A History of Peterborough

By Tim Lambert

Saxon Peterborough

Peterborough began as a Saxon settlement. The Saxons built a village on the site of Peterborough called Medehamstede (meadow homestead). About 655 an abbey was built next to it. However, this abbey was plundered by the Danes in 870 and was then abandoned.

A new abbey was built in 972 and a village grew up nearby. About 1000 AD a wall was built around the settlement to protect it from marauding Danes. It was called St Peters burgh. (Burgh was the Saxon word for a fortified settlement). The Abbot allowed the people of the nearby village to have a market. Soon Peterborough grew into a small town, in the shadow of the abbey.

In 1070 an army of Danes and some Saxons attempted to overthrow William the Conqueror. They sacked the abbey at Peterborough and burned the town. However, Peterborough soon recovered from the disaster and was rebuilt.

Peterborough in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages Peterborough was a small and relatively unimportant town controlled by the Abbot. The original town stood east of the abbey.

In 1116 the abbey was destroyed by fire. A new abbey was built after 1118 and the Abbot moved the town to the west of it. He laid out a new marketplace and new streets were built around it. The streets in Peterborough ending in gate (Cowgate, Priestgate, etc) are derived from the Danish word meaning street, gata.

In Medieval Peterborough, the main industry was weaving wool. Apart from the markets from the late 12th century the town also had an annual fair. In the Middle Ages, a fair was like a market but it was held only once a year for a period of a few days and it would attract buyers and sellers from several counties. From the mid-15th century, Peterborough had 2 fairs.

In the early 12th century a leper hospital was built just outside Peterborough. Longthorpe Tower was built about 1300. The first wooden bridge over the river at Peterborough was built in 1308. It replaced a ford. Then the Church of St John the Baptist was built in 1407.

Peterborough in the 16th century and 17th century

Henry VIII closed all the monasteries and abbeys in England. Peterborough Abbey was closed in 1539. However, in 1541 the abbey church was made a cathedral. Also in 1541, a school called the Kings School was founded.

Peterborough was now officially a city but it was a very small one even by the standards of the time. It may have had a population of about 1,500. By the late 17th century the population had probably grown to around 2,000.

The main industry in Peterborough was still wool manufacture. But there was also some malting and from the 17th century clay pipes were made in the town.

Like all towns in those days, Peterborough suffered outbreaks of plague. It struck in 1574, 1607, 1625, and 1665-67. Each time a significant part of the population died but Peterborough always recovered.

Mary Queen of Scots was buried in Peterborough Cathedral after her execution in 1587.

In 1643 during the civil war, parliamentarian soldiers desecrated Peterborough Cathedral. They disapproved of images in churches and so they destroyed paintings and stone carvings. However, the Old Guildhall was built in 1671.

Peterborough in the 18th century

18th century Peterborough remained a very small market town. It was a focal point for the surrounding villages. It had no industries of any importance. It was the smallest city in England with a population of around 2,500-3,000. By 1801 the population of Peterborough had reached about 3,500.

In the late 18th century Peterborough began to grow quite rapidly. The Napoleonic wars brought prosperity (there was a big demand for the town’s goods). Furthermore, 10,000 French prisoners of war were held in camps at Norman Cross.

In 1774 the first theatre was built in Peterborough. The Custom House was built in 1790. Also in 1790 an act of Parliament created a body of men called the Improvement Commissioners who were responsible for paving, cleaning, and lighting the streets of Peterborough. (From 1795 the streets were lit with oil lamps).

Peterborough in the 19th century

The population of Peterborough continued to rise rapidly in the 19th century. By 1851 it was approaching 9,000. By 1871 it had passed 17,000.

Conditions in Peterborough improved during the 19th century. In 1821 an infirmary was built in the town and in 1830 Peterborough gained gas street lighting. In 1846 a corn exchange where grain could be bought and sold was built. St Peters Training College was built in 1856.

New industries appeared in Peterborough in the 19th century. An iron foundry opened in 1830. In the late 19th century there was an elastic webbing industry. Another important industry was brickmaking. On the other hand, the old industry of clay pipe-making died out by the end of the century.

The railway reached Peterborough in 1845. The railway led to a rapid increase in the population of the town. Then in 1874, Peterborough was given a corporation. They set about creating a piped water supply and laying down sewers. By 1880 both were complete. The first public library in Peterborough opened in 1892.

Peterborough in the 20th century

By 1901 the population of Peterborough stood at around 30,000. During the 20th century conditions in Peterborough improved. In 1900 it gained an electricity supply. Feoffee almshouses were built in Cumbergate in 1903 and between 1903 and 1930 electric trams ran through the streets of Peterborough. The first cinema in Peterborough opened in 1911. In the 1920s the first council houses were built in Peterborough.

In 1928 a War Memorial Hospital was built in Peterborough. The City Museum opened in 1929 and a new Town Hall was built in 1933.

A new bridge over the Nene was built in 1934. A public swimming pool opened in 1938. n In the early 20th century industries in Peterborough included corset making and tool making.

The fate of Peterborough was changed forever in 1967 when it was decided to make it a new town. At that time it had a population of about 80,000. It was decided to double this to about 160,000. In 1968 a Development Corporation was formed. Building began in 1970 at Peterborough grew rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s as new suburban areas were built at Bretton and Orton. At present, a fourth area is being built at Hampton south of the city. In 1969 a new District Hospital opened in Peterborough incorporating the old War Memorial Hospital. The Key Theatre was built in 1973.

Three new shopping centres opened in Peterborough in the late 20th century. Hereward Cross Centre opened in 1964. The Queensgate Centre opened in 1982. The Rivergate Centre opened in 1989.

In the late 20th century industries in Peterborough included brick and tile making, farm machinery, diesel engines, and electrical equipment.

Peterborough in the 21st century

Today Peterborough is a thriving city and it’s growing rapidly. University Centre Peterborough opened in 2009. Angela Ruskin University opened in 2022.

Peterborough Cathedral
Peterborough Cathedral

In 2023 the population of Peterborough was 215,000.