13 Parish Burial Ground

Plaque location - on the retaining wall at the west end of Cowgate, adjacent to Crescent Bridge roundabout - location map

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On this spot you are standing on the site of Peterborough's burial ground. Prior to this Peterborough people were buried in the lay-persons cemetery on the north side of the Cathedral. Having accommodated several generations of townsfolk, the lay cemetery had become extremely overcrowded. So the Parish Vestry, at a meeting in June 1803, agreed that it was expedient to purchase an area of land for use as a new parish burial ground. Their attention was drawn to a 3 acre field at the end of Cowgate. Subscriptions (towards the cost) were canvassed, and raised £857. The purchase price (£540) and the cost of surrounding the site with a brick wall were paid for in the financial year 1804/05. The first burial was that of Mrs Elizabeth Money in March 1805. This site continued to be used for the burial of parishioners until March 1859 when it too reached its capacity, and a new cemetery was opened on a site between Eastfield Road and Broadway.

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Photo file caption left reads "St John's graveyard Cowgate"

Nationally, the years 1827-1830 saw the highpoint in the activities of 'body snatchers', who stole the bodies of recently interred persons from graveyards and sold them as anatomical specimens available for dissection by medical practitioners and their trainees. Even our local graveyards were subject to their attentions and in November 1830 the parish burial ground was violated by them. As a result the walls around the burial ground were repaired and surmounted by iron railings.

However, a greater threat came on the early 20th century with the campaign to replace the Cowgate level crossing (over six sets of rails) with a bridge. On the Cowgate side the only suitable location for new approach roads to the proposed bridge was across the open space occupied by the burial ground. In 1911 work began removing those gravestones which were directly in the line of the new approach roads, and Crescent Bridge was opened in 1913.

All visual evidence of the graveyard finally disappeared completely in the 1970s and 1980s with the building of Crescent Bridge roundabout and construction of Queensgate.

Photo file caption right reads "St John the Baptist Peterborough Parish Church's burial ground in Cowgate"

Installed 2017. Information compiled by Richard Hillier.

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14 Deacon's School

Plaque location - on the north side of Cowgate on the building now occupied by The Pizza Parlour - location map

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Thomas Deacon, born in 1651, was a local wealthy wool merchant and philanthropist. He became a Peterborough Feoffee in 1679 and was appointed as a governor of the Town Estates in 1683. He owned a number of properties within the City and surrounding area, including the New Manor, Longthorpe (Longthorpe Tower), which he acquired in 1701. In 1704, he was appointed High Sheriff of Northamptonshire, of which Peterborough was part of at the time.

In 1721 Deacon endowed a school for 20 'poor boys of the city' so that they could learn to 'read, write and cast accounts'. It was expected that these boys would go on to become apprentices.

The buildings which formerly stood on the site were part of the endowment and already housed a school. However, the school traditionally dates its commencement from the 'proving' of Deacon's will in 1721. Deacon died on the 19th August 1721 and is buried in Peterborough Cathedral.

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By the 1880's the buildings had become unsuitable and the Charity Commissioners strongly advised the building of a new school. The school moved to Crown Lane (later Deacon Street) in 1883 and again in 1960 to Queens Gardens. Until the introduction of comprehensive education Deacon's was one of the city's three grammar schools, the others being King's School and the County School for Girls.

Deacon's became a voluntary controlled co-educational comprehensive school in 1976 and a grant maintained school in the 1990s. It became a specialist Technology College in 1994.

In 2007 the new Thomas Deacon Academy, designed by Sir Norman Foster and Partners, costing nearly £50 million was opened on the same site.

Thomas Deacon's magnificent classical monument is situated at the far end of the Cathedral and is well worth a visit. The reclining figure of Deacon is the masterpiece of the distinguished sculptor Robert Taylor Snr. The white marble monument depicts Deacon in a powdered wig, his elbow resting on a pillow and his hand upon a skull. The inscription and that of his wife Mary below detail the various charities that they had supported in the city.

Installed 2017. Information compiled by Toby Wood.

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15 Cumbergate

Plaque location - on a currently unlet building in Cumbergate, near to the entrance to Queensgate - location map

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The English Place-name Society interprets "Cumbergate" as the "street of the wool-combers", and finds that the name occurs as early as the mid-13th century. Originally the street had two 'arms', the north-south arm which still (largely) exists, and an east-west arm, which was obliterated by the building of Queensgate.

Most of this building is original 15th Century timber-framing. Although the City must have had a 'tradition' of timber-framed buildings, it remains a rare survival, and Table Hall in the Cathedral Precincts is the only other major such structure in the City Centre. Probably originally built by wool-combers, part of this building was still occupied by "John Simpson, wool-comber" in the early 17th century. It was acquired, together with a range of buildings opposite, by the Peterborough Feoffees (a board of trustees with the responsibility for the administration of parish charities and for some functions of local government).

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Various deeds describe the building as 'to be converted to a House of Maintenance' (1726), 'dwelling rooms for the use of the poor' (1774 and 1815) and 'known as the Old Workhouse' (1826 and 1869). It an early piece of 'out-sourcing' the Feoffees leased the building, in the early 1720s, to Mathew Marriott, a noted entrepreneur who also 'controlled' several workhouses in inner London, outer London, and Luton.

