A brief history of the Home Guard

“Don’t panic! Don’t panic!” Many of us have fond memories of the popular TV series Dad’s Army, but how close was this comical depiction to the REAL Home Guard? Here’s a brief look at its history…

The 23rd July marks the date that Britain’s Local Defence Volunteers (LDVs) officially became known as ‘the Home Guard’ in 1940, making this the anniversary of its 80th year! This band of volunteers, made up of men of all ages, was formed as ‘Britain’s last defence’ against German invasion, and from humble beginnings as the LDVs (also said to stand for ‘look, duck and cover!’), became a well-trained army of 1.7 million. Although the recruitment age bracket was officially 17-65, volunteers were below and, more often, above the age of conscription, leading to the Guard’s affectionate nickname of ‘Dad’s Army’.

From a motley crew…

A parade of the Local Defence Volunteers. Image IMW.

In its early days, the Home Guard was hardly recognisable as the defensive unit we picture today. Uniforms and weapons were high in demand to supply to the regular military, and so members of the Guard had to make do with what they could find! Shotguns, sporting rifles, and antique firearms were dusted down and put into action, along with make-shift ‘weapons’ such as pitchforks, broom handles and even golf clubs! Even when officially supplied weaponry did arrive, it was of often outdated or of a very poor standard. And as for a uniform, most battalions had to make do with a simple armband to distinguish themselves until official uniforms were supplied.

The Guard looked a stark contrast to the men and women of the Air Raid Precautions Service, which had been in position since 1937. The ARP was responsible for everything connected with a possible enemy attack, and included Air Raid Wardens, First Aid Parties, Rescue and Demolition Parties, Decontamination Squads, Ambulance Drivers and Communications Officers. The role of the Home Guard came to closely resemble those of the ARP, and tensions between the two, hilariously illustrated by the relationship between Cpt. Mainwaring and Chief Warden Hodges in Dad’s Army, soon arose!

…into a well-trained home defence

St Neots Home Guard photographed outside the Old Falcon on the Market Square.

Churchill was the man responsible for a much-needed shake-up of the Guard. It was he who had originally introduced the change of name from Local Defence Volunteers, which he quite rightly announced was ‘uninspiring’, to the Home Guard. Churchill saw to it that the Home Guard began to receive proper military training sessions, as well as other useful skills such as bomb disposal and basic German phrases, should they ever come face to face with the enemy!

According to the ‘Home Guard Guide Book’ published in 1940, the Guard’s main duties included observation and reporting, immediate attack against small, lightly armed parties of the enemy, and the defence of roads, villages, factories and other strategic points in towns, to block enemy movement. The Guard was also called upon to man the big guns – the anti-aircraft guns and rocket launches positioned around London. By the end of the war, the Guard numbered around 1.7 million well-trained, fighting men – a vastly different force to the one present in 1940!

An army of volunteers

Members of the Home Guard being taught simple German phrases. Image IWM.

A butcher, an undertaker, and bank personnel, all of the characters featured in Dads Army were regular citizens pitching in to do their bit. With the increased levels of military training the Home Guard received, it’s easy to forget that its members weren’t paid to handle such vast responsibilities. They were volunteers, men who still did their regular jobs by day, and then drilled and patrolled around them at nights and weekends. Their place in the community, bringing with it important knowledge of the local people and terrain, formed a vital part of their defensive role.

An end to war

In 1944, with the Allied armies advancing towards Germany and the threat of invasion or raids finally over, the Home Guard was officially stood down on the 3rd December. To commemorate the efforts of its members, every year on the anniversary of its formation, a national ‘Home Guard Day’ was held. The events were held, in Churchill’s words, ‘so that the nation realised all it owed to these devoted men’.

Though it’s easy to focus on the comedic portrayal of Dad’s Army, it’s important to remember the huge commitment and effort made by the Home Guard to protect our country in this time of conflict.

BCH Platoon, St Neots Home Guard outside the Little Barford Power Station in 1943-1944 (St Neots CCAN)

And if you have any photographs or memories of St Neots Home Guard, or indeed any taken during the war, we’d be very interested to see them!



The story of shopping

We all love a bit of retail therapy, so with shops finally able to re-open, our curator Liz takes a look at shopping throughout history…

Along with many other ‘non-essential’ local shops, St Neots Museum reopened its shop on the 16th June, after a closure of almost three months during the COVID-19 pandemic. Planning the reopening of the museum shop set us thinking about the history of shops and shopping! For thousands of years people have traded food and other goods and services. Since the rise of the Greek civilisation around 700 BC and into the later Roman period (500 BC to AD 400) a wide variety of shops and markets were well established across Europe. Although we don’t have any evidence (yet!) for Roman shops in St Neots, we do have evidence for the Roman roadside tabernae (later corrupted to tavern) at Godmanchester (Durovigutum) along the Roman Ermine Street, less than ten miles from St Neots.

In St Neots, we believe that the top end of the High Street where the road widens at the crossroads with Huntingdon Street marks the site of the Anglo-Saxon market place. The fact that this part of the High Street was known as ‘sheep street’, perhaps refers to an animal market on the site.

St Neots Market Square, about 1900

The origin of St Neots’ market

It was the monks of St Neots Priory who developed the town’s current large market square in the AD 1130s, as the shopping mall of its day. Situated right outside the walls of the monk’s Priory and next to the busy river crossing, between the Great North Road and the City of Cambridge, it was ideally placed to encourage market trading and provide the monks with an income from the stall rents. Some stalls gradually developed into permanent shops along the outer wall of the Priory, known for many years as ‘shop row’. Victorian and Edwardian photographs show the old wooden stalls used on St Neots Market Square, which look almost unchanged from their medieval predecessors.

