The first settlements in the valley were in Neolithic times. A hearth from this period was uncovered in Eaton Socon, and there have been isolated finds of flint tools and hand axes. There is rather more evidence from the Bronze Age (pottery, polished stone axes, burial mounds), and from the Iron Age a timber structure (possibly a temple) and several small, Iron Age settlements.
This pre-Roman activity would have altered the natural landscape quite markedly, mostly through the felling of timber to clear fields and construct buildings.
Everyday objects have been found such as the clay weights used in weaving, broken pieces of pottery, a quern-stone, a plough share, and an iron axe. Burials from the period contained other objects such as a sword, spears, pagan brooches, and a knife.
A number of buildings have been discovered, some of them substantial; one or two had wooden floors, a sign of some wealth at a time when most people made do with beaten earth. There were a number of settlements in the area that is now St Neots. One of these would have been the early Priory which may not have been on the riverside site of the later, Norman, Priory.
Following St Augustine's mission to Britain in 597 AD, a mother church was built in Eaton to serve as a focus for a large area on the west bank of the Great Ouse, while at Great Paxton on the east bank, another church served an area including St Neots and Eynesbury. Later in Saxon times Eynesbury built its own church. A little later, the first St Neots Priory was dedicated in 974 AD, and the bones of St Neot brought from Cornwall as holy relics for the new foundation.
The Vikings first brought their longships up the River Great Ouse as far as St Neots in the late 10th Century and St Neot's bones were sent to Lincolnshire for safe-keeping, being restored again by 1020 AD. The Danes seem not to have settled in large numbers in or near St Neots, certainly not displacing the Anglo-Saxons completely.
Around the year 1080 major changes were initiated in the affairs of the Priory. At the instance of Richard and Rohais de Clare to whom the manor of Eynesbury had been given by William the Conqueror, it was refounded as a dependency of the abbey of Bec in Normandy, thus separating it from the Abbey at Ely. Anselm, Abbot of Bec and soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury, visited the town shortly afterwards and took away a small relic of St Neot At the hands of the de Clares the Priory, which may have been much further west near the Foxbrook, was completely rebuilt near the river by 1110. On her husband's death Rohais gave her entire manor to the Priory and its monks at the re-dedication ceremony in 1113. It consisted of a church with the bell tower, a refectory, a dormitory, a chapter house, a central cloister area, as well as kitchens, a cellarium for food storage and outbuildings including stables, storage barns, worskshops and pigsties. The priory remains are very incomplete, but attempts have been made to draw a plan based on what has been found. Apart from foundations and column bases, other finds include glazed floor tiles, painted wall plaster, fragments of stained glass, and pieces of carved masonry. The gatehouse survived until 1814. Some idea of what it may have looked like can be seen by visiting Binham Priory in Norfolk.
A castle was built on the riverbank at Eaton (modern Eaton Socon) around 1140AD, apparently without permission of the monarch. It was probably of timber construction and may never have been completed, but the earth mound still exists and can be seen from the path along the opposite bank. The castle was demolished about 15 years later by order of Henry II.
St Neots Priory was now holding a weekly market, a right given by charter around 1130 AD. The market stalls were set out next to the Priory, in the area where today's Market Square still stands. A wooden bridge was built to replace the old ford, and a system of tolls was set up. By the end of the 12th Century the infant town of St Neots was a busy, prosperous place; almost a twin of the older settlement at Eynesbury.
Around 1200 a new parish church was built in St Neots,possibly on the site of the original Priory, while had moved to a stone structure by the river to the north of the Market. Meanwhile Eynesbury and Eaton Socon parish churches were rebuilt around the same time. The Priory became highly respected and extremely wealthy during this period, and the settlements of Eynesbury, St Neots, and Eaton Socon were prosperous too. This was partly due to the presence of the Priory and partly due to river and road traffic, especially along the Great North Road between London and central England.
There was a small settlement called Sudbury based around the manor owned by the de Sudbury family (now Crosshall, part of Eaton Ford). The manor fell into disrepair in the early 1300s, but traces of the old fields still remain. These are typical of the open field system of that time, the town was surrounded by field strips and areas of common land, with water meadows and reed beds close to the river. These would have provided most of the food and materials necessary for the local population, timber would have been taken from the abundant woodland on the higher ground.
Because the Priory was an 'alien house', that is, it belonged to a French order it suffered from intermittent confiscations during the Hundred Years' War from 1338, as well as the payment of an annual fee which amounted to over half their annual income. In addition it was ostracised by pilgrims and travellers cutting off another source of income.
The Black Death struck St Neots in 1348, spreading very quickly and resulting in the deaths of about 35% of the population. In 1378 only seven monks remained in the Priory, and three of these returned to France. An English Prior was appointed in 1409 and the French connection finally broken. By the 1340s the Priory was reported to be semi-derelict with lax discipline, but by 1507 it seems that it had been repaired and was once again thriving.
