Not breaking news: Vicar with a vision, illegal fishing, workhouses and fork theft

Playing dominoes at the Railway Tavern, Shippea Hill, just before it closed as a pub.

Playing dominoes at the Railway Tavern, Shippea Hill, just before it closed as a pub. - Credit: Mike Petty

Closure of a popular Fenland pub, taking a ‘holiday’ by living the life of a tramp and the theft of a fork.  

No, not events of the past week but of weeks gone by – and some of them even from a century or more ago. 

Our delve into the archives are made possible only through the work of Mike Petty and thanks to him and his informative Fenland History on Facebook group.  

Shippea Hill Tavern threat July 28,1977 

The Railway Tavern, Shippea Hill, is threatened with closure by Watney Mann and the regulars are upset.  

The older men got to thinking back about the pub’s previous owners.  

It was Steward and Patterson’s, then Ely Ales, then East Anglian Breweries, then Watney’s, then it was Truemans and then Watney’s again.  

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Three years ago, it was one of the busiest pubs around. A lot of men worked in the station’s goods yards but they were closed down and the custom drifted away.  

Now customers include a few farm workers and the passing trade: sales reps and occasional tourists. Sometimes servicemen from Lakenheath or Mildenhall pop in.  

Holiday Tramp - July 31,1929 

Photo: Mill Road workhouse c1900 

Photo: Mill Road workhouse c1900 - Credit: Mike Petty

The Rev Frank Jennings is getting first-hand experience of our social problems and spent his holiday living the life of a tramp.  

Two tramps described the Casual ward of Cambridge workhouse: “Rotten, sire. The ‘spike’ there is ‘no cop’.  

Swarms of mice run about at night. No baths, dirty wash basins. It’s a disgrace to the city”. 

So, he visited for himself; the usual questions were asked by the porter but there was no attempt at searching.  

“I was directed to a large sleeping-room and bidden fetch my ration of 8ozs of bread and marg and a mug of hot but unsweetened tea. There was no bath, contrary to Government regulations as the boilers were due to be inspected. 

There were 18 people in the room and wire-framed bedspreads replete with three Army rugs made a comfortable lie down. There were no mice but I noticed a few holes in the floor”, 

Murrow illegal Fishing, 1884 

John Clark, farmer, and John Lawrence, plumber, of Murrow, were charged with unlawfully using a pilgar for taking fish out a drain belonging the Commissioners of the Northside Drainage District, without having a special license for that purpose. 

Both defendants admitted the charge and said they were not aware they were doing wrong.  

Lawrence stated that his object in fishing in the drain was merely to get some eels for his daughter who was unwell and who had expressed a desire for them. 

Colonel Reed said that perhaps the defendants were not aware that they were liable to a penalty of £5 each.  

The prosecutor said he did not press the charge, his object being simply to put a stop to persons fishing in the drain without a license.  

It was stated that the defendants did not take any fish, but some other persons, who got away, had a quantity of fish in their possession. 

 Defendants said they should not attempt to fish in the dram again. and the Bench allowed the proceedings to be withdrawn 

Historical footnote: A correspondent to Fenland History noted that a pilgar has a long wooden handle with usually 4 flattened tines close together with slight serrations. 

“The idea is to strike an eel which goes between the fingers and can’t get off , if that makes sense?,” adds. 

Another comment noted it was “locally known as a gleeve”. 

Littleport hospital vision July 29, 1925 

Photo: Littleport 1920s 

Photo: Littleport 1920s - Credit: Mike Petty

The vicar said he had a vision. Littleport was growing.  

There were houses in which people lived that were not suitable for habitation or for a sick person to be kept in, especially a mother who was about to be confined.  

He wanted to see a hospital with four or five beds where expectant mothers could go to and be watched over with loving care, freed from the anxieties of home troubles.  

With a doctor and a trained nurse at hand the mother would be afforded untold relief. Littleport could rise to the expense and carry the scheme through. 

Wicken Mill Restoration July 30,1987 

Photo: restoring Wicken mill July 1989 

Photo: restoring Wicken mill July 1989 - Credit: Mike Petty

The tumble-down windmill at Wicken is being restored to its former glory thanks to a group of dedicated enthusiasts.  

They have sunk thousands of pounds into a six-year project to bring it back to working condition.  

First, they must rebuild the three wooden floors which have been eaten away by woodworm and dry rot.  

The mill was worked by sails until the late 1930’s when they were considered dangerous but much of the original machinery is still in place.  

