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Strong men have blanched and shot their wives
rather than send them to St Ives

This is a line in Rupert Brooke’s famous poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester. It is obviously a tongue-in-cheek comment: he heaped praise on his own village, but not on Cambridge or the other villages around.

However, it may have had a little truth in it, for St Ives had a history of being a busy inland port and market town with a surfeit of pubs (64 in 1838, one for every 55 inhabitants) serving the many bargees, or lightermen, whose boats were moored on the river.

Today St Ives, Cambridgeshire, is still a bustling town with regular markets, a wide range of shops and restaurants and lively nightlife, although there are few bargees!


In the beginning

To appreciate the history of St Ives it is important to understand the significance of the River Great Ouse to the town. In the early fifth century the first Anglo-Saxons settled here and called it Slepe, meaning muddy. The settlement was in the area where the Parish Church now stands, probably because it offered a crossing place over the river, even if it was muddy. 

Over 500 years later in 986 land to the east of Slepe was left to Ramsey Abbey and in 1001 a ploughman discovered a stone coffin containing bones, which the Abbot declared to be those of St Ivo, a Persian missionary bishop, said to have died here around 600 ad. It was, more probably, a Roman burial, as there had been a Roman villa on the site as early as the first century AD. This ‘discovery’ led to the foundation of St Ivo's priory to the east of Slepe, which attracted many pilgrims, and as a result the town of St Ives developed and with it its first bridge.


The inland port, fairs and markets

Boats could reach St Ives from The Wash, carrying produce from as far away as Holland and the continent. The town became one of the busiest inland ports in the country and a fair developed around the Bridge and Quay, mainly due to Ramsey Abbey’s desire to make money from the town. The annual fair became one of the four largest in the country, and was awarded its charter by Henry I in 1110. Its cloth stalls attracted buyers from all over Europe and included English royalty. The Dutch influence can be seen today in the architectural style of one of the old houses on The Quay.

The term tawdry, meaning cloth that is cheap and cheerful, comes from St Ives. The main cloth market was held in the town centre and there were strict rules about where the cloth could be sold. So the cheaper stalls ended up on the outskirts, along St Audrey Lane, where there was passing trade from pilgrims en-route between Huntingdon and Ely Cathedral. It's likely that over the years ‘St Audrey’ was shortened to ‘Tawdry’, probably after a visit to the Seven Wives or one of the many alehouses!

During this period it is thought that the well-known riddle ‘As I was going to St Ives’ was conceived anonymously. 


There are several potential answers to this riddle depending on whether the man had his wives and cats etc. with him!

The railway

The markets flourished from this time, especially after the opening of St Ives railway station on 17 August 1847. At one time the livestock markets were second in size only to Smithfields in London with up to 500 farmers attending. It is not surprising that the crest of St Ives Town Council displays four bulls’ heads. Not everyone was happy with the railway line however. It crossed the river by The Old Mill (you can still see the iron columns that supported the bridge) and it was quite low, creating an obstacle to some of the barges.


The riverport expanded during the centuries, so much so that Herbert Norris, the local historian, wrote in 1888: St Ives was formerly the centre of a great river traffic. I have seen the river so covered with barges, that boys could walk across the river, near The Quay, on their tops.

The bridge and chapel


The town bridge is our most famous landmark. The original wooden structure was replaced with the current stone bridge in 1425. A chapel dedicated to St Leger was added in 1426 making it the most striking of only five examples in England. Also unusual are its two southern arches which are a different shape from the others. These resulted from their destruction by Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War to prevent the troops of King Charles I crossing the Bridge as they approached from their Royalist base in Lincolnshire. A drawbridge covered the gap for many years.

In 1736 two further stories were added to the chapel, which over the years had many uses including toll booth, pub and private home. In the mid 1800s the building was a pub named Little Hell, an establishment with a dubious reputation. Pigs were kept in the cellar, so the ambience must have been somewhat unique. Thereafter the chapel was again occupied as a private residence up to 1927. In 1930 due to their weight unsettling the foundations the top two floors were removed.

The Victorians

The Victorian era had a profound effect on St Ives not only from the introduction of the railway but also from Victorian architecture. Sadly quite a lot of older buildings were replaced but fortunately some fine new ones were built. Examples of these are the Town Hall, Corn Exchange and Free Church in Market Hill. Here stands a statue of Oliver Cromwell who was born in Huntingdon and lived in the St Ives for five years as he marshalled his Roundhead troops. 

