Cambridgeshire, Cambridgeshire, England. Further historical information.



[Transcribed from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland 1868]
by Colin Hinson ©2013

CAMBRIDGESHIRE, an inland county of England, lying in the south-east part of the island. It is situated between 52° 2' and 52° 45' north lat., and between 0° 30' east and 0° 16' west long. It is bounded on the north by Lincolnshire; on the east by the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk; on the south by Essex and Hertfordshire; and on the west by the counties of Bedford, Huntingdon, and Northampton. In form it approaches an oblong, and extends in length from north to south about 50 miles, and in breadth in the southern part about 30 miles. It is about 200 miles in circuit, and comprises an area of 818 square miles, or about 523,861 statute acres, including within its limits 37,677 houses, inhabited by a population of 175,950 according to the census of 1861, against 185,405 in 1851, showing a decrease of no less than 9,455 in the decennial period, while the inhabited houses have augmented by 451, marking a progressive amelioration in the social condition of the people.

In the earliest period of our history this district belonged to the Iberians, and afterwards formed part of the British kingdom of the Iceni, which comprised also Norfolk, Suffolk, and Huntingdonshire. Under the Roman dominion it was included in that division of the island which was named Flavia Cæsariensis, and the Romans had a settlement near the site of the modern town of Cambridge, named Camboricum. The whole county is traversed by ancient roads, many of which are of Roman origin. After the withdrawal of the Romans the county became part of the kingdom of the East Angles, and subsequently of the district called the Danelagh. It was ravaged by the Danes in 870, who burnt the town of Cambridge, and destroyed several religious houses. The Isle of Ely, which early formed a district by itself, fell into their power, and Cambridge was long one of their military stations. In 921 the Danish army surrendered at Cambridge to Edward the Elder. The Isle of Ely was afterwards united to the kingdom of Mercia. In 1010 the county was again laid waste, and Cambridge burnt by the Danes. After the Norman Conquest the Fens of Cambridgeshire became the stronghold of the Anglo-Saxons, and the scene of a long and stout resistance to the Conqueror. The report of wrongs to his family and estates brought back the brave and banished Hereward le Wake from Flanders, to join in and direct the hostilities against the Normans. For seven years he held his ground in the Isle of Ely, where he erected a castle, against all the forces and all the attempts of William to defeat and drive him thence, till betrayed by the monks of Ely, who feared to lose the broad lands belonging to them, lying beyond the limits of the isle itself. The hero of the defence was afterwards reconciled to the Conqueror, and had his possessions restored to him. This county did not escape fearful sufferings during the war between Stephen and the Empress Maud, the horrors of famine and pestilence accompanying those of war. During the barons' wars in the rein of John, the Isle of Ely was wasted both by the baronial and the royal forces. Similar ravages were made in the succeeding reign, and the isle, after being some time held by the barons, was retaken for the king about 1266. In the civil war of the 17th century, Cambridgeshire heartily espoused the popular cause. The University of Cambridge, however, took the king's side, and testified its devotion by giving up its plate for the royal service. Cromwell was twice sent down with an army into this county: in 1643 to take possession of Cambridge, which was thenceforth held for the parliament; and in 1645 to secure the Isle of Ely. Two years later, the village of Bennett, near Newmarket, was made the head-quarters of the army under Fairfax. In June, 1647, the king, then at Childerley, was visited by Cromwell and Fairfax, and was soon after removed to Newmarket. Cambridgeshire is for the most part a dead flat of fen land. The whole north part of the county is included in the great district called the Bedford Level, and is crossed by an immense number of canals and ditches, which sometimes extend for many miles in a straight line. Trees and hedgerows are rarely seen, but scattered over the surface are numberless small windmills and some steam-engines, used for drawing off the water. Long lines of pollard willows, and occasional osier beds, break the monotony of the landscape. Large tracts here and there remain uncultivated, and yield only sedges and reeds for matting and thatching, and peat for fuel. [For a notice of the various attempts to drain the fens, see BEDFORD LEVEL.] The south and south-east quarters of the county present a different scene. Here are a range of low chalk hills, part of the extensive formation to which the Chiltern hills belong. The highest ground is at the Gogmagog hills, near Cambridge, on the south-east, which, in some places, rise to the height of 300 feet, and command extensive prospects. There is some woodland on the border of Suffolk, and agreeable scenery along the course of the Cam, or Granta. The principal rivers of Cambridgeshire are the Ouse, which is navigable for shipping up to Ely; with its tributary the Cam, navigable to Cambridge; and the Nen. The latter in its original course crossed the northern part of the county in a