The history of Perry is an interesting one, as this is one of the newest parishes, yet with a history as long as any. Until recent years there were never many people living here and it was divided into East Perry (part of Grafham) and West Perry (with Great Staughton). Then, with the making of the reservoir in the 60s, a large housebuilding scheme began; the division of the village was no longer logical and, in 1982, the parish of Perry came into existence.
There are few clues about the very early history of Perry, apart from the finding of one or two artefacts such as Roman tiles near the corner of a wood. However, by the time of the DONMSDAY book it was well established. Its name appears there as PIRIE, and it is said and that Aluuin Deuie had a hide of land (120 acres) taxable. There was land for two ploughs, six villagers with one plough, a church, 4 acres of meadow and woodland pasture one league long. The ‘value’ was 40 shillings. This ‘value’ was for the purpose of raising taxes. (To put this in perspective, the ‘value’ in Grafham of Eustace the Sheriff’s land where “Odilard the Larderer ploughed with six oxen” was 10 shillings though the King’s land there was £40. Southoe was 70 shillings and Great Staughton £10.) It was evidently then a well wooded area, and that this fact is confirmed by permission given in 1208 to the monks at Warden Abbey (now vanished) at Midloe, to ‘assart’ (make clearings in) their woods at Perry. Interestlingly the heraldic shield of the abbey showed three golden pears around a crozier or bishop’s staff – so linking their abbey with the village.
GAYNES HALL is the focus of much of the story of Perry up to this century. The Engaines (Gaynes) family built it as the hall for their manor at nearby Dillington. Nothing remains of the original building, though parts of a moat may mark the site. Viel de Engayne was living there in 1238 when he had permission granted by the Bishop of Lincoln to have a private chapel in his manor house “with font and stoups, bell and service by his own chaplain”, but he had to have the consent of Ralph, the rector of Great Staughton for it. This was almost certainly known as St. Mary’s chapel, as we know from another thirteenth century document giving permission “for assering (the) wood Dudenhey and …. West Wood as far as the road leading from the chapel of St. Mary to Perry”. (‘Dudenhey’ or Dudney and West Wood are still names in use today). The park existed then under the names of Littlehey and East Park.
The people of this area certainly had adventurous lives: John Engaine in 1290 was reported “ hunting the wolf, the fox and the wild cat in four counties”. Much later Gaynes Hall was owned by Lord Howard of Effingham who defeated the Spanish Armada, and in 1599 it was leased to Sir Oliver Cromwell (uncle of the Lord Protector), making it probable and that the younger Oliver visited the place. Captain James Duberly, who later owned the Hall, served under Wellington at Waterloo, and the wife of another member of the Duberly family witnessed the charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean war. Perhaps the most intriguing story of the early Perry years concerns George de Beville. He bought 170 acres of land in ‘Perry Lovetot’ from a farmer in the domain of the Lovetot overlords in Grafham. George went off to the wars to fight for his king. He was reported killed at the Battle of Lewes in 1264. At this news, Roger de Lovetot, as overlord (and supporter of Simon de Montfort, leader of the rebel barons) seized his lands. But, as Mark Twain once remarked, the report of his death “was an exaggeration”, and de Beville suddenly appeared to reclaim his rights. He had a redemption on his lands, then disappointingly, but perhaps prudently, sold them to Henry Engaine to become part of the Engaine’s manor. As an interesting sequel to this, in the reign of Edward I, Sir Henry Engaine granted lands in the East Perry to Stonley Priory for the maintenance of a priest to celebrate divine service daily for the soul of George de Beville and also of himself, his predecessors and successors – a 5 star insurance policy!
Gifts of land to abbeys and priories were quite common in the Middle Ages. In 1401 Joan Lovetot of Southoe assigned “ all lands within her fee at Grafham and Perry” to the Abbot and Convent at Sawtry. Not all lands went to religious houses, though, in the 13th century King John granted the manor of LEMINGE (Lymage) to Earl David of Scotland. Lymage farm, which was lost when the reservoir was built, would have marked the remains of this manor. However, lands could be lost for other reasons: Sir Thomas Lake was in possession of Gaynes Hall in 1601, but this and the manor of Grafham had to be “settled” for the defarmation of character of Lady Exeter by Sir Thomas, his wife and daughter, Lady Roos, in 1619. Who said that huge libel settlements were a modern development?
Perhaps Gaynes was no great loss, as in 1607 the early building was said to be ‘ruinous’. Certainly, when Sir James Duberly purchased it in 1797 he commissioned George Byfield to build him a fine new house with a semicircular Ionic portico. This house still stands and remained in the hands of the Duberly family until the Second World War.
The 19th century gave us records – in the form of censuses and directories – that let us have a glimpse into the life of ordinary people. Kelly’s directory of 1854 reveals that in the village there were seven farmers, as well as a ‘ Farmer and machinist’, a carpenter, a blacksmith, a boot and shoemaker, a tailor, a grocer and a schoolmistress and master. It was obviously a thriving place. By contrast Grafham also had seven farmers, but then only a shopkeeper and an innkeeper of the “Spotted Horse”. The Perry Inn “The Wheatsheaf and the landlord, Francis Hall, are mentioned in the 1869 edition.
