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Holbeach - the Centre of the Universe

Milestone on Holbeach Church Wall
Milestone on Holbeach Church Wall

When I worked in Holbeach there was an old boy used to come into town most market days from Holbeach St Marks by catching a lift with the post van. He was in his eighties and explained to me that he had never been further than Holbeach. “I went to Kings Lynn once, its over-rated Holbeach has got everything I want.” Thus to this man Holbeach was the centre of the Universe.

When I first worked there one of the locals said to me “Welcome to the centre of the Universe.” This was a common local joke as the Greenwich Meridian runs through the town and is commemorated by a millstone at the end of Wignals Gate.

Holbeach is a much older Market Town than the nearby youngster that is Long Sutton. It had ancient market rights granted by Royal Charter to Thomas de Multone in 1252 signifying a commercial relevance even at this early date.

Extrract from 1749 map showing Holbeach
Extract from 1749 map showing Holbeach

The various divisions of South Holland are split into Wapentakes with the largest one being the Elloe Wapentake. This ancient administrative area was dictated by geography and was a virtual peninsular surrounded by rivers the Welland to the West and the Nene to the East with the marshes of the Wash to the north. Holbeach was strategically in the middle of this and it is reasonable to see that this was a coastal town.

It is hard to imagine today, but Holbeach originally had a river running through it. This river took water from the fen behind it (to the South), through the marsh northwards to the front of it and out into the sea into what we now call The Wash. The bridge over this river was close to the traffic lights at the cross roads of West End, known as Market Hill and the river would have run down Boston Road. This possibly accounts for the frequent subsiding of Boston Road in the years up to 2022.

Early 20th century post card of Market Hill Holbeach with the photographer stood roughly where the bridge would have been
Early 20th century post card of Market Hill Holbeach with the photographer stood roughly where the bridge would have been

The bridge that crossed the river was originally constructed in the reign of Henry VIII and a toll was charged to cross this bridge for one month each year until Dr. Heald of Spalding opposed payment of the toll to the lessee Mr. William Smith in 1737. The case illustrated a parochial attitude to the enforcement of the toll:

“HEALD (Rd. Esq) v. SMITH (Wm.)

This was a Special Jury cause – only four special jurors attending, the plaintiff prayed a tales – Mr. Clarke stated that it was an action brought by Dr. Heald, of Spalding, against the defendant, who is landlord of the Talbot inn at Holbeach, for obstructing him and detaining his carriage and horses, on pretence of some custom of the manor, by which it was alleged that the highway is parcel of the manor of Holbeach D’Acre, and that it was given by one Wm. Butt to the use of the King’s subjects on condition of all persons not resiant within the manor paying 1s. for carriages with four wheels passing through it between the 25th September and the 22nd October. In the month of September last, Doctor Heald visited a patient at Holbeach, having been called on Mr. Vise the apothecary, the two gentlemen proceeded in the carriage, until some person opposite the inn seized the horses, and said he had order of the landlord to stop the Doctor’s carriage until he should pay 1s. toll. The Doctor said he would not pay; on which Smith said, ‘then you are a very shabby fellow and no gentleman, and shan’t go.” Dr Heald and Mr Vise, thus situated, got out of the carriage and went to a professional adviser; after which the Doctor returned, and holding in his hand a quantity of silver, cautioned the defendant that he should seek redress; the defendant took 1s., and then said the carriage and horse might go. Mr Clarke was about to call witnesses, but Mr. Denman, for the defence, said he would admit the facts. He then addressed the jury, and said he should prove that what had been done was legal. The rights of all the King’s subjects varied in a remarkable way, where they went back longer than the memory of living persons. No dispute of the legality or validity of this toll could enter here, as it had been taken of an acknowledged by a great variety of individuals. Its origin probably was that the original possessor of the manor had made a grant of the soil for a highway, and reserved this right to toll as an acknowledgement. The question to try was simply had the defendant, and those under who he claimed, enjoyed the right – aye or no? He should show that in a great variety of instances strangers who came into the town had conformed with the custom, which was like tithes, or any other manorial right.

Mr. Robt. Millington, of Gedney, one of the commissioners under the act for the inclosure of Holbeach and Whaplode, proved that Mr. Butt was lord of the manor of Holbeach D’Acre; that the whole of the town of Holbeach is situated in that manor; and that the manorial rights are reserved in the act.

Mr. S. H. Jebb produced the court rolls , showing the courts had been lately held.

Richard Curtis proved that Messrs. Wm. Slator, John Moulcey, and Joseph Mawby, brewers at Holbeach, rent the tolls of the manor, and pay 10gs. a year for them to Messrs. Straw and Jebb, the proprietors. Smith lives under Slator and Co. , and they underlet the tolls to him at the same rent.

