Writer #1 – The Most Influential English Poet of His Time

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in 1888 in Missouri, to a distinguished family. His family tree includes three US presidents and a president of Harvard university! Eliot’s family had only recently moved to Missouri from Massachusetts when he was born and as result he felt an outsider, something that would influence his entire life and creative work.

A young T.S. Eliot

He was an intelligent young man studying for a bachelors and masters degree at Harvard, and then studying further at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and Oxford University in 1915. His application to enlist for the army in WW1 was rejected multiple times due to him failing the medical examinations.

Moving to London in 1916, he begun to mix in literary circles, and his first published poem “The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock” was published in 1917. As well as poetry and plays he wrote articles and literary criticisms to supplement his meagre salary. In 1922, following a complete breakdown and with his marriage failing apart, he published “The Wasteland”, arguably the most important of post first world war poems.

In 1927, Eliot became a British Citizen and a member of the Church of England; he described himself as an “Anglo-Catholic” and became a member of the Society of the Charles the Martyr. He would continue writing articles and poetry throughout the 1930’s, his Modernist style challenging some more traditional poetic styles and conventions. His poetry increasingly dealt with ideas of death, rebirth and emerging from the twilight, ideas that would reach their epitome in his masterpiece “Four Quartets”.

Pamphlet attacking the Ferrar Community published in 1641


Three hundred years previously in 1626 the Ferrar family had moved from London to their newly purchased estate at Little Gidding, where they planned to live a life “dedicated to prayer and piety”. The high-church nature of their community, in line with Archbishops Laud’s form of Anglicanism, would have ruffled local Puritans. However, the household does seem to have got along with its neighbours; local gentry sent their sons to study with the Ferrars and the poor came for alms. The biggest problems for the fledgling community were the popular pamphlet press in London and the attentions of Parliamentarian soldiers during the civil war.

Eliot would have read about the religious community at Little Gidding. The strict Protestant lifestyle glorifying God would have appealed to Eliot with his strong faith and Anglo-Catholic stance. His interest in visiting the village was sparked by reading an acquaintance’s play-script based around King Charles’ final visit to Little Gidding after the rout at Naseby.

Little Gidding Church with the Tomb of Nicholas Ferrar outside.

In May 1936, Eliot visited Little Gidding with the Dean of Magdalene College, Cambridge University, of which Eliot was fellow. They visited the small church on a late May day, and his experiences can clearly be seen in the published poem;

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from, If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.

Drawing upon his visit to the place, his own experience of the London Blitz, and the loss of several dear friends, “Little Gidding”, was published as the final poem in the “Four Quartets” in 1942. A poem based around cleansing fire, rebirth, the timelessness of England and the present, and the need for spiritual salvation, it was a poem most definitely of its time. Eliot considered the “Four Quartets” his finest work and this his best poem.

The Four Quartets.

T.S. Eliot would publish no further poetry in his life. Lauded as one of the most influential living writers he received honorary doctorates and fellowships from universities across the world, and in 1948 he received the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He married a second time in 1950, and spent the rest of his life lecturing and writing articles.

When he died in 1965 of emphysema, his obituary in The Times was titled; “The Most Influential English Poet of His Time”.

You can find the poem “Little Gidding” in full at the link below:

T.S. Eliot in later life

This is the first in a series of short posts about writers with a connection to Huntingdonshire, look out for our post next Saturday!

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.

Eliot, T.S. “Collected Poems 1909-1962”, Faber and Faber, London, 1974, 3rd Edition

Poetry Foundation, “T.S. Eliot 1888 – 1965”, 2020, Via: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/t-s-eliot, Accessed April 1st 2020

Wickes, M. “A History of Huntingdonshire”, Phillimore & Co. Ltd, Chichester, 1995, 2nd Edition

Wilkinson, J. “People – T.S. Eliot at Little Gidding”, 2006, Via: http://www.littlegiddingchurch.org.uk/lgchtmlfiles/lgpeople2.html, Accessed: April 1st 2020

The Wyton Wanderer – Isabella Bishop (nee Bird)

In our teeth are thrown the names of one or two distinguished ladies, such as Mrs Bishop, whose additions to geographical knowledge have been valuable and serious. But in the whole of England these ladies can be counted on the fingers of one hand!” – George Curzon, FRGS 30th May, 1893

Photograph by Fu Bingchang. Image courtesy of C.H. Foo, Y.W. Foo and Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol (www.hpcbristol.net).

Isabella Bird was one of the most famous travel writers and explorers of Victorian England. Her trips saw her visit dozens of countries and travel thousands of miles, often alone. What is more astounding is that she spent much of her childhood an invalid and suffered with bouts of crippling depression and illness throughout her whole life.

