The Making of Modern Lincolnshire

XIII The Making of Modern Lincolnshire

The rate of population growth in 19th-century Lincolnshire was slower than elsewhere, and it fell off sharply after 1851. At first both towns and rural areas shared in the growth but most of the gains in the later years were focussed in a few towns and on the coast. The urban population of the county rose from 28 per cent in 1801 to 33 per cent in 1851 and to 46 per cent in 1901, but the towns were still small – in 1831 only six places had more than 5000 inhabitants.

As the towns grew, there was a decline in regional variations brought about by improved communications, better marketing of goods, and changes in farming and in the social structure of rural society. The drainage schemes and enclosure, followed by a depression in the 1820s, prosperity in the 1850s and a severe depression in the 1870s, encouraged the Lincolnshire farmer everywhere to diversify rather than to specialise. Throughout the county pasture gave way to arable, stock-rearing to corn or mixed farming. Lincolnshire became a major corn-producing area for the nation (wheat rather than barley) but it still had a substantial investment in sheep (28 per cent of the cultivated land was permanent pasture late in the century). The ring-fence farm became the focus of agricultural life rather than the estate or the local community. The farmer, both the freeholder and the tenant (protected as he was by the ‘Lincolnshire Custom’) and his family were the risk-takers, and the beneficiaries when times were good, rather than the landlord or the village as a whole. By 1900 there was more difference between town and country than between the Marsh and Heath, Fens and Wolds.

But regional variations did not disappear altogether. The Fens, which looked to Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, were the home of smallholders; they suffered less from the dislocation of enclosure and the depression of the 1820s and 1830s. The few gentry in this region contributed relatively little to the social and cultural, life of the area, or of the county. Here, as elsewhere, grazing gave way to arable but from the 1860s the prosperity of the area declined and the emigration of younger sons became more common.

Lindsey and Kesteven were the home of the great landlords. In Lindsey the Pelham earls of Yarborough dominated from the Brocklesby estate. Lords Scarbrough and Willoughby d’Eresby who held extensive but scattered estates were non-resident, and the local gentry like Chaplin of Tathwell and Dixon of Holton le Moor emulated or opposed Yarbor­ough. Like Nottinghamshire and south Yorkshire, large farms and wealthy farmers characterised the area, and sheep gave way to wheat. In Kesteven, which looked more towards Leicestershire and North­imptonshire, the influence of the Ancaster estate at Grimsthorpe was rivalled by the Brownlows of Belton and the Manners at Belvoir. A larger number of gentry, often of ancient Lincolnshire lines, resided on their lands – the Chaplins of Blankney, Thorolds, Welbys, Tumors, Whichcotes and others. They were conservative – and although the area saw an increase in corn (especially barley), sheep and cattle continued here longer than elsewhere in the county.

Rural and urban population in 19th century Lincolnshire
23. Rural and urban population in 19th century Lincolnshire

The differences and changes reflected themselves in the area’s political history. In 1832 the number of county M.P.s was increased from two to four, but the number of town seats was reduced, until from 1867 county and town representation was merged into a few large rural constituencies. In the new constituency of North Lincolnshire, the earl of Yarborough’s whig supporters, many of them tenants, outvoted the tory gentry of Lindsey, but in Kesteven the tory gentry outvoted the whig Ancaster supporters (though the Ancaster family eventually switched to the tories), in contrast to the parochialism, indecision and relative apathy of the voters of Holland.

The Marsh and Axholme were characterised by smaller farms, some­what less prosperity and less innovativeness. And the coastal economy changed from fishing and wrecking (the Saltfleet wrecker waiting for his ‘Godsend’ was notorious: ‘These Christian savages when they see a vessel driving on the beach, clap their hands and shout exaltingly, Thank God a Wreck’); the Lincolnshire Coast Association (1826) put a lifeboat at Gibraltar Point near Skegness, and inns for sea bathers sprang up at Cleethorpes, Saltfleet, Mablethorpe, Sutton, Skegness, Frieston and Fosdyke. Fuller development began in the 1840s, first at Clee­thorpes, then at Mablethorpe-Sutton and Skegness.

