Episode 26 – Abbots Ripton, Cambridgeshire

We return this week to Huntingdonshire and the village of Abbots Ripton, which is just a few miles north of Huntingdon and very close to Abbotsley. This is a typical English village with a shop and post office, a pub, and a Church of England school.

“Ripton” comes from “Rip” meaning a strip of land, and “Tone” meaning settlement. And just as with Abbots Morton, the “Abbot” part signifies religious ownership – in this case, Ramsey Abbey. Nearby is King’s Ripton, so-called because that was owned by the crown.

In the 10th Century Ramsey Abbey was founded by a man called Aylwin. Ripton was granted to the new abbey by his brother, Earl Alfwold, subject to the approval of his wife Alfild. It seems such a small thing to mention, but offers a glimpse into women’s rights before the Norman Conquest. The land was confirmed to the abbey in a 974 charter by King Edgar.

In 1086, the Domesday Survey showed that it was a decent-size place with 34 households most of whom were freemen, and it also provided a good tax income. The abbey’s ownership of the land was set in writing, and we can see from records at the time of the dissolution that it made money through timber woods.

In the 12th Century Ripton was known by many names including “Magna Ripton” (Great Ripton) and “Ripton Abbatis”. It was the second one that stuck, soon becoming the Abbots Ripton we are familiar with today.

A family took up residence at Ripton Manor, living there freely on the basis of providing military service to the abbey. They used the village name as their family name, and there are records of “de Riptons” living in the area all the way through the 14th Century.

But all too soon it would be over. The European religious revolution combined with Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce, and Ramsey Abbey was dissolved in 1539. Two years later, in 1541, it would be purchased by John St John (pronounced ‘sinjun’), whom we met at Abbotsley as Nicholas Luke’s father-in-law.

John St John was born around the start of Henry VIII’s reign, in 1495. The family seat was Bletsoe, in Bedfordshire, but they also had some land in Wiltshire. His family was connected to the Royal Family, and he might have been raised by Margaret Beaufort, Henry VIII’s grandmother, who died in 1509.

He soon became a member of the court, and in 1521 was part of a large group of gentlemen who accompanied Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to the Calais Conference. The conference attempted to bring peace between France and England, but it failed. In November of that year Wolsey signed a treaty committing England to declare war on France before March 1523.

That same year John married Margaret Waldegrave, and his father would grant them several key manors for their residences including Bletsoe.

He was knighted by 1526, was sheriff of Bedfordshire on several occasions, and also represented Bedfordshire in parliament. Besides that he was also a soldier and took part in action both in Britain and abroad.

After the dissolution, he obtained several manors including Abbots Ripton. However, it seems his new tenants were not well-treated, and John would subject them to high rents. Out of their anger they cut down the timber woods, causing the land value to fall.

In 1543 John would grant the village to his son Oliver, born around 1522. Oliver would inherit from his father in 1558, and then be made the first Baron St John of Bletsoe in 1559.

Eventually the land would pass down through the St Johns to Oliver St John, Earl of Bolingbroke. Oliver, like his distant relative Oliver Luke of Abbotsley, was one of those who refused to pay the Forced Loan. He would have been firmly on the Parliamentarian side, and helped raise a militia to protect Bedfordshire as the Civil War was kicking off.

But the most interesting part of Oliver St John’s life happened after he sold Abbots Ripton to Hugh Awdley (or Audley) in 1640, and so… I will be leaving it for another day when I can do the subject justice.

The Jacobites

Hugh was a property magnate and moneylender, the subject of a pamphlet published after his death in 1662 “The way to be rich, according to the practice of the great Audley who begun with two hundred pound in the year 1605, and dyed worth four hundred thousand pound this instant November, 1662.” If he was really worth £400,000 in 1662, that would be over £67 million today.

Since he had no children of his own, his estates were split between his great-nephews Nicholas and Thomas. Abbots Ripton was no exception, and became two ‘moieties’ (or portions). Nicholas’s son Hugh inherited half of the manor in 1679, while Thomas’s daughter Susan inherited the other half when she married Sir Charles Caesar. A short while later the moieties were re-united under the Caesar family.

Charles’s unusual surname comes from the family’s Italian heritage. Cesare Adelmare, an Italian doctor, had come to Tudor England around 1550 and been a medical advisor to Queens Mary and Elizabeth. He named his son Julius, and they took ‘Caesar’ as their surname. So Julius Caesar. They purchased Benington in Hertfordshire, which became the family home.

Susan and Charles named their eldest son Charles. The younger Charles Caesar was an interesting figure in the Jacobite cause, so for those of you who aren’t familiar, here’s a summary of the situation.

Charles II had been restored to the English and Scottish thrones in 1660, and his brother James VII of Scotland and II of England succeeded him in 1685. But the mainly-Protestant political leaders in Britain did not like their new monarch. After all, he was pro-Catholic, pro-French, and wanted to return to the absolute monarchy of the past. There were rebellions in both England and Scotland against him.

