Roads, Rivers and Railways

XII Roads, Rivers and Railways

The changes which Lincolnshire saw in the 18th and 19th century were closely linked to improved means of communication. As the land produced more, markets were sought further afield in the industrial Midlands and north; new techniques called for materials such as fertili­sers not always available locally, and the spread of innovative ideas was related to traffic routes. Improved roads and waterways, and later the new railways were created by and contributed to the agricultural revolution.


Lincolnshire’s roads were bad; the broad-wheeled wagon and the droves of cattle passing over long distances helped to make it almost impossible for parishes to keep even the main roads in their parish in good repair. They may not have been as bad as in some other parts of the country: the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1774 thought the good roads reflected the wealth of the area, and Arthur Young, usually outspoken in his criticisms, was moderate:

[the fen roads] generally made with silt or old sea sand . . . when moderately wet are very good; but dreadfully dusty and heavy in dry weather; . . . on a thaw they are like mortar . . . Take the county in general and they must be esteemed below par. (1799)

Turnpike trusts sprang up to deal with this problem. Set up by Act of Parliament, they improved existing stretches or built new roads, charging tolls at the ‘bars’ set at intervals along the route. By the middle of the 18th century, the movement was in full flood, no less than 450 Acts being passed between 1760 and 1764, and the number of improved roads grew rapidly.

The way towards turnpikes in Lincolnshire was pointed in 1666 when the Deeping Fen commissioners secured rights over the roads in their drainage area similar to those enjoyed by the later turnpike trustees. The main series of Lincolnshire Acts came between 1755 and 1765 when an average of one trust each year was set up covering more than 180 miles of road. By 1834, 29 trusts had been set up controlling between 450 and 500 miles/724 and 804km of road in the county. Eight trusts were large with more than 20 miles/32km each; 18 trusts had between ten and 20 miles/16 and 32km, and three were small, with less than ten miles/16km of road under their care. In all, Lincolnshire had 15 per cent of its roads turnpiked, rather more than other large counties like Essex, Suffolk and especially Norfolk but much less than smaller ones like Huntingdonshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire.

Map of Lincolnshire's Main Roads
21. The Main Roads

The trusts built toll houses, laid out branch roads and on occasion out off side roads; they took over some of the streets in the towns they passed through: most of the main roads through Lincoln were turnpiked between 1755 and 1797. By 1765 they had laid out the outlines of the present trunk road system of the county. From that date, most new schemes were associated with drainage such as the Boston-Bourne road (1765) and the East Fen reclamation (1801-7), but new routes were thrust through the Fens towards King’s Lynn like the Swineshead­-Fosdyke road (1826) and the bridge and causeway over the Nene at Sutton Bridge (1831).

This last road soon grew to be the most important highway in the Fens. The two other major through routes in the county were the Great North Road, turnpiked between Grantham and Newark in 1725-6 (the earliest Act for the county) and between Grantham and Stamford in 1738-9, and secondly the route from London to the Humber. The first part of this road, from Peterborough to Lincoln, was turnpiked in 1755; it entered the county at Market Deeping where the London-Lincoln coaches (posting at the Bull Inn) met the Boston-Leicester coaches (the New Inn) and passed via Bourne and Sleaford to Lincoln; the Lincoln-Barton ferry road was turnpiked in 1765. The Lincoln-Peterborough was the most powerful trust in the county. Divided into six districts, it controlled a number of branch routes; roads ran from Bourne, for instance, westwards to the Great North Road at Colsterworth, eastwards into the Fens at Spalding and northwards to Donington and Boston. It abandoned the prehistoric Mareham Lane south of Sleaford in favour of the road through Folkingham, and early in the 19th century created a new road from Sleaford to Lincoln across open wasteland so bare that Sir Francis Dashwood had built a ‘land lighthouse’ at Dunston to guide travellers. The Act for this route was the most costly turnpike Act of All.

