St Neots and the fight against slavery in the 19th century

As a small Victorian market town, St Neots may be imagined as a quiet and parochial place, but through trade, business and personal links, St Neots people had contacts across the world…

On the 12th October 1886, Frederick Douglass, the most famous black American of the Victorian era, visited St Neots and was invited to speak at the Corn Exchange. His lecture ‘Recollections of the Anti-Slavery conflict in America’ was given to the St Neots Wesleyan Circuit, where he recalled his early life in slavery. A quote from him in the St Neots Advertiser states that “[his] slave life, terrible as it was, had now lost much of its horrors, and slept in his memory like the dim outlines of a half forgotten dream.”

Frederick Douglass

Corn Exchange, 1860

Douglass was an African American man who, in 1838, had escaped from slavery in Maryland on the east coast of America. Likely the child of an enslaved black woman and her white slave master, Douglass was brought up as a slave and made to serve various masters in his early life. In his first autobiography ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave’ he spoke of the harsh and violent treatment of slaves, his own struggle for education and his escape to freedom in Massachusetts. After his escape, he was supported by other free black Americans and the many Anti-Slavery societies who were working for the end of slavery in America.

Frederick Douglass became one of the most prominent activists, authors, and orators of the Victorian era. As a leader of the abolitionist movement, Douglass toured the United States, and later the world, speaking out on human rights. Despite being physically assaulted several times by anti-abolitionist throughout his life, he continued for fighting for equality right up to his death in 1885. In a powerful and memorable quote, Douglass states: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground.” 

Douglass’ connection to St Neots

In 1886, Frederick Douglass travelled to St Neots to deliver a new lecture and to stay with his friend of over 40 years, Julia Griffiths Crofts. Douglass and Griffiths had first met in 1846 when Douglass had come to Britain on a lecture tour to spread his message on the abolition of slavery and promotion of civil rights to black men and, controversially, also women. Julia Griffiths (as she was then) was drawn to Douglass message and, already with strong family connections to British anti-slavery societies, began work to raise funds to support Douglass’ work.

Ticket to hear Frederick Douglass speak in 1886

On 1849 Julia and her sister, Eliza, travelled to America to work more closely with Douglass. By this date Douglass had set up his own newspaper in Rochester, New York and by early 1850 Julia was helping to write and edit the newspaper, as well as signing up subscribers and raising funds for the paper. Julia stayed in America until June 1855 when she returned to Britain, but she still continued to support Douglass’ work through fundraising and speaking engagements. The pair kept up a regular correspondence for the rest of their lives.

Julia’s life after America

In 1859 Julia married the Rev. Dr. Henry Crofts, a Methodist Minister and widower, and became a mother to his three young girls. For many years they travelled through the north of England on the Methodist preaching circuit, until 1877 when the Rev. Crofts retired to St Neots. Sadly he only lived another year and left Julia a widow.

Spa House

To support herself, Julia opened a girls day and boarding school at Spa House, which stood on The Cross, at the top of St Neots High Street on the corner of Cambridge Street and Church Street, where Kwellers Café stands today. It was here that Frederick Douglass visited her in October 1886 while he was on a lecture tour of Europe with his second wife, Helen.

Sadly, there are no known photographs of Julia Griffiths, and all that remains of Douglass visit to St Neots is a ticket for the lecture and a report in the local paper. Although Julia Griffiths Crofts is hardly known in St Neots today, in America, many of her letters to Douglass are preserved in the Frederick Douglass collection in the US Library of Congress and can be accessed online, here. Do give them a read!

Seasonal treats – Why certain foods are associated with Halloween

At this time of year, we crave certain comfort food: pumpkin pies, toffee apples, chocolate (in any form!) … But have you ever wondered why certain foods have become associated with Halloween? Well, wonder no more…

Pumpkins lanterns

Our dino pumpkin for this Halloween

First up (of course!) is the pumpkin, and you might be surprised to hear that the carving of pumpkin lanterns (or ‘Jack-o’-lanterns’) for Halloween, likely originated in Ireland from local folklore, and not from America. Originally, turnips or large potatoes were used to carve the lanterns, until Irish migrants took their stories over to America, and, once there, discovered the superior carving qualities of pumpkins!

