May: Coronation 1953

Blog Editorial May 2023  – The 1953 Coronation

The coronation of King Charles III on the 6th May has prompted a look back seventy years to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II to discover how St Neots and the surrounding villages celebrated in 1953.  People across Britain had mourned the passing of King George VI in 1952, the monarch who had led them through the terrible years of the Second World War. Food rationing was still continuing in 1953 and sweets had only come off the ration in February 1953, causing long queues outside sweet shops.

St Neots River Bridge, 1950s

By the summer of 1953 the people of Britain were ready for a celebration and the accession of the glamorous young Queen Elizabeth II was a wonderful opportunity. The day of the coronation, Tuesday 2nd June, was declared a Bank Holiday and as soon as the day was announced streets and village groups began to come together to raise money and seek out gifts in kind, to provide a memorable celebration to mark the day. Events planned included fancy dress and decorated vehicle competitions, sports events, afternoon tea, dancing and singing, fireworks and bonfires.

On the 1st June the coronation honours list was released and locally Mrs Rita Sabey of Eaton Ford received the OBE for Political and Public Services in Huntingdonshire. On the same day Mr John Twigden, a St Neots Postman and Mr Sidney Cox, the Chair of St Neots Urban District Council both received the Coronation Medal and a certificate. Mr Twigden, seen here on the right, was due to retire from the Post Office on 6th October 1953 after 47 years, service.





United Church Service on St Neots Market Square, 1953

Many places started the day early with a united church service and at Kimbolton the day began with a peal of bells from the Parish Church and in St Neots a united service was held on the Market Square.





Paxton Park 1940s hospital nursery

At Paxton Park Maternity Hospital three babies were born during the morning and both the girls were named Elizabeth in honour of the Queen. 




Coronation edition of the BBC Radio Times, 1953

For millions of people across Britain, and certainly for many locally, one of the highlights of the day was watching the coronation on a television set. The formal procession started at 10.15am and the coronation service itself ran from 11.20am to 1.50pm. David Rudd, of Eaton Ford, who was 23, remembers that he bought a cream television costing £40.00 (including aerial installation) so that the family could watch the coronation.  He recalls that his mother spent much of the day making sandwiches for the many neighbours who crowded into the house to watch the television. At Diddington just north of Little Paxton, Mr Noel Thornhill MC presented the Jubilee Village Hall with a television, a ‘handsome set’ and the whole village packed into the hall to watch the coronation service. At Kings Road, St Neots, Tony Murfin recalls that his family were able to watch the service on the television set of their next door neighbours, the Brittains, and Tony was struck by how heavy the crown looked on the Queen’s head. At Wintringham Farm, Elaine Donaldson remembers the arrival of a Pye television set in a small wooden cabinet with doors that opened to reveal a tiny television screen. On the day of the coronation all the women and children on the farm were invited into the sitting room to watch the historic event and marvelled at the tiny moving figures revealed on the screen.


Cromwell Gardens and Manor Gardens party, the pub the Engine and Tender can be seen in the background.

Then, once the coronation service was over the local celebrations could begin. However, when rain showers swept across much of the country, local people had to turn to ‘plan B’ and move their celebrations indoors to enable them to go ahead.


It was only the families of Cromwell and Manor Gardens (and friends) who avoided the predicted rain and held their coronation party and events on Saturday 30th May, as the St Neots Advertiser noted ‘They had their fancy dress, children’s and adults sports, community singing, firework display and bonfire’, ‘As fate had it they chose the best day’.  Liz Hodgkinson, nee Garrett, who attended the Cromwell Gardens celebrations, remembers the excitement of the day with children feeling special because much of the celebration centred around them. 

Cromwell and Manor Gardens party, with bottles of Paine’s lemonade on the table


Cromwell Gardens celebrations, remembers the excitement of the day with children feeling special because much of the celebration centred around them.




St Neots Urban District Council gave every child a coronation mug and on the day of the Coronation Mr Sidney Cox, the Chair of St Neots Urban District Council and his wife toured the local parties delivering the mugs to local children. Many street party committees supplemented the mug with further gifts. For example, Mr F. Bellamy presented the children of Bedford Street & Ryecroft Avenue with a coronation book to go with their souvenir mug and bag of sweets. Other extra gifts included coronation plates, spoons, bags of sweets, tins of chocolate, pens and even a coronation stick of rock given to Buckden children.

Shaftesbury Avenue and Kings Lane fancy dress competition

Many celebrations featured a fancy dress competition for children and the St Neots Advertiser reported that King’s Lane and Shaftesbury Avenue, made a bold show with their Comic Band and Fancy Dress Parade. Chris Darrington and her sister Marion were both dressed as sailor girls by their mother. The sailor’s hats were borrowed from a man in Shaftesbury Avenue who had served in the Royal Navy and the party was held in Mr Wager’s garage premises at the top of the road.


