“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.

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

Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdonshire in the Second World War”, The History Press, 2012, 1st Edition (reprint)

Beales, B and Gray D. “Westwood Works in World War 2”, 2003, Accessed: 1st August 2020, Accessed Via:

cambslibs, “Girls in the Home Guard” ,WW2 People’s History, 2005, Accessed: August 1st 2020, Accessed Via:

Ellis, P & Shepherd D (editors). “A Millennium History of Great Gidding”, T2 Studios Ltd, 2001, 1st Edition

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:

National Army Museum, “Britain Alone”, Accessed: 1st August 2020, Accessed Via:

National Army Museum, “Civilian Soldiers”, Accessed: 1st August 2020, Accessed Via:

Smith, M. “Uniform, Insignia and Equipment”, 2017, Accessed: August 1st 2020, Accessed via:

Styran, R “Sir Anthony Eden announces the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers (Home Guard) – 14 May 1940”, Accessed: 1st August 2020, Accessed Via:

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.

Great Fen, “A Brief History Of Great Fen”, 2020 Via:, Accessed: 25th May 2020

Great Fen, “Holme Fen Posts”, 2020 Via:, Accessed: 25th May 2020

Hoffman, C. “A brief history of aquatic resource use in medieval Europe”, 2004, Via:, Accessed: 28th May 2020

Page, W, Proby, G & Ladds, I. “The Middle Level of the Fens and its reclamation” in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 3, Victoria County History, London, 1936

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

Tibbs, R “Fenland River: The Story of the Great Ouse and its Tributaries”, Terence Dalton Ltd. , Lavenham, 1969, 1st Edition.

Wentworth-Day, J. “History of the Fens”, S.R. Publishing Ltd, Wakefield, 1970, 2nd Edition

Young, R. “Field Names and Local History”, Records of Huntingdonshire, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1993, Pgs. 15-21

“The greatest thoroughfare of commerce in the world” Huntingdonshire and English Tangiers: 1662-1684

Prospect of Tangiers from the East by Wenceslaus Holler c.1670

The colony of Tangiers – the only British colony on the North African or ‘barbary’ coast, from which Britain hoped to rule the mediterranean – may have been an ultimately doomed venture, but it has a fascinating Huntingdonshire link. This link is apparent at both the beginning, when the city was informally defended by Lord Sandwich, and officially passed to the Earl of Peterborough and at the end when Samuel Pepys documented the evacuation and destruction.

Read on to discover the sordid, violent and brief history of Tangiers, a town “of infinite benefit and security to the trade of England”.

The origins of European Tangiers

1655 Map of Portugese Tangiers by Leonardo da Ferrara

The story starts in 1471, when Portugal gained control of Tangiers after several attempts to capture the city. Their conquest was two-fold; their first motive was to give them a foothold on the North African coast in a commanding position on the the very mouth of the Mediterranean. Additionally, this removed a possible port that Islamic pirates, known as corsairs, could operate from, thus protecting merchant shipping. The Portuguese built up “a fortified enclave, looked seaward, and turned their backs to the Moroccan hinterland”, a decision which was to have serious repercussions. This outpost swiftly became subject to attack after attack by Moroccan forces, with the harbour offering the often beleaguered settlement its only lifeline.

Two centuries later, in 1661, the Portuguese were desperate for allies in their war against the Spanish. Looking for support, they decided on the recently restored Charles II of England, who was in want of a wife. Catherine of Braganza, Charles’ new wife, came with a very generous dowry, including £300,000 in gold (over £56 million today), free trade with Portuguese colonies in Brazil, and the Portuguese trading centre at Bombay. The most glittering of all his acquisitions was Tangiers, an outpost on “the greatest thoroughfare of commerce in the world”.

Meanwhile, the newly ennobled Earl of Sandwich, previously Edward Montagu of Hinchingbooke, was leaving England for the Barbary coast with a fleet of seventeen ships. Like every senior naval officer at this time, he had a following of men within the navy. Some of these would be officers being groomed as proteges, others seamen or sailors. With voyages possibly lasting years, these followers could include close family members, more distant relations, friends, and local tenants.

The Earl of Sandwich, aboard his Tangier’s flagship, had a Lieutenant Lambert, who would be a full captain within a few years. Also present in the fleet was Captain Titus, a friend of the Earl’s and a future commissioner of assessments for Huntingdonshire. Records are scant about specific seamen within the fleet, however it would be unlikely that none were Huntingdonshire natives. We do know that in 1665, press ganged men forcibly sent to bolster naval numbers were not satisfactory. In the Earl’s own words, they were “none of them seamen, so ragged that they were utterly refused, fearing they would taint the sound seamen.” Seven of these “poor lot”, came from Huntingdonshire.

