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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Hudson, N. “St. Ives: Slepe by the Ouse”, Black Bear Press, Cambridge, 1989, 1st Edition

Jakobs, G. K. “Josef Jakobs – 1898-1941: The story behind the last person executed in the Tower of London.”, 2014, Accessed: August 1st 2020, Accessed Via:

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

‘Sawtry-by the way-that poor Abbey’- The White Monks of Sawtry Monastery

The shortest lived monastery in medieval Huntingdonshire is also one of the most unique. The small order of Cistercians at Sawtry Judith were in place for a mere 400 years but the hard-working, manual labouring monks and their lay-brethren had a long lasting effect on both the landscape and farming methods of Huntingdonshire, and the growth of Sawtry as a town.

Who were the Cistercians?
The Cistercian Order were a splinter of the more widespread Benedictine order which was well established across Europe. The Cistercians desired a more strict lifestyle, electing to build monastic houses in rural, solitary locations and enshrining the need for brothers to conduct hard manual labour on a daily basis. This manual labour often saw large scale land improvement works around Cisterican houses including waterways being dug, swamps being drained, woodland felled and fields enclosed to keep sheep.

Image of Cistercian Monks at work and prayer from a 12th century manuscript

The ascetic lifestyle of the monks meant that their monasteries tended to be smaller, less ornate and less financially endowed than other monasteries. The monks eschewed feudal income and financial donations, supporting themselves with the fruits of their own labour by farming, rearing sheep, and maintaining vegetable gardens, fish ponds and cattle herds. They span their sheeps’ wool for their undyed habits which gave them their colloquial name of “white monks”.

These “white monks” tended to have large communities of brethren (monks who had joined as novices and known no life outside the church) and lay-brethren (who had retired from secular life to join a monastery as an adult). Due to the independent and self-sufficient nature of their lifestyle, the monks would have had lay-brethren who acted as shepherds, ploughmen, dairymen, carpenters and masons.

Why Sawtry?
The monastery was officially founded in 1147 by Simon de Senliz, Earl of Northampton and a grandson of William the Conqueror’s niece – Judith, Countess of Huntingdon. The initial founders came from Wardon Abbey in Bedfordshire to establish an independent monastery on the border between the marshy fens and the thickly wooded land of North-Western Huntingdonshire. A solitary location on the edge of Sawtry Parish and far from other population centres, there was just one slight problem…

Location Sawtry Monastery, a public footpath runs across the monastic site

The site on which these ascetic monks wished to found their new monastery was in fact the home of an existing village. This small settlement of Sawtry St. Judith was emptied out, its inhabitants sent to join the villagers of Sawtry. The population must have swelled Sawtry’s size to some extent as the value of the village’s tithes and rectory land to support their church had amounted to a respectable £8 a year. The village was demolished in its entirety and only the church was left standing – it would become part of the monasteries gatehouse, where it would stand until the mid sixteenth century.

Monastic Rivalries and Royal Guests
The monastery seems to have had a troubled beginning; with shared borders with the Benedictine houses of Ramsey and Thorney there was immediate disputes over land and fishery rights. This worsened in 1179 when the monks finished digging a waterway from the monastery to Whittlesea Mere, giving them riverine access to that great body of water and onwards to the sea.

The waterway dug to provide river access for the monastery is still in place, view across to the site of what was the monastic gardens.

These disputes escalated to the point where the rights of the monks had to be confirmed repeatedly by David, Earl of Huntingdon, King David I of Scotland, King Malcolm IV of Scotland, King William I of Scotland and several papal bulls!

The monastery, despite these troubled beginnings and only a modest income, grew significantly. In 1278, the site stretched over 15 acres of land and included farm buildings, stables, two granges (outlying farms), six acres of garden and four fishponds. At the heart of this was the 60m monastic church forming part of an enclosed cloistered courtyard, the other sides made up by a chapter house, dormitory, kitchen and refectory. Separate from the courtyard would have been the Abbot’s house, infirmary, Abbot’s kitchen, stables, barns and a lavish guesthouse.

Plan of the monastery complex the “ancient road” is still present as a footpath across the site.

