The Abbots Ripton Railway Disaster – Friday 21st January 1876

The evening of Friday 21st January 1876 was not a pleasant one for Huntingdonshire, with blizzards raging across the county leading to poor visibility and overall poor conditions. It was these conditions that led to the Abbots Ripton rail disaster, the worst rail accident in the county and one which changed some of the fundamental practices of the railways for the better.

The Site of Abbots Ripton Railway Station today

Prior to 1959 the line between Peterborough and Huntingdon had three intermediate stations: Yaxley and Farcet; Holme; and Abbots Ripton. The latter lay just under 13 miles south of Peterborough and 4.5 miles north of Huntingdon with services at the time operated by the Great Northern Railway. Abbots Ripton was, at the time, a station with two lines, the ‘up’ towards London and the ‘down’ towards Peterborough, as well as a siding adjacent to the ‘up’ line. The 1015 ‘Special Scotch Express’, a forerunner to the ‘Flying Scotsman’ has left Edinburgh on time and had had an uneventful journey south as far as Peterborough, where it departed at its scheduled time of 1818. Ahead of it was a coal train, which although due to depart at 1735, was delayed until 1755 and was therefore being caught up by the Scotch-express by the time it approached Holme. 

The Stirling engine of the “Special Scotch Express” the forerunner of the flying Scotsman.

The Holme signalman (in 1876, it was definitely a signalman), had been instructed to put the coal train into the siding at that station to avoid it delaying the Scotch-express, however due to the poor visibility the coal train continued on past on its journey south. The inquiry later discovered that the weight of the snow on the arms of the signals and/or the wires connecting them to the signal boxes meant that they showed as clear (with the associated white lamp) despite the levers in the signal box being set to danger. The coal train continued to Abbots Ripton where it was stopped by the signalman with a red handlamp as normal and instructed to shunt into the up siding. This shunt move had almost been completed when the Scotch-express struck the coal train at full speed, having run through several signals the signalman thought to be at ‘danger’ but had been weighed down by the snow.

The line South towards Abbots Ripton the direction where the “Special Scotch Express” was coming from.

Although dazed by the accident, the railway staff for the most part reacted well with the guards of both the coal train and express gathering their ‘fog signals’ (detonators) and placing them to warn other trains of the wreckage. The fireman of the coal train also placed detonators on the down line before re-joining his driver and locomotive and heading south towards Huntingdon to gather assistance and warn approaching trains. The signalman at Wood Walton (the next signal box north) was able to stop the Manchester express (the train behind the Scotch Express) using a hand lamp, and this train eventually drew up behind the wreckage. Unfortunately, the most dazed member of staff was the Abbots Ripton signal man who set his signals in both directions to ‘danger’ but did not immediately send a 5-beat ‘obstruction danger’ bell signal to Stukeley (the next box south). The Stukeley box eventually received this message just seconds after the northbound ‘down’ Leeds express had passed the box.

This accident itself was disastrous enough, however the wreckage of the two trains blocked both the ‘up’ line and the adjacent ‘down’ line. Following the collision, a number of the coal wagons were smashed, however the coal train locomotive was undamaged. On the other hand, the Scotch locomotive had derailed and was lying on its side beyond the ‘down’ line with its tender and first two passenger carriages also obstructing the ‘down’. The Leeds express activated some detonators, saw the coal locomotive with a red lamp and whistling a warning and did everything it could to stop. Unfortunately, by the time it hit the tender and carriages of the Scotch express, it was still travelling at some speed. It was this second collision in which most of the 13 deaths were thought to have occurred.

Looking North towards Abbots Ripton the direction the Leeds train was heading on that fateful evening

Following the inquiry into the accident, and in some cases after further accidents, several changes occurred to the ways of working on Britain’s railways. At the time of the incident a default position for a signal was ‘clear’ with it having to be set to danger. After the accident the modern practice of signals defaulting to ‘danger’ was adopted, along with a change in signal design to ‘somersault’ signals. On this type of signal the pivot is in the middle of the arm, rather than at one end, therefore the weight of snow should not hinder the movement of the signal. Other signalling changes that were recommended and are now ‘obvious’ in the modern railway were the changing of white signal lamps to green (so if the red cover of a danger signal broke it didn’t provide a false ‘clear’) and the provision of indications to signallers in the event of equipment not working correctly.

The other changes that occurred over time were to the braking system of trains, which at the time of the Abbots Ripton accident were braked either solely by the locomotive’s brakes or by the locomotive and two or three of the carriages with handbrakes, each with a guard who would apply them when (and if) he heard the driver “whistle for brakes”. Both systems meant trains had limited braking, and it took a long distance to stop a train, potentially causing them to strike obstructions despite warnings (such as the Leeds express). Over time continuous braking has been fitted to passenger trains, with brakes on at least one axel of every carriage. An air pipe that runs throughout the train will apply all the brakes if split (the brakes are held off by the air), a method that has stopped trains in multiple accidents and incidents (including the 2002 Potters Bar crash). 