Admiral Edward Montagu – First Earl of Sandwich by Peter Lely

The first objective for the Earl of Sandwich and his fleet was to negotiate with the Algerians to stop attacks on British shipping. This started well, but after talks broke down, Sandwich ended up bombarding Algiers and sailing away. His first mission attempted, he set off for his second objective; to keep an eye on Tangiers until the appointed governor arrived. Sandwich and his fleet moored at Tangiers in October 1661.

Four months later and with the governor, the Earl of Peterborough, still not arrived, the Portuguese mayor and 140 mounted Portuguese troops left the town on a raid. Less than 90 returned after a Moroccan ambush killed the mayor and pursued the surviving horsemen to the very gates of Tangiers. Sandwich offered to help bolster the defences and 400 sailors and marines were rushed to the walls to throw back attacking Moroccan troops.

As a result, when the Earl of Peterborough arrived in late January 1662, with 2,000 cavalrymen and 500 infantry, he found English troops “in the town and castles and [with] the command of all the strengths and magazines”. On January 30th, Peterborough formally took possession of the town from the Portuguese. He was presented with the keys to the gate, a pair of silver spurs and a rather difficult job…

Tangiers: The Rise

Views of Tangiers by Wenceslaus Holler, drawn in 1670. Note his guard of two musketeers in the foreground, an indicator of the danger when venturing outside the walls.

The first task facing the Earl of Peterborough was settling in the people he had brought with him. As well as the 2,500 men of the garrison and their families, there was another 100 quarrymen, engineers with their families, and around 600 merchants from all over Europe (there as a result of Charles declaring the town a “free port”). When the Portuguese had left, they had cleared the town completely — even to the extent of taking doors, windows and flooring. This necessitated a massive rebuilding program to make the town habitable; Portuguese street names were anglicised or renamed and a pavilion and bowling green built.

The newly restored town had shops, taverns and a hastily reconsecrated Catholic church, now dedicated to the king’s father, ‘Charles the Martyr’. All was overshadowed by the grand citadel which covered around one third of the space within the walls. This was extensively remodelled to provide storage space for supplies and homes for the governor and garrison officers. Most important of all were the town defences, strengthened and extended to include walls running all the way to the water’s edge, and thirteen outer forts with garrisons of between 10 and 150 men in each.

A musketeer and grenadier from the “Tangiers Regiment”. Over many amalgamations over the years the regiment is now part of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, which the 31st Huntingdonshire Foot ended up as another component of.

These defences were an absolute necessity. Tangiers was regularly attacked on its landward side by Moroccan raiding parties; “about 5,000 horse, able, dexterous, sober, valiant, incomparably well armed and clothed”. Skirmishes, raids and counter raids were a frequent occurrence, with the Moroccan forces of the interior determined to stop the English in Tangiers expanding beyond the limits originally set upon the Portuguese.

Early in his tenure, the Earl of Peterborough negotiated a peace with the Moroccan leader Al-Ghailan. This peace was promptly broken by Peterborough who led his forces out in a disastrous sortie which saw them roundly beaten with severe casualties. As a result, Peterborough was recalled to England, amongst allegations of incompetence and corruption. He unfortunately took with him the only plan of wells and fresh water springs in Tangiers, which he then lost.

It is possible that all this explains the slow start on the work of making the harbour practicable. This was indispensable for the survival of the town, the harbour being the only way for supplies to be brought in. The natural harbour was not sufficient for larger ships and a decision was made to improve it. The initial plans for a “great mole” were drawn up by Jonas Moore, who had been integral in the drainage of the fens in Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire in the 1650’s. His plans drawn up by 1663 were then put in place by Hugh Cholmley; a Yorkshire engineer who was married at Hamerton in Huntingdonshire in 1655. He was fresh from building the pier at Whitby so had some relevant experience to be taking on this herculean task.

As the fledgling harbour grew, it was frequented by naval vessels patrolling the North African coast to suppress corsair activities. The Mediterranean naval officers, known as ‘tangerines’, were some of the best and most experienced in the navy; many would go on to become the admirals of the early 18th century. These ‘tangerines’ often rented or brought houses in Tangiers, competing with each other to host the most extravagant social gatherings, meeting to play bowls, and attending parties held by a succession of governors.

Map of Tangiers, note the size of the citadel (Marked B in the lower portion of the town), the outlying defences and the growing Harbour

The governorship of the colony of Tangiers, although a desirable appointment, seems to have been a poisoned chalice. Across just 22 years the port had twelve appointed or acting governors. The disgraced Earl of Peterborough’s successor was the Earl of Teviot, an experienced military leader, killed in action after just a year. His deputy governor took over, but was dismissed for duelling with his officers. The appointed replacement, Baron Belasyse, never took up office – as a practising Catholic he would not take the Oath of Conformity required of him.