Still, James’s daughter and heir Mary was a Protestant, and married to William of Orange, ruler of the Netherlands. They might be able to put up with James knowing that there would be a Protestant ruler after him. Except that in 1688 James’s wife Mary gave birth to a son, James. A potential Catholic heir.

During this period, the king had been issuing declarations that negated the effects of laws punishing Catholics and Protestant Dissenters (i.e. Protestants who didn’t to be a part of the state church). Which in itself doesn’t sound like such a bad move. On one occasion he spoke at Chester saying “suppose… there should be a law made that all black men should be imprisoned, it would be unreasonable and we had as little reason to quarrel with other men for being of different [religious] opinions as for being of different complexions.”

But this was too much for the Protestant nobles, who believed firmly in the Church of England and considered Catholics and dissenters to be heretics. The Church of England was the state church, which meant the state had to enforce the church’s belief in punishment of heresy. And to be honest a lot of the population agreed with this. Supporting heresy (as they saw it) on top of the threat of absolute monarchy and the French support was too much. They wrote to William of Orange asking him to invade England and become king.

William showed up in England in November 1688, and James sent an army to fight him. But immediately a large number of officers defected, and so did James’s other daughter Anne. James had no choice and fled to France. William became king of England, ruling alongside his wife Mary since she held the line of inheritance.

There were still many in England and Scotland who supported James and his heirs, and they became known as Jacobites. In particular, one group of MPs who called themselves ‘Tories’ were quite often Jacobites, but they had to keep their affiliation secret otherwise it would be considered treason.

As we continue into the 18th Century, I would encourage you to look back at Abbots Leigh, where we have already seen some of the goings-on with the Whig party. At the same time that John Trenchard was writing Whig pamphlets, Charles Caesar became a Tory member of parliament for Hertford. His supporter base was boosted by the Quakers, who also supported James due to his calls for religious tolerance.

Outside of the Jacobite cause Tories also supported lowering taxes, but opposed standing armies and expanding the Empire.

The same year Charles was elected, 1701, James VII and II died. Jacobite support was now directed to his son James, whom they considered to be king in exile. There was a huge amount of effort put into restoring him to the throne.

In 1702 William III died, and Princess Anne became Queen of England. In 1707 the Act of Union was put in place, creating the United Kingdom. Anne died in 1714, and her second cousin George (whose great-grandfather was James VI and I) became King George I. The Hanoverian dynasty had begun.

Charles remained an MP throughout this time, but he made a mistake in 1715 that would cost his seat (for a short time, anyway). He spoke up in parliament against increasing the Civil List (the monarch’s expenses) to £700,000. A petition was raised against him and he was ousted from his seat at Hertford.

In the same year, the Jacobites rose up in rebellion against George in order to get James on the throne. There was some success in the Jacobite heartlands of northern Scotland, but eventually the British army would suppress the rebellion. James himself had thought the ‘fifteen’ would be a success, and had landed in Scotland, but seeing the tide of the battle he quickly fled back to France.

Charles became a key figure in the Jacobite cause in England, carrying messages for several people and also leading negotiations with one of James’s foreign supporters – Sweden. The 1715 uprising had show that British efforts alone would not be enough to restore James.

At the start of 1717, Charles was arrested. The Swedish ambassador was with him at the time, and was also taken. But a Jacobite supporter reported that he would be safe.

“Our plot is at present at a stand. Nothing material is found amongst Mr. Caesar’s papers, and he is out on bail [for £10,000] … There is not anything either amongst the Swedish minister’s papers that affects, or so much as names any British man whatsoever.”

Charles was later released, and the Swedish plot continued until the death of the Swedish king in 1719. The Spanish also supported the Jacobites but when an expedition failed they backed out.

He wrote a letter to James reaffirming the worry about just relying on local support.

“Such a project … had never entered into the Earl of Oxford’s thought or mine. We have been both, ever since the last unfortunate affair here, firmly of opinion that nothing could be attempted with any prospect of success without foreign assistance.”

Then the South Sea Company collapsed. The shockwaves rippled throughout Britain. Charles had been one of the investors who lost out when the bubble burst, but it was good news for the Tories. The Whigs were in a bad way, and the Tories were in prime position to take advantage. They could do pretty much anything. Well, except bring back James as king; that was still treason.

In 1722 there was a hard-fought general election, and the Jacobites decided this would be a great time to cause some trouble. It was led by some important Tories, including Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester. The plan was to take control of the Tower of London, Bank of England and the Exchequer. But the Atterbury Plot was found out, and several important Jacobite figures were thrown out of the country.

This did not include Charles, who seems to have avoided being implicated. He took control of James’s affairs in the United Kingdom, making sure that all their agents in the country got paid. The agents seemed to really appreciate him.

Over the following years there would be more attempts to raise foreign support for James. He and Charles would correspond regularly, with Charles keeping him up to date on how the British felt about the Jacobite cause.

