|Sean's Mum was on Percussion and Vocals|
But just in case you may be interested to learn a little about Wisbech, where I spent all those years, I will tell you about the town's history. (This has nothing to do with jazz, so stop reading this article now if it's unlikely to interest you.)
|Wisbech Town Centre, 2002|
How did Wisbech get its name? Nobody knows for sure. Certainly, BECK in Anglo-Saxon meant 'stream', and there is not far to the east of Wisbech a River Ouse and a little further a River Wissey. The Ouse or Wissey or both, with their tributaries, flowed into the wide estuary of the sea which a thousand years ago came right up to Wisbech. So 'Ouse Beck' or 'Wisse Beck' became 'Wis - bech'? Possibly.
The river today running through Wisbech is actually called the Nene. It once split into two at Wisbech, one section heading south (to Outwell and then west to Whittlesey and Peterborough) and the other – the medieval ‘Great River of Wisbech’ - heading west (directly to Peterborough, where the two courses met up again). In the late Twentieth Century, the division of the river running south (known locally for hundreds of years as the ‘Well Stream’) was been filled in from Wisbech to Outwell and a road built over part of it at the Wisbech end.
You have to picture the region round Wisbech long ago as flat and swampy, containing goodness knows how many waterways - all of them from time to time obstructed by silt and sand while trying to escape to the nearby sea. By about 1300, the Ouse and the Wissey, with their courses increasingly blocked, found those new outlets several miles east of Wisbech: the Wissey now runs into the Ouse, which itself enters the sea at King’s Lynn. This - and the construction of Morton's Leam - left the southern branch of the river out of Wisbech much drier. That is the reason why it was eventually filled in during the Twentieth Century. Morton's Leam (cut from Guyhirn to Peterborough between 1479 and 1486 under instructions from Bishop Morton) is an important ‘drain’ running roughly parallel to the present River Nene.
Today, of course, the whole expanse of flat land is drained. Very far around Wisbech, you can hardly travel anywhere for more than a mile without crossing a man-made dike (narrow canal).
Wisbech was four miles from the North Sea until about 1300. The silt has left it eleven miles from the coastline today. So the River Nene now heads almost due south from the sea ('The Wash') about eleven miles to Wisbech, where it forks off to the west and eventually reaches Peterborough and Oundle.
The first reference to the town appears in a Charter attributed to the Saxon King Wullfere in the year 664. The Charter is not generally accepted as genuine; but in or about the year 1000 the Saxons Oswy and Leoflede gave the Township to the Monastery of Ely (Ely with its magnificent cathedral is 22 miles away) by a document of recognised authenticity.
There have been several bridges over the River Nene. There was a stone bridge in 1758 but it had a high camber. In November 1852, it was weakened by flood damage which also carried away part of the Nene Quay. The stone bridge was replaced by an iron bridge, twenty yards west of it. This existed from 1857 until 1931, when it was replaced by the present concrete bridge (constructed alongside the site of the iron bridge). With increasing traffic, a second bridge became essential and this (the Freedom Bridge) was built in 1971. Between the present two bridges, on both sides of the river, are seventeenth- and eighteenth-century warehouses which were so important in the days of sailing ships, when as many as forty ships could be unloading at any one time. These warehouses have mostly been refurbished recently as flats.
The authorities in recent years have tried to revive interest in the river by developing a marina, or yacht harbour, north-east of the Freedom Bridge. Typically, one sees about twenty private boats moored there.
By the way, there are now some delightful videos on YouTube about the history of Wisbech - especially the Castle and the the old railway line that used to run to Upwell. I recommend them. You could start with this one:
When the fen rivers found a fresh outfall at Lynn, that town gained at the expense of Wisbech; but despite this, the silt that ruined the town's port also brought benefits: the great quantities of silt and sand brought up by the tides spread themselves over the lands on either side of the river. The valuable silt farms for which the countryside is noted owe their existence to this event. Ultimately Wisbech became an important market town.
At the Norman Conquest, the population of Wisbech was small, but it carried on an important fishing industry. Boats brought back herring, codling and other fish, much of which was salted down for winter use; but of still more importance were the eel fisheries. (‘Ely’ comes from ‘Eel island’.) The manors of Wisbech, like the other manors within the Isle of Ely, were in the hands of the Monastery of Ely.The oldest Wisbech building still in existence today is St. Peter's Church, which was built, according to tradition, in the year 1111. No traces of an earlier Church on the same site have been found.
It would naturally follow that St. Peter’s Church should be built adjoining the Castle moat, where it now stands. It was built at a time when church builders planned on an ample scale but it was not very long before it was found inadequate, partly, no doubt, owing to the growth of population. The chancel was first lengthened and widened after which much of the splendid Norman arcading in the north aisle was taken down for the purpose of extension; but further building at that time was abandoned, and the remaining Norman pillars thereby obtained a reprieve and are now the subject of general admiration.
The Church is remarkable for its double nave, covered by a single high-pitched roof and ceiling. It contains some exceptionally fine monuments, and on the chancel floor the effigy of Sir Thomas de Braunstone, Knight, Constable of Wisbech Castle, 1401. This brass is one of the largest in England.
