The Long History of Sutton-in-the-Isle

This section will be periodically expanded and updated to incorporate more historical information on Sutton and suggested links to illustrations and other relevant sites.

In the Paleolithic period (40,000-7,500BC) the inhabitants of what was to become Sutton were itinerant hunters, following the wolves, bear, bison, sabre-tooth tigers and even the odd hippopotamus who might be killed for food.

Towards the later part of this period bows, arrows and harpoons became the weapons of choice. About 10,000 years ago, the ice age began the modern processes of crushing and pressing down the softer soils of the region. At the start of the process it is believed by geologists that the fenland was thirty feet (ten metres) higher than it is today.

During the Neolithic Period (app 3,000-1,800BC) agriculture was becoming common. The crops best suited to the area were reeds, flax, cannabis (as a fibre crop for ropes and textiles and medicine), peat (for fuel), wheat, barley and poppies (for medicinal use).

There was also much to be said for fishing, wildfowling, and keeping pigs and sheep. Avoiding starvation in the winter, for a start.

This latter encouraged staying in one place long enough to pen animals, and in the Bronze Age (app 2,000-650BC) settlements were beginning to form and we can expect to find the early traces of a community in any remains. At this time dugout canoes were being used in the area to cross the water barriers between areas of dry land.

The Iron Age dates from about 650-43AD, and at this time the increased growing of grain was requiring buildings sound enough to provide long-term storage through the winter. Building structures of the time were often square or rectangular in form but formal gardens and crazy paving paths are still far in the future!

There are some surviving examples of prehistoric and Roman settlements in the Cambridge Museum or Archeology. A square pewter disc with an ornamental border, also five circular pewter dishes and a pewter tazza. This is an ornamental bowl or vase in the form of an 8-pointed star marked with a peacock and the Christian symbol "XP" (being the beginning of the Greek word "Christos"). It has been estimated as dating from the fourth or fifth century AD.

In 673AD Etheldreda, also known as Audrey, founded the manor which encompassed the area which is now called Sutton. She was the daughter of Anna of the East Angles, and her marriage to Tonbert was to form an alliance with the Southern Gyrvii (or Gyrwe) who lived along the fen margins in the Angles' neighbouring territory including, possibly, Sutton if it was not then already in East Anglian hands. These were tribal times and populations moved, and borders changed, to follow and control the sources of food.

Between Sutton and Earith the grave of an Anglo-Saxon man who was buried with a spear has been found.

In 870 the area was overrun by the Danes.

During the 10th century Sutton came under the control of West Saxons.

In the Domesday book of 1086, William 1's stocktaking catalogue of his new possessions in England, the village is identified as Sudtone. There were then 9 sokemen, 8 villeins (each with 7.5 acres), 15 cotters and 7 serfs. A small wood, with living for five pigs in it, is also recorded and it is reasonable to assume from later records that this was either on the banked land east of the church or, less likely, to the west of the village near the Burystead.

In 1109 (or just after) charter 51 of Bishop Hervey included Suttune in the lands laid down as conferred uopn the Cathedral Priory of Ely.

In 1170 the village is recorded as Suth (possibly this was just an abbreviation used when writing the name), and in 1246 it is variously recorded as Sutton and Suttone. These were times where the spoken sound of a place's name was more important than its spelling!

The vicarage of St Andrew's was instituted in 1254.

The Prior's Manor of Sutton was established in 1292, according to the Ely Diocesan Registry.

During the 1300s, Reginald de Beringhale of Sutton became a major landowner, following on from his father's period of "empire"-building.

In 1312 Sutton was authorised to hold a street market each Thursday, and the wider part of the High Street, outside what is now the Post Office and General Store, is where this was held. The market itself is no longer held, but the little piece of green grass at the west end of the area is still a frequently used site for fund-raising cake and bric-a-brac stalls during the summer.

Another right only lapsed within fairly recent memory is the annual feast of St Lambert. This was originally a fifteen day fair, commencing on the 17th of September each year. After the First World War (1918) it seems to have moved its date to around the 17th of June and become a peace festival. Later still, it moved its date back to September again and become the Sutton Feast Week, held for the benefit of the older population of the village. The last treasurer of the Feast committee still lives in the village, but the last of the funds were passed on to other worthy causes in the village some years ago.

In 1297 Michael of Littleport claimed in the travelling Court of the King's Bench that he had been assaulted and robbed by several men from Sutton.

By the end of the 13th century, and into the 14th, Stephen Puttock was a major Sutton landowner and holder of a succession of important positions in the community (including ale taster!)