Social changes

The emergence of class differences affected 19th-century Lincolnshire as elsewhere. The greater landlord, gentry, small owner and larger tenant farmer, smallholder, and labourer began to take their terms of reference from other members of the same class rather than from the community in which they resided. The distinctions were never entirely clear. The gentry and major landlords built similar houses (Harlaxton by Gregory, Stoke Rochford by Tumor, Denton by Welby, Revesby by Stanhope) and shared common interests like the Belvoir and Brocklesby Hunts. The gentry and the larger tenant farmers were both concerned about church and poor rates, tithes, corn prices and protectionism (particularly in Lindsey), malt taxes   (especially on the Kesteven heathlands) and poaching (the Lincolnshire poacher was celebrated in song, and trainloads of poachers from Yorkshire were alleged to raid the region of Woodhall Spa). Many tenant farmers had held their farms for generations, investing large sums in the land and buildings, and came to regard the tenancy as family property to be handed down in the same way as freeholds.

The gentry and larger farmers joined together in Agricultural Societies which organised competitions, ploughing matches, stock shows, lectures, visits and publications, and spread ideas like Lord Yarborough’s tree planting at Brocklesby or Henry Handley’s use of steam in Kesteven. A county society existed from 1819 to the 1840s, mainly in Lindsey, with local ones in Caistor, Alford and Sutton. The North Lincolnshire Society, established in 1836, was extended to Kesteven and Holland in 1868.

The major social divide came between the farmer (gentleman or tenant) on the one hand and the smallholder and labourer on the other. The latter were more concerned with prices and inflation, unionism and the tied cottage. And this group formed the bulk of the county’s population: in 1873, 45 per cent of the county owned less than one acre/0.4ha – 28 per cent in the towns and 17 per cent in rural areas; 44 per cent owned between one and 50 acres/0.4 and 20ha, 11 per cent more than 50 acres/20ha. Just over a quarter (28 per cent) of Lincolnshire was held in estates of more than 10,000 acres/4,047ha, less than Nottinghamshire (38 per cent) with its ‘Dukeries’ but more than most other counties.

Characteristic of the landlord society was the ‘closed’ village which belonged entirely or almost entirely to one landlord, resident or non­resident. They were frequent on the Wolds and heathlands and a few existed in the Fens; in Kesteven, nearly half the villages were closed, in Lindsey as a whole about one third, but in Holland they were relatively few.

The landlord of the closed village often restricted the building of new houses and even pulled down empty houses to lessen his liability to the parish poor rate, provided he could draw sufficient extra workers from neighbouring ‘open’ villages. The Board of Guardians complained

that the exclusive proprietor (failing to provide the necessary accommoda­tion for the increased population, and not only so, but in some instances indeed pulling down cottages upon his estate, and in many cases suffering them to dilapidate in order to get rid of the poor) had forced that portion of the population which in common fairness belonged to him into the neighbouring market-towns and villages (consisting of small freeholds) and that it had caused such an increase in the poor rates in those localities as to render them almost ruinous.

The labourers moved to the open villages, as James Caird, a Lincolnshire farmer who won a prize in 1851, the Great Exhibition year, with his essay on farming in the county, wrote:

In some localities, [the labourers] pay very high rents for their cottages, being swept out of close parishes … and obliged to compete with each other for the possession of the limited number of cottages which speculators run up in open parishes for their accommodation. They are thus in many cases compelled to live at a great distance from their work, to which it is quite common for them to ride on donkeys a distance of six or seven miles.

They lived in great poverty, according to Cobbett who saw the richness of the land but noted ‘it is in the villages that you find the depth of misery’, though others have suggested that the Lincolnshire labourer was better off than labourers elsewhere.

