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Life in Lincolnshire Part IV Sleaford

Updated: Apr 15

I lived in Sleaford for a few years, but never really bonded with it. It was a time when I was delivering parcels to Boston and Stamford, both heavyweights when it comes to Lincolnshire market towns, and I had just moved from Grantham, a town where history has always passed through! Sleaford seemed to be a small town of estate agents, second-hand shops, and unsuccessful pop-up shops, with an air of absent ambition and a short foresight for the future. However, as I have been researching for these blogs I began to see Sleaford in a more affluent light. You only have to take notice of some of the fabulous architecture in a relatively small town to begin to understand that Sleaford must have had success in its past.

old stone waterpump
Having researched Sleaford I am really surprised how rich its past is, though not in the big history sense of Lincoln or Boston, but it is clear that over time its contribution to the county and country is impressively important. As the capital of Kesteven, Sleaford has a Pagan cemetery, a castle and once a waterway connection to Boston. The reliable stream, River Slea, must be recognised for Sleaford's success, as its rare qualities ensure it never freezes in winter or dries up in summer, allowing it to become an important centre for the
development of a 6th-century innovative technology. Artifacts dug up in the 1880s from a newly discovered Pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery, just south of the town ended up in the British Museum. The cemetery had 600 burials suggesting that Sleaford must have been a populated administrative and marketing centre. As with all Lincolnshire market towns formed at a navigable point on a river, formed from a convergent point for traders and markets, subsequent a small village development. Relics from the Romans and the Iron Age found in the town lay evidence of its past.


In the 7th century, watermills made a return to Sleaford, having been absent since Roman times, with the Doomsday Book verifying that Sleaford may have been an important centre for the development of better watermills. As discussed, the River Slea is a constant stream, a perfect partner for watermill propulsion. In 918 the English reconquered Sleaford but the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy continued to rule Lincolnshire, disguised under West Saxon kings.


In the 10th century, having remained an important administration and marketing centre for the surrounding area, Oliver Cromwell granted Bishop Remigius of Lincoln various Lincolnshire estates. By this time the collection of Sleaford watermills was of outstanding quality and variety, so much so that the bishop built a castle just west of the town and introduced a limitation on independent, commercial freedoms. Peasants were expected to work for the bishop as part of their tenure agreement. It is interesting to remember that Medieval farmers only worked 26 weeks a year!

Waterway in Sleaford
The River Slea
In 1536 the Lincolnshire Risings was a brief rebellion against the separation of the church from Rome, under Henry VIII's authority. Thomas Cromwell oversaw the dissolution of all the monasteries but in Horncastle, an uprising formed. When the mob reached Sleaford, the major landowner, Lord John Hussey, didn't stop the advancements and so was found guilty of treason and hanged. His possessions were given to local merchants, the Carre family, who went on to build in the town using stone from the castle, which had never seen battle or siege. By
the 17th century after years of Carre monopoly on milling and a manorial hold on the market, there was a conflict with other traders and merchants. The Carre family contributed greatly to Sleaford with amongst other things, the building of the Carre Grammar School in 1604. By the end of the century, the Carre fortune was passed on by marriage to the Hervey family.


The country was dramatically changing and by the 1790s the nationwide canal system was a fundamental necessity for the movement of bulk and so by 1794 Sleaford became part of that system when the Slea Navigation was opened. It was extremely costly and problematic but after three failed attempts there was success. Peacock and Handley Bank

was established as the finance company for the project. By 1820 the Sleaford Navigation Company had huge financial problems, but once the building costs of the project had been paid off, there was a huge boost to trade in the town. Linked to the River Witham, Sleaford enjoyed a unique position as a local terminus of the Lincolnshire inland waterway system. It was a short-lived triumph as by the 1850s the railways crossing the country were proving to be faster and cheaper, reaching Sleaford from Grantham by 1857.  

Two years later the line went to Boston and by 1878 Sleaford Navigation was closed.

Old stone building
Sessions House 1820
For most of the 19th century, there was another famous name important to the town. Kirk and Perry were famous architects and builders, with an exceptional national reputation. They specialised in railway stations and the restoration of churches as far away as London and Manchester. Examples of their work can be seen in the town: Lafford Terrace (the council buildings), Sessions House (built in 1820 on the corner of the marketplace), and Mansion House (next door to Yorkshire Trading) on Southgate are all within a very short walk.

Ols Stone Building
Lafford Terrace, 1856
During WWI the Royal Navy Air Service pilots trained at RAF Cranwell, known then as HMS Daedalus and as with much of Lincolnshire during WWII, Sleaford played its part with the RAF hospital at Rauceby, just west of the town. Unfortunately, the huge Bass, Radcliffe and Gretten Maltings building built in 1899 was used by the Luftwaffe as a landmark!