Childhood and Early Life
Born in Yorkshire in 1831, the daughter of a Reverend (Revd Edward Bird) and a Reverend’s daughter (Dora Lawson), she inherited strong evangelical views and in her early years she moved from place to place when her father’s curacy changed. As a young child she suffered from a spinal complaint and nervous headaches and was advised by doctors to spend her time outdoors for the sake of her health; she learned to ride and spent much of her time on horseback, leading her to be an expert horsewoman in later life.

Though suffering from illness, she was a strong character at the age of six —she confronted the campaigning MP for South Cheshire (the outrageously named Sir Malpas de Grey Tatton Egerton), asking him “did you tell my father my sister was so pretty because you wanted his vote?”

In 1848, the family moved to Wyton in Huntingdonshire, where she learnt rowing on the Ouse to try to strengthen her back. Her ill health seemed to continue, so aged nineteen she had corrective spinal surgery to remove a growth from her back, and following the operation she suffered from insomnia and depression. Her doctor advised her to travel for the sake of her health and so her father gave her £100 and his permission to go where she wanted; she was twenty two years old and this was to be the beginning of a life-long passion.

Photograph of Houghton/Wyton Village Square taken by Isabella Bird, from the collection of the National Library of Scotland.

America & Canada
Isabella elected to visit North America, she went first to Canada to stay with cousins and then spent seven months travelling around the continent from Toronto to Boston to Cincinnati, Chicago and finally down the St. Lawrence river. She wrote long letters to her sister during her travels and these would later for the basis of her first book; “The English-woman in America” published in 1856 by John Murray, who became a friend for life. This first travel-narrative sold very well she received a substantial income from this book and from articles submitted to magazines; this private income would fund future trips and expeditions for Isabella.

England and Scotland
In 1858 Isabella’s father died of influenza, her family were forced to quit the house they had been living in and Isabella, her mother and sister settled into a flat in Edinburgh. Here the family settled into a quiet middle-class Victorian existence, and Isabella into a retired spinsterhood. She continued to suffer with mental health problems and and ill health — social events tired her and she withdrew into herself, mostly writing religious tracts. In 1864 she wrote: “I feel as if my life were spent in the very ignoble occupation of taking care of myself, and that unless some disturbing influences arise I am in great danger of becoming perfectly encrusted with selfishness”. Such a change was coming.

Australia and Hawaii
In 1872 aged 41 her doctor advised she travel to Australia as the warmer clime would help her recover. The journey was long and arduous and when she finally arrived she found Australia to not be to her liking. She hated the heat and the conditions and soon left again. On her return voyage she stopped at Hawaii, a place she fell in love with. She climbed volcanoes, stopped riding side-saddle (as it was an inconvenience) and spent six months “visiting remote regions … living among the natives and seeing Hawaiian life in all its phases”. The climate and rigorous activity seem to have helped improve her health, and the bulk of her written correspondence once again formed the basis for another book, “Six Months in the Sandwich Isles” published in 1875. It was another instant best seller.

Illustration of a Hawaiian Ladies riding dress from “Six Months in the Sandwich Isles” note the ambiguity as to whether the rider is side saddle or astride the horse!

She loved Hawaii so much that she was not inclined to leave; “Every step now seemed not a step homewards but a step out of my healthful life back among wretched dragging feelings and aches and nervousness.” Only her desire to see her sister again convinced her to go, but her adventures on this trip were not over just yet.

“A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains”
She took the boat for America, landing in San Francisco and then catching a train. Although she could have got a train the whole way across from the Pacific to Atlantic coast she decided to stop along the way. Her first stop was the prospecting town of Truckee in the Sierra Nevada, where she hired a horse and travelled alone out to Lake Tahoe and back. Despite encountering a bear along the way she decided that she wanted to travel within America more.

Catching the train to Denver she disembarked, hired a horse and a guide, a one eyed, heavily armed Indian scout called Mountain Jim, whom she described as “as awful looking a ruffian as one could see”. She would spend months on the Rocky mountains covering over 800 miles on horseback and foot, travelling alone or with Mountain Jim, other travellers, hunters and cowboys.

This unsurveyed wilderness was mostly uninhabited and posed a genuine danger to her; she survived snowstorms (“utter loneliness, the silence and dumbness of all things, the snow falling quietly without wind, the obliterated mountains, the darkness, the intense cold”), the risk of avalanche, injury and illness, attacks by predators and possibly also predatory men. Her best defence was her confidence, her willingness to work (she was a cook for cowboys for a while when she run out of money) and her belief in “the habit of respectful courtesy to women”. Her letters to her sister would once again act as the basis for a book and this book, “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains”, published in 1879, would prove to be her best selling work.

