Willingham History


How it began ↑

Links with the Ely Diocese ↑

Willingham’s early history is closely linked with the Bishops of Ely. From the time when the Diocese of Ely was founded, in 1109, strong links developed between the Bishops of Ely and the village (then known as Wivelingham, a spelling which persisted until the 18th century). Willingham manor was given to the Bishop and was held by his successors for the next five centuries. In 1599 the then Bishop handed the manor to the Queen (Elizabeth l) who sold it to Sir Miles Sandys.
A practical consideration which must have helped the link to last for so long was the fact that the Aldreth Causeway, which crosses the eastern area of Willingham, was the main route between Ely and Cambridge throughout the Middle Ages – and Willingham is at roughly the half way point. It was not until the late 17th century that a bridge was built across the Ouse at Earith (where the current road north from Willingham runs).
In fact the links between Ely and Willingham went back even further than the 12th century. When Elsin was Abbot of Ely (981-1016) Uva, ‘a good man’, gave the village of Wivelingham ‘to God and his dear Virgin Etheldreda’ to be held in perpetuity. This was set down, in the presence of witnesses, in a formal document, as a title deed. It appears to be the earliest documentary reference to Willingham.
Etheldreda was the foundress of the monastery that later became Ely Cathedral. Appropriately, the oldest known painting of Etheldreda is to be found in St Mary & All Saints Church, Willingham – the oldest in its remarkable collection of medieval wall paintings. (St Mary & All Saints has been the parish church since 1763. In the 15th and 16th centuries it was St Matthews).
Hereward the Wake, the legendary hero of the resistance to the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror, also had Willingham connections. According to BBC History Trails, he was an Anglo-Saxon landowner. It is believed that the late 12th century Norman siege of the Isle of Ely was based at Willingham, because of its key position at the southern end of the Aldreth Causeway.
As in most parts of the country in the Middle Ages, the parish church played a dominant role in the life of the community. That continued after the Reformation and the break with Rome.

The Physical Landscape

The physical landscape of Willingham was for centuries largely dependent on common pastures. There were some limited enclosures in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was not until the middle of the 19th century that enclosure took place under the terms of an Act of 1846, which was fully implemented seven years later.
Until 1884, the area of the village was 4694.5 acres. In that year an area of 35.5 acres was transferred to the neighbouring village of Rampton.

Population and Housing ↑

Population Size ↑

Willingham has always been one of the most highly populated villages in the county. In the Middle Ages, the population grew from 23 in 1086 to 79 in 1251. By 1377 records showed that the poll tax was paid by 287 adults. By 1563 there were 105 households, and a century later 137. In 1728 the number of families in the village was reported as 150. By the beginning of the 19th century the number had risen to over 180, representing about 800 people.
By 1851 the population had risen to more than 1600 (in spite of some slowing down in the 1830s, a period of emigration to America). During the following century, although there were some fluctuations, the population did not change much, and in 1951 it was still about 1600.

The Village at Work ↑

Farming ↑

Throughout the Middle Ages, the main work in Willingham was arable farming and the keeping of animals – mainly sheep, pigs and cattle. By the late 17th century, herds of up to 12 cattle were common. By the middle of the 18th century, dairying had become the main occupation of the parish of Willingham, and farmers were producing cheese (sold as ‘Cottenham’ cheese). Cattle continued to be a major element in the Willingham agricultural scene throughout the 19th century, and by 1905 the number of cattle was nearly 700.
After the enclosures in the middle of the 19th century there were some dozen farms of 100 acres or more, but most were much smaller. Larger holdings were often scattered throughout the village, and leased in separate plots. In the early years of the 20th century a number of these plots were divided and sold as market gardens.

Flower and Fruit Growing ↑

The growing of fruit, for which Willingham was noted throughout most of the 20th century, did not begin in a big way until after 1875. The area devoted to orchards increased rapidly, reaching about 200 acres in 1905 and over 750 acres in 1935. The orchards spread beyond the centre of the village and by the 1920s covered most of what had previously been open fields. In 1862 large-scale horticulture was introduced (by I F Thoday). By 1933, according to the Victoria County History, there were 43 fruit growers, six market gardeners and nine flower growers in the village. Flower growing and fruit growing continued to be a major Willingham industry until the 1980s. By that time a number of factors had arisen which changed that. They included the development of the European Union, which opened the United Kingdom market to competition from continental Europe, and the change in shopping habits which arose as more and more people bought their food from supermarkets rather than from local suppliers.

