The Eaton Socon Cage

Eaton Socon’s unique village Cage or lock-up is positioned just off the Great North Road in the centre of the old village near the church. Visitors to this suburb of the present town of St Neots often wonder why the original village needed one and what it was used for.

Today the village of Eaton Socon is in Cambridgeshire but it was not always so, and many visitors are unaware of the village’s history. Up to 1965 the village and parish of Eaton Socon were in Bedfordshire, and had been for centuries.

This village lock-up was important as it provided a place for the local drunks and other people who committed misdemeanours who could not be taken to St Neots as it was in Huntingdonshire. They could be put in the lock-up for the night and taken, if needed, to the magistrates in Bedford the following day.

The building of the Cage

The Cage in School Lane, Eaton Socon, goes back to the days, before the establishment of a county police force, when the parish was responsible for law and order within its own boundaries. In the early 19th century the vestry was the parish’s governing body and it remained so until it was replaced by the parish council. It was responsible for appointing the constable, one of the most important officers in the parish, and his responsibilities went far beyond those associated with law and order.

At Eaton Socon there were the village stocks, which were repaired in 1807 and again in 1827. However, it was decided that more was needed and in May 1825 the Vestry ordered that a cage should be built ‘to confine the refractory’. Nothing was done that year, so the next year the Vestry ordered the vicar, the churchwardens and the overseers to attend to it.

The result was that ‘the Cage’ or village lock-up was soon built. It is particularly interesting among surviving village lock-ups, as it has two cells, whereas many only have one. One of these cells was provided with a bench, which could also serve as a bed, and there were also chains to 7 restrain more violent inmates. The plastered ceiling was backed with iron plates to prevent prisoners breaking through the roof.

A fire-engine house

The fire engine house on the left and the Cage on the right, pre-1909. Many posters are on the buildings advertising local events.

A few years later it gained a ‘twin’. The thatched cottages in the village were extremely susceptible to fire and it was decided that a fire engine for the parish was needed. In 1831 a subscription was raised to buy a parish fire engine and the engine house was built onto the side of the Cage. The subscription list (now in the Record Office at Bedford) shows that a total of £191 was raised to meet the cost of the engine and the building.

In January 1831 the fire engine was described as:

A strong Improved Patent Carriage Engine with Metallic Valves and Brass Pistons fixed in an Oak Cistern with side Pockets for Suction Pipes and Box for the Hose, Driving seat and foot board mounted on four best Steel Springs, faggotted Iron Axletrees Strong Spoke wheels, Ash fellies and Hoop tire, Fore Locking Carriage of seasoned Ash, eyes for shafts, Splinter bar and Pole for Post Horses. Painted Lt Blue picked out Vermillion, a Suction Pipe with Brass Screws and Copper Rose and Copper Branch Pipe to a Box to attach to the Engine.

This engine was, of course, horse-drawn and must have been an impressive sight when it was finally delivered from London to Eaton Socon. A letter from W J Tilly, of 166 Blackfriars Road, dated 31 January 8 1831, to Mr John Hobson says: ‘I beg to inform you the Fire Engine and apparatus as per Invoice on the other side was this day sent to the Three Cups Inn, Aldersgate Street, to be forwarded to you at Eaton by Allison which I trust will arrive safe.’ From January 1833 there survives a letter noting that 12 large leather buckets with writing on the sides had cost the parish a further £6 9s (£6.45).

Various documents survive for the building of the fire-engine house but none sadly survives for the lock-up. The exact number of building bricks and roofing tiles for the engine house is known and how much it cost for the scaffolding – the total cost being £13 5s (£13.25).

The Cage was clearly used quite frequently over the next 25 years or so, and occasionally an escape occurred – as the following report in the St Neots Chronicle of 27 February 1858 showed:

Eaton Socon – A Bird Escaped his Cage: On Friday last, a prisoner, charged with felony, was placed in the lock-up about noon to await his examination the next morning. About 10 o’clock at night, police-constable Bedlow saw him safely locked up, and about twelve o’clock went again but the bird had flown, having made a hole about two feet square in the brickwork, which was three feet thick. The lock-up was always considered to be impregnable; as several notorious characters have tried to make their escape out of it, but have failed. The prisoner is an Irishman, and is known to be a very clever and expert thief. The affair caused much merriment among the villagers.

