Long Sutton, the village town.
“ I am here with my sister visiting this city. We are from Denmark and we think that the English people are very polite. Arriving to this city is for us to come into the past, if it wasn’t for all these cars I should imagine that we were in the fifties! So long.”
These are the words written by a Danish tourist in 1987 on the blotting paper in the banking hall of Barclays Bank, Long Sutton.
1987 saw me being sent to work at Barclays Bank, Long Sutton for the first time, “You will love it there. It is like stepping back in time. Every Friday is market day and the town is heaving with people and they have an auction on the stones outside the Bank. The manager will be no bother. He’s like Captain Mainwaring out of Dad’s Army, real old school, but just leaves you to it.” So my previous manager Keith Barrand sent me on my way from Holbeach to Long Sutton. It was a town I knew little about and learned to love as it was a particularly happy place to work even if many aspects of it appeared to be a few decades behind the rest of the world, this only endeared it more to me.
It is a sign of the wealth of the area that at that time that particular Branch of Barclays, in common with neighboring Nat West Bank was purportedly the most profitable offices per head of staff in the country. Whether this was true or not, it was certainly believed in the industry at the time and there is no doubt that the local wealth and revenue had its origins in Agriculture. Yet such a tie in with Agriculture meant that if farming suffered a decline so would the community and possibly even the Bank as described to me in the following story.
In 1990 the Bank I was working in Long Sutton was having some alterations. When I first worked there the counter was open with no glass screens and old fashioned bakelite telephones. Security was being improved and the office altered. One day an old man came in who had worked as a cashier in the office in the 1920’s and 30’s. He asked me if they had taken the carpet up yet behind the counter. He then explained that when they did behind my till I would see a ring on the ground in the block wood floor where the fire bucket used to stand. He explained to me that the fire bucket was full of sand, and most of the time it was used to put out their cigarette dub ends when they smoked whilst cashing up at the end of the day. He said that in the late 1920’s there was a massive drop in barley prices and as farmers began to struggle there was a local rumour that the Bank was going to crash and this started a mild run on the Bank as customers withdrew cash from their savings. To counter this rumour the then Bank manager put some weights in the fire bucket and topped it off with a layer of gold guineas. He then instructed the young cashier that when the local town gossip came in he was to ask him to help him carry the bucket into the safe where a considerable amount of bank notes and coin were to be left on show. This he duly did and in such a way the run on the Bank was halted. When the carpet behind my till was lifted, sure enough, in the block wood floor below the carpet was the ring where the bucket once stood.
A few years later when I was working in this office I had an old man sit down at my desk and say, “I used to work with your father at the Prudential.” I then had to explain to the dear fellow that it was not my father, but my great grandfather that he had worked with. He had died before I was born in 1967. I clearly looked older than my years!
The auction on the doorstep of the Bank every Friday was the first time I had seen such an auction happening in a town centre. In my home town of Spalding such auctions happened in the cattle market area, not amongst the shops and market stalls. I feel in the towns where they do still happen, like Spilsby and Market Rasen, they are the last vestiges of a market towns where people were directly connected with the surrounding countryside and farming. On a Friday morning I would typically arrive in Long Sutton at 8 am as the market stalls and the auction was setting up between the Bank and the town water pump near the war memorial in the market place. It would be an array of bric-a-brac, hand tools, smaller farm implements, old bikes, vegetables, sacks of potatoes and onions, trays of cooking apples, all depending on the season. The sale would typically start about 10am with a handbell being rung and on a good day could go on until 2pm. A regular array of old farmer boys would turn up bringing stuff to sell and to browse what to buy. Among them were various regular characters. I remember one old boy would turn up in his old mini pick up truck that he had brush painted black with Hammerite thick enamel paint, he explained to me that the truck was so rusty the layer of paint was thicker than the metal – yet it kept passing its MOT. The auction and the market was so much more than a source of trade, but also a social gathering of importance to all where people would learn what land was likely to come up for sale, births and deaths, marriages and affairs, opportunities and jobs. I learned that being early and chatting to people could enable me to create business opportunities and connected me with the community. It has to be understood that market day was still an event where older farmers and people would dress up in their suites and come into town to do business, buy items and meet friends. Every business in the town was busier on market day making it significant to them. Sadly as the twentieth century closed the importance of market day faded in every town in the fens as peoples habits changed and a generation died off that had lived with the old fashioned market day where they put on their suites and went into town as a weekly habit.
