Lord Orford’s Voyage Round The Fens – 1774

Part of the Fleet by H. J. K. Jenkins

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary and bizarre events in the history of Huntingdonshire and the wider fenlands, occurred in 1774. From July 16th to August 6th of this year the Rt. Hon. George Walpole, Third Earl of Orford, led an armada of converted river barges called fenland lighters on an extended pleasure cruise through “the narrow seas of Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, and Norfolk”.

The Fleet:
This expedition was no small undertaking. The fleet included “The Whale, The Alligator, The Shark and the Dolphin … The Pristis, The Centaurus, and The Chimera; The Fireaway Bumketch [a punt gun boat] and The Cocoa Nut Victualler [store barge]” along with crews of men, fishermen, hunting dogs and birds, a party of engineers and carpenters, a horse called “Hippopotamus” and presumably a lot of alcohol. Generally speaking the boats were converted Fenland Lighters; these were kind of wide barge with very shallow berth; ideal for transporting goods and livestock along shallow fenland rivers and even over flooded fields. The Fenland lighters were currently in the middle of their heyday, which had started in the earliest years of the 18th century and would go on until the 1850’s when railways and industrial fen drainage would all but kill off the industry.

The Admiral:
The man behind this madcap voyage, the Rt. Hon George Walpole, Third Earl of Orford (henceforth referred to as Orford), “the most dissolute man in Europe”, is a clichéd playboy and rake. An only child, he was born into a family where both parents were peers of the realm, and was brought up by his father (2nd Earl of Orford) and his father’s mistress (Hannah Norsa) a Covent Garden actress. Upon reaching his majority he took on several ceremonial sinecures – jobs with no responsibility but with financial benefits. It’s hard to believe that Orford did much as High Steward of Yarmouth and Kings Lynn or that his duties as Lord of the Bedchamber to George II and George III were especially onerous.

Portrait of Walpole “the most dissolute man in Europe”

His real passions were hunting (he was a famously good grey hound courser and falconer) and being reckless. It is quite likely he inherited an estate in financial difficulties and left it entirely bankrupt. His frivolous lifestyle as evinced in this voyage, would lead him a few years after our account here takes place to sell to Catherine the Great an extensive art collection inherited from his grandfather. Despite the efforts of the British Museum to save this art for the nation and build a new gallery, the sale went ahead to great dismay and uproar (which just goes to show that nothing changes and arts funding was as much a problem in the 1780s as today). Lord Orford would become increasingly eccentric and died aged 61, insane with no heirs, the title passing to his uncle Horace Walpole.

But this is getting ahead of ourselves, for now cast your minds back to a balmy summer day in 1774…

The Voyage:

July 16th – Expedition is launched, departing along the river Nene stopping their first night at the indelicately named “Whores Nest Ferry”, which is seven leagues (24 miles) from the junction of the rivers Nene and the Ouse.

July 17th – They pass through Outwell, Upwell and stop outside March for lunch where “the numerous inhabitants of the town … sat admiring our vessels”. The town obviously made a good impression, Orford describing it as the “handsomest we have seen”, however the ladies made less of an impression, “many very old women … the sex in general, extremely ugly”.

Throughout their voyage, Orford and his companions seem to be much interested in the relative attractiveness of the women they encountered or saw; generally speaking they were unimpressed by the inhabitants, a feeling which I am sure was mutual…

July 18th – The fleet start from outside Benwick continuing along past Ramsey where delays are incurred waiting on permission to demolish bridges.

The fenland lighters that the fleet was largely using were designed for these waterways, however being rich gentlemen they had of course outfitted the boats with every extravagance and comfort and sailing masts. The fleet had engineers and carpenters attached who went ahead of the fleet measuring bridges. If a bridge was too low they would demolish or lift it and then the fleet having passed, reinstate it, or on other occasions the fleet simply rammed bridges and passed over the wreckage!

July 19th – Fleet is on Whittlesey Mere for the first time. The fleet would spend a lot of time throughout their travels fishing and carousing here. At this time it was the largest lake in England outside of the Lake District, according to Orford it was 24 miles around the lake and no more than 5-7 feet deep and “in the whole meer a bed of weeds is not to be found”. He was especially taken with the fishing the lake offered routinely catching eels, perch and pike some of extremely large size.

Passing across the mere, they sail over to Farcet and up Farcet Dyke to Stanground, where they went to the horse racing.

July 20th-21st – Moored up on the Nene in Peterborough, beside the town bridge where the Cathedral and Bishops Palace can be seen. The Bishops palace does not impress – in Orford’s words “it hath not a grand appearance”

The Bishops Palace in Peterborough, 1829

July 22nd – The fleet sails back via Stanground to Whittlesey Mere, another boat (apparently a sloop) described as “a boat filled with company” is already on the mere.

July 23rd – They remain moored up in Farcet Bay, Whittlesey Mere whilst the Centaurus is refitted in Peterborough, the boat returns with new mast but no sail. The sailmaker had been plied with free ale by electoral candidates in the Peterborough by-election and, as Orford describes, had “forgotten to execute my orders, and his own promise to fulfil them”. The Centaurus does bring back two haunches of venison and another gentleman walks to Stilton for a cheese.

