History of Christchurch

Recording the history of the village of Christchurch (originally Brimstone Hill) in Cambridgeshire

Study of a Fenland Village

Susan Scott
Bishop Grosseteste College


Sourced by Hazel Crawford
Transcribed by Michael Brookes


The fens comprise one thousand three hundred square miles of countryside, stretching from Cambridge in the south to Lincoln in the north, from Peterborough in the west to Lakenheath in the east. It is often regarded as a homogeneous and uninviting area. St. Guthlac’s ‘hideous fen of a huge bigness’(1) is not only the largest plain in England; but much of it is hedgeless and almost treeless and without any but the most scattered of human inhabitants. Throughout almost the whole of the area it is as flat as the levels of the sea and all, save for isolated islands, is below the level of high spring tides.

The Fenland in Saxon and Norman times was a vast succession of morasses, gwampa and more, heavily flooded in winter and half dry in summer; but also larger islands and higher ground were covered with dense woodland. Almost certainly before the great subsidence of land, which caused the flat plain of the Fenland to sink largely below sea-level, all, or almost all, was wooded. No one knows for definite when this great subsidence occurred A Norman knight reported to William the Conqueror of the Isle of Ely:

“This isle is extraordinarily fruitful in all sorts of grass, there being no place in England that hath a more fertile turf. Moreover it is compassed about with huge waters and fens, as it were with a strong wall, and aboundeth not only with domestic cattle, but with a multitude of wild beasts viz, harts, dogs, goats and hares, both in the wood and near the fens; es algo ermines, polecats, weasels and the like vermin. And of fish and fowl which there breed, what shall I say? At the flood gates upon the skirts of those waters, what a vast company of eels do they take in nets! As also mighty pikes and pickerells, perch, roach and sometimes greater and royal fishes. Of birds, likewise, there be innumerable; So also of geese, bitterns, sea-fowl, water crows, herons and ducks, abundance; especially in the winter season, or when they moult their feathers, whereof I have seen three hundred taken at one time.” (2)

Flooding was a constant problem in the Penland, but it was not until 1631 that any really concerted effort was made to provide some permanent drainage system, such as would allow the upland waters to flow through the flats without causing floods. It was in this year that Francis, 4th Duke of Bedford, was asked to devise and put into operation such a system. In those days the fens were like one great sea of water with only here and there, some odd patch of high ground, upon which living accommodation could be built. The trouble was that rivers followed too long and too đevious a course and, owing to the flatness of the ground, were altogether too sluggish to be capable of carrying away the waters at any speed. On account of were their slowness tho tidal waters of the gee were easily able to over power the fresh waters of the rivers and drive them back again, Thus, the mouths became silted up, and the rivers overflowed their banks, thereby forming lakes which, too, in their turn, soon became silted. The Duke of Bedford and his fellow workers, fully alive to the magnitude of the task that confronted them, realised that the first essential was to engage the services of a skilled engineer who had already obtained practical experience in similar country. Their choice was the Dutchman, Sir Cornelius Vernuyden. Vernuyden divided the Fenland into three separate areas for drainage purposes; the North, Middle and South levels. Drainage schemes have been carried out in the Fens ever since Vernuyden’s time, in an effort to stop flooding. Even to the present day new rivers are being cut so as to improve the drainage in the Fens.

Up to the end of the sixteenth century the inhabitants of the Fens were practically foreigners to the rest of the country. William Camden in 1586 describes them as:

“A kind of people according to the nature of the place where they dwell, rude, uncivil and envious to all others whom they call Upland Men; who stalking on high stilte apply their binds to grazing, fishing and fowling.”[3]

In summer the parts of the Benland which were not flooded were used for growing hay and for grazing: so with peat for fuel, reed to thatch the cottages, osiers for baskets and traps and eels, fish and wild fowl for food, the fenmen were largely self-supporting.

During Lord Orford’s Voyage round the Fens in 1774, he encountered a fen farmer at Upwell called Rate:

“An active old oan of seventy-five years of age supplied 29 with excellent milk for breakfast, and breakfasted with us himself on a bottle of Ringwood beer, which he commended much, and drank to the last drop.” [4]

The Fenmen were a tough, hardy race, who had their own beliefs and superstitions. No fenmen washed his feet if he could help it, he believed that the practice was weakening. They had many specifics for the ills they suffered, the principal complaints being malaria, Rheumatism and ague. To generally counteract these, they drank heavily and took opium. Tea made from an infusion of seeds of the white poppy was also drunk as an additional cure. Dried eel skins worn as garters just above the knee, were supposed to prevent rheumatism; and every fenman carried in his pocket stone with a hole in it, a mole’s foot, a dried potato, or another of the many charme they believed in. The remedy for whooping cough and smallpox was a roast mouse. The Fenland characters had a variety of nicknames, such as ‘Fen Tigers’, because of their fierce resistance to the drainers; ‘Camels’ because of their habit of stalking across the marshland on stilts and ‘Yellow-Bellies’ because they lived like frogs and were reputed to have webbed feet.

One of the fenmen’s greatest pleasures were the skating matches, where such prizes as a cocked hat, a pie, or a purse containing one to twenty pounds, were given away. At these great matches the band played, the shores were lined with a variety of stalls and booths and dogs pulled boxes on bone runners, from which gin was offered to skaters.

Great changes have accompanied the draining of the Fens; land has been reclaimed, enabling villages and towns to grow up. I intend to look at one such village, to gain some idea of what a Fen village was like after drainage. Before the drainage schemes of the eighteenth century, this village did not exist, because the area which it occupies nas mostly under water.


  1. A. K. istbury, The Black Fens (1953)
    (S. R. Publishers, 1970)
  2. Charles Macfarlane, The Camp of Refuge
    Cited in J. Wentworth-Day, History of the Fens (1954) (s. 1. Publishers, 1970)
  3. William Camden, Britannia (1586)
    Cited in W. E. Dring. The Fenland Story: From Prehistoric Times to the Present Day. (Cambridge and Isle of Ely Education Committee 1967) P 21
  4. Lord Orford’s Voyage Round the Fens in 1774 Cited in W. E. Dring. P 27

Key to Map of Christchurch Village

  1. The Barn Church
  2. The Church
  3. The Methodist Chapel
  4. The Old School
  5. The Townley School
  6. The (Old) Toll House
  7. The Ark
  8. The Old Wheatsheaf Public House
  9. The Dun Cow Inn
  10. The Farmer’s Boy Public House
  11. The Post Office (Syringa House)
  12. The old Grocer’s Shop (Christchurch Cottage)
  13. The General Store
  14. The Blacksmiths and Garage
  15. The Cycle Shop
  16. The Social Centre
  17. Council Houses 1911
  18. Council Houses 1939
  19. Council Houses 1947
  20. The Old Police House
  21. The Rectory

Chapter One – Brimstone Hill

Christchurch is an ecclesiastical parish in the Isle of Ely, four miles south of the mother church at Upwell and three miles northeast from Stonea Station. It has a population of eight hundred and thirty-nine in 1969, with eighty on the electoral roll.

The village was formerly called Brimstone Hill; although the origin of this name is not certain, some theories have been put forward. It is said that before the land was drained, when the Fens were flooded regularly each year, there was one spot, somewhere near the Dun Cow Inn, which always stood up high above the water, and that was called the Hill. Brimstone is more difficult. On Scott and Oldroyd’s farm, “The Limes”, is a piece of land which used to be called Brick Kiln Field, because at one time bricks used to be made there by hand. One of the substances used in baking bricks is brimstone. Another theory about the origin of Brimstone, is that brimstone was, according to the legend, the fuel for Hell Fire: not far from the village is Bedlam Bridge and one definition of ‘bedlam’, is a score of wild uproar and confusion.

