The History of Conington in Cambridgeshire

Historical notes about the town of Conington in Cambridgehsire.

The Parish of Conington

The parish of Conington lies on the west side of the Fen and the greater part adjoins the Fen district, where the land is flat, and from which it rises gradually from about 2 ft. above the Ordnance datum in the east to 40 ft. at the Ermine Street. Westward of the Ermine Street the land rises more abruptly and reaches 169 ft. at Conington Round Hill. The parish covers 3,175 acres, which, although mostly pasture, has some good arable land and about 105 acres of woodland. The population in 1921 was 259.

Conington Fen, which occupies a large part of the eastern side of the parish, is now mostly drained and cultivated. Before the 17th century the Fen was used mainly for feeding cattle and sheep and the supply of peat turves, the cutting of which was regulated by the Fen reeves, who also looked after the maintenance and cleaning of the dykes and ditches. On St. Luke's Day, on the tolling of the church bell, the tenants met at the church and went to the Fen to view the ditches belonging to their tenements. The systematic drainage was begun by Sir Thomas Cotton in 1639, and in the following year the first pump was erected. The cultivation of the Fen was then gradually taken in hand, but it was not until the 19th century that the greater part was ploughed. Inclosures began at the end of the 16th century. The farms during the 17th century were mostly pasture, but after the purchase of the manor by Sir John Heathcote the arable land was increased. In 1751 a good deal of land was planted with woad. In 1800 there were 270 acres of arable land, which by 1838 had fallen to 250 acres, but by 1888 it had risen to 290 acres and by 1921 had increased to about 600 acres, which tended to increase the size of farms. Two of the earliest farms on the Fen are Cobalders, which occurs as early as 1757, and Eternity Hall, which takes its name from Edward Smith, a tenant farmer, who lived there to a great age and was called Eternity Smith. Bog oak, frequently found in the Fen, is indicative of former forest land.

 

Cotton Memorial

The memorial to Sir Robert Cotton in Conington Church

The memorial to Sir Robert Cotton in Conington Church

Sir Robert Cotton is said to have found the 'skeleton of a large sea-fish near 20 feet long as was then conjectured.' The place of its deposit must have been on the edge of the Fen, somewhere to the east of Conington Church or Bruce's Castle.

The somewhat scattered village is on the east side of the Ermine Street and lies along the lane called Conington Lane, which leads to the church and Conington Castle or Manor House. A little way along the lane are the Rectory; the Old Rectory, which is a 17th-century half-timber house now converted into two cottages; and some cottages called the Village Row. Farther along the lane are the School and some more cottages, and a 17th-century half-timber thatched house, now two cottages. Beyond Church Lane, leading to the church and Conington Castle, is the Home Farm with one or two more cottages.

The ancient manor house of the Bruses stood within the moated inclosure now called 'Bruce's Castle Moat,' and was probably built by Bernard de Brus soon after 1242. It is described in 1279 as the court of the manor with a garden and spinney containing 6.5 acres. Here this branch of the Brus family lived, and here about 1317 John, son of Bernard de Brus and Agnes, and in 1336 Agnes, daughter of John de Brus, were born. From the partition of the property between the co-heirs of John de Brus in 1360 the house appears to have consisted of a hall with wings on each side; that on the west contained a chapel at the southern end and a chamber called the 'Great Sklat Chamber' at the north, while that on the east doubtless contained the kitchens and servants' rooms. Northward of the house were the great gatehouse and drawbridge, with stables, etc., on either side and a large room called 'le Garite' above them all, and eastward of these were other buildings, probably barns. Surrounding the house, and within the moat, were gardens and yards; at the south-west corner was the vineyard, somewhat northward was the garden, and between the house and the gatehouse was a herbary; at the south-east corner was the 'bake-house yard' with a pond in it. Outside the moat a road ran northward (the approach being from the north), and on the west side of this road was the Barn Yard Close, containing a great barn, a hay-house and a dove-house; and on the south and west was the park. It is difficult now to realise that the approach was from the north, as the present road is on the west, but it is definitely stated so.

