Brief History


More by sheer good fortune than anything else, Gamlingay must be one of the best-documented villages in England. This brief canter through its history can only kick up a few small divots from the mass of evidence that has survived.

Jim Brown


People have been living in what is now Gamlingay for a very long time. Its recorded history began in the Saxon period when an established settlement called Gamlingay (or something similar) was first noted in a charter dating from around the year 975, but there is plenty of evidence that people were living here long before that.

That evidence includes the numerous flint flakes and occasional worked flint tools that have been picked up from the surface of the land alongside the brook and on the sandy soils of the Heath.


Some have been dated by archaeologists to the Mesolithic period (10,000 BC to 4,000 BC), while others come from the Neolithic (4,000 BC to 2,400 BC).

Neolithic shaded into Bronze Age, and Bronze Age became Iron Age. The only artefact from the period to be found in Gamlingay is a solitary socketed bronze axe head. Aerial photography, though, has revealed many prehistoric cropmarks in the parish that surely belong to the Bronze Age or the Iron Age: droveways and enclosures on the Heath, a set of sinuous triple ditches to the east of the parish, a ring ditch by Station Road and trackways and ditches that do not fit into any known pattern of land use.

Although the Romans occupied the country for four centuries. there’s precious little to show they took much notice of Gamlingay: a single coin found in a garden; a few pieces of broken pottery dumped in some later post-holes (identified by archaeologists as probable votive offerings); and, running through the far distant edge of the later parish, the Roman road from Sandy to Godmanchester.


When the Romans left the Saxons appeared. Generally they avoided Roman towns (like nearby Sandy) and set up their own farms in the countryside. One such farm was discovered beside Gamlingay brook and excavated at the end of the last century. It was dated to between the fifth and eight centuries and consisted of a small hall with a few huts, some of which were used as workshops. Partly overlaying the farm was a later Christian cemetery of around a hundred graves.

It was almost certainly these later Saxons who felled the woodland that covered much of the heavy clays in the village and created fields in their place. It was a mighty task, and the collective effort required probably meant the land was divided up in strips between those who cleared it, setting a pattern of landholding that would last a thousand years.

One of these Saxons attached his name to the settlement. Experts seem to think he was called Gamela and variously decode the name Gamlingay to mean ‘the low-lying land of the people of Gamela’, or ‘the island of Gamela’s people’, or indeed ‘an enclosure of Gamela’s people’ (make your minds up, chaps).

Whatever it did or did not mean, by the time the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086 it was the largest village in Longstowe hundred, with 65 people listed. For people, read families. There was arable, meadow, woodland and pasture as well as a handful of serfs (slaves) and many more villeins (semi-slaves.) There’s no mention of a church, but there almost certainly was one.

Some time in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century a hamlet called Newton was created on the Heath, but it failed to take root and had disappeared by the time the Hundred Rolls were compiled in 1279.


The Hundred Rolls gives us the first proper picture of the village. In 1279 Gamlingay was mainly divided between three manors, known as Avenel’s, Merton (belonging to Merton College, Oxford) and Woodbury. A number of free men held or rented land and a few religious houses held some more.

The arable land was divided into three great open fields. Each in turn was left fallow for a year to recover its fertility. Holdings, whether manorial or free, were scattered in strips across these three fields. Gamlingay wood belonged more or less equally to Avenel’s and Merton. The commons and the Heath were generally shared among all, with their use subject to custom.

Meadows ran alongside the brook and were cropped to produce hay. The brook had once powered a watermill, but by 1279 two windmills did the job instead. (A third medieval windmill, previously unrecorded but probably dating to the fifteenth century, has recently been discovered at Woodbury from aerial photographs.)

The ordinary villagers were either villeins or free men. Villeins held a little land from the manors but in return had to pay rent and work for the lord of the manor for nothing at certain specified times, often for a day or two each week, and at harvest. Legally, villeins were manorial chattels and were tightly bound to their masters, who exercised control over many aspects of their lives.

Merton and Avenel held regular courts, where manorial business was undertaken and strict discipline among the tenants was maintained, but the only records to survive are from Merton. They ran their manor through a bailiff until 1362, after which it was leased to farmers. The bailiff’s accounts coupled with the manor court rolls (which run on and off for hundreds of years) give a detailed view of the village and its people during the middle ages.

