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Village History

We invite you to discover more about Thorney, by following our steps through history below.

Pre-Monastic (3000 BC - 650 AD)

The Fenland Archeological Survey of 1987 indicated Bronze Age Burial Mounds scattered over the Fen Area to the west of the island.

Two of these were excavated for the company developing the first Pode Hole Quarry area. Artifacts found included fragments of Beaker ware. Further excavations have revealed a "crouched burial" within another area.

Bronze Age axes, palstaves, spear heads and an anvil have been found close to the island.

The survey also found evidence of a Bronze Age trackway in the general direction of Toneham Farm to Pode Hole Farm south west of the village.


Roman times are evident in extensive signs of farming at Willow Hall, Pode Hole Farm and Chestnut Farm.

The survey also recorded a Roman settlement on the south west side of the island. This has not been excavated but pieces of pottery and clay ware have been found on the site.

Roman finds have been recorded on the island in excavations about the Abbey.

 

Monastic

Legend says that the religious settlement of "Ancarig" (the original name of Thorney) – the place of the anchorites – was founded in the seventh century by those looking for quiet and a contemplative life away from the temptations of towns. An article by a local historian, Avril Lumley Prior, is available here. After destruction by the Vikings and Saxon refoundation under the influence of St Aethelwold, a major Benedictine abbey developed.

In the twelfth century, William of Malmesbury described Thorney as "a little paradise, delightsome as heaven itself may be deemed, fen-circled, yet rich in loftiest trees, where water meadows delight the eye with rich green, where streamlets glide unchecked through each field… And what of the glorious buildings, whose very size it is a wonder that the ground can support amid such marshes? A vast solitude is here the monk's lot, that they may the more closely cling to things above. If a woman is there seen, she is counted a monster,
but strangers, if men, are greeted as angels unawares. Yet there none speaketh, save for the moment; all is holy silence."

The Benedictine Monastery was large and acquired lands in many countries, but on the 1st of December 1539 it was surrendered to Henry VIII's Commissioners as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Shortly afterwards the buildings were almost all removed. Much of the stonework was dismantled and sold to Cambridge to construct University buildings. Many samples of the carved stonework can be seen in gardens about Thorney.

The land was granted to John, Baron Russell, in 1549. He became the 1st Earl of Bedford in 1550. This family then held Thorney for the next 350 years and were responsible for their estate's development up to 1910.

The Norman, and later, abbey buildings have mostly gone, but much of the Nave survives to form the Parish Church of St Mary and St Botolph, also open to visitors.

Opposite the Abbey is a building called Abbey House. The front part is possibly the oldest building in Thorney and may have been built by the Duke of Bedford for his stewards from the sixteenth century around some remains of the Abbot's Lodging.

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The Bedford Estate

Life continued as normal for an agricultural estate until the Dukes of Bedford decided to improve the community.

Communications had been established across the causeway linking Thorney to Eye and Peterborough. The Turnpike also continued on to Guyhirn and Wisbech. At each end of this turnpike, marking the limits of the Bedford Estate were toll houses. In the east there is now a community named Thorney toll, in the west there is Causeway Toll farm.

Thorney was, during this time a Posting Station and the Dukes Head Inn stood on the south west corner of the traffic lights at Abbey Place and the Wisbech Road. It was demolished after it fell in to disrepair towards the end of the nineteenth century.

The Museum holds copies of some directories of the period, such as Pigott's, White's etc. The village and its communications are described, as are many of the residents.

It was decided to improve the state of the village, as the Dukes were also doing at other estates, such as Ampthill. Samuel Sanders Teulon was engaged as the architect, and a wide range of buildings was created after 1848, including workers' cottages, larger farmhouses, the Tankyard (1855) which was the focus of water and sewage systems, and public facilities like schools and shops. Most of this building work still survives, and displays in the Museum also describe it - and the reactions of local people to their new homes!

 

Draining the Fens - a Thorney-focused timeline - 17th, 18th, 19th & recent times...

