Heritage & Culture

Peterborough: From Past To Present, And Beyond

The city of Peterborough was substantially shaped by the 19th and 20th centuries, more than any other era. But it’s been inhabited since earliest times. RICHARD GUNN tells how it evolved through time into the place we know today

This is the story of Medeshamstede. But if that doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry. Despite the fact that many of you reading this actually live there, and even those who don’t will probably have visited it in the last month or so, you’d have to go back over a thousand years to find the name in common usage…

For Medeshamstede was what Peterborough used to be known as. It changed around the time of the Norman Conquest to become Burgh, or Burgh St Peter which then evolved into Peterborough by the end of the Middle Ages. But, for any Romans using Ermine Street – still largely in use today as the A1 and A14 – during the second to fourth centuries, Durobrivae would have been the town they looked forward to as a rest-stop when they reached this part of the country. In the many millennia since people first settled on the spot, the location eventually to become known as Peterborough has had several different titles. So how did it metamorphose to become the large, vibrant and diverse city it is today?

The site must have made an attractive prospect to any early humans seeking a permanent home. By the side of the Nene, at the point where dry land submitted to the marshy Fens, it was a fertile place blessed with natural abundant food and building resources. The first person to chronicle the history of Peterborough, the Benedictine monk Hugh Candidus, wrote during the 12th century that it was “built in a fair spot, and a goodly, because on the one side it is rich in fenland, and in goodly waters, and on the other it has the abundance of ploughlands and woodlands with many fertile meads and pastures”.

Heritage Site | Flag Fen

Neolithic man found this out between 4,000 and 3,000 BC when the area was first settled and farmed. Pottery dating from that era has been uncovered across the region, so distinctive in style that it has become known as Peterborough ware.

By the time of the Roman invasion, it’s believed that quite a major Iron Age settlement was occupying the future Peterborough. The Romans landed in 43, by 47 they had taken over control of the area, with the building of a large fort at what is now Thorpe Wood Golf Course. Ferry Meadows also shows traces of Roman habitation, still visible today – at first, purely military, with the construction of two small camps and defensive ditches. But, once the troops departed, the spot became a farm instead, complete with its own temple.

Roman soldier

It was from the fortress at Longthorpe that the legendary Legio IX Hispana (Ninth Legion of Spaniards) set out to battle Queen Boudica when her Iceni tribe rose in revolt against the Romans in 61. And it was back to Longthorpe that the legion fled after being ambushed by Boudica, with 80 per cent of its soldiers dead. Its general Quintus Petillius Cerialis realised he would be unable to hold the fort with such diminished manpower, so a smaller stronghold was built inside the original, less than half its size.

Although the fort at Longthorpe was abandoned as the army moved on, a civilian settlement was establised: Durobrivae, the first proper town in the district. It stood on Ermine Street near the current Water Newton and was a thriving place of 44 acres with its suburbs stretching out much further, including to Castor where the remains of a large villa still exist. Pottery was its main commerce, right up until it dropped out of history at the end of the fourth century, when the empire’s hold on Britain started to disintegrate. While scarce traces of it can be found at ground level now, the internet has granted all of us a precious opportunity to be amateur archaeologists. Look on Google Earth and just to the west of Water Newton, beside the A1, you can make out the remains of Durobrivae and its network of streets within the old wall outline, punctuated by Ermine Street running through the centre and off to the north west towards Lincoln.

 The Anglo-Saxons arrive 

Sutton Hoo Saxon helmet

The Romans were replaced by the Anglo-Saxons, who spread from Germany during the fifth century, and it is to them that Peterborough owes its direct origins. The area was ruled over by the Pagan king Penda from 626 to 655, but his son Peada introduced Christianity to the Middle Angles, the region in which future Peterborough lay. Admittedly, his faith was perhaps less about true belief and more a desire to marry into the affluent Northumbrian Royal house but nevertheless, he founded a monastery in 655. Named Medeshamstede, it was built on the site of the current cathedral and from there, the town and later city grew up around it. The name means ‘homestead in the meadows’, although 12th century scholars have also attributed it to a nearby spring called Medes Well.

