The History of Chatteris in Cambridgeshire

Historical notes about the town of Chatteris in Cambridgehsire.

Chatteris is a small town on the western border of the Isle, about 9 miles south of March and 12 miles northwest of Ely, and on the main road between them. The Ely road is known as Ireton's Way, having been constructed by the Parliamentary general in the Civil War to convey troops from Chatteris to Ely. It was a private road, with toll gates, until taken over by the County Council in 1902. Other roads connect the town with St. Ives, Huntingdon (via Warboys) and Wisbech (via Upwell). The Wisbech road runs east from Chatteris for about a mile. It then runs north-east along the Sixteen Foot Drain, which is the only important watercourse in Chatteris except the Forty Foot or Vermuyden's Drain crossing the north of the parish. There is a station on the March and St. Ives branch, Eastern Region British Railways, opened in 1848. A Local Board, now replaced by an Urban District. Council of nine members, was formed in 1873. The market, apparently held by prescription, had been discontinued before 1808 owing to the bad state of the roads and the frequent floods in the district. In 1834 it was revived, on the petition of nearly 100 inhabitants, and was held on Fridays. By 1851 it was well attended and the centre of a fair trade in corn. It became obsolete early in the present century, but fairs are still held on the last Friday in April and the Friday before Michaelmas. From 1778 until 1846 Chatteris alternated with March as one of the meeting-places of the Court of Requests for the Isle of Ely for the recovery of small debts in the Isle.

In 1563 there were 206 householders in Chatteris, a figure comparable with the undivided parish of Doddington (201) and Haddenham (188), and much below that for Whittlesey (355) and Ely with its hamlets (400). Chatteris must then have contained about 1,000 inhabitants. The assessment for ship money in 1639- 40 shows little change, Chatteris being rated at £50 2s. as compared with £75 15s. for Haddenham and £699s. 11d. for Doddington with its hamlets. Chatteris, however, ranks with the villages rather than the towns; it is much below Wisbech, Whittlesey, and Ely, and about in the middle of a group, assessed at between £40 and £60, which contains also Elm, Stretham with Thetford, Littleport, Downham, and Sutton. Bishop Compton's 'census' of 1676 is almost certainly inaccurate as regards Chatteris, where it shows only 271 persons of communicant age (including 43 Dissenters), perhaps representing a total of about 400; the comparable figures for Doddington and Haddenham are 1,762 (949 in March) and 700 respectively. At the opening of the 19th century Chatteris, with 2,393 population, had far outpaced Haddenham (1,090), but was by a slight margin the smallest town in the Isle, March having 2,514 inhabitants. The subsequent trend has been the usual one in Fenland towns-a rapid increase up to 1851, as the surrounding countryside was converted from pasture to tillage, followed by a decrease of some 10 per cent. in the second half of the 19th century and subsequent return to about the 1851 level. At this date (1851) the town was said to be 'considerable', to be 'lighted with gas', and to contain 'some handsome houses and good shops'. There were at that time 15 inns and 43 beerhouses to serve a population of about 5,000. Chatteris suffered badly in the 1832 epidemic of cholera; the General Baptist congregation lost 3 out of about 50 members. A serious fire which broke out on Mr. Billips's farm on 14 September 1864 caused the death of a 7-year-old girl and the destruction of upwards of 100 houses. The total damage was over £10,000, and a relief fund of £300 was subscribed for the sufferers. The fire was said to be the work of an incendiary. An earlier fire (1706) caused £1,787 worth of damage.

A halfpenny tradesman's token of 1670 is known. The first record of a post office in Chatteris is in 1782. In 1851 Mrs. Mahala Rowley, confectioner, of High Street, was postmistress. The post office was opened in its present premises at No. 16 Park Street in 1924; the building is of the late 18th century, with a pedimented doorway with fanlight and bow window above, and a Mansard roof. Telephone service was first provided by the National Telephone Company in 1910. The present exchange dates from 1924.

There are some small engineering works in Chatteris, but agriculture is the chief industry and the town is of importance mainly as a local shopping centre. It has not the industrial interests of other Fenland towns like Wisbech, Whittlesey, and March, and though the population (5,153 in 1931, 5,528 in 1951) is large compared with some neighbouring centres (e.g. Huntingdon and St. Ives) it is spread over some 22 square miles at a density not much greater than that of some of the rural parishes in the north of the county. In 1921 just over half (50.6 per cent.) of the male workers were employed in agriculture, a proportion above that for the Isle as a whole. At that date, however, all the towns, including Wisbech, returned more than 25 per cent. of their male workers as engaged in agriculture. In 1931 the Chatteris proportion had risen to 57.7 per cent., a figure unsurpassed among English urban areas except by Holbeach (Lincs.) and Ramsey (Hunts.).

Inclosure was effected by Acts of Parliament in 1793 and 1809. The employment of women and children in agricultural gangs was said to have come into existence in Chatteris soon after the latter Act. The award under this Act was not made until 1819. The delay was no doubt due to the large amount of land inclosed (5,669 acres), and to the fact that with six separate manors in the parish, the 139 holders of common rights could hold them in seven different capacities, each of which might require a separate set of allotments. William Dunn Gardiner was much the greatest beneficiary. He received 582 acres, 469 in his own right or that of his wife, 104 as lord of the Ramsey manor and 9 as lord of Bartles. Anne Waddington and Mary Chafy, who received 259 acres jointly, were also important proprietors. Charles Cholmondeley (the impropriator of the great tithes) and the vicar each received about 300 acres.

In 1851 there were two recently established libraries: the Literary Institution with 70 members and 1,100 volumes and the Mechanics' and Working Men's Book Society. Their subscriptions were 12s. 6d., and 1s. or 1s. 3d. respectively.

Some pieces of domestic architecture are worth noting;

  • Chatteris House (No. 17 High Street) is a fine early-19th-century building, with portico porch sheltering a good doorway and door, an iron balcony above, and a central pediment. Inside, the staircase is of stone with an iron balustrade, and there are some moulded plaster ceilings.
  • No. 84 High Street has a pedimented doorway with a fanlight, and a bow window above.
  • The Red Lion Inn (No. 2 London Road) is plastered and thatched; it has a carved wooden eaves cornice and dates probably from the late 17th century.
  • No. 1 Market Hill, 18th century, has a hooded doorway with fanlight.
  • Westwood (No. 9 Park Street) is a late-18thcentury building of some merit.
  • No. 8 St. Martin's Road, also 18th century but with a chimney brick dated 1605, has stepped and Dutch gables, a roof partly stone-slated, and another good doorway.
  • Ivy House (No. 19 Station Street) has similar features, except for the gables.
  • The manor house also has a pedimented doorway; its stables and outbuildings are very extensive and have a picturesque cupola, but are very dilapidated; the date is late 18th century.

 

There are several other houses of less distinction but pleasing design, especially in High Street. In Angood's, Skeels' and Cole's Yards at the north end of High Street there are several onestoried labourers' cottages of a type once extremely common in the Fenland but now passing away.

The nunnery and the 17th-century mansion built on its site by the Gascoyne family have vanished except for a few walls. Some of the last remains were pulled down to make way for the Empress Cinema in 1935.

Victoria County History - Published 1932