The Society meets at 19:00 on the fourth Thursday of each month (except August and December) at St Peter's Church Hall in Wisbech unless otherwise stated. There is a map of the centre of Wisbech to show the location of the hall.
We have a full programme, including speakers, members' evenings and outings. An archive of reports of previous year's meetings is available. Book Stall and Reference Library plus refreshment available at the meeting.

Current Meeting Programme


January 2017
'With this ring'
Anne Barnes

February 2017
'A musical family tree’
Keith Aplin

March 2017
'Member's Meeting’

April 2017
'Around Fenland Villages
William (Bill) Smith

May 2017
'Some Fenland History’
Bryan Howling

Our meetings and sessions are all back for 2016, offering help to anyone researching their family history. We welcome new members no matter where your family comes from. Our Research Sessions are open to members and newcomers alike. We have an exciting programme of interesting speakers booked for the whole year ahead. We have already taken bookings to take our Interesting Information Displays to various events and venues to give an added interest to the events. We are also taking bookings to attend groups as guest speaker.

If you would like us to attend one of your events please get in touch.

COMPUTER RESEARCH SESSIONS. Our team of experienced researchers will be in Wisbech Library on the first Tuesday of each month. They offer help with family research to anyone attending. Using all the Library facilities including two subscription programmes for FREE. If you bring your laptop they will show you how to do your own research, or they will use their own laptops and do your research with you. We are there from 10 – 12 noon. A small team of researchers are in Wyevale Garden Centre Crowland on the second Tuesday of each month from 11 – 3 p.m. offering help with your family research. Both sessions are FREE. Everyone welcome.

FAMILY HISTORY MEETINGS our January meeting speaker was Susanah FARMER her subject was ‘Back to Basics’. We were able to refresh our memories and in some cases learn new ways of researching our family histories. Our next meeting on Thursday 25th February will be ‘Military Research’ led by Jonathan FARMER as our guest speaker. On Thursday 25th March the subject is ‘Illustrating Your Family History’ we look forward to learning new ways of displaying our Family History when our guest speaker Audrie READ will show various ways including Scrapbook records. She will bring a supply of material should anyone wish to purchase items. Everyone welcome to attend our meetings held on fourth Thursday of each month in St Peter Church Hall Wisbech from 7 – 9 p.m. Members free. Non-members a £2. For further information on any of the above please call 01945 587723

Summaries of Past Meetings

January 2017

'With this ring’ - Anne Barnes

The first meeting of the New Year saw the welcome return of Anne Barnes as our speaker. Anne’s talk covered marriage from the earliest times to the present day with anecdotes and information about the legal and religious requirements of marriage as well as differing customs and practices that accompany the ceremony.

The talk began with a necessarily brief survey of marriage practices in Greek, Roman and Anglo Saxon times and the changes to marriage customs that came about once Christianity became widespread in this country and the church took control. In the middle ages a marriage would be considered valid if the couple exchanged vows in the church porch and then entered the church afterwards for prayers (although the prayers were not compulsory); marriages in wealthier families would, of course, be more elaborate and often followed from a binding betrothal that could not take place before a child was aged 7. Marriage at some levels of society was always a business or political act. It was apparently customary for a feast to be laid on after the ceremony (there are court records that show that someone was fined for not providing a meal after a wedding in Huntingdon).

The church was also concerned about the marriage of close relatives and there were strict rules about this. The Constable of Wisbech Castle (c 1400) Sir Thomas Colville had to get a Papal Dispensation in order to marry a cousin. Henry VIII married his dead brother’s widow and this was the basis of his argument for an annulment of his first marriage. In fact it did not become legal for a widower to marry his dead wife’s sister until 1907 and not until 1921 could a widow marry her dead husband’s brother. People did get round this by marrying in a parish a distance from home; apparently bigamy was also possible if the marriage took place where the person was unknown; in 1604 bigamy became a felony and was supposed to warrant the death penalty although this has never taken place.

Parish records were supposed to be kept from the 1530’s onwards but this was not always the case and during the Commonwealth the church’s role was taken by magistrates who conducted weddings after banns had been published in the local market place.

The Marriage Act of 1753 was an attempt by Parliament to regularise the whole system and marriage was only valid if it had been conducted by a Church of England clergyman following the publication of banns (which took a minimum of three weeks); the Act was not part of Scottish law so elopement to Scotland became popular for some people; initially Edinburgh was the favoured spot but it was gradually superseded by Gretna Green presumably because it was so close to the border.