Memorial to the victims of the crash which has been subsequently removed. The famous dramatist Dion Boucicault funded the restoration of what is now the Cromwell museum in 1878 in memory of his son who died in the disaster.

If you look back across the history of railway technology and practices, a lot of developments have come from accidents, especially the principles of ‘fail safe’ and ‘absolute safety’. To quote Anthony Hidden in his report into the Clapham Rail Disaster, “The concept of absolute safety must be a gospel spread across the whole workforce and paramount in the minds of management.” Safety is the number one priority across the railways today and fortunately, serious accidents occur infrequently on the modern railway, although any frequency is too much. As with the accidents and disasters of the past, we have a responsibility to learn from the mistakes that lead to incidents and accidents as those before us on the railway did. If you are interested in finding out more about the development of railway safety, I’d recommend the book ‘Red for Danger’ by L.T.C Rolt.

Images courtesy of:

Stirling photo via Wikimedia Commons licence

AR Station site photo via Wikimedia Commons licence

Aidan Knight is an Operational Manager for a ‘leading London metro provider’ and a travel and transport enthusiast. In his spare time he runs his own travel and transport blog, Flights and Times, and can often be found exploring and adventuring on the country’s railways.

Any views in this blog represent his own opinions and not that of any other party.

Kites without strings: the extinction and reintroduction of Red Kites over Huntingdonshire

Red Kite in Fight showing off their beautiful markings

Red kites are a common sight soaring through the skies of Northern and Eastern Huntingdonshire. These huge birds with their almost 6 foot wingspan and their distinct forked tales have an immediately recognisable silhouette from afar and their unique red-brown plumage (from which their name derives) makes them easy to identify from up close – if you are so lucky!

These beautiful birds are both an ancient animal – one our medieval and Tudor ancestors would have been very familiar with – and one recently introduced in England – our great-grandparents would have never seen one. They are hailed as one of the most successful reintroductions of a species in British history.

Red kites are native to Northern and Western Europe, but have been spotted as far North as Finland and far South as Libya! They are monogamous, producing on average two fledglings annually. Breeding pairs will often return to the same nests which are added to each time and can become very large and unruly as a result. Though constructed mostly of twigs, kites are not opposed to taking paper, cloth or clothes to line their nests too. In his play, The Winters Tale, Shakespeare warned; “when the kite builds, look to lesser linen” – i.e. don’t put your best bloomers out on the line!

Kite nests tend to be sturdy broadleaf trees, as the birds have such a huge wingspan they tend to be near the top of the tree!

These hunter-scavenger birds live mainly on a diet of scavenged carrion (today, mostly roadkill), but will also hunt small birds, mammals and even earthworms. With their predilection for ‘ready meals’ and a range of over 12 miles it is no surprise that they quickly gravitated to human settlements, and perhaps Shakespeare was writing from experience. A symbiotic relationship seems to have sprung up where kites ate any dead animals in the street and hunted nuisance rodents, getting their fill and improving hygiene in towns and villages. Certainly they were deemed so valuable that they were one of the first wild birds to be given legal protections in a Royal Decree in the 1400’s which prevented them from being hunted or culled. Unfortunately, within just a few generations, kite-human relations drastically changed…

Kite in flight showing off their impressive nearly six foot wingspan

The harvests of 1527, 1528 and 1529 were abysmal. Over just three years, food prices doubled in England, and the kingdom of Scotland faired just as poorly. A further slim harvest in 1532 was the final straw. Kites were amongst a wide variety of animals thought to be detrimental to farming; a rather ironic belief as in reality they predated smaller animals which ate crops. In Scotland, James II ordered that kites “be killed wherever they are found” whilst in England, the “Preservation of Grain Act” passed by Henry VIII required subjects:

to kill and utterly destroye all manner of [list of animals] comyng, abyding, bedying or hauntying (their property) upon peyne of grevous amerciaments to be levied by distress of the goodes and catalles of the Offendours.’

In plain English, this meant that if you knowingly did not cull the listed animals, you would be subject to punishment by taking away your goods or possessions and the amount would vary depending on your personal wealth.

Henry’s ‘Vermin Laws’ introduced a bounty of a penny per Kite or Raven head, at a time when the daily income for a farm labourer was four pence a day! Other animals included were hedgehogs (thought to steal milk from cows), foxes and badgers (which worried farm animals) and even herons and kingfishers (who stole fish from ponds). Elizabeth I strengthened the laws in 1566 and they would remain on the statute book until the mid-eighteenth century.