Three main roads crossed the county from west to east. The Bawtry­-Hainton road (1765) crossed the Trent and opened access into Yorkshire, and the Newark-Sleaford road (1759) and the Grantham-Donington road (1804) gave Boston its overland routes.

Traffic, both goods and passengers, increased. By the 1830s four stagecoach routes ran from London to Lincolnshire destinations and five passed through the county on their way north; another three ran from west to east and 21 local routes from town to town. The four day journey from Barton to London was cut to 36 hours by 1786, and further improvements followed the introduction of the mail coach on local (Lincoln-Boston 1804) and national (London-Boston 1807) routes. The Boston mail was extended to Louth in 1818 and in 1827 ‘the Postmaster General is making arrangements for continuing the London Mail from Louth to Grimsby, which will make the journey from London to Grimsby – possible in 27 hours [connecting with] the two daily packet boats to Hull’ (Stamford Mercury). By the 1830s seven Royal Mail coaches were passing into or through Lincolnshire every day: ‘until a few years ago, no coaches passed through Gainsborough; now [1817] there is one . . . every day to Doncaster, Wakefield, Leeds, and another to Manchester. Also one to Lincoln three days a week, and returns next day in time for passengers to go by steam packet to Hull, or forward to Doncaster, etc.’.

The turnpikes encouraged the J.P.s in their quarter sessions and the parish officers to improve their ‘terrible bad roads’. They copied the methods used by the trust engineers like McAdam (employed on the Grantham-Nottingham and Leadenham- Mansfield roads, 1826); indeed the Brigg magistrates ordered the turnpike trustees to engage a surveyor who could advise on McAdam’s principles of road building. Local residents could begin to rejoice in ‘such a change as seldom experienced when but a few, years ago the roads hereabouts were hardly passable’.

But despite the fact that they could call on ‘statute labour’ and on occasion paupers from the parishes to help with those stretches of road which ran through the parish, the trusts could not always keep up their roads. Arthur Young reported:

From Grimsthorpe to Colsterworth are eight miles, called by courtesy of the neighourhood, a Turnpike; but in which we were in every moment either buried in quagmires of mud or racked to dislocation over pieces of rock which they term mending. A great house must be great indeed to answer the fatigue, pain and anxiety of such approaches. No environs are so truly magnificent as good roads in a country which abounds in bad. Pity that the tolls are not trebled.

The cause was largely financial. Large initial sums were needed for the Act and the building of roads and bridges: the road between Brigg and Lincoln (1765) cost some £80-120 per mile/1.6km, the Fosdyke bridge (1812-­15) cost £20,000. Part of these sums were raised from investors, large and small. Sir Joseph Banks was an example of the larger investor; he put money into the Sleaford-Tattershall and Grimsby trusts as well as into two navigation schemes and at least one bridge-building company. At the other end of the scale, the parish officers of Gedney invested small sums left for charitable purposes in the King’s Lynn-Holbeach trust. But the rest of the capital came from mortgaging the tolls; thus for many years the income due to the trustees from the toll bars passed into other hands. Dividends went to meet loan charges and other costs; the Sleaford­-Tattershall trust paid no dividend for the first 30 years and only paid in 1825 because of ‘the said Road having ever since the 25th day of June 1816 been supported and kept in repair by and at the expence of the several Parishes thro’ which it extends’. The trusts pressed all sources of support into service. Some collected part of the parish highway rates, and sometimes even parish charities were diverted to this purpose (Gainsborough and Louth). The struggle to maintain these roads was great, especially since in many cases there was a good deal of opposition from local landowners who on occasion diverted the proposed road away from their estates (the duke of Ancaster agreed to maintain the extra third of a mile needed to make the new road go round rather than through Grimsthorpe Park), from those who had interests affected by the roads, and from some local residents who, resentful at new barriers across their traditional routes, repeatedly broke the bars and side gates (as at South Elkington) and refused to pay the tolls even when these were discounted for them.