The substantial guesthouse would have been comfortable and ornate – the archaeological record shows a building 50m long and 16m wide. The key location of the monastery, just off the Great North Road, meant that travellers of all stripes, from pilgrims and peddlers to the nobility and even monarchs, would have taken the monastery’s hospitality. Several royal documents were dated from the monastery between 1235 and 1334. Edward II is recorded as having stayed in 1315, and Catherine of Aragon’s body stayed the night at the abbey as her funeral cortege travelled from Kimbolton castle to Peterborough Cathedral, where she was interred.

Cistercian monk in his undyed
woolen robes

That poor Abbey
The monastery was well regarded in the locality. As well as offering plentiful employment to the people of Sawtry, who worked on the monastery’s granges, the monastery would have offered medical care to the sick and alms to the poor. These alms would have been in the form of bread, fish, money and other produce from the monastery’s holdings. The Cistercians did not have an Almoner like Benedictine houses and instead the Porter would have been responsible for organising the dispensation of alms, as well as greeting visitors and acting as a gate-keeper. The monastery at Sawtry was known as a generous alms-giver, a local rhyme highlights their generosity;

Ramsey the Rich of Gold and Fee;  
Thorney, the Grower of many a fair tree;
Croyland the Courteous of their meat and drink; 
Spalding, the Gluttons, as men do think; 
Peterborough, the Proud;  as all men do say
Sawtry-by the way-that poor Abbey,
Gave more alms in one day than all they

Like many smaller religious houses, the monastery struggled to keep their finances in order. By the 13th century the land holdings which had been bequeathed to the monastery were barely profitable due to lawsuits and taxation. In the late 13th century the Abbot of Sawtry monastery had been made Proctor (responsible for) Bon Repos Abbey in France, however the ongoing wars with France saw the abbey at Bon Repos seized by the crown. In 1345, the monastery had to pay £40 (over £50,000 in modern money) to the crown and 33 years later, the abbey at Bon Repos was taken from them. Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, the monastery was indebted, but beyond this very little is known of the inner history of the house. It is likely that the numbers of brethren and lay-brothers decreased slowly and land holdings were slowly eaten up by burgeoning debt.

Artists impression of Sawtry Monastery in its heyday

Despite the ascetic and isolationist stance of the Cistercian order it seems that the Abbot was increasingly involved in secular affairs to try and maintain the monastery. Many Cistercian houses became significant wool dealers during the period to make ends meet and it is plausible that the monastery at Sawtry was no exception. Certainly other fenland monasteries at this time were following the example of the Sawtry monks, draining areas of fen as summer grazing for sheep. Similarly, in the clay uplands of north-western Huntingdonshire, enclosure was increasingly becoming the norm, with Coppingford and Little Gidding almost entirely depopulated as landowners began to enclose their land to keep sheep.

A letter in 1534 from the final Abbot William Angell to Thomas Cromwell (with a small gift begging to know the reason for his displeasure) shows an awareness of how the politico-religious tides were running. As a small and terminally declining house there was no chance of a continued existence for the monastery. The first commissioner’s visit to investigate the house saw half of the brethren given permission to leave the monastery, and by the dissolution of the monastery 1536, only 12 brothers and 22 lay-brothers remained within the monastery. The survey of possessions at the dissolution included feather beds, tapestries and “nets for knats” in the guest chambers and Abbot’s house.

The site after a hot dry summer! The earthworks are clearly visible as are the stews or fishponds

The site was almost immediately levelled, and the land was brought up by Sir Richard Williams (alias Cromwell), nephew of Thomas Cromwell and great-grandfather of Oliver Cromwell. The site itself was turned into farmland but the stones were being robbed for other building works as late as the 19th century, when the first archaeological excavations were conducted.

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.

Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdon: Eight Centuries of History”, Breedon Books Publishing, 2004, 1st Edition

Editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, “Cistercian Religious Order”, 2020, Accessed: 28th June, Via:

Historic England, “Sawtry Abbey: A Cistercian abbey on the southern edge of Sawtry Fen”, 2020, Accessed: 28th June, Via:

Page, W, Proby, G & Ladds, I. “Religious Houses: House of Cistercian Monks – The Abbey of Sawtry” in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 1, Victoria County History, London, 1926

Page, W, Proby, G & Ladds, I. “History of Sawtry” in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 3, Victoria County History, London, 1936

Rushton, N. “Monastic charitable provision in Tudor England: quantifying and qualifying poor relief in the early Sixteenth century”, Continuity and Change 16 (1), 2001,9-44. Printed in the United Kingdom, 2001, Cambridge University Press

Steve B., “Old Sawtry”, 2020, Accessed: 28th June, Via:

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

“Centuries of hard work, ingenuity and ceaseless vigilance” – Huntingdonshire’s Vanishing Fens

Derelict Mill at Brograve Fen, although this is actually Norfolk this is a scene which would have been familiar throughout Huntingdonshire.

The lands of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire that we know today have changed beyond all recognition from the dark age landscape, which was “a fen of huge bigness … oft times clouded with moist and dark vapours”. These fen lands stretched from Ramsey to Peterborough, Ramsey to Ely and from the bank of the Great Ouse in Huntingdon as far east as the eye could see. These “vast stretches of reed and sedge covered swamp”, whilst dangerous and inhospitable to outsiders, maintained small close-knit religious communities, villages and individual families. These people lived precariously, each on their own patch of higher land – standing as an island amongst the treacherous waters.

Approximate Size and Scale of the Fens in Huntingdonshire.

Life on the fens prior to drainage had fundamentally not changed in centuries; cattle were kept and grazed on higher land in summer, meadows were harvested for winter hay, willow was farmed to make fish and eel traps and peat was dug for winter fires. With roads all but non-existent between settlements, travel was by boat, stilts or (in winter) skates. The damp conditions caused no end of ill health, not only colds and flus but also “marsh ague”, now known as malaria. The accepted cure was poppyhead tea, a crude kind of opium. Fen dwellers survived to a large extent on the bounty of fish, fowl and, above all, eels, that could be plucked from their surroundings. In a society where the eating of meat was banned by the Catholic church for approximately 130 days of the year, fish was a crucial food source, and exporting fen fish and eels to surrounding counties would have been a major economic boon for the fens.

Even in the 20th century the fens could flood with disastrous consequences for communities and farmers as in 1912 (above) and 1947 (below). Both Courtesy of CCAN.

The fens’ borders were not a settled shoreline by any means; heavy rainfall or freak tides could affect river levels to the extent that banks burst and the fens crept outward. It was common for land along rivers to be inundated with “black pools as much as two or three miles in breadth” and quagmires to appear which were “two bow shots across”. Despite localised efforts by monastic houses to reclaim land and improve drainage, these efforts were small scale, labour intensive and required constant maintenance. This maintenance was the responsibility of the landowner – many contracts required tenants to either physically keep them clear or pay for the upkeep – but this seems to have been widely neglected unless enforced by the ecclesiastical courts who held sway over the fens.

This unpleasant semi-submerged wilderness attracted godly men who wished to set up communities far from comfort and temptation. In the seventh century, Guthlac, son of a Mercian nobleman-turned-monk, came to the area (with “Christ being his guide through the intricacies of this darksome fen”), and founded Crowland Abbey, becoming the first abbot. Four centuries later, the fens had been all but claimed for God. By 1150, Hugo Candidus, a monk at Peterborough Abbey, itself on the edge of the fens, wrote that:

the water, standing on unlevel ground, makes a deep marsh and so renders the land uninhabitable, save on some raised spots of ground, which I think that God set up for the special purpose that they should be the habitations of His servants”.

These religious houses became the owners of vast tracts of fens, with the majority belonging to Peterborough, Ely, Ramsey, Thorney or Crowland. Much of the rent due to these religious communities was paid in either days labouring on monastery lands, often to keep ditches and rivers clear and usable, or else in eels! Eels were the great unofficial currency of the fens; debts were paid in eels, and rents and tithes were paid in “sticks of eels” (a stick being 25 eels). In the eleventh century, Ramsey Abbey paid 4,000 eels a year to Peterborough Abbey for access to Barnack for building stone.