The earliest evidence I can find of the existence of a settlement called Brimstone Hill, is W. Watson’s Map of the Isle of Ely, 1827 (Plate 1) on which Brimstone Hill is marked. Also, C. and J. Greenwood mark it on their map of Cambridgeshire, 1832. But Brimstone Hill was insignificant at this time, since Kelly’s Directory of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, 1858 only refers to it on the map; it is not mentioned in the Directory. Brimstone Hill is recorded in the 1861 Census as part of the parish of Upwell. In fact it was not until 1862, that the village became a separate parish. Until this time it was in the parish of Upwell, with Welney and Nordolph. According to the Victoria County History, the parish of Upwell in 1851, which included Welney, Christchurch and Nordelph, ‘comprised some 25,000 acres of the most fertile soil in the country’. By the “Upwell-cum-Welney Rectory Act” of 1846, the parish was to be divided when the then Rector of Upwell, William Gale Townley, died. The Reverend Mr. Townley died in 1862 and the parish was duly split up. Thus the name of Christchurch was adopted on the creation of a separate parish.

W. Watson’s Map of the Isle of Ely, 1827 (Plate 1)

1861 Census

From the 1861 Census, it is possible to gain some idea of what sort of people were living in this Fen village, at the end of the nineteenth century. Although the material is rather shallow and incomplete I think an examination of it will prove valuable.

In the Census returns for 1861, of all the adults listed, I did not find one who was born in Brimstone Hill; although many of the children, but by no means all, were born in the village. This could mean that Brimstone Hill was a fairly new village in 1861, and that many of the adults living there, had come from away to settle in the village. Evidence to support this can be seen by referring to The Census returns, relating to places of birth. I was not able to include every adult in the village, simply because it was impossible to read some of the writing, but of the one hundred and five adults which I recorded, forty four were born in Upwell. This shows that nearly half of the recorded adult population of Brimstone Hill were natives, that is, although they were not actually born in the village, they did come from the sanie parish. But it also means that more than half, cane to live in Brimstone Hi1l from other towns, villages and even counties. I think it is significant that in the days when communication and travel were slow in comparison with today, people from other counties should go to live in a very small, new, unheard of fen village. According to the Census this was so; twelve adults came from Norfolk, a neighbouring county, five from Suffolk, one from Northamptonshire, one from Surrey and one from London. Some were born in nearby villages and towns such as Wisbech, Outwell, Emneth, March, Welney, Chatteris and Manea; others came from villages and towns farther afield, such as Whittlesey, Wentworth, Newton, King’s Lynn, West Walton, Soham, Littleport, Wilburton and Ramsey. Two people were born in Ireland. It is interesting to note, from this information, that most of the places of birth mentioned are Fenland towns and villages, so that the village inhabitants, although not all natives, were, on the whole, Fenlanders.

It is also possible to gain some idea of what kind of occupations were carried out in the village at the end of the nineteenth century. I recorded twelve different occupations, prominent amongst which was the farm labourer; thirty four out of the seventy four recorded male adults, were farm labourers, next in prominence came the farmer, thirteen men were farmers, with acreages ranging from as few as fifteen to well over a hundred acres. There were four millers, four publicans and three wheelwrights. Other occupations were blacksmith, grocer and draper, carter, troon, carpenter and cordwainer, There was also one schoolmistress. A significant point which arises from this information is that there were a surprising number of different occupations for the size of the village. I have not been able to acquire exact population figures for 1861, but in 1971 there were eight hundred and sixty six inhabitants of Christchurch. It is interesting to note that most of these occupations have now become obsolete to village lire, for example, the groom, wheelwright, cordwainer and miller are no longer needed, showing that there was much more variation and variety of occupation in the village of the late nineteenth century than in that of the mid twentieth century. Today factory goods have replaced those formerly made by village craftsmen.

The variety of occupations indicates that the village in the late nineteenth century was much more self-sufficient and less dependent on the world outside. It is evident that the occupations were mostly connected with agriculture; this emphasises the point that the land was essentially the life of the village.

Chapter Two – Church and Chapel

One method of bringing this Fenland community to life is by looking at the buildings and their uses. As the parochial separation marks the beginning of the village proper so it seems appropriate to concentrate on the Church first.

When in 1862 Christchurch became a separate parish, the first consideration was to build a church. But before this church was built the villagers of Brimstone Hill did not neglect their religious life. They used to walk to Upwell to go to Church and in those days, the rector of Upwell used to provide a dinner for them, because they had walked such a long way and had another long walk back. The inhabitants of Brimstone Hill also attended services in a barn, which now belongs to Mr. George Harris at Green Lane Farm, Dun Cow Drove. Tools and farm implements fill the barn where once the congregation of Christchurch knelt in prayer, sacks of feed are stored in the loft, where the choir and preacher used to stand. If you look at the barn closely you can see the narrow church windows in the wall (Plate 2).

The foundation stone for Christ Church (Plate 3) was laid on 30th June 1864. A newspaper cutting of 1864 describes the ceremony thus:

“The proceedings were commenced by evening prayer in the bar church, the sermon being preached by the vicar of Wisbech, Rev. W. B. Hopkins. On leaving the barn church a procession was formed, headed by the Sunday School children and the Downham Madrigal Society. Clergy to the number of about thirty, also took part in the procession. On the way to the site of the church tho gingers chanted “I was glad” etc. and “Lord remember David” etc… On the arrival of the procession at the site, an appropriate service was used and the stone was laid in a workmanlike manner by the patrons of the living, the Reverend C. W. Townley, the choir following with the hymn, “Christ is made the sure foundation”. The day’s proceedings closed with tea and a sacred concert by the Madrigal Union Society.”

The cost of the land for the site of the Church, Church yard, and for ‘erecting, consecrating and completing in all aspects for Divine Services such Church’ and for furnishing it was three thousand five hundred pounds. Whilst the cost ‘for sufficient land for the site of Parsonage House and Offices of the Rectory of Christchurch Upwell with Garden and Giebe Land and for erecting and completing for actual occupation such Parsonage House Garden und Glebe land’ was three thousand three hundred and sixty eight pounds.

Plate 2 (Green Lane Farm Barn)
Plate 3 (The Old School)

The Church was designed by Mr. Giles of London and built by Nr. W. Hubbard of Derohan, Norfolk, in the style of the mid thirteenth century, with some foreign modifications. It is a cruciform edifice of red brick with coloured facings and a tiled roof; consisting of chancel, návé, transepts, north and south chapels, used respectively as vestry and organ chamber, south porch and boiler room. There is a wooden turret at the east end of the nave containing one bell; the original design included a tower on the north side, but this was demolished shortly before 1883 owing to the insecurity of the foundations. Insecure foundations is a common Fen problem, because the land is continually shrinking. The Church affords four hundred sittings and the register dates from the year 1866. It is interesting to note that the Church only had seating accomodation for half the population of modern Christchurch. This could mean that the builders, planner and inhabitants did not anticipate Christchurch growing much bigger than it was at that time, or it could be indicative of the fact that a large proportion of the population attended Chapel and not Church. There is stained glass in the three windows in the apse; this is Victorian glass, probably around 1860 and is of good colour. In the nave there are two oil paintings; Christ Crowned with Thorns, a copy by E. Jacobs (1860) of the original by Holmen Hunt and the Descent from the Cross, a copy of the picture by Spagnoletto at San Martino, Naples. The latter was presented by Lieutenant Colonel E. R. Pratt, of Ryston Hall, Norfolk, and was originally brought from Italy by Sir Roger Pratt the architect, a member of this family.

