'Five had better start praying – it was certainly the gallows for them' 

Witchford school 1964

Witchford school 1964 - Credit: Mike Petty

From the Littleport Riots, to train stations at Wisbech and Soham  and a 90 year-old chorister. 

There are all memories stirred by the latest of our archive features, based on research by Mike Petty and his successful Fenland History on Facebook group. 

We also look at a 'tin' school locally a swimming pool and an anti war protest in March.

Witchford Temporary Tin School - Cambridgeshire Scrapbook May 25th 1951 

Witchford Secondary Modern School was criticised by County Councillor Everitt as ‘a tin school, and a poor one at that’.  

They would need central heating because the caretaker found making 59 separate fires was beyond him.  

He thought it should be named the Witchford Temporary Secondary School. 

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But it had cost £17,500 and a new school would have been £140,000.  

It would satisfy the need for a while as there was no prospect of new schools in Ely for another 20 years

 Photo above: school buildings 1964 

I’m going to hang him. I’m going to hang him. I’m going to hang him … Pickwick’s Cambridge Scrapbook 1838 pt.248 

Littleport Riots trial

Littleport Riots trial - Credit: Mike Petty

The trial of the Littleport rioters seemed to drag on and on – at least it did to their families, many of whom made the daily journey to the Ely courthouse, only to find they were not to be admitted to hear the evidence. 

Other Littleport folk were inside, some giving their version of events – and they did not return home to Littleport each night, for fear of some ‘accident’ befalling them on the way.  

Indeed, for years afterwards their neighbours avoided them, spitting on the ground as they passed.  

One even gave up going to chapel because the boys in the congregation kept fiddling with a piece of string with a noose in it, which quite ruined his concentration on the sermon.  

And somehow his hens never laid as well as they had before, and some never lay again, being found hanging from his door latch. 

Inside 31-year-old Thomas Armiger, 16-year-old Christopher Butcher and William Buck, only 13, were in fear of their lives. 

They were people used to an outdoors life, now they were being cooped up inside a stuffy courtroom, and locked up in the dreaded Bishop’s gaol each evening. 

But for the prosecutors everything was going well.  

Time after time the jury was coming up with the ‘guilty’ verdicts – and soon they had so many convictions that it really was not worth carrying on.  

They had meant to set an example, & enough had been done to teach the inhabitants of the Isle – ostensibly meaning the Isle of Ely, but with no doubt that the message would be absorbed by all within this sceptred Isle – of the necessity of obedience to their laws.  

They would learn to respect for the peace and property of their neighbours and of course their betters.  

It was time to show clemency and allow some 50 of the prisoners to return to their community free men, provided they behaved themselves in future. 

But Justice Abbot could not let them depart without an exhortation that on returning home they should avoid all excess of liquor, and not to drink and tipple at public houses.  

Such practices were most pernicious to themselves and injurious to their families – and surely it was drink that had led them to their present plight.  

If some of the men muttered that it was starvation that had driven them to drink in the first place then they did so beneath their breath, glad of any excuse to get out of that hated city of Ely and back to the open fields and open skies of the fens.  

Not all were so lucky. 

On Saturday the courtroom doors were finally flung open to the wives and families of the twenty-four men still incarcerated.  

From across the fen they came, dressed in their Sunday best, eagerly looking forward to a glimpse of their loved ones and nursing a faint hope that the leniency shown to others might still apply to them too.  

Soon the room was packed and reeking of fenland bodies, growing riper by the minute as the time dragged on.  

Their eyes scanned every corner waiting for that moment when a door would open and their menfolk were revealed to them.  

What a change a week had wrought, their skin had turned pale, their eyes seemed dead, their very strength gone. 

Then the Judges took their place – prompting muffled laughter at the ludicrous site of so many big wigs, despite the solemnity of the occasion.  

Any hope of leniency was dashed as soon as Mr Justice Abbot addressed the prisoners.  

They had thought that by their strength and threats they could oppress and intimidate their peaceable neighbours and even resist the strong arm of the law itself.  

These were capital offences, there was only one sentence.  

He paused and placed a black cap on his white wig as he intoned the names of Aaron Chevall, Richard Jessop, William Dann, Robert Crabb, Richard Rutter, John Pricke, James Cammell … on and on … Sarah Hobbs – the only woman amongst them.  

On each he pronounced the sentence of death. 

The families were struck dumb in shock, then exploded in anguish, shrieks and curses echoed around the court, prompting the Judge to warn that if they did not keep quiet he would put his black hat on again and hang a few more.  

And then, as if realising the hatred around him, he held out a small hope – that perhaps the Crown might show clemency, perhaps all might not have to hang.  

But make no bones about it an example would have to be made; five had better start praying – it was certainly the gallows for them 

Haddenham muck heaps - August 20th 1926 

Muck spreading at Stuntney, 1965 

Muck spreading at Stuntney, 1965 - Credit: Mike Petty

A survey reported that those people in Haddenham again put the manure heaps on the droves at Hillrow.  

On the last occasion the heaps were allowed to remain until after the harvest upon the understanding that no account were they be put on the droves again.  

Stringent measures should be taken against any people leaving manure heaps on the droves.  

Mr Camps said there had been manure heaps on the droves from time immemorial.  

He thought some of the waste matter might be put on the land.  

The chairman said they have been stopped at Littleport and it should be done at Haddenham, but they would not be hard on people at harvest time.  

Notices would be put up saying it would not be allowed on the drove.  

Wisbech station new platforms - August 16th 1889 

Wisbech station 1930

Wisbech station 1930 - Credit: Archant

Persons who have been away from Wisbech for a year or two, are much struck upon again visiting the good old town with the great improvement which has been effected by the erection of a new Great Eastern passenger station. 

