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Cambridgeshire - Samuel Lewis's Topographical Gazetteer - 1831

CAMBRIDGESHIRE, an inland county bounded on the north-west by the county of Lincoln, on the north-east by the county of Norfolk, on the east by the county of Suffolk, on the south by the counties of Essex and Hertford, and on the west by the counties of Bedford, Huntingdon, and Northampton : it extends from 52o 3' to 52o 40' (N. Lat.), and from 25' (E. Lon.) to 10' (W. Lon.); and it contains eight hundred and fifty-eight square miles, or about five hundred and fifty thousand acres. The population, in 1821, amounted to 121,909.

At the time of the Roman invasion, Cambridgeshire formed part of the kingdom of the Iceni, being, according to Whitaker, inhabited by a tribe of that people, called the Cenomanni. In the first division of Britain by the Romans, it was included in Britannia Superior; in the second, in Britannia Prima; and in the last, in Flavia Cæsariensis. During the Saxon Octarchy, it was Part of the kingdom of the East Angles. On the subsequent division of England into three great districts, this county was comprised in that called Denelege, or the Danish jurisdiction. The Isle of Ely, from an early period, formed a separate district, with an independent jurisdiction, being called by the Saxons South-Girwa; Toubert, the husband of Etheldreda, foundress of Ely abbey, gave it her in dower, and she bestowed it on that monastery, with all its liberties and privileges. On the Danish invasion and conquest of East Anglia, in the year 870, when King Edmund was put to death, the county was entirely laid waste; and for fifty years afterwards, during which East Anglia remained under the Danish dominion, Cambridge appears to have been one of their principal military stations : there it was that, in the year 921, the Danish army surrendered to King Edward the Elder. After the destruction of Ely by the Danes, King Burrhed annexed the isle to the kingdom of Mercia. Again, in the year 1010, Cambridgeshire was ravaged by the same barbarous invaders, together with all the rest of the kingdom of East Anglia. After the battle of Hastings, and the consequent advance of the Conqueror into the interior of the kingdom, the Isle of Ely, on account of the deep fens which surrounded it, being a post of great strength, became the refuge of the Anglo- Saxon prelates and nobles who continued their resistance, in spite of repeated attempts to reduce it, under the command of the brave and vigilant Hereward: they held this post from 1067 to 1074, when it was surrendered through the treachery of the abbot and monks of Ely, to redeem from confiscation such of their lands as lay without the limits of the isle. During the civil war in the reigns of Stephen, John, and Henry III., the county in general, and the isle of Ely in particular, suffered severely from the devastations caused by the contending parties ; and it was at Cambridge that the barons, on the death of John, were met in council by Louis the Dauphin. The only historical event of importance, from the reign of Henry III. to that of Charles I, is the proclaiming of Lady Jane Grey at Cambridge by the Duke of Northumberland, in 1553. At the beginning of the parliamentary war, Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely associated under Lord Grey of Werke for the parliament, and petitioned for arms for the defence of the county against the commissioners of array. Lord Clarendon enumerates this among the associated counties in which the king had no visible party, nor one fixed quarter. The university, however, voted its plate for the king's service. In 1643, Cromwell took possession of Cambridge for the parliament; and in 1645, the same commander, who had a considerable estate in that district, was sent down with three troops of horse to secure the Isle of Ely. In the month of August in the same year, the king marched towards Cambridge, but departed without attacking it. In June 1647, the parliamentarian army, under Fairfax and Cromwell, had its head-quarters at Kennet, near Newmarket. At Childerley, near Cambridge, on the 7th of the same month, Fairfax and Cromwell waited on the king, and disavowed all participation in the seizure of his person by Cornet Joyce: on the 9th, the king was removed to Newmarket. The parliamentary army, while it remained in Cambridgeshire, had a general rendezvous on Triplow heath, and another near Royston.