The building of St Andrew's Church is believed to have been started between 1350 and 1360, and the major part was largely completed by 1388.

In 1579 a village school was established under William Heye.

In 1599, the village was so prosperous it was known as "Golden Sutton".

In 1630 the order was issued for the draining of the fens around Sutton.

In 1645 the Ten Men council (which in many functions predates the drove committee) was established to oversee expenditure on local roads, bridges, the fire engine, and the ferry boat services which crossed the washes between the Bedford rivers at the Gullet and further south across to the area which is now Ring Farm and was then Sutton Meadlands. It was even responsible for winding the St Andrew's church clock: an important job for the village when most of the local population did not have their own timepieces.

In a document of 1675, Sutton is described as being famous for its cherries. The slopes on the southern side of the High Street were later also planted with orchards of apples and pears and many descendents of these old varieties still survive in the gardens of the present houses.

In 1726 it was being reported that the area around Sutton was regularly flooded to a depth of 4 feet (just over a metre).

A sports report during the 18th century gives an account of a game of bandy. This appears to have been a team version of golf which could be played on ice or grass. Skating on the frozen fen is traceable back into antiquity, and the regional champion often came from Sutton.

In 1774 the preacher John Wesley visited Sutton and stayed for two days, during which he preached in a barn. When he left for Earith, being led by Mr Tubbs, the mud came half way up the horses' legs. Such was the concern for Mr Wesley's safety, that he was obliged to complete the journey by boat, paddled by a villager.

In 1801 the population was variously reported as 944 and 994.

In 1830 there were disturbances in the village one Sunday which were so serious as to be described at the time as riots.

In 1841 the population was 1,519.

A carrier service to Ely each Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday was established in 1847, with one trip to Chatteris each Friday, and one to St Ives each Monday.

In 1851 the population of Sutton had risen to 1,862 and beer was sold locally for just two old pence a pint. This was when there were 240 pence in a pound so, ignoring the effects of inflation, this would be one penny a pint in modern currency.

On December 20th in 1865 a fasting day was declared during a period of cattle plague. Quite why this should be of any benefit is not clear, although it may have been an action of communal prayer for intercession.

In 1866, on April 16th, a passenger train services was opened by the Great Eastern Railway between Ely and Sutton. The railway had been marked on the Ordnance Survey map compiled a year earlier. At the time it must have been a very chancey speculation by the GER with the low populations and meagre seasonal fruit, sugar beet and root-crop traffic potential along the line.

In 1871 the population was 1,717, so the railway had not caused an increase in the number of people in the village.

In 1878 the railway line was extended round the edge of the fen to Earith Bridge and thence to St Ives, which was an important interchange station with connections to the important national lines of the Midland Railway and Great Northern Railway.

In 1891 the population had dropped to 1,432. Perhaps they were being lured away by the career possibilities opened up by the railway?

In 1911 the population was 1,531.

In 1920 the population was 1,476

The regular passenger rail service to Sutton was withdrawn by the LNER in 1931 but well-supported excursions to London, Hunstanton and Great Yarmouth continued into the 1950s.

In 1951 the Festival of Britain was celebrated to the full in Sutton and a fascinating commemorative booklet was produced of which many copies survive.

The railway line through Earith Bridge was lifted in 1958 but the stub of track from Sutton was retained as a long siding.

During the 1960s Professor Eric Laithwaite's experiments with linear motors powering tracked hovercraft were pioneered along a monorail structure on the far side of the Old Bedford River. The track has been dismantled but some traces remain.

The goods rail service from Sutton via Ely closed in 1964. After the closure the station buildings were used for many years by Schmidts to build their roadsweeper vehicles. Quite a lot of the curved platforms and other railway structures can still be seen and there is a pleasant, if windy, walk to be had along the old trackbed to Haddenham. The route to Earith is harder to walk, many simple bridges over drains and ditches having been lifted.

In 1994 the population of Sutton was 3,340.

Acknowledgements and Thanks


I am obliged to all the past chroniclers of Sutton and its surrounding district whose work before me has made the task of compiling this series a pleasure. I am very indebted to the staff of Cambridgeshire's library service for their professional, but always friendly, assistance in locating much of the information which is recompiled here.

A special mention must be made of the staff of the Cambridgeshire Collection. They have done a remarkably good job of preserving and cataloguing the wide variety of types of source material in their care so that it may be available in good condition to future generations.

On-Going Local Happenings In Sutton
The name "Sutton"
Where is Sutton?
Sutton Conservation Society

If you have any news or know of an event that can be publicised through Ely & Sutton On-Line, - please E-MAIL the details to Brian Watson.