The History Of March
In geological terms the Fens are some of the youngest landscapes in Britain being created by glacial deposits from the last ice age. In some areas there are hundreds of feet of peat, silt and clay before anything, even as solid as gravel, is reached.
The fenland area was once extensively wooded but following melting of the ice, the area was flooded; the forests all drowned and the trees died. The fallen timber is still being ploughed up in places where thick layers of peat remain. This wood is called bog oak but most of the trees were not oak but Scots Pine.
Paleolithic and Mesolithic flints have been found in and around March.
During this period of History the fens were much drier and larger areas were occupied. Until the more recent drainage of the fens very little evidence of occupation was known but, as the fen has dried and the peat has disappeared, several burial mounds have been found during ploughing. At nearby Manea a Bronze Age burial site with round barrow containing urns was excavated.
Hanson Brick at Whittlesey has have commissioned archaeological digs prior to clay and gravel extraction and extensive evidence of occupation has been found deeply buried under later deposits.
March Museum has a few exhibits found in the locality but if you are seriously interested in this period of history a visit to Flag Fen at Fengate, Peterborough is thoroughly recommended.
The fen islands were extensively occupied during the Iron Age and at every site excavated recently much evidence in the shape of ditches and postholes have been found.
Salt making took place along the northern edge of the island of March as the tides reached March at that period in history. Before the construction of the large wind turbine in Longhill Road, close to H M Prison, Whitemoor, an archaeological investigation revealed masses of bricotage associated with salt making.
Nearby is Stonea Iron Age Hill Fort, this is the lowest Hill Fort in Britain and, following plough damage, was recently restored to its former glory by Cambridgeshire Archaeological Unit. Stonea has been suggested at the site of Boudicca’s last stand against the Romans.
In 1981 a hoard of 872 Iceni silver coins was found at a farm in Field Baulk, March indicating that there was unrest in the area at the end of the Iron Age. The British Museum has loaned the Museum 12 of these coins so the quality of the find can be witnessed in the town where it was found.
The Fens were very important in Roman times and the Fen Causeway went across the northern end of the island of March and there was a garrison at Grandford on the northwest edge of March island. The causeway is now thought not to have been entirely a roadway; across the islands it was a hard surface but waterways would more likely have been used to cross the fen itself.
The Romans were the first to try to control the water of the Fens by creating Car Dyke. This a catch water drain from the River Cam north of Cambridge round the southwest side of the Fens catching the water coming from the central highlands and taking it round the lower fenland directly out to sea somewhere near Fosdyke. This waterway was used as a canal for cargo boats.
At Stonea, very close to the Iron Age Hill Fort (see above), there was a huge Roman building that was excavated in the 1980s by the British Museum. Despite the fact that nearly all the solid building material had been robbed out the footprint of a tower was found. It was the discovery of this site that lead to the theory that the nearby Hill Fort was the site of Boudicca’s last stand. Having defeated the local tribe the Romans could well have decided to make their authority obvious for miles around by building an administrative centre. A huge solid building in the middle of a very flat area would be intimidating to the local population.
Evidence of Roman occupation can be found anywhere in March, many of the Roman exhibits in the Museum were dug up in local gardens.
Following the departure of the Roman legions various invaders came from Europe and were absorbed into the local population.
It was in Saxon times that March developed as a trading post with river transport and the river crossing being important. It is not known when the River was created through March; the River Nene used to go round the north of the island but was encouraged to pass through the narrowest part of the island. This river has been deepened on several occasions so it is impossible to say how old it is. There was a second river, called the Hythe, which ran south from near the present Town Bridge that allowed water transport to reach to the south.
St Wendreda was an Anglo-Saxon who was a Christian and came to March following the death of King Anna in 654AD. She was skilled in curing with herbs and stayed in March sharing her faith and abilities with the inhabitants. When she died she was buried in March her remains spent a long period in or around the church that bears her name until they vanished during the reformation.
St Etheldreda of Ely was a contemporary of Wendreda and her establishment became the centre of a Bishopric. The area all around Doddington belonged to the Bishops of Ely and a Palace was built at Doddington. Doddington was the most important church in the area and the church at March was just a chapelry of Doddington.
When the Normans arrived William the Conqueror found that the Fens harboured considerable resistance to his rule. Hereward the Wake carried out guerilla warfare against the conquerors with some success until he was finally defeated at Ely and fled. Reprisals against those who had supported him were considerable. The amazing Romanesque Cathedral at Ely was started in Williams reign and it was not only a religious building but also a fortress to remind the local people that they had been defeated.
There is very little Anglo-Saxon or Norman material in March but the magnificent cathedral at Ely can be seen 22 miles away across the flat landscape. To see this it is necessary to be on the eastern side of the built up area without any trees in the way.Winter is the best time because the trees are bare. The best view is looking east from the Wimblington By-pass.
Other than Car Dyke, which can still be traced in places, all Roman efforts at fen drainage had vanished by the 15th century and other fragmentary efforts at drainage had failed. In 1480 Bishop Morton of Ely attempted to straighten the River Nene to speed its flow to the Wash. Morton’s Leam was dug and is still part of the drainage system along the southern side of the Nene Washes from Stanground, near Peterborough, to Guyhirne where it joins the tidal River Nene.
It was not until the 17th century that serious drainage work began under the guidance of Dutch Engineer Cornelius Vermuyden. The Adventurers who financed the drainage work took the drained land for themselves thus depriving local people of their commoner’s rights. There was trouble from the very start as drainage work reduced opportunities for the fishing and wildfowling on which the locals depended for survival. The fen ‘tigers’, as they were called, sabotaged drainage efforts whenever they could.