Bedford Street & Ryecroft Avenue fancy dress group

Every party involved a special tea and at Little Paxton the children were taken to Grove Farm for a tea which consisted of ham, tongue, beef, salads, jelly, trifles, cakes and ice-cream. At the Cromwell Gardens party the children had fizzy lemonade to drink, which photographs reveal had been provided by Paines brewery.

Cromwell & Manor Gardens Fancy Dress


At Eaton Socon over 300 children sat down to tea at 4.30 in the school and in the Institute over 100 old people had a high tea and 60 packed teas were sent out to those who could not attend. Later in the day a thanksgiving service was held on the sports field and at 10.30pm a torchlight procession left Eaton Ford Green led by Mr W. Bolton on his ‘charger’ and walked to a local field  where a bonfire was lit.



The local newspaper, the St Neots Advertiser, reported on most of the events held locally and the reports give a real sense of the country celebrating together, as the Advertiser reports reveal it was ‘altogether a grand day’.   

St Neots in the time of Elizabeth II: 1926 – 2022

Blog Editorial November 2022 

St Neots Boys Bathing

Female bathers in St Neots

SN river 1900

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.

Dr Harrison with the St Neots Quads

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.  

Floods in 1947

Floods in 1947

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. 

Regatta pre 1960s

Rowing in the 1950s

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.


Cinema in the 1950s

Longsands staff 1967

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.

SN Magistrates Court

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. 

Longsands 1968

New Street 1950s


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. 

Paines Brewery

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. 

Loves Farm

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?

July: Bread riot in St Neots, 1795

Food shortages from the past

Watching the celebrations for Her Majesty the Queens Platinum Jubilee was a wonderful tonic after the terrible two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. The concert, street parties and parades celebrated the ‘Best of British’ and took everyone’s minds off the problems facing the country at the moment. 

Away from the pleasures of the Jubilee celebrations many people are finding it hard to manage their money as fuel and food prices are rising alarmingly this year. 

These rising food and fuel prices are being driven by two world crisis. On the one hand, news now coming from Ukraine reveals that the war with Russia is preventing the export of the huge volume of wheat the country usually exports and which helps to feed the world. On the other hand news about severe weather patterns, both droughts and floods are coming from many parts of the world. We seem to be facing a perfect storm of war and weather combining together to dramatically raise the price of fuel and food and hurt ordinary people.  However, this is not the first time that these two disasters have combined together to cause poverty and starvation., and even affecting St Neots.

St Neots map from the 1720s

It was just over 200 years ago in 1795 that Europe faced a similar storm. Weather extremes had been plaguing Europe and America from the 1780s and the wheat harvest of 1794 had failed due to a fierce drought.

The following winter was the most severe for decades with snow and flooding preventing new crops from being planted. Food prices began to rise. Added to these troubles the French Revolution had started in 1789 and by 1795 the British government was diverting funds into preparations for a war against France as the French rebels threatened to invade Britain.  The price of a loaf of bread rose. Working people believed that supplies of wheat, potatoes, cattle and sheep were being diverted to supply soldiers gathered at southern ports and street protests broke out from Cornwall to Yorkshire. And even in St Neots!

Wheat harvest Eaton Ford 1925

On the night of Thursday 30th July 1795, a group of people from St Neots chased after a waggon loaded with wheat that was being sent from St Neots to Stamford, they stopped the waggon at Southoe and forced it to return to the market square. The crowd guarded the waggon all night, hoping that the wheat would be given to local people and made into bread. By 11’oclock on the Friday morning with no sign of the wheat being distributed a riot broke out and the local Justices arrived and read the Riot Act over the mob. However, they still refused to leave and the newspaper report reveals that ‘a great number of the inhabitants of St Neots, with mop steals and fork handles dispersed them about 11 o’clock in the morning’. We have discovered that the mop ‘steals’ were actually the mop handles!, a ‘steal’ was an old fashioned word for a tool handle. Hopefully there will be no more riots in St Neots.

Steam engine threshing wheat, 1930

Steam engine threshing wheat, 1930

Shepherds Bakery delivery during the 1947 floods

1795 Gillray cartoon ‘The British butcher supplying John Bull with a substitute for Bread’ Wikipedia



June: Swimming in St Neots 

This article has been prompted by a recent donation to the museum of some Edwardian glass plate negatives which show local people swimming in the St Neots stretch of the River Great Ouse and also by the arrival of some very warm summer weather.

Top Boardings about 1910

People must have been swimming in the river close to St Neots and Eaton Socon for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. One of the new images shows women and children swimming beside the bathing shed once situated at the Little Paxton end of St Neots Common (Lammas Meadow) and known as ‘Top Boardings’.