Once the national system of Poor Law Workhouses was introduced in the 1830s this building was converted to use as Almshouses from 1837 until 1969. It underwent restoration and alteration in the early 1900s, with major repair and conversion to retail use occurring in the 1980s.

Opposite is the remaining part of another block of almshouses, partly of 1835, and partly of 1903, built by the Feoffees with money bequeathed by Miss Pears, (see the large stone plaque on the gable end of the corner block), where the House of Correction or Bridewell had probably stood. The 1903 block, now the main part of Carluccio's, was designed by local architect James G Stallebrass. There was a similar block at the north end of the site (replaced by the superstructure of Queensgate).

Installed 2017. Information compiled by Richard Hillier.

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Blue Plaque 16 - Memorial Hospital

Plaque location - to the left of the Midland Road entrance of West Town Primary Academy - location map

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After World War One all over the country people were deciding how to commemorate those lost in the ‘Great War’. Many places commissioned war memorials in the style of the old village crosses, others built memorial halls or other facilities for their communities. Larger towns were more ambitious and several, including Peterborough, decided to raise funds for the building of a hospital as a fitting War Memorial.

For about seventy years Peterborough’s Infirmary was housed in what is now the museum in Priestgate. Its capacity was 65 beds and Peterborough Hospital District now extended to Bourne in the north, Kings Cliffe in the west, Ramsey in the east and Thrapston to the south. That population, of about 100,000, required at least a doubling of available beds.

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An illustration of the proposed hospital prepared by the architect,
Wallace Marchment, 1922

Once the idea had been launched in 1919 by the then Mayor, nine years of planning and fund-raising began with the architect, Mr Wallace Marchment, selected by open competition. An eye-watering target of £80,000 was set (about £4.2 million in today’s money). However the slump slowed progress until a 4 ½ acre site was donated by Alderman Bunting. In 1921 a Hospital Quota Campaign was launched. Each of Peterborough’s four urban wards and about one hundred smaller towns and villages in the Hospital District was issued with a target to be achieved in five years. The most usual target was around 10 shillings per head of population but some areas were given lower targets, because they were either less well off, or more distant from Peterborough with access to other hospitals. Donations also came from the Peterborough Hospital Saturday Fund, the Red Cross and from major landowners, businesses, churches and individuals. Equipment, blankets etc were also donated.

The foundation stone was laid by Mr Fitzwilliam of Milton Hall on July 31st 1925 with much acclaim. But in fact by this time only £47,000 of the £80,000 had been raised or promised, so the stone laying was as much a clarion call for more donations.

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HRH Prince George (later Duke of Kent) at the opening of the Children's Ward
28 June 1929, accompanied by the Mayor of Peterborough, Arthur Craig

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The Ceremonial Opening of the new hospital by Field Marshal Sir William Robertson took place on June 14th 1928. Yet funds were still £9,000 short of the target and the children’s ward only just started. The complete building contained admin block (the façade of which is the sole retained feature of the building), outpatients block, two women’s wards (44 beds), kitchen block, two male wards (44 beds) a ‘spare’ 14 bed ward, 8 private beds, operating block with one theatre, nurses’ home, laundry and mortuary. The 15-bed children’s ward, opening a year later, formed the last of the three two-storey wings with their sun-balconies facing south over Thorpe Road. The following photos taken in 2010 when still the district hospital are from Peterborough Images Archive site, so with due acknowledgement and thanks to Paul Young of Peterborough Images Archive for their use.

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Plaques inside the entrance to the admin block record the names of the architect, builder and the major contributors to the building fund. A casket containing a Roll of Honour recorded 1,047 of those lost in the 1914-18 War. Subsequent research has revealed that the number lost was in fact higher.

In 1968, the hospital became part of the newly built District Hospital which was demolished in 2015. This facade and foyer was saved from demolition and incorporated into the West Town Primary Academy, a 600-pupil primary school opened in November 2016. The memorial dedication plaques still exist but their location is now private, being part of the school entrance. Photos of the plaques and names of those commemorated can be found on the Imperial War Museum website page for this site.

Installed 2020. Information compiled by Peter Lee

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17 Arthur James Robertson

Plaque location - at No 50 Cowgate, the last shop on the south side of the road, and formerly known as Robertson's All-Sports - location map

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Son of a Glasgow doctor, Arthur Robertson was born in 1879 and attended Kelvinside Academy in Glasgow then, from the age of fourteen, Peterborough's King's School. His first recorded athletics achievement was winning the One Mile race at King's in record time.
Photo left shows Arthur with his brother Dubs.

He was a brilliant all-round sportsman but initially concentrated on cycling, only taking up serious athletics at the age of 25 after a cycling injury. In 1906 he transferred from Peterborough Athletics Club to join the successful Birmingham Club, Birchfield Harriers, and the following year won the Midland Counties Ten Mile title, was runner up in the two miles steeplechase and well placed in the one mile, ten mile and four mile distances at the AAA championships. In March 1908 won both the English and International Cross-Country Championships. In the 1908 Summer Olympics he became Birchfield Harriers' first Olympic medallist, winning gold for Scotland in the three-mile team race at White City and silver in the steeplechase. In September that year he set a world record at 5000 metres in Stockholm.