It was because of the unrest amongst the fenmen and their appeal to Oliver Cromwell who was their representative in Parliament that first found him in opposition to the King that eventually lead to the Civil War.
Over the centuries there were many set backs to the drainage system as the peat sank and sluices or banks failed. The last flood was in 1947 when broken banks allowed huge areas to be inundated.
The Cut Off Channel across the Norfolk Rivers Little Ouse, Wissey and Lark that was in Vermuyden’s original plan was not built until the 1960s.
For more information read ‘Fenland, A Landscape made by Man’ see our Publications page for details.
During the Napoleonic Wars the price of corn doubled as labourer's wages fell and the poor people were starving. Unrest was inevitable and riots were not unknown. Littleport near Ely had a riot against the wealthier classes and the perpetrators were eventually put to death.
Local Militias were created to keep the peace. The Doddington and Hamlets Cavalry was instituted for such purpose in 1798 and was not disbanded until 1828. The original Guidon or Standard Flag from this troop is on display in March Museum. The leader of this force was Owen Gray a March landowner, brewer and pillar of the establishment. Grays Lane in March is named after his family. Our Archivist has produced a book about the Gray family, see our Publications page for details.
The first passenger train of the Eastern Counties Railway came to March 14th January 1847. The route from Ely to Peterborough, originally designed to pass through Doddington, came through March because George Hudson wanted to build a connection to the coalfields of Yorkshire. Eventually the Great Northern built the line from Doncaster to March, via Spalding, and the connection was established. Other lines were built to Wisbech and Kings Lynn in one direction and St. Ives, for Cambridge, in the other so March was soon became an important junction.
During the 1880s there was a large increase in the Town’s population to provide the workforce for the ever expanding railway. A new seven-platform station was constructed in 1885 and the goods yards were expanded to handle the increase in traffic. The railway grouping of 1923 saw both the Great Eastern and the Great Northern absorbed into the new London and North Eastern Railway. In 1929 a new marshalling yard was built for traffic travelling towards London and this was followed in 1931 by a similar yard for traffic in the opposite direction. These facilities came into their own during the Second World War when large quantities of essential supplies were handled daily. The eventual transfer of goods traffic to the roads meant that Whitemoor was closed in the early 1990s. The site has been partly taken over by H.M. Prison, Whitemoor and, more recently, Network Rail has re-introduce a railway based industry on the remainder of the site.
Despite the shrinking of the rail system March still has a fast and reliable rail service to anywhere on the network.
The railway provided much employment and many people moved into March where there was insufficient housing to accommodate them and overcrowding became a huge problem. At this time the River Nene, the Hythe and all the smaller ditches were open sewers with no natural flow of water except if there was heavy rain. Pumps for drawing drinking water were soon drawing polluted water. In 1849 441 people died of which 81 were confirmed cases of Cholera but the other fatalities were poor people and the cause of death was not investigated. The general sitiuation drew Government attention to the Town and its sanitation or lack of it.
March was found to be the worst place in the country and drastic action was required to provide fresh water, drainage, clean streets and privies (toilets) for everyone. The night cart used to tour the town emptying the privy buckets and was still operating until the 1960s.
The Hythe was covered in a brick arched tunnel to prevent waste of any kind being dumped into it. The Hythe remains in its tunnel passing under the front of the Museum yard and beneath many buildings. It is now a surface water drain only.
March did not have a sewage treatment plant until the 1960s so the River Nene remained as an open sewer for the outflow from septic tanks. On a warm summers day it had an indescribable smell. Happily the river is now clean and is popular with fishermen and boat owners alike.
The Gilbert Act
The population of March soon became too great for the single church at the far southern end of the Town and leadership from Doddington was unsatisfactory. In 1856 the Doddington Rectory Division Act allowed the separation of March from Doddington. It was not implemented until the death of Reverend Algernon Peyton in 1858. After this the churches of St. Peter (1880), St. John (1872), St. Mary (1874), St Peter's, Wimblington (1874) and St Mary Magdalene at West Fen (1891 but demolished in 1974 when it became redundant) were built alongside the church of St Wendreda to serve other parts of the area.
The church of St. Mary at the nearby village of Benwick was built in 1854 but the site was poorly chosen and the building sank into the peat of the fen. The building was demolished in 1985 before it fell down. The churchyard holds many memorials and a survey of the stones was undertaken a copy of which is in the Museum. Some of the larger memorials had sunk quite deeply into the land.
March is a medium sized market town in a farming area but the number of people working in agriculture is now very low with the advent of farming machinery.
The population of the town is approaching 20,000 with many residents commuting to Peterborough, Cambridge and London to work; the rail and bus services are improving every year. There are many service providers and manufacturers with premises in and around the town giving employment.
March has a good selection of small shops and the market on Wednesdays and Saturdays provided more good shopping opportunities. There is also a farmers market on the last Thursday of each month.
There are a good selection of cafés, restaurants, public houses and hotels and parking is free.
The Town Hall on the Market Place is now owned by the Civic Trust and, as well as a coffee shop, has an upstairs room used for occasional art exhibitions and theatrical performances.
March has all anyone needs as a resident or tourist; the Fens may not have rolling hills but the open skies provide an ever changing landscape of clouds.
In 1994 a 16 acre field, near to March Golf Course, was purchased by the Woodland Trust and has been planted as Gault Wood. It is now becoming well established and is a pleasant place for a short walk. Dog owners are asked to keep their dogs on a lead, to prevent them disturbing the wildlife, and to clear up after their dogs so the pathways are not fouled. Many children visit the wood and dog faeces in the path are horrible. If you want to help look after the wood come to a work party. These are held on the first Saturday of each month from 10.00 to 12.00, no specialist knowledge is needed, meet at the entrance in Grange Road, 200yds past the Golf Club.