Babylon: the capital of the ancient and infamous Babylonian Empire, home to the wondrous hanging gardens, the tower of Babel and the exiled people of Jerusalem. Located on the Euphrates River in Iraq but now no more than ruins.
Although the specific origins are unclear, it was from this southern Mesopotamian city that a small stretch of land to the east of the river in Ely took its name. A name that is now kept alive by the gallery in which you stand. It was with the rerouting of the River Great Ouse around 1200 under the order of the Cathedral authorities that a number of properties first became cut off from the rest of Ely. When the railway line was laid in the 1840’s these properties became inaccessible from all sides and the inhabitants could be regarded as well and truly ‘in exile’, having to traverse the river by ferry or private boat in order to enter the city.
A survey in 1250 identified the presence of freemen living ‘Beyond the Water’ and in the fifteenth century the area was referred to as ‘tenementa ultra aquam’ (houses beyond the water). In 1618 the land was widely known as Babylon and by 1850 was being officially identified as such on maps. At one time there were as many as forty inhabited properties on the ‘island’ but with the passing of time the name became increasingly appropriate for those isolated in the wilderness. Not only were the inhabitants outside of the city’s defensive limits for many centuries, they were also exposed to the full ravages of frequent Fenland flooding. Up until 1947, usually during spring, they took the full brunt of the water, often having to resort to living upstairs with the island becoming submerged.
By the 1950’s modern services such as gas and electricity had come to most of Ely but Babylon was increasingly neglected. As a result the few remaining residents gradually defected to the west bank. As they left their houses were demolished behind them, never to be replaced. Ironically it was after Babylon was abandoned that the Lincoln Bridge (not the Babylon Bridge as it is commonly called) was erected in 1964. Shortly afterwards, in the l970’s, the large marina was developed into the site you can see today, providing moorings for hundreds of varied craft. To the modern day visitor however, this calm and idyllic sight belies the history of a once thriving community.
Being surrounded by the river brought economic benefits as well as threats. Most significantly, Babylon was for centuries a major boat building area for both Ely and the Fens; firms based on the river included Cuttriss, Ashberry, Eaves, Pond and Appleyard. At one time shipwrights occupied nearly the entire site, producing amongst others the popular ‘Elysian’ craft. The area was also home to fishermen who gathered the eels from which Ely derived its name, and was a centre for weavers who made eel traps and baskets from the osiers and willows that grew in abundance on and around Babylon. Today you will find Osier Close and Willow Walk located along the road off Waterside. It was also in this district of the city that many potteries thrived with at least two potteries situated on Babylon itself. The region gave its name to ‘Babylon ware’ pottery, as recently uncovered by Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’ during 2003’s Broad Street dig.
One activity from the past, which continues to be carried out passionately from Babylon, is rowing. The area remains the location for boathouses used by both Kings School and Cambridge Rowing Club. Both train frequently on the river, which even provided the setting for an unofficial varsity boat race held during World War Il – which was won by Oxford.
This side of the river was for many years a maze like network of breweries and pubs, with the river claiming many victims from those who had over indulged and turned right instead of left on their way home! The task of fishing out the bodies often fell to those living over on Babylon. In 1906 one resident Mr James Merry, was honoured by the Royal Humane Society for saving twenty-one people from drowning, even though many who fell in were not so lucky.
Since 1950 many of the brewery buildings and drinking establishments were demolished or converted, but the Babylon Gallery is one structure that survives from this time when beer dominated the riverside. Some of the stone work dates back to 1600 but the majority of the construction visible today dates from 1777 and 1783. For many years the building was a malthouse and brewery with loading doors on the riverside. The building was in fact the oldest of all the brew houses and as early as 169O citizens were forced to petition the Bedford Level Corporation because Mr Marche, the owner at the time, was encroaching on the navigable channel and so causing problems for watermen and traffic. In the years that followed there was a direct link between the brewery and Babylon as residents came over to draw their water from the well that was in the brewing yard. In 1871 the brewery was transferred to the now demolished brewery on Fore Hill but this property was still used until the I960’s as a workshop for pubs; prviding signs and furnishings, including the boat shaped bar still used in the Cutter Inn further along the river. In the 1980’s the building was converted into an architects design studio.
The lower floor of the building is now occupied by the Babylon Gallery, which was opened in May 2000 following internal refurbishing work. Despite the biblical and historical connotations of its name, the gallery follows a policy of promoting contemporary visual art and shows by local artists. The gallery has been warmly received by both artists and the public.