The image reminded me of the struggles St Neots Urban District Council (UDC) had with the bathing places over the years. Once the UDC was established in 1894 they quickly tried to regulate swimming or ‘bathing’ in the local river and by 1895 bye-laws were being drawn up to control bathing.  Until the later Victorian period men and boys would have swum naked in the river, but as bathing at spa’s or the new seaside resorts developed during the Georgian period bathing costumes began to be considered necessary and by the mid Victorian period nude bathing and (horror!) mixed bathing were considered immoral.

Swimming in Eynesbury at the Conygeare ‘Bottom Boardings’ 1920s

St Neots UDC decided to erect changing sheds beside the popular bathing places on Lammas Common in St Neots and on the Coneygeare in Eynesbury.

‘Top boardings’ women swimming, about 1900

‘Top boardings’ with diving boards about 1900

The Eynesbury shed cost £24. 9s 6d to erect and diving boards were also erected until the shallow depth of the water at Eynesbury, only 3’6” to 4’ in depth, led to the removal of the boards. By 1902 the UDC had introduced specific time for women and girls swimming, so the photograph, which only shows women and children, must have been taken after this time. River bathing was very popular during the hot summers just before the Great War, although not without its dangers and the tragic deaths of two young men Ernest Wotton in 1904 and Scottish soldier Walter Taylor in August 1914 prompted extra safety measures at both sites. These included keeping ‘grappling irons’ at both places and in 1915 employing two young men of good character, who could swim, at the cost of £1 per week to be bathing attendants. Unfortunately while proving very popular with local swimmers the bathing sheds soon attracted vandalism and already by 1904 the UDC became aware that ‘indecent practices’ were taking place at the sheds (no details are given). In 1917 a seven foot high fence topped with barbed wire was placed around the Eynesbury shed, but stopping gambling at the sheds proved to be impossible even after the police agreed to keep an ‘eye’ on them.

St Neots was proud of its swimming facilities and celebrated them in the town’s 1938 official guide, stating ‘The river is clean, not too rapid and off sufficient depth to satisfy the requirements of good swimmers’. However, this was not the whole story and already by the mid1930s the local Medical Officer of Health was taking samples to check how clean water really was. Unfortunately it was obviously not that clean as during the summer the bathing attendants were asked to add bleaching powder to the river water every night. By 1939 the water at the Eynesbury coneygeare was considered suitable for swimming but the water from the ‘Top Boardings’ was said to be polluted. By this time the UDC were actively planning a new sewage treatment works to solve the pollution problem, but this had to be delayed in the lead up to the Second World War 1939 – 45 and in 1939 the UDC closed both bathing places and put up notices telling the public that they bathed at their own risk. 

Entrance to St Neots outdoor swimming pool, about 1970

When the pollution of the river first became a serious problem in the later 1930s (the stench from Hen Brook was said to be a scandal) the river was no longer considered safe for swimming and local people started a campaign for a swimming pool. These plans were halted by the outbreak of war in 1939 but revived in the later 1940s. From 1960 profits from the carnival, started in 1948, were put towards the cost of building a swimming pool and in 1961 the new St Neots Lido opened, removing the need for river bathing. The pool was run by St Neots Swimming Pool Trust and at the height of its popularity it attracted up to 800 people per day. However, the pool was not run commercially and the rising running cost meant it was unable to become self-supporting and it was eventually taken over by the UDC in 1974.

It finally closed in 2003 although its demise may have been sealed many years previously, when the need for a heated indoor pool had been recognised in the 1960s, although the Ernulf School indoor pool did not open until many years later. Much more recently plans for a new outdoor ‘splash park’, on the site of the old outdoor swimming pool, have been discussed and with support from St Neots Town Council may go ahead in 2023.

St Neots Swimming Pool in 2002

St Neots links to Royalty

Blog Editorial May 2022

To celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in May 2022, we take a lighthearted look at local links with Royalty. As far as we know Elizabeth II never visited St Neots so we have tried to find any local links to royalty that we can, from ancient coins to visits by medieval kings and local people who have met royalty.

Our earliest link is to the Iron Age ruler of the St Neots area, Cunobelin leader of the Catuvellauni tribe. Whom the Roman writer Sutonius, called the King of the Britons.  This small gold coin has CUN standing for Cunobelin stamped on it and is part of the hoard of gold Iron Age coins found at Kimbolton and now part of the museum collection.

Coin of Cunobelin, AD40

Casting round for other royal links we recalled that St Neot himself was said by some ancient sources to have been one of the brothers of King Alfred the Great who ruler England 870 – 899. Alfred was famous for uniting England and fighting off the Vikings who raided England and tried to conquer the whole country. There is no evidence that St Neot and King Alfred were in fact related, but sources do suggest that they knew each other.

Not all rulers were as successful as Alfred and a coin, which was found close to the local village of Southoe, shows King Ethelred, who reigned 978 – 1013. He was known as Ethelred the unready because he was unable to expel the Vikings from Britain and preferred to pay the invaders enormous bribes not to attack the country.

