A Brief History of Fenstanton

This village of some 3,000 people living within 1,044 hectares of land has seen some changes in this past 1000 years and some things have gone for ever. No longer is there a place of execution to the east nor are there any gallows in the west by Galley Hill.

Lying on the Via Devana, the Roman road linking army camps at Godmanchester and Cambridge, Fenstanton was a Romano/British villa, probably established to keep the natives in order after their attack on the forces of the IX Legion Hispana retreating from an ambush at Cambridge by Boadicea’s tribesmen.

The next military action by men of Fenstanton came in support of Hereward the Wake. From his stronghold on the Isle of Ely Hereward was annoying the Normans so King William I assembled a force in Cambridge to deal with the problem. He summoned men from Huntingdon but they did not pass Fenstanton and escaped with their lives by swimming across the river.

In the 17th.century, one of the Pilgrim Fathers who sailed to America on the Mayflower was from Fenstanton. He was John Howland.[1]

Most pilgrims were Separatists, although John’s religious beliefs are not really known. He was an “adventurer” rather than a “saint” (this is what the separatists called themselves)

Henry and Margaret Howland are buried at the parish church in Fenstanton and are parents of three sons who came to America.  John was the first, on the ship Mayflower, 1620.  Henry and Arthur followed a few years later.

Winston Churchill was  a descendant of John’s brother Arthur Howland.  Therefore, he is still a son of Fenstanton as a descendant of Henry and Margaret and a cousin for the many descendants of John living in America.

There are several famous American descendants of John, including actor Humphrey Bogart;  Phillips Brooks, author of the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem“;  Jane Austin, author; (not to be confused with Jane Austen!)  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, poet;  Hetty Green, known as “The Witch of Wall Street” (a financial tycoon), and many more.

American presidents descended from John Howland are:

Franklin D. Roosevelt,  George H.W. Bush and the George W. Bush.

( Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford are descended from John’s brother, Henry Howland.)

John Howland was married to fellow passenger Elizabeth Tilley from nearby Henlow in Bedfordshire in about 1623.  She was 13 when she boarded the Mayflower, the youngest child of John Tilley (a silk-weaver) and his wife Joan (Hurst) Rogers.  They left four older children in England.

One of the Tilley children to stay  behind was Robert Tilley.  Through his line that stayed in England, there is a Ms.Joy Forster of Bromham, Bedfordshire, who has become the first proven European line from an English family whose descendants never came to America.  Her special status means she is now a member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants

Fenstanton receives frequent visits from members of the Howland Society and they have donated a bell to the parish church.

In the next century there was the great landscape gardener Lancelot “Capability” Brown a gifted Northumberland man who bought the Lordship of the Manor of Fenstanton and Hilton from the Earl of Northampton. “Capability” was associated with laying out the grounds of Althorp, the ancestral home of the SPENCER family and final resting place of Princess Diana. “Capability” and wife are buried in the churchyard and in the north wall of the chancel is a memorial to them.

The Doomsday Book (1086) mentions a church but the earliest part of the present building is from the 14th century: the list of priests starts with Galfrid de Sulvii 1264.

A pamphlet available from the Post Office shows the routes of the public footpaths. Take the Permissive Path to Hilton Green with its maze and admire the panoramic view of the Cambridgeshire countryside on the journey or go east along the path by the Nature Reserve and count the varieties of waterfowl.

A stroll along the river bank is relaxing and at the Town Trust field one can fish from the bank if so minded.

More recently

The Census is always an extremely important tool for any historian. Whilst many of us are irritated with the occasional need to complete those “dreadful official forms” it is far more important than just providing a bureaucrat with an easy set of figures to plan future needs for schools, hospitals, housing etc. It provides us with a snapshot of every village, town or city at midnight on a specific date telling us who was residing at that specific moment, and is invaluable for anyone tracing their family history.

The Census is recorded every 10 years and the general growth of a village can be seen by monitoring the changes over these periods.

In 1841, Philip BLENCH & James DRAGE were employed as Enumerators – the persons charged with the formal responsibility of recording each and every person resident in Fenstanton at midnight on 6 June 1841

In their notes, they reports that there were 229 Inhabited Dwellings, and 12 uninhabited and that there were 511 males and 521 females resident.

He comments ;

“Computed increase due to Match Sellers and Travellers at Private Lodgings, 6 males and 5 females. Computed decrease consists of children visiting the Feast – 9 males and 12 females”

In 1851 according to the Enumerator, Mr James WRIGHT, the Census covers “The Whole of the Parish including Houses on the South side of St Ives Bridge to Derrys at the Cross Roads to Hammonds Farm and Red Hill Lees Farm Clay Field”

He records that at midnight 30 March 1951, there were 235 inhabited dwellings, 38 uninhabited and 1 building under construction, and a head count of 520 males and 550 females, plus “persons in tents or in open air, 5 male and 6 female

Whilst the earlier Censuses are somewhat rudimentary, the 1881 Census was more detailed, and enables us to generate a clearer picture of Fenstanton, at midnight on 3 April 1881….

In 1881 there are several families whose descendants still live in, or near to the village. The total population was 1,063

The north-eastern boundary of the parish was along the centre line of the river Great Ouse ending at the St. Ives bridge. Thus The White Horse Inn at the foot of the bridge was within the parish and the address of the village doctor (Dr.Mence) is given as “White Horse”. In the “White Horse Tap” lived the Toll Collector. The manager of the Gas Works lived along the London Road.

The village residents included:

  • Registrar of Births, Deaths & Marriages
  • Inland Revenue Officer, Excise Branch
  • Road Surveyor
  • Police Constable
  • Schoolmaster and a teacher
  • Postmistress, Butcher & Postmaster
  • Rural Postman and a Rural Letter Carrier.

The Vicar was Henry Mottram, who was looked after by a Cook, a Parlour Maid, and a Housemaid and the Congregational Minister was James Parr.

Farmers were obviously very significant, and 8 are recorded farming land from 6 to 1057 acres and a further 7 farmers are listed without reference to land. In all, there were 98 farm labourers and 29 general labourers working in these and other nearby estates. Some were quite young, one of them 11 years old, three 12 and seven being 13.

Professions associated with farming are 2 Farm Bailiffs, 5 Threshing Engine Drivers, 5 Market Gardeners, 3 Shepherds, a Cattle Dealer and a Castrator (presumably for animals?!)

Horses were an important power source and to tend to them were 2 Blacksmiths, 3 Saddlers, 2 Harness Makers 3 Wheelwrights, 4 Horse Dealers and 1 Horse Breaker. A Carrier service was provided by Joseph Jacob.

Craftsmen are listed as 17 Carpenters, 11 Bricklayers 4 Tailors, 3 Bootmakers, 2 each of Painters. Coachmakers, Builders, Printers and Engine Fitters and 1 each Stonemason, Miller, Thatcher.

Tradesmen are shown as 5 Bakers, 2 Butchers, 2 Brewers, 2 Maltsters, 1 Cooper, a Coal Merchant and a Corn Merchant.

For the Ladies there were 11 Dressmakers, plus a Milliner, a Seamstress, a Lacemaker and a Draper’s Assistant.

Domestic servants including Gardeners, Grooms, Ostlers and Billiard Marker totalled 75.

Various other workers were Charwomen 4, Clerks 7, 1 each Washerwoman, Laundress, Nurse, Insurance Agent, Hawker, Miller’s Agent & Leather Salesman.

Public Houses were as important then, as now, but greater in number

  • The Bell The Crown
  • The George
  • King William IV
  • The Rose & Crown
  • The Royal Oak White Horse
  • The Woolpack

There were 5 Paupers recorded living in the Parish.

[1] The Howland family information was kindly provided by Mrs Gail ADAMS, who is a descendant of John Howland of the Mayflower and the Editor of the Howland Quarterly for the Pilgrim John Howland Society, Leesburg, Virginia, USA