Victorian and twentieth-century regeneration
The Market Place, Ely by W. W. Collins published 1908 showing north-east aspect of Ely Cathedral in the background with the Almonry in front of that and the now demolished corn exchange building to the right of the picture.
The Market Place, Ely, pencil and watercolour by W W Collins published 1908 showing north-east aspect of Ely Cathedral in the background with the Almonry—now a restaurant and art gallery—in front of that and the 1847 corn exchange building, now demolished, to the right of the picture.
Ely Cathedral was “the first great cathedral to be thoroughly restored”. Work commenced in 1845 and was completed nearly thirty years later; most of the work was “sympathetically” carried out by the architect George Gilbert Scott. The only pavement labyrinth to be found in an English cathedral was installed below the west tower in 1870.
For over 800 years the cathedral and its associated buildings—built on an elevation 68 feet (21 m) above the nearby fens— have visually influenced the city and its surrounding area. Geographer John Jones, writing in 1924, reports that “from the roof of King’s Chapel in Cambridge, on a clear day, Ely [cathedral] can be seen on the horizon, 16 miles (26 km) distant, an expression of the flatness of the fens”. In 1954, architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner wrote “as one approaches Ely on foot or on a bicycle, or perhaps in an open car, the cathedral dominates the picture for miles around … and offers from everywhere an outline different from that of any other English cathedral”. Local historian Pamela Blakeman reports a claim that “Grouped around [the cathedral] … is the largest collection of mediaeval buildings still in daily use in this country”.
As the seat of a diocese, Ely has long been considered a city: the caption to John Speed’s 1610 plan of Ely reads “Although this Citie of Ely”, and Aikin refers to Ely as a city in 1800. Ely, however, was not formally granted city status until 1 April 1974 by the Queen by letters patent. Ely’s population of 15,102 classifies it as one of the smallest cities in England.
Henry III of England granted a market to the Bishop of Ely using letters close on 9 April 1224 although Ely had been a trading centre prior to this.Present market days are Thursday and Saturday. The city is situated on the River Great Ouse, which was a significant means of transport until the fens were drained and Ely ceased to be an island in the eighteenth century. The river is now a popular boating spot, and has a large marina.