Blog Editorial November 2022
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II lived during a century of incredible development and change and this article looks back at local events during her ninety-six year life. Elizabeth was born in 1926 but although the 1920s were sometimes known as the ‘Jazz Age’ the decade was a time of struggle for many as Europe tried to come to terms with life after the Great War, 1914-18. As the Rev. Knights of St Neots Parish Church said in the St Neots Armistice Day service in 1923 Europe was ‘still desolated by war and stricken by famine’.
In 1926 St Neots was a small market town with a population of around 4,000, the town fire engine was still horse-drawn and although women had gained the right to vote in 1928 local people were scandalised by mixed bathing in the river Great Ouse.
After WWI the need for better housing led to slum clearance across the UK including in St Neots, ancient thatched cottages were demolished and new council houses built by the local council. In St Neots and Eynesbury, Cambridge Gardens and Ferrars Avenue were just two of the new developments offering indoor toilets and running water to their inhabitants.
During the 1930s Britain and the western world experienced the great depression, with significant unemployment and hardship for local people. However, the birth of the St Neots Quadruplets in November 1935 and the story of their survival, although born 7 weeks prematurely, captured the hearts of the nation. But already by 1935 the possibility of another world war was on the horizon and St Neots council had already held a gas mask demonstration and was thinking of purchasing Cressener House as new, larger, council offices.
The 1940s were dominated by the Second World War when the town population was greatly increased by visiting servicemen, many from nearby air bases. The one bright spot was the opening of the Little Barford power station which helped to bring electricity to the homes of local people. Then in 1947 the country, including St Neots, experienced the worst flooding in living memory and many people had to be rescued from their homes. But bringing some cheer to the town the first carnival was held in 1948 as part of the St Neots rowing regatta and it became a very popular part of local life until it ended in 2008.
During the 1950s house building continued across the town with new housing close to Huntingdon Street and, at last, a new sewage and water treatment plant was built to serve the town, after a struggle stretching back over 80 years. New forms of entertainment arrived with the development of the domestic television set and ownership was given a huge boost when the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was broadcast live on 2nd June 1953. Bringing new educational opportunities to local children, Bushmead Secondary school opened in Eaton Socon in 1958.
Ushering in the 1960s, the opening of Longsands Secondary school launched a decade of change in the town. While new young pop group, the Beatles, sang ‘Love Me Do’ an open air swimming pool opened in Huntingdon Street, a new bridge was constructed over the River Great Ouse leading into the Market Square and London overspill planning brought the possibility of new industry and new families moving to the town. Eaton Socon and Eaton Ford became part of the St Neots Urban District Council area and plans for the Eynesbury, Shirdley Road and Eaton Socon, Queens Gardens estates were developed. In 1966 England won the Football World Cup, but the Pavilion Cinema closed in 1968 depriving the town of a cinema. The next year 1969, American astronaut, Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon, St Neots Police station moved to Dovehouse Close, and controversial plans for a St Neots ring road were abandoned.
In 1971 a major new road scheme re-routed the A1 Great North Road and after centuries as a historic route to the north Eaton Socon high street fell silent. Ernulf secondary school opened in Eynesbury and as Britain joined the EU in 1973 plans for a new leisure complex on the old Jordan and Addington Priory Mill site began to develop. Local sportsman, Tony Ekins captained the England men’s Hockey team in the 1972 Olympic Games and in 1974 the Urban District Council was dissolved to be replaced by St Neots Town Council and Huntingdon District Council.
In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister ushering in the 1980s, a decade of national protest and further local changes. 1982 brought an unexpected war when we fought Argentina for control of the Falkland Islands, a strategically important base for the British Navy. In 1983 local schoolboy, John Gregory joined the England football team, and during 1985 the new St Neots Bypass opened, re-routing the A45 from the Market Square and High Street south of the town and renamed the A428. Also in 1985 the Ekins livestock auction in New Street closed and only two years later Paines Brewery on the market square brewed its last pint, while supermarket Waitrose opened in 1987. In 1989, far from St Neots, a little known scientist, Tim Berners-Lee, at CERN in Geneva invented a new information sharing system for computers, the World Wide Web, which was to revolutionise communication across the world. The decade ended with the spectacular demolition of the Little Barford power station cooling towers in 1989 and the ending of the sittings at the Victorian Magistrates Court in New Street, St Neots which now moved to Huntingdon town centre.
The economic crash of Black Wednesday in September 1992 brought a decade of hardship in some parts of the world, but it was a decade of mixed fortunes for St Neots and the surrounding area. New supermarkets arrived as the town grew with a Co-op Rainbow store opening in Eaton Socon in 1991, a Tesco’s in Eynesbury in 1995 and a Lidl in the town centre in 1998. In 1995 a new Museum opened in the old Police Station and Magistrates Court telling the story of the town. The Market Square was thought to be languishing during the 1990s, until as a new Labour party leader, Tony Blair came to power in 1997, the refurbishment of the Market Square and Brook Street began. After the tragic death of Princess Diana in a car accident in 1997, the 1990s ended on a more positive note when Britain and Ireland ended decades of conflict by signing the Good Friday agreement in 1998.
During the early 2000s St Neots began to experience a building boom, with almost 3,000 new homes built at Loves Farm on the eastern outskirts of St Neots. Before building started archaeologists were surprised to discover that the site had been home to Iron Age Farmers who had lived on the hillside 2,000 years ago. Local sports stars also came through in the 2000s, with Longsands pupil, Robbie Grabarz becoming the European High Jump champion in 2012 and winning a silver medal at the London 2012 Olympics.
In 2014 a new railway bridge with lifts finally opened across the east coast railway line linking Loves Farm pedestrians to St Neots. By 2017 further housing was planned for the farmland south of Loves Farm and development at Wintringham began. Work was held up in 2020 with the arrival of a devastating pandemic when the Covid-19 flu like virus spread across the world. In 2022 Elizabeth II passed away aged, 96 and a new era opened with her son Charles III on the throne. After almost a century of incredible invention, drama and disaster what will the next century bring?