Toft, Cambridge

Toft History

This text is abridged from a booklet produced by Alexander Jeffries, a former resident of Toft and Richard Howard. The text was originally produced in 1973 - it is hoped that at some point it will be updated.

First beginnings

It is believed that the village of Toft began in the troubled days when the Danes and English struggled for the possession of Eastern England (c. 750/950 A.D.).

By 1066, Toft had become a more settled community, with trees cleared and nearly the whole of the area that comprises the current parish brought under cultivation. Just prior to the Norman Conquerors taking over the lordship of the land, the Toft fields were divided between the Abbot of Ely, the King and a mysterious lady called Eddeva.

The Normans take over - 1066

By 1086 (the time of the Domesday Book) there had been great changes in Toft. Eddeva's land had gone to Count Alan of Brittany, though he gave the titles to Swavesey. Ely still managed to hold on to most of its lands, though some went to the Norman, Picot who was the Lord of Bourn, and some to the King's Baker, in exchange for one simnel cake!

Bishopric of Ely

In 1109 A.D. Ely became a bishopric, and Toft and the neighbouring villages were passed by Charter to Ely.

At that time, it is estimated that just under two hundred people lived in Toft (approx 193 estimated from Domesday Book). Amongst these were two men who held 'Knight's fees' (i.e. they must supply a horse-soldier, fully armed, to their Lord), seven or eight other fairly substantial people (sokemen), the majority of the rest were serfs, tied to the soil, and, at the bottom there were a few slaves. Overseeing all these were those who held the land direct from the King, known as 'tenants-in-chief' - the Abbot of Ely held the greater part, Picot, Count Alan of Brittany and Erchanger, the King's Baker, held most of the rest.

A century of stability followed, with no great changes taking place in Toft. The family of Nevill acquired Count Alan's land, and a family called de Beche, one of whom, Evrard de Beche, gave his name to Papworth Everard gained a considerable holding.

Later, the name of Avenel appears, but the most remarkable thing was that the priories of Barnwell and Swaffham joined Swavesey and Ely as holders of Toft land. As a result a good deal of the village was in the hands of the Church.

The first church

It is impossible to determine exactly when the first church was built. The first certain knowledge was in the year 1278, when Pope Nicholas III, who was rebuilding the papal palaces in Rome at great expense, levied a general tax on churches, and Toft was valued at £8.

At this time a list was made of the treasures of the Toft Church, which was kept and added to from time to time. From this it is possible to infer that quite a well appointed church existed. It is likely that the church was built of wood.

The Rectory

The first known Rector of Toft Church was John de Merton in 1349. Three years later, the Bishop of Ely, Thomas de Insula, consecrated the Church and the surrounding graveyard. It is believed that it was following this, that the first permanent stone church was constructed, taking a shape which, with small modifications and through many rebuildings, it has kept ever since.

The Black Death

The permanent church began during a period of great distress - the terrible plague, known as the Black Death, was raging throughout Europe and the UK. Toft was hard hit by the plague, with the death of seven of the thirteen tenants who lived in Toft. It is also estimated that the population fell from 174 in 1327 (determined from Subsidy Roll) to 101 in 1377 (determined from a poll tax return).

In 1381 the famous 'Peasants' Revolt' took place, with disturbances coming as close to Toft as Eversden. However, Toft itself is not recorded as having any incidents. This apparent peacefulness and other indications lead to the depressing conclusion that there was little life left in Toft at this time! The land, however, was there to be cultivated, and the village subsequently revived. There is however, little to record.

The fifteenth century has sometimes been called the 'Golden Age of the Peasantry'. It is probable that in spite of the huge political upheavals of the Wars of the Roses, the ordinary man was able to live out his life and go about his business with little disturbance, provided that no warring army came his immediate way.

The Reformation

Then came the shattering events connected with the reign of Henry VIII. The dispute with Rome came immediately from the King's private affairs, but the whole English Reformation was a movement that arose from the very roots of English society.

Religious controversies arose that caused happenings even in so small a community as Toft. There was an all-out assault on the enormous wealth of the Church, with Priories and Abbeys being driven into ruin. Their great lands passed into the ready hands of laymen – although a life of toil remained a life of toil.

The new protestant beliefs that came over from France and Germany soon made inroads into practices, beliefs and rituals of humble village churches. It is not possible to give any precise dates for this, but the next hundred years or so were to be full of controversy in Toft.

The robbing of the church's wealth only sustained the government of the extravagant King for a few yews, with Henry VIII, dying in debt.

The government under Edward VI continued the spoliation. In 1552 Commissioners came to Toft to take away 'surplus church goods', only to find that there really weren't any. The few poor treasures of the church were necessary for the carrying on of normal services, so the royal agents went away empty-handed.

Religious controversy

In 1638, Matthew Wren, Bishop of Ely, visited the church and found many 'irregularities' - the rector, Mr. Downhall, being branded as very neglectful. Mr. Downhall was finally ejected in 1644 - he had evidently not become any more conscientious.

In this time of controversy, Toft Church was visited by John Layer. He left a detailed record of the windows, chapels and memorials that he found in the church - there is no means of judging how beautiful these were, but, from his description, one gets an impression of a colourful church with stained glass windows and brass memorials.

