Looking back: Room at the inns - for 400 horses

PUBLISHED: 12:43 23 February 2006 | UPDATED: 11:33 04 May 2010

AGNUS Dei means the Lamb of God and this was the name given to the inn standing close to the monastery at Ely. The sign of The Lamb was one of the first signs adopted by medieval landlords and in 1416 this building is mentioned in a survey as one of the

AGNUS Dei means the Lamb of God and this was the name given to the inn standing close to the monastery at Ely.

The sign of The Lamb was one of the first signs adopted by medieval landlords and in 1416 this building is mentioned in a survey as one of the 22 properties owned by Bishop Fordham on the north side of Steeple Row. We know from the records that the inn was rented to Julian Barbour, and today, of course, we still call it The Lamb Hotel. Julian Barbour is recorded in the hotel as the first owner.

In 1686, evidence shows that Ely had a number of inns and these provided 165 beds and stabling for 395 horses. In 1690 the landlord was a Thomas Kempton and one wonders where the intrepid traveller Celia Fiennes, who I wrote about recently, stayed when she visited Ely at this time. Wherever it was, as you will no doubt remember, she was very unimpressed with the entire city.

It was not until the 18th Century that The Lamb grew to dominate the area between the High Street and Market Street as it does today. The reason for this was the coming of the Turnpike Trusts.

In 1752, the Turnpike Trustees met at the Lamb to discuss the setting up of turnpike roads from Cambridge to Ely, now the A10, and Ely to Soham, the A142. The trustees put up the capital to build these toll roads and established toll houses along the roads charging a toll to each road user. In return the trustees had to repair and maintain the highways.

There was local opposition to the toll gates and we read that a Thomas Cave of Witchford was abusive to the gatekeeper and broke the window of the toll house. The farmers from Stuntney were so reluctant to use the tolls that they stopped short of the toll and carried their wares to lighters on the river.

Others obviously did use the tolls and travelled to Ely where the demands for accommodation grew to such an extent, that the landlord of The Lamb, William Reynolds, decided to stop brewing ale at the inn and buy it from the Harlock brewery instead. He converted the mill-house into a coach house and the storehouse and brew house into stables. The Lamb became a posting house for the long-distance coaches.

Three times a week the Union ran from King's Lynn to Ely. One of the drivers was Thomas Cross and he wrote about his exploits in The Autobiography of a Stage Coach Man, published in 1845. Cross usually stopped in Cambridge, but on one wintry night he was forced to stop at The Lamb in Ely. The passengers were warm and cosy around the open fire when a servant asked them to accompany her upstairs to see one of their fellow travellers.

Cross says: "On ascending the stars and entering the room we beheld a fine matronly lady habited as a Quakeress seated at the table with the book before her. She stated a chance had thrown us together, she thought a few words from the Book of Life would not be unacceptable and accordingly read us some passages. She dismissed us with an extempore prayer, wishing the blessing and mercy of the Almighty". The lady in question was Elizabeth Fry the great prison reformer.

According to Cross the only menu ever offered to him in all the time he stopped at the Lamb was spitchcocked eels and mutton chops; the bar was small with a bag of mouldy lemons hanging from the ceiling, the sherry was fiery, but at least the port was good.

Maybe in the name of historical research I will have to test it!

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