Anglo-Saxon silver coins


Two Anglo-Saxon silver pennies of Aethelred II (Ethelred the Unready), who reigned 978-1016, and which were minted at Huntingdon by the moneyer, Aelfric during the period 997 – 1003.

The obverse (head) side of the coin reads: AEDELRED REX ANGLO and shows a bare headed bust of the King. The reverse (tails) side reads: AEL/FRIC/MO/NVNT

Aethelred was known as the ‘unready’ because he was seen as a weak king ‘without counsel’, who was unable to withstand multiple Viking invasions.

The coins were discovered by a local metal detectorist and purchased through the National Treasure Scheme.

The Bank of St Neots

A regency banknote issued by the short-lived bank of St Neots in 1824. Donated by a family who owned a pawn shop in Enfield, London, where it is believed the note was given in payment for a property.

Provincial banks sprang up across Britain in the Georgian period to meet the demand for more cash and investment in businesses. The St Neots bank was established in 1807 by three local businessmen; George James Gorham, Francis Rix and John Inkersole, and they probably had their bank premises at 16 Market Square.

The bank note is signed at the bottom right by Francis Rix. Sadly the bank went bankrupt in about 1824 when it was said that poor investment of the banks funds led to its collapse.

John Bellingham at the Old Bailey

A print of John Bellingham, a merchant who spent part of his childhood in St Neots, and later in life murdered the British Prime Minister, Spencer Percival. The print depicts Bellingham standing in the dock of the Old Bailey in London whilst giving evidence at his trial. 

On the evening of 11th May 1812 British people were horrified to discover that their Prime Minister, Spencer Percival, had been shot dead in the Houses of Parliament in London, by a man with close links to St Neots.

John Bellingham is thought to have been born in London but spent a large part of his childhood in St Neots because his mother came from the town. The Scarbrow family were a wealthy and well-to-do family who lived at Old Hall Place, the substantial house on Cambridge Street, St Neots. Elizabeth Scarbrow married John Bellingham, a London artist and miniature portrait painter in the late 1760s, and their only child, a son named John after his father, was born about 1771. Sadly, John Bellingham, senior seems to have had some mental health problems and by 1780 he was unable to continue working or to support his family, and Elizabeth returned to St Neots with her son.

John Bellingham, junior, grew up and became an accountant and then a merchant. hoping to make his fortune through trading timber and iron with Russia. Unfortunately things didn’t go well for John Bellingham, and on only his second trip to Russia he fell out with his business partner, was accused of being in debt and later imprisoned in Russia for five years.

When he was finally released from prison in December 1809, John Bellingham returned to London determined to claim compensation from the British government for his losses in Russia. He estimated that his losses amounted to £100,000 and he began to petition the Foreign Office for compensation. When this proved unsuccessful he turned to the Prime Minister and asked to be allowed to petition Parliament about his claim. When this request was also refused, Bellingham returned to Liverpool to live with his wife and children, but was obviously unable to accept defeat.

We don’t know exactly how Bellingham hatched his plan to murder the Prime minister, but at his trial he was adamant that he had only wanted to obtain justice for his sufferings in Russia. He seemed unable to grasp that assassinating the British Prime Minister was out of proportion to his misfortune. Bellingham was tried before a jury at the Old Bailey in London on 15th May, 1812. He was found guilty and hanged at Newgate Prison on 18th May 1812.

His body was afterwards dissected at St Bartholomew’s hospital and his skull can still be seen at Queen Mary’s Pathology Museum, London.

Mammoth bone

Most mammoths become extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago, and this tooth from a full-sized male was discovered in Sandy Heath Quarry in 2003. Mammoths had an incredible 5 to 6 sets of teeth during their life time! As the old sets wore down, the new sets would come through to replace them – just like in humans!

The St Neots parish chest

The St Neots parish chest, seen above sketched by local St Neots doctor Joseph Rix (1803 -1878) has been on display in the museum since we opened in 1998 after being restored and preserved is a long-term loan from the parish church. It is an object of curiosity and for over 450 years occupied a vital place in the parish church.