north-easterly direction from Benwick, on the edge of Huntingdonshire, to Outwell, there entering Norfolk. It has now two other channels, north of the old one: one called Morton's Leam, passing from Peterborough, nearly in a direct line, to Wisbech and the Wash; the other, from Peterborough, along the north-west border of the county, and falling with the former into the Wash. The latter channel is called the Cats water and the Shire Drain. The Ouse retains its ancient name, like the Nen, Thame, Dour, and Dee, being a very common epithet given to rivers by the Celts. There is an Ouse in Cambridgeshire, Buckinghamshire, Sussex, and Yorkshire, an Oise in France, and Auser and Æsar in Italy, and an Æolis in Greece. The Ouse forms the southern and south-eastern boundary of the Isle of Ely. It enters the county a few miles below St. Ives, at Hermitage Sluice, in the parish of Haddenham, whence it flows first to the south-east and then north-north-east past Ely into Norfolk. The New Bedford river is a navigable canal, cut right across the Isle of Ely from the Hermitage Sluice to Denver Sluice in Norfolk, where, with the Old Nen, it joins the Ouse. The Cam is formed by the union of several streams, one of which, the Rhee, rises near Ashwell in the south-west corner of the county, and another in Essex. They join near Grantchester, and running northward through Cambridge, and thence north-eastward to Upware, fall into the Ouse. The Lark, a small river of Suffolk, navigable from Bury, skirts the county for a few miles and falls into the Ouse below Ely. The Wisbech canal, cut in 1794, joins the Old Nen at Outwell, thus connecting the navigation, of the Nen and the Ouse. The climate of Cambridgeshire has become much more healthy than it was formerly by reason of the drainage of the fens and the increased extent of cultivated ground. Agues and fevers, once so common, are comparatively rare. The soil is various; but the greater part of the land is very fertile. In the fens a soft, rich, black mud is found with a very large proportion of vegetable matter. When properly treated, it produces immense crops of wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, and hay. Ely is particularly renowned for its asparagus and osiers. In the upland districts of the south and south-east the soil consists of clay, chalk, loam, &c. and yields good crops of wheat, beans, and turnips; the Burwell wheat bears a high reputation as seed. Beneath the chalk in this part of the county is found the stiff blue clay called "gait," in beds 200 feet thick. The hilly ground on which the city of Ely stands is of this formation. At Burwell and Isleham is found the so called " clunch," a substance similar to but harder than chalk, and of which part of the cathedral of Ely is built. In the centre of the county, from Chatteris to Soham, Cottenham, Waterbeach, and Swavesey, is a large tract of valuable dairy land, famous for its butter and cheese; but the produce of Cottenham cheese has lately much diminished. The farms are generally of small size, and held from year to year, or on very short leases. Horses, cattle, and sheep are reared in large numbers in the fen's. Hemp and flax are grown extensively in the district between Wisbech and Wilney. Cambridgeshire, or Grantbridgeshire, as it is named in the Domesday Survey, virtually includes two shires or separate Jurisdictions, the shire proper and Ely. It is divided for civil purposes into 18 hundreds, besides the borough of Cambridge and the city of Ely, the names and limits of which are but slightly changed since the Norman Survey, in which, however, the Isle of Ely was reckoned as two; but now comprehends the four hundreds of Ely, Wisbech North and South, and Witchford, which are under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Ely, who is custos rotulorum, and appoints a chief justice, who holds a session of pleas above 40s., under the bishop's commission, and a session of oyer and terminer and jail delivery, under the queen's commission. The isle has also a bailiff, who acts as sheriff, a deputy-bailiff, and two coroners. The hundreds in Cambridgeshire proper are Royston, or Armingford (so called from the ford of Ermine Street), Chesterton, Cheveley (including Newmarket), Chilford, Flendish, Long Stow, North Stow, Papworth, Radfield, Staine, Staploe (anciently Stapleton), Triplow, Wetherley, and Whittlesford. The county contains about 165 parishes, and is almost wholly in the archdeaconry of Ely, in the diocese of Canterbury. It has 10 market towns, viz.: Cambridge, the county town and seat of a university; Ely, a city, and seat of a diocese; Wisbech, a shipping port, supplying a great part of the district with coals and timber; March, an ancient town and important railway station ; Chatteris, in the Isle of Ely; also Linton, Thorney, Soham, Whittlesea, and Newmarket (the latter is partly in Suffolk), and Royston, more properly included in Hertfordshire. The markets of Whittlesea and Soham have long been disused. The county is divided into nine poor-law unions, viz., those of Cambridge, Caxton and Arrington, Chesterton, Ely, Linton, Newmarket, North Witchford, Whittlesea, and Wisbech. There are six County Court districts: Cambridge, Ely, March, Newmarket, Soham, and Wisbech. The county is in the Norfolk circuit, and the county and isle in the jurisdiction of the London Bankruptcy Court. The assizes and quarter sessions for the county are held at Cambridge; those for the Isle of Ely, at Ely and