HUNTINGDONSHIRE, (or Hunts), an inland county of England, situated in the east lowlands, between 52° 8' and 62° 36' north lat., and 0° 3' east and 0° 30' west long. In shape it somewhat resembles a lozenge, being 30 miles in length from north to south, and about 23 miles in its shorter diagonal from east to west. In size it is one of the smallest of the English counties, only Middlesex and Rutland being less, and one only, Rutland, having fewer inhabitants.
According to the census of 1861 it comprised an area of 229,644 acres, with 13,704 inhabited houses, and a population of 64,250, having increased only 67 in the decennial period since 1851. At the commencement of this century its population was 37,668. It is bordered on the north and north-west by Northamptonshire, on the south-west by Bedfordshire, and on all other sides by Cambridge. In ancient times it formed part of the district bordering on the Wash inhabited by the two Belgic tribes, Iceni and Catyeuchlani, and when subjugated by the Romans was included in the province of Flavia Caesariensis. The Roman roads Ermine Street and Via Devana traversed the county, the former nearly in the line of the present north road through Royston, the latter in a direct line from Leicester to Cambridge. At the intersection of these roads was the station Durolopons, occupying nearly the same site as the present Godmanchester, and on the Ermine Street another station called Durobrivæ, now the village of Water Newton, on the Nene; there was also a large camp at Chesterton.
After the departure of the Romans the country bordering on the Wash was occupied by the East Angles, and subsequently annexed to Mercia. It then received the name of Huntandunescyre, and was constituted an earldom or county, which in the time of Edward the Confessor was held by Siward, whose son Waltheof married Judith, niece of William the Conqueror. Although so nearly related to the sovereign, his sympathy for the sufferings of his Saxon countrymen under the tyranny of the feudal rule roused him to arms, and he was beheaded by the Conqueror's order. The estates, however, continued in his family, and passed upon the marriage of his daughter Maud with Prince David to the royal family of Scotland, who continued to hold them as a fief of the English crown, with the title of earls of Huntingdon, until forfeited during the contest of the Bruce and Baliol families for the crown of Scotland.
In these early times the county of Huntingdon appears to have been densely wooded, but a considerable portion was disafforested in the reign of Henry II., and the remainder in that of Edward I. It is now remarkably destitute of timber, there being no trees in the hedgerows, and only a small proportion of woods and coppice. In the fen lands the willow flourishes amazingly, and is valuable for withes. In the uplands corn is grown, and the fens after drainage yield abundant' crops both of cereals and of grass. A large extent of land is laid down as meadow for the fattening of cattle to be sent to the great towns.
The once celebrated Whittlesea mere has recently been entirely drained, as have also Ramsey and Ugg meres. With the drainage of the fens and the clearing of the forests a great amelioration has been effected in the climate, which was formerly damp and foggy, but is now healthy in all parts except the low lying districts, which are intersected by numerous cuts, drains, and sluices, many of which are navigable for boats, thus facilitating the transport of agricultural produce to Lynn, the chief shipping port for the Fen district. The principal rivers are the Ouse and Nene. The former enters the county on the south, and passing St. Neot's, Huntingdon, and St. Ives, falls into the Wash at Lynn. It is navigable for large boats throughout the whole length of its course in this county, and as high up as Bedford, and receives the tribute of several streams, which join it near St. Neot's and Huntingdon. The Nene or Nen is also navigable for large boats. It winds along the north border of the shire, till a little below Peterborough, where it enters Cambridgeshire, and falls into the Wash near Wisbeach.
The two systems of the Ouse and Nene are connected by various navigable cuts, as the Forty-foot drain, or Vermuyden's drain, constructed in the reign of Elizabeth, and the new canal between Wisbeach and Outwell, completed in 1792. Nothwithstanding the numerous streams and meres, the inhabitants in many parts of the county are badly off for spring water, and draw their supply from ponds. The general surface of the county is level; particularly in the north and north-east, where it forms part of the great fen district of the lower Ouse, Nene, and Welland.
