Orchard Cottage on Station Road

...and a brief look at Sheene Cottage

By Alan Williams

Photo:...an old house that stands back - Orchard Cottage 2019

...an old house that stands back - Orchard Cottage 2019

Alan Williams

Photo:...then a little house by the side of the road - Sheene Cottage 2019

...then a little house by the side of the road - Sheene Cottage 2019

Alan Williams

…an old house that stands back and then a little house by the side of the road…

Bill Wing – Memories of a Meldreth Man 1993


In the year King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, sold Dunkirk to the French and introduced the Hearth Tax, so did a carpenter carve 1662 into a wooden beam in Orchard Cottage.

Awarded Grade II Listed Building status, Orchard Cottage is one of several post-Medieval three-bay hall houses in Meldreth and is, perhaps, the least altered retaining much of its original design with few significant internal or external changes.

Built to accommodate the family of a yeoman of the village, with its half-hipped thatched roof, the building in both method of construction and age is strikingly similar to Applecote Cottage on the High Street.

The 1662 inscription may commemorate the year the building was erected or it may have been added to commemorate later works when, for example, the brick fireplace was added. A small house fire in 1959 generated a local newspaper report referring to this piece of timber as a beam through the old chimney and there is no more definitive a description. Damaged by the fire it was removed and now resides in a local museum’s storeroom.

Whilst Orchard Cottage is undoubtedly of great age the available occupancy records date to no earlier than 1820. Even so, untangling the records of subsequent ownership and occupation is not always an easy or wholly conclusive task; nor is defining the property’s precise relationship with its nearest neighbour, the once larger Sheene Cottage standing on the roadside.

The Internal Layout

Typically constructed as open internally from wall to wall and floor to roof, half-timbered hall houses were subsequently divided by their occupiers into three more convenient sections or bays. The “lower end” housed the service storerooms, a central communal hall contained an open hearth, and the “upper end” functioned as the occupier’s private quarters. Between the lower end and the hall was a corridor - the screens passage - which would, originally, have had an entrance door at both ends.

When brick as a building material and coal as a fuel both became more widely available and economic through the late 1600s and early 1700s, home owners frequently took advantage and replaced their sooty open hearths with a brick-built fireplace and chimney stack. Sacrificing access for comfort, the new fireplace and chimney were most often placed within, or adjacent to, the screens passage.

Orchard Cottage follows this three-bay template exactly. The lower end was originally situated to the left and the internal partitions in this part of the cottage are believed to be original. The front door marks the position of the screens passage and the hall and upper end are located to its right.

Behind the front door lies the vestiges of the screens passage, now a small lobby entrance, and the later substantial brick fireplace blocks access to the now absent rear doorway.

A wooden staircase, again believed to be original, abuts the chimney stack giving access to the upper floor. It is not possible to be certain as to when an upper floor was added as some may be original, or added to in stages, or all added later.

Photo:Carved Beam

Carved Beam

Joan Gane

Almost impossible to decipher, a ceiling beam is faintly inscribed with what appears to be the date 1721 and the initials I W and I M.

The half-hipped roof construction is not uncommon amongst the older village properties though the original purpose of this more complex building method is lost. Its use does continue into present-day architecture wherein the reduced surface area of the gable end offers greater structural stability in high winds when compared to a vertical gable end. This same reasoning may have been applied to older cottages, too.

Later Additions

To the left side of the cottage is a thatched extension believed to date from the early 1800s. Its original function is unknown but it may have served as a workshop, a store room, or accommodation. Older maps of the village also show a second thatched extension to the cottage’s right. No longer present it is just visible in the earliest known photograph.

Photo:Orchard Cottage - probably 1880s

Orchard Cottage - probably 1880s

Photo supplied by Joan Gane

Installed to meet a former occupant’s requirements, a second entrance door has been added to the far right of the frontage; its presence may also indicate the cottage historically being subdivided into two dwellings. The small change in both roof and dormer window height either side of the chimney stack may also reflect a period of shared occupation albeit all available records, with one possible exception, strongly suggest only single-family occupation.

