The Commons & Horse Fens

1664 AD Sir Thomas Chicheley & Sir Jonas Moore Establish The Commons

Skating on East Fen Common 1940sSome lads playing Ice Hockey on a frozen East Fen Common during the 1940s

By Deed Poll of 20 December 1664 it was agreed that to every acre of arable land in the fields there should, upon the division, be allowed half an acre in the common; and they ordered that 100 acres of the said common - 50 acres in Horsecroft next Down field, 20 acres in the Moore, and 30 acres in the borders next Metlam field, should be allotted and set out for working horses of such persons as shall plough or work in Soham fields, and no other cattle, they owning or farming six acres, at the least, in the fields.

(3) That 200 acres of the common in Horsecroft, East fen, Qua fen, Townsend sheaths, and elsewhere, should be set out for feeding the cattle of the poor cottagers and others, in such order as should yearly, at Easter court, be set out by the lord, his steward and the homage; and that there should be liberty of digging clay and gravel for the highways; that none who had shares should common in the 200 acres; and that 100 acres in the Hurst should be set out for digging peat and turf for poor cottagers and inhabitants.

(4) That 12 acres of the best ground in Soham Moor should be set out for Mr Gerald Russell and his heirs and that the Vicar of Soham should have 5 acres in the Moor for the going of his horses and mares. That the remainder of Soham Moor, being 116 acres, was to be settled in Trustees to be chosen by the Lord of the Manor and tenants, the charges of surveying and setting out the commons to be borne by the Feoffees out of the rents, and the overplus to be for a Town Stock for to set the Poor on work, binding out Apprentices, raising a revenue for a Schoolmaster, as the Lord and the major part of the tenants should order.

(5) There were 4666 acres of common, from which 170 were to be deducted for droveways: the remaining 4496 acres were to be divided into 281 parts, whereof 263 parts were to be allotted to so many commonable houses and 18 parts in lieu of so many sheepwalks, making 16 acres for a share. 256 acres next Barroway Fen were to be divided into 16 lots for Barway and the remaining 4240 acres into 265 shares, 16 acres to a share, to commonable houses and owners of sheepwalks. The above shares were decreed. Application was then made to the Commissioners to decree the lands appointed for the horse pasture, the poor's maintenance and the free school. The Commissioners, declaring that they had no power to decree the said lands to such uses, agreed that the lands should be left vested in the defendant (Chicheley) and his heirs.

(6) He later denied that trust, refusing to fulfil the agreement, and was taking the rents and profits of these lands. The present Bill was to bring him to account and make him execute the trust. He insisted that the 300 acres of common had all along been held and enjoyed by the poor and that he had spent large sums in draining and embanking the Moor.

After long debate, it was ordered, adjudged and decreed that the 516 acres, viz. the 300 acres for the poor, the 100 acres for the horse pasture, and the 116 acres of Soham Moor, shall be held, ordered and used as appointed in the previous Award. That Sir Thomas Chicheley should convey in trust these lands for the purposes aforesaid but that the appointment of trustees should not be left to the Lord of the Manor and tenants. The Court appointed as trustees the Master of Pembroke, the vicar of Soham and twelve substantial tenants of the Manor.

It is probably true to say that we owe the survival of the horse fens and commons to a grasping Lord of the Manor who tried to get away with using the poor's land for his own ends but was stopped in his tracks by the commoners standing up for their rights. The setting out by decree of the division of land gave it legal backing and enshrined the judgment which has been passed down to us today and whose terms are still observed (albeit in slightly amended form).

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