Illustration of the cabin Isabella lived in, in America from “A Lady’s life in the Rocky Mountains”

Having finally continued to the Atlantic coast, Isabella returned to Edinburgh and her beloved sister. She was wooed by Dr John Bishop, the family’s physician, but Isabella refused his advances, concentrating on writing up her travel books, campaigning for better conditions for croft and slum dwellers and submitting articles to magazines. Within a short span of time the familiar depression and illness started to return, and she decided to travel again.

Japan was a country in flux; after 220 years of self-imposed isolation, in the 1850’s, its borders had been opened to the world. Keen to see the country she sought advice from those few who had been, and in 1878 she set off to explore. Upon arrival she hired a native speaker as a guide and translator and they struck out for the interior of the country, far from the increasingly westernised ports and coastal areas. She travelled light; her total baggage for her trip to Japan was;

a folding-chair and air-pillow for kuruma [rickshaw] travelling, an india-rubber bath, sheets, a blanket, and last, and more important than all else, a canvas stretcher [for sleeping] … a small supply of Leibig’s extract of meat, 4 lbs. of raisins, some chocolate, both for eating and drinking, and some brandy in case of need. I have my own Mexican saddle and bridle, a reasonable quantity of clothes, some candles, Mr. Brunton’s large map of Japan, volumes of the Transactions of the English Asiatic Society, and Mr. Satow’s Anglo-Japanese Dictionary.

She went on from Japan to China, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore, but her time in Japan was the subject of her oriental travelogue, “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan”, published in 1880. Despite worries from her publisher that the lurid descriptions of rural Japan with its vermin, squalor, terrible food and disease would put off the reading public, the book was another best seller.

Return to Tragedy
Returning to her sister in Edinburgh in 1880 for what was to the be the last time, Isabella settled back into a middle class existence. The loss of her sister in 1881 to tubercular fever seems to have hit her hard. Aged 50 and in the wake of her sisters death, she finally acquiesced and married John Bishop. She insisted on wearing her mourning clothes for the wedding, as if, in the words of a friend, “she was marrying under protest”.

After only five years of marriage, John Bishop also died. Isabella seems to have been genuinely heartbroken; aged 57 and mourning this latest tragedy, she began to train as a medical practitioner herself. Once qualified, she elected on her personal cure-all for depression and set off again, this time to India.

India and the Great Game.
Having arrived in India in 1888 she travelled alone as was her preference. As well as travelling, she used her personal wealth to establish the Henrietta Bird Hospital in Amritsar and then later the John Bishop Memorial Hospital in Srinigar. She still had her fair share of adventures; travelling to Tibet her horse fell through a bridge and drowned, whilst Isabella broke several ribs. She travelled widely through Northern India and again into China, running ad hoc medical clinics in villages as she passed through.

Travel Photo taken by Isabella Bird of an unknown location in Persia, from the collection of the National Library of Scotland.

Returning through India, she joined a British expedition led by Major Herbert Sawyer; this government-sponsored reconnaissance was to check for Russian influences in the Middle East. A terrible concern for British governments for much of the 19th century was that losing control of the Middle East would allow Russia to invade or interfere with India, the machinations, bribery, spying and proxy wars between tribes in the area became known as “the Great Game”.

Isabella did not enjoy having an escort but reluctantly agreed that the territory was too dangerous to traverse alone, and the expedition lasted for almost all of 1890. They passed from Basra to Baghdad and Tehran, through blizzards and past the frozen bodies of other unlucky travellers, across Persian Kurdistan to Eastern Turkey. Her travels informed another book, “Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan” published in 1891.

England and Scotland
Having safely returned to England, she became a vocal proponent for the British government to assist the Armenians who were being persecuted across the Middle East. These atrocities would lead to the Armenian Genocide in the early 20th century (an ethnic cleansing that saw 1.5 million Armenians killed or forcefully deported by the Turkish Ottoman empire). Isabella met with William Gladstone (PM) and addressed a Parliamentary committee on the subject. So well known had she become through her writings that she became a fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and amongst the first female fellows of the (British) Royal Geographical Society in 1893.

Isabella Bird’s Korean passport, border control was tight due to the outbreak of war with Japan
Isabella Bird in Oriental Dress, from the collection of the National Library of Scotland

Return to the Orient
In 1894, getting restless and with no surviving family in Scotland, she departed again once more for Asia. She voyaged to Yokohama in Japan, then spent several months in Korea, leaving in a rush when the Sino-Japanese war broke out, and Korea was occupied by Japan. She became a kind of unofficial war correspondent, photographing Chinese soldiers heading into Korea, and then following the advance to record the devastation the war had caused.

She left Korea and sailed up the Yangtze river and then overland into Sichuan. Here she encountered increasing anti-Western abuse, being assaulted by a mob, having the building she was in set on fire and even being stoned unconscious at one point. She crossed into Tibet once more and from there headed home to Britain. Having travelled over 8,000 miles in the course of her fifteen month trip, she published her last book, “The Yangtze Valley and Beyond” in 1901.