July 24th – Orford explores Trundle Mere [near Yaxley] in a smaller boat. In the afternoon Lord Sandwich joined the fleet briefly on his new yacht “which made a handsome appearance and seems to sail well”. At this time Lord Sandwich was First Lord of the Admiralty, his third time in that office, and quite what he made of Lord Orford’s “fleet” can only be imagined.

July 25th – The fleet entertain Lord Sandwich with fresh fish caught in Whittlesey Mere and “festive enjoyments”.

Whittlesey Mere, the largest lake in Southern England had a long history of pleasure sailing. This 1786 chart of Whittlesey Mere includes a “Port Sandwich” and Lord Sandwich’s yacht was called the “Whittlesey”. Many yachts came from the Norfolk broads down the Ouse or Nene.

July 26th – Strong winds blow up overnight, knocking the anchored boats together and causing great chaos as those on board fear they are being blown on to some “hidden rock”, the cook suffers from sea sickness as a result of the bad weather.

July 27th – The fleet sail from the mere up via Stanground to the Nene where they moor up a mile west of Peterborough. Orford indulges in some botany, gathering water lilies from the river and carnations from the lock-keepers garden.

July 28th – A Post-chaise and pair (small carriage and two horses) is summoned and a party from the fleet embarks on a trip around the countryside; leaving Peterborough they pass the (then separate) villages of Paston, Warrington, Glinton and Deeping where they failed to get fresh horses.

Continuing they came along the Little Turnpike to Spalding, commenting on the “exceedingly wet” Spalding common where cattle were eating up to their bellies in water. Having reached Spalding they lunched at the White Hart, went horse racing again (where they found the farmers wives and daughters “much handsomer”) and returned to the fleet at Peterborough via St. James Deeping, a round trip of some forty miles.

July 29th – Orford and his gentlemen are entertained by the Bishop of Peterborough with whom they enjoy dinner, wine and a tour of the palace gardens. In the evening, whilst visiting a playhouse in Peterborough, a Mr Roberts of the fleet breaks his shin helping a lady over a bench; the only casualty the fleet sustained throughout its time at “sea”.

July 30th – The fleet departs Peterborough, via Stanground and stops at Horsey Bridge where the explore the fortifications (this is still to be seen at Stanground, and is the remnants of an English Civil War defensive sconce, the A605 passes its northern face).

Having passed back out to Whittlesey Mere they punt across in order to visit Ramsey Mere. The fleet stop at the far end of Farcet Bay which Orford names Sandwich point. Whilst Orford is fishing some bargemen steal joints of salted pork from the victualling ship Cocoa Nut.

July 31st – Orford and his companions continue moored on Whittlesey Mere, waiting for the wind to drop to carry on their journey.

August 1st – Fleet spend another day on Whittlesey Mere as the wind is still too strong to sail into the Ramsey River and on to Ramsey Mere. The storm causes The Fireaway Bumketch [gun punt] to slip her moorings and start to drift away, until she is saved by two sailors from The Swallow.

The “Fireaway Bumketch” a traditional Fenland Gun Punt by H. J. K. Jenkins

August 2nd – Winds continue and the fleet carry on fishing and carousing. The fishing was done in several ways during the voyage, by traditional angling, using small nets and using “trimmers”. These were stakes with line wound around and bait on the end with a float, when the bait was taken the float would move away and these trimmers could be checked at intervals, and reset if they had been successful, “their use was more like sowing a minefield than angling” in the words of one modern historian.

Fishermen setting “trimmers” by H. J. K. Jenkins

August 3rd – The fleet is towed down to Ramsey by Hippopotamus [their draught horse], breakfasting in the town and walking up to the ruined abbey. Orford “found the [female] sex much handsomer”, something he attributed to the influx of French Huguenot blood. Ordering up carriages they travel through Bury, Upwood and Hartford to Huntingdon for lunch with the Duke of Manchester and Lord Sandwich followed by horse racing on Port Holme.

The local agriculture was a major talking point on the journey to and from Huntingdon it seems, with Orford seeing “a turnip field for the first time” and a lady of the fleet buying a 15lb cabbage for 3.5p. They return to the boats via Warboys, “a much better road”.

August 4th – The fleet is towed by Hippopotamus back out of Ramsey and into the Nene, Orford visits Mr Fellowes the owner and proprietor of Ramsey and Ugg Meres. Strong winds mean that there is no fishing to be done.

August 5th – Sailing from Ramsey Mere to the Nene, they pass Benwick at 6am, reaching March at noon where they reappraise the locals and find “no reason to alter our former opinion [on the] ugliness”, passing on to Upwell for 2pm they found Hippopotamus ready “to drop”. Breaking for dinner they carried to Salters Lode for 6pm where, the sluices being shut, they stopped for the night.

August 6th – At this point the Nene becomes semi-tidal, and river traffic can only pass through the sluice gates at certain times. A misunderstanding of this slows the progress of the fleet and results in the immediate discharge of the Master Harry. Eventually the fleet carry on up the Ouse turning into the Little Ouse, and meet waiting coaches at Lakenheath bridge having “finished without accident this agreeable voyage in twenty-two days”.

Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.