Thos. Allen, of Whaplode, aged 54, had known Holbeach all his life, and had assisted in receiving the tolls, which his uncle formerly rented; the tolls were taken from 12 o’clock at night on the 25th of September, and continued for 28 days; 1s. was always paid for carriages with four wheels; witness never knew an instance wherein it was not paid if demanded, and had heard his father and grandfather say the same. – Cross-examined: the Whaplode people never paid as they were free –

The Judge – Why? Witness could not say why. The charge for a cart was 4d., and for a waggon 6d.-

Mr. Clarke – Why a wagon is on four wheels, is it not?

Witness – Yes. Mr Clarke – then there is an end of the prescription. There is in the pleadings no exception of Whaplode within the prescription, nor of wagons –

Mr. Denman thought a wagon might not come within the legal construction of four-wheeled carriages – Lord Tenterden – I think the legal construction is that a wagon is a four-wheel carriage, and therefore none of the pleas are supported.

Verdict for the plaintiff, damages 1s.” [i]

It appears that William Smith, by enforcing the toll on a Doctor going about his business possibly “killed his goose that layed golden eggs” and after this case no more tolls were charged.

As the Fens behind Holbeach were drained the water flowing off them largely went through other channels much reducing the flow of water through the Holbeach River. It became an open sewer full of waste and detritus from the local population and a frequent cause of complaint for its stench, so much so the locals nick-named it The Great Stink. Similarly investment in roads was very low, causing complaints that many would find familiar today as voiced by this farmer in 1847:

“Sirs Holbeach St Johns Oct.11, 1847

I see by last week’s paper that some party is complaining of the state of the Streets and Drains in the Town, and very likely not without reason. It seems to me that the Roads of the whole parish are much neglected, and a vast amount of money is wasted. The main road from the town to this place has been gravelled very lately, but in such a bad way was it done that it is now absolutely worse to travel on than many of the silt roads in our neighbouring parishes, where some attention is paid to the roads and expenditure. Our local authorities appear to think that all that is necessary to form a good hard road is to throw down a certain quantity of gravel and then leave it, instead of employing a sufficient staff of men to attend to it constantly: but without this is done, the materials and money are completely thrown away: and as far as regards our road to the town, the gravel might as well have been thrown into the Holbeach river, and thus one of the nuiscance of which your last week’s correspondent complains might have been got rid of. Being anxious to fix the attention of my Brother Rate-payers and Fen-men on the waste of their money and the badness of their roads, I beg the insertion of this letter.

Yours, A FEN FARMER”[ii]

Some time after this letter the river was arched over, but only as far as the cemetery simply moving the stench rather than curing it as can be seen by this report from 1865:

“HOLBEACH – The old Holbeach river as it is called has long been a difficulty and a nuisance. To get rid of this the ratepayers, at great expense, have arched over the drain as far as the cemetery. This appears to have increased the nuisance at this place, and for a great distance the pent-up gas is exhaled and creates a most nauseous and deadly stink by the road side. The liquid in the river is nearly black, and covered with bubbles, by the foul exhalations. The want of a proper outfall, we presume , is the great difficulty.”[iii]

January 1868 saw the Elloe Court of Sewers planning and subsequently starting improvement of the outfall of the Holbeach River by straightening it out and applying a sluice gate so that it entered the Welland outfall and thus increased the flow of water draining away and reducing stagnation. The river was still open by the cemetery in 1895 when one well-meaning local was admonished for placing a wooden frame at the opening “for the purpose of keeping pots , pans, filth etc going into the river” , as this act impeded the flow. By the turn of the century the river was culverted throughout the town.

The covering over of the Holbeach River vastly increased the area available at the crossroads now named Market Hill enabling increased activity. The pastureland around Holbeach was very good and mixed farming dominated the area with the swing towards a preference for arable happening as the marshes and fens became more and more cultivated and the railway opened up more markets and the supply to the Industrial towns of the Midlands and cities with increasingly less reliance upon river traffic, droving and carriers carts. Holbeach’s market was ancient it being on the coastal “highway” and at the heart of the Elloe Wapentake that was almost a peninsular surrounded by sea, fen, marsh and rivers.

As we have already seen withmy post about the grave of Andrew Sharp at Gedney Hill cattle plague, also referred to as distemper now called rinderpest, was a significant factor and this effectively suppressed the cattle trade as waves of the disease struck and action was taken to prevent its spread as seen in this example from 1746:

“Whereas the Distemper amongst the horned cattle is very rife in many parts of this kingdom. This is therefore to give notice that in order to prevent the spreading thereof, there will be no Fair or Market held for any horned Cattle within the said jurisdiction, or at Spalding or Holbeach and that proper inspectors will be appointed by Order of the Justices, to prevent and hinder any suspected Cattle to be brought into the Country. But for sheep and other things the said Markets will be open as usual.”[iv]

Having cattle die of plague was disaster enough for farmers and smallholders, especially as milk and even more so, butter, was a good source of income for the small farmer and cottager. But losing the ability to sell cattle was equally injurious as any farmer suffering TB restrictions in 2022 will attest.

