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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.





Peterborough Under Water

165 million years ago

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Peterborough was much closer to the equator in Jurassic times and a shallow sea covered the area. Together with warmer global temperatures, the local climate would have felt as balmy as the Bahamas. In the 145 million years since the Jurassic Period, the continents have moved hundreds of miles. Ever since the Earth formed, the rocky plates on its surface have moved around very slowly, powered by the heat in the planet’s core. Today, the continents continue to move as they collide and separate very slowly. Peterborough’s Jurassic sea was packed with creatures of all sizes, from microsopic to monstrous. The small fish, ammonites and belemnites feasted on shoals of plankton. They in turn became food for larger creatures. At the top of the food chain were the large ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pliosaurs and crocodiles. The shallow sea supported a huge variety of fish of all sizes and shapes, adapted for life at different depths in the water. Near the surface, shoals of fast-swimming Caturus hunted smaller fish. The vast Leedsichthys – the biggest fish ever known – cruised harmelssly among them, gulping in water and filtering plankton to eat. When these creatures died they sank to the bottom of the sea where some of them became fossilised. Peterborough Museum houses a magnificent collect of these fossils.





The First Farmers of the Neolithic (New Stone Age)

4000 - 2500 BC

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Farming arrived in the Peterborough area around 4000 BC. The first farmers were a mix of in-comers from Europe and local people who had acquired the new skills of agriculture and animal husbandry. They grew wheat, barley and oats and kept cattle, sheep and pigs. Their farms – and several are known - were mostly confined to the east of Peterborough, around Fengate, Whittlesey and Eye. They consisted of small oval houses, within garden-like plots where crops were grown. Animals were kept in larger open areas away from the crops. Pigs would have roamed the woodlands around the farms. They buried their dead beneath mounds, known as barrows, or in open graves. The first farmers introduced pottery-making to Britain and also produced fine flint tools with long, knife-like blades. By 3000 BC they had felled most of the trees that grew in the area and the landscape was dominated by large, open pastures.





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The Iron Age

800 BC- 43AC

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The Iron Age is the last of the Three Ages of British later prehistory. It begins with the arrival of the new metal, iron, around 800 BC and ends with Roman troops landing on the shores of Kent, in AD 43. The Romans gave the British writing and with writing came recorded history – which is why prehistory is said to cease with their arrival. People in Iron Age Britain are sometimes described as Celts and they spoke Celtic languages, which survive today in Breton, Welsh, Gallic (Scotland) and Gaelic (Ireland). The working of iron requires greater control of very high temperatures which led to improvements in pottery firing and less regionalised pottery styles.  The Iron Age saw the  appearance of ditched enclosed farmstead-type settlements as at Itter Crescent, open settlements characterised by roundhouses and pits as at Fengate, and the building of the hillforts like the earthworks at Newborough. Societies were hierarchically organised in this period, having moved from the extended clan to the chiefdoms and the earliest named rulers. These are the tribes the Romans encountered when they came to Britain in the first century. The best known of these rulers was Queen Boudicca of the Iceni tribe/kingdom. She led a popular rebellion against Roman rule, in AD 60-1. Environmentally, the Iron Age sees increased flooding and higher groundwater levels in the fens.





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Must Farm

800 BC

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During the later Bronze age most of the farms and settlements in this area were on the drier, flood-free margins of the wetlands, though a few were constructed over the water on wooden piles. One of these small settlements (of some ten houses) has been found at Must Farm on the western edge of Whittlesey. Around 800 BC the houses caught fire very soon after they were built (whether the fires were accidental or deliberate is still under debate) and the entire platform collapsed into the waters below. Because of the fire and the waterlogged conditions the houses collapsed into, Must Farm is a beautifully preserved  archaeological site; it has been described as the Bronze Age Pompeii as the fantastic amount of finds ( including wood, pots, food, jewellery and even fabric)  have revealed a great deal about Bronze Age life and trade. Near to Must Farm, along the channel the River Nene took in antiquity, archaeologists discovered nine intact Bronze Age log  boats, all fashioned from hollowed-out tree trunks, which were sunk over a period of 600 years. These boats are currently undergoing conservation at Flag Fen, where they are on display.





