March, the county town of the Isle of Ely, once formed a chapelry in the northern part of the parish of Doddington. A Local Board of Health, set up in 1851, was converted in 1894 into an Urban District Council of twelve members, by which the town is now governed. Small adjustments of boundary were made in 1933 under the Isle of Ely Review Order. An outlying portion of Wisbech Borough was brought into the district, and a mutual exchange made with the parish of Elm.
The town probably owes its origin to the ford on the old course of the Nene, where the road between Ely and Wisbech, the two chief towns of the Isle, crossed the river. It early outstripped the parent settlement of Doddington and in the 15th century possessed several guilds; the church also is as large as and finer than that of Doddington, and its wonderful hammerbeam roof testifies to the affluence of the place at the end of the Middle Ages.
A market, with two annual fairs, was first granted in 1670, in spite of the opposition of Wisbech Corporation. In 1785 the tolls were assessed at £6. Soon after this the market appears to have lapsed, and an attempt to revive it in 1821 was not very successful, though the fairs continued at this period to be prosperous. The development of the market was impeded by the absence of a covered hall and by the fact that market day in March and several neighbouring towns fell on the same day (Friday). After the opening of the railway in 1847 another attempt was made to increase the market. The want of a market house was remedied, in a makeshift fashion, by Sir Henry Peyton, 2nd baronet of the 1776 creation, who was lord of the manor and holder of market rights. His building, however, was only 40 ft. long by 17 ft. broad, and provided 14 stalls under cover as compared with the 54 available at Wisbech and 74 at Peterborough. The difficulty of the clashing with other market days was solved in December 1856 by changing the day to Wednesday 'by private arrangement and without any formalities'. In 1851 the market had been stated to be 'making some progress'; £150 was subscribed to give a treat to the poor at its reopening. The tolls were, however, collected in an arbitrary and haphazard way; they were assessed for poor rate purposes at £10, but the toll-keeper in 1888, though he had no fixed scale of charges and kept no record of receipts, was said to be taking about £50 a year. An attempt by the Local Board to purchase the market rights to mark the Jubilee of 1887 was a failure, but they were secured by the Urban District Council in 1898, and the market is now well attended. The fairs are held on the Monday before Whitsun and the third Tuesday in October.
The first record of a post office is in 1793. In 1832 March was made a post town, and in 1851 the post office was situated in High Street. It was rebuilt in 1887, and was moved to Broad Street in 1901; the present building dates from 1936. A telegraph service was first provided in 1870, and telephones in 1908.
The 1563 list of householders does not distinguish March from Doddington, but the evidence of the registers at this period suggests that March may have had a population of 1,000. The ship-money assessment of 1639-40 rated March at £35 5s. The rate is a little greater than that set upon Doddington and Wimblington combined, but lower than that upon several of the larger villages, for example Downham, Elm, Haddenham, Littleport, Stretham, and Sutton. In 1669 there were 165 holders of common rights in March as compared with 42 in Wimblington, and 7 years later Bishop Compton's 'census' showed 949 persons of communicant age in March as compared with 813 in the rest of Doddington parish. In 1808 March was described as a 'considerable town'. It was in fact slightly larger than Chatteris, but about a third smaller than Ely and Whittlesey and only half the size of Wisbech. It had long been consolidating its position as the main centre in Doddington parish, and the 1801 Census showed about twice as many people in March as in the three villages. The growth of Doddington and its hamlets in the first half of the 19th century was exceptional even for the Fens, and the proportion of about two to one between March and the rest of the parish still obtained in 1851. The usual heavy decrease occurred in 1851-61, amounting in the case of March to over 12 per cent. Since 1861, however, March has forged ahead, not only in comparison with the rest of Doddington parish, but with the other towns of the Isle. By 1891 March had outstripped Whittlesey, and by 1911 Ely also, and the 1931 figure for March (11,266 persons) was more than twice that of 1861. The 1951 population was 12,993.
In the reign of Queen Elizabeth March was a minor port. In 1566 eight boats, capable of carrying one, one and a half, or two cartloads, were used in the coal and grain trades. A certain amount of traffic in coal and other commodities, carried in barges, was observed by Dugdale in 1657. Tradesmen's tokens of 1669, and a silver shilling token of 1811, have been noted. A 'town hall' existed in 1669. From 1778 to 1846 the 'Guildhall' was used by the Court of Requests, which had been established in the Isle for the recovery of small debts. The Guildhall was rebuilt in 1827 and still stands in High Street, but is no longer used for any civic purpose.
