The slow train

IF YOUR TRAIN FROM CAMBRIDGE to London stops at Shepreth and Meldreth, you can be sure that you are in for a longish journey because only the slower trains halt at these stations. Over the course of many years, we have been travelling to and from Cambridge by train and as I enjoy looking out of the window, I have always noticed this pair of oddly named stations. Only recently, we visited both places by car and took a look around these lovely villages between Cambridge and Royston and close to the A10 road, which runs from London Bridge to Kings Lynn via Cambridge.

The ‘reth’ suffix in the two villages names means ‘stream’. Shepreth means ‘sheep stream’ and Meldreth means ‘mill stream’. There is archaeological evidence of settlements in both places long before the Romans invaded England. The Romans may have occupied part of the parish of Shepreth and their successors, the Saxons, developed the village of Meldreth. Both villages are listed in the Domesday Book (1086). Little appears to have been recorded in the history books about events in tiny Shepreth. The larger village of Meldreth also played no great role in the history of England but, in the 16th century, Christ College of Cambridge moved to its estate near the village to escape from the plague. Members of the Meldreth Local History Group might disagree with my assessment of Meldreth’s place in British history. Their superb website (meldrethhistory.org.uk/) details many aspects of the place’s past, but most of them are about the village rather than the wider world.  

I imagine that the building and opening of railway stations in the two villages in 1851 were major events in their history and development. Currently, the stations are served by Thameslink trains. The villages are popular places for commuters to both London and Cambridge.

Both villages are rich in historic buildings of great beauty. Many features of vernacular architecture can be found including many fine thatched roofs. A particularly charming old, thatched edifice In Shepreth is Corner Cottage, which is close to a more aristocratic looking building, Docwra House. This former manor house was built in the 17th century and then provided with later additions (www.docwrasmanorgarden.co.uk/history.htm). The village sign at Shepreth is suitably adorned with sheep, bales of fleece, a stream, a bridge, a water mill, and a leaping fish. The bridge, which we did not see, was built in the 17th century. It crossed the River Rhee, a tributary of the River Cam, in which sheep were washed, and was used by farmers taking sheep to the market in Cambridge.

At Meldreth, through which flows the tiny River Mel, a tributary of the Cam, we entered the parish church of Holy Trinity, whose construction began in the mid-12th century on the site of an 8th century church. Its square tower, nave, and chancel were all constructed in the 12th century. The church contains some fine brass chandeliers; an elaborately carved pulpit and choir stalls with wooden carvings; fragments of pre-Reformation frescoes; a lovely timber beam ceiling; some heavily whitewashed carvings supporting some of the ceiling timbers; and a mediaeval parish chest. The latter is one of about 150 surviving examples. It was made in Baltic pine with iron bands between about 1400 and 1420 and was used for securely storing valuable liturgical items (e.g., silverware, books, and vestments).  In addition to visiting the church, we drove through long village to its station, which up until our visit by car, we had only ever seen whilst speeding through it by train. However, we did not see any mills as suggested by the meaning of the name Meldreth.

We did not spend nearly enough time in the two villages as we fitted them into an already busy day of sightseeing. However, having sampled them, we feel that they merit a longer visit in the future. Once again, these places provide good examples of the wealth of historical features to be discovered in England’s rural areas.

A beautiful bank

LOVERS OF ARCHITECTURE will find much to enjoy amongst the buildings that fill the historic centre of the university city of Cambridge. Amongst the sea of old colleges, which are rich in fine architectural features, there are some attractive buildings whose existence are not solely due to the requirements of academia. One of these stands at the southern end of Sidney Street. Formerly Foster’s Bank, this picturesque edifice faced with alternating stripes of red and white and topped with a highly decorative clock tower, now houses a branch of Lloyd’s Bank.

Ebenezer Foster (1776-1851) and his brother Richard, both born in Cambridge, founded their bank in 1804. The bank was originally founded for the workers at the three mills that the Fosters owned (www.findagrave.com/memorial/181142444/ebenezer-foster). Because the university would not allow the Fosters to build railway lines to their mills, they constructed another mill close to the existing railway lines. This mill is now called Spillers Mill. The Foster family lived at Anstey Hall in Trumpington (near Cambridge) from 1838 to 1941. Ebenezer died in Trumpington. Ebenezer was Mayor of Cambridge in 1836, and later a county magistrate, then the High Sheriff in 1849. In addition to other public positions, he was a governor of Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Ebenezer’s obituary in “Cambridge Independent Pres” on Saturday the 31st of May 1851 noted:

“Mr. Foster was at the head of the first banking and mercantile establishments in the town. It is unnecessary, therefore, to say that his life was one of great activity and usefulness; and it is not too much to say that in every occupation, whether public or private, his conduct commanded universal respect.”

