Prickwillow, Cambridgeshire


Prickwillow in 1998 is a village about 4 miles north-east of Ely, situated in the Fens. It is a straggling area of houses and has its own Steam Engine Museum.

The Fens - Descriptions of Prickwillow - Primitive Methodist Church - Drainage Engine Museum - Inhabitants 1929
War Memorial - Family Connections - Prickwillow Parish Magazine

The Fens

The Fens, characterised by their rich black peaty soil have not always been as they are today. At the end of the Ice Age the area was covered in thick forest with the sea some 30 metres below its present level. As the ice melted the sea rose, the wet swampy conditions led to the death of the forest and the peat, the main characteristic of today's Fen, began to form.

The Romans used substantial areas of the fenland for agriculture and in order to do so had to undertake drainage work. Although there is little knowledge of these it can be assumed that it would have been quite small. The drainage need would not have been so complicated as today because, at that time, the surface was 20' 0" higher than the present land level. It was therefore above sea level and only a gravity drainage system had to be constructed.

Until the mid 17th Century, the fens were vast tracts of sedge covered swamp with giant patches of reeds, willows and alders covering many acres. It was a lonely place, at times quite frightening with "will o' the wisp" in the twilight together with the burps and gurgles as methane gas erupted through swampy waters. The areas were only inhabited by wildfowlers and fishermen, hardy folk known as 'Fen Tigers'. It was the place to which people came to cut prickets or skewers of willow for holding down thatch, hence the name given to the village, Prickwillow. Major settlements were on higher ground such as the Cathedral City of Ely, which in those times was almost an island surrounded as it was by marshy land.

In 1634, a group of Fenmen known as "The Adventurers", assisted by the Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden cut the Old Bedford river by agreement with the Earl of Bedford and the drainage of the Fens began.

Shrinking Land

As the land was drained the peat shrunk and minor ditches became lower than the main channels. The silt-lands around the Wash hardly shrank at all and by 1700 the outfalls of the major rivers were higher than the peats they were supposed to drain.

Windmills, driving scoop wheels, were use to pump the water with limited success, but in 1820 the situation was transformed by the introduction of a Watts steam engine to drive the scoop wheel at Bottisham Fen. Others soon followed and a new channel was dug for the Ouse, the Eau Brink Cut near Kings Lynn, together with a series of sluices to control the release of the river into tidal waters ... The Fens, as we know them today were born ...

Various Descriptions of Prickwillow

Prickwillow sits on the rodham of the Cam-Ouse which originally ran eastwards from Ely, meandering to Prickwillow before swerving west to Littleport. St, Peterís Church, which dates from 1868, was built on piles and due to the high water table, burials take place at Ely. The vicarage was built with two steps up to the front door but the sinking of the peat resulted in the building of many more. Plantation Farm and Peacocks Farm, to the east of the village off the A1101, were scenes of archeological digs in the 1930ís that established the remains of Roman and three earlier levels of prehistoric human habitation.

The area near the new road bridge over the River Lark is pretty and well kept and close to the main points of interest in the village - the church, Prickwillow Pottery and the drainage engine museum. The museum was set up in 1982 to save the large diesel engine dating from 1922. The building originally housed a steam pumping engine and now, apart from the large Mirrlees diesel, contains other diesels, dating from 1919, recovered from local pumping stations and restored by volunteers. The Mirrlees is demonstrated on several days throughout the year.

The Cambridgeshire Fens - BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

This was once a tiny settlement beside the River Ouse, but when the course of this river was changed in 1829, Prickwillow was expanded over the silt banks of the old course. A school was built in 1862, and a church in1866, both on piles. It is six miles to Isleham across the fen and two windmills once drained it along with Soham Mere, but once the river was redirected towards Littleport a steam pumping engine was installed at the head of the drain in 1831. A second station was built beside it in 1880 and its steam pump was replaced by diesel in 1924.

Published by S.B. Publications ISBN : 1 85770 041 4

PRICKWILLOW is a hamlet and ecclesiastical parish, formed April 5, 1878, from Holy Trinity and St. Mary parishes, Ely, Littleport, Cambridgeshire, and Lakenheath and Mildenhall, Suffolk, and part of Norfolk, 4 miles north-east from Ely station on the Cambridge, Ely and Norwich section of the London and North Eastern railway and 4 south-east from Littleport, in the petty sessional division, union, county court district and rurl deanery of Ely, archdeaconry of Wisbech and diocese of Ely. This hamlet is on the river Lark, which rises at Bury St. Edmunds and here joins the river Ouse; the Lark is spanned within the parish by two bridges. The church of St. Peter, built about 1868 on a foundation of wooden piles, is a cruciform edifice of brick and flint in the Early English style, consisting of apsidal chancel, nave with transepts, south porch and a central turret with short spire containing one bell, dated 1691, formerly in Ely cathedral; the stained east window is a memorial; the font of Italian marble, also brought from Ely cathedral, and said to have been designed by Sir Christopher Wren, is dated 1693; there are 350 sittings. There being no churchyard here interments take place at Ely. The registers of births and marriages date from 1873. The living is a vicarage, net yearly value £325, with residence, in the gift of the vicar of Holy Trinity, Elty, and held since 1921 by the Rev. John King Cecil Payne A.K.C. There is a Baptist chapel, erected in 1875, and one for Primitive Methodists, erected in 1894. St. Peterís Hall, an old building, formerly a Wesleyan chapel, is now used for meetings of a religious and social character. Owing to exhaustive draining, the soil in this district sinks nearly two inches yearly; the schools and vicarage and houses are built on piles. Two steam pumping engines and two oil engines are in the village and two in Burnt Fen; the average discharge is 150 tons per minute into the river Lark. There are several small landowners. The soil is fen; subsoil, clay. The land, which is all fen, is chiefly arable. The population in 1921 was 1,303 which extends into Suffolk.