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He retired from athletics in 1909 and returned to cycling and playing football for Peterborough Town Football Club. From 1922 onwards he took over a cycle dealership at 39/41 and later 97/99 Bridge Street from his brother, and became a director of Peterborough Town Football Club. From 1952 Robertson's All Sports was established at 46/48 Cowgate and finally in No 50, run by his son and retaining the name long after Arthur's death in 1957.

Arthur had a mercurially short athletics career in which he scaled the heights of national and international success. In 2004 he was posthumously inducted into the Scottish Sporting Hall of Fame and in 2010 a new pub in Birmingham was named 'The Arthur Robertson' in his honour.

Photo above from 1908 Arthur is far left.

Installed 2017. Information compiled by Peter Lee.

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Blue Plaque 18 - John Addy

Plaque location - on the front wall of The Queen’s Arms, Queen Street - location map

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In Victorian times, the risk of serious infection was ever present. In Peterborough, August 1874 alone saw thirty cases of typhoid reported, some fatal. It was generally accepted that outbreaks of infectious disease were mainly caused by impure water and poor sanitation, but water from the Peterborough Town Pump was known to be heavily contaminated.

There had been much talk that “something must be done”, but with minimal actual progress. All that was now to change. The man mainly responsible for bringing change about was John Addy, a local lad made good.

In 1874, Peterborough was a growing railway hub, with its own elected local authority, the Peterborough Corporation. Its members were keen to show that they could make progress where others had failed. They chose Addy, a chartered engineer, aged only 27, to assume full responsibility for both the new water supply and a new sewerage system for the whole of the city.

John Addy was born at West Deeping in 1847 and attended Grantham Grammar School. After a brief period as a mechanical engineering apprentice, he turned to civil engineering. He became Resident Engineer for the Croydon Sewage Works scheme in 1871 and received the Miller Prize of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1872.

Addy set up his own practice in 1874 based in Queen Street. His work for Peterborough was to include preparing designs and supervising works, but also appearing before public inquiries and Parliamentary Committees.

The Corporation hoped to find suitable water at Castor, a relatively cheap solution, but an initial bore there proved unsuccessful. Addy turned instead to the village of Wilsthorpe in Lincolnshire, where the geology was known to be favourable. This proved highly satisfactory with a flow of 800,000 gallons per day.

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The waterworks site at Wilsthorpe, c. 1955. Addy’s original engine house can be seen in the bottom left hand corner, with its successor already built alongside. Coal was delivered to the site via the Essendine-Bourne railway line which ran along the track at the bottom of the photo. This line had closed in 1951.

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Example of the boilers that would have been used to raise steam to power the pumps. These at Papplewick Pumping Station
still exist today.
 
 

The Wilsthorpe site remains in use today. Addy’s engine house (since demolished) contained steam powered pumps and a storage reservoir was constructed nearby. From there, water flowed through an 18inch diameter main over thirteen miles to Peterborough including crossing the River Welland. Twenty-five miles of pipes were then laid within the city.

The water supply was completed in July 1879 at a cost of £87,568 (more than £10 million in today’s money). Addy was "loudly cheered" in the city during the ensuing celebrations. The works for the drainage scheme began in 1877, but in 1879 the contractor became bankrupt. The Corporation asked Addy to organise the remaining works, which he did, with completion in 1880, costing a further £80,000.

Addy’s relationship with the Corporation was often strained. He ceased working for them in 1881 and left the area to take up farming. He died in 1896.

Addy deserves to be better known, not just as a highly competent engineer, but also because he overcame many difficulties for the lasting benefit of the city. Because of his work, Peterborians were at last able to enjoy an assured supply of clean water and the efficient disposal of sewage, which we take for granted today.

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We thank the Charles Wells Brewery for their grant aid towards this plaque and Safraz Khan for nominating John Addy.

Thanks are also due to local author Betty Chambers MBE, whose book ‘Victorian Peterborough and Mr Mayor’ was the source of much of the information quoted above.

Installed 2020. Information compiled by Roger Davis

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19 The Guildhall

Plaque location - on the south elevation of the Guildhall on Cathedral Square - location map

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The Guildhall (or Old Guildhall or market house as described by Niklaus Pevsner) was built in 1671 from ‘warm local limestone’ by leading local builder and master mason John Lovin and was deliberately built facing the Cathedral gatehouse. It stands on, or close to, the site of a covered ‘Butter Cross’ and it is believed that the ‘Chamber over the Cross’ replaced an earlier timber framed Moothall and Guildhall (probably timber-framed, arcaded buildings in need of repair) standing on the northern side of the square.

It is likely that the city’s Feoffees decided to build the Guildhall as a celebration of the restoration in 1660 of Charles II and it is known that the project was funded by public subscription.

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The Guildhall bears a striking resemblance to the Old Town Hall in Amsterdam as depicted in the 1657 painting ‘The Oude Stadhuis in Amsterdam’ by Pieter Jansz (see right). The picture was bought from the painter in 1658 for 300 guilders by the mayor of Amsterdam for his office in the New Town Hall. It now hangs in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

Pevsner describes the building as having ‘coved eaves, steep hipped roof and steep gable towards the square, with painted royal arms, between dormers, and shields with the arms of Bishop Henshaw, Dean Dupont, Sir Humphrey Orme and the Montagu family’.