Before 1891, Fosters Bank was housed on Trinity Street in what was once the Turk’s Head:

“The rather attractive Tudor shop on Trinity Street now occupied by a clothes shop was once the Turk’s Head Coffee House, one of the earliest coffee houses in the country (17th century). It was much frequented by students. The upper floors later became the Turk’s Head Carvery, but it is now entirely given over to floral prints. The building was once the home of Fosters’ Bank, which later moved …” (www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~ckh11/cam.html).

Years ago, in the late 1960s, four of us, three friends and myself, ate a meal at the Turks Head. The bill for the four of us came to 14/6 (72.5pence) and we gave the waiter 15/- (15 shillings: 75 pence). My friends were horrified when I told the waiter:

“Keep the change.”

For, even in those far-off days, sixpence (2.5 pence) was a rather mean tip for a bill of 14/6.

In 1891, the bank building at the south end of Sidney Street, once Foster’s now Lloyd’s, was completed. It was designed by the architects A and P Waterhouse. Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) was the eldest of eight children. One of his siblings, Edwin Waterhouse (1841–1917), was one of the founders of the accountancy company Price Waterhouse (now incorporated into PWC). Alfred’s son Paul (1861-1924) joined his father’s architectural practice in 1884, becoming a partner in 1891, the year that the Foster’s Bank building was put up in Sidney Street.

Alfred Waterhouse and his practice were responsible for the design of many impressive buildings in the Victorian era. One of them, which is very well-known, is London’s Natural History Museum. Slightly less famous but equally impressive is the Prudential Assurance Building in London’s Holborn. This building is opposite numbers 337 and 338 High Holborn, which survived the Great Fire of London of 1666, and were restored by Waterhouse.   Apart from the bank in Cambridge and the Cambridge Union building, he also designed buildings associated with the following colleges: Jesus, Gonville and Caius, Pembroke, Girton, and Trinity Hall.  The bank in Cambridge is one of seven designed by Alfred Waterhouse.

I have entered the former Foster’s Bank only once. The glass-ceilinged banking hall is a riot of colour, its surfaces covered by tiles with sculpted surfaces. The octagonal clock tower is topped with a sharply pointed octagonal roof, one of the city’s many spires. The clock faces with their Roman numerals are made with tiling in several colours. Although now a branch of Lloyds, the name Foster can still be seen clearly above the main doorway.

When you next visit Cambridge, by all means admire Kings College Chapel and other architectural gems within the various colleges, but do spare some time to enjoy the former Foster’s Bank building on Sidney Street before visiting the nearby marketplace, which I always enjoy.

How I avoided an awful fate

Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge

CAMBRIDGE IS A CITY which I have visited often since I was a child. My first recollection of the place was visiting Gonville and Caius College to meet my father’s long-term collaborator, the Hungarian born economist Peter Bauer (1915-2002). Later, after 1965, during my childhood and adolescence, we used to visit Cambridge to spend time with my father’s friend from his student days in Cape Town (South Africa), the social scientist Cyril Sofer (died 1974) and his wife Elaine. At first, I used to visit them with my family and when I was in my teens, I used to stay with them in their large Victorian house near Selwyn College. It was Elaine, who first introduced me to the joys of the drink known as ‘Bloody Mary’.Further travels to Cambridge followed when a childhood friend of mine attended Clare College to study for his bachelor’s degree. Through him, I met his good friend, now a well-known writer, Matthew Parris.

Many more visits to Cambridge followed my graduation at University College London in 1973. Although I remained in London to study for a higher degree, some of those who had graduated with me moved to Cambridge to pursue further studies. Three out of the nine of us, who graduated in physiology in 1973, embarked on doctoral theses in the city’s university. One of these was Lopa, who is now my wife. While she was at Cambridge, we were still ‘just good friends’, as the saying goes.

On one of my visits to see Lopa, I stayed in a house in Owlstone Road, which is south of the historic centre of Cambridge. A mattress was set up for me in a ground floor room with a street facing window. The room had been recently occupied by a female student, who had moved elsewhere. This sojourn in the city was during the time when the so-called Cambridge Rapist was assaulting young women, always within their homes, at an alarming rate. He carried out his attacks between October 1974 and April the following year.

Apparently, he followed potential victims to their homes and noted down their addresses in a notebook.The rapist carried out his first rape on the 18th of October 1974. Then another on the first of November, and yet again on the 13th of that month (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Samuel_Cook). The latter was carried out within Homerton College, now a part of Cambridge University. He struck again on the 13th of February 1975, and then, unsuccessfully, on the 5th of May.