But by the 1820s the situation had improved. Floods and other hazards still interrupted traffic: as late as the 1850s the roads at Gedney ‘are almost impassable’ in winter, while in 1804 the ‘London to Barton-on-­Humber mail on Sunday night was attacked by three footpads at the bottom of Elsham Hill’ (Hull Advertiser). But the greatly increased traffic after the end of the Napoleonic wars boosted the profits. In 1780 the Lincoln-Boston tolls were estimated at £300 p.a.; in 1810 they were offered at lease at £3000 p.a. And the roads improved: whereas in 1821 some 72 per cent of the county’s turnpike roads were said to be in a bad way, parliament was told in 1840 that, of the 29 Lincolnshire trusts, 21 were efficient and only two were responsible for bad roads.

The difference between the turnpikes and the parish roads was striking: the main roads were ‘good at all seasons. The bye-roads . . . are on the contrary very bad for at least six months in the year’. These ‘cursed roads’ (Tetney, 1800) received some attention: ‘in one year we [the parish of Winterton] have expended nearly seven hundred pounds on the roads’, while at Burgh le Marsh ‘the inhabitants of this district. . . at immense expense… have procured materials from a considerable distance and have put their principal roads into excellent repair, without calling in the aid of a Turnpike Act’. But nearly five times as much was spent on each mile of turnpike road as on the non-turnpiked parish roads: in 1836, £40,000 was spent by the trusts on 450 miles/1,165km of turnpikes, while in 1839 a total of £80,664 was incurred by all the parish officers on some 4620 miles/7,434km of roads.

The turnpikes changed the face of the county. Few parts of the region found themselves out of reach of at least one passable road. Villages, especially in the Fens, became less isolated and regional differences declined as travel became easier. New river crossings, like the Trent bridge at Gainsborough (1787), the ‘Witham bridge at Tattershall (1795) the first on the river between Lincoln and Boston) and the bridges over the Welland at Fosdyke and over the Nene at Sutton Bridge opened up whole new possibilities.


Map of Lincolnshire's Canals and Railways
22. The Canals and Railways

Rivers formed an important part of Lincolnshire’s transport system from early times. The prehistoric dug-outs, the Roman canals, the carriage of Ancaster stone to Nottingham and Louth for medieval building works all testify to the use of the waterways. Land routes remained valuable – the food needed for the Lincoln parliament in 1301 came overland from Grimsby, Stamford and Barton, not by water; but both people and goods moved by water through the region. The new rector of Coningsby in 1730 rode from London to Donington and then went by boat, being ‘met on the water’ by the curate and churchwardens; and a 17th-century coal merchant on the Trent -wrote that ‘the convenien­cye for carriadg by water is muche to further the sale att an easier rate to manie markett towns’.

Lincolnshire looked more to the sea and the coastal trade with London than to connections with the Midlands. Apart from the Fosse Dyke between the Witham at Lincoln and the Trent, only one route westwards was successful, the Grantham-Nottingham canal; other plans to link the county with the Midlands were abortive. Most of the county’s schemes were navigations rather than canals; the aim was to make the rivers, which were liable to silt up as a result of frequent flooding, navigable rather than to link town with town. The first drainage and embanking schemes channelled the flow of water and for a time improved the scour, but drainage led to the peat shrinking and further flooding occurred. One of the earliest schemes was the Act relating to the Welland at Stamford (1570) but despite strenuous efforts throughout the 17th century this navigation never flourished. An attempt (1671) to canalise the Witham between Boston and Lincoln was equally ineffective.