Final Expedition and Death
Having returned to Edinburgh she began to plan a new trip to China, and in 1901 she visited Morocco (her first time in Africa). She travelled widely in the Atlas mountains, but upon returning fell ill. She spent the last few years of her life in Edinburgh, too ill to travel, and died there in October 1904.

Hers was a life most extraordinary, and as she said herself in a letter to a friend in 1897; “I have freedom, and you know how I love that! I am so thankful for my capacity for being interested. What would my lonely life be without it?

Travel Photo taken by Isabella Bird of an unknown location in Morocco on her last travels, from the collection of the National Library of Scotland.

Victoria Calleway is a very amateur historian indeed but learnt to be discerning about her sources through her English Literature and Theatre degree. Incidentally, these are a few of her favourite things, along with board games, cheese, and her cats, Asparagus and Macavity.

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.

Anon, 2014, “Isabella Bird (1831–1904)“. The John Murray Archive, National Library of Scotland

Anon, 2020, “Isabella Lucy (Bird) Bishop”, Accessed via: https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/british-and-irish-history-biographies/isabella-lucy-bird-bishop, On: 22nd February 2020

Bosworth, E, 1989, “Bird Isabella L”, Accessed via: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/bird-isabella-l, On: 22nd February 2020

Calder, J, 2016 “Writer, Explorer, Trailblazer”, Accessed via: http://dangerouswomenproject.org/2016/04/24/isabella-bird/, On: February 22nd 2020

Ireland, D, 2015, “Isabella Bird: Tales of a pioneering adventuress in 19th century China”, The Independent, 8th March 2015

Lucas, C.P, 1912, “Bishop, Isabella Lucy”, Dictionary of National Biography.

Middleton, D, 2004, “Bishop [Bird], Isabella Lucy (1831–1904)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Parks, C, 2014, “The Peripatetic Life of Isabella Bird”, The Appendix, In Motion, October 2014, Vol. 2, No. 4

Stoddart, A.M, (1906) “The Life of Isabella Bird, Mrs Bishop”, J. Murray, 1st Edition

How St. Neots got its name; a history of St. Neots Priory.

St. Neots is the largest town in the Huntingdonshire district. Its birth, history and identity is intrinsically linked to the Priory of St. Neot. The Priory itself was incredibly unfortunate, being attacked, neglected and refounded at least twice, but it has left a legacy of a thriving town, which remembers the saint for which it is named… Speaking of which, just who was St. Neot?

Stained Glass Window of The Venerable Neot of Cornwall

St. Neot
The man himself is documented in several texts. Born in the the ninth century to a minor branch of Saxon royalty, he was a soldier in the ongoing wars against the Danes before quitting military life for an ecclesiastical career. His ordination as a priest at Glastonbury was promptly followed by a desire to live a quieter life, and so he became a hermit on Bodmin moor. Over time, followers appeared and he formed a monastery, which later became a small settlement. He was visited several times by King Alfred seeking spiritual guidance and seems to have been something of a confessor or advisor for the king. It is in a “Life of St Neot” that the famous story of Alfred and the burning cakes is recorded.

St. Neot died in 877AD, and after his death pilgrims reported miraculous healing occurring at his tomb. Based on this and several miracles during his life (mostly pertaining to fish! – add more info) he was deemed to be a saint and canonised as the Patron Saint of Fish. His feast day is July 31st.

A daring heist?
A century later and Earl Leofric and his wife Ethelfleda have just established a monastery at Eynesbury, the new incumbents taken from the monastery at Thorney, further north in the county. The new monastery was completed in 972AD and with a monastic house, full complement of monks and wealthy patron, they just needed some relics to venerate…

Depending on what you read they got these relics by various means; according to some sources Earl Leofric had “acquired” the saints bones and was looking for a home for them. According to others, Bishop Oswald of Worcester redistributed some of the saints remains from Cornwall to Huntingdonshire. Others maintain that a party of monks on pilgrimage to the tomb in Cornwall stole some of the bones from the grave and brought them back, pursued by an angry mob of Cornishmen! Whatever the truth of the matter, within a few short years of being founded, the monastery had its patron and its name. Unfortunately for the monks, it would not be long until disaster struck…

A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine – “Fom the Fury of the Northmen, Deliver us O Lord” was a supposedly common prayer in the ninth and tenth centuries when Norse raids were endemic and many monasteries and churches relatively unprotected…

“From the Fury of the Northmen, Deliver us O Lord.”
In the year 1010, a large Danish warhost burnt a bloody swathe across England. With fire and sword they attacked Ipswich, Northampton, Oxford and Bedford, with raids reaching as far as Wiltshire. In some cases, settlements were captured; in others, they were burnt to the ground. By the winter of 1010 the raids had spread into over 16 counties with differing levels of success. The violence only ended with the promise of a payment of unprecedented scale; £48,000 of Danegeld (approximately £230 million in modern day currency!)

