Whittlesey is an English town 6 miles (10 km) east of Peterborough in the Fenland district of Cambridgeshire. Its population of 16,058 at the 2011 Census included the neighbouring villages of Coates, Eastrea, Pondersbridge and Turves.

Whittlesey (Whittlesea)
Butter Cross, Whittlesey - geograph.org.uk - 1554357.jpg
Market square
Whittlesey (Whittlesea) is located in Cambridgeshire
Whittlesey (Whittlesea)
Whittlesey (Whittlesea)
Location within Cambridgeshire
Population16,058 (2011 Census)[1]
OS grid referenceTL271967
Civil parish
  • Whittlesey
Shire county
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Postcode districtPE7
Dialling code01733
AmbulanceEast of England
List of places
52°33′29″N 0°07′48″W / 52.558°N 0.130°W / 52.558; -0.130Coordinates: 52°33′29″N 0°07′48″W / 52.558°N 0.130°W / 52.558; -0.130

History and architectureEdit

The spire of St Mary's church viewed from the west

Whittlesey appears in the Cartularium Saxonicum (AD 973) as 'Witlesig', in the 1086 Domesday Book as 'Witesie', and in the Inquisitio Eliensis.[2] The meaning is "Wit(t)el's island", deriving from either Witil, "the name of a moneyer", or a diminutive of Witta, a personal name; + "eg", meaning "'island', also used of a piece of firm land in a fen."[3]

Before the fens were drained, Whittlesey was an island of dry ground surrounded by them. Excavations of nearby Flag Fen indicate thriving local settlements as far back as 1000 BC. At Must Farm quarry, a Bronze Age settlement is described as "Britain's Pompeii" due to its relatively good condition.[4] In 2016 it was being excavated by the University of Cambridge's Cambridge Archaeological Unit.[5] At Must Farm at least five homes of 3,000 years in age have been found, along with Britain's most complete prehistoric wooden wheel, dating back to the late Bronze Age.[6]

Whittlesey was linked to Peterborough in the west and March in the east by the Roman Fen Causeway, probably built in the 1st century AD. Roman artefacts have been recovered at nearby Eldernell,[citation needed] and a Roman skeleton was discovered in the nearby village of Eastrea during construction of its village hall in 2010.[7]

The town's two parishes of St Mary's and St Andrew's belonged to the abbeys in Thorney and Ely respectively until the Dissolution of the Monasteries about 1540. The two parishes were combined for administrative purposes by the Whittlesey Improvement Act of 1849. Despite the proximity of Peterborough, Whittlesey is in the Diocese of Ely.

Until it was drained in 1851, nearby Whittlesey Mere was a substantial lake surrounded by marsh. According to the traveller Celia Fiennes, who saw it in 1697, the mere was "3-mile broad and six-mile long. In the midst is a little island where a great store of Wildfowle breed.... The ground is all wett and marshy but there are severall little Channells runs into it which by boats people go up to this place; when you enter the mouth of the Mer it looks formidable and its often very dangerous by reason of sudden winds that will rise like Hurricanes...."[8] The town is still accessible by water, being connected to the River Nene by King's Dyke, which forms part of the Nene/Ouse Navigation. Moorings can be found at Ashline Lock, alongside the Manor Leisure Centre's cricket and football pitches.[citation needed]

Whittlesey was significant for its brickyards, around which the former hamlet of King's Dyke was based for much of the 20th century, although only one now remains, following the closure of the Saxon brickworks in 2011.[9]

The local clay soil was also used to make cob boundary walls during a period in which there was a brick tax. Some examples of these roofed walls still stand today and are claimed to be unique in Fenland.[10] Clay walls predate the introduction of brick tax in other parts of the country,[citation needed] and some were thatched.[11]

Whittlesey had a large number of public houses.[12] In 1797, a local farmer noted in his diary, "They like drinking better than fighting in Whittlesea."[13]