17th Century

The Earls of Bedford and early settlers

The Earls of Bedford started to take a major interest in their lands at Thorney in the early part of the of the 17th Century. This was later linked with an influx of Walloon settlers. Some had been driven off their lands in Sandtoft, further North in England, in 1628. Workers were invited and came from Holland to work on the drainage of the Fens.

The 4th Earl, and others, called the Adventurers, gained permission to drain the Fens and invested huge amounts of money. Cornelius Vermuyden was employed to carry out this work. The Bedford Levels were created and many drains and pumping stations established enabling our rich farming lands to be exposed. The Walloon settlers were joined by French Protestant "Huguenots" who were invited to to settle on the drained land.

The ruined abbey Church was rebuilt in 1636/38 and services were held there from that time. There were a minority of local people who also held services in the same church, but the Huguenots were allowed to have their own Pastor and conduct their own services in French. Transcriptions of some of the records of the period are available in the museum.

The Huguenots were skilled in land drainage and farming. Many of them became tenant farmers under the Earl.

After the Civil War of 1642-1646, and the Restoration of Charles II to the throne, the Earl built an extension to Abbey House in Thorney. This was similar in design to Thorpe Hall in Peterborough where the Chancellor lived.

The museum displays copies of documents and maps of this time to demonstrate the effect of the drainage of the Fens and the way of life during this century.

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18th Century

The 18th Century was a period of consolidation for the Bedford Estate. Tenant Farmers came, and went. The farms were, basically, controlled by the Earl's Agent who lived in Thorney.

Several buildings were erected about the Village Green during this period. Some of them may have been built over the foundations of the old monastery buildings.

There are examples around the village of 18th century cottages and buildings. These are mainly in Church Street, Abbey Place and the part of Wisbech Road opposite the Rose and Crown pub.

The Museum holds exhibits of artifacts found in the surrounding area from
this period.

19th Century

Life continued as normal for an agricultural estate until the Dukes of Bedford decided to improve the "lot" of their community.

Communications had been established across the causeway linking Thorney to Eye and Peterborough. The Turnpike also continued on to Guyhirn and Wisbech. At each end of this "Turnpike", marking the limits of the Bedford Estate were Toll houses. In the east there is now, a community named Thorney Toll! In the west there is Causeway Toll farm.

Thorney was, during this time a "Posting Station" and the Dukes Head Inn stood on the south west corner of the traffic lights at Abbey Place and the Wisbech Road. It was demolished after it fell in to disrepair at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Museum holds copies of some directories of the period, such as Pigott's, White's etc. The village and its communications are described, as are many of the residents.

It was decided to improve the state of the village, as the Dukes were also doing at other estates, such as Ampthill. Samuel Sanders Teulon was engaged as the architect, and a wide range of buildings were created after 1848, including workers' cottages, larger farmhouses, the Tankyard (1855) which was the focus of water and sewage systems, and public facilities like schools and shops. Most of this building work still survives, and displays in the Museum also describe it - and the reactions of local people to their new homes!

 
 
 
 
 

Post-Bedford Estate

As Local Government took over the administration of this country from mid 19th Century, it created a system of Parish, District and County Councils. Money had to be raised from somewhere, and so a local rating system was put in to place. A Rateable Value was put on all properties and monies levied against that value. The Earls of Bedford were not raising enough money in rents to absorb this levy. They decided to sell the estate to, in the main, sitting tenants.

The whole estate was disected from 1910 to 1912.

Since the sale of the estate, the village has remained important for the range of cottages within it, and has also developed a range of trades and activities which are not all related to its farming past.

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The Bedford Hall

Original Use

The brick tower, built in 1855, houses a large cast iron tank on the sixth floor, once providing water to the village. Water was fed to the Tank Yard via the Thorney River from the River Nene where two engines installed in the cellars of the Hall pumped the water to the tower tank. Other parts of the Tank Yard complex included a blacksmith's shop, craftsmen's workshops, a timber store, a sawmill and the engineer's house.

Today

The collection of buildings in a Jacobean style at the Tank Yard, Thorney are home to the Thorney Museum, the Fire Station, the Bedford Hall, the North Level Drainage Board and pre-school nursery. The Bedford Hall has been a community resource since it was named and opened in April 1981. The hall is is licensed for weddings and social occasions.

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