Shopping in the 19th and 20th centuries

Adam Bailey – Tea Dealer & Grocer, billhead from 1831, 20 High Street

The earliest evidence we have for the interior layout of a local shop comes from a billhead found in a local scrap book. On the 1831 billhead of Adam Bailey, Tea Dealer & Grocer, appears a small drawing showing a Georgian grocers shop. Male shop assistants stand behind long wooden counters while smartly dressed women make their purchases. Did St Neots have such a shop? Or was it an idealised scene? We will never know, but it does show us how Mr Bailey wanted his customers to think of his shop.

From the time of the Industrial Revolution, in the later 1700s, a vast new range of consumer goods began to be produced, and by the early Victorian period new shops were opening and selling everything from groceries and sweets to medicines, furniture, household china and ornaments. With the development of the lock-stitch sewing machine from the 1850s, mass produced clothing also began to be sold. Despite this new consumer boom though, older ways of shopping still continued. A photograph from about 1860 in the museum’s collection shows John Chamberlain, a Victorian pedlar, who sold nuts, cakes, sweets and packets of seeds from the baskets he carried to customers in local St Neots pubs.

Plum’s Café, 31 High Street, taken from their paper bag

In Victorian England, the delivery of groceries from local shops was an accepted way of life, and new online shopping services today reflect the earlier practise of leaving your shopping list with the grocer and waiting for your items to be delivered to your home. An image of Plum’s, the Victorian confectioner and café on St Neots High Street, taken from one of their paper bags, shows a delivery van waiting outside the shop ready to deliver orders.

As the consumer boom developed in the Victorian period, one way that shops tried to attract customers was by displaying their goods. They might hang goods on the outside of their premises, as many clothing and footwear shops did (for example Barratts), or display them on the pavement outside their shops. Many photographs of the town from the early 1900s show household goods and furniture displayed in this way. One photograph in the museum collection shows a fascinating display of household goods outside Franks High Street furniture shop (now Brittain’s), including a piano and a treadle sewing machine being loaded onto a cart, presumably ready for delivery.

The First and Second World Wars

International Stores 1916

The First World War brought huge changes to everyday life, and one striking change to the shopping experience was the introduction of woman staff, or ‘lady grocers’. to grocery stores. The International Stores in St Neots even felt the need to take out advertisements explaining that employing women allowed their male employees to join the army. A photograph in the museum’s collection shows the new female members of staff in their Great War uniforms, standing alongside the remaining male staff outside the shop on St Neots High Street.

As thousands of women took up paid employment to support the country’s huge war effort, many had their own income for the first time in their lives. Retailers were not slow to pick up on this opportunity and adverts for women’s clothes began to appear in the local paper, the St Neots Advertiser. Thomas Armstrong’s shop on the market square was the leading drapers and milliners in the district in the early 1900s, and their adverts for fashionable women’s clothes appear regularly on the front page of the paper during the First World War. Today, Armstrong’s shop is the Estate Agent, Haart, on the market square.

Thomas Armstrong shop & advert,1916

Times were hard during the depression of the 1930s, and after the Second World War it was time for another change in shopping habits. Home deliveries fell out of fashion as the motor car and self-service shopping made it possible to take home most purchases immediately.

And today…

Despite a brief flirtation with a shopping Mall in the 1990s (on the Market Square where the Brook and Barter stands today) and the growth of out of town shopping in St Neots and Eaton Socon, the High Street and weekly Thursday market are still the busy heart of our town. Chains and independents alike can be found side by side, owing their location to those medieval market stalls which sprang up over 800 years ago.

If you’ve not yet been into our own lovely shop, do stop by on your next visit into St Neots!

Why do we celebrate the Summer Solstice?

The Summer Solstice is almost upon us! Days are longer, nights are shorter, and the natural world is full of life. But what actually is a solstice, and why do we mark them in the way that we do? Read on to find out!

First things first! The term ‘solstice’ can be traced back to the Latin word ‘solstitium’, combining the words ‘sol’, meaning sun, and ‘-stit’ or ‘-stes’, meaning standing or still. The name derives from the Romans’ observation that during a solstice, the sun’s position in the sky at noon didn’t seem to change much throughout the day, but instead appeared motionless.

Astronomically speaking…

The Summer Solstice marks the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the end of spring and the start of the astronomical summer. It takes place between 20th and 22nd June each year, the reason for the shift in date boiling down to the fact that our calendar doesn’t precisely reflect the Earth’s rotation, and so we have to allow some wiggle room!

Both the summer and winter solstices form part of a wider astronomical calendar, flanked by two equinoxes in the spring and the autumn, and other daily and monthly cycles throughout the year. Incidentally, ‘equinox’ comes from the Latin ‘equi’ meaning equal, and ‘nox’ meaning night. On these two dates, day and night are of equal length before the days begin to get either lighter in the spring, or darker in the autumn.

During the solstices, the Earth’s axis tilts us at either our closest or farthest point from the sun. The hemisphere tilted most towards the sun sees its longest day and shortest night (the Summer Solstice), whilst the hemisphere tilted away from the sun sees its shortest day and longest night (the Winter Solstice.)

Prehistoric significance

Now that’s the science of a solstice explained (phew!), but just why do we humans place so much significance on the solstices and the days surrounding them? We know that the solstices certainly held importance for Neolithic humans, who may initially have started to observe the Summer Solstice as a marker for planting and harvesting crops. Stonehenge, our most famous Neolithic monument, was certainly built to reflect the solstices, and it has long been debated whether one of its functions was to act as ancient solar calendar. The site’s megaliths are aligned with the direction of the sunrise on the Summer Solstice, with the sarsen stones lined up to trace the movements of the sun. It’s likely that on the solstices people gathered at the monument to celebrate, though little archaeological evidence remains of the ceremonies that may have taken place there.

