Edward II & monarchs who met a nasty end!

Historical legend tells us that on the 21st September 1327, King Edward II was brutally murdered at Berkeley Castle, by receiving a red-hot poker to the bottom, yikes!

Though the story may merely be fable (theories from historians differ as to the method of his murder, or indeed whether he was murdered at all!), we thought we’d recount the circumstances of his death, and take look at three other nasty ways historical monarchs supposedly met their end…

A brief round-up of his reign

Strong-leadership and ruling capability were sadly two key qualities that Edward II of England lacked. Within the first few years of his reign, he’d angered the powerful barons of England by gifting high offices to his father’s (Edward I) opponents, and to his own favourites; most notably his close friend (and supposed lover) Piers Gaveston. This poor decision making in the eyes of the barons, led to a series of Ordinances put in place against the king, restricting his powers and banishing his favourites into exile. If this wasn’t bad enough, the barons also blamed Edward for gifting Scotland its independence from England, after he lost badly to Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. On top of that, his tumultuous relationship with his wife, Isabella of France, resulted in her invading Britain from France in 1326 with her exiled lover, Roger Mortimer (another powerful opponent to the king). This led ultimately to Edward’s deposition as king and imprisonment in 1327. Phew, are you keeping up?

A gruesome death?

Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire

Edward was imprisoned for many months, constantly moved from prison to prison to keep him out of reach of supporters who would free him. He was placed in permanent captivity at Berkeley Castle in the summer of 1327, where legend tells us he was brutally murdered by a red-hot poker inserted into his rear – the method suggested to be in reference to his supposed homosexual relations with his past favourite, Gaveston. Whether this was his actual fate or not, Edward was not heard from again after this date. Most historians believe that he did indeed die at the castle by some means or other, his demise simplifying the political situation for his captors. However, the rumours of this method of death only began to circulate after the execution of his rival Roger Mortimer in 1330, likely as deliberate propaganda spread against Mortimer’s faction. Whether Edward did indeed meet with such a grisly fate, then, remains a mystery.

Edmund Ironside, Royal MS, 14B.VI

Edmund Ironside

Another monarch who supposedly met a similar fate to Edward was Edmund Ironside, who ruled England briefly in 1016AD. He’d been forced to divide the ruler-ship of England with the Danish King Cnut after losing to him in battle. The terms of this agreement stipulated that it would remain in force until the death of one of the participants, at which time all lands would revert to the survivor. A term that was just asking for trouble!

According to Henry of Huntingdon, and other royal sources, Edmund was staying at the house of Eadric Streona of Mercia, the duke who had cost him his defeat to Cnut by fleeing the battle field. When Edmund got up in the night “to do the duty of nature”, Eadric’s son, hiding in the pit beneath the toilet seat, reportedly “pierced the king among his private parts twice with a sharp dagger”. Nasty! Though Cnut was not implicated directly in the assassination, it was suggested that he might just have had a hand in Edmund’s unfortunate demise.

Henry I

Lamprey, with those teeth!

Henry I, who granted important royal privileges to St Neots priory in the 12th century, was the youngest son of William the Conqueror, and ruled England from 1100-1135AD. He had a fairly successful reign, achieving domestic peace in England, as well as English territories in Normandy. In 1135, despite ill-health, the ageing Henry took a trip to Normandy to see his two grandsons. Once there he fell iller still, and according to ‘trusty’ chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, once again, died from a terrible case of food poising after over indulging in “a surfeit of” lampreys, which his doctors had forbidden him to eat. We don’t blame them, have you ever seen a lamprey? Yikes!

Parade armour of Henry II, held in the Met Museum

Henry II of France

Henry II was a keen hunter and jouster, both notoriously dangerous sports! In June 1559 a tournament was held in Paris to celebrate a peace treaty between France and Spain, and King Henry entered the lists. Halfway through the tournament it was reported that Henry had started suffering dizziness after his physical efforts, and was almost unseated from him horse in a jousting match against the Count of Montgomery. After this, his wife, Queen Catherine de Medici, tried to persuade the king to call it a day, but Henry was having none of it, and insisted on another contest with Montgomery. This time, Montgomery’s lance struck the king’s helmet, and a long splinter pierced Henry’s eye and penetrated his brain *winces*. Bleeding and almost unconscious, Henry was carried back to his royal apartments, where surgeons removed the splinters from his head and neck. Amazingly Henry survived in an unconscious state until the 9th July, when he passed away with Queen Catherine at his bedside.

So, there we have it! Whether it was death by sharp object or eel (with sharp teeth!), the life of a monarch could end in some rather nasty ways!

‘Their finest hour’ – Remembering the Battle of Britain

The 15th September 2020 marks the 80th anniversary of the ‘Battle of Britain’, the title awarded by Churchill to the fight by the British to prevent Nazi Germany invading and conquering Britain in the summer and autumn of 1940.

On 1st September 1939 Germany started the Second World War by invading Poland; as a result, on the 3rd September, Britain and France were forced to declare war on Germany. Immediately following the declaration, however, a quiet period of war (sometimes known as the ‘phoney war’) ensued, as Hitler was unable to advance any of his military plans due to bad weather.

