Perhaps one of the most extraordinary and bizarre events in the history of Huntingdonshire and the wider fenlands, occurred in 1774. From July 16th to August 6th of this year the Rt. Hon. George Walpole, Third Earl of Orford, led an armada of converted river barges called fenland lighters on an extended pleasure cruise through “the narrow seas of Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, and Norfolk”.
This expedition was no small undertaking. The fleet included “The Whale, The Alligator, The Shark and the Dolphin … The Pristis, The Centaurus, and The Chimera; The Fireaway Bumketch [a punt gun boat] and The Cocoa Nut Victualler [store barge]” along with crews of men, fishermen, hunting dogs and birds, a party of engineers and carpenters, a horse called “Hippopotamus” and presumably a lot of alcohol. Generally speaking the boats were converted Fenland Lighters; these were kind of wide barge with very shallow berth; ideal for transporting goods and livestock along shallow fenland rivers and even over flooded fields. The Fenland lighters were currently in the middle of their heyday, which had started in the earliest years of the 18th century and would go on until the 1850’s when railways and industrial fen drainage would all but kill off the industry.
The man behind this madcap voyage, the Rt. Hon George Walpole, Third Earl of Orford (henceforth referred to as Orford), “the most dissolute man in Europe”, is a clichéd playboy and rake. An only child, he was born into a family where both parents were peers of the realm, and was brought up by his father (2nd Earl of Orford) and his father’s mistress (Hannah Norsa) a Covent Garden actress. Upon reaching his majority he took on several ceremonial sinecures – jobs with no responsibility but with financial benefits. It’s hard to believe that Orford did much as High Steward of Yarmouth and Kings Lynn or that his duties as Lord of the Bedchamber to George II and George III were especially onerous.
His real passions were hunting (he was a famously good grey hound courser and falconer) and being reckless. It is quite likely he inherited an estate in financial difficulties and left it entirely bankrupt. His frivolous lifestyle as evinced in this voyage, would lead him a few years after our account here takes place to sell to Catherine the Great an extensive art collection inherited from his grandfather. Despite the efforts of the British Museum to save this art for the nation and build a new gallery, the sale went ahead to great dismay and uproar (which just goes to show that nothing changes and arts funding was as much a problem in the 1780s as today). Lord Orford would become increasingly eccentric and died aged 61, insane with no heirs, the title passing to his uncle Horace Walpole.
But this is getting ahead of ourselves, for now cast your minds back to a balmy summer day in 1774…
July 16th – Expedition is launched, departing along the river Nene stopping their first night at the indelicately named “Whores Nest Ferry”, which is seven leagues (24 miles) from the junction of the rivers Nene and the Ouse.
July 17th – They pass through Outwell, Upwell and stop outside March for lunch where “the numerous inhabitants of the town … sat admiring our vessels”. The town obviously made a good impression, Orford describing it as the “handsomest we have seen”, however the ladies made less of an impression, “many very old women … the sex in general, extremely ugly”.
Throughout their voyage, Orford and his companions seem to be much interested in the relative attractiveness of the women they encountered or saw; generally speaking they were unimpressed by the inhabitants, a feeling which I am sure was mutual…
July 18th – The fleet start from outside Benwick continuing along past Ramsey where delays are incurred waiting on permission to demolish bridges.
The fenland lighters that the fleet was largely using were designed for these waterways, however being rich gentlemen they had of course outfitted the boats with every extravagance and comfort and sailing masts. The fleet had engineers and carpenters attached who went ahead of the fleet measuring bridges. If a bridge was too low they would demolish or lift it and then the fleet having passed, reinstate it, or on other occasions the fleet simply rammed bridges and passed over the wreckage!
July 19th – Fleet is on Whittlesey Mere for the first time. The fleet would spend a lot of time throughout their travels fishing and carousing here. At this time it was the largest lake in England outside of the Lake District, according to Orford it was 24 miles around the lake and no more than 5-7 feet deep and “in the whole meer a bed of weeds is not to be found”. He was especially taken with the fishing the lake offered routinely catching eels, perch and pike some of extremely large size.
Passing across the mere, they sail over to Farcet and up Farcet Dyke to Stanground, where they went to the horse racing.
July 20th-21st – Moored up on the Nene in Peterborough, beside the town bridge where the Cathedral and Bishops Palace can be seen. The Bishops palace does not impress – in Orford’s words “it hath not a grand appearance”
July 22nd – The fleet sails back via Stanground to Whittlesey Mere, another boat (apparently a sloop) described as “a boat filled with company” is already on the mere.
July 23rd – They remain moored up in Farcet Bay, Whittlesey Mere whilst the Centaurus is refitted in Peterborough, the boat returns with new mast but no sail. The sailmaker had been plied with free ale by electoral candidates in the Peterborough by-election and, as Orford describes, had “forgotten to execute my orders, and his own promise to fulfil them”. The Centaurus does bring back two haunches of venison and another gentleman walks to Stilton for a cheese.