In 1674, the Earl of Middleton, having been appointed and successfully made it to Tangiers, fell down stairs in the dark, and died of the injury. His replacement, the Earl of Inchiquin, was recalled after the outer defences fell to the besiegers. Luckily for him, he managed to placate Charles II by bringing him a pair of ostriches as a gift. The next governor, the Earl of Ossory, died of a fever before he even left for Tangiers. His replacement, the Earl of Plymouth, managed to make it to Tangiers with substantial military reinforcements in July 1680, before he died of dysentery after just three months. Similarly unlucky were the lieutenant-governors, with incumbents dying of disease, in accidents and in action. This lack of consistent leadership did not help with the colony’s development and by the 1680’s it was, perhaps unsurprisingly, in decline.

Tangiers: The Fall

Moroccan soldiers by Delacroix, 1832, the ambush tactics of these men using sharpshooters and lightening cavalry raids proved very troublesome for the garrison. Although this painting is from a century and a half later in appearance and tactics such soldiers had changed very little.

The decline of Tangiers was caused by more than just high turnover of governors and local hostility. The fledgling colony required significant investment and support if it was to survive, let alone flourish, and this money came directly from the monarch’s personal income. By 1680, with an annual bill of £70,000, Charles II was unable to fund the colony and approached Parliament for funding.

They did not see the need to fund the survival of the colony – in the words of one member; “I should be glad either that we never had it, or if it was by an earthquake blown up”. Parliament tried to use funding for Tangiers as leverage to extract from the king what they wanted most; namely the exclusion of his Catholic brother and heir, James, from the succession. Charles refused. The ‘Exclusion Crisis’ would dominate the relationship between crown and parliament during the final years of Charles’ reign as the deadlock stretched on.

Despite this, Tangiers clung on, insufficiently funded, with increasing numbers of Moroccan troops outside the walls, and decreasing morale inside the walls. Finally, in 1683, Charles came to a decision, first writing to Lord Dartmouth, and then to Samuel Pepys.

In August 1683, Pepys was in Huntingdonshire, sorting out the affects and affairs of his late father and his late brother-in-law. Here, he received the personal order from King Charles II to attend Lord Dartmouth in Plymouth aboard HMS Grafton. When Pepys arrived, the ship left for an unknown destination.

As per Charles’ orders, only once the ship had sailed did Admiral Lord Dartmouth open his secret instructions from the king. Dartmouth discovered he had been appointed commander-in-chief of Tangiers, with a remit to “demolish and utterly destroy the said city and mole erected in the port”. Pepys was to go along as an advisor to Lord Dartmouth and to assess the claims for compensation of the residents being evacuated.

At this point, the city was under a tight landward blockade, despite an official truce having been declared. Escalating skirmishes with the raiding parties outside the walls had become an all out state of siege, punctuated with brief truces. By the time Dartmouth arrived in 1683, the English had lost control of most of the thirteen forts outside the walls, as well as the quarries where stone for work on the harbour was being excavated. This effectively halted work on the “great mole” which had already consumed 170,000 tonnes of stone and cost over £340,000.

Portrait of Percy Kirke, the tower with the flag in the background is possibly “Peterborough Tower”, part of the citadel at Tangiers of which he was acting-governor.

The acting-governor, Colonel Kirke, very cheerfully passed over the command of the city to Dartmouth; by all accounts, it was not a happy place. By Kirke’s own judgement, barely ten of his thirty three gunners “knew the gun from the carriage” and the garrison were often drunk (“more men died of Brandy than by the moors”). Things were little better outside their ranks; the merchant community were in debt and people feared the city falling to the Moroccan forces outside it. Morale was low and so were morals, Pepys noting that there was “nothing but vice in the whole place”.

It is therefore quite understandable that when Dartmouth announced the plan to evacuate to a thronged town hall, bells were rung, bonfires lit and a letter sent to the king from the residents expressing “all the joy that our hearts are capable of”. Now the evacuation plans had to be put into action; no easy feat with thousands of hostile troops outside the walls, thousands of people within, and a lot of demolition work to be done.

The evacuation began with an inventorying of all assets which would be lost. The final tally of some £11,300 was divided between 180 land owners including military personnel, civilians and the King of Portugal. Vessels then began to leave for England in early October and continued until the final days of the town in early 1684. Around 4,000 military personnel and 1,000 civilians had to be removed from Tangiers, with many of the soldiers, gunners and labourers needed to aid with the destruction of the city until the very end.