Some open villages became very large and earned notoriety as centres of nuisance, ‘sink’ villages Morton was contrasted with Sir Gilbert Heathcote’s Hacconby nearby:

while the property of this large parish continues divided and in so many hands, each individual proprietor will consider himself at liberty to act independently. His example is insensibly imitated by his inferiors who, gradually growing in lawless habits, have no notion of that decent deport­ment and necessary subordination visible in market towns and villages belong[ing] solely either to some virtuous nobleman or to a resident gentleman.

Places like Kelsey, Coningsby, Wrangle and Binbrook had similar reputation.

The gangs of agricultural labourers which lived in these open villages on gave their name to groups of criminals: at Morton there was ‘frequent house-breaking attended with open and outrageous violence by a gang of masqued thieves who came armed; mischievous acts cruel to both man and beast, kept the public and private mind in continual alarm’. The magistrates transported troublemakers, and the clergy exhorted the adults and educated the young in their public responsibili­ties, but ineffectually. The county constabulary was created in 1857, gaols like Folkingham (1808) were built, public lunatic asylums re­placed private ones like Greatford and Shillingthorpe, and the local militia was developed (the Lincolnshire Regiment was formed in 1881). Landlord, freeholder, substantial tenant farmer and clergy combined in an onslaught on ‘peasant culture’ on an unprecedented scale – mumming plays, football, bull-baiting and the ‘rudeness … and unbridled behaviour’ of the labouring classes at fair time.


The growing sense of identity of the agricultural labourer led to the ‘Revolt of the Field’ of the 1870s. In one sense this agitation reflected the increased security of the labourer, especially when faced with the end of the good times which followed the Crimea War. A series of disasters struck the county – cattle plague in 1866, ‘the worst rains on record’ in 1879, foot and mouth disease in the 1880s, and through it all the Great Depression of the 1870s-80s. At first it was the landholder who suffered from the poor yields, expensive harvesting and low corn prices. Rents were rebated and arrears (sometimes as high as £2000) written off, since ‘never before have the cultivators of the land suffered as much as they have of late from a succession of unfavourable seasons and other causes’. The rent takers lost much of their income; clergy who relied heavily on glebe lost as much as three-quarters of their rents. The result was that ‘many old estates have been sold and broken up and are now replaced by an infinite number of small holdings and an incredible number of small freeholds, with no game, no resident proprietors, no large places or estates’.

But in the end it was the labourer who came off worst: ‘labourers do begin in some instances to emigrate from the land’. Cheap Irish labour was brought in for seasonal work. When the Great Depression began to bite, the farming community saw that ‘many farmers may be reduced to labourers and then be compelled to emigrate when nothing is left to them but poverty and wretchedness’. The labourer, fearful for his job and the tenancy of his tied cottage, became increasingly resentful. Reluctant to break traditional community bonds but emboldened by his allegiance to and training in Primitive Methodism, he began his way towards unionism. A national farmworkers’ union was not established until 1906, but the foundations were laid by the strikes and associations, especially in the Fens, between 1872 and 1882.

Map of Lincolnshire's Market Towns
24. Market Towns

Industry and towns

There were relatively few manufacturing or extractive industries in Lincolnshire to which the labourer could turn. The coast offered tourism, fishing and work in the docks; elsewhere there were stone and ironstone quarries. The village brick and tile works were hit by the slump, and milling, malting and brewing were moving into larger and more mechanised premises in towns like Spalding, Sleaford, Grantham and especially Newark. A good deal remained in the countryside – brewing, crushing seeds for oil, coach building and canvas and sack making in Epworth and elsewhere, and John Parkinson established his unsuccessful factory for crepes and bombazine in the Fens at New Bolingbroke, not in one of the towns. But these all used relatively little, labour.

The towns of Lincolnshire had little effect on the surrounding country­side or even on each other as bridgeheads of urban culture. They were more influenced by rural society rather than being centres of influence themselves. Lincoln in 1859 was ‘a place which almost stood by itself – isolated as it were in the midst of an. agricultural district’, and Grimsby’s impact was reduced by. having within its boundaries ‘an insulating layer [of rural parishes] between the borough and the country’.

