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Victorians, railways and religeon

Flying Scotsman steaming through St Neots Railway Station in 1967
Flying Scotsman steaming through St Neots Railway Station in 1967

By the 18th century, the desire to improve the roads resulted in the creation of turnpike trusts, authorised by Act of Parliament. In 1725, a trust was established to manage the Great North Road between Biggleswade and Alconbury.

Another was established in 1772 to manage the road between St Neots and Cambridge. These and other road improvements meant more traveling and coaching inns, where horses could be changed, so that coaches could travel further and faster were built in Eaton Socon and in St Neots. By this means the journey from London to Edinburgh, a distance of more than 400 miles, could be achieved in eight days. At the height of stagecoach activity, some 20 coaches passed through Eaton Socon each day.

In 1850, the railway came, in the form of the Great Northern Railway Company. The route taken lay to the east of the town, farthest away from the river and from Eaton Socon. George Williams Rowley had wanted it to run to the west of the town but, after a court action in which he failed, it ran just east of the east of the great house, for which the family was given £8,000! The railway rapidly ousted the stagecoaches. Apart from long distance trains that reduced the time of travel to Scotland to less than a day, there were soon excursions to holiday resorts such as Skegness, Cromer, and Great Yarmouth. By the 1890s, trippers were even going as far as Scarborough and Brighton.

The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 had meant the restoration of the church. The so-called Clarendon Code granted to the Church of England many privileges including the removal of Dissenting ministers to a distance of five miles from any Anglican church. However, the first dissenting chapel was built at Hail Weston, and a Meeting House was established on the north side of the High Street in 1718. They were, by his time, known as Congregationalists. The chapel was enlarged for bigger congregations in 1889. Meanwhile Baptists who broke away from the Congregationalists (for whom baptism had become optional) in 1800, establishing a chapel in New Street. Methodism started in St Neots as a result of a visit by John Wesley in 1772. The first chapel was built at the corner of Huntingdon Street in 1794. Other chapels built in the period include the Salvation Army citadel in 1891, and a chapel in New Street and one in East Street now converted for use by the Roman Catholic Church. By the time of the 1851 Census, there were as many Non-Conformists worshipping on Sundays as there were members of the Church of England.

It was a time of religious revival which showed itself not only in the growth of new denominations but also in the revival of the parish church. In 1947, at a cost of over £2,000 the church was refloored and repewed, with much stonework substantially repaired. New stained glass windows were put in between 1859 and 1902 largely paid for by C.P. Rowley. A new organ by George Holdich of London was installed in 1855.