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Swavesey and District

 History Society

Reports on the Swavesey and District History Society monthly meetings

January 2018 meeting.  In St Martin’s Place, just outside the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square, is a 3 m high statue of Edith Cavell in her nurse’s uniform.  Over 40 members and visitors attended the meeting where the Society’s Chairman, Carole Pook told the 1st World War story of Edith Cavell - Saviour or Spy?

She was born in 1865 in Swardeston, near Norwich where her father was vicar for 45 years.  After leaving school she was a governess for several families until the age of 30 both in the UK and, from 1890 to ’95, in Belgium.  In 1895 she returned to care for her father during a serious illness and on his recovery she applied to become a nurse probationer at the London Hospital.  In 1907, Cavell was recruited by Dr Antoine Depage to be matron of a newly established nurse training school in Belgium.  In July 1914 she returned to her mother for her annual holiday but when German troops invaded Belgium in August she willingly went back to Belgium.

Edith cared for all the wounded, regardless of nationality.  However, she soon began to work with others to smuggle the Allied soldiers under her care, out of the hospital and across the border to neutral Holland which was easy to achieve in the early days.  The group also assisted Belgian and French civilians of military age to get to countries where they could join up against the Germans.  Edith had close contact with Prince Réginald de Croy at his château near Mons, a patriot who provided them with false papers and money.  Another in the group, Philippe Baucq, provided them with guides.  This placed Cavell in violation of German military law.

She was arrested on 3 August 1915 and held in Saint-Gilles prison for ten weeks.  She was prosecuted as a traitor for aiding British and French soldiers, in addition to young Belgian men, to cross the border and eventually enter Britain.  It is believed that she saved the lives of over 200 men thanks to her bravery.

Edith was shot for treason, not for spying as often claimed, at 7:00 am on 12 October 1915.  Belgian women immediately buried her body next to Saint-Gilles Prison.  After the War, her body was taken back to Britain for a memorial service at Westminster Abbey then transferred to Norwich, to be laid to rest on the east side of Norwich cathedral.

December 2017 meeting.  Thirty two members turned out for the Society’s AGM on a very cold evening with slippery road conditions following recent snowfall.  After the formal proceedings four local speakers gave short presentations.

 Garry Warrington (Over).  From the 1870s the Fenland Skating Society organised annual competitions for its many members and visitors, with the administration being centred at Over in recent decades.  Skating was done locally on Mare Fen to the north of the road between Swavesey and Over but the favourite site was at Bury Fen near Earith.  One event took place on frozen settling ponds at Milton sewage works, becoming smelly as the ice melted.  Examples of different types of skates were on display along with skating course designs and early photographs.

 Noreen Morgan (Swavesey) recently discovered many documents and photographs about her grandparents.  Her grandmother was a prison warder at Holloway Prison from 1913, during the time of the Suffragettes.  Her grandfather who was a career soldier in the Royal Hussars was injured in World War I, although the nature of his injury is not yet discovered.  He survived and subsequently worked for the Eaden Lilley high class store in Cambridge, with the family living in a house owned by Eaden Lilley.  Some photographs were shown but more remain to be processed.

 Eileen Webster (Over) reported on continued research into her early relatives of the Bicheno family, going back to her 7th generation of grandparents in the 1500s and 1600s.  Links with the university and Civil War support for the King but also favouring of the Quaker religion were discovered along with one family member being Mayor of Cambridge.  At one time senior positions were held in the government of Hobart in Tasmania and eventually family members became printers and bookbinders in the area of the University Bookshop opposite the Senate Building in Cambridge.

 Selwyn (Swavesey) spoke on cereal harvest in the Fens in years gone by.  The sequence of events from cutting the crop with a tractor-drawn binder, shocking up the sheaves in the field, carting by horse and cart to the stackyard and stack building, then thatching followed eventually by threshing the grain was covered in pictures from the time.  When the contractor came in with his steam engine, threshing drum and straw jack it was common to have 10 men working on the many tasks as a team which would move round each farm in the village.

After the speakers a light buffet, including mulled apple juice, was kindly provided by the Committee Members.