Presumably the man made good his escape, as there is no further reference to him in later issues.

The buildings fall into disuse

As the 19th century progressed, the fire engine, the house and the Cage were used less and less, and eventually fell into total disuse. The County Surveyor’s report of 1892 states: ‘The building here belongs to the 9 parish; it is in a very dilapidated state, no use being made of same.’ An old Etonian, writing in 1965, however, reckoned that he could remember the last man who had been confined in the Cage. This was, he said, for drunkenness and happened in the mid-1890s. The fire engine had been allowed to fall into such disrepair that it no longer worked, and in 1896 the Parish Council sold it to Shand Mason and Co. Both the engine house and Cage became derelict. In 1900 it was said that the Cage was used to store oil, ladders and spare parts.

The end of the fire-engine house

The Cage survived two major threats to its survival in the 20th century, see below. In keeping with many other parishes, Eaton Socon established an Institute for reading and recreation.

There was some difficulty in finding a suitable site for this, but two possible plots were eventually discovered, one being behind the Cage and the engine house. A public meeting was held on 5 October 1908 to make a decision as to which plot would be best, and the one behind the Cage and engine house was the popular choice.

Inevitably this led to a discussion about the future of these two, old, obsolete buildings. The chairman, John Walter Addington, said that it would be a good job to get them cleared away, and the meeting voted unanimously to ask the District Council to remove the Cage to provide an adequate access to the Institute. However, when the Institute was erected in 1909, it was just the engine house, described as the more modern part of the group, that was demolished.

The end of the Cage

Nothing was done to maintain the Cage, and it continued to deteriorate until 1938–39 when some work was carried out on it through the initiative of John R H Bedford and local historian and archaeologist C F Tebbutt, at their own expense.

By the 1960s, however, it was once again in a very poor state and, when the management committee of the Institute decided to carry out major restoration work on the building in 1962, it was felt that the Cage was such an eyesore with rotting timbers and crumbling brickwork, it would detract from anything they did to the outside of the Institute, and there was a determined move to remove it.

Although more moderate opinion talked of re-sitting it or cleaning it up, others wanted more drastic action and the Institute management committee were keen on its removal. The parish council was divided on 10 the issue and the fight to retain it, both in parish council meetings and elsewhere, was led by John R H Bedford, who saw it as an important part of the village’s heritage. John Bedford was quoted as saying that he would ‘enlist the aid of preservation societies and any other possible moves to acquire its retention where it now stands’. Harold White, editor of the Bedfordshire Magazine, became involved and also Professor Sir Albert Richardson, the eminent architect, who some 30 years before had overseen the restoration of Eaton Socon Church following the disastrous fire of 1930.

View of the lock-up and the Institute, possibly in the 1930s – note the well maintained garden fence of a thatched cottage which burnt down in 1939

Several meetings followed and at one stormy meeting 27 people voted to save the building, with 17 against. A Ministry of Housing and Local Government enquiry was held at the Institute in July, and it was decided that the Cage would remain.

Although architecturally it was said to be of little interest, its historical significance made it worth retaining. A preservation order was made, but feelings still ran high in the village and one parish councillor went so far as to ask whether there was any chance of blowing up the Cage!

Despite assurances in 1962 that work would be carried out to improve its condition, little appeared to happen beyond the Parish Council voting 11 to fit a new lock and keeping it locked. This was necessary as boys used to play around it and dare one another to be shut in it.

Beds and Hunts Naturalist Trust restore the Cage

A meeting was held in October 1962 with a sub-committee of the Bedfordshire County Council, Eaton Socon Parish Council, the Institute Management Committee, and the Beds and Hunts Naturalists Trust, which had expressed an interest in restoring ancient buildings. Progress was slow, and it was not until July 1963 that it was agreed that the Cage would be restored. At the end of September an impatient Institute Management Committee was calling for action on the restoration, which was estimated to cost around £175. More than another year passed before the details were hammered out, and in January 1965 it was announced that the Cage was to be leased at a peppercorn rent to Beds and Hunts Naturalists’ Trust, who would maintain it.

