The Great Plague in Cambridge 1665-1666

Stapleford History Society 11th July 2023

A talk by Professor Emerita Evelyn Lord

The similarities between the Great Plague and its societal consequences and what we have recently experienced with Covid-19 were brought out by the speaker. There are two types of plague: bubonic, caused by the transfer of a bacterial infection from the fleas on rats, and pneumonic with Covid-19, caused by a sort of cold virus, being the most recent example. The Great Plague was clearly bubonic while the symptoms of Covid-19 were clearly pneumonic. The outcome for many was the same.

In 1658, after an earlier outbreak of bubonic plague in 1646, the four Pest Houses in Cambridge were repaired at a cost of £189-1-9, in case they were needed again. In 1665 the deaths began. The first to die in Cambridge was a small boy, John Worley, who had black spots on his chest. His brother died soon afterwards; the house was closed up, a red cross daubed on the door and a forty-day quarantine was imposed.

Just as Covid-19 was initially spread by international travellers, the plague was spread by people moving from one place to another. We were fighting a war against the Dutch and the Press Gang seized approximately 80 Cambridge men who were taken to Harwich to be sailors and 400 men to be soldiers. Eventually this forced movement of men had to stop and Plague Orders were introduced to stop public meetings. Even cats, dogs and pigeons were not allowed to be outside. Inns and shops were closed.

The unusually hot weather during 1665-66 combined with an occasional hard frost helped to promote feelings of false optimism about the situation but by the end of August 1666 every Cambridge parish was affected. By October the plague had reached Impington. Although some tried to blame the poor, with their overcrowded and unhygienic houses for their own death toll, it soon became apparent that the plague was no respecter of wealth or status. It even created a new class of poor, as the colleges, which had provided much employment for locals, had closed. Even the harvest was left to rot as there was no-one to gather it in. A Bill of Mortality recorded 920 burials: approximately 12% of the city population.

Eventually, in December 1666 there was a Declaration that normal life could resume and inns and shops could re-open. Those who had survived had cleaner houses as soap had become cheaper but, more importantly, they had built up immunity from contact with the plague in the 1640s. Scientists are now sure that they can isolate a gene – CCR5^32 – which, if you have it, indicates that one of your ancestors must have survived the 14th or 17th century plague. Perhaps this is known to us as having T cells?!

[report by Jane Steadman]

The History of Windmills in Cambridgeshire

Stapleford History Society 9th May 2023

A talk by Elwyn Davies and David Pearce

There was a good turnout considering the weather and we heard a very interesting talk with many illustrations. The two speakers are co-owners of the restored twelve-sided Wicken Windmill. Their windmill is regularly open for visitors who are able to make their own contribution to funds by buying the flour produced there. Volunteers also work to help to fund the purchase of the timber that is necessary for repairs.

Two hundred years ago windmills provided an essential service by milling the flour for everyone’s daily bread. The industry in this part of the country was dominated by four family groupings who worked and intermarried and, at the same time, developed and modified different types of windmill. The names Rawlings, Willis, Hunt and Fyson were mentioned the most, with the Willis family being based in Stapleford.

We learned that POST MILLS were built from c.1150 and were shown a photo of the one at Great Gransden with two millers beside it. TOWER MILLS were developed c.1550 and modified by the invention of Fantails in 1750 and Patent Sails in 1803. Robert Willis built SMOCK MILLS including the Stapleford Mill in 1803 and the Fulbourn Mill in 1808. Stapleford Mill had ceased operation by 1905 and was used as a base by the Home Guard during WWII. The Home Guard burned quantities of wood from the structure itself and it spectacularly collapsed in 1945. The Fulbourn Mill was struck by lightning twice in the same storm and underwent major repairs in 1933. A TOWER MILL was built at Sawston in 1866. It became the Vulcan Iron Works. Its lasting legacy is a kissing gate and iron bridge over the River Mel. The Wicken Mill, owned by the speakers, was built in 1813 with very wide shutter sails and a fantail. A DRAINAGE MILL was built over Soham Mere but destroyed by fire in 1867.

Just as today’s workers feel threatened by automation and the development of AI, so some of our ancestors felt aggrieved when threshing machines took away the need for as many mill workers. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England work to help us remember how people used to live and support the rescue, renovate and rebuild strategy necessary for us to appreciate our heritage.

[report by Jane Steadman]

The Social Impact of Industrialisation in Sawston c.1850 to c.1930

Stapleford History Society 14th March 2023

This talk was given by Mary Dicken, a vicar’s daughter, who has spent all but her student years living in Sawston. She made it clear from the beginning that she was not going to talk about the industrial processes but about the people who had lived and worked in Sawston. The talk focussed in particular on the several young men who came into the area and decided to set up businesses, having been attracted primarily by the natural resource of the lime rich waterway. This quality of water was eminently suitable for making paper and tanning leather.

A map of 1811, drawn at the time of the Enclosures, shows that Sawston had a population of 288 males and 315 females whose main occupation was farming. By the 1890s the population had grown more than in any other South Cambridgeshire village and was only slowed by the economic depression of the 1890s It took until the 1950s to resume its late 19 th century level.

The paper industry was started by Edward Towgood in 1807. He allowed women to work cutting up rags to be turned into paper and introduced steam power, both highly innovative at the time. He and his brother, Hamer, ran Mill Farm with its herd of prize-winning Guernsey cows as well as the paper mill. In 1866 they paid for the building of the new National School (4 years before Forster’s Education Act). The paper mill was bought by Harry Spicer in 1917.
Harry Spicer was also very go-ahead. He built a sports ground and allowed everyone to use it. He wanted the best for everyone in Sawston and built the cinema which is now known as The Marven Centre. He was there when the Prince of Wales opened Sawston Village College and even made the erection of the New Road Bus Shelter into a grand occasion.
In 1895 Walter Hutchings started a leather glove business. This became Hutchings and Hardings then the Eastern Counties which still makes chamois leathers.

Walter Hutchings was very prominent in local government and only retired in 1948. He was friendly with John Crampton, seen as the leader of the Progressives and ‘friend of the working man’. In 1867 John Crampton supported the locals in their desire to start an Industrial and Coop Society despite opposition from another important character in this story: Thomas Sutton Evans.

Thomas Sutton Evans was a talented but tyrannical entrepreneur who established The Old Yard where parchment and leather were produced. He tried to reduce his employees’ take-home pay by making them buy drink in his pub before getting their wages. He also objected to having a railway station for Sawston at a time (1846) when Shelford Corn and Coal got a private siding and Shelford got a station.

A growing population inevitably needed a doctor. Frederick Prince was the local doctor had to deal with the occasional outbreak of smallpox and typhoid, the pathogens being found in infected rags and infected water respectively. He was also the creator of the Cerebro-Cibus drink, an early energy drink made locally.

The increase in population generated the need for more and better houses, better shops for all sorts of provisions and the increase in literacy is reflected in the number of magazines sold in the local shops. The number and variety of goods advertised in newspapers and magazines reflect the increasing prosperity in the little town of Sawston.

For more information visit the Archives at the Mary Challis House, Sawston.

[report by Jane Steadman]