In this brief blog, our curator takes a look at the history of building work in St Neots…
January is often a time of new beginnings and new projects. Following the impact of the pandemic, this year more and more of us will be turning our attention to our homes in an effort to create a fresh space in which to inhabit! The phrase ‘build back better’, apparently coined in 2015 by the United Nations in relation to disaster relief, has also been in heavy use. All of this combined, led me to thinking about the amazing mixture of buildings and building styles that have graced St Neots throughout its history, much of which can still be seen today.
Past building fashion
The oldest buildings still standing are timber framed buildings, the most notable of which is 42 High Street (currently the Kodak shop), which dates to the late 16th century. A quick trip around the area reveals many other such buildings in Eaton Socon, Eynesbury and in local villages. Some periods in history are well known for the ‘building booms’ that took place. A ‘great rebuilding’ of domestic housing was said to have taken place in England between 1570 and 1640, replacing old medieval buildings with these sturdy new timber ones.
Another period of major rebuilding and refurbishment took place during the Georgian period in the 1700s, and again, this can be clearly seen in St Neots. Stand in the Market Square, and many of the buildings you can see were either built or re-fronted in the Georgian period. Their smart red bricks and large windows, so recognisably Georgian in style, tell us that local people could now afford to rebuild in this new style to celebrate their prosperity. Both the Cross Keys Inn (now the shopping mews) and Lovett Estate Agents (24 Market Square) are older buildings, which were re-fronted in new red brick in the 1700s. The late 17th and early 18th centuries were a high point in the use of brick, with improvements in their manufacture leading to greater quality and consistency in shape and size.
The builders behind the scenes
Sadly, we know nothing about the builders who transformed these early properties, but as we come forward in time, we know far more about more recent local builders. One very well-known local firm, who helped to shape the town between the 1860s and 1980s, were Wrycroft & Sons. They were responsible for the Flour Mill in Bedford Street, rebuilt after a fire in 1909, and the new St Neots Post Office completed in 1913 (now the Weeping Ash public house). Other local builders, such as the Bellamy family, concentrated on domestic housing, and the house they built for themselves at 16 Kings Lane is a good example of a 1930s family home. More recently, Mr Twigden created a highly successful building company and built many local homes in the 1980s and 1990s.
Today, we are experiencing another building boom, although the link with local builders has been sadly lost, and new housing estates at Loves Farm and Wintringham are being built by national companies. Eventually though, they too will become part of the history of the town, reflecting the fashion and trends of our own time.