What few may know is that a Holbeach born veterinary scientist helped eradicate rinderpest in the twentieth century. Walter Plowright was born in Holbeach in 1923 and went to first Moulton and then Spalding Grammar Schools. He went to the Royal Army Veterinary College in London and from there joined the Royal Army Veterinary Corps where he developed techniques to fight rinderpest in Kenya and Nigeria along with other diseases. The importance of this work was recognised with various awards such as The Order of St Michael and St George and the World Organisation for Animal Health’s gold medal.

Diseases in cattle can result in persecution of wildlife with the aim of preventing disease or injury to stock. In Holbeach it was the innocent hedgehog that was to suffer:

“Holbeach, this part of Lincolnshire the quail and snipe are also occasionally found. The singular animal, the hedgehog, is rather common in this neighbourhood, but not so much as it was, during the early part of the last century, in the parish of Holbeach, about fourteen miles from Boston, where according to the churchwardens’ accounts for 1718, they were a great nuiscance, and made subject of parochial persecution, under the name of urchins. The accounts present a charge of£41.6s. for the slaughter of 9,912 of these animals, at 1d. each; and the next 1719 charge was more than £30, representing at the same rate, the destruction of 7200 urchins; an almost incredible number, and one which we should hesitate to state except upon very good authority. We are told that ‘the vast stocks of cattle in this noble parish (Holbeach), and some rabbit-burrows, have drawn these creatures from all parts hither, as one would think.

See Johnson’s of Spalding letter to Dr.Swans, have comparatively lately been found in the Stukeley Reliquide Galeanae p.93 The hedge-fens hog was formerly thought to be injurious to the dairy, by making too free with the milk from the cows; but investigation has proved that charge to be groundless, inasmuch as the animal is not supplied by nature with the means of committing such a robbery.”[v]

Alongside the Thursday Markets in Holbeach were the seasonal fairs the most significant being the bi-annual Horse Fair. The Holbeach Horse Fair was originally held on May 17th and September 17th with its origins in the 13th century.[vi] Over time the dates of the fairs were adjusted to be the first Thursday after the 17th of May or September to align with market days and in the eighteenth century was amended to suite the market requirements as evidenced by this notice from 1723:

“This is to give notice that on the next Thursday after the first Monday in September next, being the sixth day of the said month, will be a great meeting and show of all sorts of quick stock [vii]; as horses, colts, mares and foals, and geldings; also beasts and sheep, etc. at Holbeach in the parts of Holland, and County of Lincoln. And also another great meeting and show of all sorts of quck stock, as aforementioned, will be at Holbeach aforesaid, on the next Thursday after the first Monday in May next; both which great meetings to be continued on the same Thursdays yearly. Note: Thursday being Holbeach Market Day, there will be a show of quick stock every market day for the future.”

Holbeach Horse Fair 1910
Holbeach Horse Fair 1910

Certainly in the nineteenth century Holbeach Horse fair became highly significant as one of the best in the county and once Holbeach was connected by Railway to the rest of the country in 1858 the Horse Fair grew attracting buyers from London, Peterborough, Lincoln, Nottingham and Yorkshire. But what made the fair so attractive?

It has to be understood that whilst the Shire horse was the leading variety of draught horse in England it did have great regional variations with it largely regarded “to be seen at its best in Lincolnshire and the Fen country.”[viii] It was viewed that the heavier lands of the Fens of Lincolnshire bred larger and stronger horses, whereas those bred on comparatively light lands in southern England were slightly smaller and less muscular. This accounted for the popularity of the Holbeach Horse Fair.

