Local historians Charles Tebbutt and Rosa Young have published extensive research into St Neots’ history. What follows has largely been gleaned from their work.
There is no evidence of how the early settlers in this area governed themselves. They had scattered farming communities in clearings in the woods near the river. A local tribal leader probably enforced the rules about what should and shouldn’t be done.
When the Roman’s took control of this area from the Iron Age tribes maybe a retired Roman soldier laid down the rules. Archaeological evidence of a villa and mosaics has been found near the River Great Ouse in Eynesbury.
After the Romans Saxon kings gave land to their relatives and military supporters. Earl Leofric and his wife Leoflaed were Eynesbury landowners in 972 when they established a religious community to look after the bones and relics of St Neot. This became St Neots Priory.
The Saxon monks were given farmland, woodland and properties which were rented out to local farmers. One of the monks arranged the collection of rents and the prior probably dealt with disputes. For other local disputes the Earl would have acted as Justice of the Peace, setting up a court in his manor house to listen to the arguments about a person’s innocence or guilt. Where more important issues had to be discussed the parish church of St Mary’s was used.
Robert was the landowner in 1066. When the Normans took control of this area Robert’s lands and manor house were confiscated and taken over by Eudo. He arranged for the Saxon monks to be replaced with Benedictine monks. They governed those lands under their control. Their bailiff had an office in the Court Room on the Market Square. Eudo and his Norman successors dealt with local government matters.
After Henry VIII closed down the smaller monasteries and religious houses in 1539 the land was sold to the Cromwell family of Hinchinbrooke House in Huntingdon. As Lords of the Manor they administered local affairs until they sold their St Neots lands to Edmond Anderson in the 17th century. It then passed through the hands of, Sir Stephen Anderson during the reign of Charles II, Charles Anderson Pelham and afterwards Lord Yarborough. It was purchased in 1793 by O. Rowley whose family built Priory Hill house. Part of the estate was sold in 1812 to the Earl of Sandwich of Northamptonshire. They all benefited from the revenue of the market and Market Square until the 19th century. The Sandwich family remained as Lords of Manor until 1848 when they sold the manor, market and Manor Farm to the Rowleys. (Gorham, p. 186-7)
Although Huntingdon and Godmanchester could govern themselves, St Neots could not. They were granted a borough charter which allowed them their own council. In St Neots it was the Lord of the Manor and the vicar who made all the decisions about the parish.
By the 18th century local government was the responsibility of the parish churchwardens. Those in St Neots, Eynesbury and Eaton Socon had to power to levy (charge) rates (local taxes) on their parishioners. The parishes were administered by their Clerk (secretary), the Overseers of the Poor, the Surveyor of the Highways and the Parish Constables (Police).
There was a member of parliament for Huntingdonshire but the only people who had a vote were those who owned land.
In the early 19th century the leading citizens of St Neots discussed what could be done to improve the town’s government and make it more effective. The persuaded their MP to ask Parliament to pass an Act (legal addition to the Statute Book – list of the country’s laws) allowing the town to have their own council. In 1819 a Bill (Act) was passed.
It allowed a Board of Commissioners to govern the town. The town’s people did not elect them. They were chosen from among the important landowners, farmers, industrialists, merchants and traders. When the commissioners resigned, retired or were voted off the board they were replaced by other selected leading citizens.
In 1819 they were:
Samuel Allvey, M.D., William Alexander Peppercorn,
William Abbott the elder, John Paxton,
Charles Banks, Richard Pamplin,
John Day, Ousley Rowley,
William Day, David Rowley,
William Foster, Francis Rix,
Samuel Fairey the elder, Octavius Marmaduke Saunders,
George James Gorham, Joseph Savill,
William Ingersole, Robert Sabine,
Thomas Ingersole, Matthew Towgood the elder,
James Livett, Thomas Thorns (the vicar),
the Revered Thomas Morell, William Wiles (cornfactor).