Interestingly, Archaeoastronomers (yes that’s an actual job, amazing!) think that the midwinter solstice may actually have been the more important focus for the builders of Stonehenge, due to the entire monument’s alignment facing toward the setting midwinter sun. As you enter the site along the main avenue and walk towards the standing stones, the position of the Winter Solstice’s sunset is the main focus directly ahead, perhaps in the same way that the most important parts of a church are located ahead of you as you enter.  There’s a WEALTH of information on Stonehenge’s association with the solstices on the English Heritage website, and we fully encourage you to fall down that rabbit hole and check it out!

The Summer Solstice throughout history

Our fascination with the solstices didn’t end with our Neolithic ancestors. According to some ancient Greek calendars, the Summer Solstice marked the start of the New Year, and began the one-month countdown to the opening of the famous Olympic games. In the days leading up to the Summer Solstice, the Romans celebrated the Vestalia, a religious festival to honour Vesta, goddess of the home and hearth. Before the rise of Christianity, Slavic, Germanic and Celtic tribes celebrated the midsummer with bonfires, believing that they would boost the sun’s energy and guarantee a good harvest. It was believed that bonfires could also help banish demons and evil spirits. Following the establishment of the Christian church, solstice celebrations were often combined with St John the Baptist’s Day on the 24th June, the date of Midsummer’s Day.

N.B. The Summer Solstice and Midsummer’s Day are actually separate dates, with the later falling on the 24th June. Midsummer is often now referred to as the period of time commencing with the Summer Solstice and leading up to Midsummer’s Day.

Significance of the solstice in Paganism

Today, the celebration of the solstices is mostly strongly associated with Paganism. The Pagan festival of Litha is one of the most important in the Pagan religion, commencing on the eve of the Summer Solstice it celebrates the midsummer and the power of the sun god. Magic is thought to be strongest during the Summer Solstice, and it’s also the time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest, eep! According to Pagan folklore, evil spirits in particular may walk the earth more freely at this time, and in order to ward them off, people wear protective garlands of herbs and flowers. One of the most powerful of these is the ‘chase devil’, also known as St. John’s Wort, because of its association with St. John’s Day.

Other Summer Solstice traditions surround the ashes from a midsummer bonfire, which can be used as a protection against misfortune by being formed into an amulet, or spread across a garden to ensure a good harvest. ‘Sunwheels’ were also used to celebrate midsummer in some Pagan communities. A wheel or ball of straw was lit on fire and rolled down a hill into a river. It was believed that if the fire went out before hitting the water then a good harvest was guaranteed.

Maypole in Eaton Socon c.1914 – picture credit: Cambridgeshire Community Archive Network

Local traditions

Over the centuries, the June solstice has inspired many midsummer celebrations involving bonfires, singing, and Maypole dancing. Many towns and villages across Britain still mark the day with fairs and festivals, like the one that takes place on Midsummer Common in Cambridge.

Local historian C.F. Tebbutt records in his writings a few other local traditions that took place in Huntingdonshire. In Bluntisham in the late 19th century, a midsummer feast was once held, with stalls selling sweets and gingerbread, and a garlanded hoop hung over the street. Records from Waresely in 1679 record the firing of blanks from guns at a midsummer festival, intended to scare away fairies and evil spirits. Finally, court records from Stilton in 1830 tell of one Thomas Wade, who was brought before a court for “walking up and down disguised by having a pair of painted ram’s horns on his head and a green veil over his face… at the same time also making strange and frightful noises…” Though whether this was actually to do with midsummer celebrations is anyone’s guess!

And there we have it! It can’t be denied that the Summer Solstice is a significant occasion astronomically, spiritually and historically. However you choose to mark the day (though we’d recommend not taking inspiration from Mr Wade), be sure to enjoy the longest day to its fullest!

National Lottery funding for St Neots Museum

We’re thrilled to announce that St Neots Museum has been awarded £14,845 of National Lottery funding by Arts Council England!

This comes from ACE’s Emergency Response Fund to support the arts and museums during the COVID-19 crisis. The funding will mean the museum can develop new digital ways to keep connected with the local community, whilst its doors remain closed due to the imposed lockdown.

The museum staff have already been busy making films for all ages, which can be found here on our website and YouTube channel. Already, there are thirteen new films sharing the fascinating history of local people like James Toller, the Eynesbury Giant, and Victorian criminals. There’s also new articles to read on local (and not so local) history, and online exhibitions, the latest of which is by St Neots artist Richard Walker.

In addition, the funding will support the museum’s social media and marketing channels to let people know how the museum is taking its collection and knowledge out into the local community. Details of our social channels can be found at the bottom of this article.

Learning Officer Lesley Sainsbury says:

“Having the museum closed has been a challenge, so we are really pleased to have been given funding, and are working hard to get great local history content on our website (www.stneotsmuseum.org.uk) and social media. This has only be made possible thanks to public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England”.

Arts Council England is the national development agency for creativity and culture. They have pledge that between 2018 and 2022, they will invest £1.45 billion of public money from government, and an estimated £860 million from the National Lottery, to help the arts and museums sectors. Following the Covid-19 crisis, the ACE has developed a £160 million Emergency Response Package, with nearly 90% coming from the National Lottery, for organisations and individuals needing support.  You can find out more about ACE by visiting their website: www.artscouncil.org.uk

Find us on social media at: Twitter @StNeotsMuseum, Facebook @stneotsmuseum, Instagram @stneotsmuseum, and on YouTube 

Historical folk remedies

St Neots Museum Curator Liz Davies delves into the medical folk remedies recorded in Huntingdonshire

In 2020, the current COVID-19 pandemic is a major crisis gripping the world, but since biblical times, epidemics of highly contagious diseases have swept the world killing many millions of people. The most deadly recent world pandemic was the 1918 / 19 influenza outbreak, which is said to have killed between 20 to 50 million people, more than the total number who died fighting in the First World War!

Historical pandemics

In the medieval period the Bubonic plague (also known as the Black Death) swept across Europe and arrived in England in 1348, where it’s estimated to have wiped out almost half the population. The plague then reoccurred across Europe at regular intervals over the following centuries, particularly in Britain in the years 1665 and 1666 when it was known as the Great Plague. This outbreak ravaged London in particular, killing up to 200,000 people when the population of the capital was then around  500,000.