I slept soundly at Owlstone Road when I was staying there for a night or two. One morning, I woke up and saw police vehicles out in the road. It was the 8th of December 1974 and the rapist had raped a woman in the house next door to where I was staying, having broken into its ground floor room, which mirrored that in which I was sleeping. What none of us knew until after the perpetrator, Peter Samuel Cook, was eventually caught during his attack on Owlstone Croft’s nurses’ hostel in June 1975, was that the villain had listed the house in which Lopa was living with some other young ladies in his notebook of potential targets. The young lady who had occupied the room where I spent a couple of nights was in the rapist’s list of future victims.

Cook, who had knifed at least one of his victims, was a violent person and might have been awfully annoyed with me had he broken into the room where I was sleeping and found me, a man, instead of one of his intended female targets. Subsequent visits to the wonderful city of Cambridge have not, I am pleased to relate, been so potentially hazardous. Cook was jailed for life and died in Winchester Prison in 2004.

A small village near Cambridge

THE TINY VILLAGE of Madingley is just under 3 ½ miles west of Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, yet it feels a long way from anywhere. The settlement was recorded as ‘Matingeleia’ in about 1080, as ‘Mading(e)lei’ in the Domesday Book, and ‘Maddingelea’ in 1193. The name means ‘the leah of Mada’s people’, a ‘leah’ being a glade where mowing was done, in other words, a clearing. What became of Mada and his or her people, I have no idea. In 1086, there were 28 peasants in Madingley but by 1279, there were 90 people in the village (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol9/pp165-166). The population in the 18th century reached about 150 and increased to over 200 in the 19th century. In 2011, there were 210 people living in the civil parish of Madingley (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madingley). Whenever I have visited the village, where my cousin lives, I have never seen many people out and about.

The earliest record of a church in Madingley was in 1092. Much of the present, attractive church (St Mary Magdalene), which was closed when we last visited, contains structures that date back to the 13th and 14th centuries (www.madingleychurch.org/history/). The building has a square tower topped with a tall steeple. The north side of the exterior of the nave of the church is brickwork made of irregularly shaped and equally irregularly arranged stones and mortar. The south side looks plain because the stonework is covered with plaster rendering. A church official who was passing by while I was taking photographs explained that the rendering, which protects the wall from penetration of rainfall, is probably original and that the church authorities are currently trying to decide whether to cover the north side with rendering.  

The church stands next to the entrance to the grounds of Madingley Hall. A long drive climbs sinuously up a slope to the hall, whose construction was begun by Sir John Hynde (died 1550) who acquired the Madingley estate in 1543 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000627). Hynde, who had studied at Cambridge University, was an important judge. He was called to the Bar at Grays Inn and became Recorder of Cambridge in 1520. In 1539, as a result of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541) ordered by King Henry VIII, he was granted the Cambridgeshire estate now known as Anglesey Abbey and in 1542-43, he came to possess lands at Madingley (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hynde). The construction of the Hall was continued by John’s son, Sir Francis Hynde (c1532-1596). In 1756, Sir John Hynde-Cotton, employed Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown (1716-1783) to landscape the Hall’s grounds. I do not know how much of the landscaping seen today was that created by Brown but the lovely pond at the bottom of the lawns sweeping down from the front of the house looks like one of his typical features.  The property remained in the Hynde family until 1858. A descendant of the family, Maria Cotton, married Sir Richard King, who obtained the part of the estate that included the Hall. In 1861, Maria rented the Hall to Queen Victoria for use by the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, whilst he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge University. Currently, the Hall is home to the University’s Institute of Continuing Education and has sleeping accommodation both for those attending courses and also for visitors to the area.

In 1871, the Hall was sold to Mr Hurrell and then later to Colonel Walter Harding, who completely renovated the Hall. His heirs sold it to the University of Cambridge in 1948 (www.madingleyhall.co.uk/). Harding’s granddaughter Rosamund gave 30 acres of land on which the American Military Cemetery now stands beside the village of Madingley. The graves in this cemetery, mostly Christian and a few Jewish, are arranged neatly with military precision.

A half-timbered thatched lodge stands by the entrance to the drive next to the church. The former was built in about 1908 by Colonel Harding. The driveway crosses a bridge at one end of the lake or pond. This fake bridge was one of Lancelot Browns landscaping features. Sadly, when we last visited, most of the Hall was covered with scaffolding. Despite that, we were able to admire the mainly 16th century architecture of the building. One particularly interesting feature is the ogival gothic archway that leads into a courtyard behind the original Hall. Decorated with heraldic and other mouldings, this brick and limestone archway was originally part of the Old Schools in Cambridge. Sir John Hynde-Cotton brought the archway to Madingley Hall in 1758. It is worth passing beneath the archway, which bears the date ‘1758’, and entering the walled kitchen garden on the left of it. This area contains a lovely variety of well-tended plants and shrubs.

