Ramblings: A Short History of Wisbech

Wisbech is a small market town in Cambridgeshire, England. It is situated 100 miles north of London. When you look into the subject, the study of Wisbech s past quickly becomes intriguing.

The ancient buildings have a fascinating (and sometimes unfathomable) history. The rise and fall first of the port and then of the railway make absorbing stories. Everywhere, there are curiosities.

Even local street names are fossilized history: Gaol Street with no gaol; Station Road with no station; a School Lane that leads to no school; Octagon Drive with no Octagon; Turnpike Close with no Turnpike; Oil Mill Lane with no Oil Mill; and Roman Bank a road alongside the river, presumably where possibly the Romans strengthened defences against flooding. H ow did Wisbech get its name? Nobody knows for sure.

Certainly, BECK in Anglo-Saxon meant ‘stream’, and there is not far to the east of Wisbech a River Ouse and a little further a River Wissey. The Ouse or Wissey or both, with their tributaries, flowed into the wide estuary of the sea which a thousand years ago came right up to Wisbech. So ‘Ouse Beck’ or ‘Wisse Beck’ became ‘Wis – bech’?

Possibly. T he river today running through Wisbech is actually called the Nene. It once split into two at Wisbech, one section heading south (to Outwell and then west to Whittlesey and Peterborough) and the other the medieval Great River of Wisbech – heading west (directly to Peterborough, where the two courses met up again).

In the late Twentieth Century, the division of the river running south (known locally for hundreds of years as the Well Stream ) was been filled in from Wisbech to Outwell and a road built over part of it at the Wisbech end. Y ou have to picture the region round Wisbech long ago as flat and swampy, containing goodness knows how many waterways – all of them from time to time obstructed by silt and sand while trying to escape to the nearby sea. By about 1300, the Ouse and the Wissey, with their courses increasingly blocked, found those new outlets several miles east of Wisbech: the Wissey now runs into the Ouse, which itself enters the sea at King s Lynn.

This – and the construction of Morton’s Leam – left the southern branch of the river out of Wisbech much drier. That is the reason why it was eventually filled in during the Twentieth Century. Morton’s Leam (cut from Guyhirn to Peterborough between 1479 and 1486 under instructions from Bishop Morton) is an important drain running roughly parallel to the present River Nene.

T oday, of course, the whole expanse of flat land is drained. Very far around Wisbech, you can hardly travel anywhere for more than a mile without crossing a man-made dike (narrow canal). W isbech was four miles from the North Sea until about 1300.

The silt has left it eleven miles from the coastline today. So the River Nene now heads almost due south from the sea (‘The Wash’) about eleven miles to Wisbech, where it forks off to the west and eventually reaches Peterborough and Oundle. T he first reference to the town appears in a Charter attributed to the Saxon King Wullfere in the year 664.

The Charter is not generally accepted as genuine; but in or about the year 1000 the Saxons Oswy and Leoflede gave the Township to the Monastery of Ely (Ely with its magnificent cathedral is 22 miles away) by a document of recognised authenticity. T here have been several bridges over the River Nene. There was a stone bridge in 1758 but it had a high camber.

In November 1852, it was weakened by flood damage which also carried away part of the Nene Quay. The stone bridge was replaced by an iron bridge, twenty yards west of it. This existed from 1857 until 1931, when it was replaced by the present concrete bridge (constructed alongside the site of the iron bridge).

With increasing traffic, a second bridge became essential and this (the Freedom Bridge) was built in 1971. Between the present two bridges, on both sides of the river, are seventeenth- and eighteenth-century warehouses which were so important in the days of sailing ships, when as many as forty ships could be unloading at any one time. These warehouses have mostly been refurbished recently as flats.

T he authorities in recent years have tried to revive interest in the river by developing a marina, or yacht harbour, north-east of the Freedom Bridge. Typically, one sees about twenty private boats moored there. The position of Wisbech at the outfall of the fen rivers was of paramount importance.

At some time before 1086, William the Conqueror had a castle built in Wisbech to command the entrance from the sea to the fens. The castle was held and garrisoned by the Crown, and was visited by King John in 1216, a year after the Magna Carta was extorted from him by the Barons. He was pursuing his lightning march through the country at the head of his mercenary forces, burning, ravaging and destroying with terrible ferocity.

On 16 September, he was at Lynn; two days later, he set out for the north, passing the night in Wisbech Castle on his way. But he attempted to travel across the wetland swamp without waiting for the ebb tide and thus lost his army, his baggage train, his treasure, and (so it was said) the crown. He reached Sleaford on 14 October with his surviving followers, was stricken down by dysentery and died two days later.

By the way, there are now some delightful videos on YouTube about the history of Wisbech – especially the Castle and the the old railway line that used to run to Upwell. I recommend them. You could start with this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ickWlkfYcrc A great advantage Wisbech gained from its position was that it became a port through which ships could sail to Ely, Peterborough, Cambridge and other inland centres, laden with merchandise and heavy goods, at a time when roads, so far as they existed at all, were only too often mere tracks, dangerous in summer and almost impassable in winter.

The network of fen waterways made it possible for ships and boats to pass with facility in every direction. When the fen rivers found a fresh outfall at Lynn, that town gained at the expense of Wisbech; but despite this, the silt that ruined the town’s port also brought benefits: the great quantities of silt and sand brought up by the tides spread themselves over the lands on either side of the river. The valuable silt farms for which the countryside is noted owe their existence to this event.

Ultimately Wisbech became an important market town. At the Norman Conquest, the population of Wisbech was small, but it carried on an important fishing industry. Boats brought back herring, codling and other fish, much of which was salted down for winter use; but of still more importance were the eel fisheries. ( Ely comes from Eel island .) The manors of Wisbech, like the other manors within the Isle of Ely, were in the hands of the Monastery of Ely.

The oldest Wisbech building still in existence today is St. Peter’s Church, which was built, according to tradition, in the year 1111. No traces of an earlier Church on the same site have been found.

What is now known as the Old Market (North of the river) was in ancient times the only market place of Wisbech; but, after the building of the Castle (South of the river), houses and shops appear to have sprung up in the neighbourhood beneath the shelter of its walls; and a new market place was established and is still the town s main Market Place (featured in the photos at the start of this post). It would naturally follow that St. Peter s Church should be built adjoining the Castle moat, where it now stands.

It was built at a time when church builders planned on an ample scale but it was not very long before it was found inadequate, partly, no doubt, owing to the growth of population. The chancel was first lengthened and widened after which much of the splendid Norman arcading in the north aisle was taken down for the purpose of extension; but further building at that time was abandoned, and the remaining Norman pillars thereby obtained a reprieve and are now the subject of general admiration. The Church is remarkable for its double nave, covered by a single high-pitched roof and ceiling.

It contains some exceptionally fine monuments, and on the chancel floor the effigy of Sir Thomas de Braunstone, Knight, Constable of Wisbech Castle, 1401. This brass is one of the largest in England. The imposing old vicarage of this church, having been replaced by a modern house, has become municipal offices.

It is the place where people now go to pay their council tax or to register births and deaths. One of the treasures of the Wisbech Corporation is a manuscript containing the records of the Guild of Holy Trinity. There were several guilds in Wisbech at different times, some of them indeed of earlier date than the one mentioned; but the guild in question was destined to have a decisive influence upon the history of the town.

The guild was founded in 1379, and from the very first it received wide support including that of the principal townspeople, and, indeed, the support of a number of the chief inhabitants of the surrounding district. Primarily religious in its conception, it also helped to relieve the guild brethren in poverty, sickness or infirmity, or for loss of goods by fire, robbery or floods. The guild hall was in Ship Lane, as it was then known, approximately on the site now occupied by the Empire Theatre.

In quite early days, the Guild established and maintained a school, the precursor of the Wisbech Grammar School. In 1547 all guilds, fraternities and charities (with a few exceptions) were suppressed by Act of Parliament, their valuable work for so long continued was brought to an abrupt ending, and their endowments vested in the Crown. There was, however, a remarkable sequel.

Supported by the Bishop of Ely, the inhabitants petitioned for the vesting of the lands in the leading townsmen, and 616 acres were accordingly handed over upon terms which were undoubtedly moderate, namely the payment of 260 10s.

10d. On receipt of this sum, the Crown granted the property to the inhabitants, and elevated the town into a corporation on 1 June 1549, with a common seal and the right to hold lands. The possession of these lands, and the steadily rising income which they brought in as rentals, placed the finances of the Corporation on a solid basis and enabled them to go ahead without being unduly hampered by pecuniary difficulties.

The government of the town was thereafter to be exercised by Ten Men to be elected by the inhabitants; and provision was made for one schoolmaster who was to be paid 12 and 8 shillings a year. The ten men also had control of the town’s port. There was no mention of a Mayor in the Charter; but the ‘Bailiff’ became the Mayor as from 1835; ‘Aldermen’ and ‘Councillors’ at the same time replaced ‘Capital Burgesses’.

A further charter was granted in 1611 by James I, extending the scope of the first one. For about a hundred years after the great flood of 1236 the Castle seems to have been held by the Crown and subsequently by the Crown and the Prior of Ely jointly; and about the middle of the Fourteenth Century it was granted to the Bishop of Ely. Bishop’s courts were held there and felons incarcerated.

The Castle fell into disrepair in the Fifteenth Century. Under Elizabeth I, it was used as a prison for about 35 Roman Catholic recusants; and over a period of 40 years, there were several escapes. The Bishops held the Castle until the Civil War, when it was seized by Parliament and sold by them to John Thurloe, Secretary to the Council of State, and head of Oliver Cromwell’s secret service.

Thurloe demolished the Castle and replaced it with a fine building after the style of Inigo Jones, which he completed just in time for it to be forfeited to the Bishop of Ely upon the Restoration of Charles II. The house was sold to Joseph Medworth of Bermondsey, London, in 1793 for 2305. Whatever remained of the original castle (apart from some interesting underground tunnels, which can still be visited to this day), had by now been destroyed; and Medworth erected a fine Georgian house there in 1816 – the house which is still known as ‘Wisbech Castle’ and which is occasionally used for filming purposes. ‘David Copperfield’, for BBC television in the 1990s, is an example.

It was Joseph Medworth who also developed the Georgian Crescent round the castle just inside where the medieval moat must have been. Near the Castle is a narrow passageway called Love Lane. It contains five one-storey almshouses (now renovated), provided in 1813 by Joseph Medworth, who had himself once been a Wisbech charity boy.

Wisbech Market Place the one which developed outside the wall of the castle – has been in operation since the Twelfth Century. There was long ago a Shire Hall on the Market Place. By 1492, there were 115 tenants of the Bishop living around the Market.

Saturday Markets (still held today) are known to have existed at that time. A local priest complained in his diary that a ‘noisy and riotous crowd’ had misbehaved at some festivity in the Market Place, with ‘the inevitable overthrow of all modesty and good morale among both sexes in the lower walk of society’. (I recall that in the 1990s, the young thieves and vandals smashed randomly-chosen shop fronts on Saturday nights – week after week after week. Shopkeepers were being driven out and several shops were boarded up and abandoned.) Three thousand people attended a feast in the Market Place in 1814 to celebrate peace after the Flanders War (this was before Waterloo).

Wisbech is perhaps unusual in having TWO market places. While the Market Place on the south side is rectangular and large, that on the north side is relatively small with a shape vaguely triangular. Amazingly, this was already referred to as the Old Market as early as 1221, in a deed now in the British Museum.

The Old Market is now mainly used for car parking. The fine Georgian buildings around it testify to the golden days of the river trade. One of the attractive buildings alongside the Old Market was the Octagon Church.

I know it only from photographs. I am told it decayed and became dangerous. It was closed for ever in 1946 and later pulled down and replaced by a bank.

Built in 1831, this building – styled on the Octagon of Ely Cathedral – was used as a chapel of ease. Hundreds of lives were lost in and around Wisbech during the Great Flood of 1236. And in 1613, floods turned Wisbech into an island.

Other notable floods have been in 1308, 1316,1327,1334, 1337, 1570 and 1571. Much of the English coastline was damaged by great floods in 1953 and again in 1978. On both occasions, the area near Wisbech Docks (temporarily) suffered badly.

The river never freezes in modern times; but it used to. In 1763, there was a skating race along the river from Wisbech to Whittlesey. The winner completed the course in 46 minutes at an average speed of 15 miles an hour.

The River Nene today is about thirty yards wide where it flows through Wisbech; hence the need for bridges. However, in 1751, it was so silted up that people were able to get across on foot and vessels had to unload much closer to the Sea. Straightening and embanking improved matters over the next fifty years.

In bygone times, when Fenlanders suffered badly from the swampy conditions and contracted rheumatic and respiratory diseases, they would combat fevers by smoking cannabis – the dried leaves of the hemp plant – which at the time grew profusely. Fen people objected to the drainage schemes of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries because they knew the population of wildfowl would be reduced. Wildfowling was a big industry.

So Fenmen would not help with digging the many drains, dikes and canals with which the region is now criss-crossed. The work was done by gangs of Dutchmen and prisoners of war. The best year ever for the Port of Wisbech was 1847, when 167,442 tons of cargo were recorded.

By 1910, the figure had fallen to 89,333 tons, but this still involved 594 vessels. Today, it is unusual if more than one of two cargo ships dock each week. Richard Young (1809 – 1871) was Wisbech’s leading ship owner.

He had 43 ships. His speciality was shipping coal from Sunderland to Wisbech. (Wisbech s other major shipping import was timber from the Baltic.) He had a magnificent house (the three-storey Osborne House) built for himself near the river. Young was the Mayor of Wisbech between 1858 and 1862.

Later, he became a Member of Parliament (but for South Cambridgeshire, not Wisbech). His pride and joy was a ship called ‘Lady Alice Lambton’. It was used on 9 August 1853 to take 800 people on a day trip to the mouth of the Humber.

The population of Wisbech is estimated to have been 2000 in 1700. The Census of 1801 shows the figure by then to have risen to 4710. The coming of the railways to Wisbech in 1847 (incidentally doing great damage to the trade of Wisbech Port) had a striking effect on population increase.

The creation of railway stations led to the development of many new roads and dwellings, usually near the stations themselves. In 1861, there were 9272 inhabitants and by 1931 the figure was 12006. The population of Wisbech today is about 20,000.

As a shopping centre, the town serves twice that number, because it is visited regularly by the inhabitants of the many surrounding villages in Fenland, Cambridgeshire and also neighbouring Lincolnshire and Norfolk. By 1848, Wisbech had two railway stations. The main station on the South Brink connected with March Town, and so to Cambridge and London.

The other station became known as Wisbech East and connected with King’s Lynn.

1866 brought another station, this one in Harecroft Road, on the north side of the river, about a mile from the town centre. Trains from here went cross-country in a westerly direction, serving a number of villages. In 1884, the Great Eastern Railway opened a branch line known as the ‘Steam Tramway’.

As you may have seen if you watched the video I recommended, it ran from Wisbech alongside the Well Stream already mentioned, to the village of Upwell (seven miles south of Wisbech). I believe it was this line that inspired the local vicar and author Rev. Awdry to produce his ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ series of children’s books.

Passengers were carried on this line until 1928 but it could not make a profit. One of the original coaches is now in the Cambridge Museum of Technology. I remember the last vestiges of the line but they have all been taken up now and much of the former rail track land (still quite distinctive in places) has been built on.

So at one time, there were four passenger railway lines running out of Wisbech. Now the town has none, though the old tracks that linked it to March still exist. Branch lines which used to feed the villages around Wisbech have all gone, though I always find it moving to see evidence of them – pubs with such names as ‘The Locomotive’, or Station Road, or old gates that were obviously part of railway crossings.

Just occasionally, you come across a signal box that has been converted to some other purpose, but most have been pulled down. Even in the days before the railway, it was reasonably easy to travel to London, which is about 100 miles south of Wisbech. In the 1770s, for example, you could go in the mail coach which left daily at 4pm.

The fare was twenty-five shillings (inside) or half-price outside. Or you could travel in the stage coach which operated on three days of the week (eighteen shillings inside; nine shillings outside). The pioneer photographer Samuel Smith (1802 – 1892) lived on the outskirts of Wisbech, in the village (or rather suburb) called Leverington.

Just a decade after the invention of photography, he set up as a photographer in Wisbech. One hundred and ninety of his negatives are in the Wisbech Museum. The importance of his work was not fully recognized until an exhibition of it was given in London in 1973.

A book of his photographs has been published, showing many daily scenes in Wisbech one hundred and fifty years ago. In those days, long exposures (fifteen minutes!) were needed, so he had to persuade people to keep very still while they posed. Often he would set the exposure going and then walk round to get into the picture himself.

Usually, with his street scenes, the roads look completely empty (as in the 1857 photograph at the top of this post). This is because people would walk past and not been seen for long enough to be picked up by the camera! Smith was also a collector of shells, coins, insects and geological specimens.

He did much work for Wisbech Museum in its early days, even making cases and arranging displays. Wisbech has had a Post Office since 1793. The first was in Upper Hill Street.

In 1851 it moved to Cornhill. There is a Samuel Smith photo of Mr. Goward, the Post Master, standing outside this office in 1854.

In 1887, the Post Office moved to its present site in a pseudo-Gothic building, near the river and facing the Clarkson Memorial. There has been a telephone service in Wisbech since 1898. A curious thing happened to the local economy in 1823.

Wisbech Corporation was forced to make massive financial cutbacks. (How history repeats itself!) They made a plan to reduce the number of street lights from 237 to 37 and also to make several watchmen and ‘scavengers’ redundant. We do not know whether the plan was thoroughly carried out. The history of formal education in Wisbech is interesting and exemplifies the developments that occurred in country towns throughout England before the great Education Acts of the Nineteenth Century.

But before going back further, I must give one detail of personal interest to me. During the Second World War, the boys from The Stationers’ Company’s School in North London were temporarily evacuated to Wisbech and educated there. I missed this experience, as I became a pupil at The Stationers’ Company’s School a little later.

We have some figures for Wisbech’s early school rolls. In 1710, Wisbech had 50 boys and 40 girls attending its two schools. There were also some ‘dame’ schools.

By 1798, there were 250 boys being taught reading, writing, arithmetic and catechism, while 30 girls were receiving lessons in reading, sewing, knitting and – yes – catechism. In those days, a child attended such a school for just three years. There were other schools.

The Unitarian School in Deadman’s Lane was established in 1803 and took up to 240 boys. The girls’ school was at the junction of Lower Hill Street and Nene Quay: ‘Lower Hill Street School’ was opened in 1814. After 1874, it also accepted infants.

This school closed in 1928. The boys’ school was rebuilt in 1874 (as ‘St. Peter’s School’) on the north side of Stermyn Street.

Its premises are now occupied by an estate agency. There was a Boys’ British School, opened in 1803. It became an infants’ school in 1840, when the ‘boys’ were moved to Victoria Road.

Then in 1879 it became the School for Art, Science and Technology (a forerunner of the Isle College of Further Education which later occupied a large campus half a mile outside the town centre). In 1947 the little School’s use changed again when it became part of the Wisbech Library. Today it is the box office section of the Angles Theatre.

On the south side of Norwich Road, about half a mile from the town centre, there was a small ‘Lecture Hall’ (an inscription saying so was still to be seen over its entrance in the 1970s, when it had long been part of a shop. The original Wisbech Grammar School (a building with stepped gables) is in Hill Street and operated as a school between 1549 and 1898. Today it is a social club.

Like so many other institutions, the old Grammar School owed much of its existence to the generosity of one philanthropist. In this case, it was John Crane, an apothecary, who left much property to the town in 1651, some of it to provide a salary for the Master of the Grammar School. As late as 1837, the Master was still receiving 20 per annum from this bequest.

Originally, the school had been set up by the Guild of the Holy Trinity in the Sixteenth Century. Land for it was acquired in Hill Street in 1549. There was a projecting wing at the back for supplementary use as a meeting place for the burgesses, so it doubled at the time as a Town Hall.

Regarding windmills, the remains of one (in Lynn Road) were converted into an unusual home in approximately 1980. Another windmill (Neal’s Windmill – long gone) was in Hill Street. Like most places, Wisbech suffered frequently from the Plague.

Particularly bad outbreaks are believed to have occurred in the 1580s, one of them killing 140 residents. A ‘pesthouse’ was set up on the north-western outskirts of the town. In the cholera epidemic of 1849, there were 66 deaths in Wisbech.

Because of this and the outbreak in 1854, water supplies and sewerage were massively improved. A special extension to the town centre’s graveyard had been opened in 1832, mainly to accommodate cholera victims. This little patch of green is today treated as a very small park. (I taught my daughter to ride her bike there in the 1960s.) There was once a chapel on the site but that has gone.

The only evidence left of the site’s former use comprises two tombstones – both without legible markings and both within rosebeds. If you head north-west from Wisbech Town Centre, you reach in less than a mile (and after crossing the River Nene) an interesting, small disused and overgrown cemetery. It was known as the Leverington Road Cemetery and was opened in 1835.

It is currently hidden away behind the Asda Store. It had a chapel designed by William Adams in the Doric style. From the fragment that remains of the chapel, it seems to have been unusually magnificent.

On the crumbling tombstones, one can discern such family names as Hotson, Lankfer and Dawbarn (still very common in the area) and it is said that the photographer Samuel Smith was buried there. In the Sixteenth Century, there were disputes between the inhabitants of Wisbech and those of March (a small town 10 miles to the south) over whose sheep and cattle could graze on the common land between. This resulted in fights, malicious killings of animals, and rebukes from the Bishop of Ely.

A similar dispute between Wisbech and Long Sutton (a few miles to the north) had occurred in the Fifteenth Century. There was a gallows on the river bank, a little below Horseshoe Terrace, so presumably public executions were carried out. A gaol, which existed from 1846 until 1878, had 43 cells.

Gaol Road is still there. A local newspaper – ‘The Fenland Advertiser’ (founded 1845, though as The Wisbech Advertiser’) – had its headquarters in Union Street. As we can see from Smith s photos taken in 1858, the name ‘Gardiner’ was right across the top of the shop.

John Gardiner was proprietor and editor of the paper. Gardiner’s son and successor, F.J. Gardiner, in 1898 wrote a book called ‘A History of Wisbech’.

The town has been well served by newspapers. The early 21st Century rival to ‘The Fenland Advertiser’ is ‘The Wisbech Standard’, which was founded in 1868. Other titles (now gone) were ‘The Lynn and Wisbech Packet’ (founded 1800), ‘The Wisbech Observer’ (of 1813), ‘The Star in the East’ (1836), ‘The Wisbech Gazette’ (1837) and ‘The Telegram’ (1877). ‘The Wisbech Standard’ now operates from a small office in the Market Place but not many years ago it had larger premises in Hill Street and (even earlier, as I have seen from old photos) it was on the Nene Quay, in premises now occupied by Grounds Estate Agents.

A few houses in the area are very old. For example, No.

97 Norfolk Street (very close to the town centre) is dated 1701 and has the remains of a Dutch gable. No.

29, Market Place (now a shop), conceals a medieval vaulted cellar, believed to have religious origins. In Hill Street, there is an unusual shop: it is strangely long and ostensibly impractical. This is because it used to be the Fire Station!

A new Fire Station was built half a mile outside the town centre in the 1980s. Norwich Road, which stretches for about a mile away from the town centre in the general direction of Norwich, was originally Marshland Road. It developed as a pleasant suburb from the end of the Eighteenth Century.

The earliest known house (now white cottages) dates from 1793. Alas, this road is hardly a pleasant suburb today. William Godwin grew up in Wisbech.

His father was John Godwin, minister of the Unitarian Chapel (believed to have been situated in what is now Hill Street) from 1748 until 1758. Godwin himself (1756 – 1836) wrote ‘Political Justice’ and ‘Caleb Williams’. He married the philosopher and writer Mary Wollstonecraft: their daughter Mary married Shelley and is best-known as the author of ‘Frankenstein’, though she also wrote other novels considered better.

Octavia Hill (1838-1912) was born in 1838 at 7, South Brink, a house overlooking the river (and now refurbished as a museum in her honour). She was (while inspired by Ruskin and working in London) a housing reformer, a philanthropist and a founder of the National Trust. But the most famous native of Wisbech was Thomas Clarkson (1760 – 1846), educated at Wisbech Grammar School (where his father was the master), a researcher, writer and campaigner who devoted his life to the abolition of slavery.

A splendid 70-foot limestone memorial to him (incorporating his statue) – erected by public subscription in 1880 – stands just south of the River Nene, at the entrance to the Town Centre. It was designed by Sir G. Gilbert Scott and is in Fifteenth-Century Gothic style.

Where the Clarkson Memorial now stands, there was a building called the ‘Butter Market’ or ‘Butter Cross’. It was built in 1801. It had an upper storey supported by open arches.

Magistrates held court there; and it also served for a time as the Customs House. The building was removed at the time of the bridge development in 1856. People today think of Wisbech as an agricultural and fruit-growing region but in fact, fruit growing (mainly apples and strawberries at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century) was introduced by immigrants from Kent only in the Nineteenth Century.

Mr. H.H. Bath in about 1850 employed 1000 fruit-pickers in the season at his 600-acre orchards.

It is hard to believe today that Wisbech was – in the 1850s – the second busiest corn market in England (Wakefield was the first). Having at the time both the port and a railway station must have been important in this respect. In the early Nineteenth Century, land could be bought for between 15 shillings and 40 shillings an acre: the best-drained fetched the highest prices.

In 1837, you could rent a labourer’s cottage at the edge of the Horse Fair (now the Bus Station and part of the town centre’s shopping area) for 6 per annum, or a better-class house in The Crescent for 28 and 10 shillings. The streets of Wisbech were not paved until 1810. Street cleaning dates only from 1721.

Early street lamps were powered by whale oil. Law was maintained (until 1836) by paid watchmen. Their superintendents carried a cutlass, a pistol and a lantern.

In 1836, a Wisbech Police Force (of eight men) was established. By 1900, there were ten policemen. The original Police Station and Sessions House still exists on the South Brink but has in recent years been used the local authority for various purposes.

A modern police station is now situated next to the Freedom Bridge. Jane Stuart, said to have been an illegitimate daughter of James II, sought refuge in Wisbech after her father’s downfall. She earned a living as a worsted spinner and became a Quaker.

She is believed to have been buried in the grounds of the Friends’ Meeting House – one of the fine buildings on the North Brink. Peckover House (now administered by the National Trust) is Wisbech’s most famous and most visited building. Constructed in 1722 (with its low wings added in 1878), it stands picturesquely facing the River Nene from the North Brink.

The house is a splendid, elegant example from the period but today it is the two-acre Victorian-style walled garden that attracts most tourists. It is rich in specimens and interestingly laid out. There is one of the largest maidenhair tress in the country.

Three orange trees in the conservatory fruit regularly. The Peckovers were a Quaker banking family who had a great influence on the history of Wisbech. Peckover House was bought by them in the Nineteenth Century.

Near Peckover House and designed by Algernon Peckover is the Friends Meeting House (mentioned above) of 1854. Further along the North Brink are other houses designed by the Peckovers. These feature curiosities popular with the Victorians: crow-stepped gables, mock Tudor chimneys, fish-scale tiles, hexagonal slates, for example.

Two of the houses on the Brink have little towers gazebos alongside them, viewing points from which the ladies used to watch the shipping. Harecroft House (1844) further along the North Brink was built by Algernon Peckover in the style of an Italian villa for his son Alexander. In 1904, the building became the Girls High School and is now part of Wisbech Grammar School.

The Grammar School became a private, fee-paying school in the final quarter of the Twentieth Century, when its governors declined to let it become part of the state’s ‘comprehensive’ education system. So its pupils today tend to come from wealthy families, some of them bussed in from twenty miles away. Houses, warehouses and cottages accreted along the Brinks beside the River Nene over hundreds of years.

Before planning laws were as strict as they are today, architects did not have to think much about relative aesthetic effects. The result is the current higgledy-piggledy picturesqueness. In fact, an extraordinary harmony is achieved: each building is different but they blend together.

Many types of architectural detail are visible, for example urns, friezes, pilasters and columns. Such details may not be considered necessary today but they enrich the historic landscape of Wisbech and help make parts of it very attractive. Those splendid Georgian fronts of the North Brink are deceptive.

There were houses in those places in Tudor times. What happened was that the Georgians ‘did up’ those Tudor houses, in particular giving them the attractive facades. There stands between two of them an ancient warehouse probably belonging to one of the original Tudor houses but not renovated in Georgian times.

It continued to be used as a warehouse or storage space right up to the present day. I have been told it was once used as a sailmaker’s premises. Along the North Brink, not everybody before 1800 built their properties to front on to the river.

There are some other such warehouses (and houses) which are built sideways on to it or whose fronts face away from the river. Everyone knows that in England there used to be a Window Tax. This meant that householders had to pay a tax based on the numbers of windows in their home.

Most owners therefore bricked up some of their windows in order to reduce the amount of window tax. This crazy tax was repealed in 1851. However, all over England, you still see thousands of buildings with some window spaces bricked up before that time.

Sometimes the bricked-up windows have later been painted to look like windows! There are plenty of them in Wisbech and they include several on the North Brink. The famous Georgian Crescent was laid out from 1793 until 1816, forming a circle round where the site of the medieval castle walls once stood.

The first part to be developed was York Row, a short road that leads from the river to the Crescent. Nos.

6-8 York Row are known to have been there in the 1600s. Similarly, No.

7-9 York Row (believed to have been built by Thurloe for his sons in 1658) is a preserved gabled house of some standing. On the opposite side of the Crescent is Castle Lodge, facing the Museum. It incorporates a balcony of diagonally set corbels taken from Thurloe’s ‘Castle’. (A corbel is a block of projecting stone, supporting something on its horizontal top surface.) The present Westgate (a moderate-sized Co-Op department store including a bank and a restaurant) stands on the site of the United Methodist Church, which was built in 1862.

The road is still called ‘Little Church Street’. There was a playhouse in Wisbech (at North End) in 1792. Evidence of this is a map in the Wisbech Museum.

However, the better-known little Angles Theatre was built in 1793, the year in which Louis XVI was beheaded. The famous actor Macready played there in 1836. Cobbett addressed an audience of 220 there in April 1830.

The last theatrical performance in the Nineteenth Century was in 1847. The building became a Wesleyan Methodist Church and later a little school and later still a Spiritualist Church. But in the 1970s some young enthusiasts, headed by my immensely-talented old friend Mike James (who has long since left the area), set about restoring and re-opening the place as The Angles Theatre.

It has been in operation as a performance centre ever since, greatly helped by grants from authorities and funding councils. In 1793, John Baxter left 1220 for the benefit of the disabled church-going poor. This was known as ‘Baxter’s Charity’.

In 1837 there were 18 recipients. Baxter’s tomb is one of the most sumptuous in Wisbech. It is in the town centre graveyard of St.

Peter s Church. Another charitable resident was Mrs. Judith Mayer, who left 1900 in her will of 1811 to provide for a Mrs.

Mayer’s Asylum – a two-storey grey-brick building, which she envisaged as a kind of hospital for the infirm. The courts insisted on making it an ordinary almshouse taking five inmates. It was built in 1815, south of Stermyn Street, alongside the division of the river which at the time ran south from the Nene Quay.

Adjoining Mrs. Mayer’s at a right angle were Stermyn’s Almshouses – four houses built in 1614, thanks to a bequest of 100 by Mrs. Jacomin Stermyn.

These were replaced by two-room almshouses in 1813. In addition, a Dr. Henry Hawkins in 1631 had left 300 for the establishment of almshouses.

Six were built and they were used from 1632 until 1835, when they were demolished. The Corporation built six double almshouses in King’s Walk to replace them. There are now apartment flats on the site.

South-east of the present Norfolk Street / Norwich Road junction – that is to say alongside where there once was the south-flowing river, a timber market was situated. Goods were unloaded from the river. The timber market stalls and booths stood where the shops of Norfolk Street are today.

The eastern extremity of Wisbech one and a half miles from the town centre – is known as Walsoken (the Wal- in the name probably refers to what was once the sea wall). That was where I lived for 30 years. In 1933, portions of Walsoken which had been within the county of Norfolk were transferred for administrative purposes to Wisbech.

Today, the whole of the eastern side of Wisbech is so built up that Walsoken is hardly seen in any sense as separate from the town. Wisbech’s famous brewery, situated on the North Brink of the River Nene, about a mile west of the town centre, was established in 1795. It was a conversion of an oil mill and granary.

It changed hands a number of times and was bought in 1877 by John Elgood. The brewery is still run by the Elgood family. There used to be another brewery – Boucher’s – on the site by the river where Wisbech Police Station now stands!

A Samuel Smith photo from 1854 shows it clearly, with the Workhouse in the distance. When I first lived in Wisbech (1968), the town had a small and cosy library. As explained above, it was substantially what is now The Angles Theatre.

But a Methodist Chapel – dating from 1803 – in the Crescent was pulled down and a modern larger library established there. (There are stories that in 1786 early Methodists were pelted with mud when trying to preach in the Market Place.) This modern library though commendable in what it offers the public – is out-of-sympathy with its Georgian surroundings. Round the corner from the present library stands Wisbech Museum. It was designed as such by George Buckler and built in 1846-7 at a cost of 2405.

Being on the site of the ancient castle’s moat, its foundations have tended to sink a little, but it is still a very good museum by small country town standards. Its greatest treasure is the original Dickens manuscript of ‘Great Expectations’, which was bequeathed to the Museum by Mr. S.

H. Townshend. Some of the pubs and inns of the area date back a very long time.

The timber-frames of the New Inn (Union Street) were constructed in about 1500. The Rose and Crown Hotel (still occasionally used as a film set), at the northern end of the Market Place, has a two-storey outbuilding dating from 1601. The Hotel is mainly a seventeenth-century building, with a Regency facade.

There is an impressive eighteenth-century staircase. The Town Hall in use today was built (by Medworth) after the 1810 Improvement Act (which had far-reaching effects – for example it forced the corporation to have all roads paved). It is situated on a site previously occupied by The Nag’s Head Inn on the north side of the river, but immediately across the bridge from the town centre.

The lower storey, originally with open arches, was intended as a corn exchange but was hardly used as such. Today it has been turned into a room that may be hired for meetings and events. The Council Chamber is on the first floor.

There is in Hill Street a Working Men’s Club provided by the Peckover family and dating from 1891. It has a distinctive clock tower which rises high above the roofs near the Bus Station and contains a carillon which still plays tunes on the hour). In 1898 the ‘Wisbech Working Men’s Club and Institute’ was the most financially successful of all English working men’s clubs, with nearly 6000 in investments.

Known as Alfred House, it had a gymnasium and a library. In the Lynn Road (so named because it points the way to King’s Lynn), a Workhouse was erected soon after the passing of the 1835 Poor Law Act. With twin turrets, it was designed to resemble from the outside an Elizabethan stately home.

It catered for 22 parishes and could accommodate 600 people. Each inmate was supported at 31 pence per week. The building included shoemakers’ and tailors’ workshops, schoolrooms, dormitories and two ‘hospitals’.

It was called ‘The Union Workhouse’. It became known later as the Clarkson Hospital. Later still, it became part of an agricultural processing factory.

It had replaced the old workhouse, built 1720-22, which looked like a row of four terraced houses and was subdivided into other premises in 1835, including the Customs House (transferred from the Butter Cross) and an ale merchant’s shop. This former workhouse stood near the river (Albion Place) where the Department of Health and Social Security Office stands today. In that eighteenth-century workhouse, 80 people were accommodated: they were employed making garments from wool, together with some brewing and baking.

In the 1820s, the Workhouse Master was personally making quite a lot of money. Net profits were about 180 per annum. Before there were workhouses, the Corporation was required to find ways of putting the poor profitably to work.

On the south side of the Lynn Road, half a mile from the town centre, is Wisbech Park, kindly and imaginatively created in 1869 on land bought for 2400 from the Ecclesiastical Commission. It contains lawns, tennis courts, flower beds, walkways and a bandstand in which I sometimes had the pleasure of performing during summer concerts. There was once a White Cross standing at the junction of North Brink and Chapel Road.

Today there is a conspicuously bare space on the pavement where it used to be. In 1585, Wisbech was divided into ten wards for administrative purposes. One of them was White Cross Ward.

There are said to be remains of the White Cross in the grounds of Peckover House, about 120 yards from where it stood. I am told that local dialect words include botty (over-particular, as in ‘a botty woman’), flimmocky (fussy), lummox (a clumsy person) and scraunched (grazed or cut). Yet, despite living many years in Wisbech, I do not think I heard any of them, except ‘lummox’: that word is used frequently by an acquaintance of mine but he comes from Ipswich, not Wisbech.

I am delighted to able to add this post script, which has been sent to me by my old friend Ian: Just wanted to say how much Julie and I have enjoyed reading your Short History of Wisbech. It was absolutely engrossing and although it told us many things that we knew already, there were an awful lot of things that had quite escaped us. You must have absorbed a lot of fascinating detail about the town in the years you lived there.

Our own feelings for the town remain ambivalent; we visit once or twice a year and on a sunny Saturday evening in July the Crescent, The Market Place, St Peter s Church and Gardens can look magical. There is a peace and tranquillity there that seeps through your bones and reminds me of what life must have been like before motor cars. On the other hand there is still plenty that dismays me: the never-ending succession of pound shops, an atmosphere of run-down seediness, the menacing characters standing on street corners ..; all of these things still make me thankful to have moved away.

Of famous persons I can add two more. I discovered recently that William Hazlitt s father, also called William, was a Unitarian Minister who was posted to various parts of the country. He got married in Wisbech in 1766, twelve years before William (the writer) was born.

His wife was the daughter of a local ironmonger, but of her name and family I know nothing. Remember too that Lilian Ream (Julie s great-great-great aunt) had her photographic studio and business, Crescent Studios, in Wisbech. A commemorative booklet was produced by Cambridgeshire County Council displaying some of her famous pictures of people and places in and around the town.

A particular favourite of mine, which I m sure you will have seen, is of the children in the sweet shop on Elizabeth Terrace.

I believe the photographic collection is still housed in Wisbech Library . ========================================== FOOTNOTE Why am I interested in Wisbech?

Because, although I grew up in London and now live in Nottingham, I spent 38 years living and working in Wisbech.