Wisbech alternately. Cambridgeshire is joined with Huntingdonshire in the shrievalty. Three representatives are returned to parliament by the county, two by the university, and two by the borough of Cambridge. The county election takes place at Cambridge. The local government is vested in a lord-lieutenant, deputy-lieutenant, high sheriff, and about 50 magistrates. The university has separate jurisdiction over its own members and also exercises a superiority over the town of Cambridge, which has a separate court of quarter sessions. Cambridgeshire is not the seat of any important manufactures and has no weaving trades. In some districts baskets and reed mats are made; but the chief occupations of the inhabitants are agriculture, cattle rearing, brewing, and malting. Brick-making is carried on to a considerable extent, the county being deficient of stone for building; and there are a considerable number of ship, boat, and barge builders; also millers, tanners, curriers, and shoemakers, who manufacture not only for home consumption but for exportation. There are paper-mills, parchment works, a needle factory, ball-cotton factory, and large printing establishments, chiefly at Cambridge, employing above 300 persons, a great number of erudite books being annually printed at the University press. Cambridge is a grand railway centre, as are also Ely and March in this county. The lines mostly belong to the Great Eastern and Great Northern systems, including two trunk lines to London, and a great East and West line. The Great Eastern railway, which enters the county from the south, near Chesterford, runs northward to Cambridge and Ely, and thence eastward into Suffolk and Norfolk. A branch line runs from Cambridge south-westward through Royston, to meet the Great Northern railway at Hitchin. Other branches run from Cambridge through St. Ives, in Huntingdonshire, re-entering the county near Chatteris, and thence passing to March and Wisbech; and from Cambridge eastward to Newmarket and Bury St. Edmund's. Ely is connected with Peterborough by a direct line of 31 miles, through March and Whittlesea, and with Lynn, in Norfolk, by the East Anglian railway, of which only about 9 miles are in this county. The principal roads are the great north road from London, which crosses Cambridgeshire on the south-west side from Royston to Papworth St. Agnes; the Cambridge road, which branches off at Royston to Cambridge, and through Newmarket to Norwich. From Cambridge the principal roads are those to St. Neot's, about 17 miles long; to St. Ives and Huntingdon, 16 miles; to Ely, 15 miles, and thence to Downham, in Norfolk; and to Newmarket and Bury St. Edmund's. A road connected with the great north road at Papworth St. Agnes, after crossing the east side of Huntingdonshire, enters Cambridgeshire near Chatteris, and runs to March and Wisbech, quitting the county near Tyd St. Giles. The principal canals are those formed for drainage and navigation in the Bedford Level. Vermuydens canal, or the Forty Foot, extends from Ramsey Moor to the Old Bedford river. There are several short cuts, besides the Wisbech canal, previously mentioned, and one from Peterborough to the old course of the Nen. The county contained eight or nine baronial castles, but no ruins of them are now left, the gateway of Cambridge Castle, the last relic, having been taken down. Earthworks at Ely and other places mark the site of former fortresses. The principal ancient roads were Icknield Street, Ermine Street, and the Via Devana, the great Roman road from Colchester to Chester. Icknield Street, which crossed the county from Newmarket to Royston, is traceable at several points. Ermine Street ran from Royston nearly in the line of the great north road to Godmanchester, near Huntingdon. The Via Devana passed from Withersfield, in Suffolk, westward to Cambridge, and thence to Godmanchester, and is still traceable. One of the most remarkable earthworks is the Devil's Ditch, near Newmarket, several miles in length, and, including the ditch and rampart, about 100 feet broad. About 6 miles off, and parallel to it, is another great trench, called the Fleam Dyke. There are two other works, similar but smaller, near Linton and Foulmire. There is a large circular camp called Vandlebury on Gogmagog hills, which is probably of British origin, though apparently occupied once by the Romans. Arbury, Great Shelford, and Willingham are also sites of ancient camps. Roman coins, urns, and other remains have been discovered at Cambridge, Soham, Chatteris, Ely, and other places. The religious houses of Cambridgeshire were about 36 in number, including 4 abbeys, 11 priories, 2 houses of the Knights Templars, 2 of the Knights Hospitallers, and 9 hospitals. The most important monastic remains are at Ely, Cambridge, Thorney, Denny, Barham, and Isleham. Cambridgeshire is rich in examples of church architecture, for instance Ely Cathedral and King's College Chapel. Among the lesser churches, many of which have Norman entrances, may be named those at Sutton, Duxford, Swaffham, Thorney, and Whittlesea. The seats of the nobility and gentry in this county are not numerous, the following are the most deserving of attention: Cheveley Park, the seat of the Duke of Rutland; Wimpole Hall, the seat of the Earl of Hardwicke; GogMagog Hills, that of Lord Godolphin; and Wratting Park, of Sir C. Watson, Bart.

[Transcribed and edited information from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland - 1868]