In 1583 Thomas Cromwell, the Vicar General, laid down that all parishes were to have a sure coffer — in other words, a secure chest, to provide a safe place in which to keep records of each christening, marriage and burial. These records were written up each Sunday after they the specific occasion with a churchwarden as a witness. Some accounts state that two or three keys were held by different people, the parson and churchwardens so that the chest could only be opened with at least two people present.

The earliest church records were written on sheets of paper, but in 1598 Canterbury directed that all records were to be kept in parchment books, which became known as the parish registers. Old records were to be transcribed into these books, and in future, the churchwarden had to make a copy of that year’s entries (within a month of Easter) and send it to the Diocesan Registry. These copies were known as the Bishop’s Transcripts.

Until the registration of births marriages and deaths became compulsory in the nineteenth century the parish registers were the main source of information about family history and until the mid-twentieth century, most were still kept in the parish church. Most records are now stored at County Record Offices.

The parish chest was also used for storing money, accounts, wills, relics, vestments, documents, and the church plate. They were strongly built, usually of oak and as well as the two, if not three separate locks they also had metal bands around them.

With so much of value likely to be stored in these chests, it is not surprising that they would become the target of thieves, and this is what happened into the St Neots chest. Although many parish chests were made of oak, often from a single trunk, the St Neots Chest is actually made of pine, and was imported from Scandinavia and has three locks.

According to several sources, the church was broken into in 1848 and the chest and all the records taken only to be found the next day in the brook with all it contents still inside.

This report leaves many questions unanswered. How did the thieves get into the church, how many of them were there and why did they abandon the chest in the Hen Brook?

The parish chest, after the records had been moved to the archives in Huntingdon, remained at the back of the church until 1998 when an audit of the church found the chest to be in bad repair and a more adequate home for the artefact was looked for. The museum was the ideal place to store the item and after restoration and preservation was moved to where it is now. You can visit the museum and see the chest on display in the village hall gallery.

James Toller, the Eynesbury Giant

An engraving from 1817 of the dwarf Simon Papp next to James Toller

James Toller was born in Eynesbury, St Neots in 1798. His parents, who were both of average height and lived in a small cottage near the old Rectory.

By the age of ten James was already five feet or 153cm tall, and by the time he was eighteen years old he was said to be over eight feet or 244cm tall, his feet were fifteen inches in length.

As news of the young man from Huntingdonshire who had grown into a giant spread across the country, James became famous.

In 1815 he was exhibited in London and was presented to the Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia. His great size was noted in various publications and in one drawing he was shown next to a Dutch dwarf called Simon Papp who was only twenty eight inches or 70cm tall. After touring the country in a show, he enlisted in the Life Guards, but his health was not good and he had to leave the army and return home to Eynesbury.

James Toller returned to Eynesbury to live with his mother in Rectory Lane, and the local Rector allowed him to walk in the rectory gardens to avoid being seen by the public.

He died on the 4 February 1818, when he was only 20 years of age. It was rumoured that a doctor had offered £20 (a year’s wages for an ordinary working person) for James’s body, so that it could be dissected, and his family feared that his body might be stolen by body-snatchers once he had been buried. For this reason he was buried inside Eynesbury church rather than in the churchyard.

Many stories have been told about James Toller since his death about how he could walk along the streets of St Neots and Eynesbury and chat with people through their bedroom windows or pass by the public houses along the high street and reach up and swing the signboards. A local shoemaker in Eynesbury was said to have a pair of Toller’s shoes that he displayed in his shop but these have never been found.

Sadly there is no mark or initials on the church floor to indicate the exact spot where Toller is buried in Eynesbury church and his fame has diminished over the last two hundred years but his story is still told to the children in local schools and who knows maybe one day we’ll get a donation of his shoes?

Paine’s Brewery and the history of brewing in St Neots

paines mill st neots

Paines Brewery in St Neots Market Square, 1900.

