Historical Background

Downham, Hilgay and Southery were well-established settlements by the time Domesday Book was commissioned in December 1085. Hilgay was subsequently described in the Book as a lordship of the Abbey of Ramsey in the gift of King Edgar. There were approximately 240 acres (2 caracutes) of land in Hilgay along with eight acres of meadow. Twenty four peasants were listed so, with wives and children, the total population would have been in excess of a hundred making it a sizeable settlement for the time.

The most obvious evidence of early settlement in Hilgay, perhaps around 1200, lies to the east of the village to the north of Thistle Hill Road. These ancient earthworks are thought to have derived from buildings and fish ponds in the ownership of the Abbot of Ramsey.

Fish, and eels in particular, were a major source of food in medieval times being available throughout the year and in plentiful supply. Although unlikely to be pre-Conquest, it is not possible to date these ponds with certainty. Hilgay was in the ownership of Ramsey Abbey from the later years of the 10th century until the Dissolution around 1538. The Benedictines founded the Abbey in 969 with the support of ealderman Aethelwine and Oswald, the Bishop of Worcester. Later, the same Order added the small priory at Modney to the south west of the parish although the date of its foundation is uncertain. There are records of its existence in 1291 and 1304 at least. Blomefield and Dugdale have almost nothing to say about Modney, or Modeney, at times in the past.

Evidence of the earliest settlement should be framed within the context of the geology of the area. The great majority of finds from earlier periods are concentrated around Denver because of the Fen Causeway and to the east of Hilgay and Southery at the edge of the higher lands bordering Feltwell and Methwold. This is not to say that Downham, Hilgay, Southery and the other parishes are devoid of evidence of settlement before Roman times. In Downham’s case, in particular, it is likely that much of the evidence of early settlement lies under the buildings and roads of the town. An understanding of timescale would here be helpful:

BC16000 Sea level about 120 metres lower than present at the maximum extent of the ice sheets (reaching as far south as the Thames basin). Britain was connected to mainland Europe at this time.

BC10000 Late Palaeolithic (early Stone Age)

BC9000 The North Norfolk coast was approximately 40+ miles (60-70 km) further north than present. The sea encroached south westwards between the Lincolnshire Wolds and the escarpment of West Norfolk

BC7500 Britain becomes an island. Previously the Ouse and other fenland rivers were tributaries of the Rhine which flowed into the Atlantic, presumably through what later became the Straits of Dover as the ice sheets would have prevented a more northerly course

BC7000 Early Mesolithic (middle Stone Age)

BC5000 Late Mesolithic

BC4000 Early Neolithic (New Stone Age) Peat formed in the Fens and ‘bog oaks’ were laid down

BC3000 Late Neolithic. Grimes Graves 3000-2000BC. The sea assumed approximately its present level. Stonehenge was constructed

BC2000 Bronze Age. 2300-1700 Beaker period. Seahenge was built on marshy land about 2 kilometres inland from the sea at Holme.

BC1000 Iron Age

AD43-409 Romans

AD410> Saxons, then Angles, Danes and Jutes

AD793> Vikings

AD1066> Normans

Evidence of Roman influence is considerable to the north and east of our parishes as well as one route across the Fen. The history of Peddars Way is well documented and the construction of various defensive banks around the Wash has been explored in some detail. Nearer to home, sections of the route of the Fen Causeway have been clearly established through the parish of Denver and south of the village of Nordelph. Fragments of Roman pottery turned up by the plough, for example, provide evidence of settlement at this time.

The Fen Causeway running east-west from Denver to Peterborough linked with Ermine Street connecting London and York. Another Roman road ran from Cambridge to Denver but the drainage at that time has been much altered since remembering, in particular, that the Ouse flowed into the present Nene and was joined by the Little Ouse at Littleport. More can be found on the Norfolk Heritage Explorer site


and at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Periods/Roman/Topics/Engineering/roads/Britain/_Texts/CODROM/6*.html#8b

Hilgay is thought to have been founded in Saxon times with its name being derived from the Old English for Hythla’s island or Hythla’s people. There is much evidence of settlement before the Norman Conquest. The Fenland Survey, a large-scale field-walking project, has recovered finds from almost all the fields of the parish and these have enabled the build up of an informed picture of life in earlier times.