The imposing old vicarage of this church, having been replaced by a modern house, has become municipal offices. It is the place where people now go to pay their council tax or to register births and deaths.
One of the treasures of the Wisbech Corporation is a manuscript containing the records of the Guild of Holy Trinity. There were several guilds in Wisbech at different times, some of them indeed of earlier date than the one mentioned; but the guild in question was destined to have a decisive influence upon the history of the town. The guild was founded in 1379, and from the very first it received wide support including that of the principal townspeople, and, indeed, the support of a number of the chief inhabitants of the surrounding district. Primarily religious in its conception, it also helped to relieve the guild brethren in poverty, sickness or infirmity, or for loss of goods by fire, robbery or floods. The guild hall was in Ship Lane, as it was then known, approximately on the site now occupied by the Empire Theatre. In quite early days, the Guild established and maintained a school, the precursor of the Wisbech Grammar School. In 1547 all guilds, fraternities and charities (with a few exceptions) were suppressed by Act of Parliament, their valuable work for so long continued was brought to an abrupt ending, and their endowments vested in the Crown.
There was, however, a remarkable sequel. Supported by the Bishop of Ely, the inhabitants petitioned for the vesting of the lands in the leading townsmen, and 616 acres were accordingly handed over upon terms which were undoubtedly moderate, namely the payment of £260 10s. 10d.
On receipt of this sum, the Crown granted the property to the inhabitants, and elevated the town into a corporation on 1 June 1549, with a common seal and the right to hold lands. The possession of these lands, and the steadily rising income which they brought in as rentals, placed the finances of the Corporation on a solid basis and enabled them to go ahead without being unduly hampered by pecuniary difficulties.
The government of the town was thereafter to be exercised by ‘Ten Men’ to be elected by the inhabitants; and provision was made for one schoolmaster who was to be paid £12 and 8 shillings a year. The ten men also had control of the town's port. There was no mention of a Mayor in the Charter; but the 'Bailiff' became the Mayor as from 1835; 'Aldermen' and 'Councillors' at the same time replaced 'Capital Burgesses'.
A further charter was granted in 1611 by James I, extending the scope of the first one.
For about a hundred years after the great flood of 1236 the Castle seems to have been held by the Crown and subsequently by the Crown and the Prior of Ely jointly; and about the middle of the Fourteenth Century it was granted to the Bishop of Ely. Bishop's courts were held there and felons incarcerated. The Castle fell into disrepair in the Fifteenth Century. Under Elizabeth I, it was used as a prison for about 35 Roman Catholic recusants; and over a period of 40 years, there were several escapes.
The Bishops held the Castle until the Civil War, when it was seized by Parliament and sold by them to John Thurloe, Secretary to the Council of State, and head of Oliver Cromwell's secret service. Thurloe demolished the Castle and replaced it with a fine building after the style of Inigo Jones, which he completed just in time for it to be forfeited to the Bishop of Ely upon the Restoration of Charles II.
The house was sold to Joseph Medworth of Bermondsey, London, in 1793 for £2305. Whatever remained of the original castle (apart from some interesting underground tunnels, which can still be visited to this day), had by now been destroyed; and Medworth erected a fine Georgian house there in 1816 - the house which is still known as 'Wisbech Castle' and which is occasionally used for filming purposes. 'David Copperfield', for BBC television in the 1990s, is an example. It was Joseph Medworth who also developed the Georgian ‘Crescent’ round the castle – just inside where the medieval moat must have been.
|Museum Square and the latest 'Wisbech Castle'.|
Wisbech Market Place – the one which developed outside the wall of the castle - has been in operation since the Twelfth Century. There was long ago a Shire Hall on the Market Place. By 1492, there were 115 tenants of the Bishop living around the Market. Saturday Markets (still held today) are known to have existed at that time.
A local priest complained in his diary that a 'noisy and riotous crowd' had misbehaved at some festivity in the Market Place, with 'the inevitable overthrow of all modesty and good morale among both sexes in the lower walk of society'. (I recall that in the 1990s, the young thieves and vandals smashed randomly-chosen shop fronts on Saturday nights - week after week after week. Shopkeepers were being driven out and several shops were boarded up and abandoned.)
Three thousand people attended a feast in the Market Place in 1814 to celebrate peace after the Flanders War (this was before Waterloo).
Wisbech is perhaps unusual in having TWO market places. While the Market Place on the south side is rectangular and large, that on the north side is relatively small with a shape vaguely triangular. Amazingly, this was already referred to as the ‘Old Market’ as early as 1221, in a deed now in the British Museum. The Old Market is now mainly used for car parking. The fine Georgian buildings around it testify to the golden days of the river trade.
One of the attractive buildings alongside the Old Market was the Octagon Church. I know it only from photographs. I am told it decayed and became dangerous. It was closed for ever in 1946 and later pulled down and replaced by a bank. Built in 1831, this building - styled on the Octagon of Ely Cathedral - was used as a chapel of ease.