Tiny Madingley, dwarfed by the Hall and its gardens, has one pub, the Three Horseshoes. It has been in existence since 1765, if not before. Attractively thatched, as is the village hall nearby, the pub we see today was built in 1975, following destruction of an earlier building by fire. I have eaten at the pub once. My impression was that it is a place to which most of its customers drive from elsewhere. It is more of a restaurant than a typical pub. I am curious to know how many of the villagers use it to enjoy a pint or two. On our recent visit in April 2021, the establishment looked sad, being closed on account of the covid19 lockdown.

Peaceful Madingley is home to a private nursery school, housed in a building dated 1844 as well as a discreet complex of University of Cambridge animal behaviour laboratories. Apart from these attractions, there is a disused telephone box that now serves as a library where anyone can take books for free so long as they replace them with others. It is a pity that there is no village shop, often a focus of village life, but given the small population of the place, maybe its absence is not surprising.

Little Madingley is now a suburb of Cambridge yet it has not merged with the city physically. It remains at heart a picturesque and charming example of ‘village England’ – a place to take refuge from the stresses and strains of modern life.

A small village near Cambridge

SINCE THE FOURTH OF JULY 2020, the anniversary of the day Britain lost a large American colony and when our worldly wise Prime Minister deemed it safe for all of us to be liberated from the constraints of ‘lockdown’ and encouraged us to ‘eat out to help out’, a policy that appears to have helped to spread the covid19 virus as well as restaurant owners, we have been roaming around the countryside, discovering what a beautiful country we inhabit. What has struck me when driving from A to B is the number of exceptionally attractive, yet not well-known, villages we have passed through. The village of Comberton in Cambridgeshire was one of these, which we nearly drove past without examining it. However, as time was on our side and it looked so lovely, we stopped there for a few minutes and took a stroll around.

We parked next to an oddly shaped small village pond in which clumps of reeds were growing. A small family of ducks wound its way between the vegetation, occasionally disappearing from view. At the far end of the pond, there is an old low brick wall. Behind it, there is a long two-storey house with a brick roof and decorative chimney stacks. Before describing some of the other lovely buildings in the village, let me give you a flavour of its history.

Sometime between 4000 BC and 2500 BC, someone dropped a polished Neolithic stone axe near where the village stands today. Somewhat later, the Romans built a villa near Comberton. Even later, the village’s name began to evolve, as is described on the village’s website (http://www.comberton.org/home/about-comberton/history-of-comberton/):

“A lot is said about the name of the village and its origins. It is believed that the name is of Celtic origin, possibly named after a landowner by the name of Cumbra. The Domesday Book (1086) has it recorded as Cumbertone. According to William Kip’s map of the area in 1607 Comberton is spelt as it is today and interestingly Barton is spelt Berton”

The village has several churches, which we will visit in the future. One of these is St Mary’s, is in the Early English style with later modifications. Another still extant place of worship is used by non-Conformists. There have been associations between non-Conformism and Comberton since as early as the 17th century. The Puritan William Dowsing (1596-1668), an iconoclast, visited the village in March 1643, and recorded:

“‘We brake downe a crucifix and 69 superstitious pictures we brake downe, and gave order to take downe 36 cherubims, and the steps to be taken down by March 25.’”

Prior to 1772, when a new road, a turnpike (now the A228), was built, Comberton was on the road connecting Oxford with Cambridge. Apart from the usual activities found in villages, such as butchery, bakery, saddlery, harness-making, inn keeping, blacksmithing, and so on, the place had one industry for a while. That was in the 19th century when Comberton became a small centre for mining coprolite, fossilised dung. This material used to be ground in a mill to produce a powder that made a good crop fertiliser. Judging by the good state of the houses and the high-quality cars parked near them, the inhabitants of Comberton appear make their living in reasonably well-paid jobs. Were I to have had a profitable career in or near Cambridge, this village might have been a good place to live.

Every village is unique, but many share the same features. In Comberton, we saw several houses with well-maintained thatched roofs. However, we also saw something I had never noticed before. Some of the houses had what you might describe as ‘hybrid’ roofs: partly thatched and partly tiled. One house near the village pond had something we have seen on thatched roofs in many other villages. That is, the ridge of the thatch is decorated with animals made of thatch. Here in Comberton, this one roof was adorned with thatch sculptures of four birds with long necks, that made me think they are supposed to be depicting geese rather than ducks or swans.