Conjectured layout of Ramsey Abbey, whilst the enclosures and ditches would have been useful to keep animals in and intruders out, they would have doubled up as flood defenses comes winter when the waters rose. Additionally note the “lodes” or waterways which cut through the town.

Unfortunately, the dominion of the church over the fens meant the dissolution of the monasteries would hit the region especially hard. The maintenance done by feudal tenants, without the abbots’ courts to enforce it, all but ceased. As a result of the new absentee landlords’ indifference, many of the rivers and basic drainage systems were neglected, and the waters started to rise.

In winter 1607, a series of floods following torrential rain broke through embankments, drowned farms and villages and killed hundreds in the fens and bordering counties. James I, shocked by the loss of life and revenue, set up a Commission to investigate what could be done to prevent the adjoining counties being “abandoned to the will of the waters”. The commission discovered that 317,242 acres of land outside the existing fens required draining. An ‘Act for Fen Drainage’ was passed by Parliament and the work began. “Gentlemen Adventurers” were found to fund the work, engineers brought from London and two new dykes dug (Popham’s Eau and the Londoner’s Lode) but very little land reclaimed, and lacking funds, the undertaking fizzled out.

The question of why the fens needed to be drained had little to do with the well-being of the people affected; the huge cost would have to be defrayed by huge gains. With the dissolution of the monasteries, new landlords had purchased the monastic holdings. Generally the new owners could find no use for this sodden swamp which came along with the good arable land or rent-paying towns and villages which had formed the monasteries’ domains – but there was gold in those swamps if you had the wherewithal to get it.

Sir Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1677) by Michiel Jansz van Miereveld, the architect of the fens we know and love today.

The monarchy had already worked closely with several Dutch engineers to drain areas of fen and swamp in Essex, Yorkshire and Kent. In 1630, Charles I, perennially short of money, agreed a contract with Cornelius Vermuyden, a drainage engineer with extensive experience from his work on dykes and drainage in Holland. The king, however, had not reckoned on the backlash from the inhabitants, as the fen dwellers, seeing their loss of livelihood and angry at the interference of “foreigners“, were up in arms. So great was the anger that fearing armed revolt and sabotage of the works, the contract was shelved.

Enter John Russell, Fourth Duke of Bedford. As a man with large tracts of fenland, 17,500 acres previously owned by Thorney Abbey amongst his holdings, he had a vested interest in getting the fens drained, and as a well loved landlord he had the respect of the locals. The Duke laid out an arrangement were he enlisted thirteen other “Gentlemen Adventurers” to fund the work and share the dividend, with some of the drained land also going to the crown. The plan was to turn 95,000 acres of fenland across Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire into reliable summer grazing – they had no intention of stopping the winter floods. In 1637, the land was declared to be officially drained and the dividends awarded to the backers. The next year, the fens flooded again.

The backlash was immense; as well as locals bitterness at the loss of the promised benefits and income, the crown was also losing out on precious income. Charles enforced an annual Royal Tax on the now useless land of £142,500 (over £29 million today). This, on top of the £131,170 expended to drain the fens in the first place, saw the Gentleman Adventurers bankrupted. Charles I, overriding the destitute Duke of Bedford, stepped in as “Undertaker of the Fens” and then promptly had other priorities as the slow-simmering pot of civil unrest came to a boil.

Ten years later, in 1649, the new Earl of Bedford was given permission to drain the fens once more. The intervening years of civil war had not made this any easier; dykes and embankments had been neglected and were now silted up or had burst their banks. Additionally, the fen dwellers, keen to keep their way of life, had deliberately sabotaged such existing works as were in place, cutting through river banks and destroying sluices.

Ouse Washes at Earith in flood showing the “washland” between two waterways for permitted flooding. Photographed by Bill Blake

Cornelius Vermuyden was reengaged to complete the work, and he drew up a complex plan of manmade rivers, sluices and drains for the fen water to be drained into and hence flushed out to sea. He also included areas between two drains which were designed as deliberate flood plains. This “washland” was enclosed by the higher banks of the rivers and thus contained. His planned waterways are still the backbone of the modern fen waterway system.