The earliest recorded finds date to the Neolithic period (4000-2000BC) and include an adze, flint knife, axe-heads and other tools. Almost all of these finds come from the fenland shore of the island – if such a term might be used. It is very difficult to date these finds precisely but the Beaker period vessel found near Woodhall in 1847 dates from around 2000BC. All these finds can be studied more fully by accessing the excellent Norfolk Heritage Explorer website or visiting the Norfolk Museums Service archaeological section at Gressenhall.

This (Wikimedia) map of the Jutland (‘Jute land’) peninsula sand the British Isles hows the generalised location of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes before their migrations to Britain. Note that borders fluctuated with the fortunes of war, in particular that between the Angles and Jutes. Bede, writing in the early 8th century suggests the Angles populated Norfolk while the Saxons settled to their south in Essex with the Jutes in Kent.

There is further evidence of settlement in the Bronze Age such as the axe hammer found at Modney, just east of the A10. Sadly, some of the earlier finds have not had their exact locations recorded. Finds from the Iron Age are less plentiful but do exist. Much greater evidence of early settlement can be found on the chalk around Feltwell and Methwold, to the east, where the landscape changes from fen to higher land although over 200 Palaeolithic hand axes have been recovered from the gravel pits in the fen at Shrubhill. Two Roman villas were excavated on the fenland edge at Feltwell in the 1960s and a third was destroyed when the Cut-Off channel was excavated. The archaeological history of Feltwell is understood in considerable detail and is extensively documented. It is well covered on the Heritage website of the Norfolk Museums Service at www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk and on the Feltwell Village website at www.feltwell.net The past importance of Feltwell is underlined by the presence of two parish churches, St Nicholas to the west and St Mary further east. The latter is 15th century but St Nicholas, declared redundant in 1976, is much older. Both are of considerable interest.

In Roman times, there appears to have been an increase in settlement in and around Hilgay. Earthworks of a small farmstead were discovered by the Fenland Survey about half a kilometre north east of Rose Hill in the east of the parish. Part of a possible Roman road, now destroyed by deep ploughing, has also been recorded and tentatively identified as Akeman Street. This site lies on Lowe’s Farm between the railway line and the Ouse to the west of the river.

Hilgay was certainly a settlement in Saxon times but little evidence has survived. Remains of a spear, an iron pin and a pot uncovered in the churchyard in 1879 have been interpreted as early Saxon (AD410-650) and probably linked to a burial at that time. Small scatterings of late Saxon pottery have also been unearthed and Saxon brooches have been recovered by the use of metal detectors in a field north of Woodhall Road. There may have been a late Saxon settlement to the north east of the present village centre associated with the earthworks shown in aerial photographs.

No evidence of medieval settlement is greater than the ridge and furrow farming systems to be found around the parish. One patch of nearly 19 hectares (shown below, lying east of the A10 and south of West End) is the largest area that remains in Norfolk. Another can be found nearby at Lodge Farm just to the south east. Part of the parish boundary between Hilgay and Methwold, south east of Ash Hill Farm, lies along a raised bank known as the King’s Dyke which may have been constructed as an early flood defence. It was in existence by 1604 and may have been more extensive, forming part of the boundary between Hilgay and Southery. Mill Mound on Woodhall Road is the site of a medieval windmill shown on a map produced by Ogilvy dated 1675. It stands over two metres high and there is evidence of a loading ramp on the eastern side.

Traditional ploughs turn the soil over in one direction, to the right. This means that the plough cannot return along the same furrow. Instead, ploughing was done in a clockwise direction around a long rectangular strip. On reaching the end of the furrow, the plough was removed from the ground, moved across the unploughed headland (the short end of the strip), then put back in the ground to work back down the other long side of the strip. The width of the ploughed strip is fairly narrow, to avoid having to drag the plough too far across the headland. Over time the strip builds into a ridge.

Regular ploughing in a clockwise direction will lead to soil being moved towards the centre of the strip to create a ridge

The furrow often marked the boundary between plots. Although they varied, traditionally a strip would be a furlong (a "furrow-long") in length (220 yards), and a chain wide (22 yards), giving an area of one acre, or about a day's ploughing - which involves walking some 11 miles.

Where ploughing continued over the centuries, later methods removed the ridge and furrow pattern. However, in some cases the land became grassland, and where this has not been ploughed since, the pattern has often been preserved. Surviving ridge and furrow may have a height difference of 18 to 24 inches in places, and gives a strongly rippled effect to the landscape. When in active use, the height difference was even more, sometimes up to 5 feet. These ancient field patterns can stand out most clearly when the sun is low in the sky or when the land is very wet.