The Prior Family - James and his son Joseph

Then owned by the Manor of Sheen, the 1820 Enclosure Map shows an almost rectangular plot of land that contains both today’s Orchard Cottage and Sheene Cottage. The occupier and tenant’s name is James Prior, sometimes recorded as Pryor.

Photo:James Prior's Land Holdings in 1820

James Prior's Land Holdings in 1820

Cambridgeshire Archives croc.ma.Q_RDc34

A second plot of land in James’ name sits on the corner of Whitecroft Road behind where the Nissen huts now stand near the present-day war memorial.

Born in Meldreth in 1773, James was the youngest son of Samuel Prior who was married to Elizabeth Kefford in Meldreth in September 1757. Other children born to the couple were Samuel 1758, Susanna 1759, another James 1762 who died in infancy, Ann 1764, Joseph 1767, Benjamin 1770, and Jane 1775.

Samuel, who died in 1815, was a carpenter and James, following in his father’s footsteps, continued in that occupation.

In the Spring of 1797 James married Melbourn-born Charlotte Cole in All Saints Church, Melbourn. Parish records record the birth in Meldreth of four children - Joseph 1797 and Charlotte 1806, an un-named child who died in 1811, and a second daughter, Sarah, who died in 1816.

At some point James must either have purchased, or inherited, the freehold to land valued at more than forty shillings entitling him to join the very small number of those allowed to vote. All of the Meldreth Electoral Registers between 1826 and 1835 describe him as a freeholder and lending his vote to both Whig and Conservative hopefuls.

James died in Meldreth on 1 February 1836 and like his father before him was laid to rest in the Melbourn Independent graveyard on the corner of Meeting Lane and Orchard Road. Charlotte died in Meldreth one year later on 6 February 1837 and was buried with her late husband.

Photo:Joseph Prior and Sarah Charter Marriage 1823

Joseph Prior and Sarah Charter Marriage 1823


Their only son Joseph Prior, sometimes Pryor, married Sarah Charter (1796-1873) in Meldreth in January 1823. Like both his father and grandfather before him Joseph was a carpenter by trade and the 1841 census records him living in Sheen End.

Deciding who lived where using the census returns of the 1800s is not always a simple task. House numbers we have today were not in use and neither house names nor street names were recorded with any consistency. Whilst the railway and accompanying station arrived in the village in the 1850s no reference was yet made to Station Road. Instead, the road by Orchard Cottage was recorded by census enumerators using a series of different titles. In addition to Sheen End it was referred to as the High Street, Melbourn Road or, simply, near Sheen Mill and those usages continued well into the 20th century.

However, by cross-referencing the names of neighbours and comparing them to the number of known houses between Fieldgate and Cowslip Corner where the road once took a sharp right turn into Melbourn - today’s T-junction - we can be confident Joseph and his wife Sarah occupied Orchard Cottage in 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871.

Whilst in no sense were the Priors at the upper end of the Meldreth social hierarchy, in 1847 Joseph does make an appearance in the Cambridgeshire Jurors Book alongside the more familiar names of Mortlock, Clear, Palmer, Ellis and Howard.  Since one qualification to serve as a juror was based on the ownership of land, which we assume he had either purchased or inherited from his late father, the majority of Meldreth residents were therefore excluded.

Photo:Joseph Prior's Signature 1853

Joseph Prior's Signature 1853

Meldreth Local History Group

Perhaps further reflecting his social status, by 1851 Joseph is employing one journeyman carpenter and one apprentice, is listed in assorted county directories, and appears as a signatory on the letter dated 1853 to the Government petitioning on behalf of young John Casbon.

Elevated to the status of Master Carpenter on the 1871 census Joseph passed away in 1876. Widowed and with no immediate heirs his will was proved by his near neighbours Thomas Wood and George Palmer leaving effects valued at under £100.00.

The Dodkin Family – William, Kitty, Leonard and Harold

Born in 1834 and hailing from Drury Lane in Melbourn, by 1881 William Dodkin and his family had become the next recorded occupants of Orchard Cottage.

Married in Bassingbourn to Kitty Peverett in 1856, William, previously described as an agricultural labourer, is listed in the 1891 census as a Gardener. Kitty came from Kneesworth though her father Simon, a shepherd, was born in Balsham and married in Harston.

