Sunday, 27 November 2016

Riots at Little Thetford, Rector in peril getting to Even Song

Little Thetford Church Yard

It seems hard to imagine it now, but in 1833, this church yard and quiet village was the scene of a pitched battle between the villagers and the Constabulary.  When on the following evening my three x great grandfather, the Rev'd Henry Hervey Baber arrived to take the service, the villagers at once tried to prevent his entering the church in protest.

On the 16th of November 1833 a notice had appeared in the local press, announcing the intention of the promoters to apply for an Act of Parliament to enclose the common lands of Stretham and Little Thetford.  In order to do this a number of legal formalities had had to be undertaken including pinning notices to the Church doors of the villages concerned, and the solicitors clerks set out to Stretham and Little Thetford to post the notices. At Stretham this seems to have happened with no immediate repercussions.

However at Little Thetford, perhaps forwarded by the appearance of the notice on Stretham Church door, when Thomas Archer and his clerks arrived they found a dozen villagers who were opposed enclosure waiting for them, each armed with bludgeons, who prevented the official getting to the church door, determined to prevent the posting of the legal notice.

The clerks retired thwarted in their intention, to Ely where they went to visit the local magistrates, who ordered ten constables to accompany the clerks to see that the job was completed.

It must have seemed to the magistrates that ten constables would have been more than a match for the original twelve villagers, however by the time they arrived back in the village they found that they were confronted not by twelve, but one hundred and fifty protesters, all of whom were armed with sticks.

This must have been just about every adult male from this small village, and quite possibly other protesters from surrounding communities had joined in.

Here is a copy of the notice that had appeared in several local news papers, including the Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette and the Cambridge Chronicle and Journal. 

            Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette - Saturday 16 November 1833

The notice read as follows, and its text must have been very similar to that, which it had been intended to post onto the church door.


NOTICE is hereby Given, that Application is intended to made in the next Session of Parliament for leave to bring in a bill for dividing, allotting, inclosing, and draining the several Open Fields, Commons, Meadow and Commonable Lands and Waste Grounds within the parish of Stretham and hamlet of Thetford, in the Isle of Ely and County of Cambridge, and such portions of fen called Grunty Fen, in the said Isle and County, (being an intercommon between the said parish and hamlet, and the parishes of Wilburton, Haddenbam, Wentworth, Witchford, and Saint Mary, in Ely, in the said Isle and County, or some of them) as may be equal in value to the rights and interests of the several commoners and inhabitants of the said parish of Stretham and hamlet of Thetford over the same: and for exonerating from tithes the said fields, com mons, lands, and waste grounds, and the said portions of the aforesaid fen, and all other the titheable lands and properties within the said parish of Stretham and hamlet of Thetford. And that is intended to make provision in the said Bill for appropriating for the exclusive benefit and enjoyment of the Poor Inhabitants of the said parish of Stretham and hamlet of Thetford. certain parts of the said fen or of the said commons. And Notice is further Given, that provision is also intended to be made in the said Bill for altering, amending, or repealing an act passed in the sixth year of the reign of His Majesty King George the third, entitled, "An Act for draining and preserving Stretham Common in the Isle of Ely "and County of Cambridge; and for empowering " the Commissioners for putting in Execution an Act for the effectual draining and preservation of Waterbeach Level in the County Cambridge, and to establish an Agreement made between the Lord of the Manor of Waterbeach-cum-Denny and the Commoners within the said Manor, to raise Sum " of Money to pay the Debts owing upon the Credit "of the said Act." And that provision will also be made in the said Bill for embanking, draining, and preserving, as well such of the said commons and meadow and commonable lands as may require to be embanked and drained, as also certain low lands situate within the said hamlet of Thetford, and parish of the Holy-Trinity in Ely, and the parish of Saint Mary in Ely, and between certain bank, called Cawdle-Fen Bank, and a certain common, called Hall-Fen Common, and certain other low lands and grounds situate within the said hamlet, called Reed Fen and Langmore grounds.—Dated this eighth day of November, 1833.
By Order,

EVANS, ARCHER, and EVANS, Solicitors.

Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette - Saturday 16 November 1833

Eventually the police withdrew bruised, however the villagers remained on watch until midnight.

The next afternoon, being a Sunday, the Rector, Henry Hervey Baber, arrived to conduct the service of Evensong, and the watchers resisted his approach to the Church, “No church today” they shouted, however the rector persisted and was eventually able to enter the Church with his church warden, who had been one of the protesting crowd. [1]

The objections to the inclosure act was not just coming from the poorest of the villagers, but from a vocal and well organised group of villagers who appear to have including many of the tenant farmers. 

They were sufficiently well organised to be able to publish their own advertisements in the local press objecting to the inclosures.  The following fascinating advertisement names many of those who must have taken part in the demonstration and fracas in the street at Little Thetford.

Friday 22nd of November 1833,  Cambridge Chronicle and Journal 

The Rector was at this time relatively new in the living, having been presented to it in 1827, as a reward for his efforts in publishing the facsimile of the Alexander Codex, and to supplement his salary as Keeper of the Printed Books at the British Library.  This meant that until 1835 when he resigned his post at the Library, he can have only been present in the villages of Stretham for parts of the year, and that he must have employed curates to read the services in his place. 

Revd Henry Hervey Baber, Rector of Stretham Cum Thetford.

It was probably because those involved in the affray were in many cases substantial farmers and villagers, that the magistrates appear to have been very restrained in their treatment of those involved when they came before the bench in Ely.

In consequence of the extreme unpopularity of the proposed inclosure among the small commoners, attempts to post the notices church doors in each place was resisted. At Stretham, however, a notice was eventually posted; but at Thetford the whole population rallied, from the farmer to the servant, with their wives and children - all were in readiness to resist the posting of the notice in arms.
Mr. Thomas Archer, one of the solicitors for the bill, attended by a host of constables, sworn in for the occasion, was successfully resisted. It is but right to state that their resistance was as peaceable as, under the circumstances, might be expected. An information against eleven of the inhabitants was heard before the magistrates at Ely, on Thursday last, when all the parties were discharged upon entering into recognizances. The excitement was beyond all precedent, and particularly as regards Grunty Fen, which belongs to nearly all the surrounding parishes. The attempt to inclose Grunty Fen, some fifty years ago, brought forward an opposition nearly amounting to a riot.

Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette - Saturday 30 November 1833

The Main Street in Little Stretham, opposite the church. Presumably the site of the struggle with the Constabulary.

Why were the villagers so exercised by the proposals to inclose the land?

The Fens and especially the Isle of Ely had a long tradition of resistance to outsiders, going back to at least Hereward the Wake. Oliver Cromwell had lived in Ely, and was well aware of the popular resistance to the drainage of the Fens during the 1830's.

The Fens to the east and north of Stretham were amongst the deepest and most waterlogged, so that they remained as marshland until much later than more accessible and less deep areas had first been reclaimed.

Nearby Wicken Fen represents the closest that we can get today to seeing what the land around Little Thetford and Stretham was like in 1833.

The land was covered in marshland, reeds and wet land woods, which was seasonally flooded each Winter and in wet periods.  In the Summer months it was dry enough over much of its area for cattle to be fed in the marshes. The reeds were cut and sold for many miles inland for thatching houses, and year round there was a rich harvest of fresh water fish and wildfowl. Rents were generally low.

The following photo taken recently at the National Trust's reserve at Wickham Fen, which is being returned to its former wetland status, gives a very good idea of what the landscape around Little Thetford and Stretham looked like before the drainage. Cattle including Highland Cattle were droved as two and three year olds from Scotland and the North West of England to markets where local farmers would buy them, each year to turn out on the summer grazing.  These cattle, previously only used to sparse upland vegetation, would rapidly fatten ready for onward droving first to St Ives market, and then London in time for the Christmas markets. 

Modern Highland Cattle at Wicken Fen

Surprisingly examples of the former vegetation that was living and growing at Stretham and from the surrounding Fens at this very time survive in the Botanical Libraries of Edinburgh and Cambridge in the form of pressed plants and flowers.

They demonstrate the former marshy situation that they grew in.  The samples were taken in the 1830's by Henry Hervey Baber's son Harry Baber, who was a student of Theology at nearby Cambridge University. Whilst studying there he had been very interested in botany, and had studied under the Rev Philip Henslow, who had been one of Darwin's tutors.  Harry's father was also responsible for the British Libraries botanical collection, which later on, would be separated out and formed the core of the future National History Museum.  This sample was one of a number of aquatic plant species that Harry sent to the Botanical Collection at Edinburgh University, where they have recently been photographed as part of their digitising of their collections.

Carex Hirta (Hairy Sedge) collected by Harry Baber at Stretham in 1838.

It had become possible to drain and convert the land to arable uses by drainage because of the advances in steam pumping engines that had been taking place in the previous decade.  In 1831 a very large pumping engine had been built to the east of Stretham, which still survives. A Mr Glynn had been commissioned in 1829 to develop a proposal for this very large new pumping station.  By 1831, complete with its 75 feet tall chimney it was brought into service.[2]

The beam engine had been manufactured by the Butterley Company and must have taken a considerable effort to move from Derbyshire to Stretham and to erect.

Stretham Steam Pumping Station.

The cost of the coal for the pumping station was met by levying a tax per acre onto the land of the surrounding parishes, and these added financial burdens put pressure on farmers and graziers who didn't have the capital to invest in hedging and draining their individual farms.

An extract of the Ordnance Survey map of Little Thetford circa 1890.

Although this map shows the later railway, and indeed the field boundaries and drains installed following the inclosures, it still show the names of the former boundaries, including in this case Thetford Cow Common.  As can be seen the common extended over the site of many local fields laid out in 1837.  Before the inclosures the villagers held the Common Rights "in Common" and were each able to turn out a set number of cattle onto the Common, so that many cows from the village would all be grazing together.  With the inclosure acts all of this was done away with.  By the time the Act was proposed at Stretham and Little Thetford enclosure Acts had previously been enacted in many other villagers, so that the villagers were under few illusions as to what to expect.

The open and potentially dangerous nature of the land at Little Thetford prior to its draining is illustrated by the fate of a drover returning to Ely who had lost his way in 1830. Stretham and Little Thetford were on the main London to Ely and Kings Lynn Road.  Both villages were situated on low islands that were raised just above the surrounding marshland, and in wet weather with the floods out, it must have been easy to become confused. The route north into Ely involved crossing several deep drains.

Friday 26 February 1830 Cambridge Chronicle and Journal

A modern map showing the location of Little Thetford relative to Ely and Stretham
Cambridge is about ten miles to the south of the map.

The Rector found himself caught up in the resentment for many reasons.  The primary one was that the farmers had to pay tithes to the Rector, and these represented a substantial amount of their annual income.  In many cases the same farmers were Dissenters, or Non-Comformists, and as such they disliked supporting the Established Church.  The issue became really complicated, because in most cases, the Inclosure Act was intended amongst other things, to compound for the tithes by allotting the Rector an area of Glebe Lands with which in future he would be able to grow his own income, and the villagers would no longer have to pay him tithes.

There was also the issue of Puralism, or absentee parsons. Throughout the 18th Century the religious fervour and rigour than had applied in the 17th Century fell away, and with so did church attendances.  Many of the richest parishes also came to belong to institutions like the Oxford & Cambridge Colleges.  The incomes from these parishes became dedicated to the support of academics in those Colleges, and the incumbents rarely ever visited their parishes in person.

A very telling letter appeared in the local Huntingdon, Bedford & Peterborough Gazette complaining about this situation.  Oddly enough the Rector of Stretham is singled out as being one of the few who did at least attend his parish, if only for part of the year.

Saturday 20 September 1834, Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette

In Henry Hervey Baber's case he had been given the living specifically to support his income because his salary from the British Library was too low.  By externalising the cost the Board of the Library were able to avoid raising their budget.  In 1834 Henry would give evidence at the Royal Commission saying that it was no longer acceptable that the Keeper of the Printed Books be a pluralist, and that the salary should be increased.

He also handed in his notice, and retired to Stretham.

Friday 21 August 1835, Cambridge Chronicle and Journal

The actual process of inclosure seems to have taken nearly a decade to implement.  It caused a large scale reorganisation of the entire landscape, and required many families to commit to major fencing and drainage works.

The Fence and Ditches from the Inclosure Award are evident in this 1890's map.

Many of the meetings to arrange the work of dividing up the parish lands took place in the Lamb Inn in Ely, which survives to this day. Did the Rector attend along with the other villagers?

The Lamb Inn, Ely.

Here is an example of one such meeting called at the Lamb in the following notice published in the Cambridge Chronicle in November 1835.

Friday 20 November 1835, Cambridge Chronicle and Journal

Before the Inclosure, the individual farmers land had generally been interleaved with that of many others. In future it would be combined into contiguous blocks wherever possible.  The other boundary fences were erected by the Commissioners who were undertaking the Inclosure, but in due course they would charge the farmers for it.  Many of the roads were also realigned, and until these could be rebuilt, this must have reduced the roads to an absolute mud fest until such time as they could be surfaced.

The villagers themselves were responsible for this road making. It was generally done in winter using labourers and their families who had been reduced to dependency on the Poor Law.  To get the stones, they were expected very often to stone pick the newly ploughed soil, which can have been no fun at all throughout the winter months, carrying the stones in sacks or baskets across the fields to the dump in the newly fenced lanes. Here is an advertisement for the fencing work.

Saturday 15 October 1836, Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette

By 1837, the bulk of the work had been completed on the enclosures, and the formal award was announced, with the lands being handed out.


WE, the Commissioners acting under and by virtue of Act of Parliament passed in the 5th and 6th years of the reign of his late Majesty King William the Fourth, entitled "An Act for inclosure and allotting lands in the Parish of Stretham, the Isle of Ely and "county of Cambridge, and for the Commutation " of Tithes," do hereby give notice, that we shall hold a SPECIAL GENERAL MEETING at the Lamb Inn, in Ely, on Wednesday the sixth day of September next, at ten o’clock the forenoon, for the purpose of reading over and executing our Award in the presence of such the Proprietors as may think proper attend, and of transacting any other business relative the said Inclosure that require our attention.—Dated this 17th day of August, 1837.

For many of the smaller farmers, whose allotments were often too small to adequately support their families the effects were dire. With the land no longer held at least in part as common land, and with it all fenced off, it was no longer as easy to forage as it had been in earlier years.  With the land increasingly drained, there was much less opportunity for fishing or wild fowling to supplement the pot.

Many of the farms were sold in the following years, and the ownership of land was consolidated into the hands of many fewer larger farmers.  Many smallholders who had previously eked out a living, working seasonally on the holdings of the larger farmers, and who grew subsistence crops or foraged to supplement their incomes became dependent on the parish.

As I will show in a future blog, this led to an unfortunate series of events in Stretham, that would affect both the Rector, but also many of the villagers profoundly. 

[1] I acknowledge the assistance of  Steve Skerry who wrote an excellent leaflet and notice board in 1995, which appears inside Little Thetford Church setting out these events.

[2] See  The pumping station is open at weekends and public holidays, but it is advisable to check with the trusts website before you set out for the details of opening days and times.

The newspaper extracts all come from the excellent British Library online Newspaper Archive, without which this blog would be far less interesting, if indeed possible.