Childers, J.W. “Lord Orfords Voyage Round The Fens 1774”, Reprint of Original, July 1868

Cracrofts Peerage, Via:, 2013, Accessed: July 27th 2019

Fane Road Archaeology, “Horsey Hill Fort, Stanground”, Via: Accessed on: July 27th 2019

Jenkins, H. J. K. “Notes”, The Mariner’s Mirror Volume 78, 1992 – Issue 4, Pages 485-489

Jenkins, H. J. K. “Fenland Lighters and There Heyday, c.1700-1850” The Mariner’s Mirror Volume 79, 1993 – 2, Pages 155-169

Jenkins, H. J. K. “The Fenland Lighters Project”, Topmasts: The Quarterly Newsletter of The Society for Nautical Research, August 2016, No. 19, Pages 17-19

Jenkins, H. J. K. “Update: The Fenland Lighters Project”, Topmasts: The Quarterly Newsletter of The Society for Nautical Research, February 2017, No. 21, Pages 20-22

Orme, S. “Pride, prejudice and Peterborough: a peek into Georgian city life”, The Moment Magazine, 2015, via: Accessed on: July 27th 2019

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

St. Ives Market: Abbey Fair to Monday Market

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?

– Traditional English Nursery Rhyme/Riddle, Anonymous

We all know this famous rhyme, but why was this unknown man, his wives and a whole menagerie of cats going to St Ives? And which one?

The most likely St. Ives to be journeying to was of course St. Ives in Huntingdonshire, which was one of the most important markets in England for much of its history. It had a royal charter given as early as 1110 and in its heyday was selling 12,000 cattle a day from what is now the location of the bus station! So here is a whistle-stop history of this “most ancient market on the shores of the Ouse”.

In the Beginning…
St. Ives at the beginning of our history is known as Slepe, which can be translated as “slippery place” which for a small fenland village on the banks of the great Ouse is really no surprise. The small settlement was almost entirely unremarkable except for a local tradition that stated that the Persian Archbishop (later Saint) Ivo had made his home in the village. By the 10th century the village was owned and dominated by the Benedictine community at Ramsey Abbey, and it is through their actions that the village developed its famous market at all.

Ramsey Abbey was a fairly thankless when it was first built, cut off from the rest of the country for months at a time through winter floods, and in need of some way to develop itself. The best way for abbeys to do this was to attract pilgrims, however with so many saints body parts and holy relics around a ecclesiastic site needed something big. Fortunately, that would be forthcoming…

St. Ivo from a wall painting

St. Ivo
An unknown Saxon farmer ploughing one morning around the year 1000 would change everything. His plough caught against a coffin (probably Roman) and human remains were found. These were interred in the parish church, until the village smith had ghostly visitations from St. Ivo claiming that the bones were his. Despite some disbelief from the village bailiff (he is said to have remarked, “Should we translate and glorify the worthless remains of some old cobbler as those of a saint?”), the bones and dream were seized upon by Abbot Eadnoth of Ramsey Abbey. He swiftly built two shrines, one at Ramsey and one at Slepe, which was completed by 1017.

The shrine of St. Ivo became irrevocably linked to the settlement and soon enough the name Slepe was all but forgotten. As more and more pilgrims visited the shrine to be cured of such diverse ailments as leprosy, gout, blindness, deafness and toothache, so there would have been more and more individuals selling them what they needed, be it food, clothes, drink or souvenirs. To aid pilgrims and traders, by the 12th century the monks had a bridge built across the river by the early years of the 12th century and in 1110 St. Ives was officially granted a charter to hold an 8 day market over Easter.

The Early Market
The first markets at St. Ives would have been very small affairs. Most provincial towns and many large settlements had the rights to hold a market; as well as local farmers selling off what they could spare, there would have been traders who dealt in cloth, wool, hide and maybe a few dealing in expensive foods like spices and wines. In 1200, when renewing the royal charter for the market Ramsey Abbey also purchased the rights to hold a weekly Monday market, a tradition which is still practised to this day!

By the 13th century, there are records of merchants coming from as far afield as Lincoln, York, Beverely, Leicester and Coventry to trade at the market. The market must have attracted good quality traders, as there are records of Henry III sending his royal tailor and other staff to purchase cloth for making clothes for the royal household. In 1237 he purchased over 7000 foot of fabric as well as hoods, furs and “finer stuffs”.

Artists impression of a thronging medieval marketplace, not so different from how St. Ives would have been.

By 1250 the St. Ives market was increasingly large and of such importance that in a list drawn up in Douai, France, at around the time it is listed as a principal market of England alongside metropolises like Winchester and Northampton. With burgeoning importance and huge sums of money involved, one of the Church vs State tussles was inevitable and in 1250 it came with the king’s appointment of two market wardens.

“Will nobody rid me of this turbulent market?”
These wardens were appointed as royal officers to see that the market ran smoothly, legally and that nobody got away without paying the king market dues. Within two years the officials had overstepped the mark, extending the market by three weeks at cost to the abbey. The waters were muddied still further when Huntingdon tried to levy tolls on travellers passing over bridges to the market. Despite a commission being appointed, no clear judgement could be made on the legality of the wardens’ decision and in 1258, for a fee of around £300 and an additional £50 a year the king abandoned “all profits from the fair” and henceforth the fair was the sole interest of Ramsey Abbey.

The Benedictine Monks (like these) of Ramsey Abbey were the driving force behind the continuation of the fair.