Professional Rat-catcher from a Tudor print

As well as offering a bounty, there was an expectation of a certain amount of bounties claimed, and communities that failed to claim their quota of bounties were pressured to do so. Unsurprisingly, wildlife numbers numbers fell drastically – millions of bird and animal bounties were reported by Parish clerks throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century and many animals including pine martens, wild cats and red kites were driven to near extinction.

Even when the Vermin Laws were finally repealed there was no respite for red kites; farmers and gamekeepers were still convinced that they were harmful to game birds and young farm animals, so they were still actively culled using poison, trap and gun. By the 1870’s the red kite was officially extinct in England and Scotland. In Wales, a few breeding pairs were maintained thanks to the forethought of a collection of landowners who prevented the complete extinction of the bird from the British Isles.

Close up showing off the “red” body markings

A hundred years later red kites are a common sight in the skies of Huntingdonshire and much of the UK – so what changed?

By the late 20th century, environmental groups and ecologists had observed enough about these birds to see the benefits of reintroducing them across England and Scotland. The Welsh kites were thriving but not spreading fast enough to repopulate the entire country, and so a bold decision was made.

In July 1990, thirteen red kites were flown in from Spain to be the first wave in a nationwide re-release. Other kites were brought from Scandinavia and taken from Wales and, in all, ninety were released. Five years later, seventy kite chicks reared in Rockingham forest were also released, and these kites and their descendants are the birds we see today. As kites have been recorded to live as long as 26 years in wild, it’s possible that one or two of these original kites still live just across the border in Northamptonshire!

In 2016, red kites, once a ‘red listed’ species on the list of ‘Birds Of Conservation Concern’, gained green rating across England, Scotland and Wales. There are now an estimated 2,000 breeding pairs (approximately 7% of the world population) in the UK.

Spread of Red Kites and dates they were reintroduced

We will have no blog post coming out in December but please join us on Facebook for our local history advent calendar – with a post everyday at 11am!

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.

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.


Barham, P “Red kites thriving in England 30 years after reintroduction”, July 2020, Accessed 14th November 2020 Via:

Upstill-Goddard, E. “The Tale of the Red Kite”, 2016 , Accessed 14th November 2020 Via:

Hill, A “Tudors drove wildlife to the brink”, 2007, Accessed 14th November 2020 Via:

Royal Society For the Protection of Birds, “Red Kite Facts”, 2020, Accessed 14th November 2020 Via:

Royal Society For the Protection of Birds, “Return of the Red Kite”, English Nature 2002, Via:

The Wildlife Trust, “Red Kites”, 2020, Accessed 14th November 2020 Via:

Yorkshire Red Kites, “History/ Red Kite Reintroduction Programme”, 2020, Accessed 14th November 2020 Via:

George Broke’s Marvellous Idea – The First Floating Fenland Church

Reverend George Broke, mountaineer, sportsman and innovator

In 1895 the Huntingdonshire village of Holme received a new priest. The Rev. George Broke, BA, mountaineer, ex-diplomat and all round sportsman ran into a problem with his new parish almost immediately.

Due to centuries of assorted fenland drainage projects which had slowly clawed arable land from the fens, all the parishes on the edges of the fens were very long and thin. They spread away from the established settlements with established churches and off into the reclaimed fens. In Holme parish, a third of George Broke’s parishioners were more than 3 miles away from St. Giles Church, where he preached each Sunday. This was a long trek on a summers day when there was farm work to be done and come winter, when the bad roads became impassable, was a near impossible journey.

One of the Diocese of Ely’s three church vans

The Diocese of Ely had long been concerned about declining church attendance in its largely rural population and had in its possession three church vans. These ‘pop up churches’ visited rural populations many miles from their official church to hold services, and generally return the farmers into the church’s fold. Although the Archdeaconry of Huntingdon had a church van at its disposal, the vehicle was ill suited to the fen roads around Huntingdon, rutted in summer and flooded in winter – another solution was needed, and so George Broke floated a different idea…

The idea of a floating church had a slightly rocky start: initially George wanted to fit a second hand railway carriage (widely available for around £7 at the time) to a second hand barge (£30). This idea, whilst cost effective (just under £5,000 in todays money), was not so practical. In 1897, with the Bishops consent and a £10 donation from his father, a £70 customised house boat was commissioned from William Starling (the barge builder) at Stanground.

The floating church – the only one of its kind – was 30 foot long, 9 feet wide and 7 foot high. It had everything a conventional church would have; an altar, a stone font for baptisms, a folding lectern, a small organ, a curtained off vestry, seating for fifty congregation, and large windows which would be thrown open for extra congregation on the bank. The church was received by the reverend on 1st April, frantically outfitted by Mary Broke and others and on April 5th 1897, dedicated by the Archdeacon of Huntingdon to St. Withburga, a Saxon princess buried at Ely.