In 1877 a wheelwright had joined the craftsman of Perry, and a day school for infants (erected in 1875) was reported “entirely supported by Captain W Duberly”. By 1890 there was a carrier, Wm. Harrison, whose cart went to St Neots on Thursday and Huntingdon on Saturday. There was a ‘wall letter-box’ near the school, where post was cleared at 6 pm on weekdays only. The ‘Board School’ attended by an average of 30 children was run by Miss Francis Tingey. At the turn of the century, Perry had a sub post office run by W T Newman, postal orders were issued but not paid; letters arrived at 7:25 a.m. (how exact!) and were dispatched at 5:10 p.m. During this century the Baptist chapel was built in 1842. There is still a Baptist chapel on the site but it was completely rebuilt and reopened in 1990.
In the early years of this century there was another pub in Perry, called ‘the Fox’, a thatched House opposite the entrance drive to Gaynes Hall, but this has disappeared. (A new house called Fox Lodge’ probably marked the site, but this too has gone.) At that time the population of the village was very stable, hardly changing from year to year. There were 23 houses there in contrast to approximately 350 today. One of the few substantial buildings in the village to provide links with the past is Manor Farm, close to the road. It may originally have been a manor house for one of the co-heirs of the Dillington estate. It was a moated house in the 16th century but was mostly rebuilt in Victorian times. It is said that the stone framework of some windows and a door may have come from a ruined church or chapel.
A dramatic phase of Perry’s history, and one within living memory, began with the outbreak of the Second World War. Gaynes Hall was requisitioned and became a base for the S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive) or a ‘spy school’, run by Wing Commander Thomas Odett, nicknamed ‘The White Rabbit’ because he was always popping up in unexpected places. Agents, usually men and women from occupied countries, first went through rigorous training in other places, then came here to complete their instruction and be finally briefed before being taken to Tempsford airfield in Bedfordshire. They were flown out to their special areas often by Lysanders and dropped by parachute. Odette Churchill left in this way and many other brave souls. The activity of these agents caused the Nazi leadership many headaches, and Hitler is said to have referred to Gaynes as the ‘Hornets Nest’. It was never pinpointed, though, and only the bomb that fell near it landed on a pigsty but that was before the S. O. E. moved in. Security was very tight, understandably. In the early days Mr Herdman, the farmer, found his field of beans, close to the Hall, had suddenly been enclosed within a high fence ringing the whole perimeter. As some recalled how they were allowed in to cut the crop, but they had to be sworn in at the guardroom, had to complete the harvesting within that one day and were accompanied all the time by two soldiers with rifles. Another person remembers similar problems when delivering a regular supply of meat to the cottages there. The soldiers who guarded the Hall were thought to be acting as double agents with the villagers – drinking with them or chatting – but only in order to find out how much they knew about what was going on inside. In fact, nothing was known, though it was obvious something important was afoot. All was silent by day, but at night vehicles were on the move and sounds of great activity could be heard. People in Perry were just as anxious to keep things secret as the SOE they realised how vital this was for everyone. One that fascinating detail of the routine for the agents at Gaynes has come to us. On their last morning at the Hall they were given two eggs for breakfast. As rationing was a very strict (one egg per week) this was a sure sign that they were about to leave on their dangerous mission.
After the war the Hall became the administrative centre for an Open Borstal in 1949. The ‘lads’ were housed initially in the huts vacated by the forces personnel. The Borstal became a Youth Custody Centre in 1983 and finally closed in 1984. Since then Littlehey Prison, a completely new complex, has been built in the grounds. It opened in February 1988 and initially had accommodation for over five hundred prisoners but has been extended and can now hold 1250.
The greatest change of all came to Perry (and Grafham) in 1961 when the construction of a reservoir was authorised by the Great Ouse Water Act. This, too, been had been a well-kept secret, as some of the farmers on the land which was to be flooded knew nothing about this until a day before the news appeared in the papers. It was first named Diddington reservoir (Diddington brook ran into it), then Grafham water. It was completed and filled by 1966 when it was opened by his Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh.
The Nature Reserve at the western end, managed by the then Beds and Hunts naturalists’ Trust was opened by Sir Peter Scott. The whole reservoir was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1986 because of the wintering wildfowl: for example, in 1985 a count of 950 Great crested grebe was one of the highest ever for a British water. Rare birds occur here every year, some like the osprey dropping it in regularly on migration, others like the Sabine’s gull, Leech’s petrel or great skua, blown in by gales. The reserve now has a full-time warden.
The focus for some of the leisure and educational activities is the fine Residential Centre (now named Grafham Water Centre) where groups have been able to stay to pursue various interests ranging from Music and drama to environmental studies and sailing for beginners. For the more experienced yachtsman, the Sailing Club has facilities where Olympic squads can train; it has a membership of over 1700 and an award-winning clubhouse. Grafham water is an international venue for the sport of fly-fishing and has hosted many championships.
The reservoir has a capacity of 13,000,000 gallons and covers 1570 acres. It supplies treated water as far afield as Northampton, Milton Keynes and beyond. Various reorganisations of the water authorities have taken place. Finally the Anglia Water authority was privatised and became Anglian water. The whole area round the reservoir has become a “honeypot” fall leisure activities including sailing cycling fishing walking and birdwatching.
Who knows what the future will hold? Perry has changed so much over the years. Alwin Deville who held his lands from Sheriff Eustace in 1086 might be alarmed to see most of them underwater but the Engaines ( whose name means roughly ‘Engineer’) would be interested in the treatment works and the ‘engines’ that bring quarter to us, while all Lord Howard of Effingham would certainly be out sailing on the water.