BURNT FEN, 4 1/2 miles distant, is a hamlet with a station, called Shippes Hill, on the Ely and Thetford section of the London and North Eastern railway. St Jamesís Mission church, built in 1891, at a cost of £420, is an iron structure, consisting of chancel, nave and aisles, and affording 250 sittings.

Kelly's Directory - 1929

Prickwillow Primitive Methodist Church

The church was built in 1894 and contains two foundation stones dedicated to the Edwards family. One stone was laid by Rev. A.W.Edwards and Mr. A.G.Edwards (Arthur and Albert George Edwards), and the other stone was laid by Mr. S.E Edwards of Manea on 18th September 1894. The church is currently being used as a residential building.

The Prickwillow Drainage Engine Museum

A succession of pumping engines have been sited at Prickwillow; the Side Lever Steam Engine in 1831 was followed by the Beam Steam Engine in the 1880's (both of which are lost). This was replaced by the magnificent 1929 Mirrlees, Bickerton and Day Diesel, which was used until the 1970's when its work was taken over by modern diesel and electric pumps. This impressive machine is now the centrepiece of the Museum and can be seen working on special run days.

Visit the Prickwillow Drainage Engine Museum

Inhabitants of Prickwillow - 1929

Goat Charles, Chestnuts
Payne Rev. John King Cecil A.K.C. (vicar), vicarage
Rice Mrs.
Wright Rev. Robert (Baptist)

Marked thus + farm 150 acres or over.
Atkin James Walter, beer retailer
Beazley Albert, supt. Middle Fen Commissioners
Bedford Ernest, farm bailiff to Sir F. Hiam. T N 12
Bell Charles, engineer at Padnal pumping station
Bell Herbert, Hardwicke Arms P.H. Branch river
Clarke Thos. Wm. Hy. frmr. T N 14
Collen Reuben, farm bailiff to Giddens, Barratt & Co
Cross Robert, farmer
Edwards Albt. Geo. grocer, Post office
Edwards Ernest Walt. bldr. T N 9
Fairhead Ernest E. Anchor P.H.
Fitch Ernest, beer retlr
Gathercole William, cycle agent
Hill Rowland, smallholder
+Hopkin Flanders (Mrs.), farmer, Lot's farm. T N 7
Hopkins Jn. farmer
Howe Bros. threshing machine owners
Lane George, Waggon & Horses P.H.
Lee Aquila Harrison, farmer
Lee Elizabeth (Mrs.), farmer
Lee James, farmer, Padnal
Leggett, Jn. confctnr
Leonard Henry, cycle agent
Marsh William, farmer
Norman John, farmer, Tom's hole
Palmer Jonas, farmer
Pope Charles, farmer
Rice Herbert (Mrs.), farmer
Stannard Fredk. Burnt Fen district drainage officer & engnr. Burnt Fen pumping station
Stevens John Henry, farmer
Taylor Jn. Wm. blacksmith. T N 3
Taylor Josiah, farmer
Taylor Phoebe (Mrs.), shopkeeper
Veal John, farmer
Watson Wm. (Mrs.), farmer

Bonnett William, Railway tavern
Brown William, beer retailer
Harrison Aaron, farmer
Harrison Stanley, smallholder, Harris farm
Hockley Henry, boot maker
Johnson Philip, farmer, Harris farm, T N Burnt Fen 8
Papworth John, farmer, Manning fm
Papworth John H. farmer, Old Elderberry farm
Phoenix Marshall, frmr. Plantation frm
Pope David, smallholder, Harris frm
Robb Walter J. farmer
Sallis Geo. frmr. T N Burnt Fen 13
Seager Fredk. Geo. Plough & Duck P.H.
Watson Arthur, farmer, Crossbank

Kelly's Directory - 1929


J. Baulk
B. Bonnett
W. Butcher
C. Butler
F. J. Cross
G. A. Cross
A. Crunkhorn
J. W. Day
W. Fletcher
J. C. Fuller
A. Gage
S. Gage
S. Lambert
J. H. S. Lee
R. Mann
L. Palmer
A. C. Paske
G. Payne
R. A. Peachey
S. W. Powell
J. T. Sadler
G. R. Saunders
E. E. Thorpe
S. Watts
H. G. White
S. Wilding
G. Wise
E. A. Brown
R. Brown
A. W. Brown
L. W. Cole
J. W. A. Cole
T. G. W. Dew
W. Gipp
J. Lee
J. T. Pearce
T. Rollings
B. W. Skipper
C. M. Willingham

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Last Updated on: 23 January 2000
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