Drawing of coin of Ethelred the Unready, AD990

After the Norman conquest of 1066, St Neots priory was rebuilt and we know that King Henry II visited the Priory in 1156, when he was a young man at the beginning of his reign. Perhaps he brought with him his friend Thomas Becket, whom he later fell out with and whom some of Henry’s knights murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. This beautiful medieval casket designed to hold a relic of Becket was found in St Neots in 1765 and is now in the V&A museum in London. The glory days of the St Neots Priory were the 1200s and King Henry III, a pious but weak ruler, visited the Priory three times in the 1200s (1229, 1235 and 1236).

Coronation of Henry III in 1216

St Neots remained a small market town throughout the medieval period, dominated by the larger surrounding towns. It was in July 1533 that Queen Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, was brought to Buckden Palace, the home of the Bishop of Lincoln, where she was imprisoned while Henry struggled to divorce her and marry Ann Boleyn. Catherine was later moved to Kimbolton Castle where she died in January 1536.

Perhaps the most important Tudor royal link was the link created when Henry VIII closed all the monasteries in Britain after the Pope refused to grant him a divorce. St Neots Priory closed in 1539 and was demolished and all the building materials and contents were sold off. Sadly, no-one knows what happened to the body of St Neot.

The dissolution of the monasteries marked the beginning of a new era for the country symbolised by the religious toleration and increasing prosperity of the later Tudor period. In 1564 Queen Elizabeth I stayed close to St Neots at Hinchinbrooke House, outside Huntingdon, when she visited Cambridge university.

Other members of the royal family passed close to St Neots as they travelled the country. In 1835 Princess Victoria and her party, stopped to change horses at the Cock Inn on the Great North Road in Eaton Socon. There she was charmed by a landlord’s young daughter and is reputed to have said ‘What a pretty child, I should like to kiss her’, and the child was held up and the princess kissed her.

Once Victoria became Queen she and her husband, Prince Albert, became hugely popular as they developed a new style of friendly and approachable royal family. When their eldest son Prince Albert (later Edward VII) married Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863, the whole country celebrated. This photograph shows the decorations put up in Cambridge Street, St Neots to celebrate the wedding and is one of the earliest photographs we have of the street.

Cambridge Street decorated for the wedding of Prince Albert, 1863

In 1870 when Joseph Barringer, a baker in St Neots heard that Queen Victoria would be travelling by train along the Great Northern Line and stopping at Peterborough he determined to present the queen with a bunch of grapes he had grown in his own heated greenhouse. He travelled to Peterborough station and was allowed to present the grapes to Victoria on his best silver salver, they were graciously received – but Mr Barringer never saw his silver salver again!

Many years later in 1897, Queen Victoria celebrated 60 years on the throne – her Diamond Jubilee.  A national bank holiday was declared for Tuesday 22nd June 1897 and special celebrations were held across Britain and the Empire. In St Neots a committee was formed and organised a whole range of celebrations, including a street procession, prize competitions on the market square and meals for children and older residents.

Barrel race on the Market Square, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, 1897

In the 20th Century the celebration of royal occasions have continued to be enormously popular. After the death of Edward VII in 1910, George V (son of Edward VII) came to the throne and was crowned in 1911. With the celebrations for Victoria’s Diamond jubilee still fresh in people’s minds the coronation was celebrated widely across the country.

In 1935 King George V celebrated his Silver Jubilee after reigning for 25 years and again across the country the flags and bunting were put out and the High Street and Market Square were the focus for celebrations in St Neots. This photograph shows well-known local sportsman, Laurie Evans, conducting the singing of ‘God save the King’ on the Market Square in May 1935.

Market Square celebrations for Silver jubilee of George V, 1935

Sadly, George V died in January 1936 and in 1937 (after the abdication of Edward VIII) the town was celebrating the coronation of George VI, the father of the present Queen. This photograph shows the butchers shop of John Raynes Smith on St Neots High Street with the flags out and his new fleet of delivery vans parked outside.

Albert Humphrey wagon at George VI coronation parade, 1937

The celebrations for royal events cheered up the depression years of the 1930s and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 cheered up the tough years of the 1950s after the Second World War. These photographs give a glimpse of the street celebrations and children’s parties held locally.

Shaftesbury Avenue, coronation celebrations, 1953

Celebrations for the coronation of Elizabeth II, 1953

In recent years more local people have met members of the wider royal family as they have attended local events, unveiled memorials and opened local centres. In 1980 Mike Van De Kerkhove began working with the Princes Trust (established by Prince Charles) raising and distributing funds to support young people, this photo from 1992, shows him meeting Prince Charles in Cambridge at a major fund raising event.

In 1987 local teacher, Geoff Watts took a group of Ernulf school children to see Princess Anne open Wood Green Animal Centre, there was great excitement when she arrived by helicopter.

A few years later in 1992 Princess Anne opened the new Bedford Disabled Horse Riding Association centre at Willington and met Ivan Twigden, of St Neots, who had donated the land for the centre.

