The Story of Milton

This page is based on “The Story of Milton, or Middleton, Cambridgeshire, From Early Times” by KP Humphries (Ken Humphries, who at various times was district councillor for Milton and clerk to the parish council. He is the only person in Milton with two roads named after him: Humphries Way and Ken’s Way. the latter being built on the site of his old house.) which he wrote in 1962 and sold to villagers for two shilling and sixpence (12.5p).

Cover of The Story of Milton


It is nearly a hundred years since a previous “History of Milton” was published ( “A History of the Parish of Milton in the County of Cambridgeshire” by William Keatinge Clay, BD. It was published posthumously in 1869 by the Cambridge Antiquarian Society priced at three shillings. Original copies can be found occasionally and it’s also available to purchase as scanned PDFs on CD-ROM.): a full-length work in 1869, itself now part of history. Since that day the village has altered and grown considerably. But that is not all: its past is still unfolding and it is still growing.

Why the village has developed in this spot near the banks of the river Cam is an interesting speculation. This brief story is published in response to those who might like to consider more of those gone before. It is a mere glance at the past and much more can be written.

Any attempt to reconstruct the conditions of some twenty centuries since is to try to pierce the mists of time which cloud the unwritten past. Such a task meets with varying success. Nevertheless it is hoped it will entertain in spite of any shortcomings.




A brief History of the Village

Milton is a busy Cambridgeshire village on the Ely Road some three miles north of Cambridge beside the placid river Cam. It is changing rapidly as new houses and building estates spring up in all parts of the parish (Humphries is writing in 1962 as the Coles Road estate is being built). Yet its beginnings stem from times before Julius Caesar and the Emperor Claudius came to Britain.



Many thousand years ago the sluggish river meandered northward from the gentle uplands of south Cambridgeshire. Reaching the vast marshes of the Fens it spread into a network of creeks and tributaries. Wildlife screeched amongst the reed-ronds and beat their great wings against the water where the pike and the eel swam as the river oozed along towards the Wash and the North Sea. In frail basketwork boats, probably stone-age man roamed freely over the waters.

A few thousand years later the native tribes of East Anglia, wandering along this natural highway, settled in the fen meadows of Milton. Between the swamps and the forest which covered much of the higher land they hunted wild animals for meat and skins; they fished in the river and, most important of all, tilled the soil and grew corn for food.

This small agricultural community of early Milton came into being in the last days of the millennium B.C., some 2,000 years ago where the conquering Roman invaders found them. A few years ago, men digging gravel in the village exposed some human skeletons and the Romano-British beginnings of Milton came to light. And so the story opens with those remains found a few feet below the soil.



These ancient people of Milton farmed and hunted under the grim influence of their Roman masters. They paid their taxes either willingly or unwillingly! But they learnt new ways of life as the way of conqueror and conquered. They left behind them a vast quantities of pottery fragments to tell their tale. They learn for instance, new ways of making cooking and storage vessels. From the gravel beneath the soil of Milton they obtained the grey clay which exists there in convenient pockets. They moulded it into large corn- ars, some two feet high, for storing grain, and into dishes, urns and bowls and baked them in earth kilns. Here was an early local industry: a pottery manufactory.

The local clay, ready to hand, and the convenient meadows for farming, were the basis of a flourishing and prosperous village, it seems, for several centuries. The bones of these men and women which lay just above the gravel show them to have been about five feet tall. The molar teeth in their skulls were flattened and polished by the continual chewing of raw grain.

We must divert our attention from the activities of these people for a moment to obtain a picture of what was happening in the surrounding countryside. The river Cam was a popular highway and much trade must have taken place along it. Probably the elegant red-glazed ‘Samian’ ware bowls (terra sigillata), remains of which have been found in Milton came this way from Roman Gaul in the first and second centuries. True, the Romans made a road from Cambridge towards Ely; the western boundary of the parish with Impington now runs along it. It is known locally as the Mere Way or Mare Way and the Saxons named it Akeman Street. But the many Romano-British settlements north of Cambridge, as at Milton, lie mainly along the river margins and it is remarkable that the Roman road on the other side of the parish shews few traces of the Romans.