Board meetings were held every second Tuesday in January, April, July and October in the Falcon Inn, the parish vestry or another convenient house. They had to have a quorum (a minimum number of people) of five at the meeting. They appointed a clerk, treasurer, rate collector, rate receiver and surveyor. Clerks were not allowed to be treasurers.
They had power to:
The first local Bye-laws
The Board of Commissioners introduced a number of bye-laws, some of which still exist today.
· No person shall drive a coach, cart, wagon, dray, wheelbarrow, or any carriage whatever, over any foot pavement.
· No person shall permit any beast to wander about any street.
· No person shall kill, slaughter, singe, scald, dress, or cut up, any beast; or allow blood to run from any Slaughter House onto the highway
· No person shall hoop, cleanse, wash or scold, any casks, hew or saw any timber, bind or make a wheel or shoe; bleed, dress or farry any horse; set, place or expose for sale any goods on footways or carriage ways.
· Nor make fires, called Bonfires, or set fire, or let off, or throw, any Squib, Rocket, Serpent or Firework; or play football, or any other game, nor sift screen, or slack any line, on a highway or footway.
· No wagon, cart, or dray shall be left to stand on the highway, with or without horses, for longer than reasonable for loading or unloading, nor any stage coach than is reasonable for taking up or setting down passengers.
· No dung, ashes, or rubbish to be thrown onto any highway.
· Beasts found wandering on the streets to be put to the Common Pound, and not released until the owner pay a sum not exceeding 20s. (£1.00). If not paid within seven days the Pound Keeper (Pinder) may sell the beast, giving two days notice to the owner, if known.
· In case of a slaughter house, hog stye, or other noisome building, carrion, blood, offal, soil, or dung, being near the highway an offensive to inhabitants, the Commissioners may give notice in writing for the nuisance to be removed, and if not removed within two days, the offender shall pay a sum, not exceeding 40s. (£2.00) for each day the same be unremoved.
· From the passing of the Act all persons occupying houses, buildings, shops, warehouses, yards, gardens, and stables, in or against any street, shall cause to be swept and cleansed, the footways, paths, and pavements, the whole length of their property, between the hours of 7 and 10 o’clock of the forenoon, twice or oftener each week. With a penalty of not less than 5s. (£0.25) and not more than 10s. for every neglect.
· When a building or house standing upon a street, and projecting beyond the regular line of that street, be taken down and rebuilt, the Commissioners may direct that it be set back to such regular line, and make compensation to the owner.
· Rates shall be levied once or oftener each year on property as judged needful, in any sum not exceeding 1s.6d. in the pound on all property as assessed for the relief of the Poor.
· The mansion house of Ousley Rowley Esq., and the St Neots Water Mill, now occupied by Matthew Towgood Esq., not to e assessed at a greater annual value than £40. No property beyond one mile radius from St Neots church to be rated. Poor persons excused from the Poor Rate, not to be rated.
· The commissioners have the power to borrow money, or mortgage and pay interest, and to reward informers.
Eynesbury and Eaton Socon were not included in the 1819 Bill. Its churchwardens continued to govern their villages.
One of the first things the board did in 1819 was to pass the St Neots Paving and Lighting Act.
‘Whereas the Streets, Lanes, public Passages, and Places of the Town of St Neots… are not properly paved, cleaned or lighted, and are subject to various Encroachments (trespass), Nuisances, and Annoyances: and whereas it would tend greatly to the Benefit, Convenience and Safety, not only to the Inhabitants of the said Town, but to persons resorting thereto, if the said Streets, Lanes, public Passages, and Places were properly paved, lighted and cleansed, and if certain encroachments and Annoyances were removed; and Provisions made for preventing the same in the future; but in such purposes cannot be effected without the Aid and Authority of Parliament; may it therefore please your Majesty that it be enacted…’
Lamp posts were erected in the town. Poor people from the Poor House were employed to clean the streets.
The poor people of the parishes were provided with food, clothes, coal and accommodation by the churchwardens until parliament passed the Poor Law in 1836. This forced the parishes to appoint Overseers of the Poor.