In 1929, electric lighting was first provided in the Church; this was run from the rectory plant. A low pressure heating system was also installed in 1965. During 1957 the Honourable Guy Stopford offered twenty five pounds for beautifying the Church and Reverend and Mrs. Evans made a similar offer, so the lighting was changed from flood to pendant lighting. The chancel walls were whitened and the roredos was substituted for curtains; the altar steps were removed and the altar was placed on the third pavement. In 1937 the rector announced that the Townley family wished to present a Processional Cross to the Church as a memorial to the late Reverend and Mrs. C. F. Townley. Mr. Townley was the patron of the living and past rector of Christchurch. A report of the dedication of this Cross and a list of those present at the ceremony, is preserved in a safe at the rectory:

“The Bishop of Ely visited Christchurch Parish Church on Sunday last to dedicate the silver Processional Cross which has been presented to the Church by the Townley family, in memory of the late Rev. Charles Townley, C.B.E., J.P., D.L. of Bulbourn Manor, Cambridgeshire, and of Mrs. Townley (Alice Rosalindo Murray). An inscription on the plinth of the Cross records that Mr. Townley was Rector of Christchurch from 1889-1912. The designer of tho Cross was Mr. Stephen Dykes-Honer .R.L.B.8. and the silver smith was William Comyns of London. Present at the service. of Dedication vore Mr. and Mrs. Charles Townley (Fulbourn), Mrs. Reginald Edwards, Captain the Honourable Guy Stopford R.N. and the Honourable Mrs. Stopford, the Reverend S. J. A. Evans and Mrs, Evans, Lieutenant Colonel E. R. Pratt and Mrs. Pratt of Ryston Hall,”

The designer of this cross was engaged to design the new altar in St. Pauls Cathedral in 1951. In 1938 the Townley family offered to purchase altar rails for the Church and this offer was accepted. It is evident that the Church benefitted from this association with the Townley family as did the village as a whole, but this will be dealt with later,

Christchurch parish contains five thousand, six hundred and three acres, twenty one poles and has a tithe rent charge of one thousand, five hundred and ninety four pounds. The glebe land consists of four acres in grass and one and a half acres in house and gardens. There have been nine rectors in the village, the first of which was the Reverend George Metcalf M.A., who remained until 1889. He was followed by Reverend Charles F. Townley 1889-1912, lord of the manor of Upwell. The next rector was the Reverend the Honourable Grey Neville, 1912-1917, brother of Lord Braybrooke of Audley End. The Reverend Neville exchanged livings with the Reverend Henry Sayers who had been appointed to the living at Bluntisham, Huntingdonshire. The Reverend Seinol Evans, whose wife Selene, was daughter of the Reverend Charles Townley, became rector at Christchurch in 1928 and remained for nineteen years, after which he took over as rector of Upwell and later became Archdeacon. The Reverend Penny was the next rector, 1948–1953; he was followed by the Reverend Hurdle, 1954-1960, and Reverend Rodgers 1961-1966 and finally after a period of two years when the living was vacant came Reverend Dodgson 1968, who is the present rector of Christchurch. An interesting point which arises from this, is that the earlier rectors stayed in Christchurch for much longer periods than the later ones. Reverend Evans remained for nineteen years, Reverend Metcalf for twenty five years, whilst Reverend Hurdle stayed for six years and Reverend Rodgers for five years. Christchurch was without a rector for two years, 1966-1968, simply because no one wished to come. This could be because there are fewer priests today or it could indicate that Christchurch had something to offer at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries which it does not offer today. It could point to the fact that Christchurch was at its peak at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries and that since then, it has remained stationary or has even declined.

Another point which arises from a study of the Church, is that there seems to be no mention of the local inhabitants taking part in any of the important decisions about the village Church; it all appears to have been carried out by those in higher office, for example, the account of the dedication of the Processional Cross does not mention any of the inhabitants who were no doubt present. There seems to have been a great deal of involvement of people from outside Christchurch, particularly titled gentlemen, for example, Lieutenant Colonel I. Pratt, Captain the Honourable Guy Stopford R.N., in the life of the village

The congregation of the Methodist Chapel at Christchurch (Plate 4) dates from 1833, but the present chapel was built in 1872 as a United Methodist Free Church. The foundation stones are dated July 25th 1872. What happened in this year is that the building then existing was enlarged. This meant, in effect, that practically a new church was built. At the first meeting of the Chapel Enlargement Committee, 2nd April 1872, it was decided that the front wall nearest the road must be moved out to the distance of ten feet, the school room and cross walls also; all walls were to be made two feet higher and the new walls were all to be of nine inch brickwork, and a new wooden roof, instead of the plastered one be constructed. The point about raising the walls two feet was revoked a week later because the trustees would not allow it. Mr. James Kerridge was the architect and Mr. Edgar Everson the builder.

The new Chapel, classic in design, was opened on 5th October 1872; the total cost being two hundred and fifty pounds. Single seats in the Chapel were let at nine pence each and whole seats at three shillings and six pence each. This Chapel Enlargement must have been taken very seriously by the Chapel congregation, since a “Book of the Chapel Enlargement Committee Brimstone Hill 1872”, which still exists, was drawn up, containing all the proceedings of the meetings from 2nd April 1872, to 20th March 1892. Every detail is recorded, such as where new seats will be placed or what kind of door they will have, even the preparation of teas and provision of cake is recoried.

There was also a Salvation Army hut in Christchurch, in the centre of the village, next to the general store, but it was out of use as a place of worship for many years; all that the older inhabitants can remember about it, is that towards the end of its days, it was used as & tool shed.

It appears that the community at Christchurch had a diverse religious life and were proud of their religious buildings.

Plate 4 (The Methodist Chapel)

References for Chapter Two

  1. Isle of Ely and Wisbech Advertiser, 17th February 1951
  2. Isle of Ely and Wisbech Advertiser, July 1864
  3. Upwell Parish Church Records, 7th August 1863
  4. Upwell Parish Church Records, 7th August 1863
  5. News cutting found in Rectory Safe.

Chapter Three – Schools

During the middle of the nineteenth century, education was provided for the children of Brimstone Hill by a Dame’s School, which was situated at the top of the present day Crown Avenue. The house was not pulled down until the Council houses were completed in 1947.

In 1865 a school, towards which one hundred and ten pounds was granted by the National Society, was built at Christchurch. From 1875, it was leased to the newly formed Upwell School Board:

“On this date the Lords of the Committee on Education ordered a United School District to be founded by uniting and did thereby unite the School Districts of part of the parish of Upwell in the county of Norfolk and part of the parish of Upwell in the county of Cambridgeshire. And that the United School District to be formed should be named the United School District of Upwell. And that the number of the members of the School Board of the United School District of Upwell should be five” (11th November 1874).

In 1884 additional accomodation was provided for thirty seven infants, raising the total capacity to one hundred and fifty.

The log Book of the “Old School” as it is now called, for indeed the school still remains (Plate 3) and until recently was used as a social centre in the village, has been damaged and entries now exist only from 1921 onwards. This Log Book shows that the number on the school roll fluctuated quite considerably, which could mean that the population in the village was ever changing. Some extracts from the school Log Book will illustrate this fluctuation:

October 14th 1921. “It is a noticeable fact that the numbers on the books has gone down from 134 (July 1914) to 96 this week, The only apparent reason seems to be that the big families have removed during the past seven years and the present inhabitants of the village are chiefly old people and young married couples.”

This entry also tells us something about the kind of people living in the village in 1921.

January 13th 1922. “108 on books”

June 8th 1923. “125 on books”

October 5th 1923. “121 on books”

October 15th 1923. “118 on books”

Thus, in one year, 1923, there was variation and even in one month, October, the numbers on the roll changed. This fluctuation in numbers is commented upon in a report of November 1924 by His Majesty’s Inspector:

“The extent to which this school is affected by migration may be gathered from the fact that of the ninety older children, no fewer than forty have so far been to two, three, four, five or six different schools during the course of their educational life.”