On 25th May 1999 the Duke of Gloucester visited St Neots town centre to mark the completion of the Market Square and the Brook Street Environmental Improvement Scheme.

Local people have also been honoured over the years in the Queens New Year Honours List. In 2006 local teacher and magistrate, Geoff Watts, was awarded the MBE for his services to Education, after teaching at Ernulf school for 32 years. Geoff was presented with his MBE by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace. And in 2013 Richard Shaw, who now lives in St Neots, received an MBE from the Queen for his volunteering and fund raising with cancer charities in Norfolk.

Ernulf school teacher, Geoff Watts, receives his MBE, 2006

Eaton Socon has been part of St Neots since 1965 but did not gain its own community centre until 2010 when the Duchess of Gloucester came to open the centre and met the Mayor, Cllr Gordon Thorpe and other local people including Lucy from Bushmead School who presented the Duchess with flowers.

2012 marked the Queen’s Golden jubilee and Her Majesty attended a series of jubilee garden parties across the country, including one at Burghley House, Stamford, which was attended by 20 local people chosen to represent St Neots. Here the Queen waves to well-wishers as she arrives at the event.

A year later in 2013 Prince Charles unveiled a war memorial at RAF Tempsford commemorating the men and women of the secret services who gave their lives during World War 2. These brave women and men flew from RAF Tempsford and were parachuted into enemy territory in Europe to work with foreign agents.

The closest Her Majesty the Queen has come to St Neots in recent years has been in 2019 when she visited Cambridge for a day of engagements including opening the new Royal Papworth Hospital. We send Her Majesty our congratulations on her Platinum Jubilee, marking a life of incredible service to the people of her country.


Can history teach us anything?

Blog Editorial April 2022

It has often been said that the only thing we can learn from history is that we are unable to learn anything from history. However, one thing a study of history certainly does teach us is that human beings can’t resist arguing and fighting with each other. As a terrible war has suddenly broken out in Europe with the Russian invasion of Ukraine it seemed appropriate this month to look back on British involvement in wars of the past.

Of course this is not the first time that European powers have fought over Eastern Europe. The Crimean War (1853–6) saw several European countries battling to prevent Russian expansion into what was then part of the Turkish Empire, with Britain and France in particular anxious to preserve the balance of power in Europe to protect their own empires. The Victorian Crimean war has been seen as one of the first ‘modern’ wars with new technologies such as the railway, the telegraph and explosive shells changing the way battles were fought, and photography allowed the war to be documented as never before. It was also the Crimean war which transformed European nursing when Florence Nightingale, ‘The Lady with the Lamp’, demonstrated that hygienic nursing conditions could dramatically reduce soldier’s death rates from infection.

As an island nation the British have a long history as sailors and traders who explored the world looking for new opportunities and natural resources they could exploit. As the British Empire developed during the Tudor and Stuart period Britain became known for its naval power and military might and today we are still coming to terms with the consequences of our actions in other countries and an understanding that a hero to one country can be a tyrant to another.

Down the centuries many local people have been involved in conflicts across the globe. William Humbley of Hail Weston was a professional soldier who served with the 95th Regiment of Foot (Rifles) during the Napoleonic Wars 1803 – 1815. He fought at Waterloo, where he was wounded in both shoulders, but lived to return home and settle in Eynesbury where he built a new house for himself and his family called Waterloo Cottage, commemorated today by the road name Waterloo Drive.

unknown artist; Lieutenant Colonel W. Humbley; The Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum; 

Alfred Chapman of Eaton Socon had initially joined the Victorian army in February 1889, when he was 18 years old. He was an experienced saddler and horse collar maker, skills which were essential to the army as they depended on horses for most of their transport needs. Alfred served in the Royal Engineers and fought in the Boer War in South Africa before retiring from the Army in 1907. Then in August 1914, he joined up again at the outbreak of the Great War. Sadly, Alfred was injured in France in January 1917 when he was buried by an exploding shell and he was invalided home to Fulbourn hospital where he died in May 1918.

Alfred Chapman of Eaton Socon

Many local men also fought during the Second World War. Bert Goodwin of, of Great Paxton, did not join up at the beginning of the war because he was an agricultural worker and farming was a reserved occupation. However in April 1941 Bert joined the 30th Artillery Regiment and began training at Fenstanton.  During his army career Bert fought in North Africa at Tobruck and at El Alamain. Later in 1944 he was sent to Italy and helped to drive the German Army north out of Italy – fighting at Monte Cassino on the way. After the war Bert returned to St Neots and lived in Eynesbury for the rest of his life


Victor Ekins, of St Neots, also fought in the Second World War, serving in the Royal Air Force. He completed his pilot’s training just as the aerial Battle of Britain began in July 1940 and was soon involved in defending Britain in the air, flying both Spitfire and Hurricane fighter planes. Eventually Victor was shot down in September 1940, but luckily he was able to parachute to safety. He gradually recovered from his injuries and served in the RAF until the end of the war. After the war he returned to St Neots and managed the livestock auction market that once stood in New Street, where the Market Court flats stand today.