The village pond, which is across the road from a dental surgery and ‘Millionhairz’, a hairdresser’s salon, is encircled by an attractive low, neatly built stone wall that curves around the water in a visually pleasant way. On the green next to the pond, there is a timber post that supports a sign (erected 1977) with the name of the village and a two-sided picture above it. On one side, a priest is depicted handing fishes to three people with outstretched arms. This refers to years long past when herrings were handed out to the poor in the village soon before Easter. The other side of the picture above the village name depicts a farmer ploughing his field with a plough drawn by a horse. Behind the farmer high on a hill, there is a white coloured wooden windmill. This reminds us that once Comberton had two working mills.

Our visit to Comberton lasted no more than ten minutes partly because we had to reach somewhere to meet my cousin and because the weather was miserable: grey, cold, and wet. However, what little we saw of this delightful place made us realise that it was well worth stopping en-route to our destination. We have already driven through so many intriguing villages on our excursions through the English countryside. I would have liked to spend time in all of these, and hope to return to some of them in the future. I would rather spend time wandering around picturesque villages than sitting for hours in traffic jams, as happens so often these days.

An abbey no more: slavery and sightseeing

ENTIRELY JUSTIFIABLE FURORE over recent unlawful police killings of Afro-American citizens in the USA has heightened awareness of the history of unjust treatment of ‘people of colour’ under colonialism and slavery during years long passed. It was only after enjoying an afternoon in the lovely gardens of Anglesey Abbey near the city of Cambridge that I learned that this delightful place was once owned by someone whose fortune was at least partially derived from  exploitation of India and elsewhere by the East India Company. But first some history of the house, whose gardens we enjoyed despite the rain and gloomy grey late October skies.

Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries, abbeys, and other religious institutions in England. One of these was an Augustinian priory established near Cambridge by Richard de Clare in 1212. This was originally founded as the Hospital of St Mary during the reign of Henry I (that is between 1100 and 1135). The site of this religious establishment became the property of John Hynde, an important judge, who died in 1550. The religious buildings having been largely demolished, the next owner of the place, the Fowkes family who acquired it in 1595, built a Jacobean style house where the priory used to stand. The house incorporated some of the remains of the disbanded priory and abbey.

Later, the house became the property of Thomas Hobson (1544-1631), a Cambridge carrier from whose name the expression ‘Hobson’s choice’ is derived. Hobson maintained a profitable livery stable in Cambridge as well as arranging the carriage of mail between London and Cambridge. ‘Hobson’s choice’, a name derived after Hobson’s death is essentially the choice between ‘take it (i.e. the one thing on offer) or leave it’. Hobson’s son-in-law Thomas Parker and some of his descendants owned Anglesey Abbey (as the property became known). Later, the Member of Parliament for Malmesbury and then Cambridge, Samuel Shepheard (1677-1748), became owner from 1739. We will return to him later.

In 1848, the Reverend John Hailstone (1759-1847), an important geologist, a member of the Linnean Society as well as the Royal Society, bought Anglesey Abbey. He carried out many restorations and planted many trees in the Abbey’s extensive gardens, which we can enjoy today. Jumping ahead, in 1926, two brothers, Urban Huttleston Broughton (later ‘1st Baron Fairhaven’) and Henry Rogers Broughton, bought the property. They made improvements to the house, enhanced their collections of artworks, and developed the gardens. Henry moved out in 1932, leaving Anglesey Abbey to his older brother Urban, then Lord Fairhaven. Urban built a library to store his ever-growing collections of art works and books and restored the working Lode Mill on his property. When Lord Fairhaven died in 1966, the property was bequeathed to the National Trust. Sadly, because of the current covid19 crisis, we were not allowed to enter the lovely house to view his collection.

Between 1717 and 1720, Samuel Shepheard, an early owner of Anglesey Abbey, was involved with the East India Company (founded 1600 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I). He was elected a director in 1718. His father, Samuel Shepheard (c1648-1719), was one of the so-called ‘interlopers’ who used political connections set up The New East India Company in 1691. So, not much has changed in connection with the overlap of political influence and commercial interests since then! The ‘New’ company thrived alongside the older one for a few years before the two companies merged (https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w21536/w21536.pdf). Samuel’s father tried to involve his son in the promotion of the New East India Company and is alleged to have been involved in irregularities connected with his son’s political advancement (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1690-1715/member/shepheard-samuel-ii-1677-1748). The on-line History of Parliament website includes the following about Samuel (junior):

“Concern for trade, and in particular his father’s commercial interests, suggest that he, rather than James Sheppard, twice acted as teller in that session: in favour of engrossing a bill to open up commerce with Africa; and in support of the second reading of a clause for a bill to encourage the tobacco trade.”

As for the former owner of Anglesey Abbey’s connection with India:

“Although serving as a director of the East India Company under George I, he did not seek advancement in the City, preferring the lifestyle of the country gentleman. The establishment of a residence at Exning probably reflected his association with the Cotton family, who were lords of the manor there.”

