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Peterborough, Northamptonshire

Historical Description

Peterborough, an ancient and interesting city in Northamptonshire, and a diocese comprising the counties of Northampton, Leicester, and Rutland. The city stands in a flat country, on the river Nene, at the boundary with Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire, 4¼ miles E from Ermine Street, 18 N from Huntingdon, 12 SE from Stamford, 81 by the high road, 76½ by the G.N.R, 102½ by the G.E.R., and 110½ by the L. & N.W.R. N from London. It is a municipal and parliamentary borough, and is the head of the liberty of Nassaburgh or soke of Peterborough, which is now a separate administrative county, distinct from the remainder of Northamptonshire, having its own lord paramount and custos rotulorum, a separate commission of the peace, and a separate court of quarter sessions.

History.-A monastery, called Medehamstede, signifying "the home in the meadows," was founded here in 656 by Penda, king of Mercia; was destroyed in 870 by the Danes; was restored in 970 by Bishop Ethelwold of Winchester, and dedicated to St Peter; was ravaged by Hereward the Saxon at the time of the Norman Conquest, and partly burnt in 1116; was rebuilt as a Benedictine abbey in 1144 by Abbot Martin; acquired the dignity of the mitre and such reputed sanctity that a visit to its high altar was considered equivalent to a pilgrimage to Rome; was visited in 1327 by Queen Philippa, and eventually became the seat of the diocese. The town grew up around the monastery; shared till 970 its name of Medehamstede; took then the name of Peter'sburg, with allusion to the monastery's dedication to St Peter; participated in the monastery's fortunes, with the effect of being burnt in 1116, and of afterwards enjoying much prosperity; had two lepers' hospitals, the one founded in the time of Stephen, the other in 1180; suffered decrease of importance after the Reformation; gave the title of Earl in the time of Charles I. to the family of Mordaunt; experienced great revival of trade after the railway era; sustained considerable damage by a flood in Oct., 1848; and numbers. among its distinguished natives Abbot Benedict, Bishop Chambers, Bishop Kennett, Archdeacon Paley, and the antiquary Gunton.

Structure.-The city consists of neat, regular, well-built, and well-paved streets. It has an excellent water supply, derived from works at Braceborough, which are the property of the corporation. An iron bridge, erected in 1872 at a cost of over £6000, crosses the Nene at the end of Broad Bridge Street. The Guildhall, which stands in the Market Place, is an ancient building of stone erected in 1671, the upper portion of which is used by the corporation for their official business, the lower part being used as a poultry and butter market. The Corn Exchange stands on the site of the old theatre in Church Street; was built in 1848 at a cost of £5500, in the Italian style; contains a spacious market-room, which is also available for public meetings, and is lighted from the roof. The sessions house, in the Thorpe Road, was originally the Peterborough or Nassaburgh Hundred Gaol, and is a building of stone in the Norman style, which was erected in 1842 at a cost of about £12,000. It is now used only for the trial of prisoners. The Law Courts stand in the New Road, and are plain buildings of brick, erected in 1873. The Free Libraries Act was adopted in 1891, and the building in which the library is located, formerly the Fitz-william Hall, is situated in Park Road. The City and County Club is in Priestgate, and a non-political working-men's club in Park Road. The Theatre Royal stands in Broad-way, and is a fine building of brick, capable of seating 900 persons, which was erected at a cost of about £5000 in 1877. The Workhouse stands in the Thorpe Road, about half a mile W of the city, and is a building of brick erected in 1836, and capable of accommodating about 360 inmates. The Cemetery is in Eastfield Road; was formed in 1850; has an area of 9 acres; is provided with two mortuary chapels, and is managed by a burial board consisting of the churchwardens for the time being and seven members of the corporation.