1965 to 2008

During these years very little was done to maintain the building, but several things have occurred around it. In 1965 the line of the present A1 was decided, which resulted in the village of Eaton Socon changing counties from Bedfordshire to Huntingdonshire and in 1974 it changed again to Cambridgeshire. How this would affect the Cage would not be known for many years. In 1976 there was a fire which badly damaged the Institute, resulting in the building being demolished and being replaced by the present Jubilee Hall built further back on the site and opened in 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. This left the Cage at the entrance to the car park, which was not ideal and when, in the 1980s, it was suggested to move it physically across the road to a safer place, it was once again the villagers who said it should not be moved. This is where it was built and this is where it should stay!

St Neots Town Council takes over the Cage

After many years of little or no work on the Cage its deterioration was becoming clear and around 2007 there were moves to carry out some work on the building. It was found that the Beds and Hunts Naturalists Trust (now The Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs and Northants) had no knowledge that they were responsible for the building, were not paying any peppercorn rent to anyone, and had no knowledge as to who owned the building. It appeared that when the paperwork for the Institute had been completed in the 1960s, when the village first changed counties, the Cage was not mentioned and no paperwork could be found for its ownership. Newspaper interviews and visits from local television raised the question of ownership and finally, in 2008, with the agreement of the Land Registry, the St Neots Town Council adopted the Cage and will maintain this unique heritage for the future.

Other village lock-ups still remain in situ in Clophill, Harrold and Silsoe in Bedfordshire and Broughton, Fenstanton, Sawtry and Needingworth in old Huntingdonshire. However, the Eaton Socon Cage is unique in that it is larger than the normal village lock-up and it has survived several attempts to remove it. It is part of our heritage and with the ownership now in safe hands it should survive for many more years. The Eatons Community Association hold a key and open the Cage regularly in the summer months. It is also opened for pupils in nearby schools and other visits for local groups can be arranged.

The Cage today – older villagers recall that the T-shaped ironwork on the side of the building was the support for a lamp to light the road on dark nights.

The original article was published in Bedfordshire Local History Association newsletter, Spring 2015. Written by David Bushby, updated by Sue Jarrett in 2014.
archaeology st neots

The Archaeology of Love’s Farm, St Neots

The Love’s Farm project represents a detailed archaeological examination of the later Prehistoric and Roman agricultural landscape on a previously unprecedented scale within the region. The site, located on heavy clay soils and adjacent to St Neots in Cambridgeshire, covered 60ha over half of which was stripped during the course of the excavations.

Following several years of evaluation work that identified the presence of this fascinating archaeological site, the Archaeological Field Unit of Cambridgeshire County Council (now Oxford Archaeology East) was commissioned by JJ Gallagher Ltd to carry out a programme of archaeological excavation in 2005-8 in advance of development of the site for housing.

Clay soils like those around St Neots mask sites and can mislead archaeologists. Heavy clay can limit the effectiveness of field-walking, aerial photographic interpretation and geophysical surveys. This was the case at Love’s Farm. It was the digging of trial trenches that revealed the true extent of the remains that had to be excavated.

In archaeology it is sometimes the case that the bigger the hole the better the result. At Love’s Farm we dug a very big hole and have revealed some very interesting results.

Excavation results

Excavation at Love’s Farm has completely transformed our understanding of the earliest inhabitants of the area around St Neots. Extensive remains of settlement and associated activities spanning over 5,000 years have been revealed.

Neolithic pits containing pottery, worked flint and a polished stone axe dating from around 3500BC were the earliest finds from the site. Evidence for the first farmers in the area was provided by the identification of the remains of a Bronze Age field system dating from around 1,500BC.