A sewer was started in 1820, the bricks supplied by three local brickmakers. Messrs. Rix, Gorham and Banks. It cost 3s.6d. a yard.
In 1821 the Market Square was cobbled at 9s a square yard. In 1823 a water cart was employed to keep the dust down in the streets.
In the 1820s and 30s buildings were bought and demolished to widen roads.
In 1833 extra supplies of water were needed for fire fighting. A a new drain was dug from Hen Brook into an underground storage tank near the Wesleyan chapel on Huntingdon Street.
In 1839 a proposal for gas lighting was refused.
In 1842 a proposal for a gasworks was refused.
In 1843 the old town pump near the Cross Keys in the Market Square was removed.
In 1845 the Board opposed the proposal to build a railway line through the town. They met
‘To consider and determine upon the best steps to be taken to effectively oppose the proposed Line of Railway from Ely to Bedford, which proposes making an embankment across St Neots Common and Meadows as will Flood the Town and neighbourhood to a Ruinous Extent.’
In 1845-6 a fire engine house was built in Huntingdon Street with a lamp house, store houses and public rooms above.
In 1846 the Commissioners accepted a quote from Thomas Darnell and Samuel Fairey of the St Neots Gas and Coke Company to install gas street lamps.
In 1846 they opposed John Medlock’s plans to build a Steam Mill on Back Lane, near New Street. He was paid £120 compensation and moved the new mill to Nutters Lane.
In 1850 watchmen (known as ‘Greatcoats’, were appointed as Special Constables instead.
In 1851 they proposed to rent the ground floor of the new Corn Exchange as a fowl and butter market. The Corn Exchange company refused the £40 per annum rent.
In 1852 new ‘Public Rooms’ were built near the bridge.
In 1853 they agreed to build a paved footpath to the new railway station.
In 1855 the Nuisance Removal Act meant that they had to appoint Thomas Darnell an Inspector of Nuisances.
The Police force was established in 1856 and a Police Station with cells built.
In 1857 the North Road Turnpike agreed to pay £25 per annum to the Commissioners for the repair of their roads through the town.
In 1859 the pound near Common Lane (where stray animals were impounded) was repaired.
Scavengers were paid 1s. a week to pick up litter and waste.
In 1861 the unused ‘Lockup’ on the Market Square (now that the Police Station had cells) was used for storing the water cart and lamps.
The Petroleum Act was passed in 1869 and in 1870 the Commissioners granted Messrs, Barford and Mole permission to store three 20-gallon drums, Mr Fisher six 36-gallon barrels and John Lynn one barrel.
There were people playing hockey and other games in the street which the Board thought dangerous. They were threatened in 1870 with a fine of 40s.
East Street was accepted as a public highway and got its first gas lamps in 1872.
The Public Health Act of 1872 meant that the Commissioners became an Urban Sanitary Authority. They had to pay £10 a year towards the £800 salary of the County Medical Officer of Health..
Concern was expressed about the sanitary conditions St Neots and that, if anything was to be done to solve the problem, it was proposed that the parish should combine with Eynesbury. That would bring in additional funds from their rates.
The Local Government Board agreed to consider the proposal and to repeal the ‘Act of 39 George II, St Neots’, if the commissioners provided them with a map showing the proposed boundaries of a new district.
In 1874 new bye-laws were introduced.
1. No field pipe to be used for polluted water, only glazed pipes of not less than four inches diameter.
Later in 1874 a forward-thinking commissioner, G.S. Bower, was authorised to discuss a waterworks and sanitary drainage scheme with a Mr Hennell.
Hennell’s report was not pleasant reading,
There is no sewerage, properly so called, i.e. no drains intended for the passage of excremental or other foul matter.
There is a main drain through the town from east to west of ample dimension with an inlet at its commencement with the brook near Green End, and so it is well flushed after every considerable fall of rain.
There are drains of about 200 yards in length in Huntingdon Street, and 66 yards in Church Street (not flushed) and a cesspool under the street at the junction of the three drains. These are the only drains of considerable size in the district. There are smaller surface drains under most of the streets, mostly merely a brick on each side with one laid flat on the top. Many of these are quite blocked up and merely spread the liquid to soak away, in many places.