During this year of terror and bloodshed the fledgling monastery of St. Neots (barely 40 years old) was utterly destroyed. At this time there was no town around the priory with a militia to see off marauders and so the hapless monks would have been utterly helpless against the “fury of the northmen”. The remains of the Priory were left to sink into the fens, attended by the last few surviving monks, and it seems that the best laid plans of Earls and monks were for naught.

The Archbishop of Canterbury personally instructed the priory to be rebuilt in 1086, and the monastic house was linked to Bec, a Benedictine abbey in France. According to legend, the archbishop, another saint (Anselm of Bec), also verified that the remains found on the site of the old monastery were those of St Neot, although how he knew is not revealed.

The new priory was a Benedictine house; Benedictine monks vow Obedience, Chastity and Stability – they stay in one monastery for life (unless this is impossible). These black robed monks quickly built up an impressive monastery, helped no doubt by bequests and donations from such worthies as King Malcolm and King William of Scotland.

Archbishop Anselm from a contemporary manuscript

Growth of a Town, Decline of a Priory.
Outside the priory, a small settlement began to grow, a market charter was granted in 1130. In 1180 a bridge across the Ouse was installed to allow the villagers and market traders to cross in safety. By 1204 St. Neots parish was split from Eynesbury Parish and presumably by this point a parish church had been built. The village swiftly grew into a thriving town, but whilst it grew the priory declined.

A series of lacklustre priors appointed from abroad saw the value of the priory diminish; many of these foreign priors had very short tenures. In the forty years from 1222 to 1262 the priory had seven priors, of whom three lasted less than two years. The priory also suffered from financial mismanagement by the mother house at Bec who saw its English holdings as “cash-cows”, and such revenue as they made was swiftly exported.

The situation was worsened due to the ongoing conflict with France throughout most of the Medieval period. At these times the priory was effectively seized by the crown to prevent its funds being appropriated by the French, this income of course proved very helpful for successive monarchs, as war is a very expensive past time. Additionally, flooding on the Ouse in the 1370’s destroyed three valuable watermills belonging to the Priory, rendering their fiscal situation worse yet; the priory’s debts were stacking up whilst the building was falling down.

An illustration of how the priory may have looked, the sketch is from the far side of the Great Ouse looking across at what is now – The Priory Centre, Library and Waitrose Car Park.

By 1412 the priory had just twelve monks within its walls, divine service was neglected and “the revenues diminished by maladministration”. Blaming the French for this, the priory was declared independent of Bec and a new prior (Edward Salisbury) appointed. His tenure did not start well, as the remaining French monks immediately quit to return to Bec leaving him just two monks!

Despite some modest changes, it seems the rot had set in. Thirty years later, a damning report from Bishop Alnwick found the priory in such bad repair that rain came in through the roof; the priories debts so serious the monks feared leaving the monastery and running into creditors. Additionally there were concerns that Matins (said at between midnight and 2am) was not regularly held, and suspicions of “unchaste living”.

In 1506, the liturgy of woe continues with the brethren “not cheerful in their obedience”, not wearing their habits and with some concern of the legitimacy of their deeds. Perhaps it was for the best that the priory’s days were numbered – as a smaller monastic house, it was not until the second wave of dissolutions in 1539 that the priory finally closed. By this point, there were just 7 monks and the prior left, all of whom were pensioned off into secular life.

As seems to have been fairly common when monastic buildings were dissolved, the monastery was taken apart by locals. Being in such poor repair, it would have been of no value for anything other than the land it stood on and its contents. Several of the older houses in the town today are thought to have some of the priory stones in their cellars or foundations.

Days Brewery in its heyday, some of the buildings remain standing.

The land itself, next to the river, could have housed warehouses or other industrial buildings. In the 18th century, a brewery was built atop the priory, by which time the only remnant was the ancient gatehouse. A local brewer, John Day, acquired the brewery in 1814, demolishing this gateway, the last extant part of the priory, to improve access.s

The priory site now is “The Priory Centre”, and it is still possible to see some of the defunct brewery buildings there, though of the priory itself there is no sign…

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.

