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Priestgate Mansion

1816

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The Georgian building known as Priestgate Mansion, which now houses Peterborough Museum was completed in 1816. It was created by wealthy magistrate Thomas Alderson Cooke, one of Peterborough’s most distinguished residents. The mansion was built on the site of the Tudor house known as Neville Place. It was built on top of the original building, which became the cellars of the new mansion. Some of the currently ground floor walls are possibly from the original house because of their enormous width. Priestgate mansion was originally built as a large symmetrical cube with an additional south-facing curved end. The curved end most likely contained a breakfast room to make the most of the rising sun on cold days and to enjoy the view down to the river Nene. The ground floor was designed for formal entertaining in the dining room and living room. On the first floor were the main bedrooms and on the top floor the nursery and servant rooms. There were not any bathrooms built in to the house originally, so portable water closets were used by people in the house.





Alfred Caleb Taylor and the First X Ray Machine...

1896

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Alfred Caleb Taylor was born in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire in 1861 and came to Peterborough aged ten. He worked at the Peterborough Infirmary on Priestgate from 1880 as a dispenser. He also served as Secretary of the Infirmary from 1889 until his retirement in 1926. Mr Taylor had a keen interest in photography and chaired the Peterborough Photographic Society. This carried over into an interest in X-rays being an early advocate of X-ray technology. In 1896 he designed and built his own equipment under the stairs in the infirmary. This device, the first X-ray machine in the United Kingdom outside London, was powered by accumulators. They were recharged at a local flour mill as there was no public electricity supply at that time. When an electricity supply was available in Peterborough, Mr Harry Cox, from London, was consulted regarding a larger installation. Many people made donations towards the new x-ray apparatus; Mr Andrew Carnegie, Peterborough’s first Freeman kindly donated £125 towards the installation.  As with the photography of the time the images produced by the X-ray machines were positives rather than negatives.

Radiography

As the science of radiography was so new, the danger of exposure to X-rays was unknown.  Taylor worked with the x-rays so often, that it badly affected his health.  He contracted radiation poisoning resulting in the loss of four fingers, three on the left hand and one on the right. Despite this he never expressed any regrets and said, “I have only done my duty, and if I have sacrificed bits of my fingers so that I am not able to tie up my shoes laces, I feel I have been compensated, for I have loved the x-ray work and its excitements. For all the trouble I had at the beginning I have been more than compensated by your appreciation, and although I have lost bits of fingers, I would still do the same if I had my life to come again.” Alfred Caleb Taylor died on the 6th of July 1927, a pioneer and martyr.  





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Victorian Operating Theatre

1897

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The first purpose-built operating theatre was opened in 1897. It was built as an extension to Peterborough Infirmary. It provided state of the art care for the people of Peterborough, incorporating the most up to date medical ideas. These ideas included the use of anaesthesia and keeping the theatre meticulously clean.  So many things we take for granted in the twenty-first century were new ideas to the Victorians. However, these new ideas still save lives now. It was originally lit by gas lighting and had a glass roof to maximise light. The funds to build the operating theatre came from two Peterborough women who chose to remain anonymous, they went by the name 'Heliotrope'. The Victorian operating theatre is open to visitors to Peterborough Museum. It still contains many of its original features including the glazed white tiles. Replicas of the tools used in the past are also on show. A small case details some of the people who worked in the operating theatre.





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World War 2 In Peterborough

1939 – 1945

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The Town played a vital role with industry, airfields and a major railway centre. The flat landscape meant there were many airfields including RAF Peterborough, Westwood, which was a major RAF training centre. Local people volunteered for Military Service but those in ‘reserved occupations’, (jobs important to the war effort) were not conscripted but often spent their spare time in Civil Defence e.g. Home Guard and Auxiliary Fire Service. Businesses set up their own firewatchers while first-aiders and plane spotters were essential. National Service became compulsory for unmarried women aged between 20 and 30, then up to 50 in 1943, unless they had children under 14. Many joined the various women’s forces and nurses were attached to all the Services. Women worked in factories making war machines, ammunition, clothing or parachutes. Engineering industries such as Perkins Engines and Baker Perkins switched to wartime production supplying engines, guns, torpedoes and manufacturing machinery. Amidst this, dancing at local hotels and cinema-going were popular and there were several cinemas, showing films three times a day.  Foreign servicemen became familiar sights on the street. They included including Americans, French and Poles, many of the latter remaining in the city at the end of the war. Peterborough was not a prime target for bombs, so the city received 1496 London evacuees. Brick air raid shelters were built in the city centre. There were 644 Air Raid Alert warnings and bombs were hitting Bridge Street and the Lido. Raids of high explosive and incendiary bombs continued to 1942. Peterborough Cathedral was hit by incendiary bombs but damage was limited by the quick reaction of the fire-watchers.