The provision made for excremental and other matter throughout the town is by cesspools. A few of these, belonging to the better class of houses, are constructed so as to be watertight, or nearly so, and provided with overflows to the main drains. The majority are built of bricks in mortar, or partly dry, and merely retain the solids, leaving the liquids to percolate freely into the soil.
In the case of houses on the south side of the Market Place, and in Brook Street, the sewage passes directly, or almost directly, into the Brook; other sewage goes into the Ouse at River Terrace and the Priory.
With regard to water, the present supply is entirely from private wells sunk in gravel. In the southern part of the town however, it appears that there is an intermediate stratum of clay, and that some of the wells pass through this into gravel below; these may yield water of fair average quality.
The majority being of gravel of no great depth are necessarily contaminated with anything that soaks in from the surface.
In New Street, Russell Row, Huntingdon Street, and elsewhere, wells and cesspools are often close together and there is practically no drainage; all liquid matter sinks almost directly into the subsoil when water is drawn.
I was shown houses where there were cases of typhoid fever and should be surprised it it be ever absent while such a state of things continues.
Mr Hennell proposed a new sewerage scheme which was to cost £6,000. His report was printed and given to all the ratepayers. A town meeting was called and there was unanimous opposition to it from the leading tradesmen and property owners. His proposal was shelved.
In 1874 the St Neots and Cambridge Turnpike Trust ceased to exist. Three miles of roads in the town now had to be looked after by the Town Commissioners. They bought 70 tons of Mountsorrel granite chippings to lay on the road from the Station Road to the Town Cross in the Market Square.
As the rates were 1s.6d. per householder the revenue was not enough to cover their costs. The Commissioners wanted to unite with Eynesbury and Eaton Socon to raise more money. The Local Government Board agreed and a Provisional Order was received allowing Eynesbury but not Eaton Socon to join. Eynesbury residents were not pleased with the proposal.
In late-1876 all ratepayers in St Neots and Eynesbury were allowed to vote. There were 36 candidates for 12 representatives to form a Local Board. The results of the election were:
James Brown 630 Joseph Wilcox 483 D. R. Thomson 386
Wm. Paine 551 James Paine 445 George Bower 364
Samuel Day 484 W.H. Hall 402 H. Harvey 346
They elected G. Bower as Chairman, Mr. Wade-Gery as Clerk, Mr. Emery as treasurer and Mr. Martin the Surveyor. There were three committees set up to deal with ‘Financial and Assessment’, ‘Sanitary’ and ‘Highways, Paving and Lighting’.
The population of the new district was 4,598 in 1877 and the rate of 1s. (£0.05) was set which raised £553.
Gas street lighting was extended to Eynesbury. It is claimed that many members owned a number of houses so did little to improve standards of health in the district. They did not want to pay more in rates and still charge the same rents.
It was ordered that all houses had to have numbers added to their doors from 1884.
In 1885 there was renewed concern about the sanitary conditions in the district. A government inspector visited the town and warned the board to prepare for a possible outbreak of cholera. He visited some of the worst parts of town - small, older houses and new homes built which ignored the bye-laws.
Day’s Court (probably south east of the High Street). The court badly paved, the cottages dilapidated, no windows in the bedrooms except looking into the court. In the court are foul privy pits, a few years ago these were converted to earth closets, but were again altered back to privy pits. No accommodation for scavenging.
Rowley’s Court Huntingdon Street (probably immediately north of the Limes). Similar conditions as in Day’s Court. Some of the cottages have floors below ground level which are damp, upstairs rooms are only five feet high, and drain gullies are defective.
East Street New houses have had drains laid in unsocketed pipes and as a result sewer gas is escaping into some of the houses. Privy vaults in the gardens are only emptied every six months. Houses now in course of construction have unsocketed and unventilated drain pipes, and wells dug only 12 feet from their privy pits.