From this I think it is possible to comment that the population in Christchurch was somewhat unstable. The number on the school roll did rise to one hundred and thirty two in 1926, but in January 1928 it was only one hundred and eight and rose to one hundred and twelve in April and one hundred and nineteen in July. It seems likely that the school was seldom, if ever, over-crowded, as the highest number on the roll was one hundred and thirty six in 1930. Thus it could be claimed that the village population was not growing as much as was anticipated.

The Log Book also shows us that attendance at school was poor. it appears that there were three main reasons for absenteeism; illness, bad weather conditions and work on the land:

December 6th 1922. There are now several cases of children absent suffering from Sores. All live at Tips End.”

February 12th 1932. “Attendance 46.6%. There is a great epidemic of coughs and influenza colds in the village.”

During September 1923 school attendance dropped to 33.9%, the worst on record, due to an epidemic of whooping cough. The attendance was even worse, however, in July 1924, when only thirty two scholars out of one hundred and seventeen were present. Measles was the cause and the school was closed for almost two months.

Bad weather conditions affected attendance at this village school, since the children had to walk to school, some as much as four miles. This was because the school, although situated in the middle of the village itself, was not centrally placed for the area it served. Children from the neighbouring hamlets of Euximoor Drove and Tips End, as well as children from the outlying areas of Christchurch attended the school. So that, in fact, probably more children attended the school from outside the actual village than from within. Probably the planners when they built the school, anticipated more people coming to live in the village itself and thus decided to build the school at the centre of what they thought to be a growing village. Extracts from the Log Book will show how attendance dropped according to weather conditions.

December 3rd 1921. “Very wet day, twelve out of twenty nine infants present. Wet clothes were dried at dinner time.”

December 20th 1922. “Very wet day, less than 50% attendance.”

August 24th 1924. “A very wet morning. Only thirty four present out of one hundred and twenty five and many of these arrived in such a condition as to make it impossible for them to do their lessons. Their clothes were dried later as soon as a fire could be kindled.”

Land work seems to have been a third reason for low attendance; this is not surprising in view of the fact that Christchurch is an agricultural area. The Log Book tells us that these children had to work on the land when extra labour was needed, and it seems that this was more important than going to school; in fact the school was closed on several occasions, because the children were needed to help with the farm work. For example:

August 10th 1923. “School closed after assembly for harvest holidays as only forty-seven present.”

October 26th 1923. “Very poor attendance on account of whooping cough, ring worm and potato picking. School closed for two weeks for potato picking holiday.”

August 12th 1927. “School closed for seven weeks to help corn and potato harvests.”

It is evident that the school took second place to land work and that holidays had to be arranged to suit the needs of the farmers in the area.

The conditions in the “Old School” were rather inadequate; an entry in the Log Book for February 15th 1929 reads:

“This has been a very cold week. On two occasions the ink in the inkwells was frozen,”

Some parts of the building were in poor repair, since an entry for November llth 1929 states:

“As Miss Bailey was opening a window this afternoon the whole pane fell out and broke on her head.”

Another entry, for May 6th 1930, reads:

“A very wet day, fires lit to dry children’s clothes: water dripping through roofs of both cloakrooms.”

It appears that the school at Christchurch was beset with a fluctuating population, low attendance and bad teaching conditions. This was probably the reason for much of the agitation which built up against the school.

As mentioned previously, the “Old School” was situated near a well populated area, but was on the outskirts of the area it served. In 1893, the School Board decided by a narrow majority, to replace the school by one more centrally situated, on the Sixteen Foot Bank.

This scheme came to nothing, though it was revived by the County Council in 1974 and 1925. From about the year 2908, there was much agitation on account of the hardships faced by small children on their long muddy walk from the end of Euximoor Drove to Christchurch. The persistent demand for a school on the Sixteen Foot Bank was for the benefit of the children of Euximoor and other fens on the opposite side of the river to Christchurch. In 1910, the County Council opened a school for about thirty children, in a temporary building midway along Euximoor Drove. This building, which is said to have been used as a gymnasium originally at March Grammar School, was recognized, at first, for only ten years, but it remained in use until the Townley School opened at Christchurch.

The Townley School was built in 1932, on a site about half a mile from the “Old School”. It was named after the Townley family in memory of Charles F. Townley, who was one of the benefactors. The school coat of arms is that of the Townleys. Owing to the fact that the plan for building a secondary school at Upwell, in 1931, fell through, the County Council of the Isle found it necessary to use the hill of the Townley School as classrooms, and to retain the “Old School” building for infants. This provided one hundred and eighty places in all, when the school opened, one hundred and sixty one children were on the roll. Several Euximoor parents refused to send their youngest children to the school during the first week; all Euxinoor children were present, however, at the beginning of the second week.

In January 1934 ‘a scheme for the provision of hot midday dinner was inaugurated at the school’. In fact the Townley School was the first school in the Isle to do this, although the Isle were slow, because school meals were provided after 1906. The reason for the Townloy School being the first in the Isle, could have been that many of the children had great distances to walk, to and from school, at Christchurch. About one hundred and forty meals were prepared each day. Weather conditions and land work continued to affect attendance; during the war years many children stayed at home helping on the land, instead of attending school. In fact the pupils had a special holiday in 1940 for the purpose of helping on the farms. an entry in the Log Book reads:

May 31st 1940 “School closed at 4 pm for two weeks, as per the circular letter from the Director of Education ….. which resolved. That owing to the serious shortage of labour in the present crisis, all Elementary Schools in the Isle of Ely attended by children of eleven years and over, be closed for two week commencing Monday next, 3rd June, in order that their parents (or guardiana) 1ay arrange for them to assist in beet singling.”

In March 1949, it was suggested that the infants from Euximoor be taken to school by car and finally in November 1950, the school bus began operating. It made two journey’s, on the first it picked up the Euximoor children and on the second, all the children in the direction of the Wheatsheaf Public House. So at last the children were taken to school in Christchurch by bus, no longer did they have to walk there and back every day. In 1950 ‘a landmark in the school’s history’ took place, when the electricity supply was connected. 1955 marked the beginning of the Townley School for infants and juniors only. The senior pupils going to March Secondary Schools. In that year sixty five pupils left and the roll was reduced to seventy six, cut almost by half.

The number on the school roll, during the period when the Townley School was an all-age school was fluctuating as it was at the “Old School”, Teaching its highest in 1932, when there were one hundred and sixty seven children at the school. After this the number dropped to one hundred and thirty four in 1942; but rose in the early 1950’s, from one hundred and twenty five in 1947, to one hundred and forty four in 1950 and one hundred and forty one in 1951. This rise in numbers in the first years of the 1950’s, could be accounted for by the fact that the birth rate in the country as a whole, rose during these years after the war. When the Townley School became purely infant and junior in 1955, the roll dropped to seventy six and rose to ninety three in 1957 and one hundred and six in 1961. From 1964 the number on the roll dropped, until in 1968, there were only seventy seven children at the Townley School.

References for Chapter Three

  1. Upwell United District School Board Minute Book, December 31st 1874 to March 6th 1882.(Cambridgeshire Archives Office)
  2. School Log Book.
  3. School Log Book.
  4. School Log Book.