Whittlesey was an important trade route in the late Bronze Age (about 1100–800 BC). Evidence for this was found at the archaeological site of Must Farm, where log boats, roundhouses, bowls with food in them, and the most complete wooden wheel were housed.[6]

In 1832, Whittlesey, then known as Whittlesea, was ravaged by the second cholera epidemic, along with nearby Peterborough. According to a diary entry of Mrs Thomas Shaftoe Robertson, manageress of the Lincoln Theatre Circuit, "What a gap in my journal! April to November! But better not record such a summer as I have passed. God deliver me from such another. What suffering, what anguish, and loss! Whittlesea! Shall I ever have the idea of entering that place again? The cholera there raged in all its fury. I was numbered amongst its victims, and, false or true, was certainly dreadfully ill. All Peterborough was in a languishing state. Mr Walker, the surgeon, behaved most kindly, and never charged me a shilling."[citation needed]

A year later this entry was amended:

“Let me correct this error. The year after he sent me in a bill of £5 14s 6d.


St Mary's Church contains 15th-century work, but the majority of the building is later. It has one of the largest buttressed spires in Cambridgeshire.[14] It also contains a chapel which was restored in 1862 as a memorial to Sir Harry Smith.[15]

St Andrew's Church is a mixture of the Perpendicular and Decorated styles of Gothic, and has records dating back to 1635.[16]

The Market PlaceEdit

The town market is held in the Market Place every Friday. The right to hold a weekly market was first granted in 1715, although there have been several periods since in which the market did not function, for example from the late 1700s until about 1850.[17]

In the centre of the Market Place is the Buttercross, dating back to 1680. Originally a place for people to sell goods, the structure was considered useless in the 1800s and only saved from demolition when a local businessman donated some slate tiles for the roof. Latterly it served as a bus shelter, until the bus services were relocated from the Market Place to a purpose-built terminal in Grosvenor Road.[18]


Whittlesey is between Peterborough, 6 miles (10 km) to the west, and March, 11 miles (18 km) to the east, and bordered to the north by the River Nene and to the south by Whittlesey Dyke. Historically it was connected to Peterborough and March by the Roman Fen Causeway constructed in the first century AD, a route approximately followed by the modern A605.

Whittlesea railway station, using the town name's older spelling, is on the Ely to Peterborough Line, with direct trains to Cambridge, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leicester, Stansted Airport, Ely, Ipswich and Peterborough.

Culture and communityEdit

Looking north over the Market Place from the spire of St Mary's during the 2012 Whittlesey Festival
The 18th-century George Hotel (now a Wetherspoons pub) decorated for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in June 2012

Whittlesey Summer Festival takes over much of the town centre each September. Earlier attractions have included a classic car display, an Italian food stall, fairground rides, a steam engine, and in 2009, a flying display by a Hawker Hurricane of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.[19] An art competition for students of Sir Harry Smith Community College also runs during the festival, with entries displayed at the Whittlesey Christian Church. At the 2009 festival people of Whittlesey raised £10,000 for bushfire victims in Whittlesea, Victoria.[20]

From 2011 to 2015 there was planning rivalry between the supermarket chains Tesco and Sainsbury's, competing to build on neighbouring sites in Eastrea Road. Dubbed "Supermarket Gate" in the local press, the dispute was resolved when Sainsbury's won approval in June 2015 for its scheme for a supermarket, a business park and a country park.[21] Plans for over 400 houses on an adjacent site, construction of which began in late 2014,[22] generated concerns about additional traffic being generated on the A605.[23]

Close to the King's Dyke brickworks stand three 80-metre wind turbines, the largest on-shore turbines in England. They power the McCains chips plant.[24]

Whittlesey Museum, in the Old Town Hall, records the natural and cultural heritage of Whittlesey and the surrounding area.[25]

Whittlesea Straw BearEdit

The Whittlesea Straw Bear 2008
Musicians of Pig Dyke Molly dance team playing at Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival 2007