The Borough.-The borough was incorporated by charter, dated 17 March, 1874, and is governed by a mayor, 6 aldermen, and 18 councillors, the corporation also acting as the urban sanitary authority. It is divided into three wards- viz., East, with a population of 8621; North, with a population of 13,758; and South, with a population of 2792; total population, 25,171. Peterborough sent two members to Parliament from the time of Edward I. to the passing of the Redistribution of Seats Act, 1885, when the number was, reduced to one. The parliamentary borough includes the old parish of St John the Baptist, Minster close precincts, and parts of Fletton and Woodstone, in Huntingdonshire. Population of the parliamentary borough, 26,463. For ecclesiastical purposes the city is divided into the Cathedral precinct (population, 1693), and the parishes of All Saints (3281), St John the Baptist (3272), St Mark (6835), St Mary, Boongate (5694), and St Paul, New England (3794).

Schools and Institutions.-The King's (Grammar) School was founded by Henry VIII., and is now under the control of the Dean and Chapter of Peterborough. It was reconstituted in 1882 under the Endowed Schools Act as a public school of the first grade. From its foundation until 1886 the school was conducted in the building known as St Thomas. 81 Becket's chapel, in the Minster precincts, but in the latter year it was removed to some well-designed buildings in Park Road, which were erected in 1855 at a cost of £9000. The school has an endowment of about £400 a year, and it possesses some useful scholarships, three exhibitions to St John's College, Cambridge, of the annual value of £30, tenable for four years; and two exhibitions of the same value, tenable for three years, at any place of higher education approved by the dean and chapter. Deacon's Charity School, founded in 1721 by Thomas Deacon to educate, clothe, and apprentice twenty poor boys, was reconstituted under the Endowed Schools Act, and was reopened in 1881 as a middle-class school. It has an income of about £350 a year, and it occupies a block of buildings in Deacon Street, which were erected in 1882-83 at a cost of about £4000. St Peter's Training College for schoolmasters is an institution belonging to the Church of England, and is intended for the supply of the dioceses of Peterborough, Ely, and Lincoln. It was opened as an institution in 1859, and as a building in 1865; is a red brick edifice in the Gothic style, with a frontage of 240 feet; stands on a plot of 2 acres; and contains residences for masters, dormitories for forty students, class-rooms, dining-hall, and chapel. The practising school stands in the New Road, is a handsome stone edifice, accommodates 336 boys, and trains schoolmasters in the arts of teaching and school management. There is a school of art in the Minster precincts, and there are about fifteen elementary schools, national, British, and Roman Catholic. The Public Dispensary, Infirmary, and Fever Hospital is in Priestgate. It formerly occupied a mansion presented by Charles William, fifth Earl Fitzwilliam, which was destroyed by fire in 1884. The present buildings were then erected at a cost of about £4:500, and afford accommodation for fifty in-patients. The hospital is supported by subscriptions. There are almshouses for forty-four poor persons in Cumbergate, called the town estates, endowed with an income of about £500 a year; twenty-six in Westgate, known as " Watley's," with an income of £40; and eight in the Minster precincts, which are supported from the cathedral endowments.

Trade.-The city has a head post office, is a great railway centre and junction, and has two railway stations, used by the Great Northern and Midland and the Great Eastern and London & North-Western railways, both stations being large and important. The Great Northern and Midland railways liave extensive works, sheds, and warehouses here-the Great Northern works being at the hamlet of New England, and the Midland at the hamlet of Spittal. The city is a busy agricultural centre, and it conducts considerable trade in corn, malt, timber, and coal. The market days are-Wednesday for live stock, and Saturday for live and dead stock and general produce. The cattle market occupies an area of 5 acres, was opened in 1867, and will hold about 140 horses, 100 beasts, 4400 slieep and lambs, and 500 pigs. Two of the most important events of the agricultural year are-St Peter's Fair, held for the sale of horses, cattle, and wool, on the second Tuesday and Wednesday in July; and the Bridge Fair, which takes place on The first Wednesday and Thursday in October, when considerable business is transacted in horses, cattle, sheep, and wool. There are large engineering and agricultural implement works, extensive timber yards, and considerable quantities of white gault bricks are manufactured in the neighbouring village of Fletton.