The first attempts to dismantle the mole via controlled explosions were made in late October, but proved unsatisfactory, and instead the gunners set mines across the towns in key buildings and defensive works. Meanwhile, 2,000 soldiers, sailors and labourers set to work dismantling the mole, throwing the stones into the harbour to render it unusable, pulling down buildings and removing anything of value, including the marble floor in the church, which was taken to Portsmouth.

At 9am on February 6th 1684, mines began to be detonated across Tangiers, blowing up forts, civic buildings, store houses and parts of the citadel – Lord Dartmouth blew the final mine himself. Whatever was not blown up was set on fire. With Moroccan forces storming the ruined town, the fleet with remaining populace was ready to make sail, however their return to England was delayed for several days whilst Dartmouth negotiated for the return of Lieutenant Wilson, a Moroccan prisoner for four years. The “dejected” lieutenant safely aboard, the fleet sailed, closing the door on the twenty two years of British Tangiers.

So here ends the first British foray into establishing a serious trading colony, a port for gunboat diplomacy and control over the commercial seaways of the world. This would prove to be a blueprint for future colonies, defining the British Empire of the ensuing centuries, and integrally linked to this venture is Huntingdonshire; both at the hopeful beginning and the inevitable end.

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.


Charnock, J. “Biographia navalis; or, Impartial memoirs of the lives and characters of officers of the navy of Great Britain from the year 1660 to the Present Time: Volume 1”, R. Faulder, London, 1794, 1st Edition

Davies, J.D. “Pepys’ Navy: Ships, Men and Warfare 1649-89”, Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2008, 1st Edition

Harris, F.R. “The Life of Edward Mountagu, K.G. First Earl of Sandwich (1625-1672) In Two Volumes: Vol II”, John Murray, London, 1912, 1st Edition

Glickman, G. “Empire, ‘Popery’ and the Fall of English Tangier 1662 – 1684”, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 87, No. 2 (June 2015), Pages 247-280

Majid, A. “A Brief History of British Tangier”, Tingis Magazine, 2014, Via:, Accessed On: 23rd April 2020

Rodger, N.A.B. “The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815”, Penguin Publishing, London, 2004, 1st Edition

Tinniswood, A. “Pirates of Barbary: Corsair, Conquests, and Captivity in the 17th Century Mediterranean”, Riverhead Books, New York, 2010, 1st Edition

Wilson, B. “The Empire of the Deep: The Rise and Fall of the British Navy”, Phoenix Paperback, London, 2014, 2nd Edition

Writer #4 – The foremost poet of his generation

Please note that William Cowper suffered with severe mental ill health and that this may be a difficult read for this reason.

A 1792 portrait of Cowper in later life by Lemuel Francis Abbott.

William Cowper was born in Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire and was the first surviving child of Reverend John Cowper and Ann Donne Cowper. The Cowpers illustrate the closely connected society formed by the gentry and nobility; on his father’s side his family tree included an Earl who was Lord Chancellor of England, whilst his mother’s family were descended from Henry III and included John Donne amongst their ancestors.

Aged six, William’s mother died and he was sent to a boarding school where he was badly bullied. These two experiences would factor into a life-long battle with mental ill health. He progressed to the Westminster School and hence to the Middle Temple where he begun working and training as a lawyer, he was called to the bar in 1754, but “was never much inclined” to the legal profession.

Instead he spent a good deal of time at his uncle’s house in London, spending time with his cousins, especially Theadora Cowper with whom he begun a relationship in the early 1750’s. His father did not approve of the relationship, and William broke it off in 1755. The whole affair was to be the basis of his first work of Poetry “Delia” which was not published until 1825.

Cowper does not seem to be too downcast about the stymied relationship. In the years following, his surviving correspondence detail a thriving social life moving in literary and social circles with old friends from the Westminster school and new acquaintances including editors of the satirical paper “Connoisseur”. He wrote “several halfpenny ballads” and other topical political articles, none of which survive. His only original poem at this time was “Doom’d as I am in solitude to waste” following the death of Sir William Russell in 1757 – otherwise his published works are translations of Latin and French texts.

In 1763, Cowper had his first serious mental breakdown. Having secured a lucrative position as Commissioner of Bankrupts, a second position (a clerkship of the Journals of the House of Lords) was organised for him. His suitability was challenged and another candidate put forward, so to settle this, a formal examination was to be held. The stress drove William to attempt suicide, however having failed he ended up at Nathaniel Cotton’s Collegium Insanorum. He would spend 18 months detained here, troubled by religious fears and convinced of his predestined damnation. By the time he was released in 1765 he was a convinced evangelist.