The popularity and strength of the horses is perhaps illustrated in this press comment following the May horse fair in 1897:

“Messrs H. Fussell & Son bought at the Holbeach horse fair recently thirteen of the best cart horses on offer. We understand that this firm are extensive buyers of this category of animal.”[ix]

Horse Notice 1977

One of the celebrated attendees of the Holbeach Horse Fair was Mr. J. Turnbull of Moulton who was noted for his longevity in 1859:

“Perhaps the finest specimen of human longevity in this district is Mr. J. Turnbull of Moulton, with whom we journeyed a short journey on Wednesday. He was riding in his gig, which, by the way, he considers a lazy mode of travelling, and still prefers riding on horseback. Although he is ninety years of age, he could now ride his favourite horse to London in eighteen hours; he has attended Holbeach Horse Fair seventy-seven successive years, excepting one when he was attending his son’s funeral. His hearing, sight and memory are all remarkably good, and he is enjoying the cheerfulness and activity of early life. He has been an early riser, and through life enjoyed his pipe of tobacco and glass of ale.”[x]

The Agricultural depression starting in the 1880’s appeared to have little impact on the fair, although this was possibly due to the commercial acumen of Mr. Hackworth the auctioneer who shrewdly combined the September Horse fair with the sale of Lincoln Longwool rams. By 1902 there was still a brisk trade of horses, cobs and ponies being reported with good prices being made. The Great War saw an increased demand for horses as the army had procured much stock of the nations heavy horses to fight the war. The market remained buoyant and successful until the 1920’s.

One of the local breeders of shire horses were the Bates family of Charter Farm, Gedney Road, Long Sutton who started about 1905. In an interview Martin Bates described dray horses being lined up in Holbeach High Street from the Chequers to the Horse and Groom with them being walked down Barrington Gate to show their paces. Mr Bates had shown as many as 86 horses at a time at Holbeach horse fair with local farmer George Thompson buying up to 40 young horses at a time to work on various marsh farms, “Mr. Thompson would send six foremen down to pick out the best half dozen and this often meant that a good pair would be split between two farms. That was one place where we never fetched any back we used to say they worked them forever.”[xi]

After World War I the collapse of much agriculture saw land go derelict and the demand for horses dropped so that by 1927 the horse fair was struggling:

“Holbeach Horse Fair – This half-yearly event took place in the High Street at Holbeach this Saturday last, and, soon after eight o’clock in the morning the animals began to arrive in the town.

There was not a great show of horses and trade was very slow. Many of the would be sellers were bound to take their horses home again, because the price required could not be obtained. Foals were especially a poor trade, the best of them having a hard task to reach £20 each. Usually the fair is over and all business done by dinner time, but on this occasion some of the animals remained on show until late in the afternoon.

The usual buyers and dealers from various parts of the country were in attendance, and one of them told a Press representative that the trade was as bad as he had known it for some time past. The droves of ponies were the object of much attention from would be purchasers of useful animals.”

The above was in 1921, by 1923 nearly all heavy horses were unsold with maximum prices of £20 and in 1927 almost every horse was taken home unsold. Such was the downturn in agriculture which was still predominantly horse powered. However the 1930’s saw some improvement, with the start of the second World War as more land was taken into production to grow food for a Britain under siege. Thus we see this report in 1940:

“At Holbeach Horse Fair many horses were intercepted and bought before reaching the town, some of them making up to 70 guineas. A bay five year old colt was sold for £130, two other animals were bought for £210, and others were sold at figures ranging from £70 to £130, which prices are believed to be a record for this May fair.”[xii]

The horse fair did survive the War into the 1950’s but by then the tractor was beginning to take over. The last reports I have discovered referring to the Holbeach horse fair are in 1952. The age of the horse was disappearing and the sound of hooves and smell of horses would be replaced by the sound of engines and diesel exhaust smells as the roads of Holbeach changed from cobbles to tarmac.

The livestock market in Holbeach was clearly very important and experienced peaks and troughs and many changes over the centuries. It was an essential service in what was a fairly remote area. The mixed nature of the market is illustrated in this notice of 1723:

“All sorts of quick stock as horses, beast, sheep and swine etc. together with flax, hemp, cheese and other mercantile goods at Holbeach.”[iv]

There were two significant things that saw a great growth in the market in the nineteenth century. Firstly the arrival of the railway that opened up greater trade from the Midlands in particular, but potentially to the rest of the country. Mr. J S. Bontoft the auctioneer of the age did see some growth in cattle trade. The second significant thing to improve the growth of Holbeach market was the arrival of Mr. Hackworth in the 1860’s.

Any market needs a product, buyers and sellers and the personality and skill of an individual or set of individuals to bring them all together efficiently. In modern times you see Jeff Bezos achieve this in a virtual market place that has seen the creation and growth of amazon. Mr Hackworth, in his own way was a market-maker with the vision and skill to bring the market together. He brought significant new buyers to the town and as a result the market enjoyed a period of growth from around 1866 through to the end of the century. The following account from 1875 gives insight into the nature of both the market, Mr Hackworth and his clients:


It is becoming more and more apparent that our market is considerably improving. The returns for the last quarter excel not only those of the preceding quarter but also the corresponding quarter of last year. The market dates from a very early period, it having been first established in 1214 at which time there was a market house, and large quantities of butter were brought to the market with an official brand, and the brand indicated its quality. The butter market was held on the Friday, whilst the general market for corn, cattle and general commerce took place on Thursday. The butchers shambles were on the site of Mr. Clifton’s shop, the market house on the premises now occupied by Mrs. Ripon. It appears that the market was only a nominal affair at the commencement of the present century, and even for years afterwards it was a very limited one. However, about seven years since, the thought of holding a fat store stock market once a fortnight was conceived by Mr. Hackworth, who considered and reconsidered the propriety of opening such a market, and having received encouragement and promises of support, the first auction market was held on Thursday 1st April 1868, the gross amount realised being about £700. After some time Mr. Hackworth was prevailed upon to hold the sales by auction weekly, and after due consideration he assented to this course, which step he does not regret. A fear was at one time entertained that a weekly supply of beasts, sheep, pigs etc. could not be kept up, but that idea was soon banished, and the sales are being conducted with great success.

On Thursday week a market dinner was held in the large room at the String of Horses inn, served up by the host Bellamy, in the highly satisfactory manner and to this about 75 gentlemen sat down. Mr. K. Milns occupied the chair and Mr. Geo Cartwright and Mr. J.C. McDonald were vice chairs. The chairman was supported by Messrs Caudwell, Nutt, Ridlington, Bontoft, Hackworth, Turnbull, Cole, Dawes, Coupland and others. After ample justice had been done to the good things provided, and the cloth removed, the Chairman proposed, ‘Her Majesty the Queen and all the members of the Royal family’, which toast was loyally received.

The next toast given by the Chairman was, ‘the Army, Navy and Reserve Forces’, coupled with the name of Mr. Hackworth of the 16th Lincolnshire Rifle Volunteers.

Mr. Hackworth replied in a very witty speech, apologising for belonging to a defunct corps, which he was sorry to say had killed all the captains, lieutenants and ensigns they ever had. He was proud to say the wooden walls of old England were invulnerable, and he sincerely hoped the volunteers would never be called on for warfare. He always felt a feeling of heroism whilst he was in the corps and if the corps was only resuscitated he should be one of the first to join. Once when he saw the Horse Guards he wished he had been as big, and he should have been a soldier. Although he was not one of the biggest he was one of the bravest (cheers).

Song: ‘Don’t take an old Man’s Daughter’, Mr J. Davis.

The Chairman next proposed the health of the ‘Senders of stock to the market’, remarking that within the last three years the market had doubled. (A voice: Trebled) He should couple with the toast the name of Mr. Turnbull, Moulton Eaugate.

Mr. Turnbull replied in a very neat speech observing he was one of the first to send stock to market seven years ago, and should continue to do so whilst he was in business. (Cheers)

Song: ‘Pulling hard against the stream’ Mr. Bantoft

Mr. Ridlington proposed, ‘The buyers, coupled with the name of Mr. Cunnington.’

Mr. Jakes, son, returned thanks on behalf of Mr. Cunnington.

Song: ‘The Frenchman’ Mr. Davis. This was vociferously encored and Mr. Davis sang , ‘Mrs Brown.’

The Chairman next gave, ‘Success to the Holbeach Market’, coupled with the name of Mr. Hackworth. The toast was drunk with musical honors and loud applause.

Mr. Hackworth, in responding, remarked that the present was one of the proudest moments of his life in having to respond to a toast so heartily drunk and warmly received. He assured them that he had laboured hard towards bringing the market to a success for seven years, and it had been hard up-hill work being carried on at first at great loss. Perhaps it could hardly be credited but his clerk (Mr. Hardy) could prove by the books that he had lost £30, and sometimes even £40 by the markets in their earliest days; but they were remunerative now. When he first commenced business in the market he had great trouble getting buyers, but he was glad to say that time had passed, and he was proud of the position Holbeach held amongst the smaller towns of Lincolnshire. (cheers) It gave him the greatest pleasure to refer to the last quarterly returns of stock etc. sold in the market the amount being no less than £9554. By some it was doubted, but all he could say that any gentleman was at liberty to examine his clerk’s books. (cheers) The returns for that day were 241 sheep, 4 calves, 37 pigs, total £844/9/0. (applause). His endeavour had always been to do the best for both the seller and buyer. Some of his customers had complained of buying things too dear, and yet they came over and over again. His argument was that if they could buy cheaper elsewhere they would not so constantly attend Holbeach market. It would scarcely be credited that 70 or 80 fat sheep were sent to Spalding from Holbeach every week. Many of his customers only bought two or three animals, and they were as well served as the butchers who bought a score. That he contended was a great advantage. He assured the company that as long as he carried on the market he should do justice to all (cheers). He expressed the very great pleasure it afforded him to listen to the eulogy passed upon him that night. Mr. Hackworth concluded by wishing that Holbeach might ever stand second to none of the little towns of Lincolnshire. (loud applause)