Since the 1600s, and without major advances in medical treatment, the world has continued to cope with a series of highly infectious diseases, including smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, measles, scarlet fever, malaria, influenza and many others.  After the last serious outbreak of the plague in England in 1666, smallpox became the most feared infectious disease, killing and disfiguring millions with pox scars.

Doctors and medicine

In the medieval period, the only qualified doctors were physicians who had trained at a university. Most had little practical medical knowledge, although in their defence, there were very few useful remedies available! Surgeons, on the other hand, were not university trained, but would learn under an experienced surgeon and then gain further experience ‘on the job’.

Edward Jenner

From the medieval period, until well into the Victorian period, most treatments involved herbal remedies, bleeding, vomiting or purging patients, magical charms, or offering to say a prayer. It was only during the later 1700s that medical knowledge started to increase and surgeons began to make important discoveries about the body and how it worked. For instance, it was in 1796 that Edward Jenner, following up countryside folklore that milkmaids who caught cowpox never contracted smallpox, proved that a vaccination with cowpox could prevent smallpox.

Folk remedies still prevailed

Despite Jenner’s discovery, it was not until 1853 that smallpox vaccination for children was made compulsory in Britain and the disease started to decline. Until then, people would still rely heavily on local folk remedies. Drawing on local memories, St Neots historian Mr Tebbutt discovered that, in St Neots, it was believed that keeping a guinea pig could offer protection from smallpox because the animal would attract the illness and prevent the owner becoming infected. He also recorded that in 1943, a local Dr Cross had told him that in the early days of his practice, when a child was vaccinated against smallpox, it was not unusual to find that the parents had applied a cow dung poultice due to a folk memory of the link to cowpox.

Local remedies

From the Tudor period onwards, better off people would pay to see a doctor and poor people could use the workhouse surgeon or doctor. A chance survival in a local scrapbook reveals that the Overseers of the St Neots Poor paid Surgeon, Joseph Rix 1s 6d (about 7p) in July 1829 for treating a patient with ‘Pills and Powder’.

Dr Rix receipt for “pills and powder”

However, with very few effective treatments for any serious illnesses, patent medicines, folk remedies, religious prayers and magical charms were all widely popular. In rural areas, such as Huntingdonshire, belief in folk medicines and cures survived until the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948.

Tebbutt’s documentation of cures

It was the strong belief in natural remedies that inspired Mr Tebbutt to collect information about folk remedies and beliefs. In particular he knew Alfred ‘Doc’ Rowlett of Eaton Ford, who supplemented his income as a road sweeper and antique dealer by selling his own herbal remedies from a stall on St Neots Market. Life-long Eaton Ford resident, Betty Cambers, remembered seeing Mr Rowlett collecting plants in the meadows which are today the riverside park in St Neots. Betty recalled that the meadows were ‘a much more beautiful place than people nowadays would ever imagine.’ The grassy meadows were full of lovely wild flowers, depending on the season.

Mr Rowlett

‘Doc’ Rowlett claimed he could cure warts, and Eynesbury resident, Bert Goodwin, once recalled that Mr Rowlett had cured a large wart on his knee. Bert recalled how Rowlett had cut a small twig from a bush he described as ‘Joseph’s Thorn’ which he shaped into a spatula, and then made the mark of the cross over the wart and said it would be gone by the next full moon. The next time Bert looked – the wart had gone!

In his booklet on Huntingdonshire Folklore, Mr Tebbutt recorded many of the folk remedies common in this area well into the last century. There were many different remedies for a common illness such as rheumatism including; carrying a moles foot or a hare’s foot with you, or using a lotion of adders fat.  Alternatively, people who lived in Bluntisham believed that you could cure rheumatism by tying a red ribbon around the bad leg.


If you preferred to act before you became ill, you might carry a charm with you, or hang one in your house. ‘Doc’ Rowlett had a collection of charms which he had collected from local people: a white stone with a natural hole in the centre had been hung in a gypsy caravan to protect the horse, a leg shaped stone had been carried to protect the owner from gout, and a broken whelk shell had given protection against earache. In many cases, the charms seemed a much more pleasant alternative to some of the less appealing cures!

If you or your family have any memories connected to this, then we’d love to hear them! Liz is also able to offer talks on Myth and Magic in Huntingdonshire, so to find out more, please do get in touch!

The history of biscuits

Munchable, scoffable, dunkable, WONDERFUL biscuits – few things in life are more pleasurable than a mug of tea and your favourite biccy.

It just so happens that the 29th May is officially National Biscuit Day! So, we thought we’d have a brief look at the history of these delicious treats. If you make it to the end of this without a craving for one, then your willpower truly is iron clad…

In the beginning…

House of the Baker, Pompeii

It turns out that biscuits, in some form or other, have been around for a really REALLY long time! The name ‘biscuit’ comes from the French ‘bis-qui’, but it’s Latin root ‘panis biscotus’ (meaning twice-cooked bread), tells us a variant of the treat has been around since at least the Roman period.

The biscuit the Romans had is closer to a ‘rusk’, the sort that babies today now enjoy, and was basically bread which had been baked again to make it crispy. In this form, the bread kept for longer and was often used as a snack for those ‘on the go’ or as part of a centurion’s’ rations. Jumping ahead of ourselves here, we see biscuits being used in this way much later in the 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries too as part of ships’ rations. Unable to maintain a constant supply of fresh food, naval boats would carry huge supplies of ‘ship’s biscuits’ or ‘hardtacks’, biscuits so tough they were famous for being indestructible. Unsurprising then, that the earliest surviving example we have of a biscuit from 1784, is one such biscuit!