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Postcards and photographs from a hundred years ago (above) show the Guildhall joined to other buildings on the St John’s Church side. That fronting Church Street was the Town Clerk’s office and later the Police Station. Evidence of the join can still be seen on the Guildhall’s rear side at upper floor level. Some pictures also show iron railings enclosing the Guildhall. These are now long gone and the ground floor is now open on all four sides and is occasionally used as a temporary performance space, particularly during events such as the Heritage Festival.

The building is Grade II* listed and, as a place in which the Council held some of its meetings, was superseded when the Town Hall opened in 1933. Prior to that it had been restored in 1929.

The upper floor of the building, which can only be accessed by a steep spiral cast iron staircase, was used for small group meetings in living memory but is now unused due to its fragile state. The Civic Society is very keen indeed to see an imaginative scheme come forward to allow the upper floor again to be safely accessed and brought back into use.

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Here are some close up shots of features that can be found on the Guildhall, so next time you are passing take a few moments to look closely at this lovely building.

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Installed 2020. Information compiled by Toby Wood

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20 WW1 Recruitment Office

Plaque location - in Long Causeway, fifty metres from its junction with Cathedral Square - location map

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Britain declared war on Tuesday 4 August 1914 following Germany’s invasion of Belgium. A temporary recruiting office was opened in the Guildhall four days later, and moved within a week to this more permanent location in Long Causeway, then occupied as regional offices of Prudential Assurance. Recruits who signed-up here were sent to the military depot in the county town of Northampton.

In the summer of 1917, on the merger of two recruiting districts, the Peterborough office was due to close with the work being centralised in Northampton. However, some staff remained in Peterborough with the Military Service Tribunal, which heard applications for exemption from military service.

Thanks to our friends at Peterborough Images Archive for use of these photos.

 

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These two photos show local volunteer recruits about to depart from Peterborough North station in September 1914, one month after the declaration of war. Those in the left-hand photo were enrolled in “Whitsed’s Light Infantry”, so named after Alderman Isaac Whitsed who took a prominent part in organising the recruitment drive. The unit later gained its official title as part of the 7th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment.

Despite the photo caption stating that they were setting off for the front, these recruits, still in civilian dress, were more likely in transit to their initial training camps. The unit finally set out for France in September 1915.

At the outbreak of hostilities, there was misplaced confidence that the war would turn out to be a short and successful one, hence the enthusiasm and optimism evident in many of the faces pictured. In fact, it soon became a grim struggle of attrition and in January 1916 conscription had to be introduced to ensure a sufficient supply of new recruits.

One can only wonder how many of the volunteers pictured here were later to be counted amongst the 1,100 Peterborians whose lives would be sacrificed during the course of the war, or else amongst the large number who were wounded.

The story of Peterborough’s remarkable community effort to create a new hospital as a fitting memorial to those who gave their lives is commemorated by one of our other plaques to the Memorial Hospital. Also of interest is the information on the WW1 Memorial Clock on Westgate House put up by the Peterborough and District Co-operative Society to honour their fallen employees.

Installed 2018. Information compiled by Toby Wood and Roger Davis.

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21 Abbot's Gaol & Kings's Lodgings

Plaque location - on the modern (1930s) finely cut stone facade facing into Cathedral Square between the Great Gate to the Cathedral Precincts and
NatWest Bank -
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The wall to which the plaque is affixed marks the limit of the former monastic precinct in relation to the square, standing at the western end of a range of buildings running east towards the Cathedral's west front. This range contained, at its western end, the Abbot's Gaol and, probably in fairly close conjunction, the King's Lodging. It suffered much partial reconstruction in the eighteenth century and first half of the nineteenth, but nevertheless retains much mediaeval work, notably the Abbot's Gate mid-way along its length.

Moreover this east-west range would, in the monastic times, have connected with the ranges of buildings running south from it, most of the whole complex functioning in one way or another as parts of the Abbot's 'curia' (in effect offices) ranged around a working inner Great Courtyard accessed from the outer courtyard Galley or, properly, Galiliee Court via the Abbot's Gate.

Construction of the modern wall upon which the plaque is placed was necessitated by the demolition of Georgian buildings whose facades fronted onto what was Narrow Street, on its original alignment, in order to create the present Town Hall ‐ see plaque No. 28. The demolished buildings had formed, in effect, one side of the short lane approaching the Great Gate.

The finely detailed and meticulous masonry of the new facade was executed to the designs of Carõe and Passmore on behalf of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, precursors of the Church Commissioners. (The arms displayed on the rainwater hopperhead may well be theirs.) The distinguished architect W.D. (Carõe (pupil of J.L. Pearson) had long carried out significant work for the Commissioners, including their headquarters building on Millbank, London.

The modern wall conceals a later twelfth century undercroft, stone vaulted in two main square bays, the slightly chamfered arches and ribs supported by short circular piers and responds. Here was the Abbot's Gaol. Ancillary spaces of indeterminate shape and original function adjoin. Immediately to the north of the vaulted bays, against the Great Gate itself, is a confined space with a blocked window. This has long been popularly known as the 'condemned cell'. Its stout door (the bolt or bar for which remains in situ) could until recently be seen in Peterborough Museum. Where is it now?