There were no national centres in Lincolnshire as there had been in the Middle Ages. Instead the network of market towns which grew up in the 17th century served the county well. A few, the coaching towns with their theatres, assembly rooms, inns and fine houses, had become centres for the diffusion of fashion – Lincoln, Stamford, Boston, Gran­tham and to a lesser extent Spalding and Grimsby; while spa towns were established or attempted at Woodhall Spa (hotel and bath house, 1838-9), Braceborough and Stamford, and from 1799 the coastal resorts advertised to attract visitors for the season. Literary and philosophical societies as at Spalding and Stamford and other features of urban life attracted gentry and clergy to reside in these places.

Turnpike roads and waterways helped the growth of places like Market Deeping, Gainsborough and Louth, while Long Sutton and Brigg grew up on the backs of drainage schemes. The railways for a time fostered markets and fairs and increased the focal role of the town with its newspapers and banks; they also helped new industries to develop and led to the expansion of the coastal resorts. But most towns in the region declined in the later 19th century, along with the rural areas they depended upon. Throughout the county, fairs and markets like Stow Green, Kirton in Holland and Swineshead (‘now nearly deserted little business done . . . except in the evening when the principal farmers assemble at the Griffin Inn’) dwindled. The pull of Hull in the north, Leicester, Nottingham and Newark in the west contributed.

A few places grew. Grantham benefited from the enclosure of the heathlands around and the canal; factories grew up by the canal wharves. . When the railway sheds were established (1852), the town changed from an agricultural market and staging post with inns and hotels into an industrial centre and railway junction with heavy and light engineering. Gainsborough built up an extensive carrying trade on the Trent between – Nottingham and Hull; its ship building came to outstrip East Stockwith nearby. In the early 19th century, iron foundries and engineering works grew up. The coming of the railways hurt the river-borne trade but growth began again in the 1860s based on mills, maltings and breweries. The great days of Stamford with its coaches to London, York, Leeds, Edinburgh, Leicester and Cambridge, were over, but some brewing and engineering sprang up despite the lack of a main line railway.

The towns serviced the countryside, milling, making, tanning, pro­cessing and supplying fertilisers and machinery; shops, markets and services were the mainstays of their economy. The large-scale industrial growth of Victorian England passed the region by; only one textile mill (Lincoln) was built in the county though the Handley brothers of Sleaford and others set up mills in Newark and other places. Some sacking and linen manufactories, rope works and worsted weaving plants were put up but none grew into a stable industry. Only engineering became significant. Grantham and Lincoln relied on it; Howden’s foun­dries at Boston produced one of the first steam threshing machines (1803), the steam river packet (1827) and the portable steam engine (1839). Marshalls of Gainsborough (founded in 1842) produced new lines of farm engines.

The towns depended on the prosperity of the countryside. Louth with its canal trade based on wool and coal flourished as farming on the Wolds flourished and declined with it. They remained small: in some respects they resembled open villages in their poverty and popular disturbances. Boston, the home of the radical John Wilks, expanded in the early 19th century but declined with the coming of the railways; as elsewhere the town came to be full of ‘courts’, back yards built up with poor ‘hutches’, primitive cottages or hovels. Horncastle in an attempt to gain ‘an air of respectability’ saw a good deal of new building, but the crowded town and annual horse fair were reputed to have led to crime, violence and disease. The popular festivities of the towns, like the bull baiting at Stamford, were rural in character and suppressed by their social superiors.

Lincoln did not differ markedly from this general pattern. Although the county town, it had never become the capital of its region in the way Leicester, York or Nottingham had. It did not even influence the culture of other towns like Louth or Grantham. After the decline in the 16th century which made its name a by-word for ‘decay’d towns’ in general, the city began to recover from the end of the 17th century, when gentry from the surrounding countryside moved into the town. Population grew, from about 3000 in the 1670s to 5000 in the 1750s and more than 7000 in 1800. The medieval walls were removed, the main roads improved by the turnpike trusts (1756) and New Road was built to ease access to the upper city (1785). The city gained new markets (1736), a race course (moved in 1771 to Carholme), assembly rooms (1757, moved to the upper city in. 1774), a hospital (1769) and County Hall in the castle (1776). A coach ran to London, weekly until 1784 and daily from 1791; by 1837 some 30 coaches plied to. the capital each week carrying 13,500 passengers each year. Daily services ran to Hull, Rotherham, Nottingham and other places.