Furthermore, when the Science Park was established by Trinity College in the early 1970s it heralded a major change in the economy of the whole Cambridge region. Hundreds of high-tech firms have blossomed, and turned the area into one of the most prosperous in the UK. Willingham, like other villages, has become the home of many commuters whose jobs are not in the village itself. Flower and fruit growing still go on in Willingham, but on nothing like the same scale as in the fairly recent past.

The Railway ↑

In its horticultural heyday Willingham’s growers were served by the railway from Cambridge to St Ives, which opened In 1847. The station at Longstanton, just outside the Willingham boundary, was crucial in the export of flowers to London until well into the 20th century. The station was closed in 1970. To the north of Willingham there was a railway line from 1878, running from St Ives to Sutton, with a station at Earith Bridge. That station was closed to passenger traffic in 1931, and in 1958 the line was removed.

Varied Trades ↑

As the village grew, more services were necessary, and various trades became established. There had been tradesmen from the 17th century, but it was in the second half of the 19th century that their number and variety increased. The Victoria County History records that there were carpenters, wheelwrights, tailors and shoemakers, six blacksmiths, and plumbers, glaziers, coopers, bricklayers, stonemasons, thatchers, sawyers and harness makers. In 1881 there were two families of makers of baskets – which were used by the fruit and flower growers. Rather surprisingly, in 1851 the presence of two watchmakers was noted. Less surprisingly, in 1908 a cycle manufacturer had appeared. For many years there were three windmills in the village. Two remained well into the 20th century. Now there is only one.

One reflection of the fact that most people worked in the village where they lived, was the existence in the late 19th century of more than a dozen butchers. There were also many other shops, notably bakers, grocers and drapers. By 1881 there was a greengrocer, and early in the 20th century a chemist. Over the years there was usually a doctor, and a veterinary surgeon. By 1980 Willingham had eleven shops and two bank sub-branches. The village still has bank branches, and a variety of shops and businesses (though fewer than there were a quarter of a century ago). One interesting reflection of the change in commercial activity is the fact that the buildings adjoining the one remaining windmill, (which has been well restored) are used by a computer company. Willingham is fortunate still to have a medical practice, an associated pharmacy, and a Post Office.

Utilities ↑

The Willingham Water Company was formed in 1911, and was taken over first by the then Chesterton Rural District Council and later (in 1963) by the Cambridge Water Company. Gas and electricity came to the village much later – in the mid-1930s. The main sewer was later still, and was not laid until the late 1960s. The first public telephone was installed, at the Post Office, in 1912. The village did not get hard surface roads until quite late in its history. Indeed, concrete roads leading to farms at West Fen, Priest Lane and Spong Drove were not laid until early in the Second World War.

Education in Willingham ↑

Early Years ↑

In 1579 Laurence Milford was licensed to teach children, and in 1593 a school was endowed with more than £100, by public subscription. Control rested with the Rector. The existence of the school was responsible for a high literacy level among the local farmers during the 17th century. In the 18th century the endowment was lost for a period, but by the end of the century it had been recovered, and a sum of £243 invested in land. By the early 19th century (1818) the school had 52 pupils.

The British School ↑

In 1856 the first Baptist church established in Fen End a British school (that is one not under Church of England control). It was not a straightforward matter, because of considerable opposition from the other nonconformist denominations. Nevertheless it flourished. The trustees built a headmaster’s house some ten years later. For many years it was what was known as an elementary school. That changed after the second world war, when a new education structure was introduced by the government, and from 1958 senior children were transferred to Swavesey Village College and then, in 1963, to Cottenham Village College.

The British school continued to serve as the Willingham primary school until the early 1970s, by which time, as the village population had grown, it had become overcrowded. The Parish Council, supported by a local pressure group, argued strongly with the County Council, and with central government, for a replacement, and in 1975 the new primary school opened on the present site in Thodays Close. (It had to be extended a few years later.) The British School Trust, owners of the old school and the head teacher’s house, sold them, and invested the proceeds to fund educational purposes serving the village. This, the British School Trust continues most successfully to do. The old school building has had various uses since it ceased to be a school, but in external appearance it has not changed, and above its main entrance the inscription ‘British Schools 1856’ is carved in stone. The bell which hung above it is now in the current school, as a reminder of the historical link.

The Social Village ↑

Clubs and Societies ↑

Life, of course, was not all work. From the 19th century, as the population grew and the variety of commercial activity increased, social life developed in the village. In the 1840s an agricultural society was founded, and in 1848 it started an annual ploughing match (which continues, organised now by Willingham District Ploughing Society). In the 1840s also there were records of cricket matches. In 1854 a debating society was active, and in 1870 (the year, incidentally, in which universal primary education came to Britain) there was a book society. Thirteen years later a public reading room had been opened. (Interestingly, the public library did not arrive until well into the second half of the 20th century.)