Chapter Four – Other Buildings and Roads

Probably one of the oldest buildings in Christchurch is the old Toll House (Plate 4). This is just to the north of Christchurch village and is very close to Wisbech Ouse or old Croft River, which forms part of the county boundary with Norfolk. The Half penny Toll, as it is called, is actually situated in Norfolk, although most of what was the short piece of private road which it paid for is in the Isle of Ely. According to Well’s ‘History of the Drainage of the Fens’, there are several private tolls in the Middle level, all of which were placed in lieu of ancient ferries; one of which is the old Croft River, in the parish of Upwell, called the Half-penny Toll, which formerly ran from Littleport Chair to Wisbech.’ No doubt it was called Half penny Toll because the payment to pass along the road was a half penny, but the earliest information I can find about the Toll is from the present post mistress who, now about seventy years old, used to live at Toll House when she was a child. She recalls that a Traction Engine used to cost three shillings, a horse and cart sixpence and a bicycle three perce. Nor can I find any indication as to the exact age of the Toll House, which still stands today, except that Well’s volumes were published in 1830, so that the Toll House must have been built before this date.

An unusual building in the centre of Christchurch, opposite the Church, is the Ark (Plate 6). When the church and rectory were being built, a small house was constructed for the workmen to live in, since their home was at Dereham, in Norfolk. This square wooden building became known as the Ark. It would appear that this building was originally on the same side of the road as the Church, and that it was moved, on rollers, to its present position opposite the Church, when it became the home of Mr. and Mrs. Hiam. Mrs. Hiam gave an account of how she came to live in the Ark:

“About the title my husband and I were married, it came up for sale. My husband remembered the time when his step-father called to him: Jack, do you want to see them moving the Ark on rollers?’ And that gave him an idea. We went and looked at the Ark and he said to me ‘Do you think we could live in that?! I had a look, and said it would need a lot of work done on it, but we decided to make it our home.”

Inside the Ark there are two bedrooms, a drawing room and a dining room. Mr. and Mrs. Hiam are both dead now, but their son and his wife and son still live in this wooden house.

Plate 4 (Old Toll House)
Plate 5 (???)
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is word-image-193-8-2.png
Plate 6 (The Ark)

Christchurch used to have a total of four Public Houses, but only two survive. The two which have disappeared were situated on the Sixteen Foot Bank, The Rose and Crown, which was at the junction of Crown Drove and the Sixteen Foot Bank, has been pulled down for many years. The Wheatsheaf has been converted into two houses and is still lived in; this is situated about half a mile from Padgett’s Road in the direction of March. The two Public Houses which are still open, are situated one each end of Church Road, the Dun Cow Inn and the Farmers Boy. It is interesting to note that all four Public Houses in Christchurch, have given their names to roads or lanes close by: Crown Drove, Dun Cow Drove, Wheatsheaf Drove and Farmer’s Boy Corner. Also, all the names of the Public Houses, except the Rose and Crown, have connections with farming.

In Kelly’s Directory of the Counties of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk 1879 all four Public Houses are mentioned. But in the Directory for 1892, the Rose and Crown is not listed, so it seems that this Public House disappeared some time between 1879 and 1892. The Wheatsheaf went out of use about the year 1957. That there were four Public Houses in a small village such as this, must indicate that the nineteenth century, unlike the twentieth century Community, spent most of their leisure time in the village.

Christchurch used to have quite a collection of shops. According to the 1861 Census, there were blacksmiths, wheelwrights, a grocer, a draper and cordwainers. These people must have had shops to carry out their business in. Kelly’s Directory of 1879 lists two grocers, a tailor, a wheelwright and four blacksmiths; while the Directory of 1892 lists two grocers and drapers, a tailor, a boot maker, a carpenter and a blacksmith. Thus I think it is feasible to claim that such traders in Christchurch had shops. Some of the older inhabitants of the village, recall that there used to be a blacksmiths and wheelwright down Dun Cow Drove, and a boot shop opposite the Church. Of course there was also the Post Office (Plate 7). It has been in its present position, an old farm house, since 1910. but previously it used to be in the house across the road, which until a few years ago was in use as a grocers shop. (Plate 8). This house has had quite a history; when the Post Office was moved it became a butchers and barbers shop and then it was converted to a grocers, whilst today the shop is in disuse, but the house is still lived in.

In 1922, Kelly’s Directory of Cambridgeshire still lists one grocer, a draper, tree carpenters and one blacksmith. The wheelwright, tailor and shoe maker seem to have disappeared. This pattern has continued until the present day in Christchurch, when the only shops are one general store, a blacksmiths and garage, and a cycle shop. The general store (Plate 9), though no longer in their hands, was for many years in the Cawthorn family. It was founded by George Cawthorn, passed to his son John, who then gave it to his son Walter. The business was bought from the family about fourteen years ago and is now the only real shop in Christchurch. The only grocer’s shop mentioned in the 1861 Census was that belonging to a Miss Sarah Goulding, who is also listed in Kelly’s Directory of 1879. So George Cawthom must have founded his business sometime between 1861 and 1879, since his name appears as manager of Brimstone Hill Co-operative Store in Kelly’s Directory of 1879.

Plate 7 (Post Office)
Plate 8 (Original Post Office)
Plate 9 (General Store)

That Christchurch used to have such a collection of shops, tells us that the village was more or less self-sufficient in the nineteenth century. The women were able to buy shoes, clothes and groceries in the village. The farmer was able to buy all he needed for his farm at the blacksmiths or wheelwrights. The miller provided the bread, the butcher the meat, thus there was no need for the villager to go to the larger towns. This decline of shops in Christchurch during the twentieth century, I believe illustrates a national trend for people from small villages to go to the market town to do their shopping. There is no longer the need for a tailor or shoe maker in a small village, people can travel now, and prefer to go to the town where they have more choice in the articles they wish to buy. Even the grocers shops are losing trade to the supermarkets in the towns.

There used to be an interesting building in Christchurch called the Public Ironing House, where everyone in the village could take their clothes to be ironed. I cannot find any other information about this house, except that it was somewhere near the post office. Another public building in Christchurch, is the Memorial Hall and Social Centre, formerly known as the Institute. This was one of the Reverend Townley’s gifts to the village and was presumably built about the turn of the century, during his turn of office as rector. It gradually got out of repair and was not used very much, until a few years ago, when it was renovated and brought back into use. It was enlarged at the beginning of 1969 and re-opened February 1969, and is now used for village functions and societies. The Council Houses were built at different times. The first four blocks were started in 1911. In 1939 four more blocks were built, on a new road, called “The Gravel”, which linked the first set of four houses. About 1947 Crown Avenue itself was built. Some Council Bungalows for old people have also been built, adjacent to the Chapel.

A examination of the road names in Christchurch, tells us that. Poulter’s Drove, and Padgett’s Road were so named in 1840, because they appear on the Tithe Award; but I can find nothing to indicate why they were named thus. Dun Cow Drove, was formerly called Green Drove and before that Hill Drove. These names seen obvious; Hill Drove because there is a hill there, Green Drove, because the drove used to be a grass track, and Dun Cow Drove because of the Public House. Jackson’s Road was formerly called Scott’s Road; both names were used because families of these names lived at the top of the road. Scott’s road is called such because the Scotts were owners of the Lines”, at the end of the road, and most of the houses down the road belonged to the Scott family. Crown Avenue and Crown Drove took their name from the Rose and Crown: Public House. Church Road needs no explanation. There is also a Roman Road, which runs along the edge of the village. This was the Fen Causeway, which ran from Castor to Denver.

References for Chapter Four

  1. Samuel Wells, History of the Drainage of the Great Level of the Fens called Bedford Level. Volume I. (London: 1830)
  2. Isle of Ely and Wisbech Advertiser, February 17th 1951.
  3. Kelly’s Directory of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, 1892.

