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Sutton Bridge – the Product of Wise Investments by Thomas Guy

I worked very little in Sutton Bridge with the office there being dominated by my then colleagues Annie Batuik and Les Hills. When I did I realised how busy it was with a wide range of transactions not just serving the predominant agricultural business community, but also international trade transactions. It was a busy and thriving town that prior to working there I had only ever stopped off for fish and chips when returning from Hunstanton in an evening. Possibly the most striking thing to me was people’s accents. At that time as you went from town to town each area had a distinctly different accent and in older people a different dialect, syntax and use of words. Voices in Sutton Bridge were nearly a Norfolk accent, as you came to Long Sutton this became less so, Holbeach folk spoke different to Spalding or Bourne.


As a child I never realised I had an accent until I was playing on holiday with a boy in Torquay who lived in Devon, but went to a private school. He kept getting me to say different words as he marvelled at my different pronunciation and to a degree “took the piss” out of it like children do. Equally I returned the favour mocking his Devon poshness. The next time I realised that I had an accent was at Spalding Grammar School where my English teacher picked up on my different use of words when speaking, one in particular I remember was referring to a spade or shovel as a “sifter” a word I had picked up from my mother and grandparents from the Bourne area. With this diversity of accents was a matching diversity of sense of humour and how people view things. This meant that I had to adapt to different ways of talking to people in different locations and found myself mirroring their accents without realising it. I noticed this in my son as he spent two years residing at agricultural college near Norwich his accent changed. I also found that my accent was a giveaway if I did not adjust it, especially on two different occasions farmers told me, “You can’t be from Lincolnshire you talk funny.” For some Lincolnshire is a 20mile radius. I did however appease one farmer of my local credentials as I sat in his house North of Lincoln and correctly identified Kenzie Thorpe as the painter of one of his pictures on the wall when most visitors thought it was Peter Scott. I explained that it was well known that at times Kenzie painted over the sketch work on some of Peter Scott’s abandoned canvases, hence the similarities. Such regional divergences of voices and accents have become diluted in the fens by immigration from other areas in the UK and from other countries so the pool of voices is larger and more mixed. But I do smile when I hear English being spoken as a second language with traits of the regional accent.


Sutton Bridge was and is the gateway to Norfolk from Lincolnshire, or vice versa. This still promotes jokes such as the passport being required to cross the bridge. Wingland, being a parish that straddles Lincolnshire and Norfolk, could have its own problems with, at one time, a house making the news because it straddled two post code areas PE34 and PE12. Whilst joked about it is true that foreigners for some were people from Norfolk such was the parochialism in South Lincolnshire. I recall one of my early managers joking that to be accepted in Spalding you had to either live there 30 years or marry a local! This may have been true, but I don’t believe it was vindictive, but that is for others to judge. Indeed, some now say that “being local” is now a disadvantage, a sentiment I disagree with, but do understand its origins.


We have already seen that Long Sutton is a young town, but Sutton Bridge is even younger. It was initially incorporated and run by a local board in 1859. The 1896 Kelly’s Directory describes Sutton Bridge:

“….it consists chiefly of one side ofa street running a considerable length with a short street or two diverging from it on the north besides several detached residences. There is a good quay on the river side, and warehouse for corn, coal and timber. About two thirds of the houses at Sutton Bridge and nearly all the land in Sutton and Lutton marshes belongs to Guy’s Hospital, London.”

The ownership of land originally by Thomas Guy and then the Hospital he funded is a significant factor. The wealth that funded it had some origins in the slave trade. Thomas Guy was a bookseller and stationer in London born in 1644. As he developed his profession and wealth he made many investments including money lending secured on land. In this period the marshes in the area of what was to become Sutton Bridge, whilst frequently inundated with the tide were regarded highly for seasonal grazing and fetched good grazing rents. It is highly likely that he acquired this land as the result of defaulting debt. Much of Thomas Guy’s wealth was gained by shrewd investment in the South Sea Company[i]. He wisely sold his investments in tranches as they grew before the South Sea Company’s bubble burst bringing many rich Englishmen to ruin as their shares were called in. This was the largest source of his debt.


The South Sea Company was formed to offload government debt by issuing it with a monopoly to trade slaves to the South Seas and South America as well as a whaling. The collapse of the Company was itself a scandal. It needs to be remembered at that time the Bank of England was privately owned and also managed national debt. The mismanagement of the South Sea Company and the subsequent restructure saw the Bank of England establish its position into what was to become the lender of last resort and manager of government debt as a national institution. The South Sea Bubble also saw some of Thomas Guy’s borrowers default, enabling him to realise his security.