By the later middle ages the Abbot of Peterborough wielded enormous power. The privileges enjoyed by the Abbey (which set the Soke apart from the rest of Northamptonshire) ensured that, in practice, the Abbot controlled many aspects of ordinary royal government as a kind of franchise held from the King. Thus his sources of power were twofold. First as landlord ‐ the abbey effectively owned the 'service town' ‐ dealing with a whole range of matters of concern to the town, from the renewal of leases and sub-leases to resolving an assortment of grievances of one sort or another. Second as holder of outsourced governmental powers, including the right to police crime, to hold courts, maintain a prison and hold markets, there was ample basis for constant interaction with royal power and its nominees.

At the Dissolution of the monastery the Dean and Chapter became lords of the manor, their power in this respect being initially as great as the Abbot's had been. Although their control slackened and weakened over time, the last tattered vestiges of their power can still, astonishingly, be detected almost into the twentieth century. The Abbot's Gaol had though ceased to be used as the town prison in 1842, when Donthorn's Neo-Norman new Sessions Court House (Ed. see our plaque erected 1986) and prison (the latter demolished 1962) was built on Thorpe Road to replace both the Dean and Chapter's gaol by the Great Gate and the Lord Paramount's gaol next to the Bishops Palace.(Lord Burghley had become Lord Paramount of Peterborough from Elizabeth I to whom the bishops had surrendered rights of jurisdiction. The title is still enjoyed, in theory, by the Marquis of Exeter though all surviving remnants of power vanished in 1965.)

If we can be reasonably certain as to the location of the Abbot's Gaol as well as to the manner of its operation, the same cannot quite be said about the King's Lodging.

The outer gates of monasteries were often associated with the dispensing of both justice and charity. (The great gatehouse of St Albans also contained a prison, while Ely Porta had within both a prison and courtroom.) Peterborough is a case in point. On the north side of the gate, alongside the chapel of St Thomas Becket (see plaque No. 22) was the hospital (in the sense of almshouse of St Thomas the Martyr. Recent (though as yet, at the time of writing, unpublished) archaeology has suggested that the hospital may have been sited directly west of the chapel, that is, in effect, within the square, rather than against its north side.

Debate continues as to the probable location of the King's Lodging at different times throughout the Middle Ages. Cases can be made for it having been located above the gaol, immediately to its east, immediately to its south (that is in a range inadequately recorded during demolitions preparatory to the building of bank and Town Hall), or further east in a now lost hall adjoining the Abbot's Gate. Moreover, though the documentary evidence testifying to the visits of many monarchs over the centuries exists, it is more likely that the King's Lodging, per se, was used by the King's Officials in attendance for 'outsourced' administration of justice etc. rather than by the monarch. He is perhaps more likely to have been entertained in the Hostry or Guest Hall (in themselves both seemingly somewhat 'movable feasts' at Peterborough over the centuries) or indeed within the Abbot's Lodging.

Installed 2017. Information compiled by Henry Mansell Duckett.

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22 St Thomas Becket

Plaque location - Cathedral Square on the former Lloyds Bank building, now Starbucks - location map

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A chapel on this site had been begun by Abbot William de Waterville, shortly after Becket's murder in 1170. It was completed by Abbot Benedict who had succeeded William de Waterville in 1177. Benedict (not to be confused with Benedict of Norcia, 6th century founder of the Benedictine Order) had, at the moment of Becket's murder, been in Canterbury Cathedral, albeit at a safe distance, when Henry II's agents broke in to do the deed. The martyrdom of Becket marked a turning point in the protracted power struggle between church and state which dominated the medieval period. Becket was canonised in 1173. In 1175 Benedict became Prior of Canterbury, keeper of Becket's relics, guardian of the shrine and, in some sense his first biographer, thus playing a major role in the propagation of the Martyr's cult as a focus for pilgrimage both at Canterbury and far beyond.

Following his appointment as Abbot of Peterborough, Benedict was to discover that order and discipline in the monastic community was wanting, and that work towards completion of the nave had come to a standstill. So, in what has been described as a "memorable act of plunder" he returns quietly to Canterbury and 'acquires' (doubtless he felt entitled) certain relics of Becket's martyrdom. These seem to have included blood-stained stones, fragments of vestments and two (seemingly self-replenishing) crystal phials of Becket's blood. Thus Peterborough became something of a regional centre for the cult which became one of the most important in Europe.

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To the modern mind the acquisition and veneration of relics may be pure superstition; yet this preoccupation, developed from pagan antiquity, represents and to some degree remains a universal instinct. The medieval church honoured relics of saints and martyrs (whether 'authentic' or otherwise) because it saw their deaths as witness to faith.

Some of the relics, at least, brought from Canterbury are likely to have been housed in the Limoges enamel reliquary or chasse (pictured, courtesy of the V&A) and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. This reliquary casket is the finest and largest of more than forty such 'Becket caskets' to survive. Circumstantial evidence suggests that this one was commissioned by Benedict specifically for Peterborough. It may either have been kept in the chapel or, perhaps more likely, near the high altar of the abbey church.

The chapel itself was demolished at the beginning of the fifteenth century for precise reasons which remain a matter of some discussion.