The festival of the Straw Bear or "Strawbower" is an old custom known only to a small area of Fenland on the borders of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire, including Ramsey Mereside.[26] Similar ritual animals in other parts of Europe, including parts of Germany at Shrovetide.[27][28][29][30])

On Plough Tuesday, the day after the first Monday after Twelfth Night, a man or a boy would be covered from head to foot in straw and led from house to house, where he would dance in exchange for gifts of money, food or beer. The festival was of a stature that farmers would often reserve their best straw for making the bear.[31] The custom died out about 1909, probably because the police saw it as begging, but it was resurrected by the Whittlesea Society in 1980.[31]

The festival has now expanded to cover the whole weekend, when the Bear appears not on Plough Tuesday but on the second weekend in January. On the Saturday of the festival, the Bear progresses around the streets with its attendant "keeper" and musicians, followed by traditional dance sides (mostly visitors), including morris men and women, molly dancers, rappers and longsword dancers, clog dancers, who perform at points along the route.[31]

The Bear dances to a tune (reminiscent of the hymn "Jesus Bids us Shine") which featured on Rattlebone and Ploughjack, a 1976 LP by Ashley Hutchings,[32] along with a spoken description of the original custom that had partly inspired the Whittlesey revival.

"Sessions" of traditional music take place in public houses during the day and evening, and a barn dance or ceilidh, and a Cajun dance end the Saturday night.[33] The bear "costume" is burned at a ceremony at Sunday lunchtime.[34] The Shrovetide bear costumes are also burned ceremonially after use in Germany.)[35]

The Whittlesea Straw Bear and Keeper are pictured in the album art of The Young Knives' album, Voices of Animals and Men.[36]


The town has a secondary school, Sir Harry Smith Community College, which opened in 1953 on the site of Whittlesey Workhouse,[37] and three primary schools. There is another primary school in the neighbouring village of Coates.


The town has a non–league football club, Whittlesey Athletic F.C., which currently plays in the United Counties League Division One, at Feldale Field.[38]

Notable peopleEdit

In birth order:

  • Sir Harry George Waklyn Smith (1788–1860), best known for his role in the Battle of Aliwal (India), was born in Whittlesey. He rose militarily from a rifleman to a major general and Baronet of Aliwal. He was governor of the Cape of Good Hope during unrest in 1847–1852.
  • John Clare (1793–1864), the poet, mentions "Whittlesea's reed-wooded mere" under January in his poem "The Shepherd's Calendar".[39]
  • L. P. Hartley CBE (1895–1972), novelist, was born in Whittlesey. His best known novels are the Eustace and Hilda trilogy and The Go-Between.[40]
  • Gary Dighton (1968–2015), a British national time-trial cyclist who competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and broke the national 25-mile time-trial record with 48:07. He attended Sir Harry Smith Community College.[41]
  • David Proud (born 1983), a writer and the first disabled actor to have a regular role in the BBC soap opera EastEnders, was living in Whittlesey and attended Sir Harry Smith Community College.
  • Edward Storey (1930–2018), poet born in Whittlesey, published some ten volumes of verse, a biography of John Clare, an autobiography and some libretti. He worked with Poets in schools for Eastern Arts and broadcast on the BBC.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "2011 Census Profile – Whittlesey Parish eb site".
  2. ^ Inquisition Eliensis, abbreviated "IE": a "satellite" section of the Domesday Book, listing the lands belonging to the abbey of Ely as 'Wittleseia'."Archived copy". Archived from the original on 26 May 2011. Retrieved 24 April 2010.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. ^ Ekwall, Eilert (1960). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.
  4. ^ "Bronze Age houses uncovered in Cambridgeshire are Britain's 'Pompeii'". BBC Online. 12 January 2016. Retrieved 12 January 2016.
  5. ^ "Must Farm". Retrieved 12 January 2016.
  6. ^ a b "Must Farm". Mustfarm.com. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  7. ^ Papworth, Andrew (20 August 2010). "Could this be Whittlesey's earliest known resident?". Cambs Times.
  8. ^ The Journeys of Celia Fiennes. Edited and introduced by Christopher Morris (London: The Cresset Press, 1949), p. 67.
  9. ^ London Brick [1].
  10. ^ "Mudwall leaflet" (PDF). www.whittleseymuseumcollections.com. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  11. ^ "Thatched walls". www.thatching.com. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  12. ^ Millennium Memories of Whittlesey – a series of books on Whittlesey history. Published on behalf of the Whittlesey Museum.
  13. ^ R. B. Pugh, ed. (2002). "North Witchford Hundred – Whittlesey". A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4: City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. pp. 123–135.
  14. ^ "Whittlesey, St Mary". Cambridgeshire Churches website. Druidic.org. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
  15. ^ http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/CAM/WhittleseyStMary/
  16. ^ "Whittlesey, St Andrew's". Cambridgeshire Churches website. Druidic.org. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
  17. ^ R B Pugh, ed. (2002). "North Witchford Hundred – Whittlesey". A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4: City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. British History Online (online version).
  18. ^ Bus terminal [2].
  19. ^ "Families flock to Whittlesey Summer Festival". Peterborough Today. 16 September 2009. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
  20. ^ "Derek Stebbing is new Mayor of Whittlesey". Peterborough Today. 20 May 2009. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
  21. ^ [3]
  22. ^ New housing
  23. ^ Plans approved
  24. ^ "McCain introduces winds of change to UK's largest chip factory" (press-release). Mccain.co.uk. 14 August 2007. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
  25. ^ Opening hours, etc. Retrieved 21 February 2014. Archived 24 February 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ Hole, Christina (1978). A Dictionary of British Folk Customs. Paladin. p. 286. ISBN 0-586-08293-X.
  27. ^ "FG "Fideler Aff" e.V. Walldürn". Fideler-aff.de. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
  28. ^ "Stadt Walldürn – Kraft schöpfen im Odenwald | Ahoi und Helau – Faschenaacht bei den Affen, Dundern und Höhgöikern". Wallduern.de. 2 January 2006. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
  29. ^ 16_-_05.02.08. "16_-_05.02.08 | ja album |Image 7 of 20". Helau-ocv.de. Archived from the original on 19 February 2011. Retrieved 6 September 2010.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  30. ^ Fraser, Sir James George (1963). The Golden Bough, A Study in Magic and Religion (Abridged ed.). Macmillan. p. 306.
  31. ^ a b c Straw Bear Festival website Archived 15 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  32. ^ "Straw Bear Festival website – Procession". Strawbear.org.uk. Archived from the original on 26 December 2008. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
  33. ^ Straw Bear Festival website – Festival 2009 Archived 28 August 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  34. ^ "Straw Bear Festival website – Burning". Strawbear.org.uk. Archived from the original on 26 December 2008. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
  35. ^ 30_-_20.02.07. "30_-_20.02.07 | ja album |Image 21 of 27". Helau-ocv.de. Archived from the original on 19 February 2011. Retrieved 6 September 2010.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  36. ^ "Never Go Down Fighting – Young Knives' 'Voices of Animals and Men' Turns 10". louderthanwar.com. Retrieved 10 October 2019.
  37. ^ Higginbotham, Peter. "The Workhouse in Whittlesey, Cambridge". workhouses.org.uk. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
  38. ^ Cambs Times: Whittlesey Athletic unveil new floodlights in Cambridgeshire cup tie |March and Chatteris News |Cambs Times, accessdate 4 February 2020.
  39. ^ Text. Retrieved 20 September 2020.
  40. ^ "books". independent.co.uk. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  41. ^ "Tributes paid to Olympic TT rider Gary Dighton, who has died at age of 46". Road.cc. Retrieved 27 July 2016.

External linksEdit