Georgian front, and No. 7 Horsegate, which has a Doric portico in stone and modillioned cornice. St. Andrew's Vicarage is a pleasant building for its date (1861). The Town Hall (1857) in Market Street is of unusual and not unattractive design. The Market Place as a whole forms a group of buildings of some architectural importance.

Victoria County History - Published 1932