Early settlers, attracted by the fertile banks of the Great River Ouse, gradually became focussed into an important trading point for travellers near an ancient crossing point. By Saxon times, with the establishment of an abbey, it also became known as a centre for veneration and learning.
Ever since then the character of St Neots has been shaped by the river and by its market. Despite its rapid expansion the modern town has managed to retain much of its heritage.
St Neots - Origins & Establishment
The modern town of St Neots was formed from five ancient settlements (Eaton Ford, Eaton Socon, Crosshall, Eynesbury and St Neots) that spanned the River Ouse, taking its name from the largest of these.
Though becoming a parish in its own right in 1204, St Neots originated in the older settlement of Eynesbury within the abbey that was founded in Saxon times (c972-5).
Eaton Socon, which lies on the opposite (western) bank, also originates from the Saxon period and was recorded in the Doomsday book. Eaton Ford and Crosshall were hamlets within the civil parish of Eaton Socon.
For centuries the River Ouse formed the boundary between Huntingdonshire and Bedfordshire but the present town of St Neots was formed when the county boundary of Cambridgeshire was pushed westwards in 1965. The five settlements were subsequently incorporated as St Neots in the local government re-organisations of 1972-4.
The Priory, St Neot and The Royal Market
The name of the town derives from the Cornish Saint Neot. His bones, along with other relics that were said to have miraculous healing powers, were acquired by the abbey during the Saxon period (reputedly with a little help from King Edgar) in order to enhance its status and reputation.
Following the Norman conquest, the abbey was re-established as St Neot's Priory. It was placed under the control of the Great Abbey of Bec in France, which at the time was at the forefront of European culture, which further enhanced the reputation of St Neots as a centre of learning and veneration. The monks also revived the ancient market and, in 1113, the thriving market town was given a royal charter by Henry I.
Decline and Re-Emergence
The strength of St Neots' links with France almost became its downfall as the hundred years war with that country triggered a significant decline in the town's fortunes. After various ups and downs its eventual re-emergence was linked to new developments in transportation systems - initially the re-opening of the River Ouse to navigation and subsequently the advent of the coaching and railway eras. These developments marked a shift in the town's economy and social structure from being mainly agricultural to trade and transport, reflecting the town's geographical position.
Although being a major influence on the early settlements, over the centuries the river had become unnavigable beyond St Ives. Early in the 17th century, new sluices were built that once again allowed passage to St Neots and beyond as far as Bedford, so opening up an important trade route that became a platform for the regrowth and renewed prosperity of St Neots.
A Key Crossroads
With the advent of stagecoach travel, St Neots prospered still further. Lying on a key coaching route from London to York (and beyond to Edinburgh), Eaton Socon, in particular, became an important staging post. The impact of this era on the town is still very evident, especially in the market square and the Great North Road where there are still numerous coaching inns and classic examples of Georgian townhouses (including North Laurels House).
The opening of the mainline railway link in 1850 brought further commercial opportunities that again revitalised the local economy. The Corn Exchange opened in 1863, rapidly followed by a livestock market and industries such as brewing, corn milling, engineering, gas works, paper mills, brick and tile manufacture. Many industrial buildings from this era still exist, including Payne's brewery (market square), the brickworks (Hen Brook) and the River Mill (Eaton Socon).
This renewed economic activity stimulated a housing boom which is evident from the number of Victorian properties within the town centre and along its main thoroughfares. The Union Workhouse (now converted into apartments and called the Whitehouse) in Eaton Ford was built during this period to house the poorest of the workforce.
The St Neots Green Corridor and Conservation Area
The town grew slowly but steadily throughout the 20th century. Housing development patterns changed from the town centre and its main arteries to self-contained larger estates in and around these. The local authority-built estate at Cambridge Gardens (shown right) is an interesting example of interwar architecture with its strikingly hipped and pan-tiled roof lines reflecting the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement.
A major expansion occurred in the 1960s under the London Overspill Agreement, with planned relocation of people occurring from several London Boroughs to St Neots. A large amount of the town's housing stock is from this era and the scheme also provided new employment opportunities for the building of the industrial units adjacent to the mainline railway.
By the 1980s increasing awareness of the need to preserve our heritage, both in the natural and the built environments, led to the establishment of a 'green corridor' through the town (link) as well as conservation areas in 3 of the 5 historic settlements of St Neots. In 2006 these were consolidated into one enlarged conservation area in order to link, protect and preserve areas of architectural interest that reflect the historic character of this ancient market town.