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When Cow Dung Fuelled the City

1698

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When Celia Fiennes travelled through the city in 1698 she noted that local people near 'Mrs St John's house' (Thorpe Hall) were using cow dung for fuel: 'as I passed the Road I saw upon the walls of the ordinary peoples houses and walls of their out houses, the Cow dung plaister'd up to drie in Cakes which they use for fireing, its a very offensive fewell (fuel), but the Country people use Little Else in these parts.'  Cow dung was a free and effective fuel for the people of rural Peterborough, but the smell would not have been popular! There had been a shortage of wood since the 1550's, so burning cow dung was a sensible alternative for the very poor who were unable to afford expensive wood supplies, or cut down their own wood. Other alternatives for fuel would have included peat, charcoal and coal, none of which were particularly pleasant on the eyes or lungs. Animal dung has been used as a fuel since prehistoric times, with evidence from the Ancient Egyptians using dung as fuel and even references to it being used in the bible. Many areas of the world use animal dung as fuel.





Abbot Sexwolf, the First Abbot of Medehamstede

655

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The first abbey in Medehamstede, now Peterborough, was built around 655. The abbey was founded by King Peada, who also employed the first abbot. The abbot's name has been spelt in a variety of formats including Saxulf, Sexulf, Saxwulf, Seaxwolf and Sexwolf. There are also many different accounts of how he lived his life. Sexwulf was much celebrated in Medehamstede in the past, although the name has now been all but forgotten. He is said to have been wealthy, well-liked and had many connections amongst the elite of the Saxon community. These connections enabled him to convert many others to Christianity and he was rewarded for his hard work by becoming a bishop. He is also credited with establishing the first community in what is now Thorney. A small anchorage was created on Thorney island by him when he was gifted the land, known then as Ancarig. (1)
Citation
(1)'Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Thorney', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 2, ed. L F Salzman (London, 1948), pp. 210-217. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol2/pp210-217 [accessed 14 June 2018].





Pennies For a Puppet Show

1628

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The account books of the Peterborough Feoffees declare all of the money received and paid out by the administration. Most of the accounts refer to rent collection and payments to the ill and poverty-stricken. However, some of the details tell us about Stuart hospitality and even entertainment. 1628 a payment was made to 'Mr Joanes the player, for sheweinge of his puppites, and for sheweinge tricks in our common hall.' (1) Translated: 'Mr Jones the player, for showing of his puppets and for showing tricks in our common hall.' He was paid the princely sum of 12 pence, which was around half a days wages for a skilled labourer. The account had been included been October and December, so it was possibly a Christmas treat. Glove puppets and shadow puppets were very popular at the time. We can only guess as to the tricks played by Mr Joanes. Did he actually perform at Halloween and is the first refence to trick or treating in the city? A player was a term used in the past to mean actor. The 'common hall' referred to is very likely to be the Moot Hall, an arcaded wooden building which stood where Miss Pears Almshouses were built. The building was well-positioned on the corner of Cumbergate and Exchange Street and overlooking the market.
References
(1) W.T. Mellows (ed), Minutes and Accounts of the Feoffees and Governors of the City Lands, with Supplementary Documents, Northamptonshire Record Society, 1937, p48





Wothorpe Priory: Nuns on a Hill

1349

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Wothorpe Priory was situated in Wothorpe near to Stamford. It was home to a small group of nuns who lived in what is now, the highest point of the Soke of Peterborough. Records show that the priory existed in the thirteenth and fourteenth century, but the Black Death of 1349 spelt the end of the priory. All of the nuns had either died or moved away, leaving the priory in dire straights. So in 1353-4 the priory, with only one remaining nun named Agnes Bowes, was united with St. Michael's nunnery of Stamford. The land was given to Richard Cecil of Burghley House during the reformation. His grandson Thomas Cecil later built Wothorpe Towers upon the land. Considerable features remain in the surrounding fields which may be buildings from the priory, but the area is scheduled and in private hands. Reference: 'Houses of Benedictine nuns: The priory of Wothorpe', in A History of the County of Northampton: Volume 2, ed. R M Serjeantson and W R D Adkins (London, 1906), p. 101. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/northants/vol2/p101 [accessed 14 November 2018].