Medeshamstede soon grew in importance, becoming the mother house of other religious establishments as Christianity spread. Its existence was quite peaceful up until 870 when invading Vikings reputedly burnt it to the ground and massacred the monks. It wasn’t refounded again until 970, when Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester claimed to have been visited by God, who told him to travel to the ancient monastery of St Peter and restore it. This he did, after a small hiccup when he stumbled on Oundle by accident and started to build there instead. A presumably slightly frustrated God then appeared a second time to point out his mistake and direct him down-river a few miles until he found the real Medeshamstede, its ruins being used to house cattle and sheep and ‘the whole place filled with foulness and all uncleanness’, according to Hugh Candidus. Perhaps mindful of the tales of its previous treatment by the Vikings, the rebuilt structure was soon surrounded by an earth bank and wooden palisade, thus becoming known as Burgh, meaning a fortified place. Adding the name of the saint to whom it was dedicated later created Peterburgh.

Hereward the Wake

A century later though, the monastery was in trouble once more. Following the Norman invasion of England, local rebel leader Hereward the Wake stormed Burgh, his somewhat fragile excuse being that he wanted to stop its treasures falling into the hands of William the Conqueror. The defences had little effect – he simply set fire to buildings adjacent to the main gate and got in that way. The entire fledgling community of Burgh was destroyed, save for one solitary house, and the monastery was once again set on fire. Small wonder that the abbot, Thorold, promptly had a motte-and-bailey castle constructed next door, albeit out of wood. The mound on which it stood can still be seen from the cathedral grounds, off to the north.

Peterborough and fire were obviously unhappy bedfellows, for in August 1116 there was yet another blaze that destroyed both the town and the church, its tower remaining alight for nine days. The cause was attributed to drunkenness among the monks. All the monastery’s documents went up in flames, too, forcing the monks to borrow other religious institution’s records and copy them. This included the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, an Anno Domini history of Britain. Under Norman rule though, these accounts by great churches gradually died out, except in Peterborough, where the monks continued to note down events. Because of this, even after French had been adopted as the official language by order of the Norman regime, Peterborough continued as the last bastion of Old and Middle English, with the writers often showing considerable sympathy for ordinary people amid difficult circumstances. This makes the Peterborough Chronicle both unique for the time, and incredibly significant. The manuscripts came to an end in 1154 and are now preserved in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

The birth of the cathedral

Cross keys stained glass window

Building work got underway in 1118 on a new abbey that is now the cathedral. The town was also re-established outside its gates, this time to the west rather than the east, as it had been previously. Its street layout largely corresponds to that still in place today. The ‘gates’ at the end of road names such as Cowgate and Westgate – both of which came into being at this time – are derived from ‘gaeta’, the Danish word for ‘street’. The abbots of Peterborough had total power over the inhabitants, with much the same status as barons. They were responsible for law and order, plus the growth of the town and construction projects, with the first Town Bridge built in 1308. Made of wood, it survived right through until 1872, when it was replaced by an iron one. This had a much shorter life, lasting only until 1934 before the current concrete one took its place. The parish church of St John the Baptist in Cathedral Square was finished in 1407. Urban myth has it that the church stands lower than surrounding buildings because it occupied the old meat market, and the blood-soaked ground had to be dug out before the foundations could be sunk. It’s not true – the medieval street level was simply lower than it is today. Fairs were also organised, one of which – the Bridge Fair – still takes place today. It can trace its origins right the way back to 1439, when it was granted to the abbey by King Henry VI.

The relationship between abbey and town wasn’t always harmonious. In one of the city’s more notorious incidents, the townspeople rose up against the abbey as part of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, after King Richard II imposed a poll tax on a country still ravaged by the 1348 to 1350 Black Death outbreak. The Bishop of Norwich, Henry le Despenser – whose pious nature was somewhat negated by his reputation for wearing a suit of armour under his cassock – arrived with troops and violently put down the riot, massacring hundreds on the main square and in the Chapel of Thomas Becket. Think of that next time you’re having a coffee in Starbucks, for that is what now occupies the spot.

Legend has it that God was also somewhat annoyed by one of the more notorious abbots, and cursed Peterborough with Black Shuck, a huge phantom dog with eyes weeping fire, who has haunted the area since 1127. Anyone who sees him will be dead by sunrise. Presumably those who provided the description of him passed it on shortly before their own passing. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was told the fable in 1901 while visiting the area; shortly afterwards, he wrote the most famous of the Sherlock Holmes tales, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Featuring, of course, a huge phantom dog…

The power of the abbey came to an abrupt end in 1539, after King Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Peterborough was more fortunate than most – instead of being sold and destroyed as many religious institutions were, it became a cathedral instead, with the town becoming a city by default, despite a population of only about 1,500. However, the influence of the religious establishment was still strong, with the Dean and Chapter becoming Lords of the Manor of Peterborough, and the Churchwardens serving in much the same capacity as a modern local authority.

