Extracts from a lecture delivered by Mr. John Hales

Castor infant school-room 28th April 1883

“Castor, past and present”


….I shall now endeavour to give a few of my recollections of this place during a little over fifty years, commencing with the church and its connection, show the difference of things then and now.


There have been four Rectors, two resident and two non-residents, the latter being Bishops of Peterborough, who were Rectors of the parish up to the year 1851.


I will now describe as well as I can the appearance of the interior of the church at about the time previously stated. In the first place, the North Door was used as well as the South, so you may fancy what a nice draught there was. There was then no inner door where the red door now is but on right hand side as you come in at the South Door the seat had a back to it about six feet high to keep the wind from the ears. The pulpit and reading desk were against the middle pillar, North side of middle aisle and from that to where the reading desk now stands were large high square pews about six feet high; again, where the pulpit stands, also on the greater part of the South Aisle and West End, and under the tower. The place now occupied by the organ was used as a place for a very large plough, also for a bier for carrying the dead and generally for a rubbish heap or place for decaying flags and hassocks; also to work and letter gravestones in. The bodies of strange persons drowned such as Watermen etc, were also deposited here; I have known three persons to be so deposited. I have also seen and heard an inquest held over one of them in the church; it was over a person found drowned in a fish pond opposite the Keeper’s house at the Ferry; this was in April 1840 and the coroner stood in the old writing desk. Most of the windows were plastered up on the bottom part to the height of about two feet. The three circular lights in the top of window under the sundial were plastered up in the same way.


Where the present vestry now stands was held a day and Sunday school, at which I received a greater part of my earlier education. There was a door on the side near the chancel door for entrance from without and another on the inner side where the commandments now stand. These commandments were then placed in the school, between one of the arches. The schoolmaster used to enter the church by this door to ring the treble or smallest bell at nine o’ clock, and at two, to call us scholars together. All the bells were then rung on the ground floor and were very dangerous. Our poor old clergyman once had an idea that he could ring one. There being a tenor raised for a funeral and the clerk being called away, he pulled it off and the consequence was it pulled his watch out of his pocket and smashed it on the slab floor and quite cured him of his ringing mania.


At the West End of the Nave was a large gallery used by the choir, in which I have seen and heard nearly every conceivable instrument except the big drum. I have also heard banns forbidden. Another thing which would seem strange and out of place now was giving notice from the clerk’s desk of any rates there might be laid for the relief of the poor and for the necessary repairs of the highways, and of any meeting the ensuing week for the appointment of “Pinder” and “Mole catcher”, such meeting to be held in the “Royal Oak” The next sentence would probably be “To sing to the Praise and Glory of God”. The said clerk himself frequently forming the whole choir.


Another curious custom I must note, which I have seen practised within the last twenty years, that was for the women to curtsey to the pulpit and the men to stroke their hair straight down their forehead as they came into church. It was also a custom, if a person died at Upton, when they were brought here to be buried, to have all the bells chimed, and if a member belonging to a club died, it was customary for his surviving fellow members to follow him to the grave wearing hat bands and gloves. They were each entitled to a quantum of ale before starting, following which was often a scene better fancied than described. I also remember the first conformation being held in the church. I also very well remember and have rung the pancake bell at 12 o’clock on Shrove Tuesday, when the said pancakes were supposed to have been thrown out of the belfry windows. It must be borne in mind that there were no Chapels in the parish at that time; there was a preaching at a house in each parish at certain times.


Now for the changes and anecdotes and superstitions of the inhabitants. There is not, I believe, a single individual residing as the head of the family. I have known at least three heads of the Milton family, the same of the Stewards and the same at each inn. There is only one house in the two villages that I have not known death in. Now for the superstition. Up to the year 1834 there was living in the village a reputed witch. She died at the age of 82 years. So you may fancy her antiquated appearance; nose and chin nearly meeting and walking with a hooked stick. Whether she had the proverbial black cat I am not able to say but this I do know that we boys of that period treated her with very great respect when and wherever we met her. It was generally believed and currently reported that if certain of the farmers killed a pig and did not send her a fry, the pig would not take the sale; If a cow calved and she did not receive what was usual to send on such occasions, the calf would not do well, and when they brewed their ale and forgot to send her new beer the beer would not keep. (I often find mine will not keep now.)