Thomas Guy set up what was to become Guy’s Hospital in London with the charitable trust he created being the largest of its age with the land at Cross Keys on the edge of Lincolnshire being some of the Trusts assets. The Trustees were men of insight so that when they were approached by an engineer with a proposal to create a new cut of the river Nene that would also enclose the marshes and convert them into fertile agricultural land they approved and set about the funding and appropriate Acts of Parliamnet to achieve this. This, as we have already seen, created the parish of Wingland and much improved access to the port of Wisbech. It also, in turn, established the creation of a secondary port at Sutton Bridge.


Nowadays if you travel from Kings Lynn to Spalding it is a drive of about 40 minutes via the A17. To have a feel for what it was like before such reclamation of land, the preferred route in 1644 was via Wisbech as described in this short account:

“ We thought it not so fit to pass the Washes being neither firm or safe for travellers, especially now of late by reason of the new made sluices and devices for turning of the natural course of the waters near adjoining, and therefore we rather chose to goby Wisbech, where we spent the best part of an hour in viewing a little army of artificers venting, contriving, and acting outlandish devices about the same.

Thence over Tydd Sluice the parting of the shires of Norfolk and Lincoln, and so over a rich flat level of ground for Spalding, which we reached at night- fall and were strongly lodged at the castle. We feared somewhat as we entered the town seeing the bridge pulled down that we could not have passed the river; but when we came to it we found not so much water in it as would have drowned a mouse .

At this the town and country thereabout much murmured, but let them content themselves since the fen drainers have undertaken to make their river navigable forty feet broad and six feet deep from Fossdyke Slough to Deeping, which they need not be long about having 600 men daily at work in it. Early next morning we heard the drum , beat which caused us to enquire the reason thereof and roused us from our castle ; and it was told us that it was for a second army of water ingeniers.”[ii]

The New Cut also had a byproduct in that it changed the flow of water into Wisbech smoothing out the difference between high and low tide resulting in the Nene losing its twice daily tidal wave (called an “eiger”, “eager” “iger”, “boar” or “bore”). On the opening of the Nene Outfall in 1830 the eiger, which had formerly preceded every tide vanished. It was formed among the obstructions and shallows at the mouth of the Nene and used to come rushing on to Wisbech raising the water there suddenly from one to four or five feet. When the cut was completed, and the shallows cut through, it accordingly ceased – the tides ran higher and the ebb was more rapid and scouring of the channel.

The New Cut, the embankments, the docks and subsequent bridge crossing all helped establish what was to become Sutton Bridge. The first bridge constructed over the Nene at Sutton Bridge in 1831, whilst preserving the navigation was met with concern that it might deter traffic going to Wisbech. It also needs to be remembered that opening the bridge to river transport was done by line of sight so risk of accident to shipping blocking the channel was of concern. This was a shared concern by the Admiralty and an 1846 Act of Parliament ensured that any bridge or public work that affected navigable rivers required the approval of the Lords of the Admiralty. This was to be significant in the next development for Sutton Bridge – the railway.



 View from the Nene “New Cut” at one of the lighthouses at the end of the cut made famous by Sir Peter Scott
View from the Nene “New Cut” at one of the lighthouses at the end of the cut made famous by Sir Peter Scott

The proposed railway crossing through Sutton Bridge to Kings Lynn had a great deal of opposition from Wisbech for it feared losing traffic and trade to the docks at Kings Lynn and Sutton Bridge. At the same time Wisbech did not wish to improve its river and docks. The political rivalry between the interests of Kings Lynn and Wisbech came to a compromise and 1862 saw the railway arrive in the area and the swing bridge carrying trains over the river. Still with reliance upon line of sight for the bridge to be open to shipping it was challenging to manage until the advent of radio communications. Perhaps the fears for Wisbech’s trade were unfounded as it has better access to Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Lincolnshire and has survived by developing its own niche shipping business.

The docks at Sutton Bridge warranted reinvestment in the late twentieth century, but as we have already seen, has now closed. The primary driver of trade and business in the town was agriculture and the needs of agriculture and the food industry. The area from Sutton Bridge to Long Sutton saw canning and processing factories and some niche manufacturing and engineering. Also present in the area was the Potato Marketing Board’s research station at Sutton Bridge, a legacy of the 1930’s government investment and intervention in agriculture and food supply, but this too folded around 1997 as the structure of support changed. As Sutton Bridge was bypassed, so too was business and we saw cafes, banks, petrol stations and businesses close and more residential housing built. The roadway that had brought so much life to Sutton Bridge also took it away as it was bypassed. But at least its now easier to cross the road!


Left behind are the old tales of marsh and wildfowlers like Kenzie that lived here and were part of the landscape.

[i] Full name of the Company is “The Governor and Company of the merchants of Great Britain trading to the South Seas and other parts of America, and for the encouragement of Fishery” [ii] Baileys Graphic and Historical Illustrator

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