The buildings have been erected in first-class style by Messrs. H. Arnold and Son, of Doncaster. 

It is apparent that the platform of any passenger station located in a district like that of which Wisbech is the centre, must be subjected to considerable wear and tear. 

We are therefore glad to find that the company have decided not to be behind hand in this matter of providing a thoroughly durable flooring for the same at their new station.  

A firm foundation has been obtained by the judicious use of broken bricks and other material. 

The pavement is formed by the very careful manipulation of chipped granite, the best Portland cement, and other ingredients, by a patent process. 

After this it is laid in a very skilful manner, the details of which are known only to very few persona.  

The inventor of the paving is Mr. William Millar, under whose patents three gold medals have been awarded.  

In all 1,578 square yards have been laid at Wisbech station, including the approaches to the building.  


Soham Stationmaster’s duties - August 20th 1926 

soham station 1925

Soham station 1925 - Credit: Archant

William Edward Ellis has now taken over the duties of Stationmaster at Soham Railway Station in succession to Mr. Benjamin Measures. 

During the three years spent in Soham Mr Measures became most popular with the travelling public and interested himself in parochial affairs. 

The duties of stationmaster at Soham are varied and important. 

Apart from the usual responsibilities, there is the important factor of single line working of trains by staff to Ely and by tablet to Fordham.  

The resident stationmaster has to account for all delays to both passenger and goods trains, and there are many such on all single lines.  

No one unacquainted with railway working can conceive the intricate nature of single line working and the delays which may be occasion to the whole throughout the whole district through even a slight error of judgement. 

The single line through Soham is also a direct route from Harwich to the North of England, and a considerable amount of continental traffic has to pass along the route which, adding to the ordinary service, makes the workings at time very complicated. 

80 swim in Ely River - August 18th 1933 

A swimming pool was built by Ely Urban Council in 1934, seen here in 1980

A swimming pool was built by Ely Urban Council in 1934, seen here in 1980 - Credit: Archant

Mr A. Broad has served 23 years as bathing place attendant at the river which had been Ely’s Lido during hot weather. He had taught hundreds to swim.  

Since his appointment in 1911 he has seen the popularity of the river among bathers and swimmers increase tenfold. 

When he started there was only half-a-dozen people visiting the river in the evenings. He used to fish all day to pass the time away! 

Gradually a love for the water grew and during the peak of last summer he has seen as many as 80 people in the river at one time.  

In 1911 there was just one hut as a means of shelter and a small shed with a diving board, provided by a few private individuals who visited the river regularly.  

Eventually the council bought them for a small sum and erected three huts, followed by three more to meet growing demands. 

A few years ago, these were washed away by a severe winter storm and a long shed, nine cubicles and a hut, supplemented last year by three more chalets. 3 

Stretham’s 86-year-old choirboy  - August 17th 1923 

Mr. Charles Driver, of Stretham, can claim to have sung in a village choir at nearly 9,000 services!

Mr. Charles Driver, of Stretham, can claim to have sung in a village choir at nearly 9,000 services! - Credit: Archant

Mr. Charles Driver, of Stretham, can claim to have sung in a village choir at nearly 9,000 services! 

Mr. Driver was born in Stretham 86 years ago, and at the age of six entered the choir at Stretham Church.  

These were the days when such a luxury as an organ was out of the question and the choir had to supply all the harmony, being given the pitch by a pipe blown before the hymns or chants, by one of the choir members.  

The singers then bravely entered into their task and the "pitch-giver" was never sufficiently rash to sound the pipe at the conclusion of the music, every performance was naturally without flaw or blemish so far as the sustaining of pitch was concerned. 

Later on, however Stretham church advanced with times and a harmonium one Sunday morning appeared, and pleased the critical eye and acute musical ear of the congregation.  

Thenceforward the choir had an excellent lead, much to the advantage no doubt of everyone concerned. 

A representative of the Ely Standard recently visited Stretham’s "grand old man of song”, Mr. Driver, at his residence, a pretty old-world cottage which has been his only home, and the house in which his forefathers have resided over a period of nearly 250 years. 

Mr, Driver carries “life’s burden of years” in remarkable fashion, still retaining an excellent ear for music and a keen eye, and the passage of time, while it has produced a few deep wrinkles on his cherry countenance has certainly not impaired any of his mental faculties. 

Mr. Driver was asked how many times he has sung in the choir and his answer was only arrived at on the part of the interviewer after a little mathematical calculation; the data for which was supplied by the sentence “Eighty years each of 52 weeks, two services a day, Good Fridays and Christmas Days” 

As Mr. Driver has missed only about two services during those eighty years, the number of times he’s rolled forth the bass in anthems, hymns and choruses in Stretham church choir works out at about 8,000. 

Mr. Driver gives as the reason for his long-life "moderation."  

This of course, does not apply to his singing.  

"Good food, a smoke, and a glass of beer “is the reflex of his mode. 

‘No More War’ at March - August 17th 1923 

War demo in March as reported by Cambridgeshire Times

War demo in March as reported by Cambridgeshire Times - Credit: Archant

March residents gathered in large numbers in a unanimous protest against future war at a striking public meeting on the Market Place.  

Speakers of all denominations joined in voicing their sentiments of the people concerning the possibilities of future hostilities. 

The Great War had cost nine million lives. If that number could rise from their graves and march night and day four abreast by that Market Place it would take nearly two months for them to pass.  

In addition, were the blind, the maimed, mentally crushed and other sufferers the world over 

A resolution expressing abhorrence of war and urging immediate disarmament by mutual consent was carried