After Cromwell’s death there was no desire to erect a memorial to him, a fact that in later years caused Lord John Russell, MP for Huntingdon, to remark:

(Oliver Cromwell) … the only great man the shire has produced, and what he did for England and the world is rightly deemed the grandest of all their local associations, but they have not yet dared to raise a statue in his honour on the soil from which he sprang.

And they did not for 240 years when an attempt was made in Huntingdon to raise the funds for a statue, but this was abandoned in 1899. Realizing the opportunity, the people of St Ives quickly raised the necessary funds and a sculpture in bronze was commissioned from F. W. Pomeroy. The statue, briefly exhibited at the Royal Academy to considerable acclaim, was installed in St Ives in 1901. Although most of the residents and its officials turned out for the occasion there were still those, 243 years after the death of Oliver Cromwell, that could not bring themselves to attend, and he remains a controversial figure to this day. However, this Cromwell statue is one of only four in the country and the only one that was paid for by public subscription.

The St Ivian character

The people of St Ives have always had minds of their own. In 1745, the town raised a volunteer force to join one raised in Huntingdon to fight Bonnie Prince Charlie. They moved north but after only seven miles, at Abbots Ripton, the two groups fought each other - and the St Ivians returned home! 

In the nineteenth century, a number of the congregation of All Saints Parish Church on The Waits objected to the style of the service, and left the church. They became known as ‘the dissenters’. They attracted funding from Potto Brown, a local miller, and built their own church, now the thriving Free Church in Market Hill. 

The Norris Museum


The Town has benefited from its people in many other ways. One luminary was Herbert Norris who founded the museum and left his lifetime collection of Huntingdonshire relics to the people of St Ives when he died in 1931.


Arthur Mee, in his book The King’s England, says:

It would be hard in this old town, with all its enchanting places, to find a place surpassing in attractiveness the museum on the river bank. We have seen few museums built so neatly in so fair a place as this.

This comment still applies today.

A recycled church


Augustus Pugin, famous for designing the interior of the Palace of Westminster, designed and built the Sacred Heart RC Church in St Ives. It was originally built as St Andrews Church in Cambridge but was dismantled brick by brick in 1902 and transported to St Ives, not surprisingly by barge.

Increasingly popular

Like most towns St Ives is changing and evolving. The latest examples are marked by the significant rise in population. At the time of The Domesday Book, in the eleventh century, there were just 51 adult males living in Slepe (they didn't bother to count women and children). For most of the last century the population was around 3,000. Today the population stands at just under 17,000 a five-fold increase in the last 50 years.

The Cambridge link

One of the latest changes has been the opening of the Guided Busway that links St Ives directly to Cambridge. Using the old railway line, axed by Beecham in the 1970s, this attractive route passes lakes created from the gravel extraction that has been going on for many years. The dedicated bus route means that travellers to and from Cambridge can be assured of reaching their destination in good time as it avoids the regular hold-ups on the A14. It also provides a popular cycle and walking route.

A pleasing environment

St Ives is blessed by its landscape. Upstream from the town bridge on the southern side of the river is the vast Hemingford Meadow, a wonderful, completely rural scene described by Daniel Defoe in 1724-6 thus:

Here are the most beautiful meadows on the banks of the river Ouse, that I think are to be seen in any part of England; and to see them in the summer season, covered with such innumerable stocks of cattle and sheep, is one of the most agreeable sights of its kind in the whole world.

On the northern bank sits Holt Island, now a nature reserve (and Sea Scouts headquarters) which, up to 70 years ago, was a thriving commercial osier (willow) bed, providing work for many residents. The island then was visually very different from today. It was remarkably flat and it was possible to see from The Waits across to the water meadows opposite. The willows were planted in neat, tidy rows and interspersed with fruit trees to provide easy snacks for the workers! Barges moored alongside the island to transport the prepared willow to the workshops in Filbert’s Walk, to be made into a wide range of baskets, notably those for the Post Office sorting room.


While the river is no longer used commercially - the last barges ceased trading in the 1930s - it is still at the heart of the town and there has been a revival in river traffic with an increase in pleasure boats. It is now possible to explore St Ives from the river as there are regular electric boat trips operating from The Quay. The Boathaven marina is being enlarged to handle the increase in pleasure cruisers.

This is just a brief history of our beautiful town. There is a lot more to see and enjoy and a lot more history to discover. Our vibrant community includes many dedicated people who give of their time freely to make St Ives, as described by the official website for Cambridge and surrounding area thus:

. . . a wonderful riverside town, tourist centre and thriving community . . . on the banks of the river Great Ouse.


It is easy to understand why the Town Council’s motto is Sudore non Sopore - By Labour not by Sleep. 

This is an apt play on words and a true reflection of the people of St Ives.


John Souter, 2015

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