Medieval and Tudor treats

‘Biscuit’ came to use in English from around the 14th century, and variations on the theme started to appear. Varieties closer in form to pancakes were also becoming more common. Wafer biscuits started to emerge and grew in popularity, these were made of a sweetened batter and cooked over a fire. The famous ‘Jumble Biscuit’ also appeared in the Medieval period, traditionally shaped in a knot pattern and flavoured with much prized spices like caraway, aniseed and mace.

By the Tudor period gingerbread had started to appear. Containing sugar and expensive spices, it was only for the rich (and those who weren’t too bothered about their teeth!) The gingerbread was often coloured and moulded into intricate shapes and structures. The first ‘gingerbread-men’ are often attributed to court of Queen Elizabeth I, where biscuits were made in the likeness of important guests. Fancy!

The darker side to our sugar craving

Biscuits started to become more accessible to the masses in the 17th century due to the colonisation of the West Indies and Americas, and the rise of the slave trade. This dark and shameful chapter of our history caused the price of sugar to fall dramatically, which in turn sparked new developments in the types of biscuits and cakes on the market. Chocolate, coffee and tea were also introduced to Britain at this time, and were soon to become the popular partners to biscuits. Until the 18th century, biscuits had mainly been eaten as a dessert, but as drinking tea became rooted in our society, biscuits became tea’s ideal accompaniment.

A biscuit revolution

Biscuit and cake stall, St Neots Market, c. 1900

By the 19th century, biscuits had really taken off, and the varieties available had increased substantially. The Industrial Revolution allowed biscuits to be produced on mass, and changes to the working day caused breakfast to be eaten earlier and dinner later, leading to an increase in the need for an afternoon snack! Big names such as Peak Freans started the production of Garibaldis in 1861, and Bourbon biscuits in 1910.  Digestive biscuits were developed by Huntley & Palmers in 1860, and marketed as, you guessed it, an aid for digestion.  In 1892 McVities made the first Rich Tea biscuit, and followed it up with the Chocolate Digestive in 1899. Many biscuit companies produced special tins of their biscuits, which quickly became the new must have collectable items.

Plum’s Cake Shop & Cafe St Neots, c. 1920s

And today…

Today, the biscuit industry is worth over £3 billion and recent studies have shown that 99 in every 100 UK households buy biscuits. From the humble Digestive, to the dunkable Hobnob, to the flamboyant Party Ring, it’s fair to say our love of biscuits shows little sign of diminishing.

So, which is your favourite?…



The history of English gardens

Here’s a fascinating guest post by one of our volunteers, Emily, who’s here to enlighten us all about the history of our beloved gardens…

Gardens, we all take them for granted these days don’t we? Whether it’s a little plot at the back of your house, or a ginormous plot of land belonging to a large estate, the garden is a place where we can retreat and where nature can thrive. But have you ever thought about the origins of our gardens, and how they evolved over the centuries? Well, if you are sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin…

Tudor garden twists

A Tudor maze design

Gardens in the past changed with what was fashionable at the time. If you didn’t have the latest garden trend, then you were nobody. In the early days of the Tudor period, gardens were, like today, places to socialise and to take exercise. In those days, when practising the wrong religion could get you into BIG trouble, rich landowners would hide religious symbols within their gardens, as well their houses. A maze was often a feature in these gardens, and guest could enjoy them often oblivious to the notion that they may be a religious symbol. Instead what they saw was perhaps a form of entertainment, especially when catch a dashing suitors’ attention was part of the fun!

By the time of the Stuarts, some considered the style and symbols of the old Tudor gardens, ahem, out of date, and had them redesigned to meet the fashionable standards of the time. Trees and paths were the order of the day! Oh there were flowers too, but planted in straight lines. The English were very keen to stay ahead of their rivals, the French, and it was very much a case of “anything you can do, we can do better ”. So English gardens became very French in style, in an attempt to out do them. An example of this is the famous garden at Hampton Court. A garden for royalty and the well to do, designed for walks and parties. A bit like today really!

The illusion of untamed nature

Fast forward to the Age of Enlightenment and the gardens of the stately home changed dramatically. Out went the formality and in came the ‘nature-controlled’ gardens, ones created by man, but with the illusion that they were perfectly natural. We see this most in the gardens of the stately homes we know and visit today, from Stowe in Buckinghamshire to Castle Howard in Yorkshire. Like the Tudor gardens, these could also have hidden meanings. From the political views of the owner, to telling stories according to folklore and fairy tale, the garden became a place for the well-to-do to play out their fantasies.

Cambridge Botanical Gardens – Photo copyright Emily Fleming 2020

These gardens didn’t come cheap though, if you were hoping to build a grotto for your back garden for a small sum, you’d need to think again! One man responsible for making these gardens a reality was Lancelot “Capability” Brown – THE man for job. The prices attached to his gardens were eye-wateringly expensive, particularly as everything was done by hand, no JCBs here! Planning a visit to your local garden centre to buy things off the shelf wasn’t an option, and much of it, like the statues, had to be sculpted from scratch.

BUT if you DID have the cash, then you could have everything you could possibly want. Waterfalls, temples, grottos, you name it. The temples and ruins that were constructed for these gardens were often Grand Tour inspired. These trips or ‘tours’ were taken by the aristocracy to places like Greece and Italy, and from them, they bought back classical ideas for their gardens. It was the time of ‘the Romantics’, romanticising the ancient histories of Rome & Greece. It’s something we still do today, we all like a bit history in our gardens…

Kitchen gardens

In the Georgian and Victorian periods, the garden changed again, with clashing colours mixing in the borders, and the introduction of greenhouses for growing plants and produce normally grown in a warmer climates, like ferns and palm trees! Growing fruit and veg in the garden had of course been around for some time, with many stately homes having their own kitchen gardens built for the purpose. Back in the Georgian period, the way to show off your wealth was to have a ‘pinery’ for growing, wait for it, pineapples! Why were they a symbol of wealth you ask? Because pineapples are notoriously temperamental and an absolute pain to grow!

