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Wisbech (St. Peter and St. Paul)

WISBECH (St. Peter and St. Paul), a sea-port, borough, market-town, and parish, and the head of a union, in the hundred of Wisbech, Isle of Ely, county of Cambridge, 43 miles (N.) from Cambridge, and 94 (N. by E.) from London; containing 8530 inhabitants. This place is of great antiquity, being noticed in 664, in a charter by which Wulfhere, son of Peada, King of the Mercians, granted to the abbey of Medehamstead, now Peterborough, "the lands from Ragwell, 5 miles to the main river that goeth to Elm and to Wisbece." In the Norman survey it is mentioned under the same appellation, which it retained till the reign of Edward I., from which period till the time of Henry VI. it was invariably written Wysebeche. The name is supposed to be derived from the river Ouse, then called the Wise, and from the Saxon bec, signifying either a running stream, or a tongue of land at the confluence of two rivers: before the diversion of their streams, the town might be described as situated at the confluence of the Ouse with the Nene.

From the date of Wulfhere's charter, little is recorded of the history of the place till the year 1000, when the manor is said to have been given to the convent of Ely, by Oswi, and Leoflede, daughter of Brithnod the first abbot, on the admission into that monastery of their son Ailwin, afterwards bishop of Elmham. William the Conqueror, in the last year of his reign, erected a strong castle here, which he placed under the command of a governor, styled a constable, with a strong garrison, to keep the refractory barons in submission, and to check the ravages of the outlaws, who made frequent incursions from the neighbouring fens into the upland parts of the county. In 1190, Richard I. granted to the tenants of Wisbech Barton Manor exemption from toll in all towns or markets throughout England. This privilege was confirmed by King John, who, in 1216, visited the town, and is supposed to have taken up his residence in the castle, on leaving which the king attempting to cross the Wash at an improper time, lost all his carriages, treasure, and regalia. The greater part of the town, together with the castle, was destroyed in 1236, by an inundation of the sea, but it was soon afterwards restored; and the castle subsequently falling into dilapidation, Bishop Morton, towards the close of the 15th century, erected on its site another of brick, which became a palace of the bishops of Ely. In the reign of Elizabeth, the castle was appropriated to the confinement of state prisoners, and during the protectorate of Cromwell was purchased by Thurloe, afterwards his secretary, who made it an occasional residence. Upon the Restoration, it reverted to the bishops; but it was sold in 1793, and all remains of it have disappeared in the recent improvements of the town, which is at present the most flourishing place in the Isle of Ely.

The town is situated on both sides of the river now called the Nene, over which is a handsome stone bridge of one elliptical arch, 72 feet in the span. The streets are regularly formed, the houses in general well built; and on the site of the ancient castle, which was purchased by an architect and taken down in 1816, a crescent of more than 50 houses has been erected. The town is paved, and lighted with gas. From the late improvement in the system of draining, a great portion of previously unproductive land in the vicinity has been brought into a high state of cultivation, and on every side are seen fertile corn-fields and luxuriant pastures. A building, in the Doric style, was erected for literary purposes, in 1847, at a cost of £3000: it comprises a museum of some years' founding, and a public library established in 1781; the library contains more than 3000 volumes. There is also a theological library, in which are many valuable works of the old divines. In the town are a reading-room, and a neat theatre: assemblies are held in some rooms appropriately fitted up, and a commodious building has been some time erected, in which are hot, cold, and sea-water baths.

About a century since, the principal articles of trade were, oil, for the preparation of which there were seven mills in the town; and butter, of which not less than 8000 firkins were sent annually to London. The importance of the place as a sea-port has much increased of late years, and the trade has been greatly augmented. The main exports are corn, rape-seed, long wool (of which great quantities are sent to the clothing districts in Yorkshire), and timber, which is brought hither from the county of Northampton: Wisbech is now one of the principal places of export for wheat in the kingdom. The chief imports are wine, deals, and coal. The navigation of the river above the town was, many years since, greatly improved by a straight cut from Peterborough, forming a communication with the upland country, and supplying Peterborough, Oundle, and Northampton with various commodities. Below the town, very extensive works have been executed by the commissioners of the Nene Out-fall, which have greatly improved the drainage of large tracts of land in the neighbourhood, and made the navigation to the sea perfect: vessels of large burthen now approach the town, and load and unload at the quay and granaries. In a recent year, tonnage duties were paid on 97,119 tons; the number of vessels of above 50 tons registered at the port is 56, and their aggregate burthen 5200 tons. In 1794, a canal was cut from the river at Wisbech to the Old Nene at Outwell, and thence to the Ouse at Salter's Lode Sluice, opening a way to Norfolk and Suffolk. An act was passed in 1845, for a branch from the Lynn and Ely railway, to Wisbech, 10 miles in length; and in 1846, for a railway from Wisbech to March and St. Ives, 27¼ miles long: another act was passed in 1846, for a railway from Wisbech to the Syston aud Peterborough line near Stamford, in length 22 miles. The market is on Saturday. Fairs are held on the Saturday before Palm-Sunday, and the Saturday before Lady-day, for hemp and flax; also a considerable horse-fair on the Thursday before Whit-Sunday, which is numerously attended by the London dealers; and a large cattle-fair on August 12th, at which as many as 3000 head of cattle have been brought for sale. The market and fairs are held by the corporation on lease from the Bishop of Ely, who is lord of the manor. The market-place is a spacious open area.