He became extremely wealthy:

“Dying ‘vastly rich’, he left the bulk of his estate to his natural daughter, who was celebrated as ‘the greatest fortune in England’, and subsequently married Charles Ingram, the future 9th Viscount Irvine.”

Exning is about six and a half miles north-east of Anglesey Abbey. Although Shepheard owned the Abbey, it is unlikely that he resided there as much as in Exning.

Samuel Shepheard was, as already mentioned, a director of the East India Company between 1718 (possibly 1717) and 1720. During that time, the company appears to have been, if not actually involved in, certainly interested in transporting slaves from Madagascar to North America in 1720 (“The William and Mary Quarterly”, Vol. 26, No. 4, pp. 548-577). To what extent Samuel Shepheard and his father were involved in the slave trade remains unclear. The National Trust are also somewhat opaque on this subject as their report (https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/documents/colionialism-and-historic-slavery-report.pdf) reveals:

“Shepheard was a wealthy merchant and Cambridgeshire Member of Parliament (MP) who served as director of the new East India Company and headed the South Sea Company. His father, Samuel Shepheard senior (c.1648–1719), was also an MP and merchant, building the family fortune on overseas trade. He was a founder member of the new East India Company and the South Sea Company, where he held the office of deputy-governor from 1713.”

Does the term ‘overseas trade’ include slavery? While we can not be certain whether or not either Samuel Junior or his father were involved in the slave trade, there is little doubt that the East India Company was not averse to it and might well have profited from it (see, for example: www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.2307/2715359?journalCode=jnh and https://aquila.usm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1153&context=slisconnecting ), certainly in Africa and maybe also in the Indian subcontinent.

Should we let our enjoyment of Anglesey Abbey be disturbed by the knowledge that for a brief period of its existence it was owned by someone, who was involved in a company that ‘plundered’ India and was involved in the slave trade? By stating that Shepheard “… built the family fortune on overseas trade” to quote the National Trust in its report, which was triggered by the recent formation of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, we can get no closer to ascertaining whether we should have a bad conscience about visiting the lovely gardens of Anglesey Abbey or should simply enjoy the experience without being concerned with an ill-defined unsavoury part of its history. After all, as far as we know, neither of the Shepheards, father and son, can yet be tarred with the same brush as, for example, the disgraced Bristol slave-trader Edward Colston (1636-1721), whose lifespan overlapped those of the two Samuel Shepheards. And, furthermore, unlike some other stately homes whose fame is largely due to fortunes made by persons involved in slavery, Anglesey Abbey is not one of them. If anything, the glory and splendour of this house and gardens in Cambridgeshire is due mainly to the efforts of men who owned it many, many years after Samuel Shepheard Junior died.

Almost but not quite nude

IN THE EARLY 1980s, I travelled to the island of Mljet, which is off the Dalmatian coast of what was then Yugoslavia. It was notable for at least two features. One was that most of the island was out of bounds to motorised traffic. The other was that nudism was both tolerated and encouraged.

I had been introduced to nude bathing a year or two earlier when I visited Dubrovnik with some friends from Belgrade. We used to take a ferry from the city to the nearby island of Lokrum. At the island’s ferry station there was a sign. One arrow pointed to the ‘nudismo’ beach and the other to the ‘ne nudismo’ beach. The first time we headed for the nudismo beach, I expressed concern about my modesty. One of my Yugoslav friends told me:

“Don’t worry, there’s always someone on the beach who looks worse than you.”

Surprisingly, these words reassured me.

Our party on Mljet included four people from the British Isles, including me, and three Yugoslavs. One of us Brits and the Yugoslavs were well-versed in nude bathing, but two of us ‘Brits’, including me. were relative novices.

Recently, my wife and I visited the gardens of Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. This lovely place is home to several outdoor sculptures. One of these is a naked youth carved in white stone. Someone, most probably a visitor, had placed a pair of sunglasses on the sculpture, rendering the youth no longer fully nude. Seeing this reminded me of our holiday in Mljet.

My friend from London and I joined in the nudity that was expected on Mljet, maybe a little anxiously at first but we soon got to enjoy it. After a few days on the island, one of my Yugoslav friends pointed out that unlike the rest of our party, neither of us ‘novices’ were ever completely nude. Either we wore only a sun hat, or a wristwatch, or even just a pair of sunglasses like the statue at Anglesey Abbey.

It is odd what can trigger far-off memories. That statue with the sunglasses did manage to remind me of the wonderful times I spent in Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists.

A clock on a wall

I NOTICED THAT A CLOCK on the south wall of the nave of St Mary’s Church in Ashwell (in Hertfordshire, north of Baldock) bore the makers name “JJ Dison, Potton”. Being by nature curious, I wondered whether any trace of JJ Dison remained in Potton, a small town in Bedfordshire, about nine miles north of Ashwell. So, off we went to Potton, and what we found there was delightful.