Mr, McDonald applied to the chairman for permission to make a few observations and paid Mr. Hackworth the highest compliment for the very satisfactory manner in which he (Mr. Hackworth) had established and conducted the market, and was sure the trade of the town had received a benefit. So long as the senders continued to send such prime stock, so long would buyers be found. There were other markets in the neighbourhood, Spalding and Boston, but they made no pretence to be their equals. They had had a market at Long Sutton which was now defunct, but an attempt was to be made the next day to re-establish it, and he hoped success would attend it (cheers), and that two markets might be found working harmoniously together – not antagonistic, because no good could come of that. Mr. McDonald expressed the wish that the market may long continue (cheers), and proposed, ‘Success to the town and the trade of Holbeach’, coupled with the name of Mr. Bontoft.

Mr. Bontoft thanked Mr. McDonald for the honour thus conferred upon him, but could have wished the toast in the hands of and older tradesman. He could venture to assert that as good an article and as cheap could be bought at Holbeach as elsewhere, and the customers were treated with as much courtesy. He recommended his hearers that when buying at Holbeach they would always get there money’s worh (cheers).

The Chairman proposed the health of Mr. Cole who was about starting what he might call an opposition market, although he believed with an entire absence of any bitter feeling. (cheers) He believed Mr. Cole would succeed at Long Sutton. He saw no reason why he should not. There was ample room for both towns to go and succeed. (cheers)

Song: ‘Just before the battle, mother.’ Mr. Bontoft.

Mr. Cole, on rising to respond, was received with much cheering, and expressed the great pleasure it gave him to be present. He endorsed the sentiments of the chairman respecting Long Sutton market. If farmers would only rally round him he would venture to show good stock at Long Sutton as those at Holbeach. (cheers) He believed their market would rise again and be a success. He should never run Holbeach down, but hoped the two would work together. He concluded with the hope of meeting the present company again. (cheers)

Mr. Smith, butcher of Spalding, expressed his satisfaction with the purchases he made at Holbeach market, and did not know of a more regular or better conducted market for the size of town. It was not so large as Spalding, nor could that be expected , but on the whole it was fairly carried out. Sometimes he could not buy exactly what he wanted, but he could always buy something useful to him; and whilst that was the case he should continue to support it. (cheers)

Song: ‘Dad, dad, dad.’ Mr. J. Davis.

Mr. Hackworth next proposed, ‘The buyers at Holbeach market.’ He was glad to say that for the last six months he had been supported by very good buyers. His worthy friend on the right (the Chairman) with the Local Board of Health had done their best to support him. As the pens belonged to himself (Mr. Hackworth) it was not fair that sellers should use his pens for private sales, and then when they had effected sales express their readiness to pay for the use of pens. That was not what he wanted, nor would have it either. Mr. Jakes had taken the prize as being the largest purchaser for two years but he (Mr. Hackworth) was equally dependant upon his small customers, as they brought him the larger ones. Mr. Hackworth spoke in the highest praise of his Spalding friends , especially mentioning Mr. Cunnington, Mr. Jakes and Mr. Harris. Mr. Hackworth went on to speak of the difficulties he sometimes encountered in trying to perform his duty, which he should always do to the best of his ability. (cheers) He assured his friends that if the buyers would only stick to him he could vouch for supplies. (loud applause)

Mr Jakes sen. In a brief speech responded promising to do his utmost to support the market.

Other toasts, speeches and songs followed, and the company separated shortly before 11 o’clock.”[v]

This meeting captures the spirit of a successful market and how it succeeded. It is about so much more than just location. It is the strength of personality of the people running it. They create a community that is mutually supportive. They create and maintain confidence in the market for both buyers and sellers. A market can overflow its culture and benefits into the businesses of a town. By getting the right persons to attend, buy and sell you create an expertise within the community.

It has to be noted how Mr. Hackworth is at pains to value small customers. There is a view of mutual support that I have seen in small and medium businesses in market towns and even in some city communities, but have seldom seen when large corporate organisations dominate a town or business community unless they are family owned.

It has to be noted that Holbeach market did not just rely upon local buyers. This is a danger when people just focus on local produce for local people – it may have great benefits for communities, businesses, the environment and both human and animal welfare; but it can also be parochial, exclusive and damaging to both investment and development of a community. The money let alone people and ideas and knowledge that comes from outside trade is essential. It is a balance. Long Sutton market struggled largely due to its local customer base. I have seen livestock markets struggle when localism creates an environment where the market becomes predictable and staid rather than vibrant and living.