Anne also told us about the ways people got round the fact that divorce was virtually impossible except for the extremely wealthy: annulment on the grounds of close relationship, a previous contract (betrothal) or impotence (which had to be proved by observation!); no remarriage was permitted. There are recorded cases of wives being sold (as in the Mayor of Casterbridge) and there were 16 cases before magistrates in 1760. a wife was sold by auction in Swaffham Bulbeck for 2s 6d.

Anne concluded her talk with a few references to customs and superstitions. Queen Victoria was the first royal bride to wear white and this set a trend for wealthy brides; poorer brides would wear best clothes. In the seventeenth century it was usual to throw grain at the couple – for good luck and for a family and this has become the confetti we now use. A cake or small cakes with marzipan were a usual part of the feast. Local (Cambridgeshire) superstitions were that it was bad luck to marry in May; it was considered good luck to hear a wren singing; thunder during the ceremony meant no children; seeing a raven meant lots of children and no money; seeing a sparrow bathing in water would mean that the husband would be drinker and if the sparrow was dust bathing the husband wouldn’t mind the house being dusty!

Anne gave us a comprehensive and enjoyable talk with lots of useful information.

[Margaret Lake ]

February 2017

'A musical family tree’ - Keith Aplin

Keith gave us a family tree with a difference, rather than just the standard relationships he added in all the different musical instruments (and singing voices) that his immediate family have in common. He then gave us a history of his family and the links back to his grandparents from whom he felt the musical gene derived.

Keith told us that he was born and brought up in Somerset and he was very close to his maternal grandparents. His grandfather Harold Rogers had been a delivery driver and then a charabanc driver; he was musical and could read music and was able to play all brass valve instruments (but not the trombone) as well as the piano and drums. The xylophone that he played is still in the family. Harold played with the Teignmouth Brass Band and as tee-total bus driver he was able to drive the band to engagements. Harold’s wife, Flossie was Keith’s very dear grandmother, and it was her philosophy “them as eat survive” and she firmly believed that good food was essential and it was never possible to eat too much. During the war Harold played in concert parties as entertainment and for fund raising.

Their daughter’ Keith’s mother was also tee total, a Sunday School teacher, pacifist, non-smoking and she played the organ and piano. Keith’s father was, however, a sailor and a drinker. They married on licence during the war and Keith was brought up a non-conformist Congregationalist; he learned to sing (tenor) alongside his grandfather. At this point Keith played a recording of the Black Dyke Band (Onward Christian Soldiers) as this was typical of the music and influences he was brought up with.

Keith and his two brother all took piano lessons but Keith didn’t enjoy scales or Beethoven – Jerry Lee Lewis and “Great Balls of Fire” changed his attitude to music (we then heard the same piece of music). The three brothers sang barber shop as The Alpine Brothers – they performed together for their parents’ Golden Wedding.

He did try playing the organ but it was not for him – he preferred music like “The House of the Rising Sun”. His brother Jeremy not only plays guitar but he has also made a beautiful guitar since retiring. Keith’s son David not only plays guitar both folk and classical but also plays with Jeremy; Keith’s grandsons who live in Germany both play classical violin and Keith showed a clip of them playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in an orchestra.

This was a different slant on family trees for us and one that was illustrated with music as well as images.

[Margaret Lake ]

March 2017

'Members’ meeting’

The meeting took the form of a series of talks by individual members who have researched various aspects of family and local history.

Jessie Tindale, who is from Folkestone, talked about the work that has been done in in Folkestone to recognise the sacrifices made during the First World War. Folkestone has a particular link with Canada as the Canadian Cavalry were based there and many Canadian servicemen were buried there. Jessie recalled that as child at a local primary school they all went to the cemetery on Canada day to lay flowers on the graves. She also spoke about a link to Edith Cavell and the Unknown Soldier as they were both brought back to this country using a special vehicle.

Chris Tysterman née Cook spoke about her family’s butcher’s shop which was in the High Street, Wisbech. She talked about the layout of the house which was on four floors including cellars and attics and she remembered as a child seeing and hearing the Salvation Army Band marching on Sundays to play on the Market Place; she also recalled having seen elephants going along the High Street to advertise the circus. Chris was 14 when her father sold up because of competition from supermarkets although her brother continued with a catering business. The subsequent history of the property was less happy as the building was divided into flats and one of the occupiers started some renovations by knocking out the fireplace and chimney in the basement without bracing or putting in joists. The chimney went all the way up the building and the tenant in one of the higher flats became alarmed by the creaking and left, fortunately as the entire 4 floors collapsed; no-one was hurt but the tenant’s cat was missing and turned up some weeks later. The gap left by the building remains to this day. Chris also had photographs of the house.