Map of modern Lincoln
25. Modern Lincoln

In 1741 Richard Ellison of Boultham leased the Fosse Dyke from the city for £175 p.a. and increased the value of the tolls to more than £7000 p.a. From 1762 the Witham was developed and a steam packet ran regularly to Boston from 1826. The enclosure of the heathlands north and south of Lincoln led to increased affluence in the region, and an expansion of the town’s marketing services and industrial activities. Tanneries, mills and makings grew up along the Witham and round Brayford Pool. It remained the centre of the county’s religious and secular life. At first smaller than Boston, its growth was sluggish until the railways boosted its industrial life and gave a new focus to the town’s factories. Links with Nottingham (1846), Peterborough and London (1848), Grantham (1867), Sheffield, and other centres made it a focal point; the network was completed by 1896. As early as 1846 the railways bought up the Fosse and Witham Navigations.

The population of the city doubled twice, from 7000 (1800) to 13,800 (1840) and to nearly 27,000 (1870). Most of the new residents were housed in the existing town and in the bottom of the Gap, but Bracebridge Heath on the southern slope sprang up from 1841. The owners of Boultham and Canwick bordering on the city were reluctant to release land for building; space was sought in Boultham (from 1876), Brace-bridge (1870s) and North Hykeham (from 1900). In the city, Newland and Monks Road were laid out after an Act of 1860 freed two areas of commons, but expansion to east and west was limited. The upper city remained distinct; the only industry there was a short-lived rope industry, and until 1835 the Bail was administratively separate from the rest of Lincoln.

‘The increase in the population of the city of Lincoln is mainly attributable to the extension of the Iron manufactures’, wrote the 1871 census officers; 18 per cent of the working population was engaged in Lincoln’s iron-working industries which grew to international signific­ance. Clayton and Shuttleworth, founded in 1842, employed 1300 people. Burton and Proctor (later Rustons) built their Sheaf Works at Stamp Lock, where they produced and exported threshing machines and steam engines. Although there was some flour milling- -(Charles Seeley) and some chemical plants, by the early 20th century Lincoln was largely a one-industry town. Most of the new factories and engineering sheds grew up near the railway stations and marshalling yards.

Lincoln outstripped Boston by the mid-Victorian period, but it was still not the largest town in the region; that role was now occupied by Grimsby which became one of the most important fishing ports in the country, especially after the development of the steam trawler in the 1880s. As the town grew, the neighbouring resort of Cleethorpes came to be less attractive to the genteel visitor, and from 1863 when Clee­thorpes and Grimsby were linked by railway, it became a holiday centre for the industrial towns of the north. Skegness was promoted jointly by Lord Scarbrough and the railway companies after the village had been linked to the Boston-Grimsby line in 1873. It too became a resort, its pier (1881) and gardens laid out after the building of the sea wall in 1878. Other resorts on the coast followed, so that by 1903 the area had become ‘the great summer playground of the working-classes in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, besides drawing in many from Yorkshire and even Lancashire … conveyed by the … northern railways in express excursion trains, every day through the summer, at fares for which, south of London, one could hardly get to the suburbs’.

Industrial growth took place in some newer centres. Iron ore was extracted at Frodingham from the 1860s and in south-west Kesteven, and Scunthorpe iron works developed from 1875, for a time one of the largest producers of steel in England. Rowland Winn of Appleby promoted railway links with Sheffield in the 1860s. But the growth of Scunthorpe, Grimsby and Skegness meant the decline of the older centres like Stamford and Boston, and the death of smaller markets like Folkingham and Wragby.