Chapter Five – Drainage and Agriculture

Christchurch is part of the Middle Level District for drainage purposes, and one of the rivers in this level, the Sixteen Foot River, runs near to the village; in fact some of the outlying inhabitants of Christchurch live on both sides of the Sixteen Foot River. This river, constructed by hand in 1651, is part of the Bedford Middle Level, runs parallel with the Old Bedford for eleven miles at six miles west of it, and extends from the Forty Foot River, sometimes called Vermuyden’s drain, to Popham’s Eau. Designed to carry away the waters of the fen extending between March and Welney, this river helps to drain Christchurch, and indeed, helped to drain the land, which made settlement at Christchurch possible. It was formerly called Thurlow’s Drain, named after John Thurlow, Cromwell’s Secretary of State, who in 1658, was elected member of parliament for Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. On the strength of this he bought Wisbech Castle, which he pulled down and rebuilt in 1660.

The Sixteen Foot River used to carry barge traffic, mostly sugar beet, but coal was sometimes carried. In Wells’ History of the Drainage of the Fens, 1830, the Sixteen Foot Drain appears in a list of river’s annually waded, that is, the weeds cut, by the Superintendents. In the year 1810, an act was passed called “the Middle Level River Act”, by which, certain commissioners were empowered to impose a tax of one shilling per acre, upon certain parts of the Middle Level, to be expended in scouring out and deepening certain rivers. The Sixteen Foot Drain appears in this list of rivers. By 1830 the tax was reduced to threepence per acre, for the purpose of ensuring that the work done was kept in good repair. This meant that the inhabitants of the acreage drained by this river had to pay a tax, and so most probably did the people of Brimstone Hill, as indeed today, they continue to pay a tax for drainage. Thus people living in this Fenland village had to pay for the draining of their land. (Plate 10).

There is a much older, natural river, which runs just to the north of Christchurch, the old Croft River or Wisbech Ouse, although it is more like a dyke than a river now. The silting up of the outfalls of rivers by the high tides, not only caused rivers to flood, but also to alter their course. This was the case with the Wisbech Ouse, which originally flowed out to sea by way of Wisbech, through the West Water and the Wellstream; but due to the mistaken efforts of the Littleport men it altered course to Ely and Lyn. The old dried-up bed near Upwell is all that remains of the old course of the Ouse, except for the Old Croft River near Christchurch, which has almost disappeared. It is from this river that Upwell, Outwell and Welney were named.

Plate 10 (Southern Fenland Map of Main Drains)

Key to Christchurch Mills

  1. Webb’s Mill (Corn Mill)
  2. Christchurch Tower Mill or Lavender’s Mill (Corn Mill)
  3. Key’s Mill (Drainage Mill)
  4. Second Drainage Mill.

Also, it is said that the stones with which Ely Cathedral is built, went up the Old Croft River.

A difficulty in draining this Fenland, which occurred after Vermuyden’s time, presented itself when it was realised that the peat was continually shrinking, thereby causing the whole land slowly to subside. This constant dropping of land prevented the waters from gravitating, so windmills of a Dutch type were introduced in 1678. Fitted with large wooden “scoop wheels” containing blades or paddles, their purpose was to lift the water from the flat levels into the rivers. Though they were effective to a certain extent, the fact that the land still continued to sink necessitated the constant substitution of wheels of a rather larger diameter. Sometimes matters reached such a pitch, in fact, that it was even necessary to employ two mills, set at different levels, so that the lower mill could send up the water to the higher one, which, in turn, would then throw it up into the river.

There were no less than two hundred and fifty such mills in the Middle Level District in the eighteenth century:

“There are between Radsey and Old Bedford Bank, and upon the Forty Feet and Sixteen Peet, to Salter’s Lode in Well (Upwell) parish (Surrounding Manea) fifty seven”. 1

In the parish of Christchurch there used to be four mills, two drainage mills, and two corn mills. The two drainage mills were along the Sixteen Foot Bank, one corn mill was down Poulter’s Drove, the other along the Sixteen Foot Bank, near Poulter’s Drove. I can find no records of the corn mill at Poulters Drove, except that it was finally demolished about 1952. In the 1861 Census a miller, John Drake, living down Poulter’s Drove, is recorded, and some of the older inhabitants of the village remember the mill as Webb’s Mill. In Kelly’s Directory of 1892, a Joseph Webb, miller, is listed. Christchurch Tower Mill known also as Lavender’s Mill, (Plate 11) was a corn mill, and had two common and two patent sails. Tailpole winding was used and both the curb and skids were made of wood. A trundle wheel was found at Christchurch Tower Mill, over six foot in diameter; this was surprisingly large compared with others. This mill was square in shape; according to Rex Wailes, it was derelict in 1925 and 1950. It has disappeared completely now.

Plate 11 (Christchurch Tower Mill)

Key’s Mill, (Plate 12) situated along the Sixteen Foot Bank between the Wheatsheaf Drove and Bedlam Bridge, was a smock mill. It was a typical marsh mill used for draining the land. Mr. Key went to live by the mill about 1875. Mr. Key lived in the house and looked after the mill and the men who worked on the drain, in the days when the sails drove paddles which churned water from the land. It drove large wooden scoop wheels’ like padalo wheels, in a close fitting casing which raised the water a height equal to about two fifths of their diameter (Plate 13). The sails were sixty two feet long and the paddies fifteen feet long. ‘In 1916’ says Mr. Sparron, ‘a gale tore off one of the sails and hurled it right across the river’. Of course engines were later installed to do the work of the wind. A Mr. Lister was there before keys. The four sails were removed several years prior to 1950. Shortly afterwards the bill was cut down, a roof fixed about sixteen to eighteen feet from the ground and used as a house. After Mr. Key came Mr. Willian Lexman, who, in turn, was followed by a Dr. White. It was from him that Jim Sparrow took over and then in 1939, his brother Charles Sparrow became Mill engineer. The Key’s Mill engine used to pump water from the fens at a rate of fifty tons a minute. The last time it was in use was in 1947, because in the following year, the Bedlam Bridge pumping station was opened and the one at Key’s Mill bocame disused. Even though its days of usefulness as a means of pumping the fens dry, had gone, the mill did excellent service as a home, with twenty eight inch thick walls, two rooms downstairs and three up, for another ten years, until it finally became derelict about 1958. The remains of the pumping station shed can still be seen today. although the mill has been demolished. (Plate 14). I cannot find any information relating to the second drainage mill in Christchurch parish, except that it stood on the opposite side of the Sixteen Foot River, near what is today known as Poole’s Bridge. It seems that it was demolished just before the Second World War.

Thus the windmill became a characteristic feature of Fen landscape and an important factor in Fen economy during the eighteenth century. There was, of course, the drawback that these mills depended on the wind for them to work correctly, so eventually they were replaced by steam pumps, which in turn gave way to the diesel pump and now today we have electric pumps. There is a pumping station over the river on Poole’s Bridge, which replaced the mill there and also, as mentioned, one at Bealan Bridge, taking the place of Key’s Mill.

Plate 12 (Key’s Mill)
Plate 13 (Paddle Wheel)

Agriculture was the main concern of the people in this Fenland village in the nineteenth century. Those people that did not own land themselves, worked as farm labourers or were connected with farming in some way. The village trades such as the blacksmith and wheelwright were important to the farmer. Christchurch has loamy soil, in many parts highly fertile. Inclosures were made prior to 1793 and there is no separate award or Act apart from an amendment of 1810, to the March Inclosure act dated 1805.

Plate 14 (Key’s Mill Pumping Station)

Even during the short duration of the existence of Christchurch as a separate parish, the agricultural pattern has changed and developed. The nineteenth century farmer grew such crops as coleseed, beans, turnips, oats, hemp and flax;

The cultivation of hemp and flax is practised to a considerable extent, particularly in the parishes of Upwell and Welney. In the last year (1806) in Upwell and Wolney there was one hundred and eighty seven acres of hemp and eighty-two acres of flax.”