Described in the 1883 Cambridgeshire Jurors Book as a labourer and freeholder, William and Kitty raised eleven children born between 1856 and 1881. Leaving effects totalling £53.00 William passed away in 1898 and Kitty followed him four years later in 1902.

Photo:Is this Leonard Dodkin ?

Is this Leonard Dodkin ?

Melbourn Magazine Winter 2002

On the last day of December 1903 William’s two youngest sons, Leonard Walter Charles Dodkin, a coachman, and Harold Dodkin, a labourer, completed the requisite legal paperwork - a Deed of Enfranchisement - and purchased from the Manor of Sheen the land-holding containing Orchard Cottage and, possibly, Sheene Cottage. For this they each paid the sum of £28.00.

Since the Deed makes no specific reference to Sheene Cottage it may have been included in the sale, or, it may have been purchased by the Dodkin brothers under separate title.

Through a Deed of Enfranchisement rented copyhold land could be converted into freehold land by assent of the Lord or, as in this instance, the Lady of the Manor, Agnes Ann Egg.

Mrs Egg remained Lady of the Manor until 1916 albeit living for many years in Woodford in Essex, then a rural suburb of London. The house and farm at Sheen Manor were instead occupied by orchard owner George Palmer who had taken on the lease in 1893 and later purchased outright in 1922, so assuming the title Lord of the Manor.

The Deed of Enfranchisement, one for Leonard and another for Harold, is a lengthy hand-written document full of legalese and little punctuation but the last paragraph which describes the property is of most interest. It says:

All that messuage or tenement formerly in the occupation of James Pryor and William Farnham afterwards of Joseph Pryor and widow Charlotte and late of Joseph Pryor situate and being in Meldreth in the County of Cambridge with the orchard or close of pasture thereto containing by estimation three roods and with the barn carpenters shop outbuildings and other appurtenances thereto belonging as the same is now in the occupation of Arthur Duke.

This is the first written reference to the involvement of a William Farnham or an Arthur Duke. There are several William Farnhams born in nearby villages before 1800 and a William Farnham born in Meldreth in 1814 but who this particular William was, what relationship he had to James Prior, and whether he once occupied Orchard Cottage or Sheene Cottage is unknown.

Arthur Duke is Arthur William Duke who had migrated from Great Chishill to Melbourn by 1901. His tenancy of Orchard Cottage could only have been after Kitty Dodkin’s death in 1902 and before 1905 when we know the next recorded tenant, Joseph Felstead and his family, were resident.

Photo:Orchard Cottage c.1910 - possibly Elizabeth Felstead holding the baby

Orchard Cottage c.1910 - possibly Elizabeth Felstead holding the baby

Photo supplied by Joan Gane

In 1905 a huge fire had destroyed the three neighbouring cottages situated between Orchard Cottage and the modern bypass flyover. Both a postcard picturing the smouldering remains sent soon after the event and a local newspaper report record one of the residents, Mrs Negus, being taken ill and given shelter by her neighbour Mrs Elizabeth Felstead. The 1911 census confirms Joseph Felstead, a Hay Presser from Hertfordshire, his wife Elizabeth and seven children all living in Orchard Cottage.

A Quick Change in Ownership

According to the Land Values Map, by 1910 the original plot was already officially divided. Orchard Cottage has been separated from Sheene Cottage with the larger part of the land-holding being retained by Orchard Cottage. A farmer and coal merchant from Whaddon, Arthur Richard Coningsby is recorded as the most recent owner to rent out Orchard Cottage whilst the Dodkin brothers retain ownership, but not occupation, of Sheene Cottage.

The division of the land and buildings is unusual. The map shows the once longer Sheene Cottage split into two with the left half being retained by Mr Coningsby. The right half, which we still see today, and the former extension to Orchard Cottage, and an outbuilding further to its right, are all retained by the Dodkin brothers.