This county (excepting fifteen parishes in the eastern part of it, which are in the archdeaconry of Sudbury, and diocese of Norwich, and the parish of Isleham, in the peculiar jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rochester), forms an archdeaconry in the diocese of Ely, province of Canterbury, comprising the deaneries of Barton, Bourne, otherwise Knapwell, Cambridge, Camps, Chesterton, Ely, Shengay, and Wisbeach; and contains one hundred and sixty-two parishes, of which sixty-six are rectories, eighty-four vicarages, and twelve perpetual curacies. For civil purposes it is divided into seventeen hundreds, viz., those of Armingford, Chesterton, Cheveley, Chilford, Ely, Flendish, Longstow, Northstow, Papworth, Radfield, Staine, Staploe, Thriplow, Wetherley, Whittlesford, Wisbeach, and Witchford. It contains the city of Ely; the university, borough, and market town of Cambridge : the market towns of Linton, March, Thorney, and Wisbeach ; and part of the market towns of Newmarket and Royston. Two knights are returned to parliament for the shire, and two represeatatives each for the university and borough of Cambridge: the prevalent influence in county elections is possessed by the Dukes of Bedford and Rutland, and the Earl of Hardwicke. Cambridgeshire is within the Norfolk circuit: the assizes and quarter sessions for the county are held at Cambridge, where stands the county gaol: there are eighty-three acting magistrates. The Isle of Ely having been restored with all its privileges to the abbey of Ely, after the reestablishment of that monastery by king Edgar, the abbots, and afterwards the bishops, exercised the privileges of a county palatine until the reign of Henry VIII., when these privileges were, in common with those of other palatines, considerably abridged by act of parliament. The bishop is still custos rotulorum of the Isle of Ely, including the hundreds of Ely, Wisbeach, and Witchford, his jurisdiction being entitled the royal franchise, or liberty, of the Bishop of Ely. The civil officers of this franchise are, a chief justice, who holds a court of pleas above 40s., under a commission from the bishop, and a court of Oyer and Terminer and gaol delivery, by virtue of a commission from the king; a chief bailiff, who exercises the same functions in the Isle as the sheriff does in a county; a deputy-bailiff, two coroners, and several subordinate officers, all of whom are appointed by the bishop. The spring assizes and the April and October sessions for the Isle are held at Ely; the summer assizes and the other sessions at Wisbeach; at each of these places there are a court-house and gaol. The rates raised in the county for the year ending March 25th, 1829, amounted to 111,497, and the expenditure to 110,015, of which 94,869 was applied to the relief of the poor.

The surface of the county exhibits considerable variety: the parts adjoining the counties of Suffolk, Essex and Hertford, have gently rising hills, with downs and open corn-fields, and considerable portion of wood in the part contiguous to Suffolk, from Wood-Ditton to Castle-Camps; but in other parts there is a great scarcity of timber. Gogmagog hills, commencing about four miles south-east of Cambridge, though of no great height, yet being the highest in the county, command very extensive prospects. There is some pleasing scenery about Linton, Hildersham, and other villages in the valley through which the Granta runs, between Cambridge and Bartlow, which abounds with elm-trees. The views from the upper part of the Earl of Hardwicke's park, at Wimpole, are very rich. The northern part of the county, including the Isle of Ely, is for the most part fen land, and quite level, intersected by numerous canals and ditches, and containing many windmills, like hose of Holland, and steam-engines for conveying water from the land into channels formed for carrying it off to sea: the enclosures are chiefly formed by ditches, and there are few trees except pollard willows. The great expanse of fen land in this part of the county comprises nearly half of that extensive agricultural district called the Bedford level, the remainder being situated in the counties of Norfolk, Lincoln, Northampton and Huntingdon. From the various remains that have been discovered in constructing the channels, it is supposed that at some remote period this county was all firm land, reduced to a marshy nature by frequent inundations of the sea, and by the obstruction of the old natural outlet, at Wisbeach, of the rivers Ouse, Nene and Granta, and of several lodes and lakes. To prevent subsequent inundations, commissions were issued, from time to time, to enforce the repair of banks and sewers. The most important work of this kind, executed before the time of James I., was the great channel made by Bishop Morton, which carried off the overflowings of the Nene, and furnished water-carriage from Wisbeach to Peterborough. From the reign of Henry VI. down to that of James I., various commissions were granted for a general drainage, but no great progress was made under any of them: in consequence of these several failures, the king, in 1621, declared himself the principal undertaker, but was diverted from the design by other affairs towards the close of his reign. In 1630, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutchman, at a session of sewers then held at Lynn, agreed to undertake this great work, on condition of having ninety-five thousand acres of the recovered lands insured to him, as a compensation for the expense and labour: but the landowners rejected his offer, and petitioned Francis, Earl of Bedford, who had a property in the fens, to undertake the work on the same terms. The earl having acceded to their request, an instrument was drawn up, by which the agreement was confirmed, and various regulations for the management of the concern were determined upon: this instrument, the foundation of the laws whereby the Bedford Level Corporation is still governed, having been made and ratified at session of sewers held at Lynn, in the year 1631, received appellation of the Lynn Law. The Earl of Bedford associated with himself the Earl of Bolingbroke, Lord Gorges, and others, to whom he assigned shares. In 1635, the king granted the adventurers a charter of incorporation, with extensive privileges; and so rapid was the progress of work, that in about three years afterwards, at a session of sewers held in St. Ives, in October 1638, the Great Level was adjudged to be drained according to Lynn Law, and the ninety-five thousand acres were ordered to be allotted according to the terms of the agreement. Of this allotment, twelve thousand were made over to the king, as an acknowledgement of his gracious favour in countenancing and assisting the undertaking, and forty thousand of the remainder were made liable to taxation, for the purpose of maintaining and repairing the works: however, at a session of sewers held at Huntingdon in 1639, the whole proceedings of the last commission was annulled, the drainage was adjudged to be incomplete and defective, and it was determined that the earl and his associates had not performed their contract, and were not entitled to the land that had been allotted to them. The king (Charles I.) now proposed to undertake the whole concern, and the commissioners offered him fifty-seven thousand acres, in addition to the ninety-five thousand already mentioned, of which forty thousand were to remain to the adventurers, as a recompense for the expense incurred. In consequence of the national troubles that soon afterwards ensued, no attempt was made under the authority of the commission to improve the drainage; meantime all works went to decay, and remained in that condition until the year 1649, when an ordinance was passed by the Convention Parliament, declaring all proceedings at Huntingdon null and void; and the whole management of draining the level on the general plan of the Lynn Law was committed to the care of William, Earl of Bedford, son and heir of Earl Francis, the original undertaker, who died in 1641. In 1662, an act of parliament passed for confirming the ordinance made during the interregnum, since called "the pretended act," in its most essential points by this act taxes were laid on the ninety-five thousand acres for maintaining the works of the level, and this two thousand granted by Charles I. to Jerome, Earl of Portland; and the remaining eighty-three thousand were vested in the Corporation of the Bedford Level, which, under this act, consists of a governor, six bailiffs, twenty conservators, and commonalty. The officers are elected annually on the Wednesday in Whitsun-week: the commonalty consists of all such persons as are possessed of a hundred acres in the fens; a conservator must be possessed of two hundred; the governors and bailiffs of four hundred acres each. The Great Level, comprising a tract of about four hundred thousand acres, has been, from an early period, divided into three districts, the North Level, the Middle Level, and the South Level; the greater part of the Middle Level, and a considerable portion of the South Level, are in Cambridgeshire, including the whole of the Isle of Ely, and a few parishes to the southeast of it, and consisting nearly of two hundred thousand acres. With a view of obtaining a still more effectual drainage, an act for making a navigable cut from Lynn to Eau-Brinck passed in the year 1795, and another act to amend the former in 1805: this long-projected undertaking was commenced in 1818, and completed in 1820, the objects proposed to be accomplished by it being twofold namely the improvement of the drainage above, and of the harhour of Lynn below, by cutting off a considerable bend in the river Ouse immediately above that port : the old bed of the river is rapidly being filled up, and upwards of seven hundred acres of land will soon be converted to agricultural purposes.