William came to Huntingdon, and was much taken with the town, describing it as “one of the neatest towns in England”. At first he lived alone in rented rooms, but later in 1765 he moved in with Revd Morley Unwin and his wife Mary. The house he moved into was a contemporary house on Huntingdon high street. We now know it as Cowper House. William seems to have been very happy with the Unwin family, mixing with gentle society and writing letters to friends. In one such letter, he details past times offered in the town including “a card-assembly, a dancing-assembly, and a horse race … and a bowling-green”.

Cowper House in the early 20th Century, the building outwardly is practically unchanged today

Tragedy struck in 1767 when Revd Unwin fell from his horse and died. Grief stricken, William and Mary moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire in early 1768. The move was to meet and work with the village curate John Newton, a slave-trader turned clergyman who later penned the hymn “Amazing Grace”. Cowper collaborated with Newton in the early 1770’s on the “Olney Hymns“; Cowper producing 67 hymns across the two years many of which are still in popular use.

Title Page from the Olney Hymns, this edition from 1779

In 1773, he was a steady man with a fierce faith who was contemplating marriage to Mary Unwin. Unfortunately, he had a second breakdown, following a dream where God seemed to condemn him to eternal damnation. That autumn he attempted suicide for a fourth time, and his relationship with Mary Unwin broke down to the point that she moved out of Olney. Cowpers’ faith was utterly lost – he would not speak a prayer or enter a church for the rest of his life.

Secluded at Olney under Newton’s care he begun to seek diversions in carpentry, gardening, animal husbandry, drawing and eventually poetry again by 1774. In 1780, John Newton moved to London, and Cowper, living alone at Olney, now begun writing more seriously. His first published volume of poetry, “Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple”, was published in 1782 to wide acclaim.

Around this time, Lady Austen moved into the vacant vicarage in Olney. This new acquaintance would prove to be one of the most influential people in Cowper’s literary life. A story she told in 1782 would become the “The Diverting History of John Gilpin”, a comedic ballad which in Cowper’s words; was popular enough to become “hackney’d in ev’ry Magazine, in every News paper and in every street”.

The Diverting History of John Gilpin is a comic ballad about a draper who rides a runaway horse, this illustration is from the 1878 reprint illustrated by Randolph Caldecott.

In 1784, she jokingly suggested he write a poem about her sofa. Cowper’s somewhat bizarre poem “The Task” was published in 1785, this Homeric epic stretched to 5,000 lines across six books. Starting as a mock-heroic account of a wooden stool developing into a sofa, it would meander on through a multitude of subjects examining man, nature and the place of an individual in the world. It was a run-away success.

Sketch of Mrs Mary Unwin

Following the publication of “The Task”, he moved away from Lady Austen and from Olney, to the village of Weston where he worked on translating Homer. Again, he suffered increasingly with mental illness, as well as declining physical health, so in 1795, reconciled with Mary Unwin, they moved in together near a cousin in Norfolk. Following her death in 1796, he fell into a depressive episode, plagued by black dreams and hallucinations which would end with his death in 1800.

One of the most beloved poets of his generation, his work is relatively unknown in the modern day, however several everyday phrases are taken from his work including; “God moves in mysterious ways” (from a hymn of his in the Olney Hymns), “Worse for the wear” (from “The Diverting History of John Gilpin”) and finally “Variety is the spice of life” and “the cup that cheers” (both in “The Task”).

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.

This is the fourth and final post in a series of posts about writers with a connection to Huntingdonshire, you can find the other three at the links below:

(You can find our first post on T.S. Eliot here if you missed it –

(You can find our second post on Samuel Pepys here if you missed it –

(You can find our third post on Lucy Boston here if you missed it – )

Academy of American Poets, “William Cowper”, 2020, Via:, Accessed On: 16th April 2020

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

Anon, “William Cowper”, 2020, Via:, Accessed On: 17th April 2020

Brunström, C “How Did Cowper Love Women?”, The Cowper and Newton Museum, 2012,Vol 3, Via:, Accessed On: 17th April 2020

Burn-Murdoch, B “What’s so Special About Huntingdonshire?”, The Friends of the Norris Museum, Hunstanton, 1996, 1st Edition

Flavell, L & Flavell, R. “Dictionary of English Down the Ages”, Kyle Cathie Ltd, London, 2005, 1st Edition

Historic England, “COWPER HOUSE”, 2020, Via:, Accessed On: 17th April 2020

The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, “William Cowper: British Poet”, 2020, Via:, Accessed On: 17th April 2020.

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