A successful market will always have a driving force, a personality or group of personalities that make the market successful. I have seen this in every successful market that I have attended in various parts of the country. A livestock market may sell animals, but it is about people.

Holbeach Market Day 1905 showing very busy streets
Holbeach Market Day 1905

Mr. Hackthorn continued to grow Holbeach market. In 1899 Spalding Urban Council expressed constination that Holbeach Sheep market had grown larger than Spalding’s:

“Spalding sheep market was at one time one of the largest in the county, whilst that of Holbeach was one of the smallest. Now the positions are being rapidly reversed. How is it? Last week, for instance, despite the magnificent accommodation in our market, only about 300 sheep were penned, whilst at Holbeach, two days afterwards, over 500 were sold.

In fact, so great has been the increase at the latter place of late, that the Urban Council have had to consider the desirability of increasing the somewhat meagre accommodation.

When the in-every-way superior advantages of Spalding are considered, it would appear on the face of it impossible that we in the Metropolis of the Fens are apt to think a comparatively insignificant town as Holbeach; but the figures quoted unfortunately indicate only too plainly how matters stand.

If there is any possible way of preventing this leakage it should be done at once. Perhaps the offer of prizes to the largest buyers and sellers, as is done by our neighbours, would result in a little healthy rivalry amongst those who are now transferring their patronage to Holbeach.”[xv]

It has to be noted how the words from Spalding focus on facilities whereas Mr. Hackthorn’s words focused on people.

The 1930’s saw the decline of sheep on marshland farms near Holbeach as they increasingly focused upon arable farming. The Second World War saw much high quality grassland and pasture ploughed up for food production. It also saw fixed prices on fat-stock imposed by the government essentially restricting livestock markets with stores and breeding livestock being free from this, but obviously influencing the price obtained.

1939 poster explaining rules on selling fat stock
1939 poster explaining rules on selling fat stock

1938 also saw the opening of Spalding’s new Cattle market and with it being one of the appointed distribution hubs for fat stock this worked to the detriment of Holbeach market. After the war a style of marketing that some of todays farmers will be familiar with grew to the detriment of all markets – the sale of livestock direct to the food processor, perhaps the most famous being Walls sausages:

1938 advert advertising to by pigs illustrates the changing market place  of farmers from a producer for markets to a supplier of raw materials for processing
1938 advert advertising to by pigs illustrates the changing market place of farmers from a producer for markets to a supplier of raw materials for processing

Thus, in my opinion, we see the farmer and farming change from a producer of food to a producer of ingredients to be processed on a large scale. Buying power shifted against the farmer and the dominance of supermarkets in UK food manufacturing, distribution and sales grew.

The 1940’s may have seen the decline and ultimate disappearance of Holbeach livestock market, but the market stalls of traders remained numbering about two dozen. In 1948 there was pressure from the Parish Council to remove the Thursday market traders from the streets. This was successfully opposed by both the traders themselves and local shops who felt the market brought people into the town to spend money. The first time I worked in Holbeach was 1987 and Thursday market day was still vibrant and an attraction to the town. Indeed, many people from the villages of both fen and marsh had a weekly habit of coming into town on market day. Holbeach still had many family businesses selling excellent food and produce as my waist line could attest as I grew from a skinny 12 stone to 15st.10lb in the space of 9 months. I worked in Holbeach for various periods between 1987 and 2002 and I can say it was one of my happiest work experiences.

Each fenland town has its own character and is equally made up of characters. Holbeach was extremely friendly to me. The whole town knew and loved Walter, a big red Labrador belonging to Patrick Limming. Where there is an excellent Indian Restaurant both in 2022 and back then there used to be an undertakers who used to get the local florist to give him a hand lifting a coffin. Despite assuring her it was empty, many a time she would find it heavier than expected and swear at John for deceiving her. I first met my wife at a blind date New Years Eve 1998 at the Dragon Pearl Chinese Restaurant where Michael would entertain the diners with tricks, jokes and flammable drinks. Many a time I would receive drinks paid for by another anonymous diner. I found people in Holbeach generous of heart and very public spirited. It was a happy town where everyone new everybody. It also had its eccentrics.

One market day I found myself serving a middle-aged lady on the counter who was totally topless. I cashed her cheque and didn’t bat an eye lid, which seemed to annoy her. Before she left the crowded banking hall she pointed at her chest and said, “That’s the last time you’re seeing these!” What I did not know is that she had taken her top off some time previous to entering the Bank and much of the High Street had formed a semi-circle of people outside the Bank waiting her egress. I took a major ribbing over this incident for several years.