Across the river, at Horningsea, was another potters village. The HORNINGSEA WARE of those times is found in other parts of the country and it is easy to sea how this came about. Joining the Cam, near Milton and Horningsea, was the great Roman waterway, the Car Dyke – still easily traceable to this day. Skirting Waterbeach and by Goose Hall Farm in Landbeach – a farm since Roman times – it made its way through Cottenham Fen and eventually into Lincolnshire. Along this canal, the corn from the Fenlands and, doubtless, pottery from Milton, Horningsea and Cambridge was carried to the north.

After the Romans left, their roads, built largely for long distance travel, were not much used by the local inhabitants. Countless feet of marching Roman Legions had kept them open. But, afterwards, these ways and even the great Car Dyke, became disused. While the latter gradually silted up the river, still passable, reverted to its age-old function as the great highway and probably remained so for hundreds of years.



It is thought that the Saxons built a church at Milton but no Saxon stonework has ever been noticed in the village. It may have been a structure of timber and thatch. There is little, if any, remains of the Saxon occupation of Milton. But we know from the Libor Eliensis, written by the Monks of Ely, that is was inhabited in Saxon times.

Southwards, down the river to his monastic lands at Milton, came BRIHTNOTHUS, the Saxon and first Abbot of Ely, about the year 980. The monastery of Saint Paul, in London, had owed the parish but, finding their Milton tenants difficult to manage made willing exchange with the Abbot for land at Fordham. He could now reach Milton easily in his state barge instead of having to travel by the often impassible roads and deep muddy tracks of that time. Moreover, he also had lands nearby, at Horningsea.



Any times are often hard times and Norman times were no exception. The Domesday Survey, in 1086, records the annual yield of eels from Milton Fen as 650; worth £7. But, in King Edward the Confessor’s time, thirty years before, they had realized £12. Economic slumps are not a modern phenomena, it seems. Although this was a large sum of money then it was not the sole income of the thirty of forty families who farmed the land in Domesday Milton.

The great Conqueror, WILLIAM of NORMANDY, we are told, camped at King’s Hedges (to the south-west of Milton). But he did not take the Roman road through Milton to Ely, it had probably sunk back into the fen at Chittering and beyond. So whether King William I, himself, has much to do with Milton we do not know. He certainly went westwards across to Willingham and Earith and eventually, as history records, he beat the English at Aldreth and crossed the marshes into the Isle of Ely.

Nevertheless, the Norman conquerors, as they did far and wide over the rest of the land, wrought many changes in Milton. The Abbot of Ely’s lands were seized by the infamous and unscrupulous Norman Sheriff, PICOT. This Norman gentleman has been described by the chroniclers of the time in no uncertain terms as “the hungry lion, the prowling wolf, the crafty fox, the shameless dog”. The villagers of Norman Milton, doubtless too, suffered under his yoke.



For several centuries the parish remained Crown land but we find it in private hands in the thirteenth century.

In 1279, Sir JOHN LE STRAUNGE has a fishery on the Cam at BASEBITT worth 20s. (20s or 20 shillings was £1 in pre-decimal currency) a year. Basebitt, now spelt BAITSBITE, where the Cam Conservators have built locks and from where the University bumping races begin, means a low lying ‘base’ piece of land or bend (bight) in the river: in those days swampy and unfit for farming. A hundred years ago it was called BACKSBITE.

Between Baitsbite and the village lies what is probably the oldest road in Milton; its origins go back into the dimmest antiquity and it was old even in mediaeval times. Now the FEN ROAD, its trail was blazed some 2,000 years ago by the native tribes when they settled in the meadows. River travellers through the ages followed the same track to higher land where the village now stands. Brihtnothus, the Abbot, came this way a thousand years ago and the village fish supply from the river, too. Perhaps the Danes breathed fire and slaughter along it.

Besides this old road, where the old village ends (in 1770 called HALL END), are the scarcely visible remains of where, it is said, the mediaeval manor house once stood. Perhaps it is even earlier people who left their marks here. At this period, the unwritten village history merges with the written but the latter is scarce and the former not yet fully explored. Records tell us that, in 1289, Lord over the villeins and serfs of Milton was Sir WILLIAM de MIDDLETON, and it is likely that he lived there. It is certain that here, nearby the Church, the hub of Milton turned for several centuries. Now, little is distinguishable, but the future may unfold more to add to our story. Where, perhaps, his great gate stood and his staunch English archers mounted guard now stand ‘Mon Repos’ and ‘Wayside’ – Englishmen’s castles just as was Sir William’s battlements and stone walls nearly 700 years ago.