Recalling the lives of these three local men is in no way intended to lessen the contribution of the many hundreds of local men and women who have served since the Napoleonic era, and local war memorials stand as a testament to the sacrifices of local people while also commemorating the millions of ordinary people who have suffered during past wars across the globe.

Wars often have unintended consequences, accelerating technological, social and economic changes. After the First World War women were given the vote in recognition of their work during the war. After the Second World War huge pressure for social change enabled the labour government to launch the National Health Service, improving the lives of millions of people. What changes might this latest war bring?

Rediscovering Roman St Neots

We’re preparing to Meet the Romans at the museum in March, so here’s a short blog from our curator on St Neots’ Roman past.

What was life like in Roman St Neots? Well, thanks to major road building schemes along the A14 and the A428, coupled with new housing developments across the region, we’re discovering fascinating new information to help us build a better picture of  our town in the Roman period, 43 – 410AD.

A nail driven through the heal of a male skeleton found at Fenstanton, potentially a sign of crucifixion. Image: Albion Archaeology

Recently published discoveries at Fenstanton (only eleven miles from St Neots) include the skeletons of both men and women who are thought to have been slaves working in a meat processing factory. One male skeleton in particular has been drawing international attention. Found with a nail through his heal, he is thought to bear evidence of crucifixion, the first example of this punishment ever recorded in the UK!  Three other skeletons also showed signs of traumatic injury, having had both legs broken at some stage in their lives, another punishment usually reserved for slaves. The man who had been crucified also had wasted leg bones, suggesting that he may have been forced to wear leg shackles that limited his movements. What must local people have thought about the way people were being treated only a few miles away?

A patchwork of settlements

Over the years, local finds have revealed that the area around St Neots was a patchwork of small farms and growing settlements during the Roman period. New archaeological finds at Wintringham, just east of the old historic centre of St Neots, have revealed a network of tracks and Roman roads linking local people together, including a road to the important local Roman town of Durovigutum, (now Godmanchester). At Wintringham, archaeologists have excavated over 3,000 sherds of Roman pottery, as well as the bones of many farm animals, including cows, sheep, goats, pigs and horses.

The Kimbolton Coin Hoard. Image Copyright St Neots Museum

Historic archaeological excavations in the 1960s provided early evidence that this area was increasingly densely settled by the Roman period. Iron Age buildings and Roman pottery found in the town centre of St Neots (on a site behind Cambridge Street, where Church View stands today) confirm that local Britons were already living here in their traditional round houses by the time of the Roman invasion in AD 43. Other early discoveries include a Roman villa with underfloor heating discovered close to the Conygeare in Eynesbury, and three stone coffins found in 1968 near the Duloe Road (Bilberry Close, Eaton Socon). The stone coffins reveal that some local families were wealthy enough to afford lavish burials.

Other finds in the villages surrounding St Neots reveal the growing local population during the Roman period, and include a substantial villa outside Great Staughton, and the Kimbolton Coin hoard of sixty-seven gold staters, both further evidence of the wealth of the area.

Read more about the coin hoard HERE, and find the Fenstanton article HERE

Come and ‘Meet the Romans’ on Saturday 12th March at the Friends of St Neots Museum family open day. Meet members of the Longthorpe Roman Legion, resplendent in their replica armour and find out what life was like for a Roman soldier. Try on armour, discover the work people did, the clothes they wore, and the cosmetics they used.

Book your tickets for timed entry HERE

Market Square in 1855

A brief history of photography

This month, our curator delves into the history of photography and takes a look at the early photographs taken of St Neots.

The first temporary exhibition of 2022 is ‘What a Beautiful World’ a photographic exhibition by local amateur photographer, Peter Hagger.  Today, almost everyone in the UK carries a camera as a feature of their mobile phone, but just when were cameras invented, and what do the earliest photographs of St Neots show? Here’s a brief history…

Camera Obscura

The early days

The camera obscura, which utilises light passing through a tiny hole into a dark room to produce an image of an outside scene, has been used for at least two thousand years, but the ability to preserve the image by fixing it permanently to another surface was only discovered in the early 1800s

The invention of the Daguerreotype in 1839 made possible small photographic portraits on metal, and these quickly became popular despite the slow production process, and the need for the subject to remain totally still while the photograph was taken! By the early 1850s, a new process using a glass plate to create a negative from which a positive picture could be printed, had been invented and soon grew in popularity. By December 1854, the photographic portrait had arrived in St Neots. Records show a Richard and Ann Spring of Peterborough visited the town and advertised ‘30 second portraits with frame for five shillings’. This new, simplified photographic process meant that wealthy enthusiasts were now able to photograph their local surroundings, and enterprising traders, often chemists who had the technical know-how, set up photography studios.