The worst disaster ever to strike the village occurred in 1349 with the arrival of the Black Death. There is plenty of evidence from the manorial records that it killed around half the population between April and December 1349. Scratched on a pier in Gamlingay church are a few words of Latin that were probably written at this time of sudden death: they translate as ‘death is like a shadow, which always follows a body’.

The village slowly recovered in the succeeding century or two. By the middle of the fifteenth century the church was updated, with the addition of a chapel dedicated to St Lawrence and some new choir stalls. The chapel was built by Walter Taylard and his wife Margaret. She left her own mark on the church by carving the words ‘this is the seat of Margaret Taylard’ on the pier next to it.

William Purchase was born in the village in the early fifteenth century but left for London to seek his fortune. He married a rich mercer’s widow in 1466 and spent the next thirty years happily making a vast fortune by dealing in cloth. At the same time he rose steadily through the government of the City of London, reaching the peak in 1497/8 when he was elected Mayor of London. He died in 1503, the Tudor equivalent of a multi-millionaire.


During the century and a half of relative peace that followed the ending of the Wars of the Roses in 1485 some of the villagers, particularly the yeoman farmers, did very well for themselves. At the lower end of the social scale, many men gave up the struggle to earn a living from their inadequate holdings and became landless labourers, unwittingly sowing the seeds of a problem that was to plague later centuries.

From about 1580 many village houses were transformed from medieval open hall buildings into more comfortable homes by having chimneys inserted and an upper floor added. This ‘Great Rebuilding’ lasted until around 1640 and happened all over southern and eastern England, but in Gamlingay the process was interrupted by another disaster. On 21 April 1600 a fire broke out and swept through the village, destroying ’76 houses with divers barnes and stackes of corne’. So far as can be discovered, nobody died in the conflagration, and when village was mapped just two years later most of the houses had been rebuilt.

The survey was commissioned by Merton College. In 1599 the College had purchased the manor of Avenel’s, which gave them ownership of around two-thirds of the arable land in the village, but they needed to know the exact whereabouts of every strip in their newly-enlarged holding. The result was a series of beautiful and informative maps of Gamlingay (excluding Woodbury) that give a detailed picture of the late Elizabethan village.


Even as the maps were being drawn the College’s manorial power was waning, and in its place stepped the parish. The seventeenth century sees the villagers themselves pushed into running things by the government, through parish officers such the Overseers of the Poor, the Constable and the Churchwardens. The documents detailing their activities survive in large numbers.

One family, the Apthorpes, came to dominate village affairs by sheer weight of numbers for most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was a rare year when at least one Apthorpe did not serve as overseer, constable or churchwarden.

After the Civil War religious dissent took a hold in the village. The most important of the many sects which sprang up were the Baptists. For forty years they belonged to the Bedford Meeting run by John Bunyan, who often preached in Gamlingay. In 1710 they set up their own meeting and built their own chapel. The Gamlingay Baptist Church Minute Book still survives and relates the Church’s ups and downs during the next hundred years – and its endless struggle to come to terms with human frailty.


Around the same time as the Baptists were building their chapel, Sir George Downing had a mansion built on his estate in the village. Called Gamlingay Park it was the largest house ever seen in the parish and came with a £9,000 price tag. Luckily, Sir George had inherited a fortune that made him one of the wealthiest men in the country.

At the age of 15 he had been married to his cousin, but they refused to live together. A divorce narrowly failed, and Sir George had to be content with living at Gamlingay Park with his mistress and natural daughter. A rather miserable, miserly man, he died in 1749.

His fortune and his title were inherited by a cousin Jacob Garrard Downing. Sir George’s will had made provision for a college to be set up in Cambridge if the Downing line failed, but when Sir Jacob died childless his widow clung on to the estate. Eventually it became clear she was going to lose the court case that followed, and in an act of sheer wilful vandalism, she had the mansion demolished in 1776 and the materials sold.

Downing College was finally founded in the early nineteenth century, but all that’s left standing of Gamlingay Park today is a brick-built folly known as the Moon, near Drove Road.


The dominant feature of Gamlingay’s history during the 200 years from around 1630 until 1834 is the struggle to cope with the ever-increasing numbers of poor people who could not maintain themselves without some form of help. The pool of landless labourers grew and grew, and the poor rates kept rising in response.