Immediately adjoining the site is the Great Gate to Peterborough Cathedral precincts and the Cathedral itself with its spectacular west front. Until 1539 an abbey, the substantial remains of many of its monastic buildings survive, some adapted to modern functions. Immediately inside the gate, to the left, stands the chancel added to the Becket Chapel in the 14th century.

Installed 2017. Information compiled by Henry Mansell Duckett.

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23 Simon Gunton

Plaque location - on the wall of 27 Minster Precincts - location map

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Simon Gunton was born in Peterborough in 1609, the third child of six, four of whom seem not to have survived infancy or childhood. His baptism is recorded in St John’s parish register. Ancestry on his father William’s side was deep-rooted in Ely and the Fens whereas his mother Helen, who was to die when Simon was just four, came originally from Lancashire stock. She was buried in the then Lady Chapel of the Cathedral, which Simon would live to see demolished, though he records in his ‘History’ her memorial inscription there: “Hic jacet Helena nominee English …” (literally translated as “Here lies the name of Helen English”). Close by too was buried Simon English, Simon Gunton’s maternal grandfather – sometime Headmaster of The King’s School and “of great esteem in his generation.” - see King's School blue plaque.

Outstanding amongst those receiving their early education from Simon English was the boy who would become Sir Robert (Bruce) Cotton – scion of the Cottons of Conington Castle – antiquary, bibliophile and politician, whose celebrated manuscript collection and library would eventually be bestowed upon the nation to form the nucleus of the British Library. It would be in London literary and political circles that Cotton would encounter John Fletcher – see John Fletcher’s blue plaque.

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Conington Castle, built for Sir Robert Cotton, drawn in 1818 - image thanks to Wikipedia.

Simon Gunton’s father, who married again, had the office of Cathedral Registrar for more than twenty years. The Registrar (Chapter Clerk) was responsible to Dean and Chapter for managing leases, registers, archives etc. all in line with Cathedral Statutes, as well as recording and executing Chapter’s decisions. Doubtless young Simon’s interest in archival research and the recording of historical evidence was both prompted and promoted early. Thus too this local boy becomes, in time, both a scholar and antiquarian.

Simon Gunton was probably a pupil at King’s and would go on to complete his education at Magdalene College, Cambridge in 1634, two years after his father’s death. Simon was appointed sole executor and received the residue of his father’s estate. By 1635 he had been ordained Deacon and was priested in 1637 by Bishop Francis Dee having, in the interim, married a local woman, Susan Dickenson. Bishop Dee was possessed of pronounced Laudian (‘High Church’ or Anglo-Catholic) sympathies (which would cause him much trouble in an essentially Puritan inclined diocese) and it appears that Gunton shared these views. After ordination Gunton became Vicar of Pytchley, Northants, before being appointed a Minor Canon of the Cathedral in 1643, the very year of its desecration by Cromwell's soldiers.

Cathedral and Diocese had already “suffered greatly during the reign of Elizabeth, from the rapacity or sycophancy of ecclesiastical preferments (appointments, chiefly of Bishops) and from the tyranny of the queen.” (Mellows). Revenues had been squandered, valuable leases undersold and, in at least one case, a family fortune featherbedded. Bishop Francis Dee, seeking to ameliorate some of the depredations of just one of his immediate predecessors, sued the executors of Bishop Thomas Dove (according to Gunton a favourite preacher of the queen: “the Dove with silver wings”) over dilapidations to the Palace, recovering £700, out of which was built “the house between the Porter’s Lodge, at the Knight’s Chamber, and the old Peterborough gaol.” Simon Gunton seems to have been the first tenant of this house.

The present building replaced the Jacobean original sometime in the 1840s. the architect was probably William Dunthorne, who was doing much new work of adaptation throughout the Precincts and in the city beyond at the time, though surviving drawings show some variations as compared with the elevations as executed. Dunthorne’s conscious stylistic emulation of the Jacobean house (in fact now two houses) may be appreciated with reference to the contrasted views (1803 and today) of parts of the extensive south range of the Galilee Court, illustrated here.

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A trio of shaped attic gables appears at the top of the composition in both cases, whilst two oriel window bays of the Jacobean building are translated by Dunthorne into full two-storey canted projecting bays. The long south range retains substantial medieval work at both its eastern and western ends with, in the middle, the Abbot’s gate and so-called Knight’s Chamber over. Between these medieval elements much mid-19th century remodelling was undertaken, including to no: 27, though earlier work of various dates is in part evident within and to the rear, more of such turning up from time to time as repairs and adaptations are undertaken.

By the end of 1646 Gunton had become both a Prebendary (stipendiary Canon) and Sub-treasurer of the Cathedral, though it is difficult to see how at that point he would have been able fully to enter into these offices. (Given that this part of the country was by now in the firm grip of the Parliamentarian Eastern Association of Counties; Archbishop Laud had been executed for treason and Bishop John Towers of Peterborough was recently confined to the Tower for High Treason.) Nor is it entirely clear whether he had managed to hang on to his tenancy.

Gunton’s difficult situation seems to have been made just about tenable through the good offices of James Stuart, Duke of Lennox and Richmond (a scion of the Royal House who, remarkably, somehow managed to stay on terms with both sides in the conflict). Stuart certainly took it upon himself to shelter Gunton throughout hostilities, his patronage securing for him, in 1651, the living of Leighton Bromswold (with its recent associations with George Herbert and Nicholas Ferrar) where no doubt he would have been tempted to try to get away with the continued use of the Prayer Book, officially proscribed during the Commonwealth.