Photo:Land Values Map 1910

Land Values Map 1910

Cambridgeshire Archives croc.ma.LVD.Meldreth

It would seem that having made their purchase neither Leonard nor Harold Dodkin intended to live for any length of time in either Orchard Cottage or Sheene Cottage. In 1904 Harold joined the Royal Regiment of Artillery and next appears in 1911 living in Barley with his new wife Rosamond, a baby daughter, and his father-in-law. Subsequently, and then in his mid-thirties, Harold resumed his military career as a highly-decorated Private in the 8th Middlesex Regiment. The National Roll of the Great War 1914-18 recalls:

He joined in June 1916, and in the same year was drafted overseas. During his services on the Western Front he fought with distinction at the Somme, Ypres and Cambrai, and in many subsequent engagements until the cessation of hostilities. He was awarded the Military Medal for distinguished gallantry on the Field and holds in addition the General Service and Victory Medals. In May 1919 he was demobilised.

His brother Leonard is missing from the 1901 census but re-appears between 1911 and 1935 living in Frog End, Shepreth.

For reference, the Land Values Map still shows the three neighbouring cottages destroyed by fire in 1905 but only because the Valuation Office re-used a slightly revised version of the Ordnance Survey Map first published in 1886.

Sheene Cottage – a brief look

As a building the origin and function of Sheene Cottage is unclear. With a Grade II rating the Listed Buildings entry suggests it was built later than Orchard Cottage and dates from the 1700s. It also suggests it began life as a barn, later converted to a cottage. This assessment is interesting since we have seen at least one previous reference to a barn in the Deed of Enfranchisement, however, the Listed Buildings entry also suggests this barn was to the north of Sheene Cottage – which presumably means the right side - but for which there is absolutely no evidence.

Photo:Sheene Cottage Changes c.1900 to c.1950

Sheene Cottage Changes c.1900 to c.1950

Supplied by Monica Lilley, CCAN, supplied by Joan Gane

Photo:Sheene Cottage 1950s - the gable end and road flooding

Sheene Cottage 1950s - the gable end and road flooding

Melbourn Local History Group

What we do have are maps and photographs showing the building being originally longer to the south – its left – and the later flooding photograph revealing the original half-timbered construction which clearly belongs to a building of higher status than a barn.

What we cannot yet ascertain is whether that image shows the original gable end onto which an extension was later added, or whether it was an internal dividing wall exposed when the size of the building was later reduced; and whether that extension was used as a barn, or accommodation, or both.

All census returns between 1841 and 1939 confirm continuous occupation but never by large families which would lead us to conclude that the occupied part of Sheene Cottage was always relatively small.

Seen in the two earlier images, all of the building to the left of the chimney stack has been lost leaving only the little house recalled by Bill Wing.

Thought to date from shortly after the Dodkin brothers and Arthur Coningsby held their respective titles, the second photograph in the sequence does show the lost half of the cottage clad in timber. This may indicate this half of the building converting or reverting to more of an agricultural role but it is pure speculation.

Further adding to the confusion there is a note that a thatched barn belonging to Orchard Cottage collapsed during a storm. Living then in Orchard Cottage Mrs Joan King wrote:

We had a gale in 1947, when our large thatched barn went, leaving Sheen Cottage standing just…

That description implies the barn and Sheene Cottage were one complete building. Storm damage would most certainly explain the missing half of the cottage but for one small detail. Where there should now be an obvious gap, a conveyancing map produced two years later in 1949 continues to show the longer version of Sheene Cottage with the missing half of the building included in the sale…

Once again, a larger property, the extension to the rear and the cross wing to the right are of recent construction.

There is no record of when the Dodkin brothers disposed of Sheene Cottage.

George and Elsie Pullen

Photo:George Albert Pullen 1930

George Albert Pullen 1930

Photo supplied by Joan Gane

Alfred Coningsby passed away in 1916 and Orchard Cottage was inherited by his son Reginald Thomas Coningsby who, like his father, also lived and farmed in Whaddon.

The next recorded tenant George Albert Pullen, a foreman at the Atlas Stone Company, and his wife Elsie Dash occupied Orchard Cottage from the early 1920s until the late 1930s. Their daughter Dorothy’s memories included her brothers having to bend down to avoid the low ceilings, her father rearing pigs and chickens in the garden, and the long walk to the outside toilet at night!

Photo:Orchard Cottage 1931

Orchard Cottage 1931

Cambridgeshire Archives croc_ph_23_Z1590

All three families were deeply affected by the Great War. Elsie’s brother Private Reuben Dash, commemorated on the village war memorial, died in action in 1916. George’s brother Corporal William Henry Pullen and Reginald’s son Private Thomas Laurie Coningsby both died on the front in 1918.