The guild of the Holy Trinity, established in 1379, being found at the time of the Dissolution to have supported a grammar school, and maintained certain piers, jetties, and banks, "against the rage of the sea," was in 1549 restored by Edward VI. The king also gave the inhabitants a charter of incorporation, which was renewed by James I. in 1611, and confirmed by Charles II. in 1669. The corporation, however, at present consists of a mayor, 6 aldermen, and 18 councillors, under the act 5th and 6th of William IV., cap. 76; the borough is divided into two wards; the mayor and late mayor are justices of the peace, and the number of other magistrates is 3. The quarter-sessions for the Isle of Ely take place here and at Ely alternately; petty-sessions for the division are held here, and there is a county debtcourt, established in 1847, whose powers extend over part of the registration-district of Wisbech. The townhall is embellished with the town arms, a painting of Edward VI., and portraits of Dr. Jobson, the late vicar, who was a considerable benefactor to the town, and Thomas Clarkson, the strenuous advocate of negro emancipation. The shire-hall is annexed to the gaol, which was rebuilt in 1807. The parish comprises 5750a. 3r. 12p., of which about 2887 acres are arable, and 2792 pasture.

The living is a vicarage, with the living of Wisbech St. Mary annexed, valued in the king's books at £26. 13. 4.; patron, the Bishop of Ely; appropriators, the Dean and Chapter of Ely. The great tithes of the two parishes have been commuted for £1840, and the vicarial for £2175; the appropriate glebe contains 15½ acres, and the vicar's 51½. The church is a spacious structure, partly Norman, but chiefly in the decorated. English style, with a lofty embattled tower in the later style. It has two naves under one roof, divided in the centre by a beautiful range of light clustered pillars with pointed arches, and separated from their respective aisles by low massive pillars and circular Norman arches; the north aisle of the chancel is in the decorated style, and there is a fine window of the same character at the west end of the south aisle of the nave. A handsome chapel, of octagonal form, was erected in 1828, on the opposite side of the river, in the old market, at an expense of £9364. This sum was raised by subscription among the inhabitants, to meet a liberal offer of Dr. Jobson, who conveyed in fee a real estate of more than £5000 in value, as an endowment for the minister, to whom the rents and profits are given in perpetuity. The chapel was opened for divine service on January 13th, 1831, and contains about 1100 sittings, of which 300 are free; the preferment is in the gift of Trustees, and the net income is £200. There are places of worship for Baptists, the Society of Friends, Independents, Johnsonians, Wesleyans, Presbyterians, and Unitarians.

The free grammar school is of very ancient foundation, the appointment of a master in 1446 by the guild of the Holy Trinity being still on record. Its original endowment was augmented by bequests from Thomas Parke and John Crane, for increasing the master's stipend, which, including perquisites, amounts to £200 per annum. Belonging to the school are, four by-fellowships of £10 per annum each, founded at Peter-House, Cambridge, by T. Parke, in 1628; and two scholarships for youths of Wisbech, originally of £8, which are now worth £70 per annum each. Archbishop Herring, and Thomas Clarkson, were educated at the school. There is a national school endowed with lands producing £55 per annum. A fund for lending money to tradesmen free of interest, was bequeathed by John Crane in 1652; it was increased by a gift of £300 from William Holmes. In the town are several almshouses for the poor, and it has many valuable charities. The union of Wisbech comprises 22 parishes or places, of which 13 are in the county of Norfolk, and 9 in that of Cambridge; and contains a population of 31,484. Here was an hospital dedicated to St. John the Baptist, of which no traces are now discernible.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.