The substrata of the county are chalk, clunch, gravel, gault, sand, silt, and peat earth: the chalk extends through the hilly part, from Royston to Newmarket; the clunch, a calcareous substance found in large masses, but neither so white nor so soft as chalk, chiefly abounds in the parish of Burwell and Isleham, and is much used for lime and fire stones; the gault is a stiff blue clay, prevailing in the eastern and western parts of the county; the stratum of sand, which crosses Bedfordshire, begins in this county in the parish of Gamlingay; the silt, a sea sand very finely pulverised by the agitation of the waters, is found in the marsh land of several parishes in the northern extremity of the county, near Wisbeach, where it is used for mending the roads ; the peat earth extends through the whole of the fen district. The soil is chiefly arable, and produces an abundant supply of corn, a considerable quantity of which is sent to the London market; the average produce of wheat on the uplands is calculated at twenty-four bushels per acre; of barley, oats, &c., at thirty bushels: the fen lands are more productive, particularly of oats, yielding on an average about forty bushels per acre: it is estimated that about one-fourth of the fen lands actually in cultivation is sown with cole-seed, the plant being for the most part eaten off by sheep. Hemp and flax are cultivated to a considerable extent in the parishes of Upwll, Welney, Outwell, Elm, and Wisbeach, particularly in the two first. The parishes of Chatteris, Mepal, Sutton, Swavesey, Over, Willingham, Cottenham, Rampton, Landbeach, Waterbeach, Stretham, Ely, Littleport, Soham, and Fordham, constitute the principal dairy district, a great quantity of the butter produced in which is sent to London, and there sold under the name of Cambridge butter. In the parish of Cottenham alone, about one thousand eight hundred cows are kept; and in that of Willingham about one thousand two hundred: in these two parishes is made the cheese so much esteemed for its flavour, which goes by the name of Cottenham cheese: the parish of Soham also is celebrated for good cheese. The neighbourhood of Ely is noted for producing garden vegetables. Besides the stock common to the county, the oxen reared are usually of the Norfolk and Suffolk breed; the cows are mostly of the Cambridgeshire homed breed, although almost every parish contains various kinds: the native calves are preferred to those of Suffolk, the veal of the former being whiter. The greatest number of sheep is kept in the fens: the breed preferred is a cross between the Leicestershire and the Lincolnshire, but there are many others.