Hundreds of lives were lost in and around Wisbech during the Great Flood of 1236. And in 1613, floods turned Wisbech into an island. Other notable floods have been in 1308, 1316,1327,1334, 1337, 1570 and 1571. Much of the English coastline was damaged by great floods in 1953 and again in 1978. On both occasions, the area near Wisbech Docks (temporarily) suffered badly.
The river never freezes in modern times; but it used to. In 1763, there was a skating race along the river from Wisbech to Whittlesey. The winner completed the course in 46 minutes at an average speed of 15 miles an hour. The River Nene today is about thirty yards wide where it flows through Wisbech; hence the need for bridges. However, in 1751, it was so silted up that people were able to get across on foot and vessels had to unload much closer to the Sea. Straightening and embanking improved matters over the next fifty years.
In bygone times, when Fenlanders suffered badly from the swampy conditions and contracted rheumatic and respiratory diseases, they would combat fevers by smoking cannabis - the dried leaves of the hemp plant - which at the time grew profusely.
Fen people objected to the drainage schemes of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries because they knew the population of wildfowl would be reduced. Wildfowling was a big industry. So Fenmen would not help with digging the many drains, dikes and canals with which the region is now criss-crossed. The work was done by gangs of Dutchmen and prisoners of war.
The pioneer photographer Samuel Smith (1802 - 1892) lived on the outskirts of Wisbech, in the village (or rather suburb) called Leverington. Just a decade after the invention of photography, he set up as a photographer in Wisbech. One hundred and ninety of his negatives are in the Wisbech Museum. The importance of his work was not fully recognized until an exhibition of it was given in London in 1973. A book of his photographs has been published, showing many daily scenes in Wisbech one hundred and fifty years ago. In those days, long exposures (fifteen minutes!) were needed, so he had to persuade people to keep very still while they posed. Often he would set the exposure going and then walk round to get into the picture himself. Usually, with his street scenes, the roads look completely empty. This is because people would walk past and not be seen for long enough to be picked up by the camera! Here is such a picture from 1857.
But before going back further, I must give one detail of personal interest to me. During the Second World War, the boys from The Stationers' Company's School in North London were temporarily evacuated to Wisbech and educated there. I missed this experience, as I became a pupil at The Stationers' Company's School a little later.
We have some figures for Wisbech's early school rolls. In 1710, Wisbech had 50 boys and 40 girls attending its two schools. There were also some 'dame' schools. By 1798, there were 250 boys being taught reading, writing, arithmetic and catechism, while 30 girls were receiving lessons in reading, sewing, knitting and - yes - catechism. In those days, a child attended such a school for just three years.
Regarding windmills, the remains of one (in Lynn Road) were converted into an unusual home in approximately 1980. Another windmill (Neal's Windmill - long gone) was in Hill Street.
|Fine properties overlooking the River Nene.|
Houses, warehouses and cottages accreted along the Brinks beside the River Nene over hundreds of years. Before planning laws were as strict as they are today, architects did not have to think much about relative aesthetic effects. The result is the current higgledy-piggledy picturesqueness. In fact, an extraordinary harmony is achieved: each building is different but they blend together. Many types of architectural detail are visible, for example urns, friezes, pilasters and columns. Such details may not be considered necessary today but they enrich the historic landscape of Wisbech and help make parts of it very attractive.
Those splendid Georgian fronts of the North Brink are deceptive. There were houses in those places in Tudor times. What happened was that the Georgians 'did up' those Tudor houses, in particular giving them the attractive facades. There stands between two of them an ancient warehouse probably belonging to one of the original Tudor houses but not renovated in Georgian times. It continued to be used as a warehouse or storage space right up to the present day. I have been told it was once used as a sailmaker's premises.
Along the North Brink, not everybody before 1800 built their properties to front on to the river. There are some other such warehouses (and houses) which are built sideways on to it or whose fronts face away from the river.
Everyone knows that in England there used to be a Window Tax. This meant that householders had to pay a tax based on the numbers of windows in their home. Most owners therefore bricked up some of their windows in order to reduce the amount of window tax. This crazy tax was repealed in 1851. However, all over England, you still see thousands of buildings with some window spaces bricked up before that time. Sometimes the bricked-up windows have later been painted to look like windows! There are plenty of them in Wisbech and they include several on the North Brink.
The famous Georgian Crescent was laid out from 1793 until 1816, forming a circle round where the site of the medieval castle walls once stood. The first part to be developed was York Row, a short road that leads from the river to the Crescent. Nos. 6-8 York Row are known to have been there in the 1600s. Similarly, No. 7-9 York Row (believed to have been built by Thurloe for his sons in 1658) is a preserved gabled house of some standing.
On the opposite side of the Crescent is Castle Lodge, facing the Museum. It incorporates a balcony of diagonally set corbels taken from Thurloe's 'Castle'. (A corbel is a block of projecting stone, supporting something on its horizontal top surface.)
|Audience at a jazz band concert in which I took part, round the bandstand in Wisbech Park.|
line survived on "Coal in, Fruit and Flowers out" for a lot longer than the passenger service, and was one of the earlier lines to be desilised.