Even though this does not relate specifically to Christchurch, although in 1906, Christchurch was part of the parish of Upwell, it gives some idea of the crops grown by nineteenth century farmers. The change has been from cereal and leguminous crops to root crops, with a reduction of livestock and fodder crops used to feed them. Sugar beet, wheat, barley and potatoes, with occasionally peas, are now grown by the modern day farmer. One of the most noticeable changes is the replacement of grassland by arable. Grassland used to be a common sight, since almost all farmers in this area had sheep. As hatson states of the area in 1827:

“In the months May and June, the rich pastures are so beautifully verdant, and the sheep so thickly studded over the best grazing parts of the level, that they produce a very pleasing sight.” 7

Today, in this area, grass fields are few and far between; there is not a single sheep in Christchurch, and few farms have bullocks. These have largely been replaced by animals which consume mainly cereals such as pigs and poultry.

The farmers in the nineteenth century followed the ancient practice of leaving a field fallow, or putting it down to grass for a year, so that it should regain all the necessary minerals which the crops had taken out; but this is no longer done today. With regard to manure or fertiliser, it used to be the practice for manure made principally from the straw yards and hovels to be put on the land, very little artificial manure, except occasionally soot and bone dust were used; whereas, today, artificial chemical fertilisers are used regularly each year. There has also been the obvious change of greater output, fewer men and more machinery. It would take too long to discuss all the changes and improvements in machinery, but the story behind one piece of machinery will help to illustrate what farming used to be like in this Fenland village. There was a threshing tackle business in Christchurch, run by Mr. William Sparrow, and every year between 1902 and 1956 Mr. Sparrow’s firm went round to the farms in Christchurch and district to thresh the corn. Speaking about the founders of the business, Mr. George Sparrow his father and a Mr. Compline, Mr. W. Sparrow said that their first engine was a portable one and the whole tackie was taken from place to place by a team of horses. The threshing machine was built by Marshall and Son Ltd. of Gainsborough and was exhibited in the Isle of Ely County Show at Chatteris in 1902. Early in the morning Mr. Sparrow and Mr. Compline would start from their homes to walk the lanes and cross the fields, often for a distance of three to four mies, to kindle the fire of the steam engine in order to get the machine running in time. The farm buildings were also different, especially the roofs. The walls were built up, then to form the roof, willow twigs and sticks were laid across on top of which was put flax and hay, and in fact these lasted for a remarkably long time. Another practice which used to be common among Fenland farmers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was for the farmers who needed extra labourers to go to the status, which was a kind of fair, either at March or Wisbech, and hire men there to work on their land. An occupation which is obsolete today is that of drover. A drover used to be hired by any farmer who wanted animals such as cattle or horses, transported from one place to another. Thus hedges and gates, which have almost disappeared today, were numerous in days gone by, so that as animals were driven along the roads by the drovers, they could not be lost on the way.

Today farming is still one of the main occupations in Christchurch, but by no means is the whole village concerned with agriculture, as was probably the case in the nineteenth century, machinery has taken the place of men, thus fewer men are required to work on the land.

References for Chapter Five

  1. Samuel Wells, History of the Drainage of the Great Level of the Fens called Bedford Level. Volume I, (London 1830) P.692.
  2. Thomas Neale; The Ruinous State of the Parish of Manea in the Isle of Ely. 1748. P. 15 Cited in it. C. Darby, The Draining of the Fens (Cambridge University Press 1968).
  3. Kelly’s Directory of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk 1892.
  4. Rex Wailes, The Windmills of Cambridgeshire.
  5. Dugdale, History of Imbanking and Draining 1772. P.339 Cited in A. A. Oldhan, Windmills Around Wisbech.
  6. D. and S. Lyson, Cambridgeshire 1808. Volume II. Part I of Nazan Hritanni02. P.36
  7. Watson, An Historical Account of Wisbech. 1827 P.120.

Chapter Six – The Village People

Any study of a village must of necessity include the people in the village. The earliest information I have as to the population of Christchurch, is for the year 1871, when the number of inhabitants was eight hundred and sixty six. From the population statistics it is evident that this Fenland village has not grown; it has remained static and if anything, the population is declining.

In 1891 the population was eight hundred and fifty nine, in 1911 the number was eight hundred and sixty two and in 1921 it was down to eight hundred and thirty six. This drop in numbers between 1911 and 1921 could possibly be on account of the First World War. According to the Roll of Honour in the Church, twenty four young men from Christchurch were killed in the 1914-1918 War. From this low figure in 1921, the village reached a population of nine hundred and nine in 1931. This correlates with the school roll which reached its highest number in the 1930’s. In 1932, there were one hundred and sixty seven children on the school roll. In 1961 the population was nine hundred and eighteen, but since 1961 it has declined, until in 1969, according to the Elv Diocesan Directory, the population was only eight hundred and thirty nine. Here again thore is correlation in the school roll, which declined from one hundred and six in 1961 to seventy seven in 1968. This pattern of decline is likely to continue, because as the young people leave school and get married, they move away to find employment. There is no longer any work in Christchurch for the young. The farmers do not want any labourers, this means that they have to seek employment in nearby towns and cities, such as Wisbech, March, Peterborough and Cambridge. A bus does come from Cambridge to collect factory workers from the village and surrounding district, but transport is one of the main problems in this village. If the inhabitants got employment in March or Wisbech they have difficulty in getting there and back unless they have their own transport. Thus the young people are tending to move out of Christchurch; consequently the village life is dying. Not only the young, but some of the older inhabitants are leaving the land, and finding employment in the towns. As I mentioned previously, there is really only one shop, there used to be a youth club, but this has ceased through lack of support. In fact, the inhabitants of the village go out of Christchurch for their entertainment and social life.

But even though the village may be a dying community, some families have remained in the village since the beginning of Christchurch as a parish. For example, the Cawthorn family, who used to own the general store. Another family, the Scotts, were and still are today, farmers in Christchurch. In Kelly’s Directory of 1879, he lists a John Scott, farmer and in 1892 a Jesse Scott is mentioned who lived at “The Limes”.

Today five farms in Christchurch are owned by descendants of Jesse Scott. In all, I can trace seven family names, which have been in the village since the nineteenth century. One name, that of Russell, is particularly common in Christchurch, Mr. W. Sparrow: a retired farmer and former threshing business owner’, recounted to me a tale which used to be told in Christchurch, about the five Russell brothers. It was said that this quintet of Russell brothers were all Methodists, and that they never drank intoxicating liquor, never smoked and never shaved, and they were all over eighty when they died. In 1926 they had a photograph taken of themselves, boots ashine and beards carefully trimmed. Mr. Sparrow still has (2 copy of this photograph. They were all preachers in Christchurch and Euximoor and the oldest was known as “Chapel Tom” another brother was known as “Gruby Fred”.

A newspaper article entitled “Looking Back through the Advertiser Tiles”2 reads:

“1851 At the Isle of Ely Quarter Sessions, the Chairman, in charging the Grand Jury, said he regretted to place before then that day thirty four cases; there were none of them of a very particular nature, except one of a most malicious and inexcusable character – the killing of three sheep and wounding of four others, leaving them to expire on the ground. The foreman of the Grand Jury presented a memorial from land owners and ratepayers of Brimstone Hill, soliciting attention to the very inadequate police force in the neighbourhood, there being only two police constables for the parishes of Upwell and Outwell in the Isle, and requesting additional police constables to be provided.”