In the tenth century, the town’s name was ‘Potun’ and in the Domesday Book (1086), it was listed as ‘Potone’. These names are derived from the Old English meaning ‘farmstead where pots are made’. During the Middle Ages, the Tudor, and Stuart eras, the Market at Potton was one lof the largest in Bedfordshire. This declined after the Great Fire of 1783 during which much of the centre of the town was destroyed. In 1797, the Shambles (a market area including brick buildings) were erected, but these fell into decline in the 1930s. A smaller version of the market building was constructed later, and this now serves as the town’s library. The two women working there were friendly but knew nothing of the clock makers of Potton They sold me three fascinating books that contain historic photographs of Potton.

Today, Potton, which once had its own brewery, is now a commuter town. Its station, first built in 1850, is on the former Great Northern Railway. Currently, commuters can travel into London on trains that terminate at London St Pancras.

We wandered around Potton looking at various old buildings and enjoying a coffee at a pleasant café that had only just reopened after several months of having been closed because of the covid19 pandemic. A pleasant walk along Church Causeway brought us the parish church of St Mary’s, perched on the highest spot in the town. Its construction began in the 13th century and many additions were made in the centuries following. As with so many churches we have visited recently, it was locked up. We walked around its exterior, admiring the many decorative gravestones in the crowded cemetery that surrounds it. We returned to the centre of Potton along the causeway, crossing a couple of fast-flowing streams along the way. These waterways are part of the Potton Brook network, tributaries of the River Ivel, which is itself a tributary of the River Great Ouse which flows into The Wash.

Well, enough about Potton: you must be wondering whether I have forgotten JJ Dison. I have not, but there is not much to say about him, but more than I had expected to discover. James Jeremiah Dison thrived in the early 19th century. His exact dates are not known. Amongst the Potton churchyard inscriptions (pottonhistorysoc.org.uk), there is one for ‘Jeremiah James Dison’, dated 29th September 1844, when Dison was aged 35. His wife, Jane (née Edwards) died in 1840, aged 31. The couple had two children, named George and Sarah.   

Dison is listed (www.clockswatches.com) as working both in Cambridge and Potton. The British Museum contains a beautiful printed watch paper (an ornamental paper place inside a watch case by the maker or repairer of a watch) which informs us the JJ Dison was a ‘silversmith and jeweller’ as well as a ‘clock & watch maker’. It also mentioned ‘jewellery &c carefully repaired’. In a directory of Potton (in a “Directory of Bedfordshire”) dated 1839, JJ Dison is listed as a watch and clock maker at Bull Street. There was another member of his trade, Mr Henry Reynolds, at Moon Corner.

The National Archives in Kew contains an undated will prepared by JJ Dison, which has within its wording:

“Jeremiah James Dison of the towne of Cambridge in the county of Cambridge watchmaker…”. Whether Dison lived both in Potton and Cambridge, it is not clear. However, the watch paper and the clock in Ashwell’s church suggest that at the very least he worked there. Also his burial in Potton, rather than Cambridge, suggests that his main residence might well have been Potton. That he worked in Cambridge is suggested by a post placed on a watch collecting website (https://mb.nawcc.org/) in which the collector noted that he had acquired a watch “…sold by John Dison Cambridge…”.  Another website (i.collector.com) listed:

“Late 18th Century pair cased Pocket Watch, J J Dison, Cambridge, number No 570, the pierced and engraved cock to a Roman enamel dial with later hands, both cased marked for London, 1789, Makers mark W L …”

It might be coincidence or possibly more than that, but James Jeremiah was not the only Dison working on timepieces in the east of England. There was Joseph Dison of Whittlesey and Thomas Dison of Biggleswade. Biggleswade is close to Potton and Whittlesey is just north of Cambridge.

The clock at St Mary’s in Ashwell is a product made by JJ Dison in Potton. A small plaque, which I was unable to read, the clock being too high above the ground, suggests that the timepiece was a donation to Ashwell’s church. Whatever its origin and story, seeking out its maker has been fun and introduced us to a pleasant town not far from London, which we hope to visit again.

Abolishing slavery and an obelisk

BLACK LIVES MATTERED MUCH to young Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. One day when he was walking with his horse from Cambridge to London, he stopped on a slope that was above and in sight of the Feathers Inn at Wadesmill (Hertfordshire) next to a bridge crossing the River Rib on a stretch of the old Roman road known as Ermine Street.