In the Middle Ages each strip was managed by one family and there were rights of grazing on common land. This open field system was ended by Enclosure.

The population on the area grew steadily, though slowly, throughout the Middle Ages. Birth rates were high but so too were death rates and life expectancy was low. The first of the two population pyramids below would typically relate to people of the Downham area right through to around 1800. People could survive all the hazards of youth and middle age and live into their eighties and beyond but it was exceptional.

With gradual improvements in public health and medicine, the death rate fell through the 1800s and the rate of population increase accelerated as the birth rate remained high. Later, as family planning techniques became more widespread, the birth rate fell and the population pyramid assumed a narrower base with steeper sides as people lived to a greater age.

Norfolk Heritage Explorer website

Both the above are national population pyramids, with the horizontal scale in ‘000s. The predominance of females in the oldest age groups in the second pyramid is most noticeable.

Populations revealed in the 1841 census are interesting: Downham Market 2953; Hilgay 1515; Southery 1023; Stow Bardolph 1076; Denver 910; Ryston 40; Fordham 200; West Dereham 544; Roxham 45; Bexwell 70; Wimbotsham 582. The Norfolk parts of Outwell 820 and Outwell 591. The size of Hilgay in relation to Downham is particularly noticeable.

Life expectancy in 1911 was 50 years for males and 54 for females bearing in mind that infant mortality still remained much higher than levels we have come to expect in more recent times. A male baby born today, however, can expect to live to 77 and a female to 81.5 hence the proliferation of care homes in our area and the raising of the state pension age.

Dating parish boundaries is problematic. A small area of Hilgay parish lies to the west of the Hundred Foot, or New Bedford, River and so clearly establishes a boundary before 1650. The parish of Denver extends across both the Old and New Bedford Rivers to include Salter’s Lode, thus being drawn before these new waterways were constructed, although the parish bounds have been modified as a consequence of these new cuts. The fact that the Hilgay church registers commence in 1583 suggests the parish was by then defined. The earliest recorded rectors of Hilgay (1307) and Southery (1335) imply that parish boundaries were already in place. If the course of the Ouse between Littleport and Denver via Brandon Creek was dug in the second half of the thirteenth century (see discussion elsewhere) then, since part of the dividing line between Hilgay and Southery follows this route, then the boundary may have been revised at this time. However, the boundary between Fordham and Denver follows the roddon west of Ouse Bridge that was the former course of the Wissey and this indicates a definition before the new cut was made to bring the Ouse through from Littleport. This course is today represented by the Old Mail Lode and Maylode Drain between Ouse Bridge Farm and Venney Farm. Perhaps this is sufficient to confirm that the new course of the Ouse from Littleport to Denver was made in the 13th century rather than earlier? Hilgay parish boundary crosses the Hundred Foot Bank in the west and extends as far south as Black Horse Drove. Prior to 1895, South Hilgay extended east across the Ouse and south of the Little Ouse River all the way across to Redmere by Shippea Hill. Readers will find it helpful to compare the map below with the parish boundaries marked on the appropriate 1:25000 OS map – Sheet 228 ‘March & Ely’.

The former course of River Wissey is shown by a roddon running west from Ouse Bridge

Parish boundaries in 1923 – parishes 1 and 2 are Roxham and Ryston respectively (Courtesy ‘An Historical Atlas of Norfolk’)

That parish boundaries have changed over time is certain. There are clear references in the Hilgay registers1620-1650 to South Hilgay because the rector Phineas Fletcher often gives his permission for residents living there to marry in Southery church which was much closer. There are frequent entries concerning parishioners living at Priests’ Houses, shown on Faden’s map of 1797 to be located on the land to the west of the Great Ouse opposite its confluence with the Little Ouse on the other bank to where the Ship Inn now stands. At this time, the boundary between Norfolk and Cambridgeshire was not the course of the Little Ouse River as it is today. The division between the two counties then lay about half a kilometre south of the Little Ouse and roughly parallel to it, intersecting with the present A10 road at Black Horse Farm. The drain that defined the boundary is no longer in existence. Faden shows Hilgay Fen House on the south side of the Little Ouse close to where St John’s parish church was later erected. South Hilgay appears to have extended as far as Redmere Fen, close to Shippea Hill, which Faden labels as Redmoor.