The house was perhaps of timber, and seems to have lasted until 1576, by which time it was probably ruinous and quite out of date, and was abandoned later in the same century.

The house was leased with the manor after the death of Hugh de Wesenham at the end of the 14th century. The Cottons resided here for a time, but Thomas Cotton, who died in 1592, lived at Denton and probably allowed the Bruses' house to fall into decay. Camden in 1586 says that there were traces of an ancient castle within a square ditch, referring to the old manor house, and in a map of the property of Sir Robert Cotton, made about 1600, the position of Bruce's Castle is marked as 'ye ancient scite,' by which time probably the house no longer existed. A farmhouse has been built outside the west side of the moat, which is called Bruce's Castle Farm.

The new house built on another site was erected in the latter part of the 16th century by Sir Robert Cotton. We know from the estate map already referred to that it was built before 1600. It seems to have consisted originally of a large hall running east and west, with a porch at the south-west corner; and to have had a kitchen and offices at the south end and in a south-west wing, and probably private chambers for the lord and his family towards the east and south-east. Of this building, parts of the hall possibly remain incorporated in the walls of the present staircase and study; while the east wall of the kitchen, with its late 16th-century square-headed windows of two, three and four lights, still stands and perhaps some small parts of the west wall.

In the second decade of the 17th century a northern range, consisting of a long gallery with a central bay window and raised upon open arches, was added to the house, the open arches being formed of late 15th-century stones brought either from Fotheringhay Castle or Maxey Castle. The long gallery was scarcely completed when Sir Robert Cotton died (1631), and it was finished and a grand staircase added by his son, Sir Thomas, about 1634. The staircase probably adjoined the north-west corner of the other building and the west wall of the long gallery.

Sir John Cotton (1662–1702) did not occupy the house and let it go to ruin, and his grandson, Sir John (1702–1731), pulled down part of it and converted the remainder into a farmhouse. Dr. Stukeley, writing in 1722, states:

'I was concerned to see a stately old house of hewn stone, large and handsome, lie in dismal ruin'

 

Judging by a print of 1792, and from plans for the restoration of the house, the parts pulled down were the grand staircase, the private chambers and some of the kitchen buildings, while the eastern end, at least, of the northern range was allowed to go to ruin and was roofless by 1800. The west end of the northern range, when the staircase was removed, was apparently screened by a plain wall with a flat parapet and some modern windows.

In 1800 Mr. John Heathcote restored the house. He re-roofed the northern range, added embattled parapets to its walls with three stepped gables at the west end, built up the open arches and put windows under them, thus forming rooms in the lower floor of this range, and moved one of the open arches from the east end and put it in the west wall to light his new entrance hall. He also moved the late 16th-century porch of the old hall to the west side of the new entrance hall. He reconstructed the south-western range, and a little later added a third story to it and built the turret in the centre of the west side.

In 1840 Mr. John Moyer Heathcote made considerable internal alterations, including the formation of the present main staircase.

Opposite the northern front of the house is a long raised terrace at either end of which stood the octagonal stone summer-houses in which Sir Robert Cotton placed the antique stones which were given to Trinity College, Cambridge, by the last Sir John Cotton, in 1750.

Conington Round Hill, formerly known as Conington Down, is a spur of the range of hills to the west of the Fens. On it is an earthwork of unknown date and use, consisting of a five-sided moat with a tongue-shaped projection to the south-west. Perhaps the earthwork may have been thrown up in connexion with a house which Sir Robert Cotton may have proposed to build and afterwards abandoned.

The Crown and Woolpack, formerly the Woolpack Inn, on the Ermine Street, is said to have been frequented by Dick Turpin (d. 1739). The well-known episode of his putting on the shoes of his horse the wrong way in order to mislead his pursuers is said to have taken place here.

There is reference to a guildhall (le Gyldawle) at Conington in 1523 and we have frequent bequests to the guild of Holy Trinity in the wills of persons living in the parish during the 16th century. There was also a guild of Our Lady mentioned in 1503.

Victoria County History - Published 1932