A new aluminium cap was put on in 1971 by Chris Wilson, the owner of Over mill who is assisting with the project. 

Wilburton Celebrate Development Victory, July 30 1988 

Photo:  Wilburton villagers celebrate 

Photo: Wilburton villagers celebrate - Credit: Mike Petty

Wilburton church bells rang out to celebrate a victory over property developers who want to turn the tiny fenland village into a vast new township. 

The Environment Secretary has rejected the proposal in the County Structure Plan saying it would be too far away from Cambridge to share in the city’s hi-tech bonanza and too close to Ely for that city’s comfort.  

Villagers have argued that plans for thousands of new homes in one of the most productive agricultural areas of the country was not on.  

Littleport Show parachute tragedy - July 29, 1932 

Wreckage of the plane at Littleport

Wreckage of the plane at Littleport - Credit: Mike Petty

Littleport was plunged into gloom after a fatal accident at the show.  

A man died when his parachute became entangled in the rudder of the plane. The machine at once tail dived and drifted backwards over an oat field.  

The right-hand wing struck the ground and the propeller dug into the soil. The pilot lay bleeding and about 30 feet from the tail was a mark caused by the body of the parachutist striking the ground.  

His wristwatch was still going.

Workhouse work, workhouse pleasures -July 28, 1897 

Ely workhouse

Ely workhouse - Credit: Mike Petty

Cambridge workhouse

Cambridge workhouse - Credit: Mike Petty

A casual detained at Cambridge Workhouse was charged with refusing to do such work as was "suited to his age, strength and capacity".  

Fred Fordham, porter at the Workhouse stated that the man was taken to a cell to do his day's work - picking 4lb of oakum.  

Defendant said he did not intend to do the work. Witness locked the door and left him there.  

Oakum picking did not need very good eyesight, and the cells were well lighted. Defendant was expected to do a day's work lasting from 7am to 5pm.  

Stone breaking was done by men under 60 and oakum picking by those over. When he went to see what the defendant had done, he found he had used a stone- breaking hammer to smash the door of his cell.  

Defendant said the cells were a disgrace, only a birdcage made of lathe and plaster.  

He was sent to prison for seven days 


There are new pleasures in store for workhouse inmates. Amazed and almost disbelieving that the music and songs were being heard from "Lonnon" the inmates of the Ely Union were given a wireless concert by Mr Charles Howes.  

Two receiving sets were used, one to operate the loudspeaker, and the other to make the music audible in the headphones.  

Two aerials were erected, one outside and the other slung across the dining room where the concert was given.  

During the evening the London broadcasting station mentioned Ely, and said they hoped the concert would be received well at the Tower House, and that it would be enjoyed by those who were listening in for the first time.  

That the hope was realised, goes without saying 

‘Charlie’ and ‘'Punch'’ retire July 26, 1964

Soham Grammar School Head, Edward Armitage, 1966

Soham Grammar School Head, Edward Armitage, 1966 - Credit: Mike Petty

The ‘Genial Squire of Soham Grammar School’ as Mr C.J. Ford, the second master was termed, retired after 38 years as chemistry and biology master having joined the staff in 1928. 

Headmaster E.A. Armitage praised his high academic quality, sense of dignity and occasion. He will remain in residence at his home at the bottom of the school drive and will teach occasionally. 

Tribute was also paid to Mr A. Lawrence the mathematics master who retired after 12 years.  

Manea fork assault, 1884 

James Surry, labourer, of Ilford, was charged with stealing potato fork, the property of Robert Bradshaw at Manea.  

He was working in a field adjoining one in which Bradshaw had left a fork. When his wife went for the fork, it was missing, and information was given to the police.  

The stolen property was traced to the possession of a John Bell, whom the prisoner had sold it. 

Surry was arrested by p.c. Wm. Booth, stationed at Manea, and while he was being conveyed in custody, the policeman was set upon by a band of ruffians from Stratford Market, the acquaintances of the prisoner. 

In the struggle, the prisoner was rescued.  

The ringleaders were subsequently arrested and were up on remand. They were each committed to prison for fourteen days, with hard labour. 

The chairman of magistrates called Isaiah Crouch, one of the parish constables of Manea and cautioned him not to shrink from giving his full assistance to the police on such occasions when called up, for he was liable be indicted for such refusal.  

The constable, in reply, said he would have stuck to the police had he been provided with a staff, as he thought he ought to be.