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Legends and traditions of Huntingdonshire online

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swift runner, and was a constant competitor in foot
races. The following incident, which illustrates his
powers in this respect is related : —

" In those days hares would frequently make their
way from the fields to feed on the rich pasturage in
the Minster Close. Experience has shown that in
spite of the vast increase of population hares are still
found foolish enough to run the same risk. It is
probable, however, that these visitants from the local
game preserves in the neighbourhood were not fre-
quent, for a local adage said that

If in the^Minster Close a hare
Should for itself have made a lair,
Be sure before the week is down
A fire will "rage within the town.*

But one day it was reported that a hare was in the
Minster Close. Before the local sportsmen had time
to turn out with their guns, Raveley had heard the
news, and had conceived the idea of enjoying a cours-
ing match to himself. Accordingly he repaired to the
Minster Yard, and presently the hare made its appear-

*A similar piece of folk lore still survives at Ramsey.

Legends, etc., of Huntingdonshire. 233

ance. Raveley was quickly in pursuit. Away went
the hare, over the tombstones and through the bushes,
first into one corner and then into another. Raveley
was after it, keeping close up to it ; no greyhound
could have followed better. Hour after hour went
by, but still the chase continued ; the hare was evi-
dently getting puffed, but Raveley was fresh and still
eager in the chase. The result was that after several
hours coursing the hare had to succumb ; Raveley
pounced upon it and seized his prize in triumph, and
received the applause of numbers of people who had
witnessed this strange coursing match." Unlike many
of the class of oddities, Raveley had a penchant for
cleanliness, and during the summer he was accustomed
to resort to the Nene for a bathe. One day he entered
the river at the gravelly shallow, and although unable
to swim, he waded across to the opposite meadow, and,
after disporting himself for a time, proceeded to re-
cross the stream. But he failed to recognise the exact
spot, and instead of keeping to the shallow water he
was soon plunging in the deep hole close by. Assist-
ance not being at hand he was drowned. The body
was drawn out on the Huntingdonshire side of the
river, and he was buried in Woodstone Church-yard
at the expense of the parish, and entered in the
register by the name accorded to him by the popular
voice of the residents of the city.

234 Legends, etc., of Huntingdonshire.


Cooper Thornhill, who kept the Bell Inn, at Stilton,
in the first half of the last century, was a well-known
oddity, being chiefly famous from the fact that Stilton
cheese was first made for the travellers stopping at his
hostelry. But he was a famous rider. One day he
casually rode on to the racecourse at Kimbolton with a
mare he had ridden from Stilton, when seeing that the
horses entered for the race for the cup were not
superior to the one he rode he entered the lists, and to
the surprise of everybody he carried off the prize. Very
curious stories were current concerning his feats of
horsemanship, and he was very much addicted to the
habit which prevailed amongst all classes at that time,
of entering into competitions for wagers. In another
part of this volume (see Chapter on " Feats and
Wagers") a collection of some of these competitions
^vill be found. The North Road, by the side of which
Cooper Thornhill lived, was frequently the scene of such
trials of skill and equine endurance, which were witnessed
by large numbers. On Oct. 29th, 1745, Mr. Thornhill
accepted a wager undertaking to ride a distance of 213
miles in 15 hours. He left Stilton at four o'clock in
the morning, and rode to the King's Arms, Shoreditch,
London, which he reached at 7.50, he immediately re-
turned to Stilton, and then again set out for London,
reaching Shoreditch at 4.15 in the afternoon. He had

Legends, etc, of Huntingdonshire. 235

thus travelled 213 miles in 12 hours and 15 minutes,
and consequently won his wager with two or three
hours to spare. An old chronicler, who mentions these
facts in a private diary, adds, " Many horses engaged."
Shortly after this exploit, he engaged, for another
wager, to ride from Shoreditch to Stilton in 4 hours
and 30 minutes, and he again won the wager by com-
pleting the task in 3 hours and 56 minutes. These
competitions were witnessed by many of the principal
residents in the county. Not only was Mr. Thornhill
himself an oddity, but the wildest stories concerning
everything about him were freely circulated. It was
reported that he once had a corn rick on his premises
which was valued at £800, but when it came to be
thrashed it was found to be merely a shell, for the whole
of the inside had been consumed by rats!

chapter XXvri^m.