This mediaeval knight took his surname from the village itself which the Saxons had named the Middel-Tun, meaning the middle place or place amidst marshes and water. During the ages the name of the village has changed gradually to its modern form. In the twelfth century it was called Middletune by the Ely monks.
In the time of Richard I it was known as Middaton and by the beginning of Edward III’s reign it became Middleton. Before the end of that reign it had been shortened to the form in use today.



To say that history repeats itself is no trite remark. A new road is planned in the village (as we write in 1962) or, rather, a diversion of the present main road to Ely. Strangely enough, this will be reverting nearly to the centuries-old course of the Ely road which the Turnpike Commissioners of two hundred years ago had made up but which, in 1795 Samuel Knight, Lord of the Manor and occupier (and builder) of Milton Hall, persuaded the Commissioners to allow him to turn away from the front of his house to the direction it now takes; this made several corners. The Turnpike Commissioners were not without good traffic foresight, apparently, they stipulated that “the Coppice to be so sloped, or the Corners rounded off, so that the drivers of Carriages passing to and from Cambridge may see each other at some little distanced before they meet”. If the powerful Squire did a public disservice in diverting travellers and eighteenth century traffic away from his windows, it will be righted if the road is made (Humphries is referring to Ely Road, which was about to be created in 1963, replacing the previous main route north out of the village via the High Street which, as now, veered left at Pond Green and then right to pass the farm college).

On the other hand, there were those who appeared to suffer unduly and it comes as rather a shock to us in these more tolerant days to find examples of the viciousness of the forces of law and order which operated in the eighteenth century. Milton was not exempt. Returning home one day in 1775, the Rector found that part of the Rectory fence had been broken down and taken away, which crime was traced to a poor man living nearby. Such was the culprit’s terror at being suspected, and to avoid being imprisoned in Cambridge Castle Gaol, he immediately enlisted as a soldier and was not heard of for several years afterwards.

Happily in those more spacious times, there were orderly pursuits of pleasure as well as of delinquency. Probably the most famous of Milton dwellers was the Rev. WILLIAM COLE, the eighteenth century scholar and antiquary, who lived there for the last period of his life. His house, originally built in the sixteenth century, still stands in Fen Road. The lovely old house is, indeed, remarkably preserved and is well-cared for by the present owners, Mr. and Mrs. Maxwell Forbes.

William Cole, pursuing his indefatigable researches, filled 114 mms. volumes (now in the British Museum) with transcriptions of parish registers, coats of arms, church monuments and so on. Cole was never Rector of Milton. This great scholar chose it to live in rather than the damp and inundations of Waterbeach as “then” he says “I can keep two or three cows and employ my horses in a few acres of plowing which I much like”. Actually he was Vicar of Burnham in Buckinghamshire while he lived at Milton House but his interest in his parishioners at that remote parish was not very great.

On 1st January, 1779, Milton was struck by a great tempest. Cole was most upset by this terrible storm. His “house shook like a cradle without intermission until three o’clock in the morning” he says. The Church was “unroofed” and houses blown down.


Although an academic hermit, Cole could be a merry old soul when occasion arose. Catastrophe followed an evening’s jaunt when he dined with the Master of Emmanuel on a frosty New Year’s Eve, 1779, or, as Cole himself says:- “I had nearer been demolished …”. He, and the Vicar of Landbeach, set off for home from Emmanuel College in their separate carriages when the moon was full. But not only the moon was full! The Vicar’s coachman had spent his evening far too well and when but a mile from Milton (about where the railway crossing (Humphries is referring to what is now where guided busway joins Milton Road but was at the time he was writing still a railway line) is now) he was so drunk that he fell and was trampled under the horses’ feet. Cole’s servant rushed to his aid leaving Cole’s horses driverless. They bolted at full gallop. Hearing the horses’ hoofs on the frosty road, the Milton Turnpike keeper wisely threw open his gates (at the corner where is now the Lion and Lamb). Cole says:- “all this while I was seated at the bottom of the chaise with my legs out of it”. He dare not jump out it for fear of getting his gown entangled in the swiftly-moving wheels and being dragged behind. Poor Cole! He had lost his hat and the fright that this gave him is best described in his own words:- “always keeping myself so immoderately warm I concluded if I escaped being dashed to pieces I should certainly catch a bad cold and fever being exposed so late to weather without any hat”. But the turnpike keeper came to the rescue “ran at full stretch”, stopped the horses and “saved my life” he concludes. Cole did not sleep that night and there is no record of the fate of the dilatory coachman or how he was admonished when he met his master’s eye the next day.