St Neots parish church was rebuilt in the 1400s, (as was the church at Eaton Socon). This last revival of gothic architecture, which left almost nothing of the previous church, was made possible by Edward IV's policy of reducing taxation on his returns from exile in Flanders in 1471. It resulted in the town having a uniformly Perpendicular building with a prominent 130 ft tower, built in the Somerset style, which is still visible from miles around. Like many churches of the period it was supported by a local gild, which had a chapel within the building and because of its size and grandeur, it became known as "the cathedral of, Huntingdonshire". Eynesbury church had already been rebuilt in the 1200s. All three suffered from the depredations of government legislation when their interiors were shorn of their stone altars, rood screens and statuary as part of the Reformation agenda. Eaton Socon church suffered a severe fire in the 1930s and was rebuilt in the same style.
A few non-ecclesiastical buildings remain from the late mediaeval period, though the timber frames were often covered by more recent "improvements". One of the best of these buildings was discovered and restored quite recently and is now a jewellery shop. It is pictured on the right.
In 1591 there were 879 people living in Eaton Socon; as Eynesbury and St Neots may both have been a similar size, this suggests a total population of at least 2000. St Neots Grammar School was in existence by 1556 when the schoolmaster was a Mr Faucet. The Priory buildings fell into a state of disrepair, but were still at least partly standing in 1584.
In 1588 a new bridge was built, mainly wooden but with masonry piers in the river. Possibly some of this stone was salvaged from the ruins of the Priory.
St Neots Manor passed from royal ownership under James I to Sir Sidney Montague. In the Civil War he supported the Royalist or Cavalier cause although his nephew, Edward, supported Parliament. As in most parts of the country, loyalties were mixed, but St Neots was firmly in Parliamentary hands and a detachment of Roundhead troops guarded the town. However, King Charles I passed through the town in 1645 and gathered willing recruits from local people.
In 1648 a small battle took place when a group of 300 Royalists camped in the Market Square overnight. They were surprised and defeated by a smaller group of Roundheads advancing across the bridge, most of them being taken prisoner. A detailed account of the battle can be found in the entry for Henry Rich, 1st Earl of Holland, the leader of the captured Royalist force.
Many of the older buildings in St Neots and Eynesbury were constructed in the years following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. There were 543 houses in the town in 1674 when records were taken for the Hearth Tax (though some of these may have been in nearby villages). Eynesbury Church was allowed to fall into disrepair during this period, until in 1684 the spire collapsed, causing serious and extensive damage. The building was repaired and the current tower built in 1687.
The Lordship of the Manor passed in 1902 to the Rowley family who still hold it. The Rowleys first appear on the scene, however, in the eighteenth century at Upper Wintringham when they acquired the house formerly owned by the Payne family. Then in 1793, Owsley Rowley bought Priory Farm at the north end of Huntingdon Street from his father-in-law William King. He set about laying out the farm as parkland and, in 1798, he built a large house on it. Rowley's purchases of land, much of it to the east of the railway line, including Monks Hardwick Farm, the Mill at Little Paxton made him arguably the most powerful man in the town, long before the family became Lords of the manor. He was a JP and chairman of Quarter Sessions for 25 years. On his death in 1824, his son George William Rowley succeeded and acquired the advowson of St Neots in 1864. Owsley Rowley's third grandson, Charles Perceval Rowley , who lived at Wintringham, was responsible for ten of the stained glass windows in St Neots Parish church. The second son, George Dawson Rowley became famous as an explorer and ornithologist. Some of his collection of stuffed birds is now in the British Museum. He and his father died within hours of each other in 1878, to be succeeded by his only son George Fydell Rowley.
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 which 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.
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.
Brewing took on a more industrial character in the eighteenth century. James Paine acquired Foster's brewery in the Market Square in 1831. The Priory Brewery, on the site of the old Priory, which was owned by the Fowler family, was sold to John Day of Bedford in 1814. Day it was who demolished the Priory Gatehouse in order to improve access for his brewery drays. He also provided St Neots with its first street lamps.
St. Neots also became famous for gas appliances. George Bower built a foundry for making gas fires, light fittings and even gas cookers. Unfortunately though he sold his appliances as far afield as South America, he was a poor business man and went bankrupt.
(The town was, essentially, a market town for all that. Its industries continued to supply farming and its cattle market was in use until the late 1980s. Meanwhile, from the 1960s, newer industries arrived to accompany the overspill developments from London.)
By the late twentieth century the de-industrialisation which characterised much of Britain, affected St Neots with the loss od Courtaulds (fomrerly Kayser Bondor), Samuel Jones, Gates' Hydraulics and several others. Paine's Brewery was sold and closed. Meanwhile the Market Place was refurbished (and the largest Millennium celebrations in the county outside Cambridge occurred in December 1999. The by-pass which had been opened in 1985 provided an envelope for new housing growth between it and the railway; the Eynesbury floodplain was also filled with housing towards the river. It is estimated that the population of the town will be 40,000 by 2020.
Original historical documents relating to St Neots, including the original church parish registers, local government records, maps, photographs and records of some businesses, are held by Cambridgeshire Archives and Local Studies at the County Record Office Huntingdon.