Village History

In Roman and Saxon times the two Hemingfords were part of one estate. The name means "the ford of the people of Hemma or Hemmi", presumably a Saxon chief. In the ninth century the estate was split into two and the Danes built a new settlement at the Thorpe in the eastern part of the old estate. By 1066 Little Hemingford, or Hemingford by St Ives, was acquired by Ramsey Abbey, the major landowner in the area.

Payn of Hemingford, a tenant of the abbey, started building the Manor House before he died in 1166. It is one of the oldest inhabited buildings in the country. It was originally a stone hall with external staircase to the first floor and cellars underneath. The Norman windows can still be seen on the south and west side of the house. It was extended in later years, and is still surrounded by a moat on three sides. Payn also started the parish church. This has been enlarged and altered over the centuries but parts of the medieval building have survived in the nave and south aisle. The highly unusual tower is not the original which collapsed in the middle ages. A new tower was built topped with a spire. In the 18th century it was destroyed by a hurricane. This time the base of the spire was levelled off and eight ball finials placed on the angles.

The manor house, with its outbuildings and land, was close to the river. To the south was the original Danish settlement in the Thorpe, each house having its own area of private land called a croft. To the north-east lay the church. In between the manor house and the church was the green. All that is left of the green today is a widening of the road in front of Apex House, where the stocks, a pillory and whipping post were once set up. The peasants who farmed the open fields had their crofts south of the High Street. There were also two water mills.

In 1276 the village acquired its modern name from the de Grey family, the new owners of the manor. But in the 15th century, George Grey, 3rd Earl of Kent, got into financial troubles. As he was unable to pay his debts Henry VII seized the manor and leased it to various nobles, amongst whom was the great-grandfather of Oliver Cromwell. By the seventeenth century the manor was owned by the Newmans part owners of Hemingford Abbots. In 1704 it was sold to Cornelius Denne, a merchant in St Ives and Bedfordshire. But when he also got into debt it passed to James Mitchell of Fowlmere and his descendants. The much enlarged manor house was rented by a relative John Gunning whose two daughters were baptised in the parish church. The Gunning girls became famous society beauties who made prestigious marriages. Mary married the Earl of Coventry and Elizabeth the Duke of Hamilton. Although Elizabeth was widowed at 24, she later married the Duke of Argyll and had quite an adventurous life.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Ouse was blocked by weirs and overgrown by weeds. There had been frequent complaints over the centuries, particularly from citizens of Huntingdon, that the millers at Hemingford had diverted the water preventing the passage of their boats upriver. At one stage travel was almost impossible between Ely and Huntingdon. By 1625 the river was cleared as far as St Neots and later to Bedford. The village became a convenient stopping place for horse drawn barges taking coal to Bedford or corn to Kings Lynn. Pubs like the Anchor in Church Street were rebuilt as substantial buildings. Even in the nineteenth century there were at least six pubs in the village.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw great changes in the village. There had been a parish workhouse in the High Street. It was made redundant when the large St Ives Union Workhouse was built on the edge of the village to house paupers from the whole district as well as from Hemingford Grey. A Church School was built at a grand cost of £387. There was a smaller one for children who lived at the other end of the village. Eventually they were both closed and replaced by the present school. The Reading Room was built to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. It became an important asset to the village when wages were low but interest in new ideas and science high. Close by is a private house converted from the old Congregational Chapel which was forced to shut when the small congregation could no longer afford to repair the building. The surviving windmill was built in 1820. It was the last working mill in the county.

By this time a new community had grown up in the area around London Road and Victoria Terrace. As these houses had easy access to St Ives they seemed like a suburb of the town. Many of the men worked on the river or later on the railway, others in the basket making industry in Filbert's Walk. But these houses suffered badly from floods and when the industry contracted the people moved elsewhere and in 1947 the condemned houses on the Walk were pulled down.

The light in the Ouse valley has attracted many artists. The Fraser brothers who did watercolour paintings of the area rented the manor house and Dendy Sadler lived in the 18th century house called Riverview. He used local people as models and included his own front hall in one of his paintings. At first he worked in a studio on the first floor of the old boathouse where he painted his famous pictures called Thursday and Friday. Later he built his own studio. Visitors who came to the village to hire boats from Mr Jack Giddins could then take tea in the upstairs rooms in the boathouse.

The Second World War brought many young men to the base at Wyton. Lucy Boston, the children's writer, had bought the manor house in 1939. She wanted to help the airmen. Before they left on their dangerous missions, from which many did not return, she entertained them at the manor house with recordings of classical music. In the long winter evenings she stitched her beautiful patchwork quilts and planned the restoration of the house and gardens.

Since the Second World War Hemingford Grey has increased greatly in size with many new roads and houses. However, it retains the feel of the original village and people enjoy living in a village famous for its manor house, its river and close connection with St Ives. They can join with an older writer who said of Hemingford Grey "that the delicate loveliness of England is seen here at its best".


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