Parish History

On this page, find out more about the history of Swaffham Bulbeck, kindly researched and written by Lawrence Butler.

Part 1. History of Swaffham Bulbeck 1000 AD – 1894

This area was cultivated from the Bronze Age some 3000 years ago and later the Romans dug a canal or lode to assist trade to and from their villas or farms. However the place name gives the best clue to the medieval history. Swaffham means a farm or settlement of the Swabians, a tribe who migrated in the sixth century from south-west Germany – the same name is found at Swavesey (Cambs.) and Swaffham (Norfolk). The name Bulbeck indicates that this village was held by the Bolebec family from near Rouen in Normandy. It distinguishes this village from Swaffham Prior, held in Norman times by the priors of Ely cathedral monastery. The Bolebecs established a manor house here soon after the Norman Conquest and founded a small convent of nuns in about 1150. Some remains of the convent still exist at `The Abbey’ and the manor house chapel is encased within Lordship Cottage. The parish church has a late Norman tower, but most of the building is later; the chancel was completed in 1346 and the new higher roof over the nave or main body of the church was erected in about 1480. The wooden seating is mostly of about 1500. The manor house at the south end of the village, Burgh Hall, was rebuilt soon after 1500.

The village housing along the main street was built upon a gravel ridge above the danger of river flooding. North-west of the village were the meadows and the fen grazing, which stretched 3 miles (5 km) to the river Cam. South-east of the village on slightly higher ground were the arable common fields and the heathland grazing which stretched 3½ miles (6 km.) to the London – Norwich road, the former A11, using a prehistoric track known as the Icknield Way.

As the village prospered more housing was built along the main street in the Tudor period (with four houses still surviving) and a subsidiary settlement of Newnham, now called Commercial End, grew up at the terminus of the lode. The commercial venture, run by successive families of merchants, prospered from 1650 to 1850. This was the period when fenland drainage made more cultivation possible and increased the harvest yields. This in turn led to a steady growth in population and produced pressure from the more prominent landowners to divide the common fields among themselves to permit more efficient farming. Some fenland was enclosed in 1640, most meadowland in 1677 and all the remaining land in 1801. This meant that new farms were soon built on the fens and on the heath, though much of the latter was used for horse rearing in stud farms serving the race courses at Newmarket.

Although the church played a prominent part in village life, it was the founding of a school in 1721 that aided literacy and numeracy. Anglican worship was the norm, greatly assisted by a resident clergyman, Leonard Jenyns (curate 1823, vicar 1828-1854). His father built a new vicarage for him. Leonard was a noted naturalist, but was also concerned with the welfare of the village, the education of its children and the soberness of its adults. In the late nineteenth century various welfare societies were founded in the village and a Free Church provided an alternative simpler form of worship.

Some sports were based at the six public houses, which served the farm labourers, the brick-making industry and the coprolite digging to find the raw material for phosphate-rich fertilisers. The agricultural depression after 1870 encouraged migration into towns, especially Cambridge, as well as to Canada and New Zealand. The commercial establishment had been reliant on barge transport but its viability was undermined by the arrival of the railway in 1884 and by a steady improvement of the roads.

Part 2. Recent History of Swaffham Bulbeck (1895-2010)

In 1895 the parish council took over the role exercised elsewhere by benevolent squires and vicars. Despite having three manors, this village had never had a resident squire since 1510. The council bought and maintained the playing field and erected a pavilion on The Denny. It also provides a cemetery, established in 1877.

The health of the village has dramatically improved since 1920 with a better water supply, sewerage and drainage. There is now a district surgery and a dental practice in Bottisham. Although the almhouses have been demolished, most retired people receive a pension and may qualify for aid from the parish’s own charity. While agricultural amalgamations have led to abandoned farmhouses and smallholdings in the fens, the village population has slowly increased throughout the last century with new private and social housing off the High Street. At Commercial End the workers’ cottages erected by Thomas Bowyer in about 1800 have gradually been modernised without affecting their external appearance in a conservation area (the first one in Cambridgeshire).

The six public houses are now reduced to one, The Black Horse in the High Street; the other pubs have become private houses except for the Fire Station (formerly Crown Inn). The Community Centre principally serves the needs of the sheltered housing in Downing Court and Vicarage Close. The parish church and the Free Church are both still a focus for worship and for social events. The enlarged village school caters for early years and junior education, but is also a venue for indoor sports and social activities for all the village. Children of secondary school age usually attend Bottisham Village College.

Increased mobility by car, motor bike and bus means that reliance on a variety of local shops and crafts has diminished throughout the twentieth century. In 1930 there were six shops. Now there is only the one village store and post office, serving this village, Swaffham Prior and Long Meadow. However with a decrease in manual labour, two larger farms have converted their historic barns into a science park and a centre for small businesses to provide employment locally. One barn has even been turned into a summer theatre for light opera. Although a number of people commute to work in Cambridge and Newmarket, it is by no means a slumbering dormitory village but a vibrant community with a wide range of interests and skills.