Rules and Regulations.
The fairs of medieval England were strictly regulated affairs and the fair at St. Ives would have been no different. As well as standard units of measure being enforced and quality control checks being conducted, bailifs would place a seal on goods approved for trade, there were laws against trading outside the town (thus avoiding paying market fees), restrictions around cooking and selling food to limit the risk of fire, laws against cheating people out of their money with fake medicines or cures and even an elaborate system of debt recollection based on market circuits.

To ensure that laws and rules were followed, temporary courts were formed, known as Piepowder courts. The name came from the French “piers powders”, or “dusty feet”, referring to dust of the road that would cling to professional merchants who may be in town for one or two days only. These courts could administer instant justice and prevent the local authorities being completely overwhelmed. The remit of these courts can be seen in the court rolls which dealt with everything from selling short measure, illegal trading and not paying debts to theft, drunkenness and sheltering lepers (who were banned from the fair) “to the great danger of the neighbours”.

A combination of more efficient Flemish weaving techniques and the affect of the Black Death saw the importance of the market start to decline. By 1474, the official opening by monks from Ramsey Abbey, which had long been a mere formality, was abandoned. In 1511 the fair opened for the last time.

A Final Hurrah
Despite the death of the annual fair, weekly markets continued in St. Ives throughout the centuries, with the trade in cloth and clothes continuing on a much smaller scale. The market was also known for its eels and fresh fish, however it was the livestock market that would go on to become the most successful, indeed by the mid 1800s the market in this sleepy fenland town was second only to the “Great Market” at Smithfield, with over 12,000 cattle being sold daily during the St. Ives cattle fairs!

St. Ives Market during the mid-late 19th Century (Picture courtesy of St. Ives Town Info)

This market became preeminent as St. Ives is located at the end of the Scottish drovers road, not far from the Great North Road and on the lush meadows of Cambridgeshire, and it became a natural place for cattle and sheep to be brought “on the hoof” down from the verdant highlands of Scotland, fattened up once more and then sold. On average, a drove was anything from 100-400 animal attended by four to eight drovers and their dogs, and as late as 1861 St. Ives had a bullock shoer to reshoe cattle before they were driven on by their new owners.

The advances in railway and steamships saw an end to the Scottish trade, with the realisation that the cattle could be slaughtered in Scotland and shipped to London to arrive fresh, however these same advances opened up the Irish livestock market, which saw St. Ives inundated with cattle to the point where the market spilled out to cover the entire town centre, which must have been an unpleasant and unsanitary experience!

St. Ives Market c. 1900 (Picture courtesy of St. Ives Corn Exchange)

The Final Decline
The unsanitary conditions were not only in St. Ives town centre; the cramped conditions in which animals were shipped led to breakouts of disease, made worse by the transitory nature of so many animals passing through the town. Between summer 1865 and spring 1866, over 1800 cattle died of diseases, with another 467 put down, more would have been infected but slaughtered before the disease could kill them. Likewise, in the 1870s a nationwide outbreak of Sheep-Pox reduced national sheep levels by 10%.

Empty Cattle Pens in the 1880’s down St. Ives High Street (Picture Courtesy of St. Ives Corn Exchange)

Critical as this would have been for St. Ives, a refusal to update the market facilities caused more damage. By the late 19th century, it was described as “ an eyesore … and a stain on the civic reputation of the town”, and even the opening of a cutting edge market could not draw back traders who had moved to Cambridge (just a few stops on by train). Despite sporadic growth the market was in terminal decline and by WW1 the number of animals sold in the course of a year was less than in a single Monday when the market was at its height. In 1976 the cattle market closed for the last time.

St. Ives still has a weekly market on a Monday, as agreed between Ramsey Abbey and Henry III in 1258, and the market traders selling clothes and food continue a tradition that stretches back over 900 years. Little did that unknown Saxon farmer know what he was going to start or the consequences of his days work when he went out that morning with his plough.

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. “Huntingdonshire Through Time”, Amberely Publishing, Stroud, 2010, 1st Edition

Anon, “Huntingdonshire District, Official Guide” Home Publishing Company, Wallington, c. 1985, 1st Edition

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

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

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

Huntingdon Castle: Saxon Burh to A14

Castle Hill Huntingdon has a had a long and varied history, and this summer it will be home to a series of large reenactment events as part of the 2019 festival; with that in mind here is a look at the history of the Huntingdon Castle site.

Hunts Castle
Huntingdon Castle under siege, note the curvature of the moat on the far right which is the path taken by the modern ring road, after the Bridge Hotel.

Establishing a Castle

Castle Hill was originally part of the Anglo-Saxon burh, the fortification around a Saxon town (this is where the word borough originates). Huntingdon was both a strategic and commercial location, situated on the River Ouse which brought both trade and the ever present possibility of ruination and violence. The site of what we know as Castle Hill would quite likely have featured docks and the wooden stockade and moats traditionally used to fortify burhs.

In 1068 this all changed, William I “the Conqueror” returning from York stopped in Huntingdon and gave orders for the construction of a Motte and Bailey castle, which he gave to the Earl of Huntingdon whom his niece Judith had married. Twenty houses and parts of the town’s defences were demolished to build the castle.

The castle was a traditional motte and bailey design with a keep on a hill which was itself surrounded by a walled enclosure. This bailey would have been built with stables, brewery, bakery, storerooms and chapel and the whole site covered 2.5 acres. Despite the investment in time and materials the castle only stood for just over a century, and was besieged twice during a period known as the “Anarchy”.