Joseph Andrew Pepper and his family

Joan Hilda Pepper remembered leaving Rose Lane in Melbourn and moving into Orchard Cottage with her parents and two brothers Harry and Eric in 1938. Across the road George Palmer’s yard at Sheen Farm was then home to horses and bullocks and farm machinery. Each day Joseph Cooper, the cowman, would drive his herd from their grazing pasture on the riverside water meadows and across Cowslip Corner to be milked. Mr Cooper was Joan’s nearest neighbour living in Sheene Cottage.

Photo:Joseph Andrew Pepper in his back garden 1960

Joseph Andrew Pepper in his back garden 1960

Daphne Pepper

Her father Joseph Andrew Pepper, the son of Samuel Pepper and Fanny Hinkins, was born in Meldreth in 1888. Described in the 1939 census as a Jobbing Gardener, Joseph came from a large and long-established family whose recorded origins in Meldreth date back to the 1700s. Individual family members’ stories are well documented across the Meldreth History website with three of Joseph’s brothers – Great War casualties Ernest and Samuel Mark, the enterprising Arthur, and nephew Dennis all have pages dedicated to them. Joseph’s wife Alice Selina Winifred Rule was also born in Meldreth and passed away in 1940 soon after moving into Orchard Cottage.

Married a year later in 1941 Joan, her husband Sidney Walter King, and Joseph continued to live in and rent Orchard Cottage until December 1949 when for the sum of £600.00 they purchased the freehold to the house orchard and premises known as Orchard Cottage.

A payment of £100.00 was made to Reginald Coningsby and the £500.00 balance was obtained from the Royston and District Permanent Building Society subject to a six-shilling legal search being made by the family‘s solicitor.

The conveyancing document calls Joseph an Engineer, Sidney a Rubber Worker, and Joan a Housewife.

Photo:Conveyancing Map 1949

Conveyancing Map 1949

Photo supplied by Joan Gane

The most noticeable change on the map accompanying the conveyancing document is the land and buildings behind and previously in the possession of Sheene Cottage have reverted back to Orchard Cottage.

Once again, when producing the map, the conveyancing solicitor has referred back to the 1886 Ordnance Survey first edition still showing the neighbouring cottages burnt down some forty-four years previously.

Fire and Flood… and the Sanitary Inspector Calls

The small fire in 1959 had necessitated an insurance claim to repair the damaged fabric of the building but prior to that the threat of repeated flooding of the roadway caused by blocked drainage ditches was the more worrying issue. The picture above of Sheene Cottage shows the road completely under water and a hapless pedestrian balanced on the grass verge whilst trying to avoid the wake from the passing bus. Referred to as Councillor Joseph Pepper in some newspaper reports he and other villagers entered into a protracted and largely unresolved dispute with the Rural District Council regarding where and with whom responsibility lay for the maintenance and clearing of the River Mel and its tributaries.

In early 1952 it was reported:

"Part of the River Mel has flooded Orchard Cottage at Station Road, Meldreth and South Cambridgeshire's RDC ought to do something about it because the river belongs to them," said Mr Pepper. "The lower half-mile of the river where it discharged into the Rhee had been taken over by the Council. The state of the river had gone from bad to worse. Some time ago it broke its banks and they plugged the breach, but this only dammed the water until it reached a higher level where it broke through the banks again." But the chairman said: “It must not go out that this Council is the drainage authority and will clean out peoples’ ditches.” (Courtesy of Mike Petty, Cambridgeshire Scrapbook)

Later that same year:

South Cambridgeshire's RDC decided they were not responsible for cleaning out the River Mel near Sheene Farm and refused a request from Meldreth parish council to take action which would prevent the flooding of the road. Councillor Pepper said: “It is common knowledge that houses are flooded and drainage floats about the gardens, roads are flooded and travel becomes dangerous. The responsibility lies fairly and squarely upon this council.” But Councillor Murfitt said the Council was not responsible for flooding. (Courtesy of Mike Petty, Cambridgeshire Scrapbook)

For a more detailed and informative discussion on the flooding issues please visit the River Mel pages on this website where Bruce Huett describes the river’s history, its varied uses, and ecology.