The Ellison family, father and son, who improved the Fosse Dyke in the 1740s and made large profits, showed the way to success, and between 1760 and 1830 some 20 Acts were passed covering 10 schemes in the county. The work fell into clearly marked phases. In the 1760s, the Witham and Ancholme were improved and a canal built from Louth to Tetney on the coast. Then came a lull: a half-hearted attempt to link Bourne with the Glen and Welland by Bourne Eau and (inspired by the extensive works in Nottinghamshire next door which pushed the limits of navigation on the Trent up river beyond Nottingham to Long Eaton) a number of unsuccessful plans – to join Alford to the sea, Grantham with Newark or Stamford with the Midlands – were all that materialised. A third stage started in 1791 and five schemes were completed in a short time – the Slea Navigation (1791-4), the Nottingham-Grantham canal (the biggest scheme at its date, 1793-8), the Caistor canal (1793), the Keadby canal across Axholme to the Trent (1793, ‘really a Yorkshire canal which strayed into Lincolnshire’) and the Horncastle Navigation (planned in 1787 but not opened until 1802). The first 10 years of the 19th century saw the last stage, with improvements to the Ancholme (1802) and Witham (1808) and the building of navigable drains like Hobhole and the South Forty Foot, (1806-8) in the course of draining the Fens. More abortive proposals were made, in the Marsh, the Ancholme valley, the region around Stamford and most ambitious of all a link canal between Grantham and Sleaford.

Schemes often took a long time to complete; the Louth-Tetney project despite the support of the town corporation took 14 years. Opposition feared drainage disasters and damage to local interests, and on occasion local notables were mobilised like lord Bertie for the Witham Act (1762). Drainage engineers like Grundy of Spalding and Jessop of Newark built them; John Rennie was engaged on the Grimsby Docks when called to drain the Fens and cut the navigable drains around Boston.

By 1800 the main market towns of the county like Horncastle had direct access by water to the sea, and the drainage channels provided navigable waterways to large numbers of smaller market centres and villages. Both people and goods passed along these routes. From the Witham Navigation Act 1812, for instance, packet boats passed down the river every Wednesday and Saturday, calling at isolated public houses (Anchor Inn, etc), picking up parcels and passengers for Boston market. From all over the Fens they poured into the town via the drains and their outlets, Bargate Bridge, Grand Sluice and Black Sluice, and Boston grew into a major corn market, sending potatoes to London and importing fertilisers, coal and timber. Market boats operated along the Ancholme into Brigg. Prosperity came to some of the river-bank dwellers. Gainsborough took over from West Stockwith as the centre for Trent traffic (an earlier attempt had been made to found a port at Susworth), and new port facilities were provided at inland towns like Louth (River­head). Early factories and warehouses grew up alongside the wharves as at Grantham and Lincoln (Brayford Pool). The unsuccessful industrial village of New Bolingbroke was to have relied heavily on water trans­port.

But waterways, like the turnpikes, were costly to build and to maintain. The new cut at Grimsby cost £20,000, and £21,000 was spent-on the unfinished Horncastle-Witham Navigation; the trustees in both cases were alleged to ‘have managed so as to waste such money … many thousand pounds were very ill spent’. New Acts were required to raise extra capital. At Horncastle, one of the most difficult waterways in the county to build, it took 20 years to pay off the debts. Even the rich Sleaford-Witham Navigation paid no dividend from the start in 1794 until 1811. But eventually the investment paid off, by 1824 the tolls on the Sleaford Navigation had risen from £500 to more than £1000 p.a., and on the Grantham canal (which had cost some £100,000 for 33 miles/53km of waterway) the tolls at the end of the 18th century were almost £5000. p.a. As with the turnpikes, these tolls were often mortgaged or leased on long and favourable terms to local entrepreneurs like Charles Chaplin at Louth. The same people were involved: Benjamin Handley called a meeting in 1792 to discuss the Sleaford-Witham Navigation; also present were Anthony Peacock and Edward Waterson, both engaged in the Sleaford enclosure and local turnpike schemes.


Railways came late to Lincolnshire; it was almost the last county to be touched. The first two lines (Nottingham-Lincoln and Stamford-Peterborough) were opened in 1846, 16 years after the Liverpool-Man­chester railway had proved such schemes profitable.