Jenny Clingo spoke about borrowing a book from the society’s resource collection. The book was about an agricultural labourer and she thought it would provide her with useful information about life on farms in the area. Much to her surprise she discovered that the author had worked for great uncle and there was lots of information and anecdotes about her family as well as photographs of her own family members. Jenny’s grandson went on the internet and was able to buy her a copy of the book and she returned her borrowed book the following month!

Another member told the story of a Scottish family who moved from Edinburgh to Essex. An orphaned child called Emmy also from Edinburgh was a house servant and through various links came to work in the Essex house. She formed a relationship with the son of the house and had a child. The son was sent back to university and was told that Emmy had left; in a way she had: the bodies of her and her child were thrown into the well and it was sealed. In 1979 a new owner took on the property and demolished the servants’ quarters and the well cover was damaged. The owner saw a ghost and then his son also saw it. The story was then researched and the information about the grim history of Emmy was revealed.

Bridget Hunter then talked about finding an exercise book that led her to the story of ancestors of hers who had moved to Buntingford having had 10 children in 13 years. Mary was irritated by her husband who left her while he went off drinking, she got her own back on Thomas by making it appear that the house was on fire. I wonder what the repercussions were.

Bridget also told us about the grim ends of some of the family of her Orkney ancestors. Some of the information was gained from newspaper reports. David Smith was a son of her great great grandfather and he was killed after the horse he was working with bolted and dragged him across the plough and then kicked him. The doctor attended but there was no hope.

More family members were tragically killed when, in 1863, a boat carrying cattle between the islands was caught in a gale and holed. The cattle were being taken to Donald Smith’s croft and David Craigie Smith who would have been 13 or 14 was drowned; John Smith, Donald’s son was also drowned but not found for a further four months. A tragic outcome of a necessary journey.

Margaret Lake then told the story of one of her mother’s sisters: Beatrice Mary Balmer born in Appleby in 1908 and died in Appleby in 1998. In those ninety years she led a very eventful life which involved training to be a nursery nurse and having to return home after she contracted meningitis; she then assisted her father in his role as Borough Survey or for Appleby and was involved in all sorts of civic activities such as the Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1936 and the Coronation in 1938. In 1939 at the age of 31 she enlisted in the army and this was the start of a whole new chapter. She served throughout the war and was on duty at the Nuremberg Trials. She was enrolled as a Subaltern when the women’s army became part of the regular army. She was awarded an MBE in 1952 and finally retired in 1957 at which point she became a PA to the owner of the Drambuie Liqueur Company. In this role she travelled extensively an was involved in organising the first fund raiser for the WWF with the Duke if Edinburgh as the Patron. She went to lunch at Buckingham Palace and travelled on the Queen Mary. When she retired to the Appleby area she helped to found the Friends of the Lake District Charity and the Appleby Society and was involved in many other projects. She led a very full and busy life.

[Margaret Lake ]

April 2017

'Around Fenland Villages’ - William (Bill) Smith

BThere was a very good turnout for the April meeting 36 people coming to see and hear the ever popular Bill Smith.

As this was essentially a photographic tour of some local Fenland villages and the photographs were the focal point of the talk I shall write about some of the topics and hope that you will have the opportunity to see and hear Bill’s talk at some time in the future.

Bill has spent many years collecting photographs and researching local history and he was able to show how he has been able to enhance some damaged photographs and then compare and contrast them with modern views of the same scene. His talk covered the villages mainly on the Norfolk side of Wisbech although Wisbech St Mary and Guyhirn were mentioned.

Bill started in Upwell with an image of St Peter’s Church painted in 1817 which contrasted with a photograph taken in 1882 showing that the steeple had been removed (in 1823). At this time a lane runs between the church and what is now the back of the Five Bells but was then the front: New Road which now leads out to Three Holes was built in 1889. The original lane ran on to join the lane that runs behind the war memorial. This, of course, is the sort of information that can be of tremendous value to family researchers.