An agricultural community occupied the site for over 700 years from at least 200BC to around the 5th or 6th centuries AD. From the Iron Age through the Romano-British period and on into the Early Saxon period successive generations lived on this land, improving drainage, growing new crops, managing livestock, adding enclosures, buildings, roads and monuments.

The site was put under the plough in the medieval period and Adam Love was allotted the Farm which was to bear his name as a result of Parliamentary Inclosure in 1770.

One of the most striking results of this excavation is the wealth of new evidence that has been revealed about the evolution of the countryside.

The discoveries show for the first time the extent to which the west of the county owes much of its current appearance to events that took place over two thousand years ago.

We can now see that elements of the hedgerows, field boundaries and footpaths laid down as long ago as the Bronze Age are still visible in the modern landscape.

Everyday life: Housing

Glacial melting pockmarked the surface of the western claylands with frequent shallow depressions. The preferred locations for the earliest settlers were such depressions on south-facing slopes, ideally those with an easterly aspect.

Even the slightest depression seemed an attractive proposition for single dwellings whilst larger hollows allowed room for several houses. The roundhouses of the period would have appeared huddled in these sheltered dips in the landscape, perhaps masking their presence from a distance.

The water-retaining properties of the clay meant that immediate access to running water was not an issue. Water holes were dug to collect and store surface water for domestic use.

Iron Age dwellings were scattered across the landscape whereas the Roman houses and other farm buildings lay within larger enclosed farmyards.

Everyday life: Farming

Clay has certain advantages over other soil types if well managed. Not least amongst these are that groundwater is held within the subsoil/surface geology making the ground drought resistant.

Crop yields can also be considerably higher than on other soils. Modern yields are three times greater on the clay than on the light alluvial soils of the adjacent Ouse valley and are less prone to fail.

For those able to engage in the developing art of ditch digging the likehood of starvation would be significantly reduced.

In order to bring the clay into a suitable condition for farming and habitation it was necessary to control drainage. The digging of ditches created new boundaries and began the process of enclosure.

The Iron Age and Roman farmers grew a range of crops such as wheat and barley as well as keeping cattle and sheep for meat, hides and wool. Horses and dogs were also present.

Everyday life: Industry and trade

Cattle skulls and other bones recovered from the well.

Contact with the continent (Spain, Italy, France and Germany) was demonstrated by an extensive collection of fine late Iron Age jars, a colander and other kitchen wares that were dumped into a ditch close to where they would have been used.

There were also fragments from a range of Samian table wares imported from France as well as flagons, cups and other evidence of a relatively wealthy local population with access to foreign markets.

During the later Roman period it is clear that bone working was a craft specialism on this site as we recovered a large collection of sawn deer antler and cattle horn cores from an enclosure ditch and from the backfill of a stone-lined well.

Waterlogged leather was also found in the well including the remains of shoes of 4th/5th century date. Examples of shoes from rural sites are extremely rare and the Love’s Farm well contained previously unknown types.

Ritual and religion: Metalwork

Examples of metal votive objects

The metalwork from the Love’s Farm site has a distinct bias towards votive (religious) offerings rather than the kind of everyday items such as tools that would be expected on farms. Many of the metal objects seemed to have been deposited into boundary ditches or in the corners of fields rather than being associated with more formal shrines or temples: this provides important new information about religion in the countryside.

One area of the site in particular was the focus of such activity during the Roman period. A flood deposit which overlay a silted up waterhole contained more than thirty metal objects including rings, coins, armlets and brooches. One of the earliest objects was a fragment of a military armilla, an award for service given to ranks below centurion.

Some of the other finds from this layer, such as the rings, coins and a lunulla harness pendant, may have been lunar or solar symbols. The waterlogged context of the layer in which they were found suggests veneration of a deity of spring or stream, while the deposition of possible solar symbols indicates a sky-deity. The latter may have been Minerva in her sky-goddess aspect.

Ritual and religion: Magic

An example of ritual deposition

It was not just metalwork that was specially chosen for burial. Everyday objects such as quern stones (for grinding cereals), loom weights and pots were also selected and placed carefully in the ground.