Cole’s house, which he was wont to call his ‘hermitage’ where he sought solitude, is now being surrounded. Rapid residential development is ‘a stone’s cast away’ (to use his favourite phrase). New houses, bungalows and roads cross the green fields he knew around him (Humphries is writing in the era when the new estates of Coles Road, Old School Lane, Goding Way, Shirley Close and Pearson Close were being built around Milton House). How his gouty spleen would rise at this invasion of his peace could he see these marks of twentieth century progress from his study windows instead of his pretty guinea fowl to divert him from his labours.



At the very beginning of the nineteenth century the open farmlands of Milton were enclosed and drained. The Enclosure Commissioners cut a large ditch and bank, known as BANK DITCH, which is such a prominent feature stretching from south to north across the Fen. At the same time they erected a drainage windmill to pump water from parish lands. For 40 years this stood in the Fen and emptied the contents of Bank Ditch into the river. It was dismantled in 1841. The name, Bank Ditch, became changed to BANKERS DITCH about 1844 which it is still. They placed responsibility for upkeep of the windmill and drain on the parish and set aside certain land or ‘allotment’ to pay for this together with, if necessary, a rate levied on owners of land in the parish. This rate for many years was 1/- an acre. The cost of cleaning the ditch seems to have been about 30/-, once a year. When it is seen that the ditch is a mile and a half long and, in 1846, took a man and a boy a week, apparently, to do half that length, receiving 15/- between them, it is an illuminating sidelight on wage increases since then. In those days, four men and two horses and carts could be hired for £1 a day, and a scythe cost 3/6d! Economical times.

Brains also received attention. The ‘National’ Parish School building was erected by King’s College in 1836. These premises remained in use for about 124 years and recently a larger, modern building (Milton Primary School in Butt Lane. The old school was demolished and the land became Hall End) has been erected elsewhere. The natural corollary of this should be, it is hoped, that the quality of education will improve.

In 1845, the EASTERN COUNTIES RAILWAY COMPANY extended their line from Newport to Cambridge and, through Milton Fen, to Ely, Brandon and Peterborough. In doing so they demolished part of the embankment of Bankers Ditch for which they paid the parish £50. With this money a clock was put in the church tower in 1847.

These changes that were taking place during the nineteenth century were necessarily all dependent on the basic practice of agriculture. Mixed farming has been the mainstay of life in the village from early times. We have seen how eels and other fish from the parish fenlands augmented the produce of the soil in Saxon, Norman times and later. Enclosure drainage finally extinguished the piscatorial contribution and the soil won. The way was opened up for increase of stock, such as sheep on the new grasslands, and supporting root crops. In the hundred years following the enclosures the population of the parish almost doubled; it had previously taken 900 years – since Domesday times – to do this. This appears, at least, to reflect the increasing productivity of the land which the adherents of enclosure claimed would result from their measures. Measures they often had to carry through against much opposition.

In 1859, the main farms in the village were described as consisting of “fine turnip, pasture and meadow land”. No doubt, the improvement in the breed of sheep in Milton forecast before the enclosure reflected this. Today, sheep are no longer kept in the village, but were so within the memory of the middle-aged. The chief arable crops are Barley, Wheat, Potatoes, and Sugar Beet; market garden crops lend themselves to intensive cultivation on the light gravelly soil and the strong fen land. Thirty years ago, it would appear, more peas, beans and turnips were grown than at present; the latter, no doubt, declined with sheep farming. Dairy farming is prominent; even that seems to be declining under the threat of urbanisation of the parish. The chief farming families of Easy, Hall and Pearson for many years produced the village milk supply which, until a few years ago, was supplied direct to local customers. Now the centralisation of collection and delivery over a wide area has superseded the ‘old-fashioned’ methods.