The Turbulent Twelfth Century

Contemporary image of the sinking of the White Ship done for the Corporation of London (original in the British Library)

In 1120 a ship floundered and sunk off the coast of France. This sinking of the “White Ship” would have terrible consequences for the fledgling Anglo-Norman kingdom, as aboard the ship was William, the only son of Henry I and grandson of William I. Following his death the kingdom was to be left to his sister Matilda, however when her father died the crown was given to Stephen de Bois, a nephew of Henry I, at which point the “Anarchy” ensued; a period of countrywide civil war.

For Huntingdon it was a particularly bad time — the lord of Huntingdon was David I King of Scotland (husband of Maud from our Historic Huntingdonshire Women blog), who in an effort to expand his control over Northern England supported Matilda. The Treaty of Wallingford, signed in 1144, recognised Stephen as king and David was forced to pay homage to keep control of Huntingdon. During the eleven year period from 1135 until the treaty in 1144 Huntingdon lost over half its taxable value, and worse was to come barely thirty years later…

It is 1174 and Henry II is at war with his own son, who is supported in his rebellion by William I of Scotland. Huntingdon castle declares itself for the rebels and for a long month over the summer finds itself under siege by the king’s army. On the 20th of July, Henry II himself, fresh from his public penance and whipping at Canterbury for the murder of Thomas à Becket, arrives at the castle which wisely surrenders.

Henry II is unimpressed by the lack of loyalty displayed by the area and orders the castle slighted (rendered indefensible), the walls are pulled down and parts of the site razed. During the 1980’s, when constructing Castle Moat Road, three foot of ash was discovered in the archaeological record where the wooden gatehouse was burnt.

The Remains

Despite Henry’s fit of pique the castle site was not fully destroyed. The chapel still stood and was signed over to Huntingdon Priory in the charter of 1327, the gaol was repaired in 1379 and wardens of the castle were appointed until 16th century, when it seems to have finally fallen into disuse with all civic duties passing on to Cambridge Castle. The rest of the site was given over to agriculture; Henry of Huntingdon commented on a substantial vineyard growing here by the late 12th century.

During the 17th century, civil war once more reared its ugly head, and following the demolition of an arch in the bridge to render it more defensible, the castle site was levelled and made into a gun battery overlooking the river crossing to the east, the rectangular position can still be seen on the river edge of the bailey. The defences were negated when Huntingdon was actually attacked by Charles I in 1645 as he came from the west of the town.

After the civil war the artillery was removed, and the site sunk back into being agricultural land. A windmill was built on the motte site sometime in the late 18th century and was used until 1875, giving its name to the field behind, which is still known as “Mill Common”.

Hunts Castle 2
Diagram of Huntingdon Castle showing how the Huntingdon-Godmanchester line cut through the site.

The Coming of the Railway
The mid 19th century was a period of massive railway development across the entire country. This was, however, in no way planned or orchestrated and so individual companies sprung up to link their town to the next with no regulation or oversight. The first railway to Godmanchester was built in 1847 by the Lynn & Ely Railway Company, who linked it onto their St. Ives line. The station was behind the mill on the river. Meanwhile, the first Huntingdon Station was built by the Great Northern Railway Company on the Peterborough to London line in 1850.

As the crow flies between the two stations (via Castle Hill and over the Ouse) is less than a quarter of a mile, yet for 33 years passengers heading east from Huntingdon had to complete their journey by getting a horse drawn coach from the Huntingdon Station to Godmanchester Station. It was only in 1883 the necessary quarter mile of track was laid through the castle site, and even then the line was notoriously unreliable, with trains often having to be pulled by horses, delays of days at a time due to flooding and frequently in the summer the wooden rail trestles catching alight from sparks chucked up by the train engine.

As train lines became increasingly uniform and regularised the obvious flaws in this line came to the fore; the number of weak bridges meant that only light locomotives could be used, and the nature of the landscape with gradients onto flood proof earth banks meant that speed was limited to 40mph — with some sections to only 10mph!

It can be no surprise that the line was closed in the late 1950s with the final train running on the 4th June 1962. 

At this time the route of the line through Castle Hill was already being earmarked for bigger and better things…

Constipation Street

Traffic jam on the junction by the Three Tuns, Huntingdon High Street

Huntingdon High Street had long had a reputation for being a bottleneck in the smooth running of traffic east to west. By 1959 (the year of the last passenger train on the Huntingdon-Godmanchester rail line) there were 11,443 vehicles surveyed passing along the High Street in a twelve hour period. As well as the delays to traffic, the vehicles posed a serious risk to the safety of pedestrians shopping on the high street or trying to cross the road!

After 77 accidents along the High Street in a year, January 1964 saw a petition started asking for a bypass. It had 6,000 names within the space of a few months and the plans were officially started to bypass Huntingdon town centre. The work started with constructing the ring road, and then the bridging road between the A1 and the St. Ives roundabout, however these had only limited success in reducing the number of vehicles passing through the town, so in June 1972 permission was given to build the bypass which would become the A14.

Original plans to tunnel beneath Port Holme Meadow were dropped after it proved too expensive and so instead plans were drawn up to bridge the Ouse where the railway had originally done so. The designs were subject to serious scrutiny and concerns over maintenance and the ability to expand the road in future were raised and ultimately ignored.