The story behind these lanterns concerns a miserly and unpleasant character known as ‘Stingy Jack’. As with most folklore, there are a number of versions of his tale, but all recount how Stingy Jack once tricked the Devil into turning himself into a sixpence in exchange for his soul. Instead of using the sixpence to buy himself one last drink (as promised) before his damnation, Jack quickly pocketed it, and kept it securely next to a silver crucifix, preventing the Devil from escaping. In exchange for his freedom, Jack forced the Devil to grant him ten more years of life before returning to claim his soul, to which the Devil reluctantly agreed.

Traditional Irish Halloween Jack’o-Lantern

Ten years passed and the Devil once again returned to claim Jack’s soul, but true to form, Jack managed to trick the trickster again, this time trapping him in an apple tree by carving a crucifix into its trunk (you’d think the Devil would’ve seen it coming). Feeling a bit cocky after his latest triumph, in addition to another ten years of life, Jack made the Devil promise that when the time came for him to die, the Devil would relinquish his claim to his soul. The Devil agreed (and was probably fairly happy to be rid of Jack).

Unfortunately for Jack, that’s where his fun ended. When the time came for Jack to die, and he stood at the pearly gates to heaven, he was dismayed to find that God didn’t want anything to do with him either. So now, having been denied entry to both Heaven and Hell, legend has it that Stingy Jack’s spirit is forced to wander the earth for eternity. His only possession as he traipses on his endless path, is a lump of coal burning with hellfire and placed inside a hollowed-out turnip, which Jack uses as a lantern to light his way. Spooky!

The goddess Pomona by Nicolas Fouché

Auspicious apples

Apples are also a food we often associate with Halloween, and like the pumpkin, this could partially stem from the seasonality of the fruit, which peaks at this time of year. But the significance of apples is also deep-rooted in mythology and folklore. Celtic and Pagan tradition placed apples as powerful sources for divination and prophecy, and when the Roman’s came to Britain, they brought their own prophetic associations with the humble fruit.

On the 1st of November, the Romans celebrated a harvest festival dedicated to the goddess Pomona, goddess of plenty and abundance. Part of the festivities involved unmarried, young people attempting to bite into an apple floating in water or suspended from a string. The first to bite into the apple would be deemed next in line to marry. This tradition became embedded in Celtic festivals, like Samhain, and has naturally been adopted into Halloween celebrations. One of the colloquial names given to the 31st October, in Britain at least, was ‘Snap-Apple Night’, deriving from this practice, and later developing into the modern Halloween game of ‘Bobbing-for-Apples’.

Sweet treats for the dead

If you’ve read our blog post on Samhain, you’ll know that this Pagan festival was celebrated over the 31st October – 1st November to mark the last harvest of the year, the start of winter, and as a time to remember the dead. As part of the festivities, offerings of food were left for the spirits, either thrown on the scared bonfire or left on the doorstep of the home.

‘Souling’ on Halloween, from St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks, 1892

The act of leaving food as an offering to the dead is a tradition that can be found throughout the world; the Ancient Egyptians left food inside tombs to help nourish the soul on its journey to the afterlife, and feasts honouring the dead at the grave side is a common practice in many cultures, perhaps the most well-known taking place in Mexico on the Día de los Muertos, or the ‘Day of the Dead.’

In Christianity, the tradition of leaving something sweet to honour the dead became more prominent. On the 1st of November, Christians celebrate the feasts of ‘All Saints and All Souls’, renaming the 31st October ‘All-Hallows Eve’ or ‘Hallow’een’. As part of this new tradition, ‘soul cakes’ (small cakes or pastries usually baked with spices, currants and saffron) were customarily baked and distributed as alms to the poor. Prayers to the dead were said as the cakes were consumed, and the ritual became known as ‘souling’ – (Terry Pratchett fans may be disheartened to hear, however, that there’s sadly no reference to a ‘Soul-Cake Duck’).

