A Look At Some History

19 February 2021

The year was 1952. The place, London, England. That December the Great Smog occurred, a severe air pollution event which affected the city. A period of unusually cold weather, combined with an anticyclone and windless conditions, collected airborne pollutants – mostly arising from the use of coal – to form a thick layer of smoke and fog, known as smog, over the city. It lasted from Friday December 5th to Tuesday December 9th, and it had quite an adverse effect on people’s health. But then the weather changed, the air cleared and the smog dispersed.

Next came 1953 and a major event which has been officially recorded, rather unsurprisingly, as The 1953 North Sea Flood. It was caused by a heavy storm at the end of Saturday January 31st, which continued into the morning of the following day. It was a combination of a high spring tide along with a severe European windstorm over the North Sea that created a storm tide. The mixture of wind, high tide and low pressure caused the sea to flood land up to 18.4 feet (5.6 metres) above mean sea level. Most sea defences facing the surge were overwhelmed, causing extensive flooding. The storm surge struck low-lying parts of the Netherlands, Belgium, England and Scotland. Sadly there were 2,551 deaths attributed to this event, it caused much property damage with 9% of total Dutch farmland flooded, 30,000 animals drowned and 47,300 buildings damaged, of which 10,000 were destroyed.

About six weeks after this event, I was born. I have mentioned in an earlier post how that Great Smog adversely affected my mother’s health and that a move was made to Whittlesey. This English town is about six miles (ten kilometres) east of Peterborough in the Fenland district of Cambridgeshire, although years ago it was classed as in the Isle of Ely, an administrative county between 1889 and 1965. At the 2011 Census, the population of Whittlesey, (including the nearby villages of Coates, Eastrea, Pondersbridge and Turves) was 16,058. As with so many places, the spelling of its name has been modified over the years, though even now the local railway station still bears the name Whittlesea. It has been suggested that the name may have come from the Old English, meaning “Wittel’s island”. Excavations of nearby Flag Fen indicate thriving local settlements as far back as 1,000 BC and at Must Farm quarry, a nearby Bronze Age settlement there is described as “Britain‘s Pompeii”, due to its relatively good condition. In 2016 it was being excavated by the University of Cambridge’s Archaeological Unit and at the site, which is situated just over a mile south of Flag Fen, at least five homes have been found which are around 3,000 years old, along with Britain’s most complete prehistoric wooden wheel dating back to the late Bronze Age. It is known that the Market Place in Whittlesey is on high ground, about six feet (1.8 metres) above sea level, but there hasn’t been flooding in the town or surrounding area for quite a while.

However, until it was drained in 1851, the nearby Whittlesey Mere was a substantial lake surrounded by marsh. According to the traveller Celia Fiennes, who saw it in 1697, the mere was “3-mile broad and six-mile long. In the midst is a little island where a great store of Wildfowle breed…. The ground is all wett and marshy but there are severall little Channells runs into it which by boats people go up to this place; when you enter the mouth of the Mer it looks formidable and its often very dangerous by reason of sudden winds that will rise like Hurricanes….”

Even in earlier times, Whittlesey was linked to Peterborough in the west and March in the east by a Roman Fen Causeway, probably built in the 1st century AD. Roman artefacts have been recovered at nearby Eldernell, and a Roman skeleton was discovered in the nearby village of Eastrea during construction of its village hall in 2010. As I was growing up, there were a number of fields not far from Whittlesey and near to the river Nene which were deliberately flooded. So when this water froze, skating was a regular event. At such times the road from Whittlesey to Thorney, just under five miles to the north, was almost impassable – meaning there was only one route to Peterborough, along the A605, unless one went a very long way round! There were and often still are delays at various times on this main route at the Kings Dyke railway crossing, a vital rail line for the brickworks there and the main line from the Midlands to East Anglia. When I was young there was much talk about putting in some sort of diversion, such as a bridge or tunnel, in order to bypass this railway crossing yet only now, some fifty or so years later, is a bridge being built and the road diverted. 