Oliver Cromwell was born at Huntingdon on the
25th of April, 1599, and his family was (says the
Book of Days) of good account. His uncle and god-
father, Sir Oliver Cromwell, possessed estates in Hunt-
ingdonshire which were afterwards worth £30,000 a
year. For services rendered to King Henry VIII.,
especially in the matter of the visitation of religious
houses his ancestors received grants of the nunnery at
Hinchingbrooke, Sawtry abbey, lands at Eynesbury,
Eaton, and Little Paxton, Ramsey abbey and all its
Huntingdonshire possessions, St. Mary's priory at
Huntingdon, and of the monastery of St. Neots.
Other property taken by King Henry VIII. from
Ecclesiastical bodies on the pretence of purifying








Legends, etc., of Huntingdonshire. 237

religion were also awarded to the Cromwell family.
In 1546 Henry William Cromwell, who was Knighted
by Queen Elizabeth, represented Huntingdonshire in
Parliament, was several times Sheriff, and was also a
Commissioner of the Peace. He had the reputation of
being extremely liberal, and would cast money to
the poor of Ramsey to be scrambled for when he
visited that town. This liberality obtained for him
the title of the "Golden Knight." He frequently
resided at Hinchingbrooke, and in 1564 entertained
Queen Elizabeth there. The father of the Protector,
who married the daughter of Sir Robert Stuart, of
Ely, represented Huntingdon in Parliament, was a
Justice of the Peace, a Fen Drainage Commissioner,
and held other public offices. Oliver was the eldest of
ten, and the family exchequer having become some-
what reduced, he conducted a brewing business at
Huntingdon. This gave rise to the following verses,
which give an epitome of the Protector's life :

" A brewer may be a Burgess grave,
And carry the matter so pure and so brave,
That he the better might play the knave,

A brewer may be a Parliament man,
For there the knavery first began.
And brew most cunning plots he can.

A brewer may put on a Nabal face

And march to the wars with such a grace

Thi^t he may get a Captain'8 place.

238 Legends^ etc., of Huntingdonshire.

A brewer may speak so wondrous well
That he may rise (strange things to tell)
And so be made a Colonel.

A brewer may make his foes to flee
And raise his fortunes so that he
Lieutenant General may be.

A brewer may be all in all

And raise his powers, both great and small,

That he may be a Lord General.

A brewer may be like a fox with a cub,
And teach a lecture out of a tub,
And give the wicked world a rub.

A brewer by 's excess and rate

Will promise his army he knows what.

And sit upon the college gate.

Methinks I hear one say to me,
Pray why may not a brewer be
Lord Chancellor 0' th' University ?

A brewer may be as bold as Hector,
When as he drank his cup of nectar.
And a brewer may be a Lord Protector.

And here remains the strangest thing,
How this brewer about his liquor did bring
To be a Conqueror or a King.

A brewer may do what he will,

And rob the Church and State, to sell

His soul unto the Devil in Hell."

Oliver was named after his uncle and god-father,
Sir Oliver of Hinchingbrooke, and it is related that
while an infant a monkey took him out of his cradle
and ran with him upon the roof of Hinchingbrooke

Legends^ etc.^ of Huntingdonshire. 239

House, and the family alarmed for his safety brought
beds to catch him upon. A few years later, Oliver
and the future King Charles had a boy's fight at
Hinchingbrooke, when it is related that Charles came
off the worst, but Oliver had the advantage of being
older, taller, and stouter.

One day, while Oliver Cromwell was bathing in the
Ouse, he was in danger of drowning, when the Rev.
Mr. Johnson, curate of Connington, seeing his danger,
plunged into the water and rescued him. Some years
after Oliver was marching with his soldiers through
the county, when he saw Mr. Johnson, and asked him
if he remembered the incident ? " Yes," said the
curate, a staunch loyalist, " but I wish I had left you
in rather than see you in arms against the King."

Oliver was educated at the Grammar School, Hunt-
ingdon, and several stories are related of him while
there, in one of which it is alleged that there were future
indications of his after life. He afterwards went to
Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and there and
throughout the earlier years of his manhood he led a
depraved, dissolute, immoral life. His subsequent
history is a matter of general knowledge.