Move forward to the mid-20th century and you find that Scouts and Cubs came to Willingham in 1963, thanks to the enthusiasm of Tony Fowler, and Scouting and Guiding continue to flourish. Sports clubs, too, have been thriving for many years, as has WAMADS, the drama society, founded over 30 years ago.

Percheron Horses ↑

Thanks to the interest and enthusiasm of two families, the Baileys and the Garners, Willingham is famous for Percheron heavy horses. Gordon Bailey’s family has been involved for three generations with the breeding, showing, and judging of Percheron heavy horses. Four generations of the Garner family have also been involved with showing Percherons, the main focus of their team, led by Owen Garner, being ‘turnout classes’.

Pubs ↑

The first alehouse to be recorded in Willingham was the George, in 1665, followed by the Five Bells in 1671. From then until 1828 up to ten had been licensed, and by the end of the 19th century there were 16. They included the Ringers’ Rest, in Church Street almost opposite the church and the Vine, in the three-storey building facing the Green; both buildings are still in use as houses. So is the Rose and Crown in George Street, which ceased to be a pub at the end of the 1950s. As late as 1982 there were five pubs in the village: the Milkmaid, in Rampton End, the White Hart in High Street and the three which remain – the Black Bull, the Duke of Wellington and the Three Tuns.

Events and Premises ↑

Over the years there have been many regular social events. One, which still continues, is the Feast – though on a far smaller scale than during the first half of the 20th century. Feast Sunday has traditionally been on the Sunday before 11 October – ‘old’ Michaelmas Day, before the change in the calendar in the 18th century. On the Monday, Thurston’s fun fair opens for two days on the Green. For old Willingham residents, Feast weekend is not what it was, but if you read the comment of Enid Porter, in Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore, you will probably conclude that it never has been. She wrote: ‘Willingham Feast was already declining in the last years of the nineteenth century’.

Field days and fun runs attracted much interest and participation for many years. The pattern of community activities has, inevitably, changed as years have passed. Some have ceased. Some have been replaced by others (such as the annual school fête). Some, such as the annual horticultural show, continue in traditional style. The Public Hall was built in 1896. In 1853, as part of the enclosures, the old recreation ground in Earith Road was provided. The current recreation ground was bought in 1898 and opened in 1901.

For many years there were two Baptist churches, a Methodist church, and a Salvation Army hall, as well as the parish church. In the 1970s the old Baptist chapel, in George Street, was demolished, and houses built on the site. Meanwhile, at around the same time, the Salvation Army moved from premises in Long Lane to their present site on the corner of Silver Street and Rampton End. In 1988 the Baptist Tabernacle – on the opposite side of George Street from the old Baptist chapel – a huge building, was pulled down, and the present building, designed by the late Keith Hodkinson, put up in its place. The Methodist Church, in Church Street, closed in 2000, and was converted to a house. The same thing happened to the old Church Hall, also in Church Street. It was sold in 1997, and the proceeds of the sale went towards the cost of the Octagon Room on the north side of St Mary & All Saints church, opened by the Bishop of Ely in 1999.

Willingham Today ↑

Over the centuries, inevitably, the pattern of life in Willingham has greatly changed. The growth in population, particularly in the final quarter of the 20th century, is a reflection of great changes in the Cambridge area as a whole. This has brought many people to the area, and the villages, Willingham among them, have become to some extent ‘commuter villages’. Those people who still work in Willingham (and around 28% of questionnaire respondents still work in or within five miles of Willingham) are engaged in a much wider variety of occupations than those which were the hallmark of the village throughout the first half of the 20th century. The changes in the pattern of life in Willingham, particularly those which have occurred during the past half century, can be described without exaggeration as dramatic. Nevertheless the village has continued to be a vibrant community, with many facilities to offer to its residents.

At the Public Meeting organised by the Parish Plan Committee as its first task, the question was asked ‘What is good about Willingham?’ and it was very clear that there is much that is good. In particular, it was agreed that it was still a ‘real’ village with a village atmosphere, with its own identity, and self-contained in terms of having shops, a library and an excellent primary school and medical practice. In addition, it generally felt safe, had some pleasant green spaces and good communication, with a high-quality village newsletter – Willingham News, which appears every month.


The Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire;

Enid Porter Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore;

Willingham Looks Back 1952-1977 (published to mark the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth ll);

Willingham Milestones and Memories 1952-2002 (published to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee);

Alan Fawcitt St Mary and All Saints, Willingham Historical Summary;

The Cambridgeshire Collection;

the Old Willingham website www.oldwillingham.com

Willingham News.