*         *         *

Writing in the twentieth century, some 60 years of changes lie behind. In this brief account it is not possible to record all, but to recall some may, perhaps, stir the memories of our readers.

The more musically minded in Milton Hall will remember the MILTON STRING ORCHESTRA founded by the late Mrs George Pearson between the wars when her family, augmented by other keen village musicians especially from the late Mr Butcher’s family, enjoyed many musical evenings with violin, viola and ‘cello, and gained awards at County music festivals.

The older generation may recall some of the last squires of the village. Their manor house, MILTON HALL, was built about 1772 remaining in the family of the builder, Samuel Knight, 160 years until the 1930’s. The pleasure grounds and ornamental lake were laid out by Humphry Repton, the landscape gardener, who designed Russell Square, Bloomsbury, for a past Duke of Bedford. A hundred years ago, these grounds, studded with Cedars, Planes, and Lime Trees and with extensive shrubbery walks were described as “one of the most charming spots in the County”. The boating lake they called the CLYTUMNUS RIVER (a name now quite lost in the village) in allusion, apparently, to the original of this name in Umbria, Italy, on a tributary of the river Tiber. The original, mentioned by Pliny, was sacred and personified as a god, with an ancient Christian temple nearby. Today the humble Milton namesake, is a marshy remnant of its former glory. It is a pity that now, in what should have been the full bloom of their maturity, these grounds, the brainchild of a master botanist and gardener, should have come to a premature decay. Economic circumstances forced the historic manor house and its gardens out of private ownership and brought neglect. Now (since about 1948) it is the Fen Sub-area Office of the Eastern Electricity Board.

By the enterprise of their proprietors in the realms of horticulture, the last fifty years or so have seen the establishment of several flourishing concerns. The MILTON NURSERIES, a very large tomato and cucumber nursery, has extensive markets (We think this is probably the land on which part of The Rowans estate now stands south of Butt Lane.). The ENTERPRISE NURSERIES (On the A10 just north of Milton, now closed) and the POPLAR NURSERIES are old established plant and market garden suppliers. Messrs EDMUNDS, seedsmen, of ALEXANDRA NURSERIES, closed in 1961 and the extensive premises are now being developed as a Home for Mentally Handicapped Children. The local farmers’ own organisation the MILTON SMALLHOLDERS’ CO-OPERATIVE SOCIETY closed in 1962 after 50 years trading and milling of their own produce.

At one time the only village store was Messrs. CONDER’S Bakery, General Stores and Post Office which they gave up on retirement, about 1950, after many years of family business. The late Mr. Conder was a popular figure in Milton. After baking his bread in the early hours he delivered it in his small closed handcart around the village. He was rarely without a colourful flower in his buttonhole and out of season displayed an artificial one, even if it was ‘home made’! Mrs. Conder, now living in Saffron Walden, is nearing her century of years ( Mary Page, Edith Conder’s granddaughter, wrote to us in 2014 to tell us that Mrs Conder has since died and the surviving family are no longer live in Saffron Walden.).

Perhaps few achievement can match the founding and growth of the MILTON LAUNDRY. In its early days, lacking essential facilities for such a venture, water supply fetched by hand, it is a tribute to the skill and perseverance of its foundress. Now, with its maintenance engineers and modern equipment, it is a thriving village industry having a large ‘catchment area’.

These products of Milton enterprise and industry are a far cry of the imagination from the simple potters’ huts of 2,000 years ago. All the same, it was they, those other skilled craftsmen, who laid the basis of Milton’s industry in those far-off days. Now there is an immigration of light industry employing many at the Cambridge end of the village.

The face of Milton is changing rapidly. In recent months three large building estates including several hundred houses and extensive new roads have been built. There are more to come. Such growth and development, on a lesser scale perhaps, have been part of Milton’s history: the Domesday population was 150, in 1801 it was 273, in 1901, 471, in 1931, 739 and in 1951, 816. Harking back to our writer of 1869, we find he says of Milton: “the population still goes on increasing, contrary to what is the case in some neighbouring parishes, as we may judge from the new cottages which are gradually springing up …”.

His words could have been written, with exactly the same truth, today.