Whittlesey is famous for a few things, for example there used to be fifty-two public houses in the town. One was named the ‘Letter A’ and another the ‘Letter B’. Exactly why I am unsure, I personally think it was because they ran out of names! But it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘going from A to B…’. The town is also remembered for a famous soldier, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry George Wakelyn Smith, 1st Baronet, GCB (28 June 1787 – 12 October 1860). He was born in Whittlesey and was the son of a surgeon, he became a Major in the Wisbech, Whittlesey and Thorney United Battalion and during a review of the unit by a General Stewart the two got into conversation. The General offered to procure him a commission and a short time later Major Harry Smith was commissioned as a second lieutenant with the 95th Rifle Regiment. He became a notable English soldier and military commander in the British Army of the early 19th century. A veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, he is also remembered for his role in the Battle of Aliwal in 1846, and until 2015 a public house in Whittlesey bore the name ‘Hero Of Aliwal’. Sir Harry was the husband of Lady Smith and a chapel in St Mary’s church, Whittlesey was restored in his memory in 1862. A local teaching establishment also bears his name, the Sir Harry Smith Community College. Though when I was being educated there it was ‘school’, rather than ‘community college’. The school was built on the site of an old workhouse and fairly recent excavations needed for a new building discovered old workhouse foundations which had long been forgotten about. Streets near to this college also commemorate this old soldier as well as his wife as they bear the names Victory Avenue and Lady Smith Avenue. With the town’s increase in population, both this Community College and the nearby Alderman Jacobs junior school (where my Dad taught for many years) have been enlarged and other schools built, I believe the latter are a mixture of infant and junior. 

Being on the edge of the Fens means it is possible to see quite a way across the flat lands towards the East. Close to the Market Place is St. Mary’s church, which has a clock tower with a tall steeple and weather vane on the very top of that. This tower and steeple has a total height of 186 feet (56.7 metres) and has the tallest steeple for the smallest base in the area. I have in the past climbed up the narrow, winding staircase and into the room containing the clock mechanism. At one time the verger had to regularly wind the clock by hand, using a huge long handle, but this task was finally automated. At times I would be allowed to go up past the bell chamber and out onto the battlements and enjoy the views from there. I have even stood outside on these same battlements whilst the church bells were being rung and if the bell-ringers got it right, I could feel the tower gently moving. But it was more than a little noisy! There is an old custom of ringing a bell prior to a service at church, calling the townspeople to the building for worship, or at least letting folk know that a service is about to begin. In some places, a bell is also rung when sacraments are being blessed. With a church altar always facing east, at the opposite end of the building is the tower and steeple. Here in this church is also the great West Door, often used at weddings so that the bride has a long straight walk to the altar. By this door is the choir vestry where the choir assembles both before and after services. In this vestry is a single rope, connected to one bell in the bell chamber. When I attended St Mary’s church the verger, who was at that time William ‘Bill’ Smith, would sometimes allow me to ring the bell. So far as I am aware though, this man was no relation to the soldier I have already mentioned. A few years ago I went back to Whittlesey to attend a concert given in that church by the Gildenburgh Choir, who I used to sing with a very long time ago. It was lovely but at the same time it felt a little peculiar to walk into that church, seeing and being in familiar surroundings yet also seeing just how much had changed.

I have said before that when I was at school, I didn’t find history interesting. It is, but clearly that wasn’t the right time for me. Now I look back and enjoy just seeing and reading about how things change. I know many of you reading this are aware that I am a Star Trek fan and there is an excellent conversation between two characters in one of the episodes which is as follows: “The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity…” “…and the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty.” Live long, and prosper.

This week, a composition of my own.

One Small Step

One small step
It doesn’t have to be a big one, take
One small step
In a forward direction.

It may change your life
But it’s one that you can cope with, take
One small step
Doing what you need to do.

It may have taken time for you, to
Reach this conclusion, but taking
One small step
Is all you need to do today.

© Andrew D Williams 2017

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