Was Old Scarlett the inspiration for Hamlet’s grave digger?

Perhaps one reason that the abbey survived to become a cathedral is that Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, had been buried there in 1536 after her death at nearby Kimbolton Castle. She was entombed by Peterborough’s legendary gravedigger, Robert Scarlett. Old Scarlett, as he was nicknamed, lived to the ripe old age of 98 and also interred another Queen, Mary of Scotland, in the cathedral after she was executed at Fotheringhay in 1587. Rumoured to be the inspiration behind Shakespeare’s gravedigger in Hamlet, it is said that during his long life he buried at least two people from every Peterborough household. An outbreak of the plague in 1574 makes this less far-fetched than it sounds. His portrait now hangs above the main entrance to the church, along with a poem in his honour.

During the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651, Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary forces ransacked the cathedral, destroying several parts – including the cloisters – and damaging the interior. Their desecration of some of the carvings can still be seen. After the capture of King Charles I, he was briefly held in the cathedral’s gatehouse. Look for the nameplate of the King’s Lodging (the Monastic royal apartments where he was held) next time you pass under the archway. Shortly after the monarchy was restored, the impressive Butter Cross – also known as the Guildhall – was constructed in 1671, next to St John’s parish church, as the centrepiece for the marketplace and to commemorate the restoration; the royal arms of Charles II decorate its front.

Smallest city in England

In 1774, Peterborough was described by the Gentleman’s Magazine as ‘the smallest city in England’ with a population of fewer than 3,000. However, it was also “indifferently built, with a good bridge, but the only building worth visiting is the Minster”.

This was the same year that the city finally opened its first purpose-built theatre, for long a staple of other cities throughout Britain. It seems that despite previous prosperity from the wool and cloth trade, Peterborough’s signs of affluence were being constrained by the strong influence of the religious authorities. It still closely resembled the 12th century town, with little spread of the city beyond the plan laid out over 650 years before. Stagnation was setting in, and in 1786, the city even had to petition Parliament for assistance as the wool industry declined.

In 1790, the citizens took matters into their own hands and appointed a group of 33 locals as the Peterborough Pavement and Improvement Commissioners, effectively a local government. Among the improvements instigated were the Customs House by the Town Bridge – for in those days, Peterborough was also a port navigable to by trade ships along the River Nene – and oil lamps for the streets. They introduced some regulations that would be familiar to modern Peterburghians, such as strict parking rules and powers of compulsory purchase for highway improvement. Others were more alien, such as casks only allowed to be rolled a maximum of 40 yards on footpaths and strict rules on where beasts could be slaughtered in the streets. One form of transport which persisted in our narrow streets were Sedan Chairs, Peterborough being the last place in the country where you could be carried by hand to your destination!

Norman Cross Prisoner of War Camp

Further municipal benefits came from a very unexpected source; the Emperor Napoleon. The wars with France necessitated the building of camps to house prisoners of war and Norman Cross, near Yaxley, was chosen as one site. It opened in 1797 and, at its peak, had a population – enforced and otherwise – of over 10,000, making it nearly three times the size of Peterborough in an area a fraction of the size. The huge influx of guards and prisoners profited the local economy greatly, especially as the officer classes were allowed out on parole in the city. The first national UK census in 1801 recorded that Peterborough had jumped by 700 to 3,500 residents in 10 years. It may not sound like much now, but it represented a leap of 25 per cent for what was still a very small place.

The coming of the railways was the next major boost for Peterborough. The first line reached the city, from Northampton, in 1845. The direct Great Northern Railway (GNR) route to London followed in 1850, as part of what would become the main East Coast Main Line to Scotland. Peterborough suddenly became a major railway town and a home to engineering workshops. Finally, the city began to spread out from its 12th century plan, with new houses snaking out along the side of the GNR for miles. By 1861, the railways were employing 2,000 people in the town and the population had ballooned to 11,732; Peterborough’s transformation from small provincial market centre to bustling industrial complex was well underway. One of those employed as an apprentice in the GNR’s works was the son of a mill owner from nearby Alwalton. The technical experience Henry Royce gained there proved invaluable later in his career when, along with Charles Rolls, he founded Rolls-Royce to build ‘the best cars in the world.’