The great destruction

Within a few years of Layer's visit came destruction in the form of Dowsing, the iconoclast. After the execution of Charles I (in 1649), when Puritanism rode high, the reforming Bishop of Ely sent William Dowsing to root out all objects of superstition in the churches of the diocese. His progress left behind it a trail of desolation across the area.

Dowsing reported on his visit to Toft that “We destroyed twenty seven superstitious pictures in the windows, ten others in stone and three brass inscriptions.” He further advised that he ordered a cross to be taken from the steeple, and a bell to be removed. It is also believed that he broke up and destroyed a particularly beautiful reredos in carved alabaster, the product of Norwich craftsmen. The remaining figures, which are mostly fragments of the whole, have been rescued and now stand in a niche in the south wall of the church.

Controversy continues

When, in 1660, the King regained control, there was a strong reaction in governing circles against puritan ideals, although many of the population retained sympathy for the puritan views. This was compounded by the Quaker, George Fox, who preached that 'steeple houses' were irrelevant to religion.

During this time John Bunyan, visited Toft - his 'Pilgrim's Progress' circulated all over the protestant world in Europe and America, and became the book above all others, apart from the Bible, read and prized by the poorer folk of England.

In this atmosphere the church at Toft fell into utter neglect. By 1685 when the Archdeacon of Ely came to Toft, he was horrified at what he found. He reported that the church was mined, desecrated, dirty and utterly neglected. His account details the level of destruction, ranging from rain coming into a side chapel so that the walls were rotted, cracks in the walls, doves nesting in the church and it generally being used as a building store – full of bricks and stones and covered in dust. He also reported that the parsonage house was well built but also extremely neglected. Finally, he reported that the village was poor and small and there were no gentry living in it.

It is known that this situation was remedied through the visits of Francis Blomfield (c. 1729) and William Cole in 1743. Cole's description of the church is extremely interesting, and included a sketch of the church as seen when approached from the south side. Though he found the inscriptions to be undecipherable and the brasses gone, it is clear that a great deal of restoration had been done.

Metcalf and the Eversdens

In 1715, Thomas Metcalf was appointed by Christ's College to the Rectory of Toft. In the same year the rectory was united with nearby Hardwick.

It seems probable that it was due to Metcalf's professional zeal and the generosity of the Eversdens that this restoration had occurred. Metcalf held office until 1777, and his long tenure was evidently fruitful. It is also true that this period was another of those times (like the fifteenth century) when the ordinary man enjoyed comparative peace and prosperity.

The enclosure of land

It was war that led to further change.

Pioneers in farming, such as Jethro Tull, 'Turnip' Townshend and Coke of Norfolk had advocated new farming methods, but it was only when Britain became involved in the disastrous wars of the French Revolution, and particularly when Napoleon Bonaparte tried to starve England out by blockade, that their new methods became generally adopted. For these to operate it was necessary to abandon the old open fields and enclose the land for private use.

The lands of Toft were enclosed around 1812-1815. These enclosures brought great hardship to the poor in their early stages, but afterwards the rising prosperity in Toft is demonstrated by the increase in population. After hundreds of years when Toft numbered between one and two hundred souls, there came a marked increase, and, by the census of 1851, the total had reached the three hundred and eighty.

In the year 1843 Edward Powell came as Rector to Toft. For newly half a century he devoted himself to his calling and the people of his flock. He was a man of strong personality, a convinced churchman, he took a hard view of nonconformity, but for those to whom he felt a duty he spent himself and his money.

In 1845 the old Rectory was rebuilt in its existing form (which is now Toft Manor) but it does not seem that Powell lived in it for long. In 1766 Caldecote had become united to Toft, and in 1785 the connection with Hardwick had been broken. Powell lived mostly in Caldecote where he died in poverty at the end of his long life of service.

The Church rebuilt

During Powell's pastorate the Church was extensively rebuilt. In 1863 the complete rebuilding of the chancel was begun, and in place of the old ruinous north chapels, the north aisle was added to the church.

So complete was the reconstruction that only fragments of the original church remain, though the appearance of the church has not greatly altered. It seems that some of the old materials were used - one important survivor was the fine timber vault of the nave, with its tie beams and angels. The chancel arch is probably still the same as stood in the old church.

After Powell's death the tower collapsed and was rebuilt, about 1894, by a man called Love.

The twentieth century

The start of the twentieth century was a time of great depression in agriculture. In the year 1901 the census return showed that the number of people in Toft was 210, considerably fallen away from the peak of 380 in the year 1851.

Through the ages Toft remained a small village community, with few wealthy folk living in it. Two significant factors have changed this – the effect of the two World Wars and the needs they created, and the coming of the internal combustion engine. Old hedgerows surrounding fields have mostly been cleared away, and fields have increased in size. Mechanisation has meant that fewer men have found their livelihood on the land.

So, although Toft has grown in population, it is no longer a rural community whose people are solely employed in farming and the trades associated with the cultivation of the soil.

Greater wealth and comfort has come to the people of Toft, with electricity, piped water and communal drainage contributing to the rising standard of life.

The twenty-first century

Toft celebrated the arrival of the new Millennium through an active programme of events and with the lighting of the Toft Beacon – part of a chain of beacons across the country.

Today, Toft remains a small village but with an active and friendly community. The church still plays an important role in many aspects of life and death in the village, but faces the same problems that all churches face in an increasingly secular age.

Toft Historical Society

For more details on the history of Toft, please visit the Toft Historical Society website.