Hinchingbrooke house is a charming spot, all the
surroundings being extremely pretty. It stands on
elevated ground, and commands some beautiful views
extending over a large expanse of the county, watered

240 Legends y etc., of Huntingdonshire.

by the Ouse. A convent of Benedictine nuns formerly
stood on the site, but it was suppressed at the Re-
formation, and the revenues were given by King
Henry VIII. to Richard Williams, otherwise Crom-
well. His son, the Golden Knight, before alluded to,
erected the family mansion here. Sir Oliver, the
Protector's god-father, entertained one or two of the
English Monarchs at Hinchingbrooke, and afterwards
it was a favourite halting place of other members of
the Royal Family on their journeys to and from the
north. The sumptuous manner in which King James
I. was entertained here is matter of fame. Much of
the present house was erected by Sir Henry Cromwell,
who used for the purpose the masonry of the priory
of Barnwell. It was owing to the extravagance of
Sir Oliver Cromwell that he was obliged to dispose of
the family estates which were purchased by Sir Sydney
Montague, of Barnwell, Knight, in whose family it
has since remained. It is one of the most ancient
families in the country. The only son of the pur-
chaser of the house became the first Earl of Sandwich-
It is related of this Earl that he went to sea with
the Duke of York in the third Dutch war, and in the
engagement in Sole bay he was in the command of
the Van. He hastened out of the bay — when the
enemy appeared in sight — where it would have been
easy for De Ruyter with his fire ships to have de-

Legends^ etc., of Huntingdonshire. 241

stroyed the fleet. He engaged in close fight, and by
his bravery and disregard of all danger, he drew upon
himself the bravest of the enemy. He killed Van
Ghent, a Dutch Admiral, and beat off his ship ; he
sank another ship which ventured to come alongside
him, and he sank three fire ships which attempted to
grapple with him, and though his vessel was torn in
pieces with shot, and of the thousand men she con-
tained nearly 600 of them laid dead upon the deck,
he continued still to thunder with his Artillery in the
midst of the enemy. But another fire ship, more
fortunate than the preceding, having laid hold of his
vessel her destruction was now inevitable. Warned
by Sir Edward Haddock, his captain, he refused to
make his escape, and bravely embraced death as a
shelter from the ignominy, which an expression of
the Duke in a previous part of the engagement to the
effect that he was more cautious than brave, he
thought had thrown upon him. Thus heroically
perished Earl Sandwich in the 77th year of his age-
The body of the Earl was found at sea about a fort-
night after the engagement, and it was honoured by a
public funeral.

The more regular portion of the interior of the
mansion forms a quadrangle. The great staircase is
ornamented with carvings displaying shields of the
Sandwich arms. In a small dressing room is a por-


242 Legends^ etc.y of Huntingdonshire.

trait of the third Countess of Sandwich, the eccentric
daughter of the Earl of Rochester, who confined her
husband for a long period in one of the upper rooms
of the mansion.

It is a singular fact that most of the descendants of
Oliver Cromwell died in great poverty and misery.
Within a century after the death of the regicide, his
grand-daughter after seeing her husband die in the
workhouse of a small town in Suffolk, died herself a
pauper, leaving two daughters — one of these became
the wife of a shoemaker and the other of a journey-
man butcher, who was her fellow servant.

In 1849 a committee was formed at St. Ives to
erect a monument to the memory of Oliver Cromwell,
to stand on the site of Slepe Hall, the place of Crom-
well's residence at the commencement of his career.
Fortunately, for the credit of the county, the pro-
posal was not carried into effect.

fflfjapter XXIIX^



Michael Drayton's "Poly-Albion," published in
1613, gives the following description of the Meres
and Fens of Huntingdonshire, making the county of
Cambridge to speak as follows, but adding in the
margin that "these Meres are for the most part in
Huntingdon Shire" : —

'• The Horse, or other beast, o'rway'd with his owne masse,
Lies wallowing in my Fennes, hid ower head in grasse :
And in the place where growes ranke Fodder for my Neat,
The TurfiFe which beares the Hay, is wondrous needful Peat:
My full and batning earth, needs not the Plowmans Pains,
The Rils which runne in me, are like the branched vaines
In humane bodies scene ; those Ditches cut by hand.
From the surrounding Meres, to winne the measured land
To those choyce waters, I most fitly may compare.
Wherewith nice women vse to blanch their Beauties rare.

244 Legends y etc., of Huntingdonshire.

Hath there a man beene borne in me, that never knew

Of Waterse,y, the Leame, or th' other cal'd the New.

The Frithdike neer'st my midst, and of another sort.

Who euer fished or fovvl'd, that cannot make report

Of sundry meres at hand, vpon my Westerne way,

As Ramsey Mere, and Vfj, with the great Whittlesey :

Of the abundant store of Fish and Fowle there bred,

Which whilst of Europes Isles Great Brltaine is the Head.