The first pictures of St Neots

Market Square in 1855

Market Square in 1855

The earliest known photographs of St Neots are to be found in editions of Gorham’s ‘History of Eynesbury and St Neots’. This was first published in 1820, but later rebound editions contain additional information and images, including early photographs of the town dating from the 1850s. A photograph of 50 – 52 Market Square (currently Caffe Nero) shows the building between 1848 and 1855 when David Tomson, Printer and William Mole, Chemist and Druggist occupied parts of the building (before Mr Mole moved to 30 Market Square in 1855.) Other early photographs in the book show St Neots in 1863. This was the year that Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the future Edward VII, married Princess Alexandra of Denmark on the 10th March, and the entire

Cambridge Street in 1863, during Edward VII's wedding celebrations

Cambridge Street in 1863, during Edward VII’s wedding celebrations

country celebrated the happy event with a national holiday. Local surveyor, architect and photographer, William Jackson of Eynesbury photographed the St Neots street decorations and so gives us a glimpse of the main streets of the town. The photograph of the Cambridge Street decoration shows a large cedar tree, which must be one of the trees that gave the later school and the current doctor’s surgery in Huntingdon Street its name.

During the 1860s, camera ownership was still limited to wealthy families, but photographic studios gave almost everyone access to a photographer, and studios were soon recording weddings, children, sports teams and local events, such as Queen Victoria’s Diamond jubilee celebrations of 1897. In the 1860s, police forces began to get in on the action, recognising the ability to capture portraits of criminals. From the early 1870s, every prisoner entering Huntingdon Goal was photographed, giving us some of the earliest local images of working people.

Jane Gardener, 1871 from Habitual Criminals Returns, Huntingdon Archives

Jane Gardener, 1871 from Habitual Criminals Returns, Huntingdon Archives

Picture postcards

Postcard from the museum Wills Collection, c.1915

In 1894, the British Post Office decided to accept picture postcards as letters, and the ability to send a postcard for only half a penny made them hugely popular.  In 1902 the divided back postcard arrived, and photographic studios began printing photographs readymade to send as postcards. Postcards became the text messages of their day, with millions of cards sent over the next decade, fuelling an explosion in local views, comic scenes and portraits. Hundreds of St Neots postcards in the museum’s Wills Collection date from this period.

Photography hits the mass market

In the late Victorian period, George Eastman of New York developed photographic film, and in 1901 he launched the Kodak Brownie camera. This introduced photography to a mass market, although general camera ownership did not boom until wages rose in the 1950s.

Portrait of Tom Eayrs 1915

It was the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 that ended the boom in postcard sales, but created a huge demand for portrait photographs. This was fuelled by the wishes of millions of ordinary people to have a photograph of their loved ones whilst separated from them by the war. Millions of families still have these treasured portraits in their photo albums and the museum has a number in its own photographic collection.

This surge in demand for photographs enabled photographic studios to prosper, and James and Sarah Phillips ran photographic studios in both Biggleswade and St Neots. Ernest Albone took over their St Neots studio in 1920 and continued in business for the rest of his working life. Both Phillips and Albone produced photographs of people and places, as well as postcard series of St Neots, which show the town growing across the decades.

The rise of amateur photography

Carnival Queen Denise White, 1970s

The production of a wide variety of cameras for the mass market in the 1950s led to a new era of amateur photography and the introduction of colour film for the general public. Photographs in the museum’s collection from this era show everything from local views to the St Neots Carnival, which took place every summer from 1948 to 2008.

Today, the world has moved on from film cameras to digital cameras and a new way of capturing images has emerged. Research into digital images begun in the 1950s, and the first digital image was sent over the brand new world wide web by Tim Berners-Lee in 1992. The first mobile phone with a camera did not arrive until 2002, when the Nokia 7650 was launched. Today, photography has lost some of its novelty, but photographs remain a precious way of recording our loves and loved ones – yet another debt we owe to the remarkable Victorians!

See our latest photo exhibition in the museum until the 12th March 2022, and join us for Meet the Photographer sessions on Saturday 19th February and Saturday 12th March.

St Neots Common, Peter Hagger

St Neots Common, Peter Hagger

Building St Neots

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.

A photo of 42 High Street, taken in 1975

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.

Lovett Lettings Agency, with its Georgian brickwork -St Neots Market Square

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

Bellamy builders, Kings Lane, 1937

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.

Advert for George Wrycroft Builders, c.1912

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.

If you’ve been inspired to explore the old buildings of our town yourself, then why not download our Town Trail, and learn a little about St Neots’ history as you go! Just click HERE to download.