A student at St Johns College in Cambridge, he had just won a prize for his essay (in Latin) that addressed the subject “Is it right to make slaves of others against their will?” Soon after writing his piece, he published an English translation of it. Clarkson, who had done much research into slavery past and in his time, was thoroughly disapproving of the slave trade. The concluding paragraph of his long and well-reasoned essay, rich in factual material, summarises the young man’s objection to slavery:

“For if liberty is only an adventitious right; if men are by no means superiour to brutes; if every social duty is a curse; if cruelty is highly to be esteemed; if murder is strictly honourable, and Christianity is a lye; then it is evident, that the African slavery may be pursued, without either the remorse of conscience, or the imputation of a crime. But if the contrary of this is true, which reason must immediately evince, it is evident that no custom established among men was ever more impious; since it is contrary to reason, justice, nature, the principles of law and government, the whole doctrine, in short, of natural religion, and the revealed voice of God.”

With the Feathers inn ahead of him, he had a revelation. In his own words:

“Coming in sight of Wades Mill in Hertfordshire, I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end. Agitated in this manner I reached home. This was in the summer of 1785”

That revelation, like a Dick Whittington moment or the apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head, set Thomas on his life’s mission to abolish slavery. His essay inspired the formation of a small group of Quakers, whose aim was to lobby the British Parliament to campaign against slavery. Soon, this led to the formation of a non-denominational ‘Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ (in 1787).  Clarkson was a member of this committee. It was he who encouraged the young (and now well-known) William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a Member of Parliament, to join the group.

Although it was Wilberforce who introduced the first Bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791, it was Clarkson, who worked tirelessly to persuade the British public of the desirability to bring an end to the trade in human cargoes. Clarkson travelled about 35,000 miles throughout Britain, amassing information about the slave trade and persuading people of its evil nature. He collected evidence of the cruelties and injustices of slavery from 20,000 sailors who had worked or were working on slave carrying ships. He wrote several pamphlets about the slave trade and its impropriety and assembled visual aids with which he could dramatically purvey its horrors and cruelties to the British public, whom he encountered during his extensive travels.

When, finally in 1807, the Act for Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed by the British Parliament, the poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote a sonnet in honour of Clarkson’s immense efforts to defeat the slave trade. Called “To Thomas Clarkson On the final passing of the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, March, 1807.”, it goes like this:

“Clarkson! it was an obstinate Hill to climb:

How toilsome, nay how dire it was, by Thee

Is known,—by none, perhaps, so feelingly;

But Thou, who, starting in thy fervent prime,

Didst first lead forth this pilgrimage sublime,

Hast heard the constant Voice its charge repeat,

Which, out of thy young heart’s oracular seat,

First roused thee.—O true yoke-fellow of Time

With unabating effort, see, the palm

Is won, and by all Nations shall be worn!

The bloody Writing is for ever torn,

And Thou henceforth shalt have a good Man’s calm,

A great Man’s happiness; thy zeal shall find

Repose at length, firm Friend of human kind!”

It was descending the hill to Wadesmill that set Clarkson, the real initiator of the abolition of the slave trade, that set him to “… climb that obstinate Hill…” And his halt near Wademill, in sight of the Feathers inn has not been forgotten. An obelisk by the roadside commemorates Clarkson’s ‘light bulb moment’. The base of the obelisk bears the words:

“On the spot where stands this monument in the month of June 1775 Thomas Clarkson resolved to devote his life to bringing about the abolition of the slave trade.”

The monument was erected in 1879 for a chess playing barrister, Arthur Giles Puller (1833-1885) of Youngsbury, which is close to Wadesmill. According to a web page , http://abolition.e2bn.org/source_27.html:

“In 1833, Basil Montague asked Thomas Clarkson to show a party of abolitionists, the exact spot where he decided to dedicate his life to ending slavery. A young Charles Merivale went with them. Years later he became Dean of Ely and told his story to Arthur Giles Puller, of Youngsbury, who offered to help him fulfil his promise to mark the spot. Charles Merivale unveiled the monument on 8th October, 1879.”

Charles Merivale (1808-1893), apart from becoming the Dean of Ely, was one of the founders of the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race, which was first held in 1829. Destined for a career in India (which he decided against), he studied both at Haileybury College and St Johns College Cambridge, where Clarkson had also studied.

Clarkson’s monument was restored by members of the US Airforce in the 1950s. in June 1972, it was moved 9 yards up the road to allow some road widening. Finally, in November 2007, a very thorough restoration and repair of the monument was completed. Now in 2020, part of the base looks as if it could benefit from some more repair work.

The monument, unlike many of those that commemorate slave-owners, is a modest memorial to a man whose efforts and achievements have been overshadowed by those of his fellow abolitionist, William Wilberforce. I am very grateful to our dear friends who live in Hatfield (Hertfordshire) for showing me this monument after we had enjoyed a large lunch at the Feathers Inn that Clarkson was able to see when he resolved to bring the slave trade to an end.