The first large-scale brewery in St Neots is thought to have been established by Samuel Emery. He purchased The Bull Inn on the Market Square and the public house next door and combined their two brew-houses to brew in larger quantities. A well sunk into the gravel terrace provided ‘clean’ water. Having a wharf on Hen Brook allowed the import of barley and hops by boat. When Samuel died his daughters took over the inn and his son, Samuel, the brewery. He sold it to William Foster in 1792 who owned three licensed houses.

In 1831 William Foster sold his brewery on the south side of the Market Square to James Paine (1789 – 1855). He too was an entrepreneur. Over the next few years, Paine set up a Stone Flour Mill and an office. He invested his profits from selling beer to acquire three more ‘tied’ houses (they could only sell Paine’s beer). He set up a maltings in St Mary’s Street, Eynesbury, owned five houses on South Street, corn shops in Bell yard, a house and shop in Eaton Ford, 16 acres of farmland in Eynesbury, farmland in Great Paxton, brick kilns there, at Riseley and Gamlingay.

A beam steam engine was installed in 1840 which was there until 1935 when it was replaced by electricity. When James died in 1855 four of his sons took over the business. One of the sons, probably James, opened the Eynesbury brickyard on Potton Road.

In 1865 William expanded the business, buying a flour mill on Nutters Lane (Bedford Street) and as well as brewing, flour milling and sawing he was buying and selling malt, hops, coal, malt calms, linseed cake, slates, bricks, tiles, building stone, salt, tar, hair, whiting, lath (single and double fir), cement (Portland and Roman) lime (burnt, slack, and clunch), deals and battens (Petersburg, Wyberg and Memel). To help in his business he also hired a yard and wharf on the east side of Eynesbury bridge, where he put another saw mill. By 1869 he had bought St Neots Railway Tavern’.

Needing more capital he went into partnership with William Atkinson in 1872. A new malting was erected in Nutters Lane for £2,400 and the old one sold to George Taylor of the Chequers Inn who converted it into a mineral water factory. In 1877 Atkinson sold his share in the partnership and John McNish joined with the firm then trading as Paine & Co.

The building merchants side of the business was sold in 1879 to Charles Daintree and Fred Jewson. The yard behind the Dog and Duck Inn near Eynesbury Bridge was too small so they first hired, then bought, Navigation Wharf across the street.

In 1880 the Nutters Lane flour mill was pulled down and a new mill was built on the same site. A steam engine was used which worked until 1931 when a diesel engine was installed. When William Paine retired in 1882 the McNish brothers took it over until 1896 when the firm was launched as a public limited liability company as Paine and Co. Ltd.

The Bedford Street Nutters Mill was burnt down in 1903 causing damage valued at £15,000. It was rebuilt with more space. The brewery and Stone Flour Mill were burnt down in 1905 so the company bought the next-door premises and milling restarted. The brewery was rebuilt using more modern equipment.

In 1900 the Bedford Street maltings began production of malt extract (for example Bovril, OXO cubes) and it was traded worldwide. After the first World War (1914 – 1918) larger premises were needed so Paine & Co. Ltd bought and equipped the derelict Bower’s Gas Meter Works on Brook Street. These works were badly damaged by fire in 1947. They were rebuilt but burnt down again in 1955 so Paine’s used the Bedford Street premises again.

Sources: Young, R. (1996), ‘St Neots Past‘, Phillimore; Tebbutt, C.F. (1978), St Neots – History of a Huntingdonshire Town, Unwin Brothers
paper mill little paxton

History of the paper mill, Little Paxton

Okestubbe Mill was a water-powered medieval corn-grinding mill by the Great Ouse in Little Paxton and was owned by the monks of St Neots priory. It was acquired in 1799 by Owsley Rowley, who rebuilt and let the mill to Mr Hobson of Eaton Socon.

In 1804 it was leased to a firm of paper-makers, Henry and Sealy Fourdinier and John Gamble. They spent £60,000 on machinery to change it from producing flour to a paper mill. Instead of making single sheets Henry invented a process to make rolls of paper. Unfortunately they did not patent it and other entrepreneurs used their ideas and competed with them.

The mills was powered by the waterwheel turning a spindle which turned cogs to operate the machinery.