Looking back over the history of Sleaford, part of its success has to be put down to
the fact that the surrounding land was reserved for agriculture, up until as late as

Mansion House, 1850
the 1960s when parts of estates were sold off and the land was used for housing developments. I imagine Sleaford to have been peaceful and affluent, quiet but commercially bustling. With the exception of busy market days, you can imagine the pleasantries of rural, country life, in a town with no room for expansion due to agricultural land holdings.

A prosperous town fortunately graced with the exceptional River Slea, offering the town a break from the norm. By 1984 the last Monday livestock market was held in the marketplace and gradually the
Old stone Building
Old White Hart, 1840
market has grown smaller and smaller, as with all market towns in competition with internet shopping and 24 supermarkets. On a final note about Sleaford, Jennifer Saunders and Eric Thompson were both born there. Eric was the creator and performer of the children's show, The Magic Roundabout!

Sleaford seems to have had a lot to offer throughout its history, and so I thought a look at some of the local villages that prospered from its success might be of interest.


Ancaster
7 miles west of Sleaford on the Roman Ermine Street, was a Roman settlement named 'Causennse'. Artefacts unearthed at the site can be found in Grantham Museum. In the Middle Ages stone quarries were in use and still are today.
Aslackby
12 miles south, this little village appears in the Doomsday Book as 'Aslachebl', meaning 'village of a man called Aslakr'. Locally the name is pronounced as 'Azelby'.
Byards Leap
On the A17 west of Sleaford, with a fascinating history of myths and legends. It is known that the Knights Templar held tournaments on Lincoln Heath, giant mock battles with huge numbers of men. Temple Bruer is a few miles North, once the second wealthiest Templar preceptory in England, after London during the 1100s. Byard was said to be a horse and there are several versions of his story; 1. He jumped 500 feet in three strides when attacked by a local witch, 2. A witch jumped on his back and dug in her nails making the horse leap, 3. Bayard was a knight who owned a horse that was frightened by a witch.
Coningsby
On the East Coast road northeast of Sleaford, is also featured in the Doomsday Book as having 10 fisheries, situated on the River Bain. Coningsby is also famous for its one-handed clock, the finest in the world with iron, hand-crafted cogs and steel ropes in a 15th century tower. St Michaels church has records going back to the 16th century, with some names still residing in the village.
Heckington
A few miles east, the large village of Heckington has as much history as Sleaford. It is in the Doomsday Book as 'Echintune', with the first church going back to 1086. It has the only surviving eight-sail windmill that was in work until 1942. It is still in working order and is demonstrated to tourists. Dick Turpin may have stayed at the Nags Head on the village green as he had stolen a mare and foal from Heckington Common. Today Heckington still holds a two-day annual country show at the end of July, dating back to the first in 1867.

Ruskington
4 miles north and mentioned as 'Reschintone' in the Doomsday Book, when at the time there were 38 families, 3 watermills, a church and a priest are all recorded. However, Ruskington has a much older history as it was a prehistoric route from the Wolds to Ancaster Gap! 6th and 7th century Anglo-Saxon burial grounds have relinquished weapons and jewellery of the time. 300 years ago the spire fell off the Norman church and was never replaced, and maps from 1708 show the village with a similar layout. Today bridges have replaced the fords and the beck still entertains ducks. There is a saying that ' You're not a true Ruskingtonian till you've fallen in the beck!'
Tattershall
12 miles from Sleaford on the way to Coningsby, Tattershall has a moated brick keep dating from the 15th century. Robert Tateshale built the first stone castle before the current one, giving the village its name. The marketplace is a conservation area with arms houses dating back to the 14th century, built with bricks from the courtyard of the castle. The first English fairy tale to be printed in 1621 was about Tom Thumb, who is said to be buried in a naïve aisle of the Holy Trinity Church, where there is a plaque to mark the spot.

Before writing this piece I hadn't been particularly excited about discovering Sleaford, but felt I should investigate it, with it being my closest town. Knowing some of the big history of Grantham and Stamford I didn't feel Sleaford could match up when in fact it has a unique quality of a grand past, governed by exceptional circumstances and if you take time to look, there is a lot more to it than the shoddy façade of a forgotten town. Its isolated past surrounded by agricultural land has kept the town small, with only recent expansion, and you have to wonder if it would have fared better if it had remained devoid of new housing estates, retaining independence where efforts might have endured to keep the town authentic, with traditional high street shops of butchers, bakers and greengrocers. I have a little more respect for Sleaford and feel an opportunity has been missed as it could have been made into somewhere rather special.

Websites used during research:

The Lincolnshire Village Book (available on Ebay) by The Lincolnshire WI


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