The principal rivers are the Ouse, the Cam or Granta, and the Nene. The Old Ouse crosses the county from west to east, entering it in the parish of Haddenham, near Earith bridge, and forms the southern and south-eastern boundary of the Isle of Ely, receiving the Cam at Upware, and, at a place called Prickwillow, the Lark, which is navigable to Bury St. Edmund's; it there becomes the boundary between the counties of Cambridge and Suffolk, and so continues to Brand Creek, where it receives the Little Ouse, and quits the county. The Ouse, in its modem course, enters the county about two furlongs to the north-west of Earith bridge, runs down the Hundred Feet, or New Bedford river, in a direction nearly northeast, and enters Norfolk a little to the west of Welney; it is navigable in its whole course through the county. The Cam or Granta, which is navigable to Cambridge, is formed by two small streams that unite between Grantchester and Harston, and falls into the old line of the Ouse near Thetford. The Nene, in its old course, enters at Benwick, and quits for Norfolk at Outwell : in its modern course it separates Huntingdonshire from the Isle of Ely, until it enters the isle at Moreton's Leam, whence it proceeds to the Cross Keys Wash. The rivers abound with fish: the pike and eels are especially plentiful: a considerable quantity of smelts is taken in the New Bedford river. The canals that intersect the Isle of Ely were made for the purpose of drainage, but many of them are also navigable. Vermuyden's canal commences at Ramsey: it enters the Isle of Ely near Ramsey Moor, and extends to Welche's Dam, where it joins the Old Bedford river, and, proceeding in the old course of that river, leaves the county a little to the west of Welney. The New Bedford river is the main channel for barges passing from the upper to the lower parts of the Ouse. The Old Bedford river, which runs parallel with the last from Earith to Denver sluice, is now seldom navigated, excepting the lower part of it, near Denver sluice, having been almost choked up since the making of the New Bedford river. A canal from Outwell to Wisbeach was made about thirty years ago. There is also a canal from Peterborough, by Stanground sluice and through Whittlesea dyke, to the Old Nene, a little below Benwick, and thence to March; and there are short cuts from the Ouse to Soham, Reach, and Burwell.

The great north road from London to Edinburgh enters the western part of Cambridgeshire at Royston, and quits it at Papworth St, Agnes, between the fifty second and the fifty-third milestones. The road from London to Wisbeach, after crossing two angles of the county on its south-western border, re-enters it from Huntingdonshire at Chatteris ferry, and passes through March to Wisbeach. The road from London to Newmarket and Norfolk enters at Great Chesterford, and leaves the county about five miles beyond Newmarket. There are three turnpike-roads from Cambridge to London; one of them falls into the Newmarket road near Chesterford; the second quits the county near the eleventh milestone; and the third, branching from the latter at Hawkston, enters Huntingdonshire at Royston.

Few Roman antiquities have been discovered in Cambridgeshire, except on the site of the Roman station at Cambridge, the only one of importance within the limits of the county. The principal ancient roads that crossed it were, the lknield-street, entering from Suffolk, near Newmarket, and quitting at Royston; the Ermin-street, which passed through it on the line of the present great north road, and the great Roman way from Colchester to Chester, which enters near Withersfield in Suffolk, and crosses the county from east to west, passing through Cambridge. The first and last, in different parts of their course, may be distinctly traced, Cambridgeshire is peculiarly rich in specimens of church architecture, Ely cathedral alone furnishing a nearly complete series of the variations in style that successively prevailed from the eleventh century to the sixteenth. The sepulchral monuments, from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, are also numerous. Before the Reformation there were in this county thirty-two religious houses, including two houses of the Knights Templars, two preceptories of the Knights Hospitallers, and three Alien priories: there were four ancient colleges and eleven hospitals, one of which, St. John's Hospital at Cambridge, was converted into St. John's College. There are many monastic remains: those of Ely abbey are by far the most considerable. Of ancient castles there is little remaining, except the earthworks. The most considerable encampment is that called Handlebury, on the highest part of Gogmagog hills, supposed to be of British origin. The most remarkable earthworks are the trenches that extended from the woods on the east side of the county to the fens, the most entire of which is called the Devil's ditch; it runs seven miles, from Wood-Ditton to Reach, in the parish of Burwell, nearly in a straight line. Another trench, Fleam dyke, runs parallel with it, at the distance of seven miles, extending from the woodlands at Balsham to the fens at Fen-Ditton; a considerable part of it has been levelled.

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[Last updated: 27 April 2000 - Martin Edwards.]