Animal burial was also an important practice. Examples from Love’s Farm included a number of dogs and horses, the skulls of cattle and horses and the careful placement of red deer antlers within ditches and as a capping deposit within a 5th-century well.

The same types of objects and animal remains tend to be selected for special treatment on other sites in the area and this suggests that the items had some shared symbolic meaning to the people who buried them.

Worship of local gods, belief in magic and protection from supernatural forces are likely to have informed the actions of the local people and would have taken place at certain times of year or to mark special events such as moving house, marriage or death.


A drawing of the Minerva handle found at Love’s Farm

One of the most exciting objects discovered during the Love’s Farm excavations was a representation of the Goddess Minerva.

Made from bronze, the bust formed the handle of a wax spatula with an iron blade. Such spatulas were used for cutting up blocks of wax, which was not only used on writing tablets but also for salves and other medicinal preparations.

Minerva was a Middle Eastern goddess of wisdom and learning, and was an appropriate deity to preside over the preparation of wax tablets. She also had links to the healing arts in her role as Minerva Medica.

The representation found at Love’s Farm is comparatively crude, but the goddess is identifiable by her crested Corinthian helmet, which is set on the back of her head behind a high triple-peaked coiffure.

Her triangular nose is prominent but her mouth is only suggested by a slight groove and her eyes by small round pits.

The split socket is decorated by ring-and-dots set into a pattern known as a double quincunx.

A hair pin was also recovered that has had the tip flattened into a leaf shape – possibly the deliberate conversion of the pin into a model spear. The shank is bent into a double curve, perhaps deliberate damage at the time of deposition.

This object may also be a reference to Minerva, as the weapon is one of her principal attributes, together with her Corinthian helmet, aegis (collar or cape), and shield.

These two objects representing Minerva may signify her as the local deity. She was also the goddess of crafts such as spinning and weaving, both major elements in the economy of the site.

The style of the Minerva busts ranges from elaborate and fully classical to more simplified Romano-Celtic versions. Most examples probably date to the 2nd century, with some perhaps belonging to the early 3rd century.

The number of Minerva bust handles recorded from Britain has recently increased due to the reporting of casual or detector finds under the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Most come from rural, villa or sanctuary sites. Within the eastern region examples have been found at Stonea Grange and Cambridge in Cambridgeshire, and Stonham Earl in Suffolk.

It is possible that they were marketed as high-quality items for the civilian population, but they may also have been recycled as votive objects especially when, as at Love’s Farm, their iron blade has been removed.

The Monument

This feature stood out due to its prominent location on the crest of the slope, unusual layout and the striking arrangement of the radial ditch lines seemingly emanating from it. Its creation was part of a broader pattern of short-lived innovation or change that swept across the site in the 1st century AD.

The unusual layout and objects found, including a hairpin remodelled as a miniature spear (see the page about Minerva), indicate that this sub-circular enclosure may have been some form of shrine.

Landscape and diversity

It has long been held that the ‘cold clay lands’ of the River Ouse valley were inhospitable to earlier populations, remaining largely uninhabited. These clays were unforgiving to work and until recently were overlooked by archaeologists.

The countryside around St Neots was thought to owe its appearance to the 18th and 19th centuries AD. It appeared to have all the hallmarks of a modern post-enclosure agricultural landscape. One outcome of the Love’s Farm excavations has been to transform these assumptions.

The new work on the clay lands is starting to reveal a previously unseen, diverse and densely populated landscape. Our findings have been supported by experts in other fields who have generated an enormous amount of new data from geophysical survey, aerial photographs and further excavation within the St Neots area.

Aspects of the bigger picture that are beginning to emerge relate to the origins of an intensively settled agricultural landscape over 3,000 years old. This was comprehensively reorganised 2,000 years ago during the Late Iron Age and modified again during the Roman period.

The pattern of evolution of the landscape from the mid or later Bronze Age onwards has parallels further afield and includes many apparent similarities with other places including the Thames Valley.

Text and images copyright of Oxford Archaeology East, produced here with their kind permission.