‘Make do and mend’ – St Neots’ handmade Christmas

Upcycling and reusing are now fully on trend, but turning old into new is not a recent phenomenon by any means…

What sort of Christmas presents will you be giving this year? In line with a government initiative, people in Huntingdonshire are being urged to ‘Shop Local’ to help local businesses recover from the pandemic. St Neots Museum has always sought to champion local artists and makers, and as usual, we’re hosting our annual Winter Craft and Gift Fair, which showcases locally made items including jewellery, paintings, ceramics, crochet and delicious scented candles (have we tempted you yet?..)

The ‘Shop Local’ initiative is by no means a new idea, so how did people respond to similar schemes in the past? The Curator has taken a look back at magazines and newspapers in the museum’s collection to find out…

Exert from the Home Companion, 1916 detailing how cotton fabrics could be re-used

Exert from the Home Companion, 1916

‘Make do and mend’

The Victorians were pros at homemade toys and presents, and the tradition of gifting a homemade Christmas present carried on into the First World War. The Home Companion of 1916 recommended that when the ‘season for cotton frocks is ended’ the embroidered parts of an old summer dress could be made into a teapot cosy, a tray cloth or a nightdress case, fancy! Alternatively odd pieces of stripped silk could be used to make a new collar for a dress.

During the Second World War, the people of Britain were plunged into a fresh crisis, limiting supplies of all raw materials to the UK. Once again, people had to reuse, recycle and repair as they had done in the past. The government launched its ‘make-do-and-mend’ campaign in 1943, and in the St Neots Advertiser of June 1945, Mrs Sew and Sew urged everyone to patch their clothes carefully to make them last longer (and that’s not a face we’d want to disobey!) Cotton and wool were considered particularly valuable, as vast supplies were needed for military aircraft and uniforms.

Mrs Sew & Sew gives advice on patching clothes, from St Neots Advertiser 1945

Mrs Sew & Sew gives advice on patching clothes, from St Neots Advertiser 1945

In the Christmas 1942 edition of Woman and Home, the magazine gave simple instructions for making a wooden boat as a child’s Christmas present. In 1944, instructions were given for making a doll’s pram from a wooden packing case, with a pillow and ‘coverlet’ made from fabric ‘unsuitable for salvage’. The magazine also suggested making a dolly for the pram from an old stocking!

Shopping local

However, if your ingenuity didn’t quite stretch to remaking your old clothes into new costumes, or giving a new lease of life to a wooden packing case, then you could always turn to the newspaper to find out what local businesses had to offer.

St Neots Market Square’s drapers shop, Armstrong’s (now Haart’s estate agents), advertised Christmas gifts in December 1921, including ladies tan leather gloves from 5s 11d (30p!) and pretty ‘crepe-de-chine’ (a lightweight fabric, normally silk) jumpers in all colours. Larkinson’s on the High Street (now Molby’s) claimed to have a suitable gift for any member of the family; from toys, books and fancy goods to calendars, china and glass. In their window they also showcased a magnificent display of ‘Meccano’ models, built by the boys of the St Neots Meccano Club – how do we join?!

Instructions for making a wooden doll's pram from a packing case, with a pillow and coverlet. Woman and Home 1944.

Instructions for making a wooden doll’s pram from a packing case, with a pillow and coverlet. Woman and Home 1944.

If you were looking for a turkey or goose for Christmas lunch, then the place to go was Ekins livestock auction yard in New Street, who held their Christmas sale on Thursday 15th December, 1921. The prize show and sale featured bullocks, sheep, pigs, and of course, turkeys, hens and geese.

Plum and Son, the High Street bakery and café, offered their customers ‘a splendid assortment of chocolate boxes’, crackers, plum puddings, Christmas cakes and mincemeat (we’re hungry just reading about it!) Alternatively, the International Stores (now Costa Coffee on St Neots High Street) were selling ‘good things for old and young’ including; dates at 1/- (5p) per box, mincemeat at 1/1d (6p) per jar, Christmas cake at 2/6 (12p) and crackers from 1/- to 5/6d (5p – 27p).

Plum & Son's Café and Cake Shop in St Neots High Street, 1920s

Plum & Son’s Café and Cake Shop in St Neots High Street, 1920s

By December 1940, Barratt’s store offered ‘useful’ presents including: gloves, scarves, socks, overalls and aprons; while jeweller C. C. Spencer urged locals to ‘say it with diamonds’, with gifts priced from 30/- (£1.50) up to £50!

And today…

This Christmas, we don’t find ourselves with a war to contend with, instead we find ourselves facing new global emergencies. A worldwide pandemic, driving us all to focus more on local community, and the ongoing threat of global warming, brought about by world industrialisation and our own over-consumption of vast amounts of ‘stuff’. This year we can all try to shop more locally, or, perhaps, be inspired to make our own handmade gifts. If it all goes pear-shaped, you can ALWAYS drop-in to St Neots Museum’s Winter Craft and Gift Fair to save the day!

Happy making!

Barrett's Christmas Advert - St Neots Advertiser 1940

Barrett’s Christmas Advert – St Neots Advertiser 1940