by Colin Hinson ©2013
ELY, comprises the parishes of St. Mary, Holy Trinity and others, it is a city, market and assize town, in the hundred of the same name, in the Isle of Ely, county Cambridge, 16 miles from Cambridge by road, or 15 by rail, and 67 from London by road, or 72½ by rail. This city is situated on a considerable eminence in the middle of the county, near the river Ouse, and forms the capital of the division of Cambridge called the Isle of Ely. Its boundaries include 17,480 acres, and, according to the census of 1861, contained 1,559 houses, with a population of 7,428 inhabitants, against 6,176 in 1851, showing an increase of 1,252 in the decennial period.
There are railways to Cambridge, London, Lynn, Huntingdon, and Peterborough, and water communication with Cambridge, London, Lynn, and Wisbech, by means of the river Ouse and canals. Its name, Ely, is derived from the Saxon cleg or elge, signifying; an "eel," referring to the number of eels found in the neighbourhood. The city originated from a church founded by Ethelbert at Cratendon Field, afterwards removed to the hill on which now stands the city of Ely, and where St. Etheldreda, daughter of Anna, King of the East Angles, founded an abbey on her retiring from the court of Egfrid, King of Northumbria, to whom she was married after the death of her first husband, Tondberct, an East Anglian nobleman, from whom she had received as her dower the Isle of Ely. Having taken the veil at Coldingham, she retired hither in 673, became the first abbess, died in 679, and was canonised as a saint. The monastery was destroyed during the Danish invasion of 870, and Ely did not regain importance till 970, when the monastery was refounded by Athelwold, Bishop of Winchester, who purchased the Isle from King Eadgar. He filled his monastery with Benedictines, and appointed Brithnoth, Prior of Winchester, abbot. The charter of King Edgar was confirmed by Canute and Edward the Confessor, and afterwards also by the Pope. The Isle was gallantly defended by Hereward, the Saxon champion, against the repeated attacks of William the Conqueror, but was at length forced to surrender, and most of the property of the monastery was seized: during the government, however, of the Abbot Theodwin it was again restored. Ely was created a bishopric by Henry I. in 1107, who appointed Hervey, Bishop of Bangor, to the new bishopric, at which time the manors belonging to the monastery were divided between the bishopric and the monks, and a prior called the lord prior was appointed to the government of the monastery, which continued to be governed by priors until its dissolution in 1539. The Isle of Ely held the privileges of a county palatine until the reign of Henry VIII., who, after the surrender of the monastery, granted a charter to convert the conventual church into a cathedral, by the title of the Cathedral Church of the Undivided Trinity. This cathedral, which is an object of great admiration on account of its antiquity and beauty, is one of the most remarkable edifices in England. The more ancient part was erected in the reigns of William Rufus and Henry I., but additions were continually made to the noble structure until the year 1534, so that it presents an almost unbroken series of the various styles of architecture which prevailed in England from the Conquest to the Reformation, yet so judiciously blended, and generally so perfect in their kind, as to produce no disagreeable effect by their admixture. The nave is Norman, and is considered one of the rarest specimens of that style in England. The principal feature of the cathedral is the octagon in the centre, built by Alan de Walsingham, after the fall of the original central tower. This unique structure was finished in 1342. The lantern surmounting it is now (1864) being restored as a memorial to the late Dean Peacock. Amongst numerous other improvements, a new arrangement of the choir, the introduction of new and richly ornamented substalls, and the restoration and repolishing of the beautiful piers of Purbeck marble, have been completed. The architect, Mr. G. Basevi, unfortunately lost his life during his superintendence of the work. Progress is now (1864) making in the great work of redecorating the ceiling of the nave, begun by the late Mr. Styleman L'Estrange. The cathedral contains the tombs and effigies of Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, beheaded in 1471, and of bishops Alcock and Goodrich, together with a part of Haddenham cross of the 7th century. A fine old gateway of the time of Richard II. forms the principal entrance to the precincts. At the Bishop's palace is preserved a copy of the Tabula Eliensis, representing the Normans and monks on friendly terms after the siege. The bishops of Ely formerly hold Jura Regalia, granted them by Henry I., and in consequence appointed their own chief justice and other officers, but this right was abolished by an Act of the 6th and 7th of William IV., cap. 87, and it is now vested in the king, whose prerogative it is to appoint a Custos Rotulorum for the Isle of Ely. The city, which is old and irregularly built, chiefly of stone, contains about 1,400 houses, two churches, and five chapels. It consists principally of one long street, is lighted with gas, and partially paved. In the centre of the town is the marketplace, containing the corn-exchange and a cattle market, both belonging to the Corn-Exchange, Fairs, and Cattle Market Company. There are docks at Ely, and vessels now come up to the town. The townhall is a spacious building, containing court-rooms, a chapel, and an infirmary, with a house of correction attached. The mechanics' institute, established in 1842, possesses a library containing 2,000 volumes. There are a savings-bank and two private banks. Part of the townspeople are employed in the manufacture of earthenware and tobacco-pipes, and in mills for the working of hemp, flax, and coleseed oil. Lime burning is also carried on, and there are several breweries. Quarter sessions are held in the town by the justices of the peace of the Isle, and the assizes by the justices of the Norfolk circuit. This town is also the seat of the Fen office for the corporation of the Bedford Level, which superintends the drainage of a vast district of marsh land. The diocese of Ely is in the province of Canterbury, and includes Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire, with a part of Suffolk, and is divided into four archdeaconries, namely, Ely, Huntingdon, Bedford, and Sudbury. The chapter is composed of a dean, and 6 canons, 4 archdeacons, a chancellor, and 4 minor canons. Nearly 50 livings are in the patronage of the bishop, who is visitor of four colleges at Cambridge, and appoints the master and one fellow of Jesus' College, and holds the right of selecting, out of two nominated by the society, to the dread mastership of St. Peter's College. The city, exclusive of the liberty of the college, which is extra-parochial, comprises the parishes of St. Mary and the Holy Trinity. The livings of both are perpetual curacies in the diocese of Ely, and in the patronage of the dean and chapter. The latter church was formerly the chapel of Our Lady, and adjoins the cathedral on the south side. It was built by the sub-prior Alan in the reign of Edward II., and is considered one of the most perfect buildings of that age. There are Baptist, Wesleyan, Independent, Primitive Methodist, and the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion chapels. There is a grammar school, otherwise called Ely College, founded by Henry VIII. in 1541, under the superintendence of the dean and chapter, who hold the right of appointing the master. The school is free for 24 boys, who, in addition to instruction, receive yearly £3 6s. 8d. each, but the number of scholars has of late years been considerably increased. There is also a National school for both sexes, and a charity school, founded in 1730 by Mrs. Catherine Needham, who endowed it with lands producing about £400 per annum, for the instruction and clothing of 30 boys, to each of whom £20 is given as an apprentice fee, the proceed of lands granted by Bishop Laney for that purpose. The antiquary, Parker; the writer on church law, Sir T. Ridley; Nicholas, Bishop of Ely; Bishop Westfield; and the Benthams, belonged to this city. Many geological curiosities have been discovered in the neighbourhood. There are extensive gardens in the vicinity of the town, which supply the London market with fruit, asparagus, and other vegetables, extraordinary crops being obtained through the successful system of drainage. The fens have been protected from inundation by artificial banks constructed along the rivers, and mills and steam-engines are employed to pump the drainage into dykes, thence conveyed into the river, thus gaining many acres, now well cropped. Market day is Thursday, for corn and cattle; and fairs are held on Ascension Day and the eight days following, and on the 29th October for horses, cattle, hops, and Cottenham cheese.