After the Restoration in 1660 Gunton, along with other surviving canons, took possession of his prebend. At much the same time, he was instituted as Vicar of St John’s Parish Church. There followed various moves to recover Chapter land and property (including an assortment of books and writings) spirited away during the Commonwealth and to resume the daily round of services, performed with as much due dignity as could be mustered.

But then, in 1665, tragedy struck – Peterborough was visited by the Great Plague, brought from London. Over the following months a total of about 540 people (perhaps a fifth of the town’s population) in St John’s parish died, Simon Gunton himself burying 462 of them – as many as eleven in one day. Some of Gunton’s clergy colleagues had sought leave to absent themselves “during the continuance of that contagious sickness …”, but Simon Gunton heroically and devotedly stayed at his post. At the foot of each of four pages of recorded burials in the parish register he gives thanks for his own preservation, with variants of the line: “Simon Gunton, vicar, saved by the goodness and grace of God.”

Late in 1666, the Plague largely spent, Gunton resigned as Vicar of St John’s, accepting instead the chapter living of Fiskerton near Lincoln where he died a decade later.

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Simon Gunton’s great ‘History’ did not see the light of day until another decade had elapsed after his death. It would probably have never materialised at all had it not been for the generosity of another Simon. Simon Patrick (left thanks Wikipaedia) was appointed Dean of Peterborough just three years after Gunton’s death. Hitherto he had ministered in London where, in an interesting parallel to Gunton’s experience here, he too had manfully remained at his post at St Paul’s, Covent Garden (the handsomest barn in England” – Inigo Jones) as the Great Plague hit London. Dean Patrick had already written and published much before his arrival in Peterborough. Discovering that Gunton had already carried out a considerable body of valuable but unpublished research, and that this was based upon some of the medieval chronicles, Patrick had the perspicacity to appreciate that, with additional research, publication of a significant history would be possible.

Gunton was the first to attempt to put together a history in English of the Abbey and Cathedral having regard to such of the primary sources – the medieval chronicles – as he could reasonably have accessed. Moreover, it would be only the second such history of a specific cathedral, after Dugdale’s History of St Paul’s Cathedral. Much of the most important of his sources had been the Peterborough Chronicle of Hugh Candidus (12th-century monk of the Abbey) and its later supplements (Swaffham, to 1250s and Whittlesey, to about 1330). Neither Gunton nor Patrick had ever seen Hugh Candidus’s original manuscript; a document with a very chequered history.

Having found its way into the Cottonian Library (for Sir Robert Cotton, see above) it was tragically lost in a fire in 1731 but, by very good fortune, not before a transcript had been made. Cotton’s celebrated library – its book presses organised beneath the busts of Roman Emperors – had been something of a ‘moveable feast’. Originally assembled and housed at his house in the Palace of Westminster (roughly on the site of the present House of Lords) the Cottonian Library ended up, after several moves, in Ashburnham House, now part of Westminster School. It was here that much of it was lost in the 1731 fire. George Davenport’s valuable transcript of 1652 now resides in Cambridge University Library but was reprinted, in translation, by W.T. Mellows (1941, 1966 and 1980).

Gunton had the advantage of being locally born and of living in the town for most of his days. He was therefore well acquainted, at first hand, with the tumultuous events of which he writes, not least the smashing down of monuments, glass etc. whose inscriptions he had read and carefully recorded as a youth. Patrick brings to the joint endeavour a further level of scholarship. He has access to other primary source material not available to Gunton – notably The Chronicle of John, Abbot of Peterborough, a somewhat mysterious compilation usually assigned (as it was by Patrick) to Abbot John de Caleto, abbot from 1249 to 1262. But, in recognition of Gunton’s pioneering work, Patrick determined upon the generous course of action of publishing the history under Gunton’s own name, with his own contribution as “A Supplement To The Foregoing History”. Patrick’s supplement goes carefully and critically over much the same ground as Gunton, but in many ways his most valuable contribution to the joint enterprise was his commissioning of Francis Standish’s eyewitness account of the events of 1643. (Standish was Patrick’s Precentor.) As a ‘spectator of most things that he relates”, Standish’s contribution provides an appropriately complementary gloss to Gunton’s meticulous descriptions of the church and its appurtenances as it was before the Civil War.

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The image here of Gunton’s ‘History’, an original edition open at the title page, shows, as its frontispiece, the anonymous engraving of the spectacular 14th-century great altar screen, described by Gunton as “… the greatest ornament of the Quire (and indeed of the whole church) …”. This is one of five principal illustrated engraved plates in Gunton’s ‘History’. The modern facsimile edition (1) does not have this image in this frontispiece position. (The plates, in any case, appear in different positions in various original copies; there is no ‘correct’ position for them as in the 17th-century the plates tended to be positioned by book-binders rather than publishers).

