A small, stoic town stained by the cruel events of one night

Click to follow

The caretaker's cottage where Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were murdered is to be torn down, Soham Village College's governing body announced yesterday.

The girls' families are to be consulted on what is to happen to the site. John Thorogood, chairman of the governors, said: "If it were left standing, it would constantly remind pupils, school staff and the local community of the horrors that took place there."

But while physical reminders of the double murder are easy to erase, the people of Soham have found their lives tainted by the tragedy ­ the very name of their town a shorthand for the terrible events which took place in the caretaker's house.

During the days of the search for Holly and Jessica, the population of 8,000 reacted with stoicism to the hundreds of journalists who descended upon them from all over the world. The town's vicar, the Rev Tim Alban-Jones, became the public face of Soham ­ first as a hopeful standard bearer and then as a consoling voice ­ and was later rewarded with an MBE.

But locals say that it is still unusual to see children wandering alone. A town which believed "it couldn't happen here" learned to the contrary.

Soham relies heavily on agriculture jobs in the surrounding area, evident from its autumn pumpkin fair. But the high-tech businesses in nearby Cambridge have created an influx of "outsiders" and fuelled the rise in house prices.

Soham may be, in some ways, an unremarkable collection of homes around a high street indistinguishable from many others across Britain but its residents are proud of its history. Soham was already a centre of pagan pilgrimage when Romans established early trading centres about 43BC. When they withdrew AD410, the Saxons settled.

More than two centuries later St Felix, a Burgundy Bishop brought over by Sigebert, Saxon King of the East Angles, to convert his people to Christianity, established a monastery.

Later, when William the Conqueror defeated the Saxon King Harold, Soham was described as the "Land of the King" in the Domesday Book.

The medieval period saw it flourish as a centre of trade, navigable to the Wash via the West River or the Old River Ouse, and to Cambridge via The Cam. When the fenland drainage schemes arrived, Soham concentrated on its farming and root crops and fruits became the most profitable products.

One of its more unique claims to fame was the marriage at St Andrew's Church, in 1792, of Susannah Cullen and Olaudah Equiano ­ an African slave who gained his freedom and became an activist for abolition in the 18th century. Slavery was abolished in England 10 years after his death in 1807. But the town's most famous son was William Case Morris. Born in Soham on 16 February 1864, he later settled in Argentina where he founded a network of homes for street children. He returned home, destitute and elderly, and died on 15 September 1932.

In more recent years, the biggest event in Soham was a wartime railway disaster. An ammunitions train carrying 400 tons of bombs for the D-Day advance caught fire as it approached Soham station early on 2 June 1944.

The town was saved by the actions of two men, train driver Benjamin Gimbert and his fireman James Nighthall, who uncoupled the burning wagon from the rest of the train and pulled it clear with the engine.

The ensuing explosion, as the engine and wagon pulled out of the station, killed Nighthall and signalman Frank Bridges. Gimbert was blown clear and survived. Soham station was virtually obliterated, but 50 wagon-loads of ammunition failed to detonate. Nighthall and Gimbert were awarded the George Cross. It was a heroic act which the people of Soham would far rather symbolise the town's spirit than the stigma of a double child murder.