The opening of the A14 bypass as reported in the Hunts Post, Courtsy of CCAN

The bypass opened 30th September 1975, however within 13 years it needed repair work costing £4m. In 2016, work was begun on a new A14 bypass to allow the current viaduct to be removed; ironically the route taken is one considered in the 1970s but considered unfeasible!

The history of Castle Hill is the history of Huntingdonshire, the history of East Anglia and even the history of Britain. From Saxon and Viking river skirmishes, through the dynastic wars of England and Scotland, the brutal civil strife of the 12th and the 17th centuries, agricultural developments and those of transport links as part of the industrialisation of the 19th and 20th centuries, Huntingdon Castle has seen it all.

Anon, “Why Huntingdon Castle Was Torn Down”, The Hunts Post, 2011, via:

Anon, “Huntingdon Castle”, Castle, First Battles, 2016, via:

Anon, “Huntingdon Castle (Castle Hills): a motte and bailey castle and Civil War fieldwork”, Historic England, 2019, via:

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

Akeroyd, A & Clifford, C. “Huntingdonshire Through Time”, Amberely Publishing, 2010, 1st Edition

Catford, N. “Godmanchester”, Disused Stations, 2017, via:

Hufford, D “History of Castle Hill’, CCAN, 2007, via:

Hufford, D et al “Huntingdon Town Trail”, BID Huntingdon, 2011

History Hit, “How a Shipwreck Plunged England Into Anarchy”, History Hit, 2018, via:

Page, W, Proby, G & Ladds, I. ’The borough of Huntingdon: Introduction, castle and borough‘, in A History of the County of Huntingdon: Volume 2, Victoria County History, London, 1932

Matthew Callen 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.

Historic Huntingdonshire Women

If I asked you to name an important man in the history of Huntingdonshire, I’m sure that in no time at all, you would be able to think of one or two – Oliver Cromwell, perhaps? Revered by some, hated by others, he certainly made an impact on our country’s politics! Perhaps Samuel Peyps, with his journalistic legacy? You might find it harder to name important women, however. History has a habit of forgetting to tell the stories of those women who did have achievements and influence, so here are a few greater-or-lesser known women from history with a Huntingdonshire connection.

Maud, Countess of Huntingdon (1074 – 1130/31) “Queen of Scotland”
Maud of Huntingdon (Queen Consort of Scotland)

Also known as Matilda, this great-niece of William the Conqueror was the wife of King David I of Scotland; queen consort and grandmother to King Malcom IV – so in terms of both local and national importance, pretty high!

She was the daughter of Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon (one of the last major Anglo-Saxon earls to remain powerful after the Norman conquest in 1066), and Judith of Lens, who is the namesake for the parish of Sawtry Judith. The domesday book states that Judith had land-holdings in no less than 10 counties in the Midlands and East Anglia, so Maud had a powerful parentage.

The young Maud married Simon de Senlis, a Norman nobleman, who received the honour of Huntingdon, probably ‘in right of his wife’. When de Senile died two decades later, Maud married David, brother-in-law of Henry I of England – she was almost forty and her new husband was nearly ten years her junior.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes the lands acquired by David on his marriage to Maud, known as the ‘honour of Huntingdon’, as stretching from south Yorkshire to Middlesex but chiefly concentrated in the shires of Northampton, Huntingdon, Cambridge, and Bedford.

Maud had seven known children – three by her first husband, four by King David. Unfortunately, of her later four children, only Henry survived into adulthood, and he did not outlive his father, and the Kingship passed straight on to Maud’s grandson, Malcolm.

Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707 – 1791) “the St. Theresa of the Methodists”

You may expect to see a “Countess of Huntingdon chapel” in Godmanchester or St Ives, but would you expect to see one in such far flung places as Manchester, or St Ives Cornwall? The story behind the, at one point 200 strong, network of churches, seminaries and missions which still survive in part today is really the life story of Selina Hastings.
Selina Hastings in later life (c.1770)

Born into the English aristocracy in 1707 (her father was 2nd Earl Ferrars), she married Theophilius Hastings, ninth Earl of Huntingdon with whom she had seven children, and was known as “Lady Bountiful” for the good works she did in and around her husbands estate.

So far her life reads like that of many an 18th century noblewoman, however aged around thirty, following a period of illness, she was introduced via her sister-in-law to Methodism and had a religious awakening.

By all accounts she took to Methodism, at this point an increasingly popular religious movement, with great passion, astonishing her social circle with her deep religious beliefs. At her husbands insistence she debated her newfound faith with the Bishop of Gloucester (his old tutor from Oxford) and ran rings around the cleric.

Her need to evangelise the people led her to open her first chapel in Brighton in 1761 where for £1200 she established a “a small but neat chapel”; she would later finance and supervise the opening of 64 chapels in England and Wales as well as missions and chapels in Europe, Africa and America.

COuntess of Hunts Bath.jpg
The only Countess of Huntingdon original chapel to survive in Bath, built in 1765.

Such was the demand for Methodist preachers to fill pulpits in her churches, as well as to be lay preachers and go abroad to missions elsewhere, that the decision was made to establish a Methodist seminary, a site was found at Trevecca and in 1768 (on her sixtieth birthday) the college was founded, over 20 years 250 young men were trained here, with many going on to be fully ordained.