Of interest, perhaps most to those interested in ancient rights of way, is the road that branches off east from the A10 at Brandon Creek as far as Bank Farm on the northern bank of the Little Ouse. This can, in Faden’s time, be seen clearly extending along the north bank of the river as far upstream as Wilton Ferry. Part of this ancient roadway still remains in existence from the bridge at Little Ouse hamlet to Orchard House two kilometres or so upstream.

On the western side of the Great Ouse River opposite to Black Horse Farm is Black Horse Drove. This is not identified by Faden as all the buildings there were not yet in existence. What is marked, however, is Littleport Chain at the intersection of the Great Ouse with ‘an Old Bank’. This Old Bank, forming the county boundary, ran to the Hundred Foot River where a ferry allowed access to Welney – a bridge was already in existence across the Old Bedford River. The Littleport Chain was a chain-operated ferry for which a toll was payable. The present Chain House, built since Faden’s map was drawn, stands on the county boundary and marks the southernmost extent of Hilgay on the west of the Ouse. There is still a blank space on the front wall of the house where was affixed the sign informing travellers of the tolls applicable to their passage.

A bridge over the Hundred Foot River was not built until 1826 and the hamlet at its eastern end became known as Suspension Bridge in due course.

The first edition of the Ordnance Survey (1824) shows the county boundary still south of the Little Ouse River. In 1866 a new parish of Little Ouse was established by Order in Council. It was made up of outlying parts of Hilgay, Feltwell St Nicholas, Feltwell St Mary and Littleport together with the extra-parochial parishes of Redmore and Feltwell Anchor. Lying either side of the Little Ouse River it is, thus, partly in Norfolk and partly in Cambridgeshire. It was in the diocese of Ely at a time when Hilgay and Southery were still part of Norwich. The two parts of the parish were linked together with an iron footbridge by 1892 according to Kelly’s Directory for that year. The area was 12,042 acres and the population in 1881 was 921.

The parish of Redmore, or Redmere, was formed in 1868 and was merged with Littleport in 1933. The part of South Hilgay on the left (southern) bank of the Little Ouse River was made part of the Littleport School Board in 1885. The area was transferred from Norfolk to Cambridgeshire in the same year.

White’s directory refers to the church of St John, Little Ouse as a handsome stone building, erected in 1869 in lieu of an iron structure. The benefice was in the patronage of the Bishop of Ely (in whose diocese it was). Kelly’s Directory of 1892 lists the principal landowners of Little Ouse and gives details of the school where average attendance was about 50. It also provides details of Feltwell Anchor and Redmore.

A note here regarding the various 'Downhams' in the area might be appropriate - Downham Market, Downham (Cambs), Little Downham and Downham-in-the-Isle. The parish of Downham (Cambs), formerly Downham-in-the-Isle, was renamed Little Downham after the railways came - to distinguish it from Downham, Norfolk - which then added Market!

Throughout the ensuing chapters there are repeated references to parish priests and to the advowsons (or patronage) by which they were appointed so some explanation would be helpful. Advowson is the right of a patron (avowee) to present to the bishop a nominee for appointment to a vacant church living and this right was usually historically held by the lord of the manor.

An advowson could be bought, sold, or bequeathed but following reforms to parish administration in the late 19th century it had little commercial value

Advowsons were valuable for a number of reasons. They were a means whereby the lord of the manor could influence his manorial subjects through the teaching and sermons of the parish priest. An appointment could also be used as a reward for past services rendered to the patron by the appointee. A living, or benefice, generally included use of a house such as rectory as well as the income from the church held lands (glebe) and tithes which would help determine the value of the advowson. They were often used as a means of providing a career and income for a younger son.

Where a manor was split into moieties (see Denver section) due to inheritance by co-heiresses, the advowson was also split.

The dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s led to the transfer of much monastic property, including advowsons, to laymen (see Hilgay): thus creating a large group of lay patrons. In 1603, there were an estimated 3849 livings in the hands of lay persons out of a total of 9284.

Church records regarding advowdsons and appointments (presentations) often go back many centuries are invaluable sources of information for historians and genealogists.

In the last century many advowsons were donated free of charge to the local diocese having lost any value to their private holders, since few landowners any longer wished to exert a proxy influence over the morals of their former manorial tenants, and few wished their younger sons to be parish priests. The income from glebe lands finally ceased to belong to individual incumbents from April 1978, accruing instead to the diocese to which the parish belonged.