Education was not so cheap in those days; nothing under sixpence per week at the church school, with books and fireing extra. There were only these, and Dames’ schools, previous to 1829, when the late Lord Fitzwilliam built the present National Schools. Our clergyman and other charitably disposed ladies and gentlemen were in the habit of sending several boys to school and paying all fees, etc. The clergyman used to come at certain times to see what progress they were making and I well remember one word, he would insist upon them spelling, and that was ABEL. He would make them all spell it as follows, “A by the self A; B-E-L, BEL-ABEL”. And if they were not getting on so well as he thought they ought to have done, he would put a high dunce’s cap on them and set them on the top of the tomb, within the rails near the chancel door. Another custom which has not gone out of practice so very long, was with the cows that were about to be grazed on the Common during the Summer. The best jumpers were selected from each farm and at twelve o’ clock on the Eve of Old May Day, were taken to the dyke or drain, at either the “Plash” or the “Brook” which ever field was to be grazed for that season, and a man had the halter, one to each cow on the opposite side of the dyke to the cows, another man stood with a large stick, and at the first stroke of twelve he struck and there was then quite as much excitement as there is at any of our great races, as the first cow over had the greatest prize, vis:- the “Garland”, the second the “Poesy”, and the third the “Whistle Spoon”. On the next evening these several winners paraded the town with their honours on their horns but woe to the last; its honour was not on its horns but on its tail and was called the “Morkin or Dishclout” and was considered a disgrace for that season to the unfortunate lad who tended it.


            Again on the same evening it was customary to place bushes in a conspicuous place at the greater part of the farm houses. I have seen them put down the chimney, the bushy part sticking out of the top. There were three grades of bushes; the first the white thorn, for the prettiest and cleanest damsel; second, the blackthorn for the slattern; the third, for one of loose morals; the division of these favours often causes a fight between the young men of the period. The last old custom was the observance of plough Monday; a bell rope was obtained and sticks knotted in it, and about a score lads with a primitive plough to Milton, where other parishes met them, and a trial of strength was indulged in, but the climax was about one o’ clock when they returned, and Castor and Ailsworth met at the division of the two parishes, and hooked ploughs together to see which were the strongest, the women giving great aid in pulling; this generally wound up with a free fight.


            As to modes of locomotion, postal accommodation and dress, I do not remember ever seeing the ‘pillion’ in use, although I have seen several pillions and can well understand that they were not comfortable as some of the more modern substitutes. I remember the time when nearly the first spring cart was set up, but not with such springs as are now used, but good strong ash springs which would shake you up and let you know they were there. Previous to 1835 the roads to Marholm and Helpston were simply impassable for any vehicles without two horses. Our means of getting to Stamford or Peterborough was either by coach, or what was called a sociable; the former running from Stamford to Wisbech, and the latter from Stamford to Thorney. They both changed horses at the Royal Oak, the other means were by carrier’s cart, of which there was one ‘Leatom’ from Peterborough to Stamford and back on Fridays, and ‘Nutt and Chapman’ from Stamford to Peterborough on Saturday and ‘Blackwells’ from Nassington to Peterborough on a Saturday, the latter generally returning and arriving at Castor about nine o’ clock on Saturday evening. If your business called you to London or the North, you must meet the coach at ‘Kate’s Cabin’ or the ‘blacksmith’s Shop’ at Water Newton. When I was twenty years of age, I had not been twelve miles from home. The chance of migration were very small and expensive, but after the railway was formed, things were very much altered for the better. I well remember when Earl Fitzwilliam removed at certain times from Milton to Wentworth, seeing the large waggons conveying the luggage, and a coach and six horses the servants.


            Then the postal accommodation; the post office at Peterborough was upon my first recollection opposite the “Angel Hotel” in narrow street. We used to get a letter about twice per week, by the errand women at the cost of nine pence each; and if perchance we had one from Wansford it would cost one shilling; if we sent to Peterborough it was a great chance if we got them, they must come by the regular channel, the errand women. A great many poor people took their letters to Milton, and got them franked by Earl Fitzwilliam. It was quite an event at that time to write a letter, no envelope or stamp but sealing wax or water bound up your missive. But in 1840 the penny post came into operation and in 1846 a rural messenger came from Peterborough and set us to rights in this matter.


            Now with regard to dress; there is quite as much alteration in this as in other matters. Fifty years ago you would not see one man in fifty wearing trousers, but small clothes (and most of them leather). No braces but a leather belt, and either gaiters, leggings, or top boots. I have seen more than one clergyman in the pulpit with boots and spurs. The dog hair hat was the principal hat. The ladies have kept quite a pace with us, as at that time the elder, and in many cases the younger women, wore the red or scarlet cloak as their principle or outer garment. The bonnets I can hardly describe better than by saying, the material was straw and the shape or fashion, the largest coal scope you could find. The boys, the veritable gaberdine or smock frock, and also by the man, a white one was considered a Sunday garment. The improvement in the buildings I think show themselves.


            I would now say a few words on the sanitary state of the period. The drains were all open in the streets, and by the ‘Prince of Wales’ up to Mr. Sharp’s was an open drain running from a butcher’s shop; this was all right and proper. On the green in front of Mr. Wootton’s was a large pond generally full of stagnant water but these things no notice were taken of, and people seemed to live as long in those days as now. I have heard it was because there were not so many doctors…..