Perhaps these traditions of leaving food as an offering to the dead, combined with the ‘sweet’ element of the soul-cakes, gave some origin to Halloween’s modern association with distributing sweets and chocolate to the rowdy ‘spirits’ (‘trick-or-treaters’) that now knock on our own doors at this time of year…

So, whether you’re marking Samhain with apple-bobbing, All Hallows Eve with a soul-cake, or Halloween with a carved ‘Jack’o-Lantern’, you’ll be able to take a minute to reflect on how these traditions have come about.

Samhain – The precursor to Halloween

The leaves are changing colour and the nights are drawing in, which means that Halloween is just around the corner! But did you know that Halloween isn’t the first festival to be celebrated on the eve of the 31st October? We’ll hand over to volunteer Emily to tell us more…

Samhain is an ancient Celtic festival which has been commemorated by some Pagans (in the Northern Hemisphere at least) since around the time Stonehenge was constructed. It’s celebrated between sunrise on 31st October until sunset on 1st November, and it’s thought that the holiday of ‘Halloween’, as we know it today, derives from this festival.

Madingley Bonfire, picture credit Emily Fleming

The start of darker days

Samhain, meaning ‘summer’s end’ is a time to celebrate the dead; it’s a time when the land of the living can most easily interact with the land of the dead. The festival marks the beginning of winter and the ‘darker half’ of the year, but it also heralds the start of the old Celtic new year. Samhain is traditionally a time for regeneration and reflection. Today, some Pagans still practice ways of marking the event, but how did our ancient ancestors do it?

Fire and ritual

Traditional rituals focused around the fire. Hearths in the family home were kept lit while the harvest was gathered, and left to die down and to eventually go out. The hearth was important as it was the heart of the home, it was a place where the family would gather, the source of warmth, and also, like today, where the cooking was done. If the hearth fire was put out by hand, it was believed it would anger the gods, and so it was left to dwindle – the dying fire perhaps symbolising the final passing moments of the year.

Harvesting, Eaton Socon

The fire was only relit after the harvest and the start of the old Celtic new year. The community, alongside Druid priests, would gather to create a sacred bonfire to honour the dead, using a wooden wheel to spark the fire. It was from this fire that a flame was taken back to each home to relight the hearth. The wheel is an important symbol in Pagan religion as it represents the sun and its associated qualities of daylight, warmth and hope. The Pagan year is also divided in a ‘wheel of the year’, marking out the annual cycle of solar festivals such as Samhain, Ostara (the Spring Equinox) and Litha (Summer Solstice).

Festivals and feasts

The Pagan wheel of life

Along with the ritual element, Samhain would also have been a time to celebrate. People from the community would have brought harvest food for a great feast, and some would even wear costumes made from animal skins or heads. The offering of cattle bones onto the bonfire would also have played a key part in proceedings, and in fact the name ‘bonfire’ derives from this ‘bone fire’.

Amidst all the festivities there was a darker side, however, and there could be a price to pay if you didn’t make an offering or take part in proceedings. The deities associated with the festival would be very cross indeed, and their punishment? It could be illness or even death. You really had to keep the gods onside or suffer as a result.

Samhain today

Samhain is still observed by some Pagans today, though these days the celebrations are a little more private. Feasting still plays an important part in observing the festival, along with private prayer and small ceremonies in the home. Apple-bobbing might form part of festivities, and small bonfires may be lit. Time is also spent outdoors appreciating nature, and altars to the ancestors are set up.

Remembrance of the dead remains the focus throughout. At its core, Samhain is a chance to reconnect with passed loved ones and celebrate their lives. Although the modern, more commercialised version of ‘Halloween’ now dominates the date today, it’s important for us to reflect on its spiritual origins, to pause, and offer a moment’s reverence.

Halloween Pumpkin Template

Fancy carving your very own dinosaur pumpkin this Halloween? Just download our template to use as a guide. You can cut it out and draw the image directly on to your pumpkin to help you recreate the design. Don’t forget to share your pumpkins with us on social media @StNeotsMuseum.

Dino Pumpkin Template PDF

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!