But slowly he began to back away from direct involvement, and the correspondence dwindled. He was getting older now, and has some issues with money. The other Jacobites began to look at him suspiciously, wondering if he still supported the cause.

Charles was deselected as an MP in 1734. MPs had immunity from being charged for a lot of crimes, but now he was no longer in parliament. At the time, people who owed a lot of money would be put into jail, and so there he went for two years.

In 1736, his friends helped him get back into parliament through a by-election, and since he was now an MP again he was released from jail. He died in 1741, prior to the last attempt at a Jacobite uprising in 1745. The attempt failed, and thousands of Highland Scots were slaughtered on the battleground at Culloden Moor.

Charles’s financial situation meant his son Julius inherited a big problem. Julius Caesar sold Abbots Ripton, and some of the land went to Hugh Audley’s descendants from another line. The main part of the land, however, went to William Henry Fellowes. The manor continued down these family lines, and in the 1850s the De Ramseys (William’s descendants) took full ownership of the hall which they still have up to the current day.

The Railway

In the Victorian era, the Great Northern Railway Line was set up, going all the way from London to York and passing by the village of Abbots Ripton. This became one section of the East Coast Main Line, which even today carries trains north from London.

The London to Edinburgh train route has today been going for well over a hundred years, and back in January 1876 the Special Scotch Express (later known as the ‘Flying Scotsman’) was on its way down south from Scotland. At the same time, a much slower coal train was leaving Peterborough also headed south.

The weather was terrible. The Huntingdonshire area was suffering from a blizzard. Even so the trains headed out, but the coal train was delayed. It would need to move out of the way earlier than usual so that the Flying Scotsman could pass.

The signalman at Holme, realising that the trains were too close together, put the signal there to ‘danger’ so that the coal train would stop and could be shunted out of the way. But it seems the snow had weighed down the bar that switched the signal, so the coal train missed the message. It kept going.

Instead the coal train moved on to Abbots Ripton, its usual stopping place. It began being shunted off the main line. But the Flying Scotsman was getting closer and closer.

Without warning, the Edinburgh to London train came out of the snow and smashed into the side of the coal train. It was going top speed: 40-45 miles an hour. The engine (the front part that powered the train) came off the line, went over the northbound lane to the right, and ended up lying on its side next to the track. Behind, the tender (which held the coal) and two passenger carriages had ended up on the northbound line.

The train guards immediately set out to put danger flares on the track. The southbound Manchester Express saw the signals and stopped on time. A coal train that had a small load and was able to go south towards Huntingdon headed out to warn approaching trains.

The signalman at Abbots Ripton put the danger signals up. He should have sent an immediate warning message to the next signal box at Stukeley, but perhaps he was a bit shaken up. Instead he went straight to trying to contact Huntingdon Station, sending an ‘SP’ priority code, but they didn’t respond. The stationmaster ignored the severity of the message because no time code was included. Instead he sent back code ‘MQ’ – I’m busy. He was busy, sending on the Leeds train up the line.

Only after he’d tried and failed with Huntingdon for eight minutes did the Abbots Ripton signalman send the warning code to Stukeley.

It was too late. The code arrived right as the Leeds express train was rushing past the signal. Further signals also showed ‘all clear’, and the train only saw the red warning flares when they were almost on top of the accident.

They slammed on the brakes, reversed the engine, tried with all their might to stop the inevitable.

The Leeds train smashed into the wreckage of the Flying Scotsman’s tender and passenger carriages. There were people still inside, and this second collision is thought to have caused most of the thirteen deaths and fifty-three injuries that followed.

Over the next month an inquiry was held, and many members of the Great Northern Railway Company were interviewed to determine how and why the accident had happened.

First, the heavy snow piling up on the signals had caused them to be weighed down so the red ‘danger’ lens cover could not be moved over the white ‘all-clear’ light.

Second, there was a practice to leave signal lights in the ‘all clear’ position instead of in the ‘danger’ position. This meant that the signals did not often change to ‘danger’ so if there was a problem with the signal it might get missed.

Third, several individuals failed in their duties. Some didn’t properly check the signals were working, and the Huntingdon stationmaster had not answered the message from Abbots Ripton.

Following the incident, several changes were made to ensure such a thing would not happen again.

A new mechanism was implemented on the signal switching devices so that snow would not have an impact when changing from ‘all clear’ to ‘danger’. The practice of keeping signals in ‘danger’ when no train was passing through was put in place, and is used to this day. The ‘all clear’ signal was changed from a white light to a green light, so that if the ‘danger’ lens cover got broken it would not give a false ‘all clear’ message. In addition, continuous brakes became the norm on all passenger trains.

Modern Abbots Ripton became a part of Cambridgeshire in the 1970s, and there are around 300 residents.

Next time, we take our first visit to my home county of Warwickshire, and the village of Abbots Salford. Abbots Salford is just a few miles away from Abberton and Abbots Morton, and like Abbots Morton is connected to the Abbey of Evesham.



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