Catholic Online, “St. Neot”, 2020, Accessed on: 2nd February 2020, Accessed via: https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=4817

Howards, I, “Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017”, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, First Edition, 2003

Jarret, S., Griffiths C & Thompson, J, “Trails Around The Town: The Lost Priory of St. Neots”, XL Press, St. Neots, 3rd Edition, 2017

Lapa, D, “Venerable Neot of Cornwall“, 2015, Accessed on: 2nd February 2020, Accessed via: https://orthochristian.com/81326.html

Page, W, Proby, G & Ladds, I. “Houses of Benedictine monks: The priory of St Neots”, in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 1, Victoria County History, London, 1926

Page, W, Proby, G & Ladds, I. “Parishes: St Neots”, in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 2, Victoria County History, London, 1932

St. Neot Parish Council, “The Saint Neot and Alfred the Great”, 2012, Accessed on: 2nd February 2020, Accessed via: http://www.stneot.org.uk/the_saint_neot_.html

St. Neots Town Information, “The Priory of St Neots”, 2018, Accessed on: 2nd February 2020, Accessed via: http://www.stneots-town.info/history/priory.asp

Wickes, M “A History of Huntingdonshire”, Phillimore & Co. Ltd, Chichester, 1st Edition, 1985

Plough Monday across Huntingdonshire

Circular Issued to Superintendents – Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire – from the Chief Constables Office, Cambridge 2nd January 1865

Numerous complaints having been made as to the drunken disorderly, and in some cases, intimidating conduct of the Mummers on the last year’s Plough Monday, the attention of the respective Superintendents and Inspectors is directed to the suppression of the same … [the mummers] are liable to be treated as vagrants, rogues and vagabonds

The Origins: Pagan and Christian
The origins of Plough Monday (the first Monday after Epiphany, on January 6th) are not entirely known. The tradition is found almost everywhere north and nowhere south of the border which divided Danish England from Saxon England. Plough Monday could have originated as a pagan tradition to ensure good harvest. It has also been suggested that the origins could be a tax gathering custom as the plough was taken house-to-house to ensure that the tariff was paid by all who used the communal plough.

This communal plough would often be kept within the parish church. During the medieval period “plow lights” are recorded, these were candles burning in parish churches to seek divine blessings on farmers, fields and their equipment (most obviously the communal plough). By the 15th century ploughs were being led around communities in a procession ending in a church service (similar perhaps to Rogation Sunday where Parish boundaries are walked and blessed). Needless to say the Reformation and Puritan leanings of the 17th century did away with these “superstitious and Papist customs”, and yet, the custom did not fall away…

Whether the traditional giving of pennies, parish procession and church service (with or without plough) continued with the secular and ecclesiastical authorities turning a blind eye is unknown.
There is an account of manslaughter in 1684 where the defendants argued their ancient right to charge a 1d toll on Plough Monday! Almsgivings by local landowners occurred sporadically on Plough Mondays throughout the long eighteenth century, at Kimbolton, Stonely and over the border in Barnack. These are the only hints that the custom was not entirely extinct.

The Raucous 19th Century
The first reference to Plough Monday in the local press was in Godmanchester in 1840, where an
assemblage of six “ploughboys” (with an average age of 78.5 years!) met at the Wheatsheaf. No further details are given and so whether the celebration of Plough Monday or the great age of these individuals was the newsworthy item is unknowable.

Plough Monday celebrations in the 19th century seem to have reached a heyday; generally speaking the Huntingdonshire celebrants were ‘Plough Witches’, although on the Northamptonshire border ‘Plough Bullocking’ also occurred. Both required those taking part to be in disguise, usually in female attire with soot blackened faces, it was also normal to fashion grotesque humps and breasts with straw stuffed under clothing.

The Plough Bullocks would fasten themselves into a Plough team and drag the plough through the town soliciting “donations” from passersby and businesses, most of which would end up being reinvested into the local ale houses before days end, if the local press can be believed!

The Plough Witches would carry brooms and likewise drag their plough through towns, knocking on the doors of houses and businesses, and asking for donations of money. In the event that these donations were not forthcoming the front gardens or paths would be ploughed up before the witches proceeded to their next victim – a form of agricultural trick or treating!

By the 1850’s the celebrations in Godmanchester were being repressed, with the local press discouraging people from giving donations or taking part; in 1858, constables arrested some of the Plough Witches. During the 1860’s the actual participants seem to have no longer been farm labourers for whom “the thing don’t pay” and instead were itinerant workers, and increasingly truant school children. The only exceptions to this were years which are reported as being hard winters; the coldest of these were 1888, 1892 and 1897. On these occasions the celebrations seem to have been much larger and presumably included labourers struggling to make ends meet or without work as the weather was not good enough to work the land.

To add to the spectacle of their Plough Monday processional, the Ramsey Plough Witches borrowed heavily from the traditions of Whittlesey over the border in Cambridgeshire and brought one or more “straw bears” along. This was a member of the troupe bedecked out in a bear suit made from straw, first recorded in 1880 and attending every Plough Monday until 1893. These straw bears “grotesquely dressed in straws” were accompanied by older men who would play instruments for the bears to dance to, in the way that bears would have done for entertainment in the medieval period.