Faizan-e-Madinah Mosque

2006

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The Faizan-e-Madinah Mosque was opened in Gladstone Street in 2006. It has a prayer area which accommodates over 2000 people. It has been partitioned to provide a separate dedicated women’s prayer area. There is also a Wudu area on each floor (including shower facilities). As well as prayers and community events the Mosque host Nikah (wedding) services, which are an important element of the Islamic faith. The building contains a library room with English, Arabic and Urdu texts and other meeting rooms. These rooms are used for Islamic and Urdu lessons for children who attend the Mosque. Its 30-metre green dome is thought to be one of the largest in the UK. It was six years in the planning and cost over £2.5m to build, which was raised entirely through donations from the local community. The building regularly welcomes visits from local schools and opens its doors during Heritage Open Day weekends.





Market Makes a Medieval New Town

1143

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King Stephen visited and stayed at the monastery in 1143, granting a market charter. This allowed Abbot Martin de Bec to create a new market area to the west of the monastic precincts. He was then able to bankroll the building of the new monastic church. The monks created new commercial streets around the outside, leading to the first ‘new town’ development in Peterborough and effectively the street plan which still exists as the city centre today. The market square was later infilled with St John's church and the Guildhall or Buttercross. This almost halved the market square, but provided a religious centre for the townspeople.





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The Black Death

1349

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The Black Death (or the Great Pestilence as it was known then) hit Peterborough. This is a terrible disease carried by the fleas on black rats, though at the time it was thought to have been caused by bad air. Approximately a third of the townspeople and 32 of the 64 monks at the monastery perished in a matter of weeks, and many of those who died were buried in mass burial pits to the west of the town, in the burial ground of the leper hospital of St Leonard. A higher proportion of monks died perhaps because they were helping tend to the sick. The plague returned to Peterborough on many occasions causing a great deal of death and suffering until the last outbreak in 1665.





Old Scarlett

1594

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‘Old Scarlett’ was Robert Scarlett, parish sexton and gravedigger throughout the Tudor period. He lived to the prodigious age of 98, dying in 1594, married twice and buried Katharine of Aragon and Mary, Queen of Scots inside the Cathedral. Amongst the hundreds of people that Scarlett buried during his lifetime was one ‘Edward the Foole’, a native of Crowland by birth and former court jester to King Henry VIII, laid to rest here in 1563. As was common practice at the time, and to allow for more burials in an already packed graveyard, the skeleton would have been exhumed some years later and the bones reburied in stacks. The image of an elderly gravedigger exhuming a royal jester’s skull might have stuck in the head of a Peterborough schoolboy, John Fletcher, the son of the then Cathedral Dean. Fletcher went on to become a noted Elizabethan playwright and worked with Shakespeare, even co-writing three plays with him, including the aforementioned ‘Henry VIII’. Is it possible that Fletcher may have suggested this scene to Shakespeare? Unfortunately ‘Hamlet’ was written between 1599 and 1601, and we have no evidence that the two men met until at least five years later, but it’s a tantalising thought nonetheless!





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John Clare, Poet

1793-1864

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John Clare, the poet, was born in Helpston on 13th July 1793 and became one of our leading environmental poets. Despite having had little education he went on to write over 3500 poems. His poems are very descriptive of the wildlife, the people and the way the people lived in the rural 19th century villages. The works were created by a man who lived and worked in that environment and was able to relate to his surroundings. His first book of poems, 'Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery' was published to great acclaim in 1820, he went on to have three more books printed. He left Helpston in 1832 to go to Northborough, from where he went into High Beech mental asylum in Epping in 1837. He walked home, back to Northborough in 1841, taking 4 days. Later in 1841 he was sent to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, now St Andrews, in Northampton. This is where he died in 1864. His body was brought back to Helpston, where he is buried in the churchyard.





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The “Great Drowning” of Thorney Fen

1770

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A large piece of Morton’s Leam, a proctective bank running along the River Nene south of Thorney, gave way leaving a gap 130 yards long and 36 feet deep.  Water rushed into the fen, and all the area for several miles was about six feet deep in water.  People fled for safety to the Abbey Church in Thorney, and also other buildings on the higher ground, and the whole area could not be farmed again until spring 1773.  It is recorded in Fenland Notes and Queries in 1893 by a local farmer, Samuel Egar.