The humble back garden

Photo copyright Emily Fleming 2020

By the Victorian era, the garden started to become more accessible to the masses, and those who were lucky enough to have their own back garden for their property, used them primarily to grow produce for their families. Gardens became more functional places over spaces to socialise. During WW1 and WW2 the kitchen garden was considered more important than ever before, growing whatever was needed to survive.

Today, many gardens combine the role of food provider and leisure space, taking snippets of inspiration from gardens throughout history and all over the world.  Whether they are well loved and cared for or messy, neglected and in need of a little love, they’re something that we all recognise and take pleasure from. The fashions and designs of gardens will change, but the need and desire for them will always remain the same.



Unfortunate royal epithets

Ever wondered about the stories behind historical monarchs’ epithets? Here’s 10 royals from the past who gained some rather unfortunate nicknames…

It’s tradition for monarchs the world over to gain a few additional names, both during and after their reigns. For some, these might be good or heroic e.g. William the Conqueror or Elizabeth Gloriana; for others they might be more mundane. Both Henry I and Henry II, who granted important privileges to St Neots priory in the 12thC, had epithets of a less exciting nature (Henry I was known as ‘Beauclerc’, the French for ‘Good Clerk’, and Henry II gained the name ‘Curtmantle’, Middle English for ‘short cloak’).

Unfortunately for a large number of royals, the nicknames associated with them are of a more, shall we say, unflattering tone. We’ve picked our top 10 below, revealing the story behind the name…

Ethelred the Unready

Two Anglo-Saxon silver pennies of Aethelred held by the museum

Let’s start with a famous one! Ethelred (or Aethelred) the Unready, was king of the England from 978-1013CE and again from 1014-1016CE. He is famous for being an incompetent ruler, who failed to prevent the Vikings from overrunning England. He first attempted to buy his way to peace, but when this failed, he launched attacks on the Danish settlers, only provoking further invasions! The epithet ‘unready’ is derived from ‘unraed’, which actually means ‘bad counsel’ or ‘no council’. The nickname is in fact a twist on his name which rather comically means ‘noble counsel’.

Ivar the Boneless

Ivar the Boneless was a Viking leader who invaded Anglo-Saxon England in the 9thC, becoming ruler of York. The origin of the nickname is up for debate; several of the Viking sagas alarmingly describe him as lacking legs or bones, whilst in the ‘Tale of Ragnar’s Sons’, it’s suggested that his name is in fact figurative, and refers to male impotence!

According to the ‘Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok’ (Ivar’s father), his bonelessness was the result of a curse. His mother Aslaug, a seeress, prophesied that she and Ragnar needed to wait three nights before consummating their marriage. But Ragnar, overcome with lust after a long separation whilst raiding England, ignored this advice. As a result, Ivar was born with weak bones.

Ivaylo the Cabbage

Slightly more surreal in the name-game is Ivaylo of Bulgaria. Ivaylo is remembered as a strong military leader, spearheading numerous peasant uprisings before climbing up the social ranks and eventually becoming emperor. His nickname ‘the cabbage’ or ‘lettuce’ was given to him to reflect his low social origin. Charming!

Louis the Unavoidable

Poor old Louis XVIII of France spent much of his reign in the late 18thC in exile due to the French Revolution of 1789-1799. When things began to stabilise once again at the turn of the 19thC, and Napoleon was finally defeated in 1815, Louis was deemed the ‘unavoidable’ choice to return and reclaim the throne. Talk about a blow to his self-esteem!

Joanna the Mad

The impact of a grief filled life earned poor Joanna of Castile this unfortunate name. Big sis to Catherine of Aragon, and sister-in-law to Henry VIII, Joanna was also married to Philip ‘the handsome’ of Spain (lucky her!) In her early life she was an intelligent and well-educated young woman, with numerous languages under her belt. However, after the deaths of numerous family members, she suffered from long bouts of insomnia and poor appetite, and was often known to fly into a rage when prevented from exercising her will.

But the act that really sealed her as ‘mad’ in the minds of the people, happened when her husband died in 1506. Joanna refused to part with her husband’s body for a disturbingly long time. Though she was heavily pregnant, she travelled with his body from Burgos to Granada (just shy of 670 kilometres!), where he was to be buried. She was said to have often opened her husband’s casket on route, to embrace him. Eep!

Charles the Mad

Staying along the same lines, the French King Charles VI was known to have suffered from multiple spells of real insanity during his life time. We’re told that at times he couldn’t remember who he was, nor did he recognise his wife or children. He would often ‘run wildly’ through the corridors of his palace, compelling his staff to have entrances walled up to prevent him from escaping! The thing that Charles is most famous for, however, was the belief that he was made of glass and could shatter at any time, he even had iron rods sewn into his clothes to stop himself from breaking…

Bloody Queen Mary

Mary I of England spent only five years on the throne, but during that time she gained quite a reputation for herself. She is famous for her persecution of her protestant subjects, burning them at the stake (the preferred method of execution by the notorious Spanish Inquisition) in an effort to return the country to Catholicism. In actual fact, she was responsible for far fewer deaths than her father Henry VIII, but later propaganda during her protestant sister Elizabeth I’s reign, muddied her name and magnified her acts of oppression.

Mary had been married to Phillip II Spain, who had attempted to use the union to exercise his own influence over England. After Mary’s death, Philip sent a fleet of ships (the famous Spanish Armada) in an attempt to take control, but was defeated by the English navy. Mary was seen as the catalyst for this renewed threat from Spain and was therefore blamed for the whole sorry matter. That bloody Queen Mary, eh?

Louis the Spider

This one depends on how you feel about spiders really… King Louis XI of France had a love of plotting and intrigue, he had a history of planning and participating in conspiracy, even against his own father Charles VII. After he ascended to the kingship in 1461, his love of scheming continued, he had a network of royal postal roads developed, with messengers at his constant disposal to aid in his intrigues. He earned the names ‘Cunning’ and the ‘Universal Spider’ due to these communication ‘webs’, along with the webs of conspiracy he would spin around Europe.