The Diocese.-The diocese of Peterborough was formed out of that of Lincoln in 1541. Some of the most distinguished bishops have been-Dove " with the silver wings," Lloyd and White the non-jurors, Cumberland the orientalist, White Kennet the antiquary, and Marsh the strong asserter of church principles. The cathedral establishment includes the bishop, the dean, four canons, three archdeacons, twenty-four honorary canons, a chancellor, and three minor canons. The income of the bishop is £4500. There is a suffragan bishop of Leicester. The diocese comprehends the entire counties of Northampton, Leicester, and Rutland, and is divided into the archdeaconries of Northampton, Leicester, and Oakham. The population of the diocese is 692,909.

The Cathedral.-Peterborough Cathedral is universally admitted to be one of the most complete embodiments of the massive grandeur and rich decorative mouldings that characterised the best days of the Norman period. Some portions of the edifice have undergone alteration, and the lantern tower, which had become dangerously unsafe in 1882, has been rebuilt on The same foundations, but most of the buildings still remain as they left the hands of the early builders. The cathedral was begun in 1116 by the Norman abbot, John de Sais, and the choir was completed and opened by Martin Ie Bee in 1137. The building was gradually carried westward, with the design of erecting the usual tower at its termination. Before this was done, however, an architect whose name is unknown elongated the nave by the addition of a western transept and an ornamental facade. Thus originated the unique west front, which is of the purest Early English architecture, and which has been described by Fergusson as " the grandest and finest in Europe, though wanting in the accompaniments which would enable it to rival some of the great facades of Continental cathedrals." The edifice was completed in 1237, having been 120 years in building. The building stands in a close, adorned with gardens and shrubs beries, and edificed all round with domestic buildings of the quondam abbey. It is approached from the west through a Norman gatehouse, the work of Abbot Benedict (1177-93),. The upper portion of which was originally a chapel of St Nicholas, and was afterwards used as a music school. On the left is the chapel of St Thomas a Becket, built in 1438-96,. afterwards used as the grammar school, and now used as the museum of the Natural History, Scientific, and Antiquarian Society; on the S side of the close is the gateway leading to the episcopal palace, surmounted by the " knight's chamber," and built in 1319; and on the N side is the deanery gate, in Late Perpendicular architecture, built in 1515. The cathedral is partly Norman, partly Early English, but shows characters of at least eight periods of construction. It consists of a Galilee porch; two western towers with spires, and with each an eastern chapel; a nave of eleven bays, with aisles; a transept of three bays, with three chapels on the E-of each wing; a central tower, with lantern; a choir of four bays, with aisles, and with apsidal termination; and an E Lady chapel. The W front is 156 feet long and 82 high,. The W towers and spires are 156 feet high; the nave is 266¼feet long, 78 wide, and 81 high; the transept is 184} feet long and 81 high; the lantern tower is 135 feet high inside and 150 outside; the choir is 163 feet long and 81 high;. The Lady chapel is 83½ feet long and 38 wide; and the entire-pile is 479 feet long. The W front has three magnificent doorways, and consists of three arcades-the lower with three doors, the upper with three-light windows recessed behind three lofty pointed arches. The W towers flank the front, and are arcaded from the base tier to the parapet. The internal features are diversified and rich, and they exhibit striking combinations or juxtapositions of all specimens of architecture, from Norman to Later English. The brass eagle-was set up by Abbot Ramsey in 1472. The entire building isr constructed of Barnack stone, a durable shelly oolite from. quarries near Stamford. Very extensive restorations and improvements have been gradually effected since 1883, including, among other important works, the underpinning of the walls where they were insecure, the rebuilding of the lantern tower, and the repairing of the columns of the choir. The improvements include the erection of a new organ and case, at a cost of £4400; the erection of a baldachino of alabaster, at a cost of £1300, from a design in the church of Santa Maria Cosmita in Rome; the erection of choir gates and sanctuary screens; the completion of the mosaic-pavement, &c. The total sum expended up to the present amounts to upwards of £50,000, and the work is yet far from completion. The chief monuments are a Saxon one to Abbot Hedda, erected about 1099; an effigies of Abbot Alexander, who died in 1226; an efiigies of Abbot W. de Hotot, who died in 1250; a monument of R. Scarlet, who. died in 1594; a number of very fine memorial windows, put up in years from 1858 till 1866, and a recumbent figure of Archbishop Mager. The body of Queen Catherine of Arragora was buried on the N" side of the choir, and that of Mary Queen of Scots was buried under the doorway between the choir and the S aisle, but was removed twenty-six years. afterwards to Westminster Abbey. The quondam abbot's lodge is now the bishop's palace, and the hall is vaulted,. and has a range of columns dividing it into a double aisle. Kuins of the early English infirmary, the refectory, and the lesser cloisters are to the S of the cloisters.