In December 2001 my baby son got his first cuddle from Santa Claus in Holbeach High Street accompanied by the Holbeach band, whom one of his members, in the absence of having black shoes, had painted his shoes black with gloss paint. One Children in Need day I busked outside the Bank and stopped the traffic as various drivers of cars, lorries and vans jumped out of their vehicles to give me money. In thirty minutes I raised over £100, and my voice is not that good! The town street sweeper cleaned our front even though it was not his job, so I used to buy him the odd packet of cigarettes.

Whilst working in Holbeach I got talking to a customer about shooting and got invited to beat on a local shoot, the following year they invited me to join the shoot which I belonged to for about twelve years. This, along with wildfowling, brought me closer to many farmers and country folk and I learned a lot.

Holbeach began to change greatly. When I first worked there the society was greatly cash orientated. I would have to watch the fields to anticipate the large amounts of cash required for things such as the payment of gang workers cropping daffodils. You would get used to some of the seasonal workers that you would meet every year, especially gypsies and travellers, but they faded away and were displaced by other groups that arrived, mostly from abroad from South Africa, Portugal and then Poland and Eastern Europe.

It was not just the fields that needed workers but also the growing factories such as Tinsleys near Moulton Marsh. As times changed many needed Bank accounts and I was effectively Mr. Barclays of Holbeach. It was during this period I learned that workers at Tinsleys used to send their friends in to see, “that bloke that looks like Stephen Fry.” This caused great hilarity amongst my friends that worked in various factories. One day a customer sat down in front of me, a dapper ‘Colonel Mustard’ type and said to me after I had done his business, “I say, has anyone told you look like that fellow Stephen Fry?” “Yes”, I replied. “He’s a wonderful chap,” Colonel Mustard went on, “absolutely hilarious, with that other bloke Hugh Lawrie. He’s gay you know! Did you know that?” I confirmed I did. He then went on, “Are you gay?” The best reply that I could think of was, “I haven’t found out yet?” That amused him greatly and he went off chuckling.

One of the nice parts of the job was opening accounts for an array of young people from different parts of the world. There was the mad Australian who thought it wonderful that he could work 12 hours every night and then drink all day in the pub. One day when it snowed I found him sat outside the local pub in shorts and t-shirt drinking lager whilst marvelling at his first sight of snow. I quickly learned not to mistake seasonal New Zealand sheep shearers for Australians as they would quickly correct me with comments such as, “I’m not having any of that shit.” Then they would laugh at me. I learned where Namibia was and that Portugal “also has Indians” as one client pointed out to me as I asked why he had a Portuguese passport and his friend an Indian one. As a young single man the number of young pretty women I dealt with made the day lighter. One day three South African girls were talking about me in Afrikaans which I could tell by their body language, when I finished and said, “You can talk about me in English too if you wish.” They looked in horror and embarrassment at me and asked, “You understand Afrikaans?” I replied, “Kan wees” (“Maybe”). In fact I only knew that due to an ongoing joke with another South African customer. Other times I would visit seasonal workers in their accommodation to open accounts.

One caravan I went into was occupied by pretty Polish ladies over here for a few months. Whilst I dealt with their paperwork two of them changed out of their night clothes into work clothes in front of me without batting an eye lid. Whether local or new comer I always feel Holbeach brought out the best in people.

As we entered the twenty-first century Holbeach saw similar changes to Long Sutton. The town had been bypassed and more housing was built. The arrival of Tescos supermarket saw a decline in the High Street of both shops and market day stalls. Banks reduced staff and eventually closed. A thriving High Street of family businesses declined. The connection between marsh, fen field and town was greatly eroded.

[i] Stamford Mercury Nov. 1737 [ii] Stamford Mercury October 1847 [iii] Lincolnshire Chronicle 10th March 1865 [iv] Stamford Mercury 21st August 1746 [v] The History and Antiquities of Boston by Pishey Thompson 1856 [vi] 1252 Thomas du Multon lord of Egremont obtained a liscence for markets and fairs May and September may fit in with old hiring seasons there was also a pleasure fair on October 11th and 12th each year. [vii] “quick stock” means horses and ponies

[viii] Stephens Book of Agriculture

[ix] Sleaford Gazette 5th June 1897

[x] Boston Guardian 20th August 1859

[xi] Boston Guardian 20th August 1859

[xii] Sleaford Gazette May 1940

[xiii] Stamford Mercury 22nd August 1723

[xiv] The Lynn Advertiser and Norfolk and Cambridgeshire Herald 31st July 187

[xv] Spalding Guardian

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1 Comment

Michelle Cooke
Michelle Cooke
Jan 12, 2023

The old map shows Sutton St Edmund & St James the wrong way round to where they are now, & I’ve not heard of St Leonard & St Mary’s. Very interesting about Holbeach’s history too.

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