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I would like to thank Bruce Frost and Ivan Coussell of the Littleport Society for the help they have given me in compiling these pages and for allowing me to use the photographs on this page.
Robert Watts Deacon and Martha Ellingham were married in Hoxton, Shoreditch on the third of July 1874. Exactly when Martha left Littleport Cambridgeshire for the "bright lights" of London we do not know, her father John was a publican, but he was also a farmer and a blacksmith! During the 1800's there was a shift away from tradition rural employment that relied on the seasons, more and more people were leaving the country and moving into towns that offered regular employment and a regular wage. The coming of the railways made it simple, most villages were not that far from a railway station and London was the hub of the railway system. During the 1800's London's population exploded.
Martha was born at the Bridge House Inn, Littleport, Cambridgeshire, one of many inns and taverns on the road between Mildenhall and Littleport, reputedly 52, "one for each week of the year", if that is true trade must have been very hard to come by and an alternative source of income was maybe not a bad idea. During harvest time it would have been all hands to the pumps, and even men who had regular employment elsewhere would help out if needed.
The town of Littleport lies in fenland east Anglia, low marshy ground almost constantly flooded, through this meandered the river Great Ouse. In some parts the river followed no particular channel, each season would see the water take a different route along some sections of its course. In conjunction with the drainage of the fens various attempts were made to bring the great river under control starting with the Romans who constructed Car Dyke from north of Cambridge to beyond Peterborough. The primary function of the dyke was to transport food and supplies to the garrisons of soldiers in northern Britain, but unintentionally it also served as a drain. The annual problem of trying to control the flow of the river was a major concern to Littleport and it's surrounding villages. At certain times of the year it was not unusual for Littleport to became an island.
The map above was drawn up in 1604 By W. Hayward, and copied in 1724 by T. Badeslade. It is a small section of what was titled "A Plan and Description of the Fenns" The Area highlighted is the relief channel between Littleport and Denver. The ferry crossing at this point was referred to as the "Littleport chair"
Four photographs of Littleport, the first three pictures are of Main Street, the first is looking westward dated around 1900-1910. The last picture is of Victoria Street, looking eastward dated about 1900-1910.
Arber's Mill, Ten Mile Bank
More about Arber's Mill here
The turning point came in the early 17th century when the 4th Earl of Bedford and a Dutchman by the name of Cornelius Vermuyden started work in earnest. The first major task (The Old Bedford River) was completed in 1630, it ran straight from Earith to Denver a distance of 20 miles, all the work was carried out by men with pickaxes, spades and wheelbarrow's. After this initial success work came to a halt due to legal and political problems involving King Charles I and a certain Oliver Cromwell from Ely. Work resumed in 1650 by the 5th Earl of Bedford (the 4th Earl having died in 1641) This time the much of the work was carried out by Scottish prisoners of war captured by Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar and later by Dutchmen taken prisoner during a naval engagement in the English Channel. Many more miles of drains were dug out, and all through the years of planning the engineers who worked with such foresight and tenacity overlooked one vital factor. A few years after the completion of the main rivers there was widespread flooding because as the land was drained the peat would dry out, waste and shrink. Land levels fell away and river levels remained the same, they were suddenly between four and six foot higher than the land around them, when rivers overflowed the results were disastrous, much worse then ever before. The only answer was to "embank" the major rivers which created another problem. Somehow a method had to be devised to move the water from the now low lying fields to the rivers. The solution proved to be windmills, already one was in use at Over and had been since 1604, subsequently, fenland East Anglia became littered with windmills.
Further work on drainage and river control eventually paid off and life in the fenlands improved, more flooding DID occur although not on a regular basis. A major flood in 1947 caused great difficulty and hardship not only to the fens but also to much of Great Britain, caused by exceptionally high levels of rainfall the previous year and large snow falls during the winter, coupled with several sharp frosts which froze the clay embankments to such an extent many serious breaches occurred in the river Wissey, little Ouse and the Old West river. Reports of water levels reaching Fifteen foot were commonplace.
If proof was still needed as to the vulnerability of the fens to flooding this was it beyond any doubt. Under normal conditions water levels in the rivers were about six foot above the land, under flood conditions this can easily be doubled. The problem has always been the inability of the natural water courses to move the water to the outfalls at Wisbeech and Kings Lynn fast enough, so another new channel, eleven miles long was cut from Denver to Kings Lynn and a new sluice was constructed at Denver to allow water from the Ely Ouse (or Ten Mile River) to be discharged into it. The scheme also involved digging a further channel twenty seven miles in length from Denver to join the River Lark near Mildenhall. The new channel circumnavigated the fens and excess water from the rivers Lark, Wissey and Little Ouse could be diverted into it. In times of flood approximately forty percent of the water which would otherwise have been carried by the Ely Ouse can be diverted directly to Denver.
Pictured left is the Bridge House. This side view shows how the house once stood in relation to the original road out of Littleport to Mildenhall, before it was diverted when the new bridge and bypass was built. Straight as a arrow. This photograph was taken from the opposite bank of the river. It was at this point that the new cut was was made. Sandy's Cut, (as it became known) is a forty foot wide, two mile long cutting between Ely and Littleport across Padnal fen. It reduced river journeys by nearly 6 miles and solved the major problem of navigating through the shallows at what was The Plough pub, Old bank, which did a roaring trade for river traffic held up at the shallows. Work on the cut was completed in April 1830. I imagine The Plough closed for business soon after.
The Will of John Ellingham (1775-1854) has been transcribed here and in it he wrote:
"I give and devise unto and to the [ ] of my son David Ellingham his heirs and assigns All that one acre (more or less) of land being one equal half part of my two acres of Copyhold land situate in the Morrs [Moors] in Littleport aforesaid and divided into two parts by the new River or Cut made [wereso] the same the said one acre lying on each side of the said River and being bounded by land late of John Hood deceased on the North and by the residue of the said two acres hereinafter devised to my son William on the South....." 1
We have so far been unable to identify exactly where The Moors is in respect to the town of Littleport. The new cut was only two miles long, south from Littleport Bridge, so we have a rough idea. I wonder if the family received any compensation for having a canal cut through their land!
Photographed in the summer of 2007 it clearly seems as though the writing is on the wall for the "Bridge house" I do not know what year it was built but it was certainly before 1840 when my great grandmother Martha Ellingham was born here. The last picture is current, taken this year. I am thankful that this is one of the few occasions I have managed to locate an address and photograph it before it was destroyed.
Originally to the south bound traveller the Bridge house would have been one of the first inns to appear on the approach to Littleport using the the main roman road, (the A10). For travellers approaching from the east it was not so bad, there were said to be 52 "watering holes" on the Mildenhall to Littleport road.
Three pictures that do little justice to the magnificent Ely Cathedral, the last picture is of St George's Church Littleport, no doubt feeling a little insignificant in such awe-inspiring company, but still a beautiful Church.
Littleport has long lived in the shadow of Ely, there has been a competitive edge between the two towns. Both are steeped in history, but only one has a Cathedral. Recent archaeological discoveries have found Roman remains at Ely and there is also evidence of an iron age settlement on the natural hill the town is built on.
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