All that remains of this great altar screen (the only surviving near-comparable example is Durham’s Neville screen) are the numerous broken fragments in the Cathedral’s lapidary collection. A recent scholarly attempt has been made (2) to reconstruct something closer to the actual appearance and scale of the screen, since it is evident that the frontispiece is but a much-simplified version of the structure on the evidence even of the tangible surviving fragments. In Gunton’s text he regrets his inability to present the reader with pictorial evidence, particularly of the great screen. (It seems that subscriptions in advance of publication were insufficient to ‘bear the charge of them’.) The five plates were therefore, it seems, brought together from various sources by Patrick, who may have commissioned the frontispiece plate from the anonymous artist, who could well have been working, say, from a prior sketch and memory.

(1)  S. Gunton, The History of the Church of Peterburgh, ed. S. Patrick (London 1686) reprinted in facsimile with an introduction (a very valuable extended essay by the late Canon Jack Higham) and index. (Peterborough and Stamford 1990).

(2)  S. Harrison, ‘The 14th-century great altar screen of Peterborough Cathedral’ in Peterborough and the Soke – Art, Architecture. and Archaeology, ed. R. Baxter, J Hall and C. Marx, BAA Conference Transactions (Oxon and New York 2019).

Installed 2020. Information compiled by Henry Mansell Duckett

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24 Almoner's Hall

Plaque location - on the wall of Almoner’s Hall which lies along the southernmost edge of the monastic precinct, adjacent to the modern entrance to what is new Minster Precincts, from the south. Some slight remains of the medieval Almoner’s Gate (the East Gate to the monastery) may still be traced a few yards further east along Almoner’s Lane (new Gravel Walk) - location map

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A precise date for the original structure remains uncertain, though stylistic indications perhaps suggest an early fourteenth century commencement with subsequent interventions, such as the hall doorway, towards the end of the same century. The range as a whole, considered from east to west, consists of the Almoner’s two-storey chamber block (a tiny window high on the southern elevation lights a staircase) followed by his hall, then a service area and, finally, beneath a slightly lower roof, a bakehouse. The hall itself may be identified by a pair of single-light transomed window openings with minimal ogee tracery at their heads, and by the arched doorway.

Following dissolution of the monastery, chamber block and hall became a dwelling. By the nineteenth century, hall and service end had become stabling, with a coach house added to the western end. The whole range was very heavily restored, of necessity, when in 1992 it was rescued from advanced decrepitude. Hitherto, it has usually been referred to absurdly as the Monks’ Stables. (Monks didn’t keep horses). It was the late Don Mackreth who established, beyond peradventure, that this was indeed the Almoner’s Hall – one of six halls of the medieval monastery which survive in various states of incompletion, together with fragments of a seventh, aisled hall.

The monastic Almoner was one of the ‘obedientiaries’ of the house – senior monks who were, as it were, heads of departments – along with the likes of the Sacrist, Infirmarer, Cellarer, Fraterer etc. These officers of a religious house, and the pattern was much the same across the religious orders throughout Europe, held ‘obediences’ – departmental responsibilities – under the abbot and were responsible for administration, managing both their revenues and accounts.

The Almoner was responsible for the house’s external works of mercy; an obligation to distribute ‘alms’ usually consisting of food and clothing, sometimes money or medicine or, occasionally, the dispensing of board, lodging or education.

Peterborough Abbey was of course a Benedictine house. The Rule of Benedict provided the very foundation for the monastic life in the medieval Latin West, first introduced into England about two centuries after Benedict of Nursia’s founding of the Order around 520-530. The Benedictines numbered among their houses some of the oldest and most distinguished foundations in England. Peterborough was one such. Invariably large-scale landowners, the Benedictines were instrumental in shaping the economic and social life of medieval England. Although the role of Almoner was not a specific requirement of the Rule of St Benedict, it becomes a common feature of Benedictines monasteries here in the wake of Norman post-conquest reforms.

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Williams Morton was Almoner from 1448 to at least 1462. His ‘Book’ of accounts and memoranda (see photo left), preserved in the British Library, is a rare and precious survival in the history of monastic administration and this of national significance. His management of the ‘estate’ generated the revenues which supported the ‘external works of mercy’ and not one but two hospitals – St Thomas’s by the Great Gate and St Leonard’s the leper hospital, at Spital Bridge.

Although the Almoner’s Hall remained by the monastery’s East Gate, much of the Almoner’s principal business activity had by the fifteenth century (here as elsewhere) long since removed to the vicinity of the Great Gate, the abbey’s zone of interaction with the town. Peterborough remains one of the best surviving examples preserving tangible or documented evidence of a great abbey locating its charitable and juridical activities – hospitals, chapels, courts and prisons – within and around the Great Gate complex. (See also Abbot’s Gaol & King’s Lodging and St Thomas Becket plaques).

The ‘Book of William Morton’ may appear to modern eyes to resemble little more than a scruffy assemblage of rough notes, scribblings and corrections in a rather scratchy Latin. But its intrinsic interest lies in its survival as an account book of an almost unique kind, which “throws a light on many dark places in the economic history of the period”, “the work of a meticulous man in a meticulous age’.

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The above two photos credited and sourced from Le Monde1's photo album Peterborough - 2009 on www.flickr.com

Installed 2020. Information compiled by Henry Mansell Duckett

To pick another plaque on this page click Peterborough Civic Society or click Peterborough Civic Society to see all blue plaques, or click Peterborough Civic Society for all plaques.