Harald the Lousy

Sticking with the creepy-crawly theme… Harald Harfagre was the first King of Norway in the 9thC. His byname, ‘Harfagre’ actually means ‘fair haired’ or ‘beautiful haired’, but according to historical sources this wasn’t always the case…

Legend tells us that Harald had previously vowed not to cut his hair until he was the king of Norway. By the time he actually received the crown a decade later, his hair was understandably in quite a state, and home to a fair few skin-itching hitchhikers! It’s no wonder he chose to re-brand after becoming king…

Charles ‘the Bad’ of Navarre

What better place to end than downright bad? Charles’ career was littered with rebellion and assassinations as he fought to gain power from John II, King of France. In his attempt to gain the crown, he even allied himself with the English King Edward III, the ultimate betrayal! But the act that really earnt him the title ‘bad’ was his involvement in the ruthless suppression of the Jacquerie (French peasant) revolt in 1358, where men were slaughtered in their thousands.

Charles was to get his comeuppance however, and his horrific death in 1387 became famous throughout Europe as a divine justice. After Charles became ill, his doctor ordered him to be wrapped head-to-toe in brandy-soaked cloths. When the nurse administering the wrapping had finished, instead of using scissors to cut off the excess fabric, she used a candle to burn off the end. And you can guess what happened next…

Charles the Bad and John the Good

St Neots VE Day celebrations

On Friday 8th May, the whole of Europe had intended to commemorate the end of World War II with VE and VJ Day events.

The events were to mark the 75th anniversary of the original Victory in Europe and Victory in Japan days, held in May and August 1945. While the planned celebrations are sadly no longer possible, we can all still privately and virtually commemorate the millions who died too soon, and all those whose lives were changed forever by the catastrophic events of the Second World War.

An end to war

On the 8th & 9th May 1945, after over five long years of war, the entire population of Europe came together to celebrate the end of the fighting on the continent. Though nations still mourned all those who had died or been injured or traumatised, and continued to wait for the end of the war in the east (where the war with Japan was still continuing), the end of fighting in Europe was a reason to celebrate.

St Neots celebrates

The local newspaper, the ‘St Neots Advertiser’, reported details of the many celebrations that took place in the town and the surrounding villages.  Reports read:

“St Neots received the joyful news of the end of the war against Germany quite calmly, with feelings of thankfulness to God; happiness; relief; pride; humility; gratitude to the gallant men and women who made victory possible; remembrance of those who had given their lives for us in many parts of the world; sympathy for their relatives; and a vivid reminder of the stern fight ahead against the brutal Japanese.”

‘Salute the Soldier’ parade, Sandy 1944

“An outward sign of rejoicing was a profuse display of flags…Russell Street was a specially high spot. Church bells rang merrily in St Neots, Eynesbury and Eaton Socon”

The re-formed Eynesbury and St Neots Town Silver Prize band paraded the town and played on the Market Square. Church services were held throughout the day and the paper reported “joyous scenes on St Neots Market Square on VE night”. Loud speakers had been installed on the square and dancing to popular tunes continued in to the early hours.

The paper believed that local lady, Miss Dorothy Wrycroft, was chiefly to be thanked for arranging the dancing, along with Maypole dances for children. Victory Day coincided with St Neots May Fair (which opened on Thursday 10th May), and Thurston’s, the fair owners, allowed the public to use the motor track of one of their large roundabouts for dancing on the Market Square.

Dorothy Wrycroft

At 9pm a hush fell as the “immense crowd” listened to the speech by H.M. King, George VI, which was later printed in local papers. In part of his speech, he spoke for the whole nation when he said:

“Let us remember those who will not come back; their constancy and courage in battle, their sacrifice and endurance in the face of a merciless enemy: let us remember the men in all the services, and the women in all the services, who have laid down their lives. We have come to the end of our tribulations, and they are not with us at the moment of our rejoicing.”  

An end to restrictions

After five long years of night time black-out restrictions, another hugely popular part of the celebrations was the lighting of bonfires, and on many of them, the burning of a hastily created effigy of Hitler. Lights in the darkness must have been a particular pleasure after the black-out, and locally, Little Barford power station was floodlit and could be seen for many miles around. Many other buildings were also floodlit in celebration of the end of the war.

Local celebrations

St Neots police station, ‘Air Raid Precautions HQ’ 1939 – 1942

In the villages around St Neots, each community came together to celebrate. In Eaton Socon, the highlight of VE Day itself was the huge bonfire at the Hillings, where Hitler’s effigy was duly consumed by the flames. Fireworks were let off on the Green, where the dancing continued until 2 a.m.  Another bonfire was lit on the Fair Ground at Eaton Ford, where the large crowd that had gathered witnessed another cremation of Hitler.

Even the Inmates of the St Neots Institution had extra rations, and those who were well enough were allowed to attend local church services and the jollifications.

At Little Barford, the whole village assembled at Little Barford House at 1pm by invitation of Mr W H Alington, where a short address and a toast were made.  After an evening Service of Thanksgiving, a bonfire was lit and a great centre of interest was a life-size, and remarkably life-like, effigy of Hitler found hanging from a tree.

In Great Gransden, the St Neots Advertiser reported that:

“Hundreds of people assembled in the Cricket Field in the afternoon to hear Mr. Churchill’s broadcast of the end of war in Europe…In the evening it was estimated over 1,000 people were on the field where an open-air dance was held.”

In Waresley, the village was gaily decorated, a dance took place on the Tuesday evening, and on the Wednesday tea and sports were held in Mr. A. Minney’s meadow.

Throughout the celebrations there was little rowdy behaviour, although the police were kept busy preventing some celebrations from getting out of hand.