The work began immediately with drains being dug out of the sodden fens by workers shipped in from elsewhere in the country and even from the Netherlands, as no local workforce would willingly assist with the works. The work was hindered by the locals who, just as feared, attempted to sabotage completed areas, beat up workmen and attacked their camps. Their resistance was ultimately in vain, and by 1652, the work was fundamentally complete.

These drains can still be seen criss-crossing Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire today, you can recognise them by their arrow straight routes and unimaginative names; Sixteen Foot Drain, Twenty Foot Drain and Forty Foot Drain (the number relates to the width of the waterway). The work was deemed a success; the fens as they had been were unrecognisable. The scheme had produced “some of the richest farming land in the world”, and landowners were quick to exploit it, promptly commencing with grazing and arable farming.

East Anglian fens covered with wind-pumps

The fenland drainage would, however, have serious consequences. As peat soil dries out it begins to shrink, at its most extreme this can amount to losing nearly six inches of depth a year. The obvious solution when this happened was to lower the water level still lower in order to have more workable soil, only for this to shrink away too. In short, “the better the drainage the quicker the wastage”. The process was sped up by the blowing away of the fine dry soil by the harsh winds that scour East Anglia.

Steam pump and windmill at Uggmere in the early 20th century

A ‘race to the bottom’ commenced, with mechanical drainage needed to keep lowering the water levels. The first wind-powered drainage mill was set up in 1685, and by the 1730’s there were over 700 over them across the reclaimed land. In Huntingdonshire, there were nine in Woodwalton parish alone. In 1748, Thomas Neale reported “riding very lately from Ramsey to Holme, about six miles across the Fens, [I] counted forty [wind pumps] in my view”. These wind pumps, though effective enough, were not a perfect solution – occasionally freezing in winter, being damaged by high wind and gales, and of course not working at all when there was no wind. Malfunctions and unfortunate weather had caused agricultural losses and even catastrophic localised floods throughout the period (as at Manea in the mid eighteenth century).

The first steam pumps in England were being trialled in the 1820’s and – able to run day and night in any weather and far more efficient – within forty years they had rendered hundreds of wind pumps obsolete. One steam pump exhibited at the Great Exhibition could lift 101 tons of water a height of three foot every minute. It was these new pumps which were the final nail in the coffin for the last great stretch of Huntingdonshire fens based around Whittlesey Mere, finally drained completely in 1852.

The Holme Fen Posts, at the time
it was installed the top
of the right hand post was at ground level!

Despite the success of the steam pumps, nothing had been done about the loss of soil, a problem which continues to effect the fens today. The most famous example of the shrinking fens is at Holme in Huntingdonshire. In 1848, a timber post was driven through 22 foot (6.7m) of peat soil into the underlying clay at Holme. In 1851, the post was replaced with an iron girder from the Crystal Palace in London (home to The Great Exhibition). In 1957 steel guys were added to the original post as it became increasingly unstable, at the same time a second post. Since 1852, the ground level has sunk over 13 feet (4m). Holme is in fact the lowest point in England at 9 feet (2.75m) below sea level.

So what is the solution for the vanishing Fens, the “breadbasket of England”, as current farming activities prove unsustainable and increasing numbers of houses are built in flood risk areas?

Artists Impression of the complete “Great Fen” by Richard Allen, 2011

The Great Fen project was launched in 2001, aiming to link two of the only surviving scraps of original fen at Woodwalton and Holme by restoring 14 square miles of reclaimed farmland back into fenland. This “Great Fen” will be fifty years in the making, and when completed it will offer protection from flooding for adjoining areas as well as capturing 325,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.

You can find out all about the Great Fen Project including where to visit and how to support their work on their website:

If you enjoyed this you may also enjoy our Arboreal History of Huntingdonshire which you can find at the link below:

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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Patterson, S. “Interpreting the Fens: People, Places and Dialects”, Published by: Cambridgeshire Community Council, 1980.

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