July 24th – Orford explores Trundle Mere [near Yaxley] in a smaller boat. In the afternoon Lord Sandwich joined the fleet briefly on his new yacht “which made a handsome appearance and seems to sail well”. At this time Lord Sandwich was First Lord of the Admiralty, his third time in that office, and quite what he made of Lord Orford’s “fleet” can only be imagined.
July 25th – The fleet entertain Lord Sandwich with fresh fish caught in Whittlesey Mere and “festive enjoyments”.
July 26th – Strong winds blow up overnight, knocking the anchored boats together and causing great chaos as those on board fear they are being blown on to some “hidden rock”, the cook suffers from sea sickness as a result of the bad weather.
July 27th – The fleet sail from the mere up via Stanground to the Nene where they moor up a mile west of Peterborough. Orford indulges in some botany, gathering water lilies from the river and carnations from the lock-keepers garden.
July 28th – A Post-chaise and pair (small carriage and two horses) is summoned and a party from the fleet embarks on a trip around the countryside; leaving Peterborough they pass the (then separate) villages of Paston, Warrington, Glinton and Deeping where they failed to get fresh horses.
Continuing they came along the Little Turnpike to Spalding, commenting on the “exceedingly wet” Spalding common where cattle were eating up to their bellies in water. Having reached Spalding they lunched at the White Hart, went horse racing again (where they found the farmers wives and daughters “much handsomer”) and returned to the fleet at Peterborough via St. James Deeping, a round trip of some forty miles.
July 29th – Orford and his gentlemen are entertained by the Bishop of Peterborough with whom they enjoy dinner, wine and a tour of the palace gardens. In the evening, whilst visiting a playhouse in Peterborough, a Mr Roberts of the fleet breaks his shin helping a lady over a bench; the only casualty the fleet sustained throughout its time at “sea”.
July 30th – The fleet departs Peterborough, via Stanground and stops at Horsey Bridge where the explore the fortifications (this is still to be seen at Stanground, and is the remnants of an English Civil War defensive sconce, the A605 passes its northern face).
Having passed back out to Whittlesey Mere they punt across in order to visit Ramsey Mere. The fleet stop at the far end of Farcet Bay which Orford names Sandwich point. Whilst Orford is fishing some bargemen steal joints of salted pork from the victualling ship Cocoa Nut.
July 31st – Orford and his companions continue moored on Whittlesey Mere, waiting for the wind to drop to carry on their journey.
August 1st – Fleet spend another day on Whittlesey Mere as the wind is still too strong to sail into the Ramsey River and on to Ramsey Mere. The storm causes The Fireaway Bumketch [gun punt] to slip her moorings and start to drift away, until she is saved by two sailors from The Swallow.
August 2nd – Winds continue and the fleet carry on fishing and carousing. The fishing was done in several ways during the voyage, by traditional angling, using small nets and using “trimmers”. These were stakes with line wound around and bait on the end with a float, when the bait was taken the float would move away and these trimmers could be checked at intervals, and reset if they had been successful, “their use was more like sowing a minefield than angling” in the words of one modern historian.
August 3rd – The fleet is towed down to Ramsey by Hippopotamus [their draught horse], breakfasting in the town and walking up to the ruined abbey. Orford “found the [female] sex much handsomer”, something he attributed to the influx of French Huguenot blood. Ordering up carriages they travel through Bury, Upwood and Hartford to Huntingdon for lunch with the Duke of Manchester and Lord Sandwich followed by horse racing on Port Holme.
The local agriculture was a major talking point on the journey to and from Huntingdon it seems, with Orford seeing “a turnip field for the first time” and a lady of the fleet buying a 15lb cabbage for 3.5p. They return to the boats via Warboys, “a much better road”.
August 4th – The fleet is towed by Hippopotamus back out of Ramsey and into the Nene, Orford visits Mr Fellowes the owner and proprietor of Ramsey and Ugg Meres. Strong winds mean that there is no fishing to be done.
August 5th – Sailing from Ramsey Mere to the Nene, they pass Benwick at 6am, reaching March at noon where they reappraise the locals and find “no reason to alter our former opinion [on the] ugliness”, passing on to Upwell for 2pm they found Hippopotamus ready “to drop”. Breaking for dinner they carried to Salters Lode for 6pm where, the sluices being shut, they stopped for the night.
August 6th – At this point the Nene becomes semi-tidal, and river traffic can only pass through the sluice gates at certain times. A misunderstanding of this slows the progress of the fleet and results in the immediate discharge of the Master Harry. Eventually the fleet carry on up the Ouse turning into the Little Ouse, and meet waiting coaches at Lakenheath bridge having “finished without accident this agreeable voyage in twenty-two days”.
Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.
Childers, J.W. “Lord Orfords Voyage Round The Fens 1774”, Reprint of Original, July 1868
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Wentworth-Day, J. “History of the Fens”, S.R. Publishing Ltd, Wakefield, 1970, 2nd Edition