By the late eighteenth century the situation was getting out of hand. The leading farmers got together and agreed a maximum wage between themselves that was below the level deemed necessary for a family to live on. This meant that the labourers became paupers overnight as the difference was paid from the poor rate. Discontent grew, especially after the war against Napoleon ended in 1815 and agriculture plunged into depression. Some of the poor turned to crime: at least eleven Gamlingay men and women were transported to Australia between 1821 and 1851.

The other side of the social coin can be seen through the delightful diaries of young Emily Shore, who lived at Woodbury with her parents between 1832 and 1836 and recorded a rather idyllic childhood among the local gentry.

When inspectors were dispatched all over the country to gather evidence about how the creaking Poor Law system was operating, the one who came to visit Gamlingay was horrified at what he found, singling it out as one of the very worst parishes in Cambridgeshire. Things had come to such a pass that gangs of men and boys were being paid to gather stones from the surface of the land, and others paid to put them all back again.

Parliament passed a New Poor Law Act in 1834, which swept away the old parish-based system and placed Gamlingay in the new Caxton & Arrington Union. From now on, if you couldn’t support yourself you had to go into the workhouse at Caxton to gain relief. The shadow of the workhouse hung over the village poor for the next hundred years.


For a while things began to look up. In 1848, long after most other villages, Gamlingay’s open fields were enclosed and a way of life that had lasted a thousand years was swept away virtually overnight. Land was apportioned in individual fields in proportion to that previously scattered in strips about the parish. The Heath became ripe for exploitation and two brick making plants were set up. Commons were done away with, and common rights too. A new road was built (still called ‘New Road’) and dozens of ancient paths and track-ways ploughed up.

Enclosure was followed in 1850 by the Tithe Act, which exchanged the Church’s right to a tenth of everything produced for a simple money payment. In 1862 the Oxford to Cambridge railway line was built through the village and a station constructed on the outskirts.

Mid-Victorian Gamlingay had become two villages: on one side were the poor, mainly labourers dependent on the vagaries of farming and living in what were little better than hovels; and on the other, the middle class and the gentry.

One of the gentry – James Paine, who lived at Merton Grange – discovered how easy it was to slither from prosperity to poverty. In 1846 he inherited £20,000, much of it in the form of a large farming enterprise, along with some property and a windmill. In six years he had blown the lot. He took his family off to London and bought a pub. After running off to America with an actress from the The Eagle music hall he returned to Gamlingay. His wife divorced him soon after. He took a commission in the Army but had to resign after being imprisoned for nine months for fraud. By 1865 he was reduced to ‘sometimes begging for his bread’.

Many labourers were not much better off as agriculture again slipped into depression and did not recover. The village stagnated, a state of affairs that was to last until the Second World War. A new school was built in the 1870s to replace the dame schools and the two competing schools established earlier in the century by the Church of England and the Baptists.


The First World War cost 72 village men their lives, and 16 others were wounded, of which at least four were amputees. After it ended a few council houses were built, but the village was still trapped in the long agricultural depression.

In the autumn of 1929 a young woman, Margaret Gardiner, came to teach at the village school. More at home among the intellectuals, artists and writers of London, she left after a year. In her memoirs she called Gamlingay an ‘ugly village’, and was appalled at the way many of her pupils lived.

‘Crowded in their dark cottages’, she wrote, ‘often a little hungry and sometimes cold, they were for the most part tough, suspicious and unimaginative.’ She could have been describing Gamlingay folk at any time since Gamela was a lad.

The Second World War claimed another 16 lives, but also proved to be a catalyst for change. Farms became mechanised and landworkers left the land in droves for other occupations. The 1950s brought mains sewage to the village for the first time. The 1960s saw the beginnings of a building boom that has gobbled up many acres of farmland and closes, and filled them with housing estates. By the time the 2001 Census was taken the population had more than doubled.


Such rapid expansion has had both drawbacks and benefits, losses and gains. Gamlingay is no longer the isolated rural backwater it had been for most of its history, but then, nor are most other English villages. Instead, Gamlingay is a townage, a clumsy word I’ve just invented to describe a place that’s half town, half village.

It has lost its agricultural character, it’s losing its distinctive accent; it has lost many if its fields (and their ancient names) and some of its old buildings. But it has gained amenities and energy and a sense of community. It has also, finally, gained an awareness of its past. You can see that awareness in the restoration and care of its older houses, as well as in the creation of Gamlingay and District History Society.

And if you were not interested in the village’s past, you wouldn’t be on this website. Nor would you have cantered through this brief history to the finishing post.