Selina died at the age of 84, having ensured her lifework would live on via an association founded a few years before her death.

Frances “Fanny” Duberly (1829–1903) “one of the first war correspondents”

Born Frances Isabella Locke (but known throughout her life as Fanny), she was the youngest of nine children. Aged 11, following the death of her mother, she was sent to Wycombe for an education and would have been trained in all the skills a lady needed to marry well. She did this, marrying Lieutenant Henry Duberly whom she met at her sisters wedding to his elder brother (Major George Duberly). The family home of the Duberly’s was Gaines Hall, situated just outside Perry, where Fanny and her husband would inevitably have visited, if not lived.

Once again a life that so far reads like a Jane Austen novel, however, following her husbands deployment to first the Crimea, and then India, Fanny was about to come into her own.

The chief source we have of this period are the letters she wrote to her sister Selina. Fanny had a good eye for detail and a willingness to strike up a rapport with people; in the words of Lieutenant-Colonel Forrest, of the 4th Dragoons “she behaves in the most extraordinary way, riding and walking about with anybody”.

Fanny Duberly
Fanny and her husband, photographed in the Crimea by Roger Fenton 1855

Furthermore her contacts within the military allowed her to be in position to witness military actions as they happened, she was an eyewitness at the battle of Inkerman, the Charge of the Light Brigade (her description of which inspired Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, her account reads: “Fire seemed to be pouring from all sides… Faster and faster they rode…”) the storm of Sevastopol and later on the Indian mutiny.

Following the publication of her war memoirs; “Journal Kept During the Russian War: From the Departure of the Army from England in April 1854, to the Fall of Sebastopol” she was snubbed by society for her supposed improprietious behaviour (Queen Victoria refused to allow the book to be dedicated to her). However alongside William Russell of the Times she is one the most important firsthand sources we have of the Crimean war, and is responsible for bringing the horrors of modern warfare to the public attention, showing the terror and mud instead of the glory.

Following her return to England in 1864 she never wrote again, dying in 1903 at Cheltenham.

Isabella Bird (1831 – 1904) “explorer, writer, doctor, missionary”

Image of Isabella Bird
Isabella Bird

This nineteenth century explorer, writer, photographer and naturalist lived quite an incredible life…

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

Though suffering from illness she was a strong character – according to a biography, even at the age of six, she confronted the campaigning MP for South Cheshire (whose fantastically fancy name was Sir Malpas de Grey Tatton Egerton) asking him “did you tell my father my sister was so pretty because you wanted his vote?”

In 1848, the family moved to Wyton in Huntingdonshire, where she learnt rowing on the Ouse. When she was twenty two, she was recommended a sea voyage for her health & spent seven months on a trip to Canada and the United States. This was the start of a lifetime of travel for Isabella, who recorded her experience in ‘The English-woman in America’, published by John Murray, who became a friend for life.

Her family moved to Edinburgh, where she spent her time between travels, but she was soon off to New Zealand, Australia, and the Sandwich Islands. She went to Hawaii where women rode astride, and abandoned the side saddle enabling her to ride more comfortably for longer distances. She wrote affectional letters to her sister Henrietta, which formed material for her many books.

Shortly after her sister Henrietta’s death, she married Henrietta’s medical advisor, John Bishop, however their happiness only lasted 5 years before he too passed away. Despite her loss, she was not one to sit around, retraining in medicine and going travelling again on medical missions, establishing several hospitals, which were dedicated to her husband and sister .

Over the course of her life, countries she visited included America, Hawaii, Australia, India, Kurdistan, the Persian Gulf, Iran, Tibet, Malaysia, Korea, Japan and China. She saw a great many things, rode thousands of miles on horseback, and even a few miles on an elephant.

In her sixties she was the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1892. She left for another trip to the orient, covering 8,000 miles across China, over 15 months, this would be her final expedition. She was planning another trip to China (now in her 70’s!) but fell ill and died at her home in Edinburgh in 1904.
Illustration from “My Home in the Rocky Mountains”

Of the four women, we most enjoyed learning about Isabella Bird’s rich and full life of travel which we could only touch up on here – if you would be interested in a blog post with more detail on the places she visited and the things she did, get in touch via Facebook, Twitter, or email. Likewise if there any Huntingdonshire women who you think we should have covered, let us know!

#IWM #Herstory #feminist #women

Co-written by Victoria Spurway and Matthew Callen

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

Matthew Callen 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.


Burn-Murdoch, B, (1996), “Whats so Special About Huntingdonshire?”, Friends of the Norris Museum, 1st Edition

Anon, (1926), “Sawtry Judith”, via:

Anon, (1999-2017),“The Domesday Book Online”, via:

G. W. S. Barrow (2004), “David I”, via:

Cook, F (2001), “Selina Countess of Huntingdon”, via:

Kirby, G.W., (2002), “The Elect Lady: A Biography of Selina Hastings”, Trustees of the Countess of Huntingdons Connexion, 3rd Edition,

Overton, J. H., “Hastings, Selina”, The Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900, Pages 133-135)

Anon, “Captain Henry Duberly Esq, Paymaster of the 8th (The King’s Royal Irish) Light Dragoons (Hussars) and Mrs Fanny Duberly, 1855”, National Army Museum, via:

Anon, (2007), “Fanny Duberly”, Via:

Jardine, C, (2007), “She wanted to cause a stir… and she did”, The Telegraph, via:…-and-she-did.html

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

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

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

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

A Potted History of Valentines Day

St Valentines Day is inexplicably enmeshed with modern day expectations of romantic gestures, red roses, chocolates and cards, this however has not always been the case. Here is a quick guide to what our Huntingdonshire forebears would have been doing on St. Valentines day.