The only hills are in the south and west, the former being a continuation of the Bedfordshire range, which enters the county near Potton, and runs in a northerly direction to near Huntingdon. The latter are an extension of the Cambridgeshire hills, running in a north-westerly direction to Wansford in the valley of the Nene. The soil is of various qualities, according to the formation to which it belongs. In the north it is chiefly stone brash or forest marble, and comparatively barren; in the south and south-east, where the country is hilly, it is mainly ironsand and greensand; in the middle of the county the Oxford clay, forming an intermediate layer between the middle and lower assemblage of oolitic rocks, is the prevailing stratum; and in the north-east the fen lands, which have recently been drained and brought into cultivation, are chiefly vegetable alluvial soil, producing abundant crops, and forming some of the richest meadows in England. In the uplands the system of farming is still in a backward state, but in the lowlands scientific husbandry is well understood.
The farms are mostly of considerable size, but are held by yearly tenure. The principal crops are, wheat, oats, beans, barley, hemp, hay, and clover, besides rape and mustard, which last are extensively cultivated, and turnips on some of the drier soils. Water-fowl were numerous on all the meres and rivers, and eels abound. Although Stilton and other places in this county are celebrated for their excellent butter and cheese, dairy farming is not much followed. The cattle, formerly of mixed and generally inferior breeds, have been much improved by the introduction of shorthorns of the Yorkshire and Durham breeds. The sheep are mostly of the Leicester and Lincolnshire breeds, and the hogs of Berkshire or Leicester, with various crosses. Pigeon-houses are extremely numerous. The people are almost wholly engaged in agriculture, and there are nomanufactures.
The only handicrafts carried on are-iron founding, brick and tile making, paper and parchment mills, brewing, malting, currying, tanning, printing, comb and lace making, lime burning, rush plaiting, and madder making. Peat is found in many parts, and is dug out as fuel. The county is intersected from south to north by the Great Northern railway, which passes by St. Neot's and Huntingdon, and is intersected by a branch of the Great Eastern called the Cambridge, St. Ives, and Huntingdon; it is also skirted on the north by the Northampton, Peterborough, and Ely line. The coast roads are numerous and good, including the high north road to Edinburgh, which passes through Huntingdon, Stilton, and Norman Cross, and is joined by the London road through Barnet and Baldock at Alconbury Hill. A road for Lincolnshire branches off from the high north road at Norman Cross, and another for Leicester and Nottingham near Baldock. There are roads from Huntingdon to St. Neot's, Cambridge, Ramsey, and other places.
Huntingdonshire returns two members to parliament for the county, and two for the borough of Huntingdon. It is included in the Norfolk circuit, and is an archdeaconry within the diocese of Ely, in the province of Canterbury.
For civil purposes the county is divided into four hundreds, Norman Cross in the north, Hurstingstone in the east, Leightonstone in the west, and Toseland in the south These are further divided into 106 parishes. The county town is Huntingdon, which enjoys separate jurisdiction, and together with Godmanchester returns two members to parliament. There are likewise St. Neot's, Ramsey, St. Ives, and Kimbolton, which are market towns, and the quondam market town of Yaxley. County courts are held at Huntingdon and St. Neot's. The county being of so small extent, it is joined with Cambridgeshire in the shrievalty, the two having only one sheriff. The county gaol is at Huntingdon, where the assizes and quarter sessions are held.
The principal ancient structures were Kimbolton and Huntingdon castles, and the great abbeys of Ramsey and Sawtry Judith, besides which there were a nunnery near Hinchinbrook House, and a castle at Conington, on the border of the fens, but of these last no remains now exist. The Roman antiquities which have been dug up at Godmanchester, Water Newton, and Holywell, near St. Ives, include urns, pottery, funereal ornaments, encaustic tiles, sculptured stones, and many coins.
by Colin Hinson ©2013