The History of Godmanchester in Cambridgeshire

Historical notes about the town of Godmanchester in Cambridgehsire.

The parish and former borough of Godmanchester, which were co-terminous, contain 4,832 acres of land and 75 acres of land covered by water. The River Ouse forms the northern boundary and divides Godmanchester from the borough of Huntingdon. The land near to the river is liable to floods, but the ground rises gradually to the south, where it is mostly arable. The population is chiefly occupied in agriculture, and in 1921 numbered 2,035 persons. In the 17th century Godmanchester was described as 'a very great county Toune, and of as great name for tillage; situate in an open ground, of a light mould, and bending to ye sun.' In 1604 the borough charter tells of like conditions, and especially exempted the store horses and others employed in agriculture from the king's service. The inhabitants boasted that they had formerly received kings on their progress with a pageant of nine score ploughs, but in the royal progresses to and from Scotland in 1633 the borough apparently only presented Charles I and his queen with pieces of plate. Later records mention feasts at the election of town officials, but in the 16th century the bailiffs contributed from the town funds to many entertainments, such as bear-baiting, visits of players and of the Lord of Misrule from Offord Cluny.

Of other industries besides agriculture, coal porterage on the Ouse was formerly an important business, and in the last century a tan-yard, jute factory, iron foundry and brick works existed, and basket-making was also carried on. At the present day a stocking factory at the bridge provides a considerable amount of work, and there is also a flour mill.

There was a railway station near Huntingdon Bridge which is a junction for the London Midland and Scottish Railway and the London and North Eastern Railway. The railway closed on the 4th June 1962.

The parish was inclosed by private Act of Parliament in 1803, and the award is in the possession of the Corporation. Preserved at the Court Hall, is a remarkable series of records, dating from the charter of King John in 1212 to the present day. These materials were used by Robert Fox, one of the bailiffs of the borough in 1831-2, in his History of Godmanchester. Other natives of Godmanchester who may be mentioned are William of Godmanchester, who was elected Abbot of Ramsey in 1267, and Stephen Marshall, the Parliamentarian divine and one of the authors of Smectymnuus, published in 1641.

Main Roads

Main road merge at Godmanchester in Huntingdonshire

Roman roads (highlighted) merge at Godmanchester before crossing the River Great Ouse and heading north


The town seems to have arisen on the site of a Roman settlement here, which has already been described. Its lay-out, however, has apparently been changed to suit the later requirements of a market town. Ermine Street, the Roman road from London to the north, and the Roman roads from Sandy and the south and from Cambridge, which joined it, stop abruptly at the points where they touch what is supposed to be the site of the Roman town, and their place is taken by a road which almost circuits the medieval town and so links them up. It was customary in most medieval market towns to arrange the lay-out of the streets so as to compel the traffic to pass through the market place and pay toll. It would appear that Godmanchester was laid out in this way as a market town, although there is little evidence of an early market here. The road from St. Neots to Huntingdon enters the town by West Street towards the south end of what was intended for the market place and passes that from Cambridge towards the north end, by East Street. In the same way the traffic to and from London and the north is carried by the road on the west side of the town, through the same place.

Entering the town from Huntingdon on the north, after crossing Huntingdon Bridge, which has already been described, the road passes over a causeway which was apparently of ancient construction, as we find that in 1279 its repair was charged on a meadow in the tenure of the prior of St. Mary's, Huntingdon. In 1331 it was rebuilt and in 1433 it appears that the road was carried over a series of small bridges. The causeway was again rebuilt in 1637 by Robert Cooke as a thank-offering for his escape from drowning in a flood here. A stone in the parapet of the southern of the two bridges, each of eight arches, of which the causeway is composed, bears an inscription copied from an earlier one, 'Robertus Cooke ex aquis emersus hoc viatoribus sacrum D.D. 1637.' The bridges underwent repairs in 1767 and were rebuilt in 1784. The causeway now forms a fine wide approach to the town, with many half-timbered houses of the 17th century and later, on either side. At the north-west corner of East Street stood the vicarage, a 17th-century house, lately demolished; adjoining it on the east side is Church Lane, leading to St. Mary's Church. A little to the east on the south side of East Street is a range of three picturesque half-timber houses with overhanging upper story and an overhanging gable at the west end. The western of the two original chimney stacks bears the date 1611 and the eastern 1613. Over a fireplace in the east room on the first floor are painted the Stuart royal arms with the initials I.R. for James I. There are other 17th-century houses in East Street. Opposite to East Street in the Causeway is the New Court or Town Hall, built in 1844, at which time this part of the Causeway was raised 2 ft. The Town Hall was largely rebuilt in 1899.

Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, a brick building with tiled roof, built about 1560, faces the new Court Hall. It originally consisted of a hall and two-storied porch, bearing above the window of the upper story the inscription 'Eliz. Reg. hujus scholae fundatrix,' over which is a sundial bearing the words 'Sibi Aliisque.' It was restored in 1851 and some buildings were added on the north side. Near the school was the 'cage' for the temporary safeguarding of prisoners, which was built in 1687. The governors of the school, however, complained that the position was 'very inconvenient and unapt,' and so the overseers were ordered to build it near the Court Hall Yard.

Roman Roads

Two major Roman roads through the town

The highlight shows the approximate course to the two major Roman roads through the town


In the main street, probably opposite St. Ann's Lane, was a cross called St. Ann's Cross, mentioned in 1526 and 1545, and may have existed as early as 1279; tenants of Godmanchester are described as 'ad crucem.' The road south to old Court Hall was then apparently called Post Street and later Silver Street. Pinfold Lane, which goes off eastward, is referred to in 1539. In it are the almshouses erected in 1738 by Mrs. Barbary Manser for four dwellings and rebuilt in 1859 for two dwellings.

In West Street are some 17th-century half-timber houses, and on the outskirts of the town is a timber and plaster house, formerly the 'Shepherd and Dog' Inn, which bears the date 1593 in the south-west gable. The upper story formerly projected, but has been underbuilt in brick. Further west on the opposite side is Belle Isle House, a 17th-century half-timber house. Returning to the main street, the house at the northeast corner of the island site has an overhanging upper story. Near this spot stood the Horse Shoe Inn in Post Street, where much of the business of the town was transacted. Southward is Old Courthall, called from the place where the Court Hall, which was pulled down in 1844, formerly stood at the junction of Silver Street and the old bridle road running to Toseland. At first apparently the hall was only a covered inclosure in which the view of frankpledge was held, the courts and council meetings or 'parvis' being frequently held in private houses, a custom which persisted even after the Court House was built in 1508.

The Court House was apparently a half-timber building with overhanging gables, and around the walls in the hall were oak benches for the bailiffs. Near the hall was the 'Pondefolde,' before the gates of the prior of Merton, which may be identified with the town pound, from which Pinfold Lane possibly took its name. Here the king had the right to impound the cattle distrained at the hundred court. In Old Courthall are two 17th-century inns, the Queen Victoria Inn, a timber and plaster house with overhanging upper story, and the Red Lion Inn, a brick house. Corpus Christi Lane no doubt takes its name from the gild of that name which existed in the town in the 15th century. Here and in Duck End are some 17th-century cottages.

Ermine Street, which is not on the site of the original street of that name, comprises some interesting 17th-century houses, particularly Tudor House, of timber and plaster, at the north end of the street. It bears the date 1600 in the south gable and 1603 on the doorway. There are also two other good timber and plaster houses of a later date in the street. On the Cambridge Road is a 16th-century half-timber house, and also a brick house with a stone panel bearing the date 1714. On the west side of the London Road, on the outskirts of the town, is Porch Farm, a 16th-century house which takes its name from a picturesque wooden porch with brick base added at the end of the century; on the opposite side of the road is Lookers Farm, a 17th-century house with a good chimney stack.

Victoria County History: Huntingdonshire ~ Printed 1932

With later additions and amendments