Bill showed lots of pictures of various places and told anecdotes about people and significant events in the area. He is currently finding out more about an industrialist called Charles Anthony Vandewell who owned the Colony Lakes at Manea; he subsequently financed the Vanwall Racing Team.

There were images of various public houses in different villages that have changed their names (and appearances) over the years. The Sportsman in Elm was the Black Horse; The Tea Garden became the Elm Tree Inn; The Red Hart in Three Holes was a low thatched building with dormer windows and then became a substantial two storey road house (it is now a private house).

One of the images that sticks particularly in my mind is of some cottages, in Nordelph, with very narrow back yards immediately against the Well Creek. Every house had a line of very white washing – probably a Monday in the late nineteenth century.

This was a very enjoyable tour of some local villages and there was lots of information about people and places to be gathered.

[Margaret Lake ]

May 2017

'Some Fenland History’ - Bryan Howling

Bryan is an experienced local historian and speaker and he used to be a local history tutor in Cambridge. He prefaced his talk by saying that his talk would cover the main elements of the drainage of the fenlands from the 17th century on with a necessarily brief overview of the formation of the area from 7000BC.

Bryan used ancient and modern maps to show how the area around the Wash has gradually been reclaimed from the sea. He was able to show how the vast bay that was originally the Wash as far inland as Wisbech gradually became land as a result of sedimentary deposits from further north. It is known that the area became forested after 7000Bc and in the 4th century BC a great storm felled the forests (all the trees fell in the same direction – even forests in the near continent lie in the same direction) and many of these trees continue to be discovered and are known as “bog oaks”. A recently discovered bog oak at Methwold is currently being planked and turned into a table – the table will be 44 feet long and it is estimated that this is only a quarter of the tree’s original height!

It is known that the climate has had warmer and cooler periods and it is thought that the Roman occupation of Britain occurred at a time when the climate was warmer and drier and was then followed by several centuries of cooler, wetter weather. Drainage and man’s intervention has also altered the level of the land. Drainage has taken place at different times over the centuries with the most sustained efforts taking place in the 17th century. The effects of drainage and its drying out of the land is demonstrated by the photograph of the Holme Post which was pushed into the ground with the top level with the land surface in 1851 (when the area was drained). The post is now 4m clear of the land surface and has had to be stabilised with guy ropes.

Wisbech was originally the outfall for the Ouse River system but this changed in the 13th century when the inhabitants of Littleport decided to cut a channel from the great Ouse to the Little Ouse as they felt it would be beneficial to their economy. This caused the Ouse outfall to move to Kings Lynn and led to the development of Kings Lynn as a significant trading port. Wisbech became the outfall for the Nene; the whole area continued to be subject to coastal and inland flooding – in the century before 1600 it is said that the Wisbech area suffered sixteen floods.

This was the reason that Cornelius Vermuyden (1595-1677) was invited to submit plans for a drainage scheme for the fenland area. He had successfully overseen a drainage scheme in Hadfield Chase for James 1 in 1621 and he drew up plans for the digging of cuts to effectively drain the fenland area. The area was divided into three areas: the North Level, Middle Level and South Level – these drainage areas still exist today with their Commissioners who oversee the maintenance of the drains. The drainage schemes were undertaken by “Adventurers” who ventured their finances in anticipation of profits. The drainage schemes continued from the 17th century during the Commonwealth and almost up to the present day. The final part of Vermuyden’s Middle Level Drain – the Relief Channel was only built after the disastrous floods of the early 1950’s. Much of the land around the Wash in Lincolnshire and Norfolk was drained in the early 20th century. This land is exceptionally fertile and used for food crops.

Bryan showed aerial photographs that clearly show where old river beds (roddons) ran through the fens and also show the extent of the 21 mile section of the Ouse Washes from Earith to Denver. There were also photographs of the sluices at Denver. Bryan was also able to show images of the different type of pumps that were used to effect the actual drainage of the fens; from diagrams of Newcomen’s beam engine and wind pumps and photographs of pumping stations.

We were also shown pictures of the different crops that were grown on the fens in the past: coleseed (now known as rapeseed) was grown for oil for lamps; woad was grown for its blue dye (the last woad mill was at Parson Drove) until a synthetic dye was developed; opium poppies were grown for the drug that was extensively used to treat ague and other diseases – it was also used in proprietary medicines.

Bryan gave us a comprehensive overview of the history of the drainage of the fens with a range of images and photographs – the audience appreciated his presentation and several questions were asked.

[Margaret Lake ]

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