Littleport History

First published 25 years ago – this article by Maureen Fresco is as interesting now as it was then!

Everyone in the Fens knows Littleport; they had riots there didn’t they? Yes, as far back as the 13th century the people had rioted against the threatened drainage of the Fens when they thought that their livelihood was threatened, but the Littleport Riots of 1816 was an entirely different thing. Farm workers and men returning home from the Napoleonic wars faced unemployment and starvation, and parish relief was scarcely enough to keep body and soul together. The callousness of the Parish Officer eventually goaded the men and they rioted from Littleport to Ely before the military were called in to round them up. Twenty four, including one woman, were sentenced to be hanged. Later 19 of them were reprieved and transported to Australia’s Botany Bay.

There was great local sympathy for the rioters, and both the builder who had supplied the cart to take five of the condemned to the gallows, and the carpenter who made the coffins soon met their deaths in mysterious circumstances. The five hanged rioters were buried in one grave at Ely, and there is a memorial tablet in the tower of St Mary’s church to remind people of the riots. It is interesting to note that the Transport and General Workers Union maintained a rest home at Littleport until quite recently; as good a memorial to the five dead men as they could perhaps have wished.

Legend has it that King Canute founded this fishing village on the Ouse and named it Littleport. Until recently it provided dock and warehouse facilities serving barges from Kings Lynn. Now the cargo port has given way to a modern marina to service the river pleasure boat trade.

Littleport lies five miles north of Ely on the A10, and is set to expand since the by-pass diverted the heavy traffic and at the same time cut the travel time from Cambridge. Population has slowly grown over the past century from 4,157 in 1891 to 5,840 in 1986 (almost double that in 2015)

Writing a quarter of a century ago, the author stated; Village industry is still largely based on agriculture – packing and transporting vegetables grown on the surrounding Fens, but (until it was closed at the end of the 20th century) the largest employer has a world famous name, Burberry’s Clothing.

Burberry’s (then) owned the ‘shirt factory’ as it was called, an industry set up by Mr Thomas Peacock in 1881 to provide work for the village women during the agricultural depression. He called his company Hope Brothers, wanting to give the villagers something to hope for, and in less than 10 years it was employing 400 workers.

At the turn of the century Littleport was the Mecca of ice skating. The Moors, close by the railway station, bought by Thomas Peacock who was a keen skater, were flooded in winter to provide the finest skating facilities in England, Excursions were run from Liverpool Street, and amid music and bright lighting the skaters raced for prizes ranging from a pig for the local women speed skaters, to the Grand Silver Challenge Cup worth 50 guineas and competed for by the world’s greatest speed skaters.

Then there was the old Littleport Feast which took place over three days every July, culminating in a water sports event when it is said there was always a thunderstorm! The sports traditionally ended with a water polo match and then diving from the top of Sandhill Bridge. It would be good to have a celebration of the village like the more land – based successor to that Feast that ran from 1976 annually and is now just another part of Littleport’s history.

Ed’s note: Perhaps there will be a Littleport Show organised again by a new band of enthusiasts – and another artificially contrived ice skating and speed skating venue for the benefit of the Village and to attract present day 21st century excursions to Littleport.

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