Unlike some market towns, such as Bourne, Spalding, Horncastle and Louth, Long Sutton did not develop a weekly market for livestock, it did have a small weekly market for corn and cattle in the late 18th century, but this died off and was not revived until 1824. The sale of livestock was largely confined to fairs with Long Sutton’s May fair being in the middle of May for cattle, sheep, pleasure and hiring of people, and the September fair on the first Friday after September 25th being largely for horses and cattle. It takes time and a critical mass of livestock farmers attending to develop such a market, and Long Sutton is a relatively young market town that grew from being a village along the Washway Road that ran from the Fosdyke crossing of the river Welland at one corner of The Wash to the Cross Keys crossing of the river Nene into Norfolk. The 1872 Whites directory describes Long Sutton, “…..it has risen during the present century from the rank of village to that of a neat and flourishing market town.” In 1801 the area had a population of 1723, by 1871 it had a population of 6436. But in addition to population growth in the parish saw a migration of the population density into the town. In 1801 about a third of the local population lived in the town, by 1871 it was two thirds. This growth matched the expansion of arable farming in the area with land reclamation being key. The most striking example being the creation of a brand new parish on the Lincolnshire Norfolk border by plucking land from the sea and salt marsh of The Wash, Central Wingland:
“CENTRAL WINGLAND is a new parish, consisting of 3193 acres of land, of which 1649a. are in Lincolnshire and the rest in Norfolk, lying along the east bank of the river Nene, which here separates ir from Sutton Bridge. It contains a few scattered farm houses, and had in 1871 a population of 181 souls (111 in Lincolnshire), which was double the number taken in 1861. It is about 9 miles N. of Wisbech and 10 W. of Lynn. The whole of the parish has been gained from the sea since 1831 (when the first enclosure was made) by the cutting of the Nene Outfall; previous to that the whole area was marsh overflowed by the tides at high water. There have been two subsequent enclosures, namely in 1848 and in 1869. The chief owners are the Crown, the Duke of Bedford, Mrs. Gibbons, R.P.Mossop Esq. , Colonel Long, and Mr. D. Coy. The land is well cultivated, and is mostly fertile.” [i]
The cutting of the Nene Outfall was a significant event that had a huge impact both at the time it was constructed and afterwards. The cutting of the outfall took nearly four years with 900 men and 260 horses. The impact of such a large workforce in a sparsely populated area was significant with crime and stealing of livestock, as already mentioned, being significant enough for farmers to band together to prevent it and forming an organization that was to become the Long Sutton Agricultural Association.
Whilst the Association had formed loosely in the 1820’s its inaugural meeting was held in October 1836. This organization was significant and expanded the radius of its activity as far as 20 miles from the center of Long Sutton. As such it would be as significant in its time as the East of England Agricultural Society is today. At a time when Agriculture was expanding and developing rapidly the Long Sutton Agricultural Association became a significant contributor to the training and development of farmers and farm workers with the wealthy contributors and members of the association wisely using it to improve the education of the local population. It provided prizes for horses, sheep, cattle, pigs, poultry, fruit and flowers. It provided prizes for skills and industry such as metal work or in the case of shepherds an award for producing and keeping alive the most lambs in proportion to the number of ewes over a stipulated period – a prize won by both Shep White and his son Ned. It also provided prizes for children completing their studies and promoted literacy. The late nineteenth century sees prizes being awarded for innovation in mechanisation, such as the best plough devised for potato lifting.