“Remember the poor Ploughboy”
By the 20th Century it was mostly children honouring the traditions of Plough Monday.

By the very late 19th century, the traditions of Plough Monday were in an almost terminal decline, the exception being only the harshest winters, which saw “a slight revival of these moribund practice[s]”. By the turn of the century the sight of a plough being taken through the streets on Plough Monday was unknown and even the straw bears so popular in Ramsey were no longer to be seen.

The Plough Mondays of the early 20th century were the sole remit of school boys. The celebration in Godmanchester in 1904 saw a dozen boys with neither disguise nor plough begging house to house, the final Godmanchester Plough Monday in 1914 saw; “a few farm lads going the rounds with a collecting box soliciting donations”.

Generally speaking the First World War saw the final end to this custom in most corners of the county. The final recorded Plough Mondays in St. Ives, Alconbury, Kimbolton, Yaxley and Farcet falling in the decade before WW1. Some places maintained the custom longer yet with children leading Plough Monday celebrations at Great Gidding (1928), Holme (1931), Ramsey (1934), Earith (1934) and Warboys (1937). The children still dressed garishly, blackened their faces and begged passersby and homeowners for copper pennies with cries of “Remember the poor Ploughboy” or “Just one copper, just one” shaking their tins and driving their plough.

The final nail in the coffin was the Second World War, although one enterprising group of Plough boys from Holme in 1940 used Plough Monday as an opportunity to raise 11s donated to the “Comforts to the Troops Fund”, the final hurrah for a centuries old tradition.

A modern day Straw bear from the Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival.

Throughout the latter decades of the 20th century there were abortive attempts to reinstate Plough Monday within Huntingdonshire. Events were held in St. Neots, Gravely and Fenstanton with Morris Dancers, Plough processions, Plough blessings, Traditional Folk Songs and donations gathered for local good causes. Ramsey (with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund) held a series of Plough Monday celebrations from 2008 including reintroducing traditional Ramsey folk songs.

The best known Plough Monday celebrations in the region are over the old county border in Whittlesey, where the annual Straw Bear Festival is celebrating its 41st year in 2020!

All the details can be found here if you wish to attend: http://www.strawbear.org.uk/

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.

Cambridgeshire County Council, “An Introduction to Plough Monday”, 2019, via: http://www.enidporterproject.org.uk/content/cambridgeshire-traditions/plough-monday/plough-monday, Accessed: 28th December 2019

Frampton, G,. “Vagrants, Rogues and Vagabonds: Plough Monday Tradition in Old Huntingdonshire and the Soke of Peterborough”, 1996, George Frampton Publishing, Tonbridge, First Edition

Hunts Post, “Ancient Plough Monday custom remembered in Ramsey and Hail Weston”, 2012, via: https://www.huntspost.co.uk/news/ancient-plough-monday-custom-remembered-in-ramsey-and-hail-weston-1-1173104, Accessed: 28th December 2019

Irvine, R. D.G., “Following the Bear: the revival of Plough Monday traditions and the performance of rural identity in the East Anglian Fenlands”. 2018, EthnoScripts: Zeitschrift f ̈ur aktuelle ethnologische Studien, 20(1) pp. 16–34

Ridgway, C., “Plough Monday”, 2016, via: https://www.tudorsociety.com/plough-monday/, Accessed: 29th December 2019

Roud, S., “The English Year”, 2006, Penguin Publishing, London, First Edition

Whittlesey Town Council, “Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival”, 2019, via: http://www.strawbear.org.uk/ Accessed: 29th December 2019

A History of Huntingdon Drama Club 75 Years On

A much loved local institution the Huntingdon Drama Club are celebrating 75 years of community theatre this year. Club member Michelle Gibson shares a history of the club from inception to modern day;

In some ways, 2019 has been a unique year for Huntingdon Drama Club. It began with a series of personnel changes in the committee; with three long-standing members resigning at the same time, some re-shuffling of duties was put into place, as well as the admission of some new people. It has also been the year in which the town held its first Arts Festival, in which the club was honoured to participate, and presented an exciting challenge of devising an original work based upon local history and folklore. In addition, it has seen the re-opening of the Commemoration Hall, the long-time “performance home” of the club, until its closure in 2017 for the purposes of refurbishment.

But perhaps the biggest marker for this year is the fact that 2019 serves as Huntingdon Drama Club’s 75th anniversary. To perhaps put that into greater perspective, we were a functioning society as far back as World War II, at a time when Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were all in power. Officially founded in the spring of 1944, the first inaugural meeting took place in March of that year, at what is now the Cromwell Museum, but was then the Old Grammar school. The minute book declares that “Mr. Jarrett opened the meeting by saying that its object was to start a Drama Club in Huntingdon for play-readings and theatrical productions.” Membership fee was 2/6d (two shillings and sixpence) per quarter and by the end of that year, nineteen individuals had paid subscriptions.