The main cause of the rapid growth of March in the past hundred years is its emergence as the chief railway centre of the Isle. The first line was that from Ely to Peterborough, opened in 1846, from which branches were laid to Wisbech and to St. Ives respectively in the two following years. Another important line (to Spalding) was opened in 1867 and provided through communication between the north and east of England. The situation of the railway station at the north end of the town has quickened the consistently northward trend of the town plan. From its original nucleus round St. Wendreda's Church the town has spread past the cross and along High Street to the bridge. Thence it has fanned out northwards between the two roads to Wisbech. Land is not so valuable round March as farther north in the county, and the modern development is rather scattered and untidy as compared with that of Wisbech.
The sidings at Whitemoor on the Spalding line, constructed in the 1930's, are the largest in England and among the largest in Europe, and in its industrial structure the town is more akin to Peterborough or Wellingborough than the other towns of the Isle, whose industrial interests are closely tied to the land. In 1921 a remarkably high percentage of the population (22.3 per cent. of occupied males) was engaged on the railway. Proportionately, this was three times as many as in the railway town of Swindon. The startling fact that the Isle of Ely had then a greater proportion of railway workers than any other county except Cumberland and the Soke is mainly explained by this notable concentration in March. In 1931 the Isle had surpassed Cumberland also. The percentages then were: the Soke, 9.2; the Isle, 4.8; Cumberland, 3.6. The percentage for March was 24.5. But the Urban District contains some 30 square miles of farm land as well as the town itself, and even in March agricultural workers approach railwaymen in numbers and proportions.
Armorial Bearings or Arms of Isle of Ely County Council
(Click image above to view a larger version)
It was mainly due to the excellent railway communications that March became the county town of the Isle. The first meeting of the County Council took place, 24 January 1889, in the County Court House at March, 'this being considered neutral ground' as opposed to the older centres of Ely and Wisbech where alternately the Quarter Sessions were held. At the next meeting, also held at March, a motion was put forward for meetings at Ely, March, and Wisbech in rotation, but an amendment to make March the permanent meeting-place was carried. It was pointed out that, although March was the most convenient centre for only 18 of the 52 members who expressed a preference, it was more convenient than Ely or Wisbech for most of those who preferred the other of these towns. Experience at Quarter Sessions had, moreover, shown that meetings at Ely were poorly attended from the north of the Isle and meetings at Wisbech attracted few from the south. In its early years the County Council met in the Temperance Hall, erected in 1885 by the Peckover family of Wisbech; the County Hall dates from 1908 and as a late comer among the public buildings of the town has been crowded out from the centre. The original cost was £4,764; it has been enlarged in 1927 and 1937 for considerably larger sums.
An Inclosure Act for March was passed in 1792. The award, dealing with about 2,760 acres, was not made until 1805. There were 95 beneficiaries. Of these Sir Henry Peyton was the chief. He received 300 acres, 138 of them as lord of the manor.
In the early 19th century a 'pretty little theatre' was built in Bridge Street by a Mr. Smedley, but did not flourish, and in 1844 the building was converted into a British school and a Mechanics' Institute. Another feature of Early Victorian March was the Exotic Gardens, laid out in 1836 by Mr. Fuller with 'choice flowers, evergreens, American plants etc. . . . giving them a very pleasing aspect'.
In a field immediately south of Eastwood Avenue, adjoining the golf course, is a small star-shaped sconce, almost obliterated but showing up in air photographs, formerly known as the 'Battery Hills'. It stands on land which was once part of Cavalry Barn Farm, so named according to local tradition because 'Oliver Cromwell kept his horses there'. About 600 yards north of St. Wendreda's Church, on the west side of the road into the town, is the base of a wayside cross on three steps. The base is square with a sunk panel on each face, two with blank shields and two with roses.
There are no medieval secular buildings remaining in March, but several of later date have some architectural distinction. Some of the best are:
West End contains other old houses of less architectural importance, and there are some also in High Street and at Knight's End. The banks of the Nene, near the bridge, recall the Brinks at Wisbech on a small scale, and the Urban Council Offices, with a conspicuous and picturesque tower, are good for their date (1900). The clock in the tower is a Diamond Jubilee memorial. During the 19th century a fashion for ornamental structures of cast iron developed in March and the neighbourhood. An early example is the Regency-style porch of No. 36 High Street, which may be compared with that at Wade's Hotel, Station Road (c. 1870). Another building in this local style is the 1911 Coronation Fountain in Broad Street.
Victoria County History - Published 1932