A History of Wisbech

By Tim Lambert

Medieval Wisbech

The town of Wisbech began as a village. Its name may mean the bank (bec) by the marshy meadow (Wisc). By the time of the Domesday Book (1086), Wisbech was a large village. It probably had a population of about 350. By the standards of the time, Wisbech was quite a large village. A typical village had only 100 or 120 inhabitants. In the village of Wisbech, some of the men were fishermen and some were farmers.

In 1069 the Normans built a castle at Wisbech. At first, it was of wood but was later rebuilt in stone. In 1487 it was replaced by a bishop’s palace. (The bishop of Ely was lord of the manor of Wisbech).

In the Middle Ages (probably in the 12th century) a weekly market began in Wisbech. In those days there were few shops and anyone who wanted to buy or sell anything had to go to a market. The Bishop of Ely was the Lord of the Manor of Wisbech and he had the right to charge stallholders tolls. The market was originally held on Old Market, as the name suggests but by the 13th century it had switched to the street named Market Place. Then in 1190 Richard I gave Wisbech a charter, a document granting the townspeople certain rights and in 1392 a grammar school was founded in Wisbech.

Medieval Wisbech was a busy little port. In those days it was only 4 miles from the sea whereas today it is more than 11. However officially Wisbech was part of the port of Lynn. Wisbech had a population of, at most, 1,000 in the Middle Ages so it was a small and relatively unimportant town. Moreover, in 1236 there was a disastrous flood in Wisbech which killed many people.

Wisbech in the 16th century and 17th century

During the 16th century, the population of Wisbech continued to grow slowly. It may have reached 1,500 by 1600. But Wisbech only really began to grow rapidly from the mid-17th century when the Fens were drained.

The newly claimed farmland was very fertile. Agricultural products such as grain, butter, and rapeseed oil were exported from Wisbech to London.

A field of oil seed

In 1549 Wisbech was incorporated. That is, it was given a corporation and a mayor. The corporation could own property, sue people and make by-laws.

However, like all towns in those days, Tudor Wisbech suffered from outbreaks of the plague. There was a severe outbreak of plague in Wisbech in 1587. During the civil war between king and parliament (1642-1646) Wisbech was in the center of the parliamentary area. Although earthwork defenses were built around the town Wisbech escaped fighting. However, in 1655 Wisbech suffered another severe flood.

In the mid-17th century, the Bishop’s palace was replaced by a mansion. A man named Thomas Thurloe built it. He was Oliver Cromwell’s secretary of state.

In 1656 Wisbech gained its first fire engine (a hand-operated pump) and in 1680 the growing port of Wisbech was made a port in its own right separate from Kings Lynn.

Wisbech in the 18th century

By 1700 Wisbech probably had a population of around 2,500. By n1800 it had risen to 4,700. That may seem very small to us but by the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized market town.

Wisbech continued to prosper in this century. Peckover house was built in 1722. It got its name in 1794. In that year it was purchased by a banker named James Peckover. The house was given to the National Trust in 1948.

Thomas Clarkson was born in Wisbech on 28 March 1760. He played a major role in the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Afterwards he campaigned against slavery itself.

In the 18th century, Wisbech became a genteel and prosperous town. It was still a busy port. Grain was exported. There was also a brewing industry. The building that now houses Elgoods Brewery was erected about 1790. A theatre was built in Wisbech in 1793. Today it is the Angles Centre.

Wisbech in the 19th century

In the 19th century life in Wisbech continued to improve (at least for the well-off). An act of parliament of 1810 gave Wisbech corporation powers to pave, clean, and light the streets. Following this act, the town hall was built.

In 1816 a builder named Joseph Medworth built the present ‘castle’ in Wisbech. Then from 1832, the streets of Wisbech were lit by gas.

Leverington Road cemetery was laid out in 1835. It was followed by another cemetery, which was laid out at Mount Pleasant in 1881.

Meanwhile, a museum opened in Wisbech in 1835 and the railway reached Wisbech in 1847.

Like other towns, Wisbech suffered outbreaks of cholera in 1832, 1849, and 1854. After the outbreak in 1854, the corporation began building sewers and created a piped water supply. In 1870 The Park was opened. North Cambridgeshire Hospital opened in 1873. An outpatients department was added in 1904 and a children’s wing was built in 1936.

The Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady and St Borromeo was built in Queens Road in 1854. St Peter and Paul’s Church was restored in 1858 and a clock was added in 1866. St Augustines Church was built in 1869.

A corn exchange where grain could be bought and sold was built in n1858. In 1881 a memorial was erected on Bridge Street to Thomas Clarkson 1760-1846, who was born in Wisbech and fought against slavery. The memorial was designed by the architect Sir Gilbert Scott 1811-1878.

In the first half of the 19th century, the population of Wisbech more than doubled. It reached 10,500 by 1850 but it then leveled off. In the 1830s a new working-class suburb began to grow at New Walsoken. In the 1840’s Ruby Street was built. So were Henry Street and Whitby Street. Both were named after Henry Whitby who owned land in the area.

In the second half of the century, despite the leveling off in the population, new houses were built around Victoria Road. Growth also spread along Lynn Road. Also in the late 19th century Queen Street and the surrounding roads were built. In 1881 a monument was erected to Thomas Clarkson who fought for the abolition of slavery. Meanwhile, the photographer Lillian Ream 1877-1961 was born in Wisbech.

The port of Wisbech continued to prosper. In 1852 new wharves were built by the river. In 1890 the banks of the River Nene were strengthened by piling.

Grain was still exported. Coal and timber were imported. There was also a woodworking industry in Wisbech. The wood was sawed and covered in creosote. Offcuts from the timber industry were used to make baskets for the fruit industry. Other industries in Wisbech in the 19th century were brewing and making farm machinery.

Wisbech in the 20th century

In the 20th century industries in Wisbech included canning, brewing, and light engineering. In 1921 a war memorial was erected in Wisbech. In 1931 a concrete bridge was built over the river. By that year the population of Wisbech had risen to 12,000 and it continued to rise steadily. In the second half of the 20th century, a new suburb grew on Mount Pleasant Bank.

Meanwhile, Wisbech Rugby Club was founded in 1947. Wisbech remained a busy port. However, leisure craft became increasingly important and it is now a popular port for yachts.

A new library was built in Wisbech in 1975. Horse Fair shopping centre was built in 1988. The Octavia Hill Birthplace Museum opened in 1995. It commemorates Octavia Hill 1838-1912 who helped found the National Trust.

Wisbech in the 21st century

In the 21st century, Wisbech continued to thrive. In 2010 Waterlees Park opened. In 2023 the population of Wisbech was 31,000.