War declared, St Neots Advertiser, 1939

In the Spring 1940, however, the German ‘Blitzkrieg’ or ‘Lightening War’ plans swung into action, when Hitler invaded France.  On the 10th May, as the attack began, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned, and Churchill became the new Prime Minister. The speed of the German advance into France forced the British, French and Belgian troops back to Dunkirk where they used the ‘little ships’ to help evacuate over 338,000 men from the harbour and beaches. Although a retreat, the rescuing of so many experienced troops was a boost for the Allies.

The impact of war in St Neots

In St Neots, the town Council had been busy preparing for war for many months, and by Spring 1940 evacuees from London had arrived, the Black-Out was in place, food rationing had begun, and men had been called up to fight.  Victor Ekins, who lived in New Street, St Neots and whose family ran the cattle market and auction yard, had signed up as a RAF Volunteer Reserve and was already training to be a Spitfire pilot. In June 1940, Víctor was awarded his ‘wings’ as a qualified pilot, just in time to take part in the Battle of Britain which began on the 10th July 1940 when Hitler launched ‘Operation Sea Lion’. Victor flew with Squadron 501, flying with many of the most famous Battle of Britain pilots, including ‘Ginger’ Lacey, Bob Dafforn and Anthony Palmer Tomkinson. He later became the leader of RAF Squadron 19 based at Duxford.

Victor Ekins

Their finest hour

As the Germans planned their aerial bombardment of Britain, it was on 18th June 1940 that Churchill delivered one of his most famous speeches to the British People. He called this phase of the war the ‘Battle of Britain’ and said ‘Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war’… ‘If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free’ … ‘let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and the Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say : ‘This was their finest hour.’

People all over St Neots listened intently to the radio once the Battle of Britain began, hoping no harm would come to local men. However, Victor’s plane was eventually shot down and he was hit by a German bullet. Very luckily, he was able to parachute out of the plane and was rescued when he landed. He survived and was awarded the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross). Soon he was flying again and was later awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) for his outstanding service to his country.

Victor by a Spitfire with Squadron code VIC

On the 15th September, a commemorative plaque will be placed on Victor’s old home at 28 New Street, St Neots. A special drop in session, run by The Tally Ho Project, will also be hosted at St Neots Museum from 12:30-3pm, giving you the chance to see some of the Victor Ekins collection.

St Neots’ strange link to the Georgian transatlantic slave trade

As communities across the UK have struggled with the rights and wrongs associated with the removal of statues, and other memorials, to those who had links to the slave trade, we took a look at St Neots’ own past links with the trade in human lives.

After some research, our curator discovered an unexpected link through local man John Bellingham who assassinated the British Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, on 11th May 1812. Perceval was strongly against the slave trade, and his death at the hands of Bellingham, was likely the result of his fight against the anti-abolitionists…

Bellingham’s backstory

John Bellingham, 1816

After spending much of his childhood in St Neots, Bellingham became an accountant and moved to Liverpool where he aspired to become a merchant, hoping to make his fortune through the valuable shipping trade with Russia. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out too well for Bellingham, and on only his second trip to Russia he fell out with his business partner, was accused of being in debt, and imprisoned in Russia for five years. Not a great start! When he was finally released from prison in December 1809, Bellingham returned, penniless, to Liverpool, and once back home, became obsessed with claiming compensation from the British government. Bellingham petitioned everyone from the Prince Regent to the Prime Minister, but was unsuccessful in his attempts.

Perceval’s fight against slavery

Meanwhile, the new Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, was set in his determination to end the transatlantic slave trade. Although it had officially been abolished in Britain by an Act of Parliament in 1807 (making it a crime to purchase, transport or sell people as slaves), it was so profitable, and had become so embedded in trade between Britain, America, Africa and Europe, that merchants found ways round the Act. Ships were falsely registered under the flags of foreign countries who had not banned slavery, and forged documents to enable the illegal trade to continue. In further attempts to end the trade, Perceval introduced additional powers to prevent ships carrying slaves and to free captured Africans before they were transported to the Americas. He also increased the size of a Royal Navy patrol along the coast of West Africa to inspect any ship suspected of breaking the law!

Spencer Perceval

Unfortunately, Perceval’s new measures, though fully justified, caused such wide-scale disruption to all transatlantic trade, that trade with the United States fell into decline and an economic depression spread across Britain. Particularly badly hit was Liverpool, bringing hardship and unemployment to many in the city. Not surprisingly then, Liverpool merchants felt angry, and blamed Spencer Perceval for their situation, with the Liverpool Mercury suggesting that the ‘assassination of a tyrant’ (Perceval) could only be for the greater good!

A puppet on a string

Now, the wishes of Liverpool merchants to get rid of the Prime Minister merged conveniently with John Bellingham’s desire for justice from the government for his Russian losses. At his later trial in London for Perceval’s assassination, it was revealed that during his five months stay in London in 1812, Bellingham had received mysterious ‘maintenance’ payments which had enabled him to rent a room, purchase pistols, plan his crime and finally carry it out. The late Andro Linklater, who wrote a fascinating book ‘Why Spencer Perceval had to Die’ believed that Bellingham may have received the payments from an American or Liverpool merchant who had indeed decided to act against Perceval. Whatever the motive, measures against the slave trade were dropped soon after the death of Perceval. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, then, that Bellingham, too caught up in his own feelings of injustice, was an unwitting pawn in the power struggle between the pro and anti-slavery factions.

It was not until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, a further 21 years later, that the sale of Africans by the British finally ended. Though the legacy of that terrible trade will continue to have a strong impact for many generations.

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.