No Meres shall truly tell in them, then at one draught,

More store of either kinds hath with the Net been caught :

Which though some pettie Isles challenge to be their owne,

Yet must those Isles likewise acknowledge me
their soveraigne."


In Elstobb's History of ihe Fens it is said: — " In
the survey of the lands in Sutton and Mepal, and others
adjacent, in the counties of Cambridge and Hunting-
don, in the year 1750, in my perambulations over the
said levels, at the bottoms and sides of many of the
drains made therein, I observed multitudes of roots of
large trees, standing as they had grown, at the depth
of about three feet under the present moorish soil, from
which their bodies had been manifestly sawn off, and
some of which I then saw lying at a small distance
from their roots, at the same depth before mentioned,
and I was credibly informed that great numbers had
been, and were still found, severed, and lying in like


Legends, etc., of Huntingdonshire. 245


The following sfcoiy is taken from the same
authority ;— " In the year 1256 (40 H. III.) William,
Bishop of Ely, and Hugh, Abbot of Kamsey, came to
an agreement upon a controversey between them, con-
cerning the bounds of their fens, whereof in these old
times a wonder happened; for whereas anciently, time
out of mind, they were accessible for neither man nor
beast, affording only deep mud with sedge and reeds,
and possessed by birds (yea, much more, by devils, as
appears in the life of St. Guthlac, who, finding it a place
of horror and great solitude, began to inhabit there), is
now changed into delightful meadows and arable lands;
and whatever part does not produce corn or hay, does
abundantly bring forth sedge, turf, and other fuel, very
useful to the borderers; which occasioned much dispute
and contention between those who were the most ancient
inhabitants in those parts; nay, quarrels and fighting
concerning the bounds of such fruitful lands. For so
it happened that on the feast day of St. Peter, ad vin-
cida, two of the canons of the Priory of the Holy
Trinity, London, disputing about their limits, rose to
such higli words as contracted such an implacable
hatred between them, so that studying revenge, the one
took an opportunity to murder the other."

246 Legends, etc., of Huntingdonshire.

During the dry year of 1871, an episode occurred
which might have led to disastrous eflfeets. In the
parish of Conington Moor weeds were burned by the
side of a fen ditch, and the fire was permitted to
smoulder till the turf below the surface became
ignited, and the fire was communicated to the adjoining
fields. The travellers along the Great Northern Rail-
way in the night time during the year will remember
the little hillocks of flame that burst from the sm-face
of the soil, and over a considerable acreage made a
brilliant display. No efforts on the part of the occu-
pier availed to extinguish the burning over, the farm,
and for some time the buildings and stacks were
threatened by its gradual approach. After a conflagra-
tion which continued for several weeks, the rain
fortunately extinguished it.


During the year 1826 Whittlesea Mere was quite dry,
and every fish perished. They laid like heaps of snow
on the north shore. The season was hot, and a large
proportion of the bed of the Mere was without water.
In the mud were large cracks and fissures; and when
about a hundred acres of water remained, a great hur-
ricane of wind came and blew most of it into the cracks
and fissures, and it disappeared. Many tons of eels,

Legends, etc., of Huntingdonshire. 247

carp, pike, and perch were taken. The water returned
in the winter, but there was no fishing for five or six
years. The Mere, however, was stocked with fish from
the rivers, especially from Bevill's Learn.


Whittlesea Mere, on the day following the anni-
versary of Yaxley feast, used to exhibit a scene of great
festivity. On the 9th of June, 1840, it is recorded
that "■ as usual," vessels belonging to Mr. Buckle, Mr.
Sherred, Mr. Richardson, and others, were fitted up in
admirable style for sailing parties. The morning was
fine, and the surface of the lake was covered by about
80 pleasure boats, of various sizes and descriptions,
containing, by calculation, 1,000 persons, many of
whom were fashionable and well dressed ladies. They
assembled at the rallying point at the south side of the
Mere. When, however, merriment was at its highest,
a fearful thunderstorm occurred, the ladies dresses were
literally drenched, the boats became half filled with
water, and the only alternative was to re-cross the
Mere from the point at which they had assembled.

