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.