Ecclesiastical Parishes and Churches.-There was anciently but one parish in Peterborough-that of St John the Baptist-the other parishes being of recent formation. The church of St John the Baptist stands in the centre of the city, and is a fine spacious building of stone in the Perpendicular style, consisting of chancel, nave, aisles with chapels, S porch, and an embattled western tower with pinnacles. It dates from the beginning of the 15th century; contains some monuments of the Wyldbore family, and a very fine one by Flaxman to William Squire; has 1500 sittings; and was restored in 1883 at a cost of upwards of £9000. The living is a vicarage, of the net value of £337 with residence, in the gift of the Bishop of Peterborough. The parish of St Mary, Boongate, was formed in 1857. The church, erected in 185'.>, stands at the end of the New Road, and is a building in the Early English style, consisting of chancel, nave, aisles, and a tower at the NW angle. A baptistery was erected in 1888. The living is a vicarage, of the net value of £300 with residence, in the gift of the Dean and Chapter of Peterborough. St Mark's parish was formed in 1858. The church, which stands in the Lincoln Road, was erected in 1856, and is a building of stone in the Early English style, consisting of chancel, nave, aisles, S porch, and a north-eastern tower and spire. Its W window displays the arms of twenty-eight of the English sees, and it has a reredos of stone and marble which was erected in 1876. The living is a vicarage, of the net value of £272, in the gift of the Bishop of Peterborough. The parish of St Paul, formed in 1869, consists of Millfield And New England. The church is in the hamlet of New England, and was erected in 1868. It is a building of stone in the Early English style, consisting of chancel, nave, aisles, W porch, and a low central tower. The parish of All Saints was formed in 1891. The church, in Park Road, was erected in 1886, and is a building of stone in the Decorated style, consisting of chancel, nave, and S aisle. The living is a vicarage in the gift of the Bishop of Peterborough. Long-thorpe is a suburb of Peterborough, 2 miles W, and an ecclesiastical parish formed in 1850 from the parish of St John the Baptist. The church is an ancient building of rubble in the Early English style, dating from 1262-73. It was the ancient chapel of St Botolph. The living of Long-thorpe is a vicarage, of the gross value of .E106 with residence, in the gift of a private patron. Of other places of worship, there is a Roman Catholic chapel in Queen Street (erected in 1856), two Baptist chapels, a chapel for the Brethren, a Calvinistic and two Congregational chapels, two Primitive Methodist chapels, one United Methodist Free Church chapel, two Wesleyan chapels, a Reformed Episcopalian church, and a place of meeting for the Christadelphians.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5


The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Ancient CountyNorthamptonshire 
Ecclesiastical parishPeterborough St. John the Baptist 
Libertysoke of Peterborough 
Poor Law unionPeterborough 

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.

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