On the 11th of August, 1842, the Mere presented an
animated scene. It was the day appointed for a match
between the three boats. The Lady of the Lake, the
Monarch, and the Champion. The first was owned by
Mr. Waite, of Yaxley, and he was the captain. Captain

248 Legends^ etc., of Huntingdonshire.

Ewart had charge of the Monarch, and Mr. Mowbray
•was captain of the Champion. Each boat contained
several ladies, and the respective parties at three o'clock
landed at the Point, and dined al fresco. The Lady
of the Lake was pronounced the victor, she having
made considerably nearer to the wind than the others.
The serene dignity with which she entered the mouth
of the Mere was allowed by several gentlemen who
were spectators to be one of the most imposing sights
they had for a long time witnessed. A band of music
was in attendance.

The annual regatta on the Mere is thus reported in
the Stamford Mercury, on the 11th June, 1844: — " On
Tuesday the celebration of this annual regatta took
place with the usual spirit. The Monarch, as before,
won the laurel for sailing under Commodore Royce,
Captain Ewart, and Lieutenant Moore, outstripping
the other numerous craft. Fortunately no accident
occurred to damp the hilarity of the day." The same
journal in reporting the regatta in 1847, says that
" there were upwards of 2,000 persons on the Mere,
and upwards of 50 small and large craft, well rigged,
and with captains, lieutenants, and minor officers."
The Monarch was again the winner.

In December, 1844, the whole surface of the Mere
was covered with ice, which very rarely happened. It
is recorded that about 6,000 persons were present.

Legends, etc, of Huntingdonshire. 249

amongst them being Lord Milton, Hon. Gr. Fitzwilliam,
Hon. C. Fitzwilliam, Mr. Heathcote, of Connington;
Mr. Sherard, of Glatton; Mr. Smith, of Oundle; Revs.
Sympson, E. R. Theed, Cope, Coy, Cookson, and
Messrs. Compton, Tomhn, Bird, Fawkes, Whitwell,
Atkinson, Porter, &c. Sledges conveyed many ladies
to and fro, and in various parts were seen retailers
of beer and spirits. The ice was surprisingly strong.
At one time a fight happened, and about 1,000
people congregated in a mass. Several skating matches
were held during the week on the Mere. In 1840 the
Mere was frozen over, and it was then said that 10,000
persons assembled on it. In January, 1841, a variety
of skating matches occurred on it.


An article in the Journal of the Royal Agricultural
Society of England, in 1860, states that in the summer
of 1851 the preparations for draining the Mere were
so far advanced that the moment for emptying had
arrived, and accordingly a point nearest to one of the
exterior rivers having been chosen, the bank was cut,
and the long pent up waters allowed a free passage to
the sea. Long before the last pools of water had dis-
appeared from off the bed of the Mere, large crowds of
people from all the surrounding neighbourhood, and
even many from distant parts of the Fens, had as-

250 Legends, etc., of Huntingdonshire.

sembled. Some, perhaps, from a desire to be present
at the last moments of a venerable friend, whose for-
tunes were now reduced to the lowest ebb. Others,
perhaps, with whom the love of stewed eels preponder-
ated over sentiment, from a prospect of a ready and
abundant gratification of their taste. Of the hundreds
— it would be no exaggeration, probably, to say
thousands — who had assembled, nine out of ten came
provided with sacks and baskets, to carry off their
share of the vast number of fish which, wherever the
eye turned, were floundering in the ever decreasing
water. Some more ambitious speculators brought their
carts, and gathering the fish by the ton weight,
despatched them for sale to Birmingham and Man-
chester. Contrary to expectation, no fish of very great size
were taken; the largest known was a pike of 22lbs.
So deep and tenacious was the mud, that even with
boards attached to the soles of the shoe, it was a
matter of extreme labour to move about; and an undue
anxiety to secure a lively eel or vigorous jack was sure
to lead to an irrecoverable downfall, or to a set-fast in
some ungainly position. It is impossible to imagine a
more singular scene, and as the fading light of a blood
red sunset fell on the vast multitude of figures scattered
in all directions over the dreary waste of slimy ooze, it
left on the mind the same sort of impression of the
supernatural as is left by some of Martin's ambitious

Legends^ etc.y of Huntingdonshire. 251

pictures. By the middle of Dec, in 1851, a 25-horse
power engine, capable of lifting 16,000 gallons of water
a minute, had been fixed and ready for use, and it was
not long before its capabilities were put to the test.
The great expanse of mud which had formed the bed
of the lake, had during the summer been formed into
something like a tract of agricultural land. Dykes
were made, roads marked out, boundaries of farms

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