Sizable numbers of advowsons are still held by church organizations such as the Church Society and by universities. Hilgay, for example, is held by Hertford College, Oxford, and Southery by the Guild of All Souls.

A note on tithes is also useful here: Originally, tithes were payments in kind (such as crops, wool or milk) comprising an agreed proportion of the yearly profits from farming, and made by parishioners for the support of their parish church and its clergy. In theory, tithes were payable on (a) All things arising from the ground and subject to annual increase – grain, wood, vegetables and so on (b) All things nourished by the ground – for example, the young of cattle or sheep, and animal produce such as milk, eggs and wool (c) The produce of man’s labour, particularly the profits from mills and fishing. The tithe system was effectively ended by Enclosure. There is much more on the very complicated history of tithes in England at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/tithes/

Living in rural south west Norfolk in the 19th Century was harsh for many of the population and opportunities few. Many villagers left for London and the new industrial towns elsewhere in Britain and, requiring even more bravery, many left for lands overseas. There are many instances quoted in the text of families finding new lives in the USA and Australia, for example, and it is not difficult to appreciate the courage that must have been needed to make such a giant step. Not all steps were voluntary, of course, since transportation to Australia was very much part of the criminal code up until 1868. See for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convicts_in_Australia

Factors in emigration were both push and pull. Rural poverty and lack of opportunity encouraged movement; free land in the US gave 'ag labs' the chance to become farmers and many did. Gold mining was an attraction too. Robert Gudgeon was born in Ten Mile Bank in 1831 and married Sarah Porter from Southery, daughter of William & Lucy (nee Bell). They arrived in Australia along with 246 other souls aboard the barque 'Anglia' on 24 September 1855 after a journey of 111 days. The ship was a paltry 570 tons; three passengers had died en passage. A good website to discover more on immigrant ships making the voyage to Australia, which includes details of assisted passage arrangements, can be found at http://www.theshipslist.com/ships/australia/SAassistedindex.shtml Both Robert (1831-1922) and Sarah (1834-1905) are buried at Gulong in the central tablelands of New South Wales. Sarah's older brother Eli (1830-1857) also went in search of gold, arriving with his wife Sarah on the 'Libertas' on 28 June 1855. He was buried in Parramatta after an appeal in the Sydney Morning Herald went out on 31 Jan 1857 for his brother in law Charles Rutter (Rutterford?) 'supposed to be at the diggings' as Eli was dangerously ill'. Eli died on 6th March. Robert and Sarah were married in Canning Town in 1854; there son James Porter Gudgeon was aged 1 on arrival in Australia. Robert set up as a blacksmith in Gulong:

Two views of Henry Gudgeon's wheelwright and blacksmith's in Gulong and, below, James Porter Gudgeon (b1854) - courtesy of 'dickens122' on Ancestry

James Porter Gudgeon. James' uncle, Wade Porter, eldest brother of Eli and Sarah, emigrated to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and an outline of his life is to be found in the Agriculture section earlier.

Canada was another destination. Simeon Barrows, born in Ten Mile Bank in 1802, farmed in Ontario and was buried in Huron in 1881. And not all new arrivals stayed. Bertie Porter, son of John Thomas Porter, a saddler and harness maker in Southery, disembarked in Halifax, Nova Scotia, from the 'Royal George' out of Southampton, on 19 June 1920 heading for farm work in Knee Hill Valley, Alberta, by way of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. He returned and was buried in Southery on 10th July 1959 after a service at the Methodist church, aged 67.

The USA was undoubtedly the most popular destination. A few more random emigrations:

James Henry Brighton. Born Southery 1884; buried Forest City, Iowa 1934

John Dungay. Born Denver 1823; buried Cannon City, Rice County, Minnesota 1900

Moses Dungay, John's father, buried Danville, Vermillion County, Illinois in 1885, aged 93

Much earlier, Jasper Blake. Born Wimbotsham 1614, arrived Hampton, New Hampshire in 1647; buried there in Founders' Park in 1673

William Wenn. Born Wimbotsham 1832; buried Taymouth, Michigan 1900

William Wenn, father of the above, was born in Wimbotsham in 1804; buried Wright, Ottawa County, Michigan in 1887

James Porter Watson. Born Downham Market 1854; bur Pomeroy, Washington state 1915

There are many more examples to be found.