The Long Sutton Agricultural Association sought to ensure the local population had the skills essential to maintain its workforce, its families and their households. This extended to women and girls as illustrated in the following extract from a letter written by Mr. J. G. Hobson, the then secretary of the Association to Mr. Edward Stanhope on December 21st 1867:
“I have the pleasure to enclose some papers relating to the educational department of our association. The examination of 1861, which was near the commencement, if not the date of the first report, congratulates us on the result of our plan and says, ‘It was copied in four other centers of the county, and there is a growing feeling that such prize schemes are productive of good.’ I believe this is born out by experience.
Nine schools out of 17 in the deanery of Long Sutton sent up candidates in 1867 for the various prizes. These were given for Scripture knowledge, reading, writing and arithmetic; for grammar, geography, and history, for needle work, for cutting out, for knitting and darning, and for domestic economy. The following was the paper of questions in domestic economy:
1. Why are girls when they first go to service to expect only small wages?
2. When is it a duty to be honest?
3. What is trying to conceal a fault?
4. What do waste and extravagance produce?
5. When about to boil meat, will you put it in with the water hot or cold?
6. Describe the process of boiling potatoes?
7. What care is necessary when admitting fresh air into a nursery?
8. When nursing a child what care is required with regard to its frock?
9. What kind of language is to be avoided before children?
10. When a patient can sit long enough, how should the bed clothes be aired? And how when the patient can only sit a short time?
11. In giving drink to a person in bed what should be done?
12. Why do you require two waiters in a sick room?” [ii]
Sadly, I do not have the answers to the domestic economy test. Although we may cringe at the bias of such a test it was focused, at least in part, on real life skills that were required. The letter also illustrates how far reaching and wide was the influence of the Long Sutton Agricultural Association.
The Long Sutton Agricultural Association was the driving force behind the fairs and in addition increased activity to include shows in the calendar by 1844 we see flower shows, a poultry show, sheep shows in addition to the fairs and in December 1844 is a Christmas fatstock market held in Long Sutton. Sheep and poultry were the dominant livestock interests in the area. By 1856 a corn exchange was built in Long Sutton – a key asset in the development of any market town as it enables trade, business and leisure meetings in a secular setting. In the period that I worked in Long Sutton the Agricultural Society was kept alive and running Ken Knock, to my knowledge its last secretary, who retired from the role in 2018. The Association had contributed significantly to the area in its time, and in my view punched way above its weight in terms of contributing to both the local economy and the agricultural industry, but in an era of social media, internet and easier access to information and expertise the Long Sutton Agricultural Society looked to fold in 2018 and come under the wing of the East of England Agricultural Society which continues great works both locally and internationally in educating people about farming.
Perhaps one of the most significant developments in my first period of working Long Sutton that transformed the town was the opening of the Long Sutton bypass in 1989 taking the A17 and its traffic away from the town. Prior to this time traffic would thunder along from Gedney to Sutton Bridge along Market Street and High Street at the top of the Market Place. There was the occasional mishap. One I recall was when an offal lorry shed its load at the top of the Market Place on a hot summers day shedding offal and cows heads over the carriageway and creating a smell that covered the whole town. There is no doubt that the bypass improved traffic flow, made the streets of Long Sutton safer and more pleasant, but also heralded a change to this relatively young town. The fields between the town and the bypass began to disappear and be developed for housing. Whilst accepting this is progress, when this happens a small town of this nature starts to lose some of its local character and the loyalty to local businesses, especially shops becomes diluted. This dilution is increased by the advent of the internet and the growth of the supermarket habit of shopping. This sees a decline in face to face commerce that poses a death nell to Bank branches and many shops and businesses. Employment becomes less local and such towns and villages that experience this risk becoming homogenized dormitories. Thank fully, in my opinion, this has only happened in part, but whether green agendas and more localism will revive such towns is a challenge for the twenty-first century.