November 2017 meeting.  Anthony Haskins of Oxford Archaeology East gave a talk to a large audience on The Great Fen Spitfire.  In the afternoon of 22 November 1940 Pilot Officer Harold Penketh of 266 Squadron, based at RAF Wittering, climbed high on a training flight to 28,000 feet with two colleagues beside him.  He was seen to break formation, entering a dive from which he failed to fully recover. Witnesses stated that his aircraft partially recovered at around 2000 feet but immediately re-entered a dive and struck the ground vertically.  He was 20 years old and had only 13 hours of flying Spitfires logged.  He didn’t bale out.  Investigation suggested failure of the oxygen system was possibly the cause of the accident.  His body was recovered from the wreck within days and returned to his home town of Brighton.  The site of the crash was near Holme Lode Farm, Holme.  Over seven days in October 2015 Oxford Archaeology East excavated the Spitfire.  The BBC Countryfile programme visited the site during excavation.

A geophysical survey pinpointed where the plane crashed and located the Merlin engine at 2 to 3 metres below the surface.  Remains of the Spitfire, including the engine block and parts of the cockpit were found in-situ along with other parts of the airframe, plus the pitot tube from the wingtip, used to measure airspeed, and.303 ammunition.  There was much paint still on the bodywork, including red paint on part of the tail.  On day 5 two of the three propeller blades were unearthed.  Some of the pilot’s personal effects were discovered, including a cigarette case engraved with his initials.  His watch was also found and although the hands had rusted away they had left an imprint at 2.20 – the time of the crash.

Within days of the excavation finishing The Great Fen Heritage Group began the process of washing pieces of airframe and other finds.  Over a nine-month cleaning period the volunteers sorted through large bags of miscellaneous pieces which were then hand brushed, washed and left to dry.  The engine block, propeller and numerous small finds are now preserved and stored at The Pathfinder Museum at RAF Wyton to be put on display there.  Guided tours of the museum can be organised for members of the public to see the preserved parts.

October 2017 meeting.  Nearly sixty people attended to hear Eddy Edwards from Welney give a thoroughly well-researched talk on The Hovertrain Experiments which took place within 5 miles north of Over/Swavesey in the early 1970s.

About three quarters of a mile south of Sutton Gault there are three vertical concrete slabs, each around three feet tall, standing in line adjacent to the Old Bedford River.They were erected in 1972 and are almost all that is left of an elevated concrete "guideway" track planned to run between Earith and Sutton Gault and on which a hovertrain was to be tested. Cambridgeshire County Council erected an information board nearby a few years ago which has some information about the hovertrain experiments.

The principle was that a cushion of air would suspend the train above the track as already used in hovercraft on the sea.It was propelled by a linear electric motor with no moving parts and using a trackside electrical supply with no overhead wires.The developers, Tracked Hovercraft Ltd, (THL), a subsidiary of the government agency the National Research Development Corporation (NRDC), predicted that the journey from London to Birmingham would take around 20 minutes and London to Edinburgh about 90 minutes since it would travel at around 240 to 300 miles per hour.

A site was sought where a dead-straight track, 20 miles long, could be built and the stretch alongside the Old Bedford River from Earith to Salters Lode was considered ideal. Construction of ancillary works started in June 1969 at Earith and by June 1970 one mile of guideway track was finished at low level. Construction of a high level track on pylons continued in the Sutton Gault area since the train was intended to speed through the countryside high above existing infrastructure but in July 1970 a serious collapse of this stretch occurred.In August 1971 RTV31 (Research Test Vehicle), weighing 22 tons and the only train built, was delivered by road to Earith from Vickers-Armstrong in Swindon and at its first public demonstration in December it reached 12 mph. During 1972 work continued to lengthen the track to 3 miles and plans were made for a 12 mile track which engineers now said was needed in order to attain 300 mph.

In January 1973 the hovertrain achieved 107 mph but in the next month, February 1973, the project was abandoned, partly due to insufficient government funding and partly because British Rail seemed to be making good progress with their Advanced Passenger Train (APT) which tilted on corners for extra speed. Additionally BR had the advantage of already established infrastructure including tracks and a large passenger base.The APT project also failed within a few years.

September 2017 meeting.  The new season opened with a room packed full of members and visitors eager to hear Swavesey resident, Selwyn, give a talk on Fenland Farming 60 or 70 years ago, illustrated by around 60 slides from the time.  In the fens to the north west of Downham Market in Norfolk was a large farm built in 1847 which was compulsorily purchased from the lord of the manor by Norfolk County Council in 1919.  His father was one of six smallholders sharing the extensive farm buildings and the surrounding highly productive fenland.  The land in this part of the fens lies at 2 metres below mean sea level and is kept drained by powerful pumps at Wiggenhall St. Germans, south of Kings Lynn, which lift the low level water up into the river Great Ouse.

The main crops grown were potatoes and sugar beet, with a small area of strawberries on almost every smallholding throughout the parish and often a few acres of onions or peas.  Cereals were grown, almost reluctantly, to preserve the crop rotation.  Almost all farms kept chickens because the weekly income from eggs was conveniently paid in cash and most kept pigs, with the occasional house cow to provide milk, butter and cream.

Potato picking was a very labour intensive job at that time since it was all done by hand.  Most of the work was done by women because the farmer paid a woman a lower wage than a man for doing the same job.  However, strawberry picking was done by piecework which meant that the picker was paid per pound weight picked.  Many of the women were faster pickers than the men and easily earned enough to pay for a new washing machine, refrigerator or a family holiday in a caravan at Hunstanton.

Sugar beet growing also involved much hand labour since soon after emergence the crop had to be chopped out by hoe and singled by hand then later the weeds within the rows were removed by more hoeing because there were few herbicides available.  At harvest, after the beet were mechanically squeezed out of the ground from underneath, they were pulled up by hand and knocked together to remove soil then topped by hand and loaded up onto carts.  Heaps of beet were usually made along the roadside ready to be loaded by hand into a lorry for transport to the factory at Wissington.  At cereal harvest, and particularly when threshing corn stacks, farmers worked together in gangs as they moved around each farm.  It was not unusual to have ten men working in dusty conditions on the stacks and around the threshing tackle.

Tools on display included a seed potato tray, potato picking basket, potato ladle (fork), potato sack with sack-needle and string, sugar beet ladle, beet topping hook, scythe and rubstone.  Unfortunately there was insufficient time during coffee break for attendees to have a go at sharpening the scythe with the rubstone.

June 2017 meeting.  The booked speaker reported at a late stage that she was unable to attend so Carole Pook, the Society’s Chairman, checked her extensive repertoire of presentations and delivered a fascinating talk on witchcraft, persecution and the Pendle Witches.

Before about 1600 when the country was under Catholic rule witchcraft was not illegal in England.  Certainly there was a recognised wise woman in most villages who acted as midwife, nurse and apothecary using herbs to cure illnesses and injuries.  Although these women were often believed to have magical powers similar to witches they were accepted in society and even Edward IV’s Queen Elizabeth Woodville in the second half of the 15th century was regarded as a witch.  With the Reformation, the Protestants took a different view and when James I came to the throne the law changed since he was convinced that witchcraft was evil.  The King James Bible says “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.  Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson wrote plays about witchcraft and Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606 probably to please James I.  Witches were nearly always women and it was considered that women living on their own were more likely to be witches because they were outside any man’s control.  From around 1600 to about 1750 a witchcraft craze engulfed Europe with thousands executed.  In England around 500 witches were put to death over this period but the persecution was much more vigorous throughout Europe.

In 1612 in a remote part of north-east England, Catholic views were still largely adhered to but the ruling class wished to bring in the laws of King James.  In this village around Pendle Hill were two rival families with an awesome reputation for witchcraft: the Chattox and the Demdike families.  A good living could be made at the time by posing as witches and the two families, both rather poor, were each trying to make a living from healing by the use of herbs and magical powers but also straying into begging and extortion apparently.  

One day in March 1612 Alizon, one of the young Demdikes met John Law, a pedlar, and asked him for some pins.  Law refused and they parted but as she looked back Alizon saw Law stumble and apparently become instantly lame.  Seeing the chance of some prestige in being regarded as a powerful witch Alizon confessed that she caused the injury.  Within days the local JP summoned 3 of the Demdikes who quickly accused the Chattox family of even more serious crimes linked to witchcraft.  Three days later two Chattox members and one Demdike were summoned by the J.P. The situation very rapidly deteriorated, culminating in one of the most famous witch trials in England which took place at Lancashire Assizes on 18/19 August 1612 when 19 people went on trial en masse.  Ten were from the group of twelve known as the Pendle Witches.  By now the Pendle Witches were charged with the murders of ten people by the use of witchcraft.  Of the ten - eight women and two men – nine were found guilty and executed by hanging; one was found not guilty.  In 1736 all laws against witchcraft were repealed.

May 2017 meeting.  Since everyone likes maps, close on 70 members attended a presentation on 100 years of maps and surveys by Liz Carter, an experienced AEA speaker from Upton, near Alconbury.  Liz detailed the history of survey maps.  Originally they were ordinance maps for military use and these were the bases for the 1910 Ordnance Survey maps.  Liz demonstrated several sites of these surveys, beginning with mapco.net which is an excellent free-access site for maps, including many old maps of London.  It also leads to the very useful Lewis’s map of England, 1840.  Zooming in provides much detail.  Additionally, the National Library of Scotland has put on line, entirely accessible for free, old maps of England, Scotland and Wales, again with a zoom facility.

The National Farm Survey, carried out between 1940 and 1943, was part of the Dig for Victory campaign to increase food production and is a map-based survey covering all holdings of 5 acres or more.  The information is only available at the National Archives.  Each farm on the maps is linked by four documents, the “prime survey” being completed by a surveyor.  This gives details of the farmer and his family, how much land is rented or owned and how long the land has been occupied and even goes as far as listing the ability of the farmer as A, B or C depending on his attitude and competence.  The farmer filled in the second document with details on his livestock and farm labourers.  The third document covered all crops on the farm and the fourth listed motive power since this study was done at a time when horses were still widely used.

The 1910 Finance Act lead to what was unofficially known as the Second Domesday Survey because of the impressive detail it provided for every property, including factories, schools, pubs etc. and even derelict land in E, S and W.  This survey was used for tax purposes and we were shown hand coloured charts with letters used to denote buildings with their precise description in a code, e.g. house B&T meaning a house made of brick and tile with numbers used as reference to all areas of land, large and small.  These maps are available to view at the local county archives office.  Surveyors visited a site to take detailed descriptions of all buildings and measure land after which an appropriate rate of tax was realised.

Other sources of maps and surveys were briefly outlined; thus the 1836 Tithe Commutation Act lead to production of a map-based survey and a detailed written supporting document with both local and national access.

April 2017 meeting.  Around 45 members attended a presentation by David Edwards from Doddington, between Chatteris and March, entitled “In a Fen Country Churchyard”.  

Illustrated by pictures of dozens of gravestones throughout the Cambridgeshire fens, David drew attention to the fascinating amount of information that can be found in their inscriptions which is typically much more interesting than can be found in historical records.  Doddington churchyard includes several examples of gravestones from the 1700’s.  Conversely, whereas the churchyard in March contained around 1,000 in the early 1900's it was cleared of headstones in the 1960's and now resembles a bowling green with only 150 remaining stacked around the perimeter walls.

Many other churchyards in the fens have been cleared of gravestones.  The decoration styles were highlighted with the oldest still standing being from the mid-1600's, these often showing skulls and bones around the top edge.  By 1900 most were just plain slabs.  

Occupations can be deduced from some decorations: one showing sheaves of corn and carrots was the grave of a farmer and that of a blacksmith showed a horseshoe and a pair of pliers.  A gravestone from 1852 in March looks almost brand new with its deep and very clear inscription because it is made of black slate and is the grave of a stonemason.  Several gravestones throughout the fens nearly provide a life history with details of where born, worked, travelled to, exploits and adventures, occupations and place of death.  Many military graves from the 1800's contain much information about the soldier’s military campaigns with Waterloo, The Crimea, Sudan and South Africa mentioned on several.  Another lists details of 3 brothers who died in WW1 over a two year period.  

Accidental death is recorded on many graves, particularly “run over by railway engine” in the March area because of the busy marshalling yards nearby.  One gentleman survived falling in front of a train in 1922 but was killed the second time when he fell in front of a train in 1929.  Run over by tram, shot by own gun, kicked by own horse and killed by lightning are all recorded.  Multiple deaths are recorded in many churchyards.  In March 1943 four occupants of a house were killed when a Wellington Bomber crashed on it – the bomber crew also died.  

Slightly further afield at Kings Lynn is a memorial in the shape of a fishing boat which records the death of all eight crew members of a Scottish fishing vessel in 1875 and at Burwell there is a memorial to seventy eight people, more than half of them children, who burned to death in a barn at a puppet show in 1727.  

The gravestones or memorials of famous people included those in Cambridge of Captain James Cook, explorer and Arthur Benson who wrote the words to Land of Hope and Glory along with Lancelot (Capability) Brown in Fenstanton and in Whittlesey, that of Lieutenant General Sir Harry Smith, Bt who fought in the Napoleonic Wars, India and South Africa.

March 2017 meeting.  Mike Petty is a Cambridgeshire researcher, historian and lecturer who lives in Stretham on the A10, south of Ely.  Once again, several visitors increased the audience to around 60 to hear Mike present reflections on people and places of the Ouse Washes.  The area focuses on about 20 miles of the Old Bedford and New Bedford rivers from Swavesey/Over to Denver Sluice near Downham Market and Mike took us on a tour from south to north.

The numerous snippets of information included;

In the past the wash area between the rivers was widely used for osier production but today cattle graze most of it.  In the early 1970's a hover train, which rose above its track on magnets, was tested on a stretch of track between Earith and Sutton Gault.  It reached 107 mph in January 1973, well short of the intended 250 plus.  

The WW2 airfield at Mepal was used as a missile base during the cold war and was on a high state of emergency alert at the time of the Cuba crisis. As the A142 crosses the washes at high level beside Mepal, the remnant of a former canal joining the two Bedford Rivers can be seen down to the west.  In a farmyard outside The Three Pickerels are still the buildings used to store goods imported by barge through Kings Lynn, including a large former coal shed.  

Just to the north is Fortrey’s Hall, a timber framed house, rebuilt in the 17th Century to create the fenland home of Samuel Fortrey who was one of the Adventurers to drain the fens.  Fortrey's Hall featured in Anthony Trollope's last novel as Folking, John Caldigate's home.  The Bedford Level Corporation levied tolls at frequent intervals along the washes, both on road traffic taking goods and passengers over the two rivers and on loaded barges crossing under them, taking goods to St Ives and beyond.  This income paid for bank work.  

The World Pea Shooting Championship has been held annually since 1971 in the village of Witcham.  William Harrison, the Fenland Poet was born at Pymoor in November 1794.  At Welch’s Dam there are several houses beside the river which look very pretty but in the early 1840's most of the residents of this tiny village died of cholera.  

In the 1840's many people arrived from across the country to live in a kind of hippie commune, being a socialist utopian colony, on nearly 200 acres of land at Manea Fen.  The scheme didn’t last long; financial backing was inadequate and it collapsed after two years.  In the mid-1800s opium was obtained from poppies grown in cottage back gardens to relieve pain but it was also put in the drink of small children to make them sleep all day while mother went to work in the fields.  

During the 19th and early 20th centuries a six mile length of the Old Bedford river north-east of Welney was used as a site to measure the curvature of the earth.  Further detailed information and many stories flowed quickly until we reached Denver Sluice.

February 2017 meeting.  The February meeting was attended by nearly 70, including several new members and yet more visitors.  This large audience had come to hear Dr David Oates’ account of Chivers Jam Factory, 1873 to 1960.  David’s father had been an engineer at the site.  The Chivers family were farmers in Histon, growing mainly arable crops but they diversified into fruit during a period of poor crop returns.  The railway line connecting Cambridge with St Ives and Huntingdon allowed them to send fruit both to London and to northern markets.  On noticing that much of the fruit going north went to jam makers, in 1873 the family, headed by Stephen, made an experimental batch of jam in a barn at Histon and this was an immediate success.  In the many photos shown of the various stages of jam production it was noticeable that vast numbers of staff, mostly young ladies, were employed in each department.  

However, since jam making was seasonal work the company added other products to their list including marmalade which required oranges from Spain later in the season plus lemon curd, jellies, custard powder, soup powder in due course, mincemeat, Christmas puddings and Cambridge lemonade.  This wide range of activity provided work for their staff all year round.  Stone jars were used as containers initially but by 1885 they were also using glass jars.  In 1907 the first British fruit canning factory was completed on the site.  The company was self-sufficient in that it produced its own baskets for fruit picking, developed all of its own machinery for fruit sorting, jam filling, can making, sterilisation equipment and silver plating of the copper boiling vats.  In 1960 the entire business was sold to Schweppes, although the family bought most of the farms back in 1961.  The trading name “Chivers” was last used by the farms in 2007.