The railway wasn’t the only boom industry. Brick-making had come to the area in the 18th century but on a small scale. Then, in 1891, a new, much improved and faster technique was perfected, and dubbed the ‘Fletton process’ after the part of Peterborough where it was pioneered. The city and its environs became the centre of British brick manufacturing, dominated by the London Brick Company throughout most of the 20th century. Brick-making continues in the area today.

All this Victorian expansion also brought much improved facilities. An infirmary opened in 1822, although it soon proved too small and moved to a mansion in Priestgate, now the location of the city’s museum. Gas lighting arrived in 1830 followed by a Corn Exchange, for local commerce in 1846 although this unfortunately replaced the 1774 theatre and meant that, for the next 30 years, Peterborough had no permanent entertainment venue.

Such was Peterborough’s intensive development that, in 1874, it became a municipal borough, with a proper council to run services. It was this that provided a piped water supply and sewers within a few years, and opened up the first public library in 1892.

Modern times

Long Causeway 1904

Peterborough started the 20th century with its population at 30,000 – getting on for 10 times what it had been 100 years previously. The supply of electricity was a new innovation, leading to trams being introduced from 1903 to 1930. A cinema came along in 1911, and, to cope with the burgeoning number of residents, council houses started to appear during the 1920s. The modern city was starting to take shape. But it was inevitable that, as Peterborough rushed to make up for centuries of inactivity, it would lose some of its ancient charm. One victim of the changes was the road from the Town Bridge to the centre. Narrow Street was a row of quaint and ancient buildings but a major obstacle to traffic, as well as the aspirations of the city council, which required a Town Hall somewhat more substantial than the ramshackle building tacked onto the end of the Guildhall. So the shops were demolished, to double the width of the road to make Bridge Street, with the new classical-columned Town Hall, completed in 1934, as its focal point.

Despite the presence of vital industries in the city – such as Perkins Engines, occupying the site now taken up by the Queensgate Centre and bus station – Peterborough escaped World War Two comparatively unscathed, although the Corn Exchange was destroyed by an incendiary in 1942, the cathedral slightly damaged and the Lido – the Art Deco open air swimming pool only opened in 1936 – also hit. (Although presumably not on purpose, unless the Luftwaffe had a particular aversion to East Anglian al fresco bathing.)

The war also brought large numbers of overseas soldiers and air personnel to the area, mainly Americans, Polish and other East European nationalities. Among those who spent time in the area was Hollywood heartthrob Clark Gable, who could regularly be found drinking in local pubs in between his duties as an airman. Such multiculturalism has continued ever since, with an influx of Italians to the brick industry in the 1950s, Commonwealth immigrants during the 1960s and lately settlers from Eastern Europe.

But the biggest 20th century change to Peterborough came in 1967 when the government designated it a new town, to double in size within 20 years. With the population at 80,000 at the time, this was quite some undertaking and the Peterborough Development Corporation was formed a year later to manage this. New housing estates were built – Bretton, Orton and the continuing expansion at Hampton – and the middle of the city was transformed in 1982 by the opening of the Queensgate Centre. Nene Park and Ferry Meadows, to the west, opened as a vast recreation area for the benefit of residents and the city was enclosed by the Parkway system to speed up road traffic. But anyone driving on these in recent years will have noticed how Peterborough is now starting to unfurl itself past these boundaries, to the south and the east, with new housing and commercial building.

Queensgate Construction 1978

The Peterborough of today is a diverse and ever-growing modern city of around 175,000 inhabitants. It still retains its medieval core at its centre, with its street plan and magnificent cathedral – which fortunately survived another fire in November 2001 – but beyond that, it’s very much a product of the Victorian era and modern times. Redevelopment is continuing following close on the heels of the Cathedral Square revamp. The challenges of current times are being recognised by Peterborough’s commitment to become the UK’s environment capital, with the Green Wheel cycle network a major facet of this scheme. For so much of its history, Peterborough seemed to be a city that stood still. Now it’s moving faster than ever before.

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