Everywhere nuisances are being allowed to be perpetrated, and people are really drinking their own excrement. Many slaughterhouses should never have been licensed in their present state. It is essential that the town should have a public water supply. He had to admit that the present death rate was a low one, but in the last month of 1880 there were 30 cases of typhoid in the town.
The board’s response was hostile. Maybe some of the owners of the houses considered it a criticism of them for allowing their tenants to live in such unhygienic conditions.
In 1887 the Local Board was ordered to remove all the towns privy pits, cesspools and middens and set up a pail system. Pails had to emptied into drains at least once a week. All yards had to be covered in paving stones and all gullies needed traps.
In 1892 the Board opposed the National Telephone Company’s plans to erect telegraph poles as well as to put in underground cables.
The Earl of Sandwich agreed to rent the Market Square to the Board for £25.
The rates were raised to 1s.9d. which produced revenue of £1,056.
In 1893 Mr Fydell Rowley asked the Board to re-route the public path that went alongside his estate at Priory Park. The path ran north from the cemetery, across Cambridge Street, up Avenue Road, northeast towards the railway line towards Toseland. He was concerned that it was so close to the estate that it encouraged trespassers and poachers. The Board agreed to his proposed alternative route along Lime Avenue to the Station and then north up to the public road.
There was considerable local opposition, especially from farmers in Yelling, Toseland and Graveley who used the route to get to market. Some locals argued that the ‘new’ path was already a right of way and that the Board was letting the Lord of the Manor get his own way. Amos Abraham was so annoyed he sued the Board for illegally closing the old path. He got a petition of 1,000 signatures and won his case.
Rowley took legal advice and in 1894 the Board held a Public Meeting in the Corn Exchange. It was very rowdy with lots of people still opposing Rowley’s plan. He dropped his plans.
The East Huntingdonshire Water Company had wells at Old North Road Station and offered in 1894 to supply water to St Neots at 6d. per 1,000 gallons. Tests showed the water to be poor quality and not available in quantity so the offer was refused.
The meetings of the Local Board were held in the Magistrates Court Room on New Street came to an end in 1894.
The St Neots and Eynesbury District Council started proceedings on 1st January 1895. There were 33 candidates for 13 seats and the following were elected: -
T. Ellwood 314 W. Carter 207 D.R. Tomson 181
L. Hall 246 S. Hinsby 203 G. Brown 178
J. Wright 244 S. Huckle 201 A.W. Barker 178
Rev. Hodgson 212 C. Malden 185 P. Lovitt 176
G. Flawn 207
The new council elected John McNish as chairman, a non-elected member! Mr Wade-Gery was clerk and Mr Jackson surveyor. They continued to meet in the Magistrates Court Room and set up the following committees: - ‘Finance and Assessment’, ‘Buildings’, ‘Sanitary’, ‘Highways, Lighting, Watering and Tolls’, and ‘General Purposes’.
In 1896 they agreed to erect a fountain on the Market Square fed by water from Paine and Company’s well. They took no action on a scheme to provide piped water. Agents from Parliament enquired whether the new council intended to supply water themselves or get a private water company. A Bill went through Parliament to set up the St Neots Water Company but the council opposed it. They even took legal advice to stop it. They did not want the site of the proposed wells for the waterworks on the west side of Little Barford Road. They argued the water would be polluted from the river and from manure from surrounding fields.
Despite their opposition the Bill was passed in 1898. A Pumping Station was erected (in the field behind Ernulf Community School) which pumped water to a reservoir at the top of the hill near what is now Abbotsley Golf Club. When it was opened in 1891 the Urban District Council did not attend. It has been argued that wealthy property owners on the council did not want the expense of supplying their tenants with running water or installing a sewage system.
The council opposed the Water Company’s plans in 1899 to supply Eaton Socon, Roxton and Little Barford. In 1906 the company went bankrupt and was taken over and run by the Urban District Council.
Source: Tebbutt, C.F. (1978), St Neots – The History of a Huntingdonshire Town, Phillimore, pp. 22 - 42