19th Century building programme in St Neots



Local historians, Charles Tebbutt and Rosa Young, have published extensive research into St Neots’ history. What follows has largely been gleaned from their work.


With the ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 there was a period of peace and prosperity. The population of St Neots and Eynesbury doubled from 2,327 in 1801 to 4,662 in 1861.


A number of industrial premises were constructed in Bedford Street including a corn mill, maltings, an iron foundry and a gas works. The wealthier residents, merchants and manufacturers, lived in large, three-storey town houses, often above their business premises on the Square, High Street, Huntingdon Street, Cambridge Street as far as Shady Walk, Church Street, Brook Street and South Street. Many had private wharves on the river or Hen Brook.


The fronts of their houses were improved during the 19th century. The insides were renovated to make them more comfortable with inside toilets, coal fires, baths and balconies on the upper floors . They also employed any number of domestic servants.


Some wealthy people had larger houses built with gardens on the outskirts of town, away from the noise, smell and smoke from all the coal fires.  The ground floor of their town houses was converted into a shop or office and the upper floors were rented or sold to their chief assistant or manager.


Wealthy farmers in St Neots, Eynesbury, Eaton Ford and Eaton Socon improved their timber-framed medieval houses or had new ones built with local bricks.


In Eynesbury the main roads and larger properties were St Mary’s Street, Berkeley Street (with houses on the east side only) as far as the Green, Montague Street and Montague Square.  


A new police station and magistrates court with cells was built in New Street in 1856.


The jobs provided by the farmers, merchants, manufacturers, shop keepers and traders attracted many working-class people. Labourers in the Paper Mill in Little Paxton and the factories on Bedford Street needed affordable housing. Builders bought cheap, low-lying land and in 1840 many buildings were constructed. These were two or four room, terraced cottages in what was jokingly called the ‘Borough’ in Huntingdon Street and Russell Street. They were often overcrowded as having large families was very common.


Shopkeepers and inn keepers built small houses for their employees in the ‘yards’ and ‘courts’ behind the shops and inns around the Market Square. They were approached by little passages or ‘jetties’ and had no space or outlook.


In 1866 a row of small, ‘two-up two-down’ terraced cottages with a small back garden were built on one side of East Street for working families to rent. Better quality semi-detached cottages were constructed for foremen and managers. They had an outside toilet, shared access to a public well and a wash-house.  Similar housing was built in Russell Street and Shaftesbury Avenue.


Similar working class and lower-middle class houses were built on Luke Street, Montague Square, Buckley Road and Silver Street in Eynesbury, using bricks from local brickworks.


In 1880 better quality, detached houses with more bedrooms, front and back gardens were constructed for the wealthier shopkeepers and traders to buy in Avenue Road and Kings Road. They had their own well or pump.


In Eaton Socon there was less building. Some of the older thatched medieval cottages on the Great North Road were demolished and bigger, better quality, detached houses built.


The Town Commissioners in 1816 ordered the construction of a sewer which ran untreated into the river by the bridge. Open sewage ditches ran alongside many streets so there was a problem of flies, rats and the smell.


Cess pits were where residents emptied their pails of urine and excrement every day. They were not waterproof so liquid drained into the water table contaminating wells. All water had to be boiled. It was therefore common for people to drink ale instead.


In 1874 a report by a Mr Hennell mentioned typhoid in Russell Street, New Street and Huntingdon Street. 43% of all deaths were children under the age of 10.


In 1880 there were 30 cases of typhoid and in 1895 there was an outbreak of smallpox. Medical Officers were appointed and a District Nursing Association set up which helped improve living conditions. Poor people paid from 2d (£0.01) a month for a nurse to come round. 


The ‘Cage’ was constructed in 1826 to serve as an overnight prison for people arrested for making trouble.


Piped water was not available until 1898 when a private water company was set up.


(Young, R. (1996), 'St Neots Past', Phillimore, )