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From A Glimpse into Melbourn’s past.

Normans and beyond

In common with most other towns and villages of medieval England, Melbourn almost certainly had only one person who could read and write. Often this would be the local priest, with his limited knowledge of Latin, as the peasantry were not encouraged to learn.

It was not until 1250 that the possession of a surname became law. Until then a peasant was identified by either ‘John, son of George’, ‘James the Carpenter’ or ‘William of Melbourn’. The gentry would already have an ancestral surname. One of Melbourn’s earliest recorded names is Argentine -lord of the Manor, whose wealth and influence played a significant part in the history of the village. In 1538, the parish was ordered to keep a register of all baptisms, marriages and burials. Every Sunday the vicar of Melbourn, Edmund Humpfrey, (still probably the only literate person in the village) would enter the details from the previous week.

Melbourn has had its fair share of troubles through the ages. The unrest during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, the Ship Money riots which took place at the Cross in 1640, the Civil War in the 17th century, to the tragedies emerging from the Boer War and the First and Second World Wars, where many Melbourn men were injured or killed. There were a number of recorded fires in the village which destroyed many thatched cottages. The first was on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 24th August 1724, when in the space of an hour …25 dwelling houses together with all the out houses, barns and stables and Recks of Corn were burnt down. The devastation caused by a fire in 1915 is well documented and describes the loss of housing and the anguish it caused.

A famous landmark also disappeared from Melbourn in the late 1930s. The old Elm Tree at the Cross was the subject of many paintings, engravings, photographs and books. John Bunyan had preached nearby, and an account in a newspaper article describes how people had climbed its ‘gigantic’ branches to watch the procession of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as they passed through Melbourn on their way to Cambridge. Having been the centre of village life for many centuries, the tree finally died although several attempts had been made to save it.

The village also lost a number of inhabitants as they took the opportunity of assisted passages to America and Australia during the 1800s. Melbourn was an agricultural area and employment with decent wages was very hard to come by.

The archaeology

A major prehistoric trackway, just south of the settlement at Melbourn, was formed over time and brought traders from great distances. It gave access to Norfolk and the Wash in the northeast, to Wiltshire in the southwest and became known as the Icknield Way. About half a mile to the north, and running parallel to it was another track – Ashwell Street (known locally as Ashwell Strete). It started at Bury Lane in Melbourn and headed towards Ashwell.

Neolithic and Bronze Age finds here verify its beginnings. A number of prehistoric ditches run across the Icknield Way. These probably marked boundaries between tribes and would have also served as primitive toll points. Bran Ditch, a Saxon example, on the parish boundary of Melbourn and Fowlmere, lies across the Way. The boundary between Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire was marked by the trackway and at one time cut Royston in two.

Several archaeological sites from the Bronze and Iron Age have survived to be recorded as tumuli or burial mounds on early Ordnance Survey maps.

Some of these were excavated in the 19th century, but unfortunately modern deep ploughing has reduced the mounds until today there is no visible evidence of their existence.

Taken from A Glimpse into Melbourn’s past.