Still without mains water or sewerage, in 1968 Joseph Pepper and the Kings applied to the local council for any required planning permissions to install both a bathroom and mains sewer but misunderstandings between the respective parties soon arose. In a local newspaper report a frustrated Joan King is quoted:

The sanitary inspector visited our home and told us more or less that it would be a waste of money, because the council could put a closure order on (Orchard Cottage) at any time because of the height of the rooms. The rooms are about six feet high. It hasn’t bothered us for the past thirty years we have lived here. We were going to drop the floor but not to the extent they wanted…. They also wanted a damp course in the new floor. It involves doors and everything.

Within a week the council had responded:

The Meldreth couple may have misunderstood… Because of the lowness of the ceilings, the property did not warrant a discretionary grant. There was certainly no mention of a closure order or a demolition order being made.

Joan fired straight back stating a discretionary grant was neither required nor requested. She said:

We are prepared to pay for it ourselves.

The following year the mortgage was redeemed and through a Deed of Gift Joseph Pepper released his share of Orchard Cottage to Sidney and Joan …in consideration of his affection for… Sidney Walter King and of his natural love and affection for his daughter… Joan Hilda King.

Joseph passed away in 1973.

In 1982, also through Deed of Gift, Walter and Joan granted part ownership of Orchard Cottage to Joan’s surviving brother Eric and his wife Daphne Iris Plumb.

They’ve Just Ruined It… the Melbourn Bypass

Joan King found herself making more headline news in the local newspaper in 1987 when the A10 Melbourn bypass was driven across Station Road, through the fields behind her home, and connected via a new link road to Cowslip Corner. The article read:

Pensioner Mrs Joan King faces the prospect of losing her view of trees and fields from her thatched cottage on Station Road, Meldreth. “They’ve just ruined it,” she said. "I’ve lived here for 47 years and it’s very upsetting. Roads are going to be all around and we are almost on an island. It’s going to be a job crossing the road to get to Melbourn.”


It still is….


The Obscurity of Ownership - the Mystery of the Moat

Yet one more dispute arose in 1989 with an unspecified neighbour of Orchard Cottage. Unresolved until 2000, three years after Joan’s death, this matter rested on who had legal title to the boundary ditch, or moat as it was also referred to, that surrounded the land-holding. The Planning Department at South Cambridgeshire District Council could offer no information to support Joan’s claim of ownership so, instead, she provided written evidence from herself and Sidney, and from a previous occupier of Orchard Cottage.

Joan Field MBE, a niece of George and Elsie Pullen, stated she was born in Orchard Cottage in 1923 and lived there with her mother between 1925 and 1937. In her sworn testament she states the six feet wide and six feet deep dry ditch or moat was always part of the land belonging to Orchard Cottage and at no time did her then neighbours ever lay claim. Joan and Sidney swore the exact same and added that both Leonard and Harold Dodkin had also previously confirmed the same to them.

A six-feet-wide and six-feet-deep boundary ditch is clearly an impressive construct but dug by whom and for what purpose other than, perhaps, flood defence and drainage is long forgotten.

Visible from the footpath today, the shallow depression along the boundary to the left of the cottage was once a dry ditch but the better view to be had is to the right of Sheene Cottage. Hinted at on the 1820 Enclosure Map and partially re-routed following the construction of the T-junction, the 1910 Land Values Map shows a channel running along the right-hand side boundary towards the roadside before turning sharply to join the drainage ditch running along the field boundary where once lay a Medieval manor house’s actual moat.

Remaining unresolved, no further clarity of ownership was offered in 1998 when the cottage was sold until finally, in 2000, the Land Registry made their ruling. With a certain degree of inevitability, it was decided the boundary between the neighbouring properties was ad medium filum aquae – literally the middle of the stream.

This the Land Registry considered …to be an equitable solution… particularly in circumstances where acts of maintenance and ownership are so obscure.

With grateful thanks to Leesa Sewell and Joan Gane for their help and assistance in preparing this article. 

This page was added by Alan Williams on 10/06/2019.