One. reason for the delay was the relatively small demand for the carriage of bulk cargoes. Lincolnshire’s livestock was moved on the hoof, its grain by water. But above all there was indecision about which routes to follow. As early as the 1820s plans were drawn up for lines through the county to York (John Rennie, 1827 and the G.N.R., 1833) or to link inland towns to the coast (even Liverpool-Grimsby, 1831). The major problem was the route north. The crossing of the Fens was not easy and the limestone belt involved tunnelling; the line had either to proceed on the east side of the limestone linking Peterborough, Sleaford, Lincoln and Gainsborough (the ‘Fens’ route) or cross the higher land linking Stamford, Grantham and Gainsborough (the ‘Towns’ route which it was generally, agreed would cost more but carry more traffic). The battle was long and hard, especially in 1844-5 but in the end parliament settled on a modified Towns route (Peterborough, Grantham, Newark and Retford). Passions ran high: bells were rung in Stamford, a civic meeting in Lincoln broke up in disorder and it is claimed that 8000 people from all over the county crowded into Lincoln castle to hear the routes debated. Meanwhile the railways were getting steadily nearer, Nottingham (1839), Leicester and Hull (1840), and the people of Lin­colnshire used the coaches promoted by the railway companies to the nearer stations, particularly Rotherham and Leicester; Louth was joined by coach to Peterborough when the railway arrived there (1845).

When building began (1845-6), the first lines came in a rush; a third of the county’s railways, 220 miles, were opened before 1850. There were four main routes. In 1848-9 the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Company, at the insistence of the new Grimsby Dock Company and Sheffield industrialists, drove a line through the north of the county linking Grimsby with south Yorkshire. Secondly, the East Lincolnshire Railway Company opened the Grimsby-Boston line through Alford and Louth; it was extended to the New Holland ferries which the railway companies and local interests were developing. Thirdly, the G.N.R. completed its ‘Loop’ line from Peterborough through Boston to Lincoln to join the London-York line at Bawtry (1847-9).

The Loop line was opened before the Towns line across the Kesteven uplands was completed. The G.N.R. was in difficulties. The L.N.E.R. had already built its London-Edinburgh route, but the G.N.R. only had the stretches south of Lincolnshire and north of the county finished; the company was held up on the middle section for ‘about 15 miles in the immediate neighbourhood of Grantham. . . on which occur rather heavy works, requiring a longer time to complete that the rest of the Towns Line’, as the chairman reported in 1849. The route passed up the Glen valley and crossed to the Witham valley through the Stoke tunnel. The cost was high, some £25,000 per mile/1.6km compared with an average of £13,000 for the rest of the line, and the work was not finished until 1852. The directors thus decided to build the Loop line ‘which could be made. in 18 months [so that] the Company was getting the traffic, such as it was, from that in the meantime’.

By 1852 the main arteries in the county had been laid down. Lin­colnshire’s place in the national network is seen from the fact that only one town, Grantham, had direct links with both London and the north. Two other main lines were built, the Ambergate-Boston line (1857-9) and a route from Lincoln across the Fens to Spalding and on to March and East Anglia (1867-82). The rest was infilling, short lines between towns; the longest new lines in Lincolnshire after 1852 were Sutton Bridge-Peterborough (26 miles/41.8km, 1866) and Spalding-Ruskington (21 miles/33.7km, 1882).

The county was divided over the railways. Henry Handley of Culver­thorpe M.P. supported the Towns line while his political rivals Charles Chaplin of Blankney and Lord Worsley, the earl of Yarborough’s son, urged the Fens line. Landowners and businessmen raised capital, launched small companies and built lines, leasing them to the great companies; while others1ike Colonel Charles Sibtborpe of Lincoln, M.P. opposed the lines, refusing them access to land near their estates.