Interior of St. Withburgas

On Easter Day, the flags of St George and St Andrew were run up a flag-pole to signify the first official church service was to begin. It was held at Stokes Bridge, where the barge was to be moored when not in use. The first Holy Communion at 9.30am was underwhelming with a congregation of just four. The undaunted George Broke pushed on, and the Evensong service was so busy the congregation spilt over onto the bank – that day alone five children were baptised!

At first the church’s itinerary was in no way fixed and St. Withburga’s visited all fenland communities on a navigable river, whether they had a church or not. Services were held for parishioners not only at Holme, but also Woodwalton, Ramsey St. Mary, Farcet, Pondersbridge and Yaxley. The nature of the church seems to have affected the congregation very little, although some ladies reported sea-sickness! Inevitably there were also occasions of people in their Sunday best falling off the rough plank leading onto the church; one such unfortunate was pulled from the river with the cheery admonition “thank God, you’ve got the parson here to attend ye in yer dying moments”.

In the late 19th century the rivers were still crucial for freight, communication and transport and the need to maintain water levels saw a preponderance of pumping stations across the reclaimed land. As a result, the majority of George Broke’s congregants were not just agricultural workers but pumping engineers, river men and their families, eventually George decided on four regular ‘stations’ to be visited:
– Stoke’s Bridge, on the old river Nene at Ramsey St. Marys
– Charter Farm, on the south edge of Holme Parish
– Allen’s Engine (or Mere Engines), a pumping station and hamlet on the old River Nene
– Black Ham, on the north edge of Holme Parish

The “four stations” on a modern map

Unfortunately, George ran into difficulties visiting Black Ham. The bridge on the approach, known as either Bradford or Froghall Bridge, had insufficient clearance for St. Withburga to pass under. The church was a mere three inches too tall, and even during August when the river was running lower than usual he was unable to pass under. Despite approaching the commissioners of the Middle Level (waterways in the area) to ask for the bridge to be raised, he would only be able to visit Black Ham once (30th August 1897) when the bridge had been removed for maintenance.

The other three stations were visited in rotation, services were held at 2.30pm in the summer and late morning in the winter to allow George to travel back to Holme in daylight. Easter or Christmas was celebrated at whichever station St. Withburga’s was due at on that day and celebrations would be planned for the congregations on these high-days. The church continued to draw “great crowds” whenever it docked. It was taken from station to station by the church caretaker (who was also landlord of the Exhibition Inn at Stokes Bridge), towing it along the river in advance with his horse, Boxer.

On a Sunday, George Broke would hold at least two services at St. Giles in Holme, before riding across the fens on horseback to hold a service on St. Withburga’s – a round trip of least seven miles across unsurfaced roads, in all weathers. Experiments with cycling to St. Withburga’s were mixed, the heavily rutted roads proving dangerous for bicycles, and in September 1897 George “nearly went into dyke riding back. The pedal smote my calf … so that I can barely walk”.

As well as Sunday services George and Mary visited St. Withburga’s for choir practices and evening classes. Bible study and needlework classes were offered for the young women of the rural communities and a weekday men’s class was also started but seems to have been abandoned fairly promptly.

By 1898, after a year of active riverine services, George Broke reflected back on “much welcome and encouragement, even in the depth of winter the services have been well attended”. Indeed, in the eight months active in 1897 more parish baptisms were recorded than in the entire previous year! That summer the additional arrival of the church vans saw an even greater turn out amongst the rural communities and increased collections as a result. St. Withburga’s seemed to be a great success, until the seasons turned.

Winters in the late 19th century were especially brutal; a Christmas night temperature of -8° centigrade in 1898 resulted in St. Withburga’s being dragged through the ice-bound river to Allens Engines for a congregation of just four hardy souls. George, riding or cycling seven miles through heavy snow in conditions below 0°, could not be sure that the church would have made it to its designated location, or that any parishioners would turn up!

Some winters the river froze over entirely and the church could not be moved at all for weeks on end. Then when heavy snows melted the river level rose to such a degree that bridges could not be passed under. In February 1900, St. Withburga’s lost her chimney passing under Stoke’s Bridge. For a succession of summers from 1899 to 1901 the opposite problem was encountered, hot weather saw river levels drop off so that St. Withburga’s could not be floated down river. Other prosaic problems could also be a hinderance, such as when Boxer the towing horse was spooked by pigs and as a result the church turned up late for the service!

St Withburga’s moored up on a riverbank

After five years of active service, St. Withburga’s needed major repairs. She was no longer rain-proof and was sent back to the yard at Stanground. It is not known who paid for these repairs as there was precious little money in the parish fund, and the floating church had always been a financial burden – so St. Withburga’s days were sadly numbered.