In February 1945, by which time the club had been going for eleven months, the chairman’s summation of HDC’s first year was recorded in his opening remarks. It is quite fascinating to get an insight into the experiences and hopes of our very first members and they serve as a reminder that, whatever the cultural differences of the 1940s, the successes and struggles involved in amateur dramatics are very much the same. “The club,” it is noted, “was formed not only for pleasure but for knowledge and cultural interest. The club was ambitious to put over some really good plays and had done its best in a not uncommendable way. The greatest difficulty in a production had been to find a suitable place. The importance of a good stage and hall in Huntingdon could not be stressed enough.”

It was to be another fifteen years before we had the luxury of a good stage and hall – this being upon our move to the Commemoration Hall as a venue in 1960 – but in the intervening years, Huntingdon Drama Club established itself as an active community group, putting on two productions per year. Titles throughout the 1950s include A Lady Mislaid, See How They Run, The Two Mrs. Carrolls and Seagulls Over Sorrento, reflecting a number of genres from comedy to drama to mystery. Since joining in 2015, I have seen first-hand the club’s efforts to appeal to a broad array of tastes and this is shown in the diversity of plays that are chosen. From viewing the titles of past productions, it’s clear this is an ideal which was promoted at the very outset.

Throughout the club’s history there have been a number of repeat productions, with The Crucible first being performed in 1971 and, more recently, in 2017. Others that have popped up on more than one occasion include The Happiest Days of Your Life, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Habeas Corpus. Overall, it’s quite eye-opening to see the breadth of separate plays the club has produced over the years and quite inspirational to consider the artistic and creative vision of those who came before us.

1960 saw the beginning of Huntingdon Drama Club’s long relationship with the Commemoration Hall. Providing a stage, dressing rooms and kitchen facilities, the Hall was in many ways our ideal venue. In recent years, a number of the club’s members and supporters have also been closely involved with the running of the Hall, so there has been a considerable amount of interplay and cooperation between the two organisations. The last event held in the hall before its temporary closure was our 2017 production of Alfie, which gave the experience a bittersweet feeling, as we were saying goodbye to our “home” of nearly sixty years. The town was fortunate to see the hall re-open earlier this year and we are delighted to be performing once again in the space to which many of us have grown quite attached.

One of the most notable productions in the club’s history was its first foray into science fiction. In the year of our fiftieth anniversary (1994), Huntingdon Drama Club performed The Empress of Othernow, a Doctor Who play written especially for the club by Peter Vialls, who at the time was serving on the committee. The play, which involved a time paradox set around Ancient Rome, was almost two years in the planning, with the script itself first needing to be finalised, as well as the process of receiving permission from the BBC to use their characters and finding appropriate costumes. Finally, as recalled by Peter Vialls, “the club’s publicity team went into overdrive. The name Doctor Who created interest the Club did not usually get for its productions; we even got Anglia Television to bring a camera and reporter from Norwich to report on the show, as well as getting coverage in all the local press. There was a general ‘buzz’ around the area about the play, and all four performances played to substantial audiences.” The promotion paid off, with The Empress of Othernow being, to that date, the most financially successful production that the club had presented.

As is the case with many clubs and societies, we have seen our trajectory of success dip and climb at various points. Long-time chairman Michael Black recalled that in 2004 “, there was a serious risk that the club would fold, because of a lack of people willing to form a committee. A crisis meeting was publicised in the local newspapers, and was attended by around 35 people, many of them past club or audience members who didn’t want the club to fail. Luckily a committee was formed, and the club went on to greater success, which has continued to the present.”

The past five years have been a successful, creative and challenging time for Huntingdon Drama Club. We have seen our audience numbers rise and several productions, including The Crucible and A Bunch of Amateurs have won NODA awards. We have not been afraid to present less well-known works of drama in addition to conventional fare and the absence of the Commemoration Hall as a venue has led us to seek ways in which we might more efficiently and creatively use our performance space. The re-opening of the Hall means that we are once more back in the venue that has for so long been a part of our history and we hope to continue our legacy of producing high quality, entertaining and thought-provoking pieces of theatre to our community.

Huntingdon-born and bred, Michelle is involved in a couple of local community groups, one such being Huntingdon Drama Club. A staunch admirer of the arts, she has been an avid reader since childhood and includes writing and acting amongst her other interests.

Huntingdon Drama Clubs Autumn Production “Cathy” an updated version of the classic film Cathy Come Home is running Tuesday 26th November until Friday 29th November, with tickets available on the door or in advance from their website: