Historic Ouse prepares for the 2021 Oxford /Cambridge Boat Race

Cambridge in action during the 2019 Men's Boat Race on the River Thames, London. Picture: ADAM DAVY/

Cambridge in action during the 2019 Men's Boat Race on the River Thames, London. Picture: ADAM DAVY/PA - Credit: PA

In 2021 the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is coming to the River Ouse at Ely. Here is my exploration of the history of the river. 


Prickwillow - Credit: Mike Petty

Briefly it starts near Turbutsey, which was the original port of Ely and the place to which the monks brought the body of a saint that they'd pinched from an abbey at Dereham. 

This became the site of a sugar beet factory which was seen as the saviour of agriculture in the depression.  

Ancient Plough at Inn on Old Bank 

The ancient Plough Inn on Old Bank - Credit: Mike Petty

Sugar beet was a new crop needing little machinery, though later this was developed by the Ely firm of Standens and other.   

It brought work in the initial construction of the building, much labour during the sugar beet season including transport including rail, boats and lorries. The factory closed a couple of decades ago 

 The straight river itself was dug c1820 as a bypass for the previous route which ran further east. That river had an ancient stone-built house that marked the point where goods


Adelaide - Credit: Mike Petty

brought down from the sea in boats at Lynn had to be transhipped into barges to continue the rest of their journey to Cambridge.  

Most Read

The ancient house still stands. The 'Old Bank' is still there as a rough track though such was the infilling following the construction of the replacement that it has largely disappeared. 

The river is called 'Sandys Cut'. Sir Myles Sandys was a turbulent landowner who inherited lands in the fens following the dissolution of the monasteries.  

Adelaide road and rail bridge

Adelaide Road and rail bridge - Credit: Mike Petty

He proposed a drainage scheme, pre Vermuyden, that was denounced as a fraud, but went on to become one of the 'adventurers' who put up the funding for the first drainage scheme that resulted in the Old Bedford River.  

That scheme failed and Myles lost his money. A second scheme later created the New Bedford River and led to disputes between the investors of the Old and New proposals as to who should receive the promised land that was to have been the result of a successful scheme. 

Meanwhile Myles was antagonising local parishes by claiming their lands, resulting in disputes and court cases. He also built a family mausoleum at Stretham that the Rector refused to dedicate, resulting in him being turfed out during the Civil War - I suspect through Myles attempting to get rid of somebody who stood up to him 

There was a tributary that ran where the existing river now goes; it was known as Sandys cut but when there were proposals for this to be improved, rather than a new river people

objected because of the hated associations with Myles

Patriotic welcome to rowers

Crowds enjoying a bird's eye view of the racing - Credit: Mike Petty

The existing river was dug in the 1820s, in part as a result of the Littleport Riots - it brought work to an area of poverty. 

The main reason was to improve the river to Ely so that boats could get through more easily, thus adding to the prosperity. 

It resulted in the drainage of lands adjacent, including Padnal where the gallows had stood. This was recorded in a poem by a local poet, William Harrison. 

However, within a few years a railway was built, running alongside the new river, that effectively killed the river trade. 

Historic newspaper cutting

Reporting of the replacement of Adelaide Bridge - Credit: cambs times

There was a competition between a railway train and fen skaters during a period when the river was frozen. The engine fireman scattered hot ash on the ice to frustrate the skaters.  

They in turn place detonators on the line – used to warn of danger on the line. It is said that the an onboard Royal en route to Sandringham was most annoyed. 

That railway line, with two others pass through the 'hamlet' of Ely known as Queen Adelaide - named after the wife of the king - within a few yards there are two railway crossings, a railway and a river bridge. 

The bridge was rebuilt in the 1930s in a major piece of civil engineering as was another further along where it crosses the River Lark - the river that once formed that main route to Ely via Prickwillow. 

Prickwillow is a 'hamlet' built along the bed of the former river with churches and houses being built on deep piles because of the fenland peat.  

It is home to a drainage museum housed in the former steam engine house which is dedicated to the diesel pumps that replaced the steam, but which are in their turn being replaced by electric.  

To see those engines being run is to appreciate the skill of the men who operated them - during start up huge jets of flame are sent out.  

Turbutsea showing monks, John Titterton painting

Turbutsea showing monks, John Titterton painting - Credit: Mike Petty

The museum trust has worked wonders establishing the museum and teaching facility. They also have a working day where 'old men' have the time of their lives cleaning rust off massive metal structures. One of the displays indicates just how far below sea level the village is. 

Part way between Ely and the River Lark is 'Clayway', a farm. During WWII soldiers on exercise needed to cross the river and borrowed a farmer's boat.  

On the second trip the boat sank and men were drowned. Their bodies were brought along the bank to Adelaide where they were put on lorries.  

The children in the school were told not to look out of the windows. Inevitably they did. The story was hushed-up and the tale only told a few years ago when I mentioned it at a talk in the wooden hut that comprises Adelaide village hall. 

While on war, at Prickwillow evacuees were killed when their house was hit by an American bomber that collided with another. A lady who was there was so traumatised that she was forever scared when a plane passed over - which they do on the approach to the American bases just across the fen. 

Isle of Ely

Isle of Ely historic map - Credit: Mike Petty

Sandy's Cut from Littleport

Sandy's Cut from Littleport - Credit: MIKE PETTY

Ely beet factory with barges and Adelaide bridge beyond

Ely beet factory with barges and Adelaide bridge beyond - Credit: Mike Petty

An impression of the digging of Sandys Cut

An impression of the digging of Sandys Cuty - Credit: Mike Petty

The course ends near Littleport which is associated with the Riots of 1816 when, following the Napoleonic wars agriculture was in crisis and folk couldn't afford a loaf of bread.  

They took their concern to the vicar, who pulled a pistol on them. They disarmed him and next day marched to Ely to seek help.  

Ely magistrates called in cavalry from Bury who charged their way into the village, overcame the locals and hauled a number off to Ely gaol.  

Following a 'trial' they were hanged. There is a memorial on the outside of St Mary's church, Ely. It is not the original.  

That was replaced and found its way to Littleport where it is displayed in the parish council offices. Since its arrival six stains in the shape of hearts have appeared on the memorial - one for each of those hanged. 

Littleport was famed for its skating matches; there is a tale of a race between skaters and a train on the railway that runs alongside the river. The skaters won despite the railwaymen spreading burning coal on the course. 

1944 Boat Race

Boat Race of 1944 - Credit: Mike Petty