We begin way before St. Valentine was even born, with the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia. This obscure festival (involving the ritual sacrifice of goats and a dog) quite likely predates Rome and could well have been a sacrifice to ensure safety for flocks throughout the year. 

By the time the citizens of Godmanchester (known to the Romans as Durovigitum) were celebrating it, it had become linked to fertility, with the priests who had conducted the sacrifices running around with leather thongs hitting women; any woman hit by the priest was considered to have been made fertile. Pope Gelasius I called an end to these pagan goings on in 494 AD, and the festival was re-appropriated into the Feast of the Purification, or Candlemass.

St. Valentine(s)

So onto the Saint himself, well possibly themselves, Valentine is an apparently historic figure but is referenced as a Roman priest and the Bishop of Terni, these could both be the same person or alternatively stories of the two men have been conflated into one person. Either way, what we know is that St. Valentine was beheaded in 270 AD at the order of Claudius II Gothicus. This was most likely for either conducting illicit weddings, or simply being a well known Christian during one of the periodic persecutions of Christians which occurred up until the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire in 323 AD. As well as being the patron saint of lovers, Valentine also intercedes for beekeepers and epileptics.

Romantic Beginnings

Its worth stating now that the first reference to any sort of love or romance based celebration on St. Valentines day is not until Chaucer made a reference to St. Valentines day in his Parlement of Fowles (1382)

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make”.

(For this was on Saint Valentines Day
When every bird comes there to choose his mate) verse was written in reference to the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. The treaty which agreed it was signed on the 3rd May, a day in the medieval calendar which celebrated the life of a St. Valentine of Genoa, a bishop who died in 307 AD. This raises some awkward questions as to whether we should actually be celebrating with chocolate and roses on this third St. Valentine’s day instead.

Generally speaking, if authors reference a topic then it can be assumed that there is widespread public knowledge of it (like a poor public transport reference would be today), so Chaucer’s Valentines day was most likely a known day of celebrating love/romance. Some accounts speak of young people drawing names of the opposite sex from a box or bag to be their “valentine”, and its possible that many Huntingdonshire village marriages were started this way; whether these were prearranged is of course another matter.

If we fast forward a few centuries we find another reference to St. Valentines day from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Ophelia (somewhat jadedly) says:

“To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,

All in the morning betime,

And I a maid at your window,

To be your Valentine.

Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,

And dupp’d the chamber-door;

Let in the maid, that out a maid

Never departed more.”

The birth of the Valentine Card

By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Valentine lottery has become somewhat less random, with love poems, sonnets and small gifts being exchanged — although it is hard to imagine the good puritan folk of Huntingdon taking part in such a “Papist” celebration!

A darker side to Valentines day was the sending of malicious or scandalous poems to those who were unmarried or those who were unhappily married. It was around this time that the anonymous valentine became a known occurrence to protect both sender and receiver from any unwanted comeuppance.

With the introduction of the postal system in the early 19th century, mass produced Valentines cards entered the scene, with cards being made from paper and lace by their thousands. In 1835, over 60,000 cards were sent in the post and with the reduction of postage costs (through the introduction of the Penny Black stamp in 1840) this number skyrocketed with over 400,000 cards being sent in 1841; today, around 25,000,000 cards are sent annually in the UK alone.

My love is like a red, red rose

Valentines day.jpgThe first Valentine specific chocolate box was made by Cadburys in 1868, and swiftly became a valentine staple, as did the sending of flowers. The Victorians had an elaborate secret language in what flowers were sent and by who. This “floriography” inevitably became attached to valentines day. Many flowers had specific meanings (Daffodils for unrequited love, Violets for faithfulness, etc) and the colour also carried meaning; red roses symbolised passionate love, yellow roses meant friendship and white roses implied purity. Although floriography is now an all but dead language the residual meaning of red roses has remained as an integral part of Valentines day.

The Victorian expectations and traditions of Valentines day still influence how we celebrate today (and will continue to do so for some time), so despite being named for a 3rd century priest (or priests) and falling around the day of a pre-Roman ancient festival, Valentines day really is a mostly 19th century creation. Personally, I’d rather have chocolates than goat sacrifice anyway.


Lupercalia“, Editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2019, via:

St Valentine”, Anon, 2019, via:

St. Valentine”, Editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2019,

St. Valentines Day”, Editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2019, via:

Parlement of Fowles”, Geoffrey Chaucher, 1382,

A History of Valentine’s Day”, Michelle Prima, 2005, via:

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, tragedy in five acts”, William Shakespeare, 1603

Valentine cards reveal Britain’s relationship history”, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2010, via:

Colours of Roses: What do they mean?”, Jacob Olesen, 2019, via:

How Flowers Were Once Used to Deliver Messages”, Shannon O’Connor, 2016, via:

Matthew Callen 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.