This article tells us that Brimstone Hill did not have a regular police system and that the villagers thought they needed one; thus the community must have been quite well organised at this time. Their plea was granted, because a police house was built in 1903, Although it is no longer used as such. In fact only four resident policemen have lived there; since their time Christchurch has been served by policemen from other villages. At present the village comes under the jurisdiction of the policeman from Manea. From this it could be deduced that Christchurch was a fairly law abiding community. since it proved unnecessary to have a resident policeman. In the past, one way in which some kind of law was observed, with regard to stray animals, was by means of the village pound. There used to be an enclosure, somewhere near Crown Avenue, where stray animals were kept and the owners had to pay a pound to get then back.

Before the days of Marham water, the villagers used to drink water from the river in summer and store rain water in cisterns; they also used water from wells. There were several public wells in Christchurch, one at the Chapel, one at the Dun Cow Inn, another in Mr. Hiam’s yard opposite the Church and one somewhere near the Farmer’s Boy Public House. Mr. W. Sparrow states that in the drought of 1912, the villagers used to pay one penny for water from the well at the Chapel, but refused to use water from the well in the Church yard because of the dead bodies; they were frightened of what they might drink.

Interesting information concerning this Fenland village, are the conditions which used to relate to common land. If anyone wanted to build a house on common land, who could claim to own it, if he could build the foundations before the next morning. There are two houses down Scott’s Road, and one down Dun Cow Drove, which were built on common land. Life in this Fenland village was very much bound up with Church or Chapel, and the rectors in their turn, looked after the needy in their parish. Mrs. W. Sparrow, told me that at Christmas the rector used to go to the butcher’s shop and the coal man and tell them to leave meat and coal at deserving homes who could not afford it and he would pay for this.

As mentioned previously, the Townley family has many connections with Christchurch and, indeed, the village benefited greatly from this connection. The ancient house of Townley or Touneloy is deduced by charters and other authenticated documentary evidence from Spartlingus, first Dean of Whalley, who lived about the year 896. His descendant, Petor de Tunley or Townley, was the first of the family known to have used the present arms; a white argent with three mullets and a fesse sable. Charles de Townley twenty ninth in descent from Spartlingus was distinguished by his exquisite taste in fine arts and formed a celebrated collection, known as the “Townley Harbles” now in the British Museum.

The Townley’s of Fulbourn, of which the Reverend Charles F Townley was a member, are a cadet branch of the Townleys, and descend from Colonel Richard Townley of Hetfield Hall, Lancashire; who flourished in the eighteenth century. Charles F. Townley – the past rector of Christchurch – born on June 15th 1856, was the second son of Charles Watson Townley of Tulbourn, Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire and past rector of Upwell, educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, Charles Townley graduated B.A. in 1878, proceeding to the degree of E.A. in 1889. He was made Deacon in 1884 and ordained priest in 1886, by the Bishop of Ely. Before becoming rector at Christchurch in 1899, he went to Lynesbury in Hampshire and Weston-under-Lyziard, Staffordshire. Reverend Townley was appointed Rural Dean of Finchan in 1900, and became Lord of the Manors of Fulbourn and Beaupre at Outwell, and patron of three livings, one of which was Christchurch. In 1885 he married Rosalinde, fourth daughter of the Reverend Jermyn Pratt, of Ryston Hall, Norfolk, which explains the involvement of this family in Church affairs at Christchurch. He had three daughters, one of whom married the Reverend Evans, and one son who is the present patron of the living of Christchurch.

The Townleys helped the village in various ways; Charles Watson Townley, gave the Reverend Metcalf and his successors the land for the vicarage, the church yard and the school and was responsible for Christchurch becoming a separate parish. Charles F. Townley paid for the Institute, now called the Social Centre, and also gave some money towards the oil street lighting in the village. As a parting gift he stood guarantor for the provision of Marham water to the village. He was also a benefactor of the Townley School and patron of the living of Christchurch. I think it would be fair to say that the inhabitants of Christchurch respected the Townleys and looked to them as kind of Lords of the Manor. Tribute is paid to Charles Townley in the naming of the village school, in the Processional Cross in the Church and in a plaque in the Social Centre.

References for Chapter Six

  1. Kelly’s Directory of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk 1879.


Of its very nature this study is fragmentary and leaves many aspects of life only superficially mentioned, simply because there is very little documentary evidence relating specifically to Christchurch. However this is a first attempt to piece together information on a village which is usually considered merely as an adjunct to Upwell. I have tried to show that the community of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was proud of its new identity as a separate parish and determined to have all the amenities of the parish of which it had been part. It was firmly rooted in agriculture, as it still is, but the extreme of four Public Houses and a variety of shops, emphasize the different nature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when a rural community was much more self-sufficient. Even now, public transport is not frequent and Christchurch is still relatively isolated, how much more so was it a hundred years ago. It is not a beautiful or ever particularly interesting village, but typical of many fenland communities over the last century.



Primary Sources:

The Old School Log Book.

Townley School 10g Book. Upwell United District School Board Minute Book, December 31st 1874. March 6th 1882. (Cambridgeshire Archives Office).

“Book of the Chapel Enlargement Committee Brimstone Hil1 1872.”

Upwell Parish Church Records.

Christchurch Parish Church Records.

Upwell Cum Welney Rectory Act 1946.

Roll of Honour in Christchurch Parish Church.

Letter from Mr. Charles Townley.

Kicro Milo of the 1961 Census. (Cambridgeshire Archives Office)

Secondary Sources:

Astbury, A.K. The Black Fens. 1970

Barrett, W.H. Tales from the Fens

Bloom, A. The Fens. ` 1953

Conybeare. History of Cambridgeshire 1997

Craskell Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire Leaders.

Darby, H.C. The Draining of the Fens. Cambridge 1940.

Edited by, Darby, H.C. The Cambridge Region. 1938

Dring, V.E. The Fenland Story: From Prehistoric Times to
the Present Day. 1967

Dutt, W.A. Highways and Byways in East Anglia 1923

Ennion, E.A.R. Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and the Isle of

Harris, L.E. Veruuvien and the Fens

Jones, J. A Human Geography of Cambridgeshire 1924

Kelly’s Directories of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, 1892,
1922, 1933, 1937.

Edited by Kelly, E.R. The lost Office Directories of Cambridgeshire. Norfolk and Suffolk. 1858 and 1879.

Lysons, D. & S. Cambridgeshire. Volume II 1803 Part I Magna Britannica

Miller, S.H, and Skertchly, S.P.J. The Fenland Past and Present 1878.

Nills, D.H. The English Village 1960

Oldham, A.A. Cambridgeshire Windmills 1963

Oldham, A.A. Windmills Around Wisbech

Edited by Steers, J.A. The Cambridgeshire Region 1965

The Victoria History of the Counties of England. History of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely. Volume II and IV. Edited by Pugh, R.

Wailes, R. The Windmills of Cambridgeshire

Walker N. and Craddock, T. History of Wisbech 1849

Watson. An Historical Account of Wisbech 1849

Wells, History of the Drainage of the Great Level of the Fens celled Bedford Level. Volume I. London 1830

Wentworth-Day J. History of the Fens. London 1954

Wymer, Wheatsheaf and Willow 1949

Ely Diocese Directory 1968-69

Isle of Ely Official Guide Issued by Authority of Isle of Bly County

Council, March.

Place Names of Cambridgeshire. English Place Marces Society. VolumeIX Edited by RAMEY, P.H.

Isle. of Ely and Wisbech Advertiser

July 1864

April 19th 1950

January 21st 1951. Article entitled “Looking Deck through the Advertiser Files.”

February 17th 1951.

March 31st 1951

May 10th 1952. Article entitled “The ‘Old Firm’ Celebrates It’s Golden Jubilee.”

October 31st 1953.

Ordnance Survey Map Sheet TL 49 NE
Cambridgeshire – Norfolk 1959.

Acknowledgements are due to:

Mr. W. Sparrow.
Mrs. E. Watson.
Kirs. C.M. Sparrow.
Mr. N. Scott.