Festivities for children

Russell Street VE Day celebrations, St Neots

If Tuesday the 8th May was a day for adult celebrations, then Wednesday 9th May was, in many places, given over to parties and sports events for children and young people.  Both women and men put all their energies into entertaining the children and making it a memorable day for them.

In St Neots and Eynesbury, many parties were held in the decorated streets, on the greens, and in halls and barns.  The women organisers of the parties made a wonderfully good job of it at very short notice; not only did they collect money, beg or bake dainty food for sumptuous repasts, cut sandwiches, make jellies, officiate as waiters (in gay hats and costumes), clear away AND do the washing up, but they helped to decorate their children for fancy dress parades. Meanwhile, the men folk gave a willing hand, fixing up tables and, on the Wednesday, arranging sports and games in recreation grounds and fields across the area.

Service men and women return home

In the newspapers, under the heading “News of our Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen”, appeared reports of those who were returning home after being held as Prisoners of War.

Perhaps the happiest people in Eaton Socon on VE Day were Mr and Mrs G Eckford.  They had received no news of their son, George, who had been taken prisoner at Tobruk just over three years prior, and had been held in camps in Italy and Germany.  Tuesday 8th May brought the telegram they were waiting for which said that he was ‘safe and well’.  This good news meant that all the Eaton men who were prisoners in Germany were accounted for, some were even home with their families in time for VE Day.  This included Flight Sergeant Aubrey Waters, son of Inspector Waters of St Neots.  His plane had been brought down over Germany on 16th March the previous year; he had baled out safely and landed in a back garden in Stuttgart, where he was captured by the German civil police.  It had been only his third ‘op’ after taking the place of a sick gunner from another crew.  His original crew were shot down some three weeks later.  During his time as a prisoner, he had been in a number of camps, and had suffered close to starvation on the long marches between them.  He later said, however, that boredom had been his greatest enemy.

A group of servicemen including Spitfire pilot Victor Ekins of New Street, St Neots

Also home was Private Horace Coe from Bedford Street.  He had endured three and a half years as a prisoner im Sicily, Italy and Germany, having been captured while serving with the 1st Armoured Division in the African Desert.  His greatest ordeal was having to march 800 miles with few, or no, rations following the D-Day break through.

Petty Officer Graham Ibbs gave his parents a surprise by walking into their home at The Crescent unexpectedly.  In June 1942 he’d been serving with the destroyer Bedouin when it was torpedoed while on convoy escort to Malta.  He was picked up by an Italian Red Cross boat and imprisoned in Italy.  On the capitulation of Italy, Petty Officer Ibbs escaped, and actually reached the Swiss border before being recaptured by German troops.  He was then sent to Bremen where he remained until the camp was liberated by the Allies.

These three reports illustrate just a few of the many stories of hardship being told by the returning Prisoners of War. In marking the 75th anniversaries of both VE & VJ Days, we recall and commemorate the sacrifices and the hardships experienced by the people of Britain and the global population during the 1939 – 1945 war.

Looking to share your own family memories?

The Museum is still looking for photographs and memories of St Neots and the surrounding villages from 1939 – 45, so if you have any information please do get in touch. We can scan and return photographs, so precious family items do not need to be donated to the museum. As we are currently closed, you can get in touch by emailing us at curators@stneotsmuseum.org.uk.

Famous surprise attacks from history

We all know the tale of the Greeks sneaking into Troy in the belly of a giant wooden horse, so we thought we’d share three other surprise attacks from history that you may not have heard of…

Hannibal and his alpine elephants

In 218BC, the Carthaginian army (led by the notorious general Hannibal) made a bold move that no one expected. Driven by his ambition to conquer Rome, Hannibal marched his entire army, including cavalry and WAR ELEPHANTS, through Gaul and across the Alps to strike at Rome from the north. The Romans, having naturally presumed that the Alps were a good enough defence against northern invasions, hadn’t anticipated this and were caught on the back foot.

It wasn’t an easy journey for Hannibal, many of his troops and cavalry perished on the perilous mountain passes, but eventually he made it. Hannibal fought his way down through Italy, ravaging the land and attacking its citizens for a full 15 years, but was ultimately unable to conquer Rome itself. He finally met his match against Roman general Scipio Africanus in 202BC, who put an end to Hannibal’s ruthless campaign.

A decoy rebellion

Staying on the subject of ancient Rome… In 9AD, three entire Roman legions met their end when they were surprised by a ‘barbarian’ army whilst campaigning through Germany. Around 36,000 Roman soldiers were led into an ambush by a Germanic warlord named Arminius, who craftily spread rumours of a fake rebellion in the north-west of the country. Spurred on by the threat, Roman general Publius Quinctilius Varus marched the 17th, 18th and 19th Legions from their camp to Teutoburg Forrest to face the phoney rebellion. BUT the Germanic army was waiting for them on route, ambushing them and slaughtering up to 20,000 Roman troops. It’s said that Emperor Augustus was so enraged by the news that he head-butted the walls of his palace! As for the legions, the 17th & 19th were disbanded and never used again.

Harold in a hurry

In 1066AD, it was the turn of Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson to mount a successful surprise attack on a Viking army at Stamford Bridge. Harold’s forces had been positioned in the south ready to repel an expected attack by William of Normandy, but this was about to change. News arrived that 300 Norse ships had landed an army further north, so Harold quickly abandoned his post and raced up to meet them, covering nearly 200 miles in four days! When Harold’s army arrived at the edge of the Viking encampment, the Norse raiders were caught completely unawares. They’d wrongly assumed that Harold’s army would still be miles away and were kicking back before their raids really began. Harold’s army sprang into action, killing thousands of Vikings in the ensuing fight. The few survivors later sailed home aboard just 24 ships of the original 300.

Sadly for Harold, his success wasn’t long lived. Three days later, the army he HAD been expecting finally did show up. Shortly after Harold raced back down to meet the new threat, he was killed in the famous Battle of Hasting, his death now immortalised on the famous Bayeux Tapestry.