The railways brought long-term and short-term effects. Immediately there was the purchase of supplies. The Grimsthorpe estate agent ‘had one of the Contractors for making the Railway at Little Bytham yesterday who came to see if we could supply him with sleepers’. The local farmer, retailer and craftsman made their profit: ‘I have told Pilkington that he is allowed to brew small beer for the year only, and none of the beer to be drunk upon the premises’. In 1851, 600 railway workers were staying in six south Lincolnshire villages for work on the Towns line; all but two of the 313 workers in Castle and Little Bytham were immigrants. They lived in lodgings, huts, tents and barns, and they moved on when the work was done.

Long-term, places like Barnetby (a railway junction) benefited. Scun­thorpe sent iron ore from 1860 to the Trent barges and from 1866, when Gunness railway bridge was opened in the face of opposition from Gainsborough merchants, direct to Sheffield. Docks at Grimsby accom­panied the railway. Some places like Folkingham and Stamford attri­buted their slow growth to the lack of a railway. Life in the countryside became richer. Coal from Doncaster was readily available; the Ancaster estate agent (1855) ‘sold about 60 tons and carried 31 tons to the Gardens, Stables, and Laundry at Grimsthorpe. We can get away from Bytham [station] in a day about 30 tons’. The cost of transporting stock, especially sheep, was high but fairs with a railway connection like Corby flourished. Fertilisers were brought in, grain sent out: ‘I have this afternoon sent 5 stones wheaten flour to the Little Bytham station, which will be forwarded per Goods Train via Edinburgh to Glasgow Station’.

Although some of the turnpikes reported increased traffic, and tolls at bars closest to the stations, as on the Bourne-Colsterworth and Lincoln-Retford roads, rose, in general long distance road carriage declined. As early as 1841 before the railways had entered the county, the Lincoln Gazette printed an obituary:

Died, on Friday last, the London and Leeds Mail-Coach in the fifth year of its age.
The immediate cause of its dissolution is the spread of Railways’.

But local carriers became more important. Some canals were leased to the railway companies – the Fosse Dyke and the Grantham-Nottingham canal, and goods traffic continued (it even increased on the Fosse Dyke in the 1880s) until the 1920s and 1930s. But in the end the combined effects of the railways and the revived road traffic reduced the income from tolls so severely that the independent canal companies could no longer survive.

The railways also took a major share of passenger traffic. The Gran­tham-Lincoln line was opened on 15 April 1867 with a daily service of three stopping and two through trains each way. Coaches were timed to meet trains and at New Holland the trains and ferries met. Steam packets continued between Hull and Gainsborough, down the coast and up the Witham, but passenger traffic on these routes fell. From 1863 the Witham packet took goods rather than passengers into Boston, though passengers used the drains and the Ancholme longer – until in fact the rural bus provided a faster, more reliable and more flexible mode of transport.

The railways built the seaside resorts. At first the lines ignored the coast, and when they were extended it was to carry fertilisers and agricultural produce. In 1873 the first line to Skegness was built, extended to Mablethorpe in 1877, but trade rather than leisure predomi­nated. Acts of parliament were secured for the establishment of docks on the coast at various points between Wainfleet and Sutton in the Marsh, to be linked by railway through Lincoln to the Midlands (the Lincoln-Chesterfield line of 1897 was part of these, proposals), and a narrow gauge tramway ran between Alford and Sutton from 1884 and 1889. But the docks were never built and the proposals died when the Immingham docks were begun in 1906. Instead the holiday industry took over. In 1886 the first line specifically for the holiday-maker was built between Willoughby and Sutton, and Skegness was developed : ‘With the aid of the railway company. And the result of the railway development on the coast of Lincolnshire can be seen today; despite the fact that the holiday-maker now comes by car or bus and not by train, Skegness and its neighbouring resorts draw more on Midland towns like Nottingham, while Cleethorpes is still regarded as the resort for south Yorkshire.