The Fourdinier brothers went bankrupt in 1808 and sold the company to Matthew Toogood who employed experienced paper makers and used sound business methods to make a success of the venture.

The 1823 flood left the machine room five feet (1.85m.) under water and four men were trapped for four days. Toogood, and then his sons after him operated the paper mill until the 1887 when the business closed down. Steam power units were introduced in 1851 and updated in 1861 to reduce the mill’s reliance on water power.

A raised footway, called the traps, was built to allow the workforce to get to work in the winter months when the river flooded.

The closure of the mill and the decline of the Vulcan Iron Works led to unemployment and distress among the poor. As the mill had provided employment to hundreds of local men and women some local business people (John McNish of Paine’s Brewery, Joseph Wilcox, W. Emery, James Paine and W. Bowyer) set up a consortium and reopened it in 1888 as St Neots Paper Mill Company Limited. They took no money from it themselves until the business became profitable again.

They were limited by out-of-date machinery but by 1903 new turbines and steam engines were installed.

Just under a decade later, in 1912 when 200 people were employed at the mill, many of the wooden buildings were destroyed in a fire, but rebuilding using brick and improving the equipment made the mill safer and more profitable. By 1913 the mill produced the finest grades of bank, writing, ledger, drawing, chart, cartridge, typing, loan and envelope papers, and cream and tinted typing and envelope papers.

However its fortunes declined during the economic depression after the 1920s and it closed down in 1939. During the Second World War, Wigmore Teape evacuated their paper mill at Dover and moved to the safer inland site in Little Paxton.

After the war there was a trade in paper to countries like India, Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon  and the Far East that had previously got their paper from Japan.

The mill was converted to manufacture nylon but had closed down by 1948 and the lease was sold in 1950 to Samuel Jones Limited.

Sources: Young, R. (1996), St Neots Past, Phillimore; Tebbutt, C.F. (1978), St Neots – History of a Huntingdonshire Town, Unwin Brothers.

The world’s oldest surviving quadruplets

In St Neots in Cambridgeshire in 1935 something rather unusual happened. In the upstairs bedroom of this council house, four tiny babies were born. No quadruplets had ever lived for more than a few days before and the nation watched with bated breath as they battle to survive.

Against all the odds, here we are today at the eightieth birthday party of the quadruplets at the St Neots museum.

The doctor who delivered them, Ernest Harrison, made the extraordinary offer to take all four babies into his own home for the first six months to give them 24-hour care. Ernest Miles “Dr Ernest, yes, I am named after him. Through his knowledge and care, he protected us and made sure that we did survive.”

Ann, Ernest, Paul and Michael Miles were born November 28, 1935 and today the National Press would report on every minute detail of the quads development. They even charmed King George V who sent them £4 for their coffers. So you just became instant celebrities, the whole nation was waiting for you to survive?

The public even paid money to come and gaze at the little celebrities in their glass-fronted nursery bought by a well-known baby milk company.

Ernest Miles said, “Everyone was scrutinising us as we played and you felt it as a child, it made us very self-conscious.”

Michael Miles said, “I think they tend to think that we were somewhat unique, almost like animals in a zoo.”

Their parents had to take every opportunity to make ends meet. Money was always tight with their father on a lorry-drivers wage.

Ann Miles said “He (Mr Mile) only earned £3 a week, and it took £10 a week to look after us. When you went and bought a pair of shoes for one of us, the other three wanted a new pair as well. So you always had to have four of everything.”

Nowadays, quads are much more common in the UK, with up to four sets born every year. But, in 1935 the miracle of these quads was a boost to public morale at a time when the country was facing a threat from Germany. But, away from the cameras the quads have a bit of fun with their unique situation, especially the two identical brothers.

Michael Miles said, “He liked pulling jokes on other people and I always had to run along because nobody knew the difference between him and me.”

Ernest Miles said, “I got my brother into trouble a few times and he got spanked instead of me, but that was life.”

The newsreels followed them into their teens as the quads began to emerge as four separate individuals. The quads have clocked up more than 200 years of marriage, thirteen children, twenty-three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

All of the above information came from the BBC ‘One Show’ of 4th December 2015