In 1904, a combination of the expense, declining congregation, and strain on George Broke’s health saw St. Withburga’s pass into the hands of the vicar of Manea, the Bishop deciding the church would better serve the diocese there. George noted in his diary on 30th October, “To Allen’s Engine with “Yeast” [his horse] for last time”. The following week, he explained all about the barge to the new incumbent vicar, who towed her away later that day. The following Sunday, George’s diary simply read “My 1st Peaceful afternoon”.

George Broke continued at Holme until 1908, when he moved to a new parish in Suffolk. In 1914, his health broke down, and he was advised to retire to the south of France. He refused and retired instead to Norfolk where Mary had inherited Holme Hale Hall. He continued as a licensed preacher until his death in 1932, and Mary lived on in the hall until her death in 1949.

Harvesting by Boat at Ramsey, August 1912

St Withburga’s went on to serve the population of Manea for just three years, before being towed back to Stokes Bridge. In 1907 it was returned to the boatyard and converted into a houseboat known as the “Saints Rest”. The converted boat could now pass under Bradford Bridge and was moored at Orton Thicket on the River Nene, in what is now Nene Valley Country Park. In the summer of 1912, the flooding was so bad it was long remembered as “the year the harvest was got in by boat”. During this heavy flooding, the “Saints Rest” sunk at her mooring. The wreck lies there still.

This blogpost is based solely on “The Fenland Ark – St Withburga’s: The Floating Church of Holme and Manea” by John Bennett. This is available to purchase at Holme church and provides an excellent and more in-depth history than this brief summary could ever hope to.

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.

178 Years at No. 39 – A brief History of the Commemoration Hall

The building which sits at No 39 Huntingdon High Street, known to all as the Commemoration Hall, was originally known as the Huntingdon Literary and Scientific Institution. It has been a feature of the High Street since the Grand Opening, which took place on 7th September 1842 and it looks almost the same now as it did then. Now a Grade 2 listed building, the front section of the Hall, the foyer, the Octagon, the basement and the Minerva Room would still be recognised by the original users over 170 years ago. Only the rear section of the modern building, housing the main hall and stage date from the 1959 extension, opened on January 6th 1960 has been added since.

Back in 1840 a group of interested people met at the George Hotel to consider a plan to establish a Literary and Scientific institution. Dr Robert Fox, a Godmanchester man, with advice and support from his friend, Thomas Winter of Grantham, persuaded the meeting to adopt the Grantham model. By August that year £460 had been raised. Other shareholders for this Public Building were sought and by July 1841 contracts were agreed and building work had begun. The “Pocock and Glover” design was also to be adorned by a Coade stone statue of Minerva, donated by Mr Glover himself. With the exceptions of a replica Minerva (to replace the damaged original) and replaced windows, that is exactly what can be seen from the High Street today.

At the Grand Opening, a “cold collation” meal was held in the afternoon for a significant ticket price of 3 shillings (15p) per head and followed by a public meeting of the Huntingdon Literary and Scientific Society at 7.00 p.m. The building was filled to its limit, with many forced to stand. It was a pattern which remained for some time, with one meeting in June 1843, with Bright and Cobden as speakers and attended by over 3000 people, which has to be adjourned to the Common.

By 1850 the Library contained some 2000 volumes and the Times newspaper was laid out daily for all to read. Membership of the Institution had grown to 69 annual subscribers and 123 quarterly subscribers. In those somewhat conservative times, the Hall was host to evangelical preachers like Charles Finney and an attempt was made to force non-conformist users and publications out of the building- the polar opposite of the current Trust’s non-political and non-religious position.

It is clear from early records, that making the Hall financially viable required constant effort and innovation with the introduction of “Penny Reading” sessions where up to 600 people would pay their penny to be read to by a number of well-educated readers. Cellar space was rented to a Mt Margetts and The Socrates Lodge of the Freemasons paid £8 annual rent.

By the 1880’s the nature of events held at the hall had shifted somewhat, with billiards bringing in a revenue of £58 to offset the £37 spent on books and periodicals. In another parallel with today, the Huntingdon Union hired the venue for vaccinations. 100 years later the National Blood Service regularly held blood donor sessions. By 1891, it was noted that the chess room was not much frequented though the museum section remained popular. Europe was heading towards conflict and the mood of the times was changing. So too, must the Institution.

Between the two World Wars attempts were made to raise funds for general repairs and redecorating of the building and the 1938 plans for that purpose were themselves delayed due to the outbreak of World War Two. The cellar space was, at the County Councils behest, converted into an air raid shelter- evidence of which still remains in the structure today. At least the War brought greater footfall to the building as foreign servicemen based locally- Americans, Poles, Australians, Belgians and Norwegians frequented the billiards snooker and cards rooms.

A glimpse of the hall through the throw open doors of Trinity Church mid demolition, c. 1965.

After the war, times were tough in England and the Institution slipped into decline both in use and financially. Fortunately, as things turned out, Lord Sandwich (of Hinchingbrooke) was Chairman of the County Education Committee and set up the Huntingdon Commemoration Fund to provide an education and relaxation facility for ex-servicemen, which raised £3000 in its first year. Plans came and went. Sites were proposed and fund raising continued to meet spiralling projected costs. After a site had been bought and then sold, the Institutions remaining trustees resigned and handed the whole organisation over to the “custodian trusteeship” of the Town Council. It was they who took the decision and arranged for the rear extension of the present site to add a maple floored dance hall and stage area- the lay out we have today. It was named the Huntingdon Commemoration hall and opened as a public facility and Memorial to the dead of previous wars, on 6th January 1960 by General Sir Roy Bucher.

The hall then settled into a pattern of usage which was to last for almost a half century, but sadly never a pattern which generated sufficient income to allow the Hall to flourish and re-invest. Huntingdon Drama Club took up residence in the building in 1960 and stayed for 50 years. Performing up to 3 plays each year. Panto ‘89 was formed to bring annual pantomimes to the Hall, which it did for the best part of two decades and in 1997 Huntingdon Youth Theatre began its residency, which continues to this day and has seen over 400 young actors and actresses grace the Commemoration Hall stage.

Commemoration Hall on the far left of shot on Huntingdon’s high street, in the 1970s.

Regular weekend dances and celebrations have been a feature of the Hall’s use and local community groups like Huntingdon Town Twinning Association and the Tai Chi Society have been stalwarts of the venue. The U3A met at the Hall and the Town council made use of its space for Mayor Making, Mayor’s Charity Galas and other civic functions.

Sadly, by the end of the 20th Century, the Town Council was under increasing financial pressure and began to withdraw its support from the Hall. New Trustees took over the running of the building but eventually their dwindling resources forced the reluctant closure of the Hall to the public in order to avoid bankruptcy. Two years later, in 2019, a new board of trustees took over the running of the Hall and its current renovation and rebranding continues apace (Covid 19 notwithstanding) and it is fair to say that Huntingdon Commemoration Hall remains, as they say in cricket, 178 not out.

Visit the Commemoration hall website to find out more:

Dominic Whitehead is Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Commemoration hall. He has been involved with the hall since 1989 when he joined Hunts Drama Club, then in 1990 joined Panto ’89. He is Chairman of Huntingdon Youth Theatre, which he and his wife Beryl-Anne set up in 1997 and they are both still active in running HYT at the Commemoration Hall.

“Delay, harass and inflict the greatest loss” The Role of the Men and Women of the Huntingdonshire Home Guard 1940-1944

On the 14th May 1940, Anthony Eden issued a call for volunteers not yet engaged on military service. These British subjects, aged between 17 and 65, should: “come forward now and offer their services… to become part of the force now being raised called the Local Defence Volunteers”.

During the next four years, over 1.7 million would take up the call to arms across Britain; in Huntingdonshire alone the Home Guard stood at 3,266 by the end of 1940. This is the story of those brave men and women who “would have fought nobly and to the death if Hitler’s men had invaded”.

Local Defence Volunteers mustering with their government issue armband. Picture courtesy of IWM.

Local Defence Volunteers – Inauspicious beginnings
The formation of a Local Defence Volunteer (LDV) force started immediately following Anthony Eden’s address. Huntingdonshire County Council issued a call for volunteers to sign up at police stations, and within six weeks 2,800 men had signed up. It was still unclear just what these volunteers would be doing. The government saw them as a passive defence force; maintaining roadblocks, using anti-aircraft weapons and guarding installations. This was at odds with the volunteers who begun to take a more active role; patrolling areas on foot, horse and boat to watch for paratroopers and even creating armoured vehicles by welding steel plates to civilian vehicles!

At this time there was no chain of command, no uniform (beyond an arm band with LDV on it) and no official issue of weapons. Privately owned firearms were brought along by members, but were far and far between; in the early days of the St. Neots LDVs there was only one shotgun and only their commander (an ex-sergeant from the first world war) had any military experience. This led to a large number of improvised weapons, ranging from kitchen knives to homemade explosives!

By September 1940, volunteers had a full uniform (battle dress, boots and greatcoats) but still no steel helmets – something which caused a great deal of grumbling for Home Guard members. They were also beginning to be armed with rifles and machine guns, whilst grenades were being issued sparingly. To make up the deficit, lists of local gun-owners were drawn up and shotguns and rifles borrowed at convenient times for shooting drills. Despite this sudden proliferation of firearms, Home Guard members were not entrusted with ammunition until they were deemed safe and proficient with their firearm first.

St. Neots Home Guard later in the war outside the Old Falcon on the Market Place. Courtesy of St. Neots Museum.

Home Guard – “the spirit of resistance
By the end of the year, official rank structures were introduced, and the ad-hoc village and town forces across Huntingdonshire were drawn up into platoons and companies divided between three battalions. The military role of the newly named ‘Home Guard’ was also settled upon; they were to be the first-line of defence in case of invasion, tasked to deal maximum casualties and cause maximum delay for invading forces.

Whilst the majority of members were male, there were some female members of the Home Guard. The female soldiery were prohibited from combatant or front-line duty, but they played an important role in administration, communications, logistics and medical support.

There were a number of female privates in the Intelligence Section of the Huntingdonshire Home Guard which was based in St. Ives under Col. Wilson. They alone were trained in radio usage, and also took part in company drills and practices. All had their roles in the event of an invasion. Unlike their male colleagues they had no uniform issued beyond a small bakelite brooch (easily discardable to safeguard them in the event of an invasion).

Bren Gun Carriers of the kind made available to the Home Guard in limited numbers. The pictured vehicles are on deployment with Regular Forces in Malaysia. Courtesy of IWM.

The Home Guard, whilst never fully (or even adequately) armed, were nonetheless surprisingly well trained. As well as theoretical lectures on how to detect and prevent espionage by enemy agents, street fighting techniques and how best to make “mollitoff bottles” (Molotov Cocktails) there was extensive in field training sessions held day and night in all weathers, at platoon and company levels. There was also live-ammunition training with machine guns, shotguns and grenades, and training on use of vehicles – one Home Guard driver crashed his Bren-carrier through the parapet of the St. Ives town bridge in 1941 during manoeuvres!

Weapons training was also apt to prove dangerous at times. Many members had little if any experience handling firearms; one trainee managed to hospitalise himself by dropping his sten gun and shooting himself in the foot, whilst another (not realising his machine gun was on automatic fire mode) lost control of the weapon in the St. Neots Drill hall, emptying the entire magazine through the ceiling.

As important as training individuals was planning for the worst-case scenario. Every settlement had an “Invasion Committee” which drew up plans for emergency water and food supplies, first aid posts and where trenches needed to be dug, in case the Germans landed. Villages were not expected to put up resistance to an invading force but the towns were another matter.

… and Planning
Each town had defence plans based around holding a “keep” for as long as possible; in St. Ives, Huntingdon and St. Neots these “keeps” were focussed around the bridges crossing the Ouse. Rivers were natural “stop lines” which could slow an invasion if every bridge and ford was denied to the enemy.

For example, in Huntingdon, one hundred men of No. 4 Platoon (Godmanchester) were to defend the town bridge with guns on Castle Hill, the hosiery mill and Godmanchester train station. More forces (No.1 Platoon) were defending Huntingdon train station and a smaller force was garrisoned on the Iron Bridge on Ermine Street. The Home Guard were to defend their positions to the last man, the standing order being that “under no circumstances will the garrison withdraw”. When the situation was deemed hopeless bridges over rivers were to be blown up with preset explosives.

The defenders were not just Home Guard personnel – every household in Huntingdon was issued a booklet in 1942 advising that;

When the time comes, civil defence workers and others … must fight in close defence of the town; in streets and houses with bomb, bayonet, tommy gun, molotov cocktail etc.

Home Guard during exercises. Courtesy of IWM.

Should an invasion have happened, the survival chances for the poorly armed Home Guard would have been non-existent, especially as there was no expectation of regular military forces joining the defences. It is highly unlikely that the quasi-military Home Guard would have been respected as combatants by invading Germans; these government approved orders and defences would have simply led to massacres at every population centre, the invasion being slowed by scant hours.

The “Battle” of Ingram Street
The soldiers of the Home Guard were realistic about their life-expectancy when the invasion came; they knew just how long they could “hold out”. This is because the defensive plans for population strategies were tested in invasion exercises through the early years of the war. Elaborate invasions were planned and attacks then made on Home Guard defences.

On 27th September 1942, an invasion exercise in Huntingdon assumed the Germans had landed in Norfolk six days prior and were advancing westward. These exercises were as realistic as was possible with blank firing, smoke bombs and thunder flashes to simulate artillery and grenades, and sometimes RAF planes would “buzz” defences by flying low over head to simulate German dive-bombers. Observers with white armbands would note down how the exercises went and write up reports afterwards. It was often other Home Guard companies that acted as German forces – occasionally even being dressed in captured German battledress! The exercises could go on some time and were incredibly in-depth. The “Battle of Ingram Street” was covered in the local news;

frequent explosions and flashes, belching clouds of smoke, fire engines and ambulances racing through the streets … the scene at Huntingdon was as realistic as it could possibly be

Ramsey Mereside Home Guard, the platoon who failed notify locals prior to conducting invasion exerises!

An eye witness to another exercise noted “a whole troop of soldiers in Cambridge Street in Godmanchester … attacking and defending a pink coloured large ruined house”, whilst in Ramsey Mereside, an exercise caused panic amongst residents who were not notified beforehand.

“What did you do in the war?”
The Home Guard had duties to attend to. As well as preparing for the expected invasion, they helped with guarding some of the RAF, and later in the war USAF, bases in the area – freeing up regular troops for other duties. In a country with no sign-posts left up they would act as local guides for passing troops, as well as manning checkpoints on key roads and delivering messages on foot, by bike, motorbike or pigeon!

The Home Guard Platoon who operated the anti-aircraft gun at Little Barford Power Station. Courtesy of St. Neots Museum.

Some units acted as anti-aircraft spotters and gunners; Home Guard snipers fired at German bombers attacking an army camp in St. Neots in 1941 and routinely manned an anti-aircraft gun (made of four machine guns bolted together!) on top of Barford power station. As a uniformed and organised force they would often support ARW (Air Raid Wardens) and the firemen of the National Fire Service in fighting fires, and acting as first responders for bombing raids and the not-infrequent plane crashes that occurred.

Slightly more high tech anti-aircraft guns being operated by members of the Home Guard. Courtesy of IWM.

In some cases they assisted with tracking down escaped POW’s; Private Shelton (of D Company, Third Battalion) notably shooting and killing Antonio Ameo, an Italian prisoner who had killed a guard, stolen his rifle and holed up in a farm at Pertenhall in 1943. Home Guard members also arrested hostile airmen who had bailed out over Huntingdonshire, such as in 1941 when four airmen were captured just over the Bedfordshire border. They were trained to watch out for German agents and paratroopers, and arrest or kill them if encountered. Most famously, the Ramsey Home Guard arrested a certain Josef Jakobs.

Josef Jakobs – Dentist turned Spy
Josef Jakobs was a German dentist-turned-counterfeiter who had been interred in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in 1940 for his criminal activities. He was released into the custody of the German Military Intelligence Service, who trained him as a spy.

Josef Jakobs, dentist-turned-counterfeiter-turned-spy.

Josef was dropped into Britain by parachute on 31st January 1941. He was carrying British papers, £497 in ready cash, a radio, German sausage and a flask of brandy. A mishap in the parachute drop (either when leaving the aircraft or on landing) badly fractured his ankle, and as a result when he landed outside Ramsey he was unable to get far.

He was swiftly arrested the next morning by Corporal H. Godfrey of the Ramsey Home Guard after two local farm workers reported their suspicions of this unknown man. When searched, his clothing was found to have German labels and his papers were found to be fake. He was taken into formal custody by the police and escorted to London handcuffed to Inspector Horace Jenkins of the Ramsey Police.

After several months in hospital he was interrogated by MI5 who deemed him unsuitable for use as a double agent, instead he was formally charged with espionage under the Treachery Act (1940). He was condemned following evidence given by the Ramsey Home Guard officers and NCO’s involved in his arrest and sentenced to death.

Ramsey Home Guard Platoon, Corporal Harry Godfrey can be seen back row fourth from right.

He was executed by firing squad at the Tower of London and buried in an unmarked grave in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in London. Not only was Josef the first German spy to be executed in the war, he was also the last person to be executed in the Tower of London.

Certificate issued to all who served with the Home Guard during the war.

By 1944, the tide of war had turned quite definitely against Germany and her allies, and as road blocks and barbed wire were being removed from Huntingdonshire the Home Guard was being wound down. As early as the Normandy landings in June, members of the Huntingdonshire Home Guard were being transferred to coastal Home Guard units to free up more regular troops.

The Home Guard were stood down from active service nationwide on 3rd December 1944. Final parades were held, platoon and company photographs taken and weapons returned to the authorities, however personnel kept their uniforms in case they were needed again before the war ended. The final parade for the Huntingdonshire Home Guard was on December 7th, when seven hundred men mustered on Mill Common, marched through the town and were addressed by Col. Wilson;

you have helped to stave off the invasion: you have helped to turn defeat into the coming victory: you have done your duty honourably and well”.

The Home Guard was officially disbanded on December 31st 1945. Of the over three thousand men and women who had joined up during the course of the war, three were killed in the performance of their duties;

This blogpost is dedicated to their memory:

Private Leslie Borson, 2nd Hunts Battalion
Private Eric Moore, 2nd Hunts Battalion
Private George John Austin Taylor, 1st Hunts Battalion

N.